For further information on Errol Morris, visit www.errolmorris.com
Errol Morris, 53, is the director of Gates of Heaven(1978), Vernon, Florida (1981), The Thin Blue Line (1988), The Dark Wind (1991), A Brief History of Time (1992), Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997), Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter. Jr. (1999) and two seasons of the First Person series for TV in the US (2000 & 2001). Often described as a documentary filmmaker, he prefers to describe his work, aside from The Dark Wind, a crime thriller based on a crime novel by Tony Hillerman, as “non-fiction”.
When I first spoke to him, he’d just finished a 4-day shoot in Sydney for an Eastman Kodak commercial. It was his second trip to Australia in less than a year, both times to shoot ads, both for periods of two to two-and-a-half weeks. He describes them as not very satisfying: “quick trips, labour-intensive and very arduous, time-consuming affairs with casting and location-hunting and then shooting over a number of days. Back and forth between Boston and Sydney: the worst way to commute!” The first of his First Person series had just been scheduled for screening at the 2001 Melbourne International Film Festival. This interview was completed a couple of weeks later, by phone, after he’d returned to his base at the Globe Department Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Several brief quotes from it were incorporated into an article for The Sunday Age (Melbourne).
Tom Ryan: Was there ever a version of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control featuring Fred Leuchter?
Errol Morris: When I shot Fast, Cheap, I shot five interviews. This was the very first time I’d used the Interrotron, my interviewing machine [a complicated piece of video technology, which provides for eye contact between interviewer and subject at the same time as each looks directly into the camera lens]. I intended to put four different characters in the film, but I was worried. Would this device work?
So there was a first interview – a fifth if you like – that we did before the other four to decide whether this contraption would send people out of the studio screaming, or whether in fact it would work as I had hoped. And Fred Leuchter [pronounced Lew-cher] was that first interview. There were a number of editors who suggested that I should combine him with the other four characters, but, in my mind, that was never a serious proposal.
TR: Why not?
EM: For a number of reasons. Probably the most important of them is that it seemed unfair to the other four characters. My wife made the very significant point around this time that Hitler is not a flavouring, not an accent. The minute you place Hitler in the soup, the soup becomes Hitler-flavoured. Or, if you like, it becomes Hitler soup. And Leuchter presents his own set of questions, really quite independent of the questions in Fast, Cheap. A different set of issues. (He’s) a different kind of character.
With all of the four characters in Fast, Cheap, it never becomes a central issue whether they are right or wrong. For example, the topiary gardener can tell you he prefers hand shears to electric shears, and it’s not as though you want to have a panel of experts adjudicating this question. (Adopting TV host voice) “Is it really true? Are hand shears better than electric shears? Whaddaya think?” It’s not really relevant to the four subjects of the movie.
What’s more important to Fast, Cheap is each of these characters’ obsessions, their investments in what they do, their beliefs. But not the question of whether their beliefs are right or wrong, or whether they’re true or false beliefs. In Mr Death, in the story of Fred Leuchter, the question of whether his beliefs are right or wrong, misguided or really, truly evil becomes the centrepiece of the movie. So it’s a movie very different in kind from Fast, Cheap just because of the nature of the material that’s involved. Inevitably so.
For example, I had edited versions of Mr Death where Leuchter was the sole voice. There were no other interviews. And it became clear to me fairly early on that other voices were needed to put what Fred was saying in perspective, to address the question of whether or not he was wrong in the views he stated, particularly his views about the Holocaust or, if you like, more specifically, his views about whether or not poison gas was used at Auschwitz. He makes a claim and, like it or not, you have to respond to that claim.
TR: Mr Death really divides one’s response, between the initial affection we feel for Leuchter (despite, or because of, his nuttiness), and the self-deceptions that he comes to represent. This kind of division is frequently foregrounded in your films, but elsewhere you don’t use the testimony of others to ensure our responses. Here – and I know this is a delicate issue – I’m not sure whether the direct refutation of Leuchter’s blindness about the Holocaust makes the film more interesting, or less interesting?
EM: Well, I certainly believe that, as far as my film goes, the more interesting story is the story of Fred. But part of the story of Fred is knowing that he is holding this false set of beliefs. And the question becomes why. Yes, he’s “nutty”, but his nuttiness has to be seen against the background of how most of us see the world.
I think that I do have an affection for most of my characters and I certainly have an affection for Fred Leuchter. You know, I’ve had to say over and over again that I find his beliefs totally abhorrent, appalling. And to separate that from my own affection for Fred. It’s a tricky, tricky kind of thing. Does it make the movie more interesting or less interesting? I would phrase it somewhat differently. When I wanted to edit the movie with Fred alone, it was clear to me, and I thought it would be clear to everybody else, that Fred was wrong. But it became necessary to clarify that for an audience. A friend of mine, Ron Rosenbaum, described it as “the Citizen Kane of self-deception movies”, and it is really a story, at its heart, of self-deception. Of Fred’s deep self-delusion.
In Schindler’s List, Spielberg had the relatively uninteresting thesis that any man can be a hero. Mr Death has the far more interesting thesis that any man can think he’s a hero. Because Fred, in fact, does think he is a truly heroic character. He thinks he’s a Florence Nightingale figure, a champion of civil liberties, a defender of the underdog, a Galileo-like scientist who’s willing to go against the crowd and to espouse unpopular beliefs because he deeply believes they’re right. A humanitarian, a humanist. I mean, it’s a whole catalogue of virtue but what’s so appalling and, at the same time, sad and ludicrous about his story is that it’s wrong. His view of painless execution is ridiculous. “Painless execution” seems to me, if anything, a very, very sad oxymoron.
He’s a man who somehow misses the moral dimension of things. Or, if he doesn’t miss them, he gets them horribly skewed.
TR: Would you say, then, that there’s a qualitative human difference between him and Temple Grandin (the semi-autistic subject of the Stairway to Heaven episode in the First Person series who invented a slaughterhouse device designed to reduce the terror of animals facing the death sentence)?
EM: I would say there are some similarities but many, many, many significant differences. Temple Grandin’s story seems to me to be about her own attempt to accept death, whereas Fred Leuchter’s story seems very much caught up in a denial of death, some crazy denial that death in fact even exists. After all, the movie ends with his story about how he sat in the chair and defeated the legend attached to it: namely, that, if you sit in the chair, you will subsequently die in the chair. And the story and his pride in the fact that he (quote, unquote) “created a new legend” – he didn’t die in the chair but went on to design and manufacture electric chairs – seems to me (to be) Fred boasting in some deep way about how he has defeated death itself. It seems, if you like, the final delusion.
Temple Grandin, I believe, sees things in an almost completely opposite way. She seems very much aware of the reality of death and the finitude of life and concerned with giving life itself meaning in the face of death.
TR: She certainly declares an empathy with the animals. She says, “I know what it’s like to feel fearful and scared,” something that Fred Leuchter never acknowledges.
EM: Oddly enough, whether what Temple says is, strictly speaking, true or not, she is involved in some form of empathy, of trying to put herself (in the position of the animals). At one point, she makes the claim that she can see you with the eyes of a cow, that she can experience what a cow experiences. She says “I’m not inside a cow costume imagining myself to be a cow. In some real sense, I am a cow. I am like cattle.” And, in her own mind, I think this an attempt to deal squarely with mortality. It’s her own way of expressing that idea. Oddly enough, for her, the “stairway to heaven” is this idea of making life without fear possible, knowing that death is inevitable.
Fred, on the other hand, seems possessed by this notion of a “painless execution”. I’m using Fred’s words. But exactly what is he talking about: “the perfect execution that just feels delightful”? I think he misses the point. The real pain of execution is in the knowledge that you are to die, in that realization that we’re mortal and that some date has been fixed for our extinction, for the termination of our lives. And it’s that implacable fact which he conveniently forgets. There can be no “painless execution” when you know that death is approaching.
TR: What of that other “Mr Death”, Dr Kevorkian, who also seeks to provide that painless leap into oblivion?
EM: Or an end to horrible suffering. If you like, a diminution of pain. You know that Kervorkian and his then-attorney, Jeffrey Feiger, once called me asking me to make a film about Dr Kevorkian. It turns out that I’m Dr Kevorkian’s favourite filmmaker. And I was delighted and tremendously excited, but no one would give me the money to make the film. Much to my amazement. I thought I could have made a fantastic film with Kevorkian. I even offered to have myself euthanized by Kevorkian at the end of the movie. Still no takers.
TR: Even in these days of “reality television”?
EM: Yes, even in these days of reality television! It’s interesting. I seem to have created a lot of what has now become “reality television”, but what I do is still considered very, very strange at the main networks. I mean, even First Person, which I think represents some of my best work, has to date still received only a very small audience. I was very pleased that it got good reviews: Time magazine put it on its top 10 television shows of the year. But it seems to me that my curse is good reviews for my movies and now for my television series without necessarily a huge audience that follows. Hopefully that will change this season.
TR: Wasn’t it originally called “Interrotron Stories”?
EM: Originally it was named that. Years ago. But now it’s been packaged under a different name.
TR: Are you happy with the change?
EM: Yes and no. I mean people complained when it was called “Interrotron Stories”, that somehow this meant nothing, that, since no one really knows what the Interrotron is, it starts to sound like something out of science fiction. Whereas First Person, although it does unfortunately sound like a lot of news magazine shows, does capture what is interesting about the Interrotron: namely, this idea of eye contact and a direct storytelling to camera. It is what I consider to be the first person as opposed to the third person, which we see in almost every kind of interview in television or for the movies.
We’ve just finished the second season, so now there are another eight episodes about to go to air. And I think the second season is stronger. I’m actually delighted with it.
TR: You dedicated the Stairway to Heaven episode to Caleb Sampson, who wrote the music for Fast, Cheap?
EM: Yes. He died tragically close to three years ago. He took his own life. An enormous shock. He was someone who was immensely talented and someone whom I’d looked forward to working with for a long time. A really truly terrible thing. His arranger, the guy who worked essentially arranging his music is now the composer for First Person, John Kusiak.
TR: Philip Glass (who wrote the music for The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time) seems to have been a major influence on the Fast, Cheap score?
EM: I’m now talking with Philip about our collaborating on a third project. But I love the score for Fast, Cheap. I think that Caleb did a really extraordinary job.
TR: It guides it in a very different direction from Mr Death.
EM: I like Fast, Cheap very much. I think it’s a very different movie from Mr Death. It is in many ways a movie about our need to create a kind of world for ourselves. Each one of us creates a private world that we can feel safe in, that we can control. And it’s interesting how mortality enters into each one of these worlds, very powerfully at the end into the world of the gardener who is really devoting his entire life to something so perishable. So evanescent, if you like.
TR: I found it intensely moving and exhilarating at the same time, the way it deals with the thin line between being sane and being crazy, and what that means.
EM: Maybe it doesn’t mean anything really. I used to think – I probably still think – that this idea of normalcy, or “sanity”, if you like, is some group notion, that it doesn’t really apply on the individual level. A cameraman that I’ve worked with quite often, Walt Lloyd, was shooting in a mental hospital and one of the inmates came up to him and said, “You know, there are two kinds of people: there are the insane and the outsane.” I like that.
TR: It’s a theme that seems to have run through all of your work, right from the start. Even in the detective thriller you made, The Dark Wind, where the hero (Lou Diamond Phillips) puts it on to a different level when he explains that “Navajos believe that when a man does crazy things, a dark wind blows through him”. I know you’ve disowned the film, but I think you’ve undervalued it..
EM: I’ve “undervalued” The Dark Wind for a number of reasons, because it could have been a very different kind of movie, a good movie. I hate to go on about it, but, for me, it was devastating and, for a while, I even thought about giving up filmmaking altogether.
You know, I come from an odd place as a filmmaker. I’ve had complete control over my own material. Often my films have started in one place and evolved into something very different. I’ve gotten into trouble many, many times because I’ve defined a project in one way and then emerged with something completely different.
The Thin Blue Line is a classic example of that sort of thing, where the final movie bears absolutely no resemblance to what I’ve started out to do. And I haven’t ever looked at that as a bad thing. I think it’s good, because it means there’s an investigative element in everything that I do. There’s a process of discovery or uncovering of material.
The Dark Wind is one of those instances where I had no control over what emerged. I was there very often as a functionary, not as a director. And the experience was remarkably distasteful. I wasn’t allowed to shoot what I wanted to shoot. And not only wasn’t I allowed to edit the film, I wasn’t involved in any way with the editing. So I feel so disconnected from the end result, so divorced from it, that it’s hard for me to really think of it as one of my films.
Editing is very, very important to me. I’ve struggled with the editing of almost everything I’ve ever done. When we were having horrible difficulties putting The Thin Blue Line together, I used to fantasize that there was some editing facility where you could send your material and they’d edit it for you and just return it to you in a box, all finished. I had this fantasy of a group of blue-haired, elderly ladies working out of a cinderblock building somewhere in the mid-West and I’d send them all of the dailies and somehow the movie would be returned perfectly put together. But it unfortunately doesn’t work that way.
I’ve sat for months, and in some instances years, in an editing room, trying to make my material work the way I want it to. And the idea that The Thin Blue Line or Fast, Cheap or Mr Death could have been edited without me seems to be nonsensical. (The Dark Wind experience) was a lesson. I never really wanted to be a Hollywood director. I think that it’s often easy to be confused. This is a very hard business to make a living in and I certainly have never made much of a living from my non-fiction work. It’s not something which has produced gigantic salaries and income. Quite the contrary.
TR: So how do you make a living?
EM: I’m very fortunate that I have commercial work available to me and that I’m very much in demand as a commercial director. Probably in the last 18 months I have directed over a dozen major commercial campaigns for . well, you name it. CityCorp, Adidas, Mastercard, Eastman Kodak, Nissan, VW, Miller Brewing. As well as almost all the advertising for Hewlat Packard. It’s a fairly long and extensive list.
TR: Do you view it as complementary to your non-fiction work, or simply a way of funding it?
EM: I actually think that it is complementary. It’s very hard to make good commercials and I work almost entirely with the same cameraman, Peter Donahue (who was the main cameraman on Mr Death), and the same crew. And we’ve learned to work really, really fast together. We’ve made a pledge never to do bad work in commercials and I’ve never looked at them as something that is just simply a job. It’s always been an attempt to really do something interesting and to do something well.
It’s a very unusual situation where you have a great deal of money to work with, you can use almost any imaginable toy, device, in filmmaking. And, even though I’m not formally asked to edit what I do, I almost invariably, in partnership with the client and agency, do my own cuts. It’s the editor in me. I can’t help myself. Part of going out and shooting anything is thinking about how it’s going to be put together as a piece of filmmaking and I feel pretty much the same way about commercials as I feel about everything else.
I also plan to make another dramatic feature. It’s been on my mind for a long time. I’ll never put myself in a position, or at least I like to think I won’t do this, where I’m directing a movie where I’m simply a director for hire and I really have no control. I will never do that again. But, as far as making more dramatic features, I’ve always intended to do that, and plan to do another one this Fall. It’s a project about a story that’s interested me for years about a book thief. About a man who created his own private library of over 200,000 volumes in a rundown mansion in Iowa. It’s based on a true story, my kind of obsessive character, but it is a dream about recovering the past, of defeating time itself. It’s being written as we speak.
TR: I’m fascinated by the ambiguous status which the idea of fantasy occupies in your films. As both a source of danger and an essential refuge. Do you see it that way?
EM: I think that whole line between reality and fantasy is always going to be blurred. You hear the line repeatedly that you have to be careful about what children see because they have such difficulty in discriminating between reality and fantasy. Well, my theory is that children have a much easier time of doing that than adults. It’s adults that usually have the greatest amount of difficulty. I sometimes explain to my son, who just turned 14, that he has to be careful what movies he takes me to because I’m still in an impressionable age. He’ll just be able to laugh it off, but I may be unable to sleep at night. I’ll have nightmares, I’ll wet the bed. I’ll start crying for no reason. There’s no telling what might happen.
I think that all of us build fantasies about ourselves and the world. I think it’s part of some very basic survival mechanism, ways that we restructure the worlds in our own minds in order to convince ourselves that it’s manageable, that it’s not too terribly frightening.
Someone asked me recently – at a Popcorn Taxi session I did when I was in Sydney – if, since I’m so obsessed with self-deception, I also see myself as self-deceiving. And the answer is “Why, yes, of course. No less than anyone I’ve profiled.” And I’m probably the least able to really define exactly the nature of that self-deception, or the extent of it. I think all of us live in some kind of dreamscape. And the task is to try to escape from that skein of fantasy and attempt, in some small way, to see the world. I think it’s at the heart of The Thin Blue Line. It’s at the heart of Mr Death. And it’s probably at the heart of everything I’ve ever done.
TR: In Fast, Cheap, the MIT scientist-inventor, Rodney Brooks, talks about using “very small robots to explore planetary surfaces”. His project seems to provide a very neat analogy for exactly what you’re doing in your films.
EM: Rodney Brooks is someone whom I see off and on, mainly for the simple reason that we live in the same city – Cambridge, Massachusetts. I live about a mile and a half from MIT and my office is less than half a mile from Kendall Square. He got married recently and he met his wife because of the movie. She was so appalled at his treatment in it – she thought that I’d done him such a disservice – that she wanted to call him and commiserate and eventually they did in fact get married and Rodney thanked me.
I really don’t think his portrayal is all that bad.. And it’s never been completely clear to me what she really disliked about it.
It’s interesting that Rodney wants to create this future. It’s almost as if he imagines himself as the author of that next step in evolution, and there’s that odd sort of admixture of parental pride – that kind of Dr Frankenstein enthusiasm – for the creature he has created, and the sense of being part of some inexorable process over which he has no control. I like him in the movie a lot.
TR: What other documentary filmmakers do you admire?
EM: Certainly Fred Wiseman. We both live in Cambridge too, and he’s a friend of mine. I find this kind of universe he’s created, the Fred Wiseman universe, the Fred Wiseman cosmology, to be endlessly fascinating. I often am perplexed at how he is perceived as a kind of sociologist, as if he is going from one institution to another and chronicling it much as a sociologist might study organisations by examining each of them in turn. But I think his enterprise is very, very different from that, and that Fred has created a whole sort of deeply expressionistic, surreal films. Very much Samuel Becket-like in their essence. If you like, various theatres of the absurd. And he also strikes me as one of the most truly perverse filmmakers, maybe the most perverse filmmaker of all time.
TR: In what sense?
EM: Because he has created one nightmare after another. Man at his most dysfunctional. And insane.
TR: But surely he would say that he simply sits back and watches?
EM: Well, yes, he does. But the end result of his watching is something that is so much about Fred and about how Fred sees the world, which is a wonderful thing, not a bad thing. It seems like the enterprise and the essence of art. Fred has actually managed to create a kind of personal universe on film that I find compelling. I call him the king of misanthropic cinema.
TR: And his response is?
EM: I think he takes it, as well he should, as a compliment.
TR: From the king of humanist cinema! Yet your approaches to your subjects seem so alike?
EM: Well, that’s interesting because I’ve often gone on this diatribe against cinema verite and have defined my own style as very much anti-verite.
You know, when I was making my first film, Gates of Heaven, I would joke that I would take all the basic principles of verite and turn them on their head. Against that idea of being the fly on the wall, I would make myself as obtrusive as possible. I would put myself right in front of the people and force them to look at the camera. I would light everything instead of using available light. Instead of hand-held cameras, I would put everything on a tripod. And Fred is very much, in his style of shooting, a master of verite, in fact the master of verite, in my view.
What bothers me about verite has never been the idea of shooting with available light or with a hand-held camera or observing and not interacting. What bothers me are the metaphysical claims that go with it, that somehow the application of these techniques will produce Truth, as though there’s this metaphysical meat-grinder which, if you put the right ingredients in and prepare them according to some given process, will magically produce Truth. That idea has always struck me as complete nonsense. It’s a style. And style doesn’t guarantee you truth. But it does give you a way of creating a picture of the world and as such is very, very interesting.
And so Fred would say to me, “How could you like all of these wobblyscope films? After all, you hate that sort of stuff.” And the answer is, “No. I don’t.” The end result of Fred’s filmmaking is not objective cinema, true cinema. There is something deeply personal and idiosyncratic and very much the work of a filmmaker with a deeply personal vision.
TR: I wish his films were distributed more widely.
EM: He needs to tend to that. I’ve told him that he should get at least 10 of his movies out on DVD. He owns the rights to all of them, probably close to 40 at this point. I haven’t looked at everything that he’s done, but I have seen close to 30. He’s completing another two as we speak. He’s endlessly active and, as a straight verite filmmaker, he’s still the one who impresses me the most.
In terms of diary films, I very much admire Ross McElwee’s movies. I don’t know how much of his work has made its way to Australia.. But, you know, I’m not a tremendous fan of documentary in general.
TR: What do you think of the two documentaries that have been made about Errol Morris?
EM: I haven’t seen either of them.
EM: No, I haven’t.
TR: The Kevin Macdonald one, A Brief History of Errol Morris, provides a particular kind of access to you. And it gives quite a different sense of you from the one I’ve gained from talking to you. It includes a lot of what other people, like Werner Herzog, have to say about you. Did you see Macdonald’s film, One Day in September?
EM: No. Should I? People have also told me that he ripped off The Thin Blue Line but not in a particularly interesting way.
TR: I’m not sure about that. But I think you should certainly see it out of interest. I found it deeply offensive: the reconstruction of the killing of the Israeli athletes as a thriller, given that you already know the ending, is almost sadistic. The way we’re kept waiting for the slaughter. It might work in a genre fiction, but it’s outrageous here. However, it does introduce some new information and it starts out in an extremely promising way by interviewing one of the terrorists and suggesting a parallel between his family life and the family life of one of the victims. But then it tosses away the terrorist’s family life and turns him into an unrepentant monster and shifts the focus entirely on to the other side .
EM: You’re making me want to see it now.
TR: Aside from Wiseman, whom do you regard as major influences?
EM: I’ve been influenced by lots of filmmakers, by surrealism, by Buñuel, by Franju. I worked when I was very young with Werner Herzog, who has been of enormous influence over the years. I adore film noir and have been a fan of various noir films..
TR: I like to think of The Thin Blue Line as your remake of Detour .
EM: Well, it is. I mean, The Thin Blue Line is very influenced by noir. It is, in its essence, a noir-like story. You know, filmmaking is a complex juggling act. I wanted to make a movie that had this real-world story that was very, very important to me. A terrible miscarriage of justice. But I wanted to make it in a certain way, and, if you asked me, “What are the main ingredients of noir?”, I’d say that it’s not the moody lighting, it’s not the canted Dutch angles. To me it’s the feeling of inexorability, almost the form of Greek tragedy, the feeling that things inexorably move towards some disaster without the ability of anyone involved to change the outcome, to do otherwise.
The Thin Blue Line has this chance meeting in Dallas between the 16 year-old kid and the man, Randall Dale Adams, who was eventually convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of this police officer. And that meeting was in every sense of the word just a matter of chance. And yet it destroyed so many, many lives. There’s a terrible tragedy, a sadness in it, a feeling of inevitability, of inexorability, that to me was a very powerful part of the story.
TR: Your work as a private eye and as a philosophy student seem to fit together hand-in-glove: every private eye is a philosopher. They have a way of seeing the world that rules the way the stories are formulated. It’s as if this is the raison d’etre of the genre, at its best.
EM: I worked as a detective after I made Vernon, Florida and leading up to when I shot The Thin Blue Line, where I found myself in the middle of a real-life detective story. The joke was that at the beginning of the shoot I said, “Thank God I don’t have to be a detective any more.” Then a kind of crazy detective story just unfolded before my eyes. You rarely get a chance to do that kind of thing. Even as a detective.
It reminds me though of one problem of being your own detective as opposed to being hired by someone else to do detective work. When you’re hired, there are always limits of time and money. You’re told that there are certain things that you can do and certain things that you cannot do. There are constraints, boundaries. But when you’re doing your own detective work, particularly a crazy enterprise like trying to track down the real killer of police officer Robert Wood, there are no boundaries.
I used to worry that somehow I would have to spend the rest of my life on that case. It was endlessly fascinating: tracking down the people, which was very difficult, cajoling them to appear in front of the camera, gradually piecing together the elements of the story, parts of which, of course, are not even captured on film, nor could they be an element in the film. Like the fact that I was able to get these documents from the Dallas District Attorney’s office, and so on and so forth. It was an amazing detective story.
TR: Did you wear a trench coat to work each day and speak with a lisp?
EM: No, no. I was just me.
TR: Do you read crime fiction?
EM: I don’t read a lot of it, but I’m certainly aware of it and I have read it from time to time. I was a connoisseur, and still am, of crime movies, particularly of 1940s and ’50s film noir. I programmed a lot of noir at the Pacific Film Archives screenings years and years ago.
TR: No doubt including Detour?
EM: Detour was certainly among them. Once, on the anniversary of the making of Citizen Kane, I was interviewed by The New York Times. Everybody was somehow lined up to say why Kane was the greatest movie of all time or, if you don’t like that hyperbole, the greatest American film of all time. And I said, well no, I don’t even think it’s the greatest American film of all time. I think Detour is. I really like Detour because it’s film noir stripped bare to its essentials.
TR: Do you like to play the provocateur?
EM: Absolutely. What better role could there be for anybody?
TR: Did I read somewhere that Randall Adams sued you?
EM: Yes. He sued me. The suit was settled long before it went to court. He became convinced that I was making a fortune off The Thin Blue Line, which is absurd and untrue. It’s a long, long story. Basically, Randall Adams went crazy in prison…
But I do hold it against him. I think it was bad behaviour, to say the least, on his part, although he was put up to it by his attorney. My relationship with his attorney had been very, very bad. Without going into all of the reasons why we were not able to get along, I’ll just say that I was involved in this investigation and it was clear to me from early on that no-one else really cared, no-one had made any effort on his behalf. And so I was in it alone for many years. Then, when the case finally made its way into federal and state court, I shared the material that I had uncovered with the various lawyers involved, but not until then. And there was only friction between me and them.
It’s a long, long story. I wish he hadn’t done it. You know, I sometimes joke with people that the only reason Randall Adams could think I had made a lot of money out of The Thin Blue Line was that he had never met Harvey Weinstein. Is Harvey known for sharing the profits of his movies with his producers and directors!? I’ll allow you to answer that.
Because the movie was always in the newspapers, people think that someone’s gotta be getting rich off-of this. But I never received a dime of profits. Zero. So the idea that I had somehow gotten rich off-of it is so ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous.
TR: But certainly it brought you to the attention of international audiences.
EM: Yes. It gave me a much bigger career than I had had before. Or, if you like, a much simpler way of saying it, is that it gave me a career.
TR: Is there another documentary on the way as well as the fiction feature?
EM: Yes. I did this interview with Robert McNamara [the former US Secretary of Defense who subsequently became president of the World Bank] and I thought it was really fascinating. You know, my premise is “Just say no. Don’t do any more longer non-fiction films”, in part because it’s so difficult raising money for them. But the McNamara material is some of the most interesting I’ve ever put on film. So I’m thinking, “Yes. I will do something with it.”
TR: Karen Schmeer, your editor on Fast, Cheap, is quoted as saying that you identify with obsessed people. What kind of qualities does one have to exhibit in order to become an Errol Morris subject?
EM: I think they have to interest me and, really, it’s not much more that. I’m often annoyed by people who somehow think that what really interests me is just the odd, the eccentric, the bizarre. I think that it’s really something quite different than that. I like there to be some underlying context, some set of issues or problems that is expressed in the material, that goes beyond the material itself. I like to take stories that other people might disregard or ignore and find surprising, unexpected depths in them. Gates of Heaven, I think, is an obvious example.
And, in the case of other stories, tackling them in a different way than they have been tackled before. Finding a new way of looking at material: that always interests me. People are always sending me newspaper clippings as though somehow it’s that oddball story which I like for its own sake, but it really isn’t true. Yeah, I like eccentric stories, I like oddball stories. But they have to be something more than just that.
TR: Do you have a team of researchers working with you, bringing you material?
EM: I really do my own research. Actually, I tried in the past to play that kind of a game, where I was using people to look up stuff for me and find stories. But it just didn’t work. In fact, it turned out to be a disaster. So I guess in the long run the person best able to decide whether a story is going to interest me or not is me.
TR: Once you start shooting, is it important to you to have a regular team of collaborators?
EM: Having a team is really important and I have had one off and on. Part of the problem with my own work, say as opposed to the commercials I do, is that I haven’t enough employment to keep one team going full-time. For commercials, it’s the opposite. We’re like a travelling circus. I have my photographer, my producer, my a-d, and so on and so forth, and we go from job to job to job. But the series has been something of a struggle, first to figure out how to shoot it. And I think I’ve finally cracked it. It’s taken a lot of programs, but I think I now have a better idea of visually how to make this look the way I’d like it to look. That’s been my big problem.
The content this season, I think, is stronger than last season’s. I’ve readjusted, if you like. We’ve been shooting on various forms of video. When I started, I was using DV and then recently I’ve moved to 24P Hi-Def, which is really the first video format that I’ve liked. The rest has been not so good, for many reasons.
So the biggest change is that when I was doing these interviews in the past, whether I was shooting on Super 16 with a 400-foot load or a thousand feed of 35mm, I would only have11 minutes in a mag. So regardless of who I was interviewing, or how I was interviewing, I had 11 minutes and then I had to stop, reload, and start all over again. This time, with video, I have an hour, non-stop. And that has made an enormous difference. It’s a different kind of deal now, as you can imagine.
TR: There is a distinctive style that has developed through the first First Person series. You’re constantly drawing attention to the medium that you’re using, with re-creations, with non-synch dialogue, with jump cuts, with shots of the monitors, with the black spaces and the freeze frames and so on. What are you after with that?
EM: I think that the series is definitely evolving and there are some things that I like more than other things about the first season, and some things that I don’t like. It’s also very different for me. I take a fairly long time to make a movie and these are made on a much more rapid schedule. Right now, we’re producing essentially five hours of material in a matter of months rather than years, and it’s a different way of working for me. But I’ve been interested for years in the idea of monologue.
When we were at Auschwitz, there’s a centre for dialogue there, and I’ve threatened ever since to start my own centre for monologue. The idea of having just one person talking fascinates me. And it creates all kinds of problems. It changes the nature of what you’re looking at so radically. People think that other people have done that, but they haven’t really. You never see this sort of thing, particularly for the length of time that these shows are now running. And surprising things happen when you’re just left with one character alone. So that interests me: the idea of creating television shows with just one person.
I also felt that putting my voice in, as this kind of unseen interlocutor, helped maintain a kind of energy in the monologue, maybe breaking with this pure idea of having just one person alone. But often I serve not just to endlessly ask questions but as a kind of Everyman character in the woodwork.
TR: You seem to do that increasingly as the first series goes on. Your presence becomes more prominent.
EM: I think that’s true. Yes. I enjoyed playing with the idea of it. Does it bother you?
TR: Not at all. I was going to ask you what you thought of Nick Broomfield’s approach, which strikes me as having particular connections with yours in the way in which he foregrounds himself as a player in the exchanges.
EM: I think that they’re different. I like Nick’s films. There are all these genres of documentary. “Documentary” is clearly a hybrid of what people are talking about when they use the word. There are many different kinds of documentaries, of documentary genres, rather than just one. There are people who make diary films, there are people who make films where they are the central subjects. Nick is not only an unseen narrator: he’s very much a seen narrator. He becomes involved in the action. He’s part of the action. He’s definitely a character in the drama that he’s set up.
Whereas I think that my enterprise is different. I’m obviously constructing this in something like a laboratory setting. We’re still in a room with the person talking to me and my voice for the most part is something that is disembodied for the most part. You hear me in the woodwork.
TR: And occasionally see you on the monitor.
EM: Occasionally. I’ve used less of that for the second series. In fact, hardly any of it all. But my voice is there.
TR: And who are you when you speak? Are you an ironist? A provocateur? A detached observer? Are you being Errol Morris straight?
EM: I doubt if there is any “Errol Morris straight”. Probably I am an ironist and it’s because I have a tendency, for better or worse, to see things ironically. So I think that what you see is what you get. And it’s evolving.
TR: Are you planning a third First Person series?
EM: I’d like to do another season, in addition to these interviews with Robert McNamara. I’m still not entirely happy with what we’ve done visually on First Person. As I said, it’s making a huge leap to move from film to video. Video is such a different kind of medium and it’s taken me a while, too long in fact, to figure out what to do. Also the technology is evolving. The idea of using these multiple cameras and making them work, getting an image that is aesthetically satisfactory. It’s been tricky.
TR: When you talk about the technology being different between film and video, are you talking about the surface of it, the way one sees it on a screen, or the greater flexibility you might have with it?
EM: It really does change so many factors. One of them I mentioned, of course, is the length of time you can actually interview someone before changing mags, or cassettes. It really has effectively gone from eleven minutes to an hour, so that’s almost five times the amount of time you’ve got, and it does affect the nature of the interviews.
The quality of the video itself is an issue too because I’ve never liked how it really looks. I remember when I started making films, I’d want it to look as though it was shot in 35mm, so I’d make this incredible effort to shoot 16 to make it look like 35. And of course the best way to make something look like it’s shot in 35 is to shoot it in 35. It’s time tested. I would go through all of these hoops, shooting with finer-grained negatives, in super 16, so that you’d lose less of the blow-up into 1:85, tra-la-la-la-la-la-la.
Then I had the money by the time I was shooting Brief History and Fast, Cheap to allow me to play around a bit. I could shoot in all different formats, which in fact I love doing. I love being able to really use the technology to my advantage, in a way that makes stylistic sense rather than as a way to deal with a small as opposed to a larger budget.
The First Person series has created that set of problems all over again. Now I have a limited amount of money to do these stories and I would look at all kinds of different formats: digi-beta, DV, 30 frame Hi-Def. And, truthfully, I never liked any of ’em.
DV and Hi-Def share one very major problem. You always hear these stories about how the difference between film and video is an issue of resolution – film has so much more resolution than video – but to me that’s such a minor problem compared to the real problem between film and video, which is more to do, I believe, with depth of field and contrast and frame rate. And now they’ve just introduced a 24p Hi-Def camera which to me looks like night and day, compared to what they’ve been shooting before.
So I finally feel that I’ve arrived somewhere. Several shows that we’ve shot: for the very first time I can say that I really like the way they look. The first five episodes of the first series were older work that was actually shot on film and later shows were actually shot on DV.
TR: Watching them on video on a home screen, it’s very hard to actually tell that.
EM: Really? Well we went to enormous efforts.
TR: Did I see the Megatron [an expansion of the Interrotron principle, expanding the number of camera angles and allowing a wider coverage of the interviewer and the subject] at work in series one?
TR: So somewhere between the conception of the stories and the shoot, you came up with the idea?
EM: We actually came up with it as we were shooting. Essentially, we just kept adding cameras. I’d like you to see some of the new shows. I’m hoping that, if there’s a third season, and I assume that there will be, we can actually come up with more ideas and solve even more of the technical problems. I’d like to bring someone in from Sony to help us. It’s tricky to pull something like this off correctly.
And I’m a little disappointed, I have to say, that we didn’t shoot everything in Hi-Def because I think several of these things you could just put straight into theatres and they would look fantastic. And they actually deserve a broader audience.
TR: Are the time constraints you’re working under for the TV slots like a straightjacket?
EM: We’ve gone crazy because we have the hour tape and because we’ve been doing shows that are longer. Last year the series ran on Bravo, so they had to have commercial interruptions and they were 22-23 minutes in length. This season they’re running on IFC, the Independent Feature Channel, so they can be 27-28 minutes long, without commercial interruptions. That in itself is a big difference. Even the shorter ones are substantially longer, and then there are those that we’ve done that are 57-58 minutes in length. Some of the half-hours that I did this year actually turned out to not really be suitable for half-hours. They work better at twice that length, and so two of these eight stories are really an hour in length rather than a half-hour, and will probably be broadcast in two parts. It’s been a lot of fun to put them all together and they make up a really interesting collection.
One story is called The Smartest Man in the World, and it’s about Chris Langin, who has an IQ of 195 to 210 and who is a nightclub bouncer on Long Island in New York. Another story is about Rick Rosner, who is locked in some kind of do-or-die battle with Who Wants to be a Millionaire? A third is about a mob lawyer who has devoted his life to defending various figures from organised crime. Then there’s one about an Internet entrepreneur who lost some $50 million and ended up living in public on this very strange web-site that he created and perhaps going mad in the process: Josh Harris. And one about Danny Fidge, who was the pilot of a DC-10 that exploded mid-air between Denver and Chicago. Actually he’s the passenger who became the pilot. It’s a good group!
TR: Watching the first series, I kept wanting to see more of most of the people. I could have watched Clyde Roper (the man who wants to be eaten by a giant squid in the Eyeball to Eyeball episode in the first series) for hours. Somebody who loves what they do so intensely, and who comes so totally from left field that you finish up loving him for it.
EM: Ah. Well that’s good.
TR: I don’t know if you go through that same process as you’re shooting or cutting the films together. But certainly that’s the experience I had as a viewer. Do your feelings about your subjects change as you get further into your relationship with them?
EM: I don’t think for the most part that I do. I usually know how I feel about someone while I’m doing the interview and I usually like the people that I interview. There have been some notable exceptions, but for the most part I usually enjoy the interviews. I have enjoyed them particularly this season.