Volume 2/Issue 10
When you watch an Errol Morris documentary, the stunning visuals seduce you. Then you realize you can close your eyes if you want, because the heart of the film is in the voices. Years ago, in fact, I got a call from Nonesuch Records asking about getting the CD soundtrack of “The Thin Blue Line” broadcast on public radio, just as is. For whatever reasons it never happened, but trust me it would have worked pretty well.
At Transom we’re interested in the relationship between story and image, because as radio producers we’re responsible for the images in the listener’s mind. That’s why we like to hear from television journalists and photographers and filmmakers, who know things about imagery that we don’t. Plus, as the Internet brings all non-fiction workers into contact, it makes sense to talk, right?
In this case, we asked our friend Nubar Alexanian, documentary photographer and former Transom Special Guest, to talk to his friend Errol Morris about image and spoken word for our audience of storytellers. An edited version of their conversation follows, accompanied by audio clips and pictures by Nubar. We may sprinkle in some of the outtakes over the coming month. Errol cautioned that he’s busy finishing his new film (McNamara) and traveling about the world, so his participation may be irregular. That’s okay. We can still ask questions. Some may be answered,
and some may remain mysteries.–Jay A
Errol Morris, Interviewed by Nubar Alexanian
The Bedrock of Language
Nubar Alexanian: Do you orchestrate for the ear independent of the eye?
Errol Morris: This is a difficult question. When you’re putting a film together you’re so much aware of both it’s hard to extract them independently.
NA: But you’re a classical pianist, a cellist. Your knowledge of music is very deep and it plays a really big part in your films. It’s important in all movies, but with yours it’s particularly important.
EM: I don’t know if it’s more important in my movies than it is in anyone else’s. I do think that language is the bedrock of everything I do. And this kind of strange language, language that comes out of people talking. It’s spoken language, as opposed to written language, and heavily edited spoken language. But the music, obviously, has to work, or maybe it’s not so obvious, but the music has to work with the spoken language. It can’t be independent of it. I mean, it’s been the cause of I don’t know how much trouble in just getting music to work with my films. Often, when you have a sequence that’s purely visual, without dialogue, music can drive the sequence and music can take on almost a dominant role. It can’t in my movies. I first started using music in my movies with The Thin Blue Line with Philip Glass. And we had terrible difficulties finding music that would work with what people were saying — with the spoken word –that wouldn’t undermine what they were saying, wouldn’t interfere with what they were saying, that would enhance what they were saying, but would not overwhelm it, would not efface it. That’s very, very difficult. So I would say that the music in my films has always taken a back seat to the spoken word.
A Person, a Tape Recorder, and Time
NA: I want to talk about interviewing. You often conduct long, long interviews. I know, for example, like when I shoot a portrait, of someone, I have a three-role minimum because I don’t feel like people can sustain their own view of how they’re supposed to look for a camera for three rolls of film.
EM: Three role maximum or minimum?
NA: Minimum, three roll minimum.
EM: Oh, you mean they lose control.
NA: Right. Is that what the twelve-hour interview is about?
EM: Yeah. Loss of control. That’s when things start to happen. The marathon interviewing style started years and years ago when I was interviewing people with just audiotape. I did this before I became a filmmaker. I would do these lengthy interviews. I started with a tape recorder – no camera – and I was interviewing murderers and their families in California and in Wisconsin.
NA: When are we talking?
EM: I started interviewing people in 1973. Criminals and their families… I started with killers and graduated to serial killers and mass murderers.
NA: Toward what end?
EM: I was interested in writing books based around this material. And I had all kinds of ideas about how the material was to be organized and how the interviews were to be conducted. I developed a style of interviewing where I tried not to say anything in the interview. I tried to say very, very few things… If possible, nothing. And I was very proud of the interviews that I had done where you can barely hear my voice on the tape. The interviews would go on for hours and hours and hours and hours and it would be people talking. It was part of the idea behind Gates of Heaven. Gates of Heaven came out of audio interviews extended to film. But the origin of it is a person sitting in front of a tape recorder.
“Everywhere I Go There’s Murders… ”
NA: So how did you make the leap into film from that?
EM: I don’t know, my fascination with movies. The idea that I could create something even more complex with pictures. But since then, all of my work, regardless of what I’ve done, has been driven by audio; it’s been driven by interviews. The interviews are the script, the interviews precede everything, or they have preceded everything. I’m planning to do a number of features with actors, but I’m basing these ideas for drama on interviews, oddly enough.
NA: So they’re driven by audio then?
EM: They are driven by the spoken word.
NA: This interests me. Years ago, you were interviewing people with a tape recorder. But you ended up in film not radio.
EM: I could have very easily ended up in radio if I had thought that was an option. I never looked at them as radio ever. I looked at them as books and then as movies. I never thought of Studs Terkel as a model… I had my own idea of what these books would look like. And then of course, it became something very different, it became interviews into film. I still have all of these tapes, and it might be very interesting to do something with them as just audio tapes. You know, I’ve never even thought of it until, until you mentioned it right now.
Everything that I’ve done has its origin in the spoken word. My favorite examples…? From The Thin Blue Line. Emily Miller talking about her love of old detective movies — Boston Blackie. She actually says, “Everywhere I go there’s murders. Even around my house.” Lines like that. “Everywhere I go there’s murders. Even around my house.” These interview fragments give you a perspective on how she sees the world and what she’s thinking. A friend of mine says you can never trust people who don’t talk a lot because how else would you know what they’re thinking. My art is based on that principle. It’s based on people’s willingness to talk a lot.
The Weird Laboratory
Language is unendingly interesting. My belief is that we invented language so that we could lie more effectively. That language is a vehicle of self-deception and evasion. I used to transcribe all of my audiotapes myself. And there were these exciting moments where you would become aware of patterns of speech, the way people talk, the way they use language, the way they express themselves, the way they don’t express themselves. When you sit and transcribe interviews you become aware of things that you would never notice ordinarily. Because you’re going through it, you’re listening to it in a completely different way as you actually put these words down on the page and then look at them as words on a page. How much you can actually learn about a person just from their patterns of speech about how they communicate? And it goes well beyond the surface content of what they’re saying.
I’ve always been amazed by this fact, that you sit and transcribe and transcribe and transcribe, and then you get this huge pile of material. You transcribe an interview that goes on for eight, nine, ten hours — you have a small book. And you look at all of this stuff. How different it is reading it from actually looking at the film material. How the content of it changes once again when you see it associated with picture. It’s always remarkable. It’s like being in this weird laboratory of language, doing this kind of work, because you get to isolate various aspects of communication. It seems like an odd thing to say, but it’s absolutely true. You get to hear the audio, you get to transform the audio into the written word, you get to see it once again as film.
NA: You’re saying by looking at the text?
EM: No, no, no, not just the text. It’s the whole deal. You get all of these levels. You get to hear the interview for the first time around when you’re actually conducting it. And you get to hear the audio and to transform the audio into written material. And then you get to edit the film. And the difference between each of these different elements is endlessly fascinating. When you read something you can always imagine a voice. You could imagine the words as being spoken by some ideal speaker that you have in your head, or as being spoken by yourself, or meaning certain things depending on how they’re delivered. And it’s always interesting to set that reading experience up against looking at the person, once again, saying the stuff on film.
Lost On The Page
NA: You do these interviews and the tapes are transcribed, the film is transcribed to audio. You edit from there, no?
EM: No, I don’t edit from the transcripts, ever. I edit from the film. We transcribe the material, we write in time code, and it’s a way of creating an index for the material. While you’re editing you can quickly find pieces of material from the transcript and in the transcript.
NA: But the form doesn’t come from the transcript then? In other words, you don’t edit down…
EM: Paper cuts? No, never, never. Paper cuts give you a very false idea. That’s what’s so interesting about this. In my first two films I was very much involved in creating the transcripts of the material. I no longer actually do them myself. Someone else does them for me. But you see these various representations of the material: there’s the interview initially; there’s the audio, just audio divorced from the image; there’s the transcription of the spoken word on the page; and then there’s the film. The track plus picture.
I’ve been aware since the very first film that I made that there’s an enormous difference between the paper cut —- essentially you have the transcript in front of you and you cut and paste together the sections that you like. And it never works in film. It really doesn’t. Somehow you need to hear the person talking, you need to actually see the piece of film and cut it against another piece of film. That something complex happens that is lost on the page. And that all of the editing, all the editing that’s done away from film is a waste of time. Literally a waste of time. It’s going to have to just simply be redone. It’s a different, different ballgame. And I think there are many, many, many reasons for that. But I also think that when I edit voice in my films, that there’s a kind of talk that emerges that is really different from Brand X. I was told by somebody, and it was something that I took as an enormous compliment, that people sound different in my films, there’s a different kind of discourse. And I think it is connected with music, it’s connected with editing the spoken word in a very different kind of way.
A Linguistic Thing
NA: I’m so taken by the visual elements in your films, but now that I hear you say that they’re about language, it makes perfect sense to me.
EM: You’re sold a bill of goods about what art is supposed to look like, or what art is supposed to be about, or how it is supposed to be made. And I’ve always been attracted to images. Images interest me. Don’t get me wrong. You often hear about scripts that, you know, scripts shouldn’t have voice-over, voice-over is kind of a failure, it’s a mistake. Well, I started to think, this is maybe within the last year or so, what if I just do these interviews, use them as voice-over and construct a completely fictional movie with actors based on it? I can preserve what really interests me about this linguistic element as being the foundation for it, and I can move my film-making in a completely different direction. It’s odd, because for many reasons I look at this distinction between fiction and nonfiction as being nonsense.
NA: How do you mean?
EM: We talk about feature film-making and documentary film-making as if there’s this rigid line of demarcation between the two, that we can say, OK, this fits into category one and this fits into category two, and it’s clear to me what the difference is. The differences are very, very important, but they are different than what people imagine them to be. People love to talk about truth. Truth-telling. Truth in advertising. Try that oxymoron on for size. Most of the time I have no idea what people are talking about when they start talking about truth. They somehow imagine that it truth-telling is connected with style or presentation. If its cinema verite or it appears in The New York Times, it must be true… And then the nonsense over the Rodney King videotape where people can agree that it was a videotape of a real event but they can’t agree what that real event was…
Truth is not guaranteed by style or presentation. It’s not handed over on a tray like a Happy Meal. It’s a quest. It often is as interesting to chronicle people’s persistent avoidance of the truth as their pursuit of it. But in any event, whatever truth is, it is a linguistic thing. It’s not a visual thing. To talk about a photograph being true or false is utterly meaningless. Words give you a picture of the world and visuals take you into the mystery of what is out there and whether language has captured it or not. When the characters in The Thin Blue Line are talking about the events on that roadway in Dallas [where the police officer was shot and killed], and then you see images of that roadway, you start to think about the mystery of what happened, the mystery of our attempt to really grab a hold of the world with words and images.
Believing Is Seeing
I do not believe that the truth is subjective, that the truth is contextual, or that the truth is up for grabs. To me, the real story behind The Thin Blue Line, and I think this is an important story to be told in general about the world, is not that truth is unknowable, but that often people are uninterested in the truth. They don’t seek the truth, but they seek some series of answers that make them feel comfortable or answer to certain needs that they might have.
When people talk about photographs being true or false, I have really no idea what they’re talking about. But if people ask me, “Is it true that David Harris was the driver of the blue Comet, and was stopped by police officer Robert Wood, and pulled a gun from underneath the seat and shot and killed him, true or false?” To me, you know, those statements have truth value. And I believe that… The Thin Blue Line is involved in two separate enterprises. One is to show you what the underlying truth most likely was. And to show you how people came up with conclusions that were at such variance with the truth.
NA: And then you do those recreations on the road.
EM: I did it in a whole number of ways. I did it with the reenactments and I also did it with just the stories, the individual stories of the people who were supposed to be witnesses to the event, the people who testified at the trial. It becomes clear as the movie unfolds that the stories that these witnesses were telling are not so much stories about what they saw, but about what they wished to see. My belief that believing is seeing and not the other way around. And that’s one of the very strong themes for me in The Thin Blue Line.
NA: That believing is seeing.
EM: That believing is seeing. If there’s enough pressure, if there’s enough reason to believe something, then people will believe it, no matter what the underlying truth might be, no matter what the evidence against their believing it might be. If there’s enough pressure of one kind or another. Take The Thin Blue Line. This is a crime that went unsolved for a month. They didn’t even have any suspects. Dallas officer is shot in cold blood. Someone has to pay the price. And so, when David Harris pointed the finger at Randall Adams, here is something that the police can jump on, you know? We have the perfect witness to the crime because he claims he’s seated next to the perpetrator. We have a case which we can build around his claims. Now you would think, well, a moment of reflection tells us that this guy’s testimony is unreliable because he might be the killer!
Stories About Belief
At the center of The Thin Blue Line, there’s this question. How did it happen? How did it happen that the guy who committed all of these crimes walked away scot-free so that he could commit other murders and other crimes, and the guy who hadn’t done anything wrong ended up sentenced to death? Now we would call this a perverse outcome. You know? The innocent party gets the hot seat and the guilty party walks away. Isn’t our system of law, of justice designed to prevent outcomes like this? To me the real question was — did the Dallas police knowingly frame this guy? Did they convince themselves that he was guilty and then manufacture evidence to support that conclusion? Once I had convinced myself that in fact Randall Adams was innocent and that David Harris was guilty, then the real issue was — how did they get there? How did they arrive at this point? What was going on in people’s heads, what were they thinking? What lead them to this perverse, bizarre conclusion? Was it a conspiracy…? Or the blundering of dunces who were under pressure to believe something that they had no trouble believing. The only drawback — it just happened to be wrong.
A lot of what I do as a filmmaker is this concern about conspiracy versus human incompetence, confusion and infallibility. And The Thin Blue Line is very much a story not of conspiracy, but a story of just how incompetent and how easily seduced we are into believing anything. That is at the heart of the movie, and some of my other movies as well. I like to think of these movies as stories about belief, about what people believe, how they see the world, set against what the world might be. And The Thin Blue Line is very much a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too movie. It wants to tell two stories.
It wants to tell an investigative story, just in plain language, a story about what really happens. But it also wants to tell a story about the massive confusion and error that produced this incredible miscarriage of justice. And I am very proud of the movie because I think that it does work on both levels.
Born To Babble
NA: When you go into an interview… do you do tons of research?… do you prepare heavily?
NA: You do?
EM: I never talk to the people in advance. But I prepare heavily.
NA: Well, I want to ask– really? You never talk to them?
EM: Try not to.
EM: Because I think that there is a real need that people have to talk. I used to think that if I ever had a tattoo, my tattoo would say Born to Babble. People have a need to talk. And if they’ve already told you a story, they have dissipated that need.
NA: You want it all to happen on camera.
EM: I want it to happen on camera. And over the years I’ve found from painful experience that talking to somebody about what you’re going to talk about with them is counter productive.
NA: Do you want them to get to know you before they talk to you? Is that important?
EM: Um, no.
NA: It’s not?
EM: It’s not important. They’ll get to know me soon enough, in the process of actually doing the interview. It’s not about them knowing me, it’s about their need to tell me something. And my interest in hearing it. I have not had very good success– I mean, maybe it’s become a kind of superstition on my part. You know, I just won’t allow myself to go there. I just won’t allow myself to talk to people in advance of actually interviewing them. There’s also a tendency, it’s a natural human tendency, you hear something good, and then you want someone to repeat it. “Oh! That thing you said was really good. Could you please repeat it for me.” Well, that’s not how it works, it does not work that way. We’re all familiar with the phenomena where you try to do something again and it’s never as good as when it just happened the first time, when it happened spontaneously.
No Other Voice
NA: I’ve been in lots of interview situations with you where you will go over and over the same material in hopes that what… ? That something will open somewhere? That you will learn something new?
EM: I don’t know. Often it’s just the hope that I will understand something. You know, the traditional idea of how documentaries are to be put together is that you talk to some twenty people and you inter-cut the interviews. “A” says such-and-such, and then “B” says, that’s wrong… And “C” says something else altogether. And supposedly you gain perspective on an issue by listening to this interplay of characters, in effect, arguing with each other. Well, what if you tried something completely different. What if you created a movie about one character’s perception of history? About one character’s attempt to understand himself through history? I have been playing with the idea for several years now — creating things around one interview, one person being interviewed, no other people. I tried that with Fred Leuchter in Mr. Death, but failed for a whole number of reasons.
NA: You feel like that film failed?
EM: I don’t feel the film failed, but the film was to be based on Fred Leuchter’s interview alone and it did not turn out to work with Fred Leuchter alone. So I had to supplement the Leuchter interview with — I don’t know how many additional interviews there are in there — but there are six, seven, eight interviews. So in the end it was not this one voice, first-person story that I had envisioned when I set out to make it. It had evolved into something quite different. And what was so appealing about the McNamara project was this opportunity to try that same thing again with one person, no other interviews, just one person being interviewed: Robert S. McNamara, and Robert S. McNamara alone. No other interviews. No other voice.
The Mess Of Reality
I like to think of myself as an investigator. I was an investigator at one time, a professional investigator if you like. And I think that there has been a very strong investigative element in all of my movies. There certainly is in this newest movie. The McNamara movie is investigative.
NA: But you’re a storyteller, and yet you use investigation as the way to tell a story?
EM: Yes and no. I think investigation and story telling work in opposite directions from each other. Stories, by their very nature, have to be tremendously simplified versions of reality. Reality is too complex; it’s too chaotic. We tell ourselves stories, so we don’t have to deal with reality. We create stories out of the mess of reality by eliminating material, by reinterpreting material, by rearranging material. But the investigative element is what connects the stories to the world. It’s what makes stories interesting to me.
The only way that people can make sense of experience, of the world, of history, whatever, is by picking and choosing from a myriad of details and facts. And when you make a movie, I mean, that after all is the enterprise that I’m involved with, you have to carry the audience by something. You are telling a story as a means of taking people through a series of events. The Thin Blue Line is very much a story, but it’s a story also dotted with these absurd, picky little details that fascinate me and which inform the story. But if you looked at the work that I had done in Texas, I spent two plus years investigating this crime, and I have volumes. And one of the saddest things for me is that ninety-nine per cent of my investigative work in Texas in connection with this case is invisible.
It’s not in the movie. I mean, you see the tip of the iceberg, you see the results of all of this effort that I put in over the years. But it’s not really in the movie. And the reasons are pretty straightforward. Because if you put them all in the movie, the movie would be confusing and no one would watch it.
Errol Morris, P. I.
NA: When you were a private investigator– That’s how you made your living, right?
EM: Yeah, ’cause I couldn’t make my living otherwise.
NA: Yeah, but so, like, who were your clients?
EM: Well, I worked for one of the best private investigators in America. So I was working on huge corporate cases. This was not matrimonial investigations. This was Wall Street investigations. And I’m still– I know this sounds really cheesy, but I’m still not at liberty to talk about the work. [pause] But it was great. It was absolutely terrific.
NA: So you were a private eye.
NA: I think that is so cool.
EM: And what do you do as a private detective? There’s all of this mystery connected to detective work, or this image of what I must have been: Errol Morris, comma, P. I., the guy who’s sitting in a car late at night looking at the entrance or exit to some building. Or a person watching someone, tracking them, following them. In fact, almost everything that I did as a detective is stuff that I do as a filmmaker. There was, if you were to do the Zen diagram of the overlap between the two, there was enormous overlap. And what is the essence of private detective work? It’s talking to people and learning something about them from it. That’s it. Period.
An Odd Place of the Unexpected
NA: When you’re shooting in the field it’s a very organic process. You know something of what you’re doing, but you’re looking for things to happen.
EM: People discount the out of control element in art as if somehow — You see it in the auteur theory, you see it in the sort of idea that great art is completely under control. Someone has this exact picture of what they’re going to do and they realize it faithfully. It’s sort of like the Howard Roark idea in The Fountainhead. And my experience is that art is a very different kind of affair. And maybe this just points out certain infirmities that I have as a filmmaker, but I think one of the most exciting things about making a movie is not knowing what’s going on, of actually being in an odd place where unexpected things are happening. Where you’re learning things that you could not have imagined you were going to learn in advance.
I think the worst thing that you can do as a filmmaker is just go through a recitation of received material, and illustrate it as if somehow your job is to provide the illustrated news. My tendency as a filmmaker is to keep going, to keep gnawing at some bone until I finally come to a conclusion that satisfies me.
NA: The courage that you have which I haven’t seen in other filmmakers that I’ve watched is that you’re willing to leave it open and learn even while your labor costs are twenty thousand dollars an hour when you’re in the field.
EM: That’s just cause I’m insane, self-destructive…
NA: … But honestly, there’s an element of courage there.
EM: Well, I always liked the idea of courage that is embodied in Kafka’s “Hunger Artist.” Kafka wrote this story about a professional faster who in the end fasts himself to death. He starts off fasting for great audiences who just love watching him fast and revel in the idea of his ability to discipline himself, quote unquote —- to do without food for weeks at a time. But he comes really into his own when people stop watching him. And he fasts himself to death. And he makes it quite clear at the end, maybe this is what I take away from the story, that– Um, he does it, not out of some great discipline, but out of some weird persnicketyness and obsessiveness. That, as he puts it, he fasts because he could never find any food that really satisfied him.
Willing To Listen
NA: You don’t give yourself enough credit. But if what you say is true, and I think it is, that the worst thing that a filmmaker can do is simply illustrate, what’s the best thing a filmmaker can do?
EM: I don’t know, create something that is really unusual, that’s unique, that has emotional power, that says something. Says something unexpected. I remember going into this McNamara movie knowing full well that there are millions of people in this instance who have very strong views about who McNamara is and what his role was in the U. S. government in the 1960s. And my goal notwithstanding was to try to find out something about him, to learn something about him. To be interested in him, in the sense that this is a person who has something very important to tell, and that I should be willing to listen.
NA: You have a way of telling stories that is uniquely yours. You work in a narrative medium, which is linear. Think of it like a tape: you start at the beginning and you go to the end. But the way that your mind works is much more…
NA: Not confused but, you know, all the information is accessible at any given point. I’ve watched you take that non-linear way of thinking, and try and adapt it in a medium that has a beginning, a middle, and end. How do you do that?
EM: It’s always difficult. It has been difficult in every single movie that I’ve made. But there’s been two movies in particular which do not have, in any sense of the word, traditional stories. And that’s Vernon, Florida, and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. I hate to use the term non-linear because I’m not really sure what it means. To me there are stories in there, linear stories, however you want to describe them. And the real task was how to take something that really resists in every way imaginable, being put in some traditional form, figuring out how to tease out a story line, a narrative structure from this mass of material. I think that there very much is a storyline in Fast, Cheap, but uncovering what that was and making it work was no easy matter.
NA: So this comes after, the structure?
EM: While I was making the movie there was an idea of what the structure in the movie would be and what the story would be. But actually putting that into practice, making it work… Thinking it is one thing and actually making it work and editing is something else altogether. Between the intention and the act falls the shadow.
A Kind Of Experiment
NA: What about influences in your work? Or even just your approach to storytelling.
EM: Documentary filmmakers. Wiseman. The surrealists. Vigo, Vertov, Franju. I’ve been influenced by all kinds of directors. Sirk, Lang, Bresson… I imagine film as a kind of experiment. I hate the idea of film as just boilerplate, and often it seems that film today has become boilerplate — people making the same movie. Movies sometimes seem horribly unambitious to me. My brief experience with Hollywood was disastrous. I guess it’s not so surprising. I guess what’s surprising to me is that I could have thought it would be otherwise. But I’m lucky. I’m a very, very lucky guy. I get to do my own kinds of films in my own way. I have my own kind of laboratory of filmmaking, and I love it.
A Different Kind of Animal
NA: What are the kinds of things you would be able to do with an unlimited budget on the movies that you make?
EM: Well, creating visuals. It’s part of the problem of being in this no-man’s land, or gray zone of filmmaking. Yes, I make documentaries, but no I don’t make documentaries like other people. I’m not a documentary filmmaker that just runs around shooting with handheld camera and available light. I do that on occasion as part of what I do, but that’s not the deal.
I like to point to the end of Fast, Cheap, which is a scene shot in a topiary garden at night where we had to bring in massive amounts of lighting. We were shooting at a hundred and twenty frames a second. We’re shooting five times the speed of sound, so we need five times as much as light. We’re lighting at night. We have rain machines. You know, we’re talking about something that is a really substantial deal with a crew of forty people. And it’s stuff that just can’t be accommodated on a documentary budget. And even though I have been very fortunate, I get not insubstantial budgets, the budgets are never enough to cover the cost of the film. Part of the reason why I would like to abandon documentary, or at least what I’ve been doing, is because it’s not clear to me that the budgets will accommodate what I want to do. The idea of endlessly going into debt to make my movies is not an appealing one. I’ll do it if I have to, but I just would prefer not to. [long pause]
For example, salaries of actors and so on and so forth. I mean, that’s what’s interesting about documentary. If you look at the budget, the money that people are actually being paid, that they take away from it, is a virtually insignificant amount of the budget versus the amount of money that just goes into the physical production of the elements of film. Which are expensive. And commercials are even further in the other direction than feature film, because the amount that’s spent to actually produce a commercial is such a small percentage of what the client will eventually spend on buying media. Perhaps the client will spend two, three, four million dollars on a set of ads, thirty-second spots. But they could just as easily turn around and spend some thirty, forty, fifty, sixty millions dollars putting those spots on cable and network television. That’s where the real money is spent. So it’s just all driven by certain production models. You know, all this may sound very boring but it does inform on some simple level your work as a filmmaker. And I’m not a guy who is a sixteen millimeter handheld guy, I’m some different kind of animal. And a more expensive, needy kind of animal.
Fast, Cheap, And Out Of Control
I’m creating movie-like themes in all of my work. I mean, on some level you have to find a story that people can understand as a story. And then play with that idea. And I often chastise myself for not going far enough in playing with how a story is told. There’s this worry in filmmaking. Who’s going to watch them?
I would like my movies to be seen by more than half a dozen people. I’ve never been able to attract as large an audience as I might like, which is depressing. There could be lots of reasons for that. I tell myself that my movies haven’t been marketed well, but it could be just simply the way that I put them together or the nature of the films themselves that restricts their audience. Or maybe I’m not that good. That could be another possibility. But the goal is to reach a larger number of people. That’s what’s so fascinating about film: the idea of making films for half a dozen people is not an appealing notion. And regardless, even if it was, it’s not a viable financial model because no one would ever give you the money, the wherewithal, to make them. That’s what’s so weird about filmmaking… How expensive it is, how complicated it is, how involved it is. You can’t do it without at least having some idea of an audience in mind. Unless you’re independently wealthy and can just pay for these things on your own accord, you have to have some kind of audience. That’s true of all art. You can’t make it without some real or imagined audience.
I remember someone asking me if Fast, Cheap was a cold calculation on my part to make something that was commercial. And I thought: are you insane? What? Oh, right, yeah, that commercial model — mole rats, topiary animals,
lion taming, and the robotic scientist. Yeah.
NA: That’s funny.
EM: Proving once again that people can say anything.
Part 2: Errol Morris on McNamara
Interview and Photos by Nubar Alexanian
Nubar Alexanian: Tell me about your McNamara film.
Errol Morris: Well, I promised myself after the Leuchter film, that I would not make another feature-length documentary. That shows you how good my promises are. Not good at all. I had been working on a documentary series for IFC (the Independent Film Channel) and was set up for interviews. For years and years, I had talked about interviewing Robert McNamara. I kept putting it off, putting it off. Part of it is — I couldn’t think of any reason why he would want to talk to me.
The Quintessential American
NA: But why him?
Errol: Why him? Because of his involvement in the war in Vietnam and because of the three books that he has written since the mid-nineties — In Retrospect, Argument Without End and Wilson’s Ghost. McNamara is the quintessential American figure. A man who Zelig-like found himself at amazing moments, century-defining moments, in the history of the twentieth century. From Berlin on the day of the Nazi invasion of Poland, Shanghai on the day of the Japanese invasion — part of their war to conquer China — the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945, to his leadership role in the postwar economic recovery, his ascendancy to the presidency of the Ford Motor Company in 1960, his role in the Defense Department — seven years as Secretary of Defense for Kennedy, Johnson, and then his role as President of the World Bank. It’s an amazing story. But it’s not just a story of these events; it’s a story of one man’s attempt to understand these events and his role in them.
A Real Hero
I demonstrated against McNamara years and years ago. Although it’s not altogether clear to me that it was him. I was at the University of Wisconsin and I graduated in June, 1969, and McNamara was already out of the Defense Department by early 1968. So I probably wasn’t demonstrating against him, I was demonstrating against Clark Clifford and then, later, various officials in the Nixon administration. But I was certainly aware of him. I remember at the time that I was at the University of Wisconsin, reading several essays by I. F. Stone that had appeared in the New York Review of Books. And these essays were about the Gulf of Tonkin Bay incidents and the Congressional Resolution which followed: the incidents on August 2nd and 4th of August, 1964, and the resolution that immediately followed that essentially authorized the expansion of the war in Vietnam. There were these allegations, allegations that these incidents were trumped up, they were manufactured in order to insure acceptance of this resolution and acceptance of the escalation of the war. It’s a serious charge — that the Johnson administration manufactured an international incident in order to wage war in Southeast Asia. I really admire I. F. Stone. He is for me an American hero, a real American hero.
NA: Why’s that?
EM: Fearless, really, really smart, willing to investigate and re-investigate, willing to take on everyone and not be beholden to anybody.
NA: Is there anyone like that today?
EM: I don’t know. He was unique, not only in that time but even now. You know, you think of Christopher Hitchen’s book on Kissinger, which is a very interesting but also a very nasty book. I. F. Stone at his best was never hysterical; he was always very precise, very, very clear. Always reasonable. And passionate. As if one of the framers — a Jefferson or Adams — had come back to life two hundred years later and was as committed as ever to the preservation of the Republic. I had the idea — this is what Americans should be like.
NA: I mean, was he influential to, to your work?
EM: Yes, although I never thought of it before.
The Halberstam Thesis
There’s this commonly held view about McNamara’s story which tells us how you’re supposed to look at him; what his life is about, who he is. I call it the Halberstam thesis, because Halberstam elaborated it in his famous book, The Best and the Brightest. The book with the oh-so ironic title, The Best and the Brightest, the book about the Kennedy-Johnson whiz kids who dragged us into a loathsome, disastrous war in Southeast Asia. Halberstam created a portrait of McNamara as a number cruncher, a statistician — a person devoid of ethical dimension or even human dimension — who came much too late to the conclusion that the Vietnam War was a mistake. Halberstam’s version of the story is that the Vietnam War was a bad war conceived of by bad people. It is perhaps inarguable that the Vietnam War was wrong. But was it conceived by evil or shallow people? The Halberstam book just made me more curious about McNamara. You asked me, why did I get interested in him? I wanted to talk to him. I wanted find out about him. Who was he? When something bad happens — and the war in Vietnam was something very, very bad — we want to know why. Why? How did it happen? How could it have happened?
EM: He wrote these three books — In Retrospect in 1995 which was supposedly his mea culpa for Vietnam. I don’t believe it was a mea culpa, but that’s another issue. But he published In Retrospect in 1995, and I read the book and it really interested me. It’s an amazing and important book. And then he published another book in 1998, Argument Without End, which is about his trip back to Vietnam, to Hanoi, almost thirty years after he left the Johnson administration, where he met with various civilian and military leaders of North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. He met with them in order to discuss their respective roles in the conflict and whether the war could have been avoided. So that’s a very, very powerful and interesting book as well. And then recently he published a third book called Wilson’s Ghost. I read Wilson’s Ghost and decided that I had delayed long enough; I should try to talk to him. And so I called him and much to my surprise he agreed to come up [to Cambridge, Massachusetts].
The Story Of Vietnam
I explained to him that my style of interviewing was extensive; I like to interview people for not a half-hour or an hour, but sometimes for eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve hours. And McNamara said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. I’m not going to sit for twelve hours of interviews.” We finally got him to agree to come up and be interviewed over a two-day period of time, that he’d give me two hours on each day. And then he called me several days before he was to come up and said, “I agreed to do this, but I’ve thought it over. This makes no sense. I really shouldn’t be doing this. There’s really no good reason for me to be talking to you. And so I really can’t do this. I don’t want to do this. I shouldn’t be doing this. But I said I would do it, and so therefore, I will do it. I was telling this story to my friend, Ron Rosenbaum [the writer and newspaper columnist] and he said, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. That’s the story of Vietnam.” So he came up and we did about two-and-a-half hours of interviews the first day and then we did about two-and-a-half hours of interviews the second day. And they were amazing, they were just amazing interviews. And it was really clear that this was a movie, that it was not just a half-hour for television, that it was something that should be put in theaters and finished as a movie.
NA: The visuals in your movies are so spectacular.
EM: One of my favorite scenes in the “The Fog of War” is the falling skulls.
NA: Falling skulls?
EM: Yeah. Skulls dropped six flights down a stairwell. McNamara told me a story about how he hired Cornell Aeronautical Laboratories to conduct a study on car crash injuries. They actually wrapped human skulls in various kinds of protective gear and dropped them down the stairwells in various Cornell dormitories. The falling skulls were the first crash-test dummies.
EM: The story starts from the interview then gets elaborated.
EM: I think that with Robert McNamara, there is a mystery, and whether I can answer this mystery or not is unclear to me. In fact, I doubt that I can. But I’d like to try. Go back to the Gulf of Tonkin Bay incident. Now, that story interests me because it’s very much like the story of The Thin Blue Line. How did we imagine things that never happened? That was the center of the Gulf of Tonkin question. Did people somehow convince themselves that this was an act of communist aggression? Did they somehow imagine incidents that didn’t occur? Not deliberately, but just because they were in the appropriate state of mind where they could easily imagine and believe that kind of thing.
NA: How do you get at that? How can you even resolve those kinds of questions?
EM: Well, you can start by asking them. We’re now privy to these amazing conversations that occurred between Johnson and his advisors. We can actually hear audio recordings of Johnson from the Oval Office talking to McNamara, to Dean Rusk, to Bundy, and so on and so forth. It’s amazing. Some of these conversations with McNamara are in the movie. And they shine light on this whole issue of what was going on the week that we deliberated on these incidents [August 1st - August 6th, 1964], and then bombed North Vietnam.
The Essential Tragedy
NA: You seem obsessed with mistakes, confusion. With error….
EM: It’s the way of the world.
NA: You’re even skeptical of the truth-value of photography.
EM: Sure. Photoshop taught us something that should have been obvious from the very beginning of photography — that photography is a lie. People are really fascinated by the causal connection between the world and a photograph of it. Yet we’re also aware that there’s slack in the system.
NA: Right, with still photographs it’s a moment out of context and so there’s no way for a photograph to be true or false. But in your medium, there’s a relationship from one moment to the next.
EM: Yeah. So with film it’s several moments out of context rather than just one. Film doesn’t give us some privileged access to the truth. Occasionally we get glimpses off what might be true. But my films are about being lost in a subjective world, and trying to see where the edges of that world might be. I look at McNamara very, very differently than Halberstam. He’s a person that for me has clearly done things that are very bad. The war in Vietnam was unspeakably horrible, and a crime from my perspective. And yet there is something immensely likable about McNamara. And something truly moral. This is not a story about an unethical man. I do not believe that what he did came out of pettiness, self-interest or malice, but came out of a desire to do good. And therein lies the essential tragedy of the story.
Part 3: Errol Morris Photo Gallery
About Errol Morris
Since the premiere of his groundbreaking 1978 film, “Gates of Heaven,” Errol Morris has indelibly altered our perception of the non-fiction film, presenting to audiences the mundane, bizarre and history-making with his own distinctive elan.
Roger Ebert has said, “After twenty years of reviewing films, I haven’t found another filmmaker who intrigures me more… Errol Morris is like a magician, and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini.”
Recently, Morris was highly praised for his short film that ran at the front of this year’s Academy Awards, where he asked an admixture of anonymous and well known people outside the movie business to talk about what they love about movies. He is also currently at work on an as yet untitled feature film on the life of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
In 2000 and 2001, Morris aired two seasons of a television series, “First Person.” The series uses his unique interviewing machine, the Interrotron. A modified teleprompter, the Interrotron allows Morris to project his image on a monitor placed directly over the camera’s lens. Interviewees address Morris’s image on the monitor while looking directly at the camera, which lets Morris and the audience achieve eye contact with his subjects.
The effect is to focus the subject’s attention and gaze more directly into the camera than was possible in the past. “It’s the difference between faux first person and the true first person,” says Morris. “There’s an added intensity. The Interrotron inaugurates the birth of true first-person cinema.”
The first season had eleven episodes and premiered in March 2000 with Errol’s short film, “Stairway to Heaven,” about Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who designs humane animal slaughterhouses. The second season of “First Person” began in August 2001 and featured an interview with Rick Rosner: philosopher, game-show contestant, cosmologist and high-school recidivist.
Errol Morris’ last feature film, “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.,” (2000) focuses on Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., an engineer from Malden, Massachusetts who decided to become the “Florence Nightingale of Death Row”- a humanist whose mission was to design and repair gas chambers, electric chairs, lethal injection systems and gallows. His career and life are ruined after becoming involved in the world of holocaust denial. “Mr. Death” appeared of the year’s ÒTop Ten” lists of many major publications, including USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, and The Boston Globe.
Morris began his first non-fiction feature in 1978 after reading a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle: “450 Dead Pets To Go To Napa.” “Gates of Heaven” follows the stories behind two pet cemeteries: one that fails set up by the idealistic Floyd McClure at the intersection of two superhighways; and one that thrives set up by the Harbert family, who apply the latest marketing concepts to the pet cemetery profession. “Gates of Heaven,” was described by Roger Ebert as “one of the ten best films of all time.”
Morris’s second effort, about the inhabitants of a Florida small town who lop off their limbs for insurance money (“They literally became a fraction of themselves to become whole financially,” Morris commented.), had to be retooled when his subjects threatened to murder him. Forced to come up with a new concept, Morris created “Vernon, Florida” (1981), about the eccentric residents of a southern swamp town. David Ansen in Newsweek called it “the work of a true original.”
Morris completed his most controversial film, “The Thin Blue Line” in 1988. Billed as “the first movie mystery to actually solve a murder,” the film is credited with overturning the conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood, a crime for which Adams was to be executed. “The Thin Blue Line” was voted the best film of 1988 in a Washington Post survey of over one hundred film critics. ÒPremiere magazine”, in a survey of films of the 1980s, described it as one of the most important and influential movies of the decade.
In 1992, Errol finished a film about the life and work of Stephen Hawking, the physicist who is often compared to Einstein despite having spent most of his life confined to a wheelchair, a computer his only means of communication. “A Brief History of Time” won the Filmmaker’s Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Morris’ interviews for the film have been incorporated into a book, A Reader’s Companion, published by Bantam Books. The film appeared on many “top ten” lists for 1992, including Time, The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle.
Errol Morris created one of the most highly regarded films of 1997, the critically acclaimed “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.” Linking the fascinating, yet seemingly unrelated stories of: a lion tamer; an expert on the African mole-rat; a topiary gardener who carves giant animals out of hedges; and an MIT scientist who designs robots. The film won the Best Documentary Film Award from the National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics and Independent Spirit Award. It was also selected as part of the 2000 Biennial at the Whitney Museum.
Morris has also made numerous commercials, including a heralded post September 11th campaign for United Airlines, Apple Computer, and Southern Comfort. He also won an Emmy in 2001 for directing the commercial “Photobooth” for PBS.
Morris has received three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was a graduate student at Princeton University and the University of California-Berkeley. Morris’ work received a full retrospective in November 1999 at the Museum of Modern Art in 1999 and he was given a special tribute at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001.
Morris lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife, Julia Sheehan, an art historian; their son, Hamilton; and their bulldog, Jackpot.
- Official Errol Morris Website
- Errol discusses Mr. Death on NPR’s “Morning Edition”
- Digital Journalist Magazine