Errol Morris

photo of Errol Morris

Intro from Jay Allison: 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.

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1. Manifesto | 2. On McNamara | 3. Photo Gallery

Errol Morris, Interviewed by Nubar Alexanian

The Bedrock of Language

Listen to “The Bedrock of Language”
Errol Morris
Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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

Listen to “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.

Errol Morris

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

Listen to “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

Errol Morris
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.

Errol MorrisEM: 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

Listen to “Born To Babble”

NA: When you go into an interview… do you do tons of research?… do you prepare heavily?

EM: Yes.

Errol Morris

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.

NA: Because?

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.

Errol Morris

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.

EM: Yes.

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

Listen to “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.

Hunger Artist

Errol Morris

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.

The Shadow

Errol Morris

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…

EM: Confused?

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.

Errol Morris

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

Errol Morris
(Editor’s Note: Last year on Transom, when Errol Morris was interviewed about interviewing, he spoke first about interviewing Robert McNamara. At the time, he asked us not to use that part because he was still in the midst and concerned about upsetting the dynamic by talking about it. As his remarkable new documentary film, Fog of War, is about to open, we asked if we could publish his comments about that dynamic now. You’ll find them interesting.)

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

Morris & Mcnamara
Morris & Mcnamara
Morris & Mcnamara

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?


Delay’s End

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.

Falling Skulls

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.

Investigating Mystery

Robert McNamara

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

Photos by Nubar Alexanian
Errol Morris

Errol Morris

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, starting with the premiere of his groundbreaking 1978 film, "Gates of Heaven." 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.


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  • Barrett Golding


    So Glad…

    …to have EMorris here. mainly so i can ask a question i’ve wondered since seeing (several times) the amazing Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. at what point in filmmaking did you realize the stories of a lion tamer, mole-rat expert, topiary gardener and robot designer could become, in a sense, different versions of the same story? did you know this while collecting intervus, or did it become apparent as you constructed film? cuz i’ll tell ya, it’s was a haunting moment of revelation when i began to understand you were not only painting a fascinating portrait of four individuals but also telling a single larger story about pursuit, passion, eccentricity and expertise.

    p.s., i’m enjoying your First Person series on IFC.

    p.s.2, to transomites- one tidbit from the Errol Morris IMDB bio: he also directed the new Apple "Switch" ads.

  • Lisa Peakes



    I was struck by the vulnerability of your subjects in "Vernon, Fla." and "Mr. Death" and by their seemingly absolute belief in the immutability of their worlds. (The couple was certain that the Los Alamos sand was growing…the turkey hunter knew he was going to bag a big one…)
    I also have the feeling that many audience members who see your films are laughing at the absurdity of the subjects’ beliefs.
    You mentioned earlier here that people reveal themselves out of an innate need to "babble" – but I wonder whether these people know they will be fodder for laughter. It seems that, in order to retain the "purity" of their story, they MUST NOT know. How do you: approach them about being filmed, prevent them from censoring themselves, and protect them from hurt feelings? Is protecting them from hurt feelings even something that comes up, and, if it is, is it something you feel obligated to do? Thanks.

    P.S. You & Fred Wiseman are brilliant.

  • Chris Lydon


    Quick, a Bargain, and Right on the Money

    Just a quick welcome and tip of the hat to the great Errol Morris from a longtime fan. With maybe a comment and a question.

    Comment: So much of what Errol says here casts him as a sort of extension of the meticulous and thoughtful Tony Schwartz, the famous sound maven and advertising man, except that Tony focused on the audio track and Errol seems to give the same care to both aural and visual effects and their combination. I can’t hear enough about how you work these two channels. Tony did the best-known-TV-commercial-that-ran-only-once, the "Girl with a Daisy" spot for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, in which the image of a child and a flower morphed into a mushroom cloud, warning people not to vote for Barry Goldwater. But in fact Tony has an explicit theory of political and other advertising: that the critical message was delivered through the ear, despite the eye. He once demonstrated to me a political commercial that showed just the face of an industrial clock and its sweeping second hand, with a voice over to the effect: "would you give me a minute to tell you why So-and-So should be our Attorney General?" The idea was to neutralize the eye and fly the message in under the radar to the ear. Errol used Philip Glass before it was fashionable, and he pays loving attention to the sound of voices in his movies. In the mix with visuals, I’d be interested in the cognitive theory here; it sounds like a contest between effects for the different attentions of eye and ear. I guess I’d be even more interested in more of how Errol lays out picture and sound in particular scenes and sections of his movies and his spots.

    Question: On the matter of Errol’s dark and plausible observation that language is fundamentally about lying: did you see the Philip Roth interview in the Independent in London on Ocrober 16? It has mysteriously disappeared from the web archives, but must be recoverable somewhere. It was just a brilliant explosion of intelligence and candor about the "Kitschification" of most everything about and from New York since 9.11. Also about all the silliness about our "loss of innocence," here in a country that upheld slavery for nearly 300 years and brutal segregation after that. Anyway, Roth also let fly with the thought that he and Norman Mailer have been engaged for years with the understanding that language is lying, especially language of the political variety and all the moreso in the reign of the ventriloquized Bushmaster who may understand less of his programming than any president in our history.
    Question: how in the world does a man with this consciousness, to wit: Errol, use it in the advertising biz. What’s the truth in or about advertising, Errol? Or the truth in movies, for that matter, including your work in progress? All best, Chris Lydon

  • Dave Isay


    Paying Respects

    Also just wanted to jump in and pay my respects… Thin Blue Line is, in my book, far-and-away best documentary ever made.. . When I first saw it in ’88 it just knocked me out. I understood for the first time what a documentary could be- how you could break rules, push to the limits and make something totally outrageous and artistic and wonderful from real life.. And, on top of that, actually do GOOD… It blew my mind…. Still what I aspire to every time I go out to do a piece…. I realize writing this that it must have been within a month of seeing the movie that I started in radio…. For anyone who hasn’t seen it- what a treat..

    I’m a compulsive under liner, so picked out a couple of favorite moments from the above conversation:
    > People have a need to talk. And if they’ve already told you a story, they have
    > dissipated that need.

    > 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.

    >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.
    >That’s just cause I’m insane, self-destructive…

    > what’s the best thing a filmmaker can do?
    >I don’t know, create something that is really unusual, that’s unique, that has emotional power, that says something. Says >something unexpected.

    In the interview (for all you skimmers) Errol also mentions 2 things that bug him about making movies:
    1) it’s frustrating that don’t reach more people
    2) it’s too expensive.. if look at money people being paid vs. amount of money that actually goes into phsycial production it’s insignificant

    in radio, these are the least of our problems.. Errol- maybe you should think about giving it a shot- it’s an amazing medium to work in..

    Thanks for all of the inspiring work over the years.. And thanks Jay for bringing Errol onto Transom!
    – Dave

  • Nubar


    Errol will be here soon

    Just a note to let everyone know that Errol is in town and will be answering/repsonding to questions and comments. Hopefully today or tomorrow.

  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Chris Lydon

    Thanks for saying so many nice things…

    Maybe it’s just my nasty contrarian streak… But I see little difference between advertising and anything else. It is an effort to "sell" someone on an idea… on a conception of reality… And the people who do well at it – could I be one of them…? – usually have to put themselves in the state of mind of true believers… Yes, the "new blue crystals" have made all the difference…

    But come to think of it – what higher-calling is there than fetishizing inanimate reality…? Anybody can make a person interesting, but what about adult diapers…?

    I was asked by a friend at a West Coast advertising agency if I was interested in doing commercials for the Democratic Party.

    The answer was (and is): Hell, yes. But nothing ever came of it.

    Clearly, they – perhaps more than anybody – need a brand message and a product makeover…

    I hope the world lasts long enough so that someone can accomplish that end.

    And thanks for saying that I used Philip Glass before it was fashionable to do so… Regardless of whether it’s true… In any event, I am working with him again on my new movie and am rediscovering why I love his music and love working with him.

    I hope all goes well.


  • Andrea Murray



    Mr. Morris:

    After seeing your films, I often wonder if there’s an audio counterpart to some of your visual techniques – not so much in standard feature reporting but in more (for lack of a better word) experimental audio stuff.

    Specifically, I’m fascinated with what I think of as your associative visuals, the often subtle metaphoric images that appear (sometimes like theatrical asides)when other filmmakers might choose typical "b-roll" material. Do you think there are ways to use audio this way, to layer the literal and the metaphoric concurrently?


  • Errol Morris


    reply to David Isay

    Again thanks for saying such nice things…

    It’s nice to hear nice things about The Thin Blue Line… Particularly, from someone whose work I really admire.

    Yes, I got Randall Adams out of jail, etc. And, indeed, I am delighted to have actually changed something in the real world… But what is really, really nice to hear is that you liked the movie as a movie…

    There is a kind of irony for me here…

    I used to rail against what I called The-Mother-Theresa Principle. That any movie about Mother Theresa has to be a good movie (Christopher Hitchens nothwithstanding) because Mother Theresa is such a good person… It’s the flip side of the same reasoning that tells us that Triumph of the Will is a bad movie because it was made in service of the Third Reich…

    Are documentaries to be evaluated on the basis of their social content…? Is there such a thing as a bad movie about a good person…? And are there good movies about bad people…? Do good things happen to bad movies…?


    Take movies that appear to be about good things but aren’t really… One of my favorite examples of this sort of thing is Scared Straight. It won an Academy Award for best documentary. It was about sending youthful offenders to a maximum security prison for a day… They spent a day with serial killers, pedophiles and God knows what else…

    And what happens…?

    They got "scared straight…"

    I despised this movie… OK. I more than despised it… I Ioathed it. Really, really loathed it.

    The movie claims to be presenting this social benefit. But it is deeply corfrupt at its heart.

    It pontificates. We turned these youthful offenders into law abiding citizens…

    Look at us. We did good.

    It turns out that (a) the kids in the movie came from an upper middle class neighborhood where the recidivism rate was nil, so the argument in the film that they were turned away from crime was vacuous, if not specious… (b) the level of craft in the movie was beyond execrable… and (c) even if there had been a real social benefit – although there was none – is that the way we want to run our society, namely, by scaring people into submission…? Why not go and live in North Korea…?

    "Do-good-art" often gives me the willies.

    Another abomination is "Night and Fog," but perhaps it’s best not to go on about it here…

    Yet, there is great art that tries to capture something real about the world, something that we might not be aware of, even something that we do not want to be aware of, something disturbing, alarming… Something that does not play into what we want to hear, but something that we might like to avoid hearing…

    Something that produces uneasiness.

    Your stuff fits into that category.

    Thanks again.


  • Jay Allison


    Hi Errol and welcome

    Thank you for those memorable answers. I have some questions, but I’ll wait….

    First, I want to promote the fact that Nubar’s brand new book on Wynton Marsalis is featured over at the Digital Journalist site, along with a video interview. And, can I get a witness on those shots that accompany Errol’s interview above? Man. No one has seen them before. They’re pulled straight from Nubar’s contact sheets. Witness please.

    Okay, a quick question, Errol. You have had Nubar shoot images that are incorporated in your films. Have you ever had anyone wander around gathering wild sound to use?


  • Sean Cole



    "It often is as interesting to chronicle people’s persistent avoidance of the truth as their pursuit of it."

    I’m going to put that on my wall.

    Errol, it’s fascinating (and inspiring) reading your above conversation with Nubar, in part because it seems like many of your words could have just as easily come out of the mouth of someone who makes radio documentaries. Your joy at those beautiful lines people say that contain meaning beyond their words ("great tape," basically), your being conscious of language and the patterns it creates, I’ve never heard a film-maker talk about the audio/dialogue/spoken element of their films that way before. We’re taught in film class that a movie is "a story told with pictures" as though the talking is secondary, when what’s said can be just as gripping (especially in the hands of a brilliant practitioner like youreself) as what’s seen. (Also, I must say I never thought I’d hear a film-maker talk about logging and "paper cuts.")

    I wonder what you think of fiction movies like "Lenny" (which is based on truth) and "Husbands and Wives" and even, I guess, "When Harry Met Sally" that use mock interviews to push the narrative along. I’m surprised it’s not done more because it seems like that technique can really refresh the eye and the ear of an audience when it’s done right.

    Thank you for being here! Looking forward to your session at the Neiman conference this weekend!

  • Julia Barton


    Language = Lie (well, a lot of the time)

    That is the "truth" that I get from Errol Morris’s movies, though I didn’t realize it until he said so here.

    I’m working with radio journalists now in Vladivostok, in the Far East of Russia, and I know when I mention that insight to them tomorrow, they will laugh. I seem to be leaving Transom brainwaves all over this country.

    I asked them what events they might expect to cover here. "Blizzards. Explosions. Half the heat in the city is turned off." Explosions? "Oh, you know, car bombings. Mafia. Sometimes a building blows up."

    I think about surrealism a lot in Russia, expecially given recent awful events in Moscow. And I wonder, is there ever a point when a concentration of surrealism just turns into tragedy? Or is the surrealistitic art a response to tragedy, a way to absorb it? I’m wondering if Errol Morris has ever hit that point in his investigative or film work when the weirdness became no longer fascinating, just awful. (I grew up in Dallas, so I can easily imagine that happening there…) And then what do you do?

  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Julia Barton

    Gee, what a nice question…

    Do things ever get too weird…? Well, yes.

    My glib answer has been: The only thing that makes the world tolerable is that it is inutterably insane…

    And to be sure, there is something immensely satisfying about finding out that things are just as bad – or even worse – than one might have thought and that people are not merely weird but they are maliciously insane.

    I asked Fred Leuchter – after I had more or less finished my movie with him – to watch it and tell me whether it had changed any of his views about the Holocaust… I also paid him the kindness of telling him in detail why I thought he was hopelessly wrong about everything. (I thought he should hear it from me before the movie came out.)

    You know, the whole deal. I told him: your tests have no scientific validity… There is compelling documentation in the Auschwitz archives… Etc., etc., etc.

    He responded to all this by reiterating his belief – no poison gas at Auschwitz – and by suggesting an alternative possibility – a thousand electric chairs under Berlin…

    So, let me give you a less glib answer…

    I think that most of literature is like bad ad copy for mankind. We have this sanitized picture of what we would like to be like… But the reality of who we are is Goddamn depressing…

    "Grapes of Wrath" and "Day of the Locust" came out the same year. One was an enormous success; the other, an enormous failure. The difference between them…? Well, you might say, it’s the difference between: Man is good… And: Man is evil. I’ll leave it to you to decide who I truly admire. Steinbeck or West?



  • Lisa Peakes


    "sanitized picture" – ain’t it the truth

    Hi, Errol –

    If you get a chance to reply, my earlier question to you stands – although it’s been partially answered in your response to Julia. I’m gathering that you must feel some obligation to "soften the blow" for subjects. Perhaps, in addition to the preparatory kindness in your response to Fred, you also feel a need change peoples’ views where the simple facts of the film fail to do that?

    At the radio station where I work, we aired a story about a photography exhibit that residents want removed because…..well…’s too depressing. It doesn’t reinforce the picture that people want to have of their town. Here’s a description:

    It’s a series of 24 black-and-white photos taken by a local photographer, Preston Heller. He wanted to raise money for the Open Cupboard Food Pantry – so he’s giving the prints away to anyone who makes a 25 dollar donation. Heller snaps portraits of the homeless, the down-and-out, the elderly and neglected. But some people in Wilton say they don’t want that kind of art hanging in their Town Hall.

    To listen to an interview with the curator:

    And here are the photos:

    ALSO –
    I remember loving the music in Fritz Lang’s "Dr. Mabuse…" films. A long time ago, I did an internet search to see whether I could locate it…all I turned up was the name Robert Israel…do you (does anyone)know where I could find this music?

  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Lisa Peakes

    You seem to imply that documentary filmmakers should be social workers…

    That I should be protecting my subjects from themselves, from me, from real or imagined audiences who might look at them critically at some unspecified time in the future.

    Well, I have a confession to make.

    I’m not a social worker nor do I ever want to become one.

    When I was speaking about "The Thin Blue Line," shortly after its release, a Dallas journalist asked me if I had "Mirandized" my interview subjects.

    Yeah. I told them that they had a right to remain silent; they had a right to have an attorney present; and they should know that anything they said could and would be used against them in a court of law… Or public opinion…

    OK. No, I didn’t.

    However, I did point out to this journalist that I was a filmmaker and not a cop, not an agent of the State. And hence, was not required to issue Miranda warnings.
    When you talk to a journalist (or to another person for that matter) you are taking a risk.

    Perhaps before every conversation a warning should be issued. And I don’t mean just in journalism. I mean EVERY conversation .

    WARNING: I might think ill of you. You might reveal yourself to be a complete idiot. Be on your toes. That’s right. Watch out, buster.

    I hope this was helpful.


  • Jay Allison


    right to remain silent

    >WARNING: I might think ill of you. You might reveal yourself to be a complete idiot. Be on your toes. That’s right. Watch out, buster.

    This is an interesting area.

    We had a session at last week’s Third Coast Festival on "Trespassing" — documentarians as trespassers — with photographer Joel Meyerowitz talking about his perceived responsibility to trespass at ground zero, LeAlan Jones (co-producer w/ Lloyd Newman & Dave Isay of radio documentaries on the Ida B. Wells housing projects) on his trespass in his own neighborhood and into the lives of his own family, and filmmaker Elizabeth Barret (Stranger with a Camera) talking about a journalist’s murder in her home state of Kentucky where he was seen as trespassing.

    At the end of the session Lawrence Weschler made the point that our responsibility is DISCRETION, the etymology of which he reduced to "knowing shit from food." This implied that when we’re gathering interviews or images or sound that we’ll be scooping it all up, shit and food, and that our most potent opportunity for trespass comes, of course, not when we’re on the scene, but later when we’re making choices, exercising discretion.

    Many of the people in your films are so consumed with their own worlds that I wonder if the trespass/discretion thing or the notion that they are "taking a risk" occurs to them. Do you think it does? More questions… Do you find people more aware of how they might come off now now than 25 years ago; has your interview style changed over the years to reflect that… I just watched "Vernon, Florida" and "First Person" back to back. Finally, how has the relationship between you and MacNamara been, with respect to your warning about human conversation above?

  • Jackson


    Where to begin…

    Friends at the Nieman told me that I should have seen you. From what I’ve gathered so far, they were absolutely right.

    Not that I want to interrupt Jay’s question about MacNamara.

    As a print journalist, I used to find the accumulation of words daunting. As I’ve moved into audio, I find the accumulation of sound alarming. I’d hate to think what would happen if I were ever to make the leap into image/sound/word.

    Audio folks seem to think that there are frontiers between the word vs. the sound vs. the picture. My sense is some kind of geometric progression — the only difference is that a needed edit of spoken word in interview in video involves some kind of shift in POV. The interviewer sitting there nodding knowingly as the speaker’s content is reconstructed.

    I loved the idea of hundreds of candlelights to illuminate high-speed film. Audio maniacs have similar ideals at times (holding ping-pong paddles to their faces to record narrative with a particular microphone configuration immediately comes to mind).

    You call to mind the illusion of music recording. We only have two ears, but we devote tens, even twenties of mics to record orchestras in a "natural" way. Do you see your documentary style as, well, stylistic, or some kind of hypermaturalism? You don’t interview beforehand, but if you shoot enough film, they will say eventually what you expect them to say…

  • Nubar


    Hope vs Expectation

    I don’t want to answer for Errol here. But I must say this. During my interview with Errol, I asked about the level of risk he’s willing to endure at every moment in the production of his movies. Errol sidestepped this question a bit with a self effacing remark (although there is some insanity in his process). But the point is this: Errol doesn’t go into an interview, or shoot anything, for that matter, with the expectation that if he shoots enough someone will eventually say what he expects them to say. On the contrary. I think the best he hopes for is that he will get something interesting. But there is always the ever-present possibility that what he’s doing will be a bust….that he won’t get anything.

    It has always been my experience in my own work, that going into anything with expectations only results in failure and disappointment. At best, all you end up with is something you already know, or do well: not something new or interesting.

  • Errol Morris


    A further reply to Chris Lydon

    Many thanks for reminding me of the LBJ spot from the ’64 campaign. Yes, it’s really great, and it captures – more than anything else I have seen – the true "spirit" of the times.

    (I know it’s fashionable to talk about the use of sound and image in media, but what is so striking about this commercial is the baldness of its message: vote for me or die. That’s what candidates want to say, but the message is usuallly hidden under a hundred thousand layers of prevarication.)

    I have dutifully incorporated the spot into my McNamara movie…


  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Jay Allison


    You wrote, "At the end of the session Lawrence Weschler made the point that our responsibility is DISCRETION…"

    What in God’s name was Ren (or you) talking about…?

    Don’t you know that Shakespeare has been misquoted…?

    The correct quotation is: Discretion is the better part of velour.

    And, while were at it, what’s so great about discretion? Jay’s comment – or whatever it is – seems to suggest that an interviewer is taken into a confidence by the interviewee, a confidence that he is duty bound to keep…?


    Is this so-called discretion supposed to be synonymous with "good taste"? And what might that be…?

    In "The Journalist and the Murderer," Janet Malcolm correctly pointed out that there is a power imbalance between a journalist and a subject. But she incorrectly seemed to imagine that that this was particularly true of journalists and their subjects.

    Well, I’ve got a secret. It’s true of all relationships.

    Sometimes a journalist is more powerful than the subject, sometimes vice versa. It’s the same in "real" life. Sometimes "A" is more powerful than "B," and vice versa. Journalistic relationships exhibit certain familiar features – abusiveness, betrayal, smarminess, protectiveness, kindliness and so on…

    Is this so surprising…?

    But I have to vociferously object to the idea that there are limits to what you can show or express. Who decides…?

    Martha Stewart…?


  • Turbo Biscuit


    (sound) byte me


    Errol Morris writes "The correct quotation is: Discretion is the better part of velour. "

    I think Martha Stewart would argue that velour is the lesser part of discretion.

  • Jay Allison



    I wasn’t talking about the "good taste" sort of discretion. did it really seem I was on about martha stewart politeness? cripes.

    sure, the journalist/subject relationship can have the attributes of any relationship, but ultimate power resides with the journalist. He takes home the tapes. He decides what is told, or not.

    In those choices there is responsibility, discretion. to go back to that 3rd Coast session, think of LeAlan interviewing his grandmother or Joel photographing at ground zero or Elizabeth probing into her neighbors’ pasts. Each of those encounters involved a measure of trust, and risk for the subjects, beyond may-the-best-man-win. Maybe one qualifier here is the kind of work…the straight interview vs. the producer entering the daily lives of the subjects, permitted to trespass over time and in unpredictable ways.

    I’m trying to think of a documentary, of Errol’s or otherwise, where the interviewee held the power. He has the power — always counterable by the journalist — to lie, to charm, to be silent, What other power does he have? Certainly not the power of the last word.

  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Jay Allison

    Sometimes it is may-the-best-man win.

    When Claude Lanzman was interviewing Nazis he surreptiously recorded them, and then put the material in the film.

    Of course, this became controversial.

    Should he do such a thing…? Is such a thing ethical…?

    You speak of one kind of interview. "Each of those encounters involved a measure of trust, and risk for the subjects, beyond may-the-best-man-win…"

    Let me give you another example. After two years of investigating I finally put David Harris on film. (David Harris is the "kid" who I believed was the killer of Dallas Police Officer Robert Wood.)

    During the interview, he confessed to the murder. (By the way, parts of the confession did not have an audio counterpart. For example, I asked him the question, "Where you alone in the car when you were stopped by the Dallas police officer…? He smiled and nodded his head. )

    Should I use his confession…? Maybe I should be "protecting" him. Is that the nature of our relationship…? He incriminates himself, and I protect him, by keeping it to myself…?

    I mention all of this because – and I may be misinterpreting you here – it seems as though you have a guilty conscience about interviewing or reporting. And so, in order to go on with it all, you imagine the following, "Well, I’m a good guy… And I have standards… I know where to draw-the-line… Whatever that line might be… I’m a responsible journalist…"

    I also would respectfully submit the following view.

    THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A STRAIGHT INTERVIEW. (Although I would admit there are good and bad interviews.)

    Interviews are human relationships in a "laboratory" setting. They allow us to scrutinize the nature of how one person relates to another and vice versa… As such, all the things that are common features of the "ordinary" relationships appear in the interviews – deceit, coyness, misdirection, sincerity, honesty, dishonesty, confusion, etc.

    In some instances – I dare say – there is the powerful impulse to protect a subject from himself or to show him in the best possible light. I have a lot of these kinds of impulses. I actually like people to look good, and I attempt – even if I don’t succeed – to capture their complexity in the interview and in the film I eventually produce.

    But let provide a couple of definitions of a good interview.




    Sometimes it is a matter of "discretion," sometimes it is "let the best man win…" But, it’s usually a lot more complex than that.

    More later.

    Thanks for tolerating my general crabbiness.


  • Sydney Lewis



    I like these two statements:

    A ‘good’ interview could be good for the interviewed, or, as in the David Harris example, not so good. When a person agrees to be interviewed they’re agreeing to sit on the high side of the see-saw. They’re entering a compact (whatever the specifics around future use of the material) and banking on the interviewer to honor the deal as it stands at the time of the interview.

    In the extreme case of a murderer confessing, well, like a priest, the interviewer may have some uh, issues to sort through. The world is not as black and white as some in vestaments might prefer. And there are no objective reporters. But there are investigative reporters, and they have to deal with these sharp-edged lines all the time. Sometimes the greater good must seem the most honorable path. But greater good according to whose formula? Doesn’t it always come down to the specifics and to the individuals involved?

    When I did an oral history of Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, I interviewed a wide range of people. The doctors gave me the most trouble. No surprise there — give up control? I don’t think so. Many insisted on seeing a draft of their interview. Something I didn’t want to do. If I couldn’t talk them out of it, I sent them a draft. Most of them wrangled with me over the "oral" history nature of the interviews. In trying to preserve the fingerprint of each voice, I cleaned up places where for the sake of the sense of their words, tidying needed to take place. But many of the doctors wanted their interviews to sound like formal essays. I drew the line. To me, part of the reality of County is the multinational, multilingual stew. East Indian doctors trying to communicate with Hispanic or Polish patients, not enough translators to go around. And, a I kept reminding them, this is an ORAL history. i wanted it to read like people talking.

    When a Chicago paper’s Sunday magazine chose to excerpt sections, I had a run in with the editor, who was from another country. I went to look at the galleys and discovered he had substantially re-written an East Indian doctor’s section so that he sounded "white." Corrected whatever bits of broken English. I said, "The doctor allowed this as is. Why did you change it." He said to make him sound more professional, or something along those lines. I pointed out that the editor hadn’t found it necessary to change anything in the African American housekeeper’s section, or the African American nurse’s section. He backed down. If I’d grown up in Cambodia, or Malaysia, or Guyana, I’d have a different take on things, for sure. The editor identified with the doctor, projected himself onto the doctor — least that’s my theory — and lost his objectivity. I’m sure there are those who would fault me for not editing more heavily. But it was my book and before I interviewed anybody I told them I wanted the book to have a very spoken word feel.

    Errol, in part of the interview with Nubar that wasn’t posted, you tell a wonderful story about a reporter asking if you mirandized your subjects. And you also talked about yourself as a film-maker, not a social worker. Would you talk about that here?

  • Errol Morris


    More for Jay Allison

    You wrote, "…sure, the journalist/subject relationship can have the attributes of any relationship, but ultimate power resides with the journalist. He takes home the tapes. He decides what is told, or not…"

    It has become fashionable since Janet Malcom wrote "The Journalist and the Murderer" to imagine that the ultimate power in "the journalist/subject relationship" resides with the journalist. But there are many counterexamples.

    One, for example — political reporting that depends on access. The reporter knows that he needs (for his employment, self-esteem, whatever) to have access to certain political figures. He needs to be coy. He needs to be careful. He needs too express the point of view of the the people he is covering in ways that will not alienate or antagonize them…

    And then there are journalists who are knowingly told lies by their subjects — that’s right, they are manipulated by their subjects — and then uncritically report these lies as the truth…?

    You go on to write, "In those choices there is responsibility, discretion…" Responsibility to whom…? To the public…? To the subject…? To oneself…?


    I would suggest there is a responsibility to the truth. But more about that later.


  • Jay Allison


    what to tell

    >Thanks for tolerating my general crabbiness.

    Crabbiness is not a problem here. Your engagement is really appreciated. Maybe crabbiness and conflict are worth thinking about in the context of interviewing.

    In a may-the-best-man-win dynamic, direct contact makes things clear. If punches are thrown, they’re out in the open. We see the contest.

    In your interviews and in your Interrotron work, sometimes your voice jumps out from behind the camera — calling a question, expressing surprise. In those moments we get a clear sense of the interview dynamic… as you said, "the complexity of the relationship." The eye-to-eye contact does that too. And the hot seat is obviously hot. Rules of engagement are clear. The technique addresses these questions of discretion in an open, formal, visually arresting way.

    This is a different from entering someone’s life, over time, tagging along invisibly with a microphone or camera. I think I’ve seen most of your work, and I can’t recall you using this approach. In radio, I think of Dave Isay’s work at the social margins, or Katie Davis’s reporting on the kids in her neighborhood, or the diary pieces of people like Joe Richman. I’d be interested to hear what they think about the issues of trespassing and discretion as they relate to the stories they choose to tell. Something may be true, but is it important? What are the boundaries of truth, trust, harm…

    There may be times a sucker punch is necessary — when the stakes are high or when the power dynamic is way off: government corruption, hidden criminal behavior, flat out lying — but it’s tricky to control and can undermine the audience’s acceptance of the result. Our production tools and the right of final cut are incredibly powerful. If we’re any good we can manipulate perception without detection, and we can hide. If we sucker punch, the audience doesn’t get a sense of the dynamic in the way they do with the Interrotron, for instance, of who really is the "best man." It’s like the part in the film Decasia where the boxer fights with the dissolving film emulsion. Who’s in that blur, what punches did he throw, did he fight fair?

    Fairness. To correct your impression, I never feel guilty about my own work as a journalist/producer/interviewer; on the contrary I’m proud and happy about it. I am always concerned, however, about being fair. Most of my work is not with the powerful, but with the relatively powerless. You’re right that trying to be a "good guy" can obscure goals, and truth. One measure of truth and responsibility and fairness is to imagine playing the finished piece looking into the eyes of the interviewees, but that’s not enough. You have to look the audience in the eyes too. If something is true, and it’s important, you tell it. That’s all.

    … if a question is useful here, I’d like to know more about your development of the Interrotron — a remarkable "laboratory" for conversation and the best radio with pictures yet — and where it’s taking you.

  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Turbo Biscuit

    Thank you. I stand corrected.


  • Anaheed Alani



    I am not a journalist or anything, and I don’t really think about discretion except where it affects me personally and stuff I don’t want people to know … but … isn’t there some notion of basic respect for people that we can agree is, like, "good"? I don’t mean cleaning up people’s faults or mistakes. And I’m not talking about the power dynamics between all people and things. I mean giving people the simple dignity of being themselves. No matter how good or bad or stupid or silly or jerkoffy or wonderful they may be.

    And I don’t mean there should be like a rule about this. I mean doesn’t it make stuff better and more interesting when people approach their subjects with some degree of respect? And: I know I’m naive, but leaving out all the highfalutin ideas about responsibility, etc., isn’t it just mean to sucker-punch someone just to make your film/piece/whatever better?

    I know these questions are simplistic and so I don’t mind if they’re ignored.

  • Errol Morris


    More for Jay Allison

    I suggested that you might have a "guilty conscience…"

    You wrote in reply, "To correct your impression, I never feel guilty about my own work as a journalist/producer/interviewer; on the contrary I’m proud and happy about it…"

    Oh, really.

    I have a slightly different belief.

    It is as follows:

    Anybody who says that they have never felt guilty about their own work is either…

    (a) incapable of guilt
    (b) self-deceived


    (c) lying.

    You also wrote, "There may be times a sucker punch is necessary — when the stakes are high or when the power dynamic is way off: government corruption, hidden criminal behavior, flat out lying — but it’s tricky to control and can undermine the audience’s acceptance of the result."

    You are correct in your assessment that often there is a balancing act.

    I often ask myself:

    Am I manipulating my subject…?

    Do I look like I’m manipulating my subject…?

    Will I get caught…?

    Have I overstated my case in such a way that I, myself, will end up looking bad…?

    In fact, this entire email may be an example of just that sort of thing.

    But isn’t your answer about manipulation. That is, how you can better manipulate your audience and get away with it…?


  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Anaheed Alani

    Your questions are not simplistic.

    You asked, "Isn’t there some notion of basic respect for people that we can agree is, like, "good"?

    It would be nice to think so, but I doubt it.

    I have a great deal of trouble interviewing anyone I don’t like. I won’t say I have to like them in order to interview them, but it certainly helps…

    And – something I get from my mother – I like to think I’m interested in people.

    You also wrote, "doesn’t it make stuff better and more interesting when people approach their subjects with some degree of respect?"

    I think it does, yes.

    For me, that means wanting to find out something about people. Wanting to learn about them. But in practice, who knows what really is going on…?


  • Julia Barton


    audience manipulation

    Jay Allison writes:

    One measure of truth and responsibility and fairness is to imagine playing the finished piece
    looking into the eyes of the interviewees, but that’s not enough. You have to look the audience
    in the eyes too. If something is true, and it’s important, you tell it. That’s all.

    I’m thinking about audience a lot again as I’m now visiting a corrupt station in Novosibirsk. Okay, how do I know it’s "corrupt?" Well, the stairs to the president’s office are made of polished green granite and there’s a bidet in headquarters’ bathroom. (Most radio employees in this country work in places where you’re lucky to have a toilet seat cover.) And my sense of total corruption was confirmed later by a young staffer who told me how he has to work in bullshit about advertisers into his programs–you know, somehow change the topic from bad road conditions to ladies’ underwear. He’s flabbergasted, the poor guy.

    There are stations here in Russia that try this shit–lots of "paid news," "special programming," etc. And there are public radio stations that do the same thing on a loftier "grant" level. But my question about all this is, how dumb do you think people are? I cling to a perhaps naive hope that most people know when they’re being fooled and manipulated. Maybe they like being manipulated and like the fantasy of great underwear or whatever that we’re selling them. But they also get tired of it and tend to gravitate to people who sound at least semi-genuine. The stations here that stuff their airtime with manipulative bullshit eventually start to lose ratings because everyone knows they’re a joke. It’s a question of short-term gains for granite staircases, or long-term stability with a decent reputation.

    Anyway, I’m almost afraid to ask Errol what he thinks about audience, if anything. But my impression from your films is that you do respect people’s intelligence and discernment by not catering to people, by letting them make their own connections and see the complexity of things. Maybe you’re grumpy, but the real misanthropes are the people who feed us sponsored fairy tales.

    end of rant!

  • Jay Allison



    >But isn’t your answer about manipulation. That is, how you can better manipulate your audience and get away with it…?

    Ah, now we’re talking. This is where guilt, discretion, responsibility, and truth meet the road. I’m sleepy now, but let’s all talk more about manipulation in the morning… after my shift on the pledge drive.

    On the guilt thing, well, helplessly, I do feel pretty good about my line of work. Maybe I should feel guilty about that.

    Guilt derives from things done or things undone. Harm caused to those who didn’t deserve it, or perhaps no harm done to those who did. I’m going to take an inventory.

    To Errol or anyone: Do you feel guilty about your work? If so, why? If not, why not?

  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Julia Barton

    Thanks for not identifying me as a "misanthrope."

    I like to think of myself as a secular anti-humanist.


  • bw


    not getting caught

    trying to catch up with this conversation.. post 48 made me laugh out loud.. because in the end.. a good interview is one where you don’t get ‘caught’ and its one thing to slip something past the audience – but what about the subject?

    I am curious about what happens (and what you do) when a subject becomes aware that he or she is being manipulated or set up –

  • Errol Morris


    Reply to BW

    What about slipping something past oneself…?

    Gitta Sereny wrote an entire book about trying to convince her subject — Albert Speer — that he knew about the Holocaust.

    By the end, she clearly believes that Speer has admitted (to her) that he knew about the Holocaust.

    But I don’t think Speer ever admits anything of the sort — to Sereny or anyone else, including himself…

    After all, Speer’s "defense" is to admit responsibility for things he claims to know nothing about. It’s an idea he developed at Nuremburg and never had occassion to modify.

    So, whose self-deception are we talking about here…?




    There is the wonderful assumption thart we are in control of our relationships with other people – in interview situations or otherwise, that we know what we’re doing much of the time and have a clear idea of our motivations and purpose.

    It’s a wonderful assumption.

    It suffers, however, from one minor infirmity.

    It’s false.


  • Errol Morris


    Further reply to BW

    I am disturbed about being misrepresented and misquoted.

    A good interview is not about "not getting caught" or "slipping something by past the audience."

    It is about trying to discover something about another person.

    As for manipulation. To say that "manipulation" is part of every relationship is not to say that "manipulation" is the goal of every relationship.


  • bw


    false assumptions


    I definitely did not mean that your films and you are all about ‘trying to get away with something’

    I was just trying to get you to elaborate on this manipulation that takes place in every ‘discovery process’ er interview..

    manipulation is an ugly word but there are ugly forces at work in situations – especially ones where the power dynamic is screwy..

  • Mary McGrath



    Can you talk about your McNamara project? I have lots of questions about it. In some ways it seems different from your other work, in someways not. I wonder what the attraction was for you. You must have had a moment of thinking that this guy has said what he’s going to say but then what were you hoping to do that would be different? What’s the process like? What’s he like? I’m also thinking about the interview and your thoughts about it in light of the discussion here. I can’t wait to see it!

  • Chris Lydon


    This is getting deep!

    Can’t resist plunging in again.

    First, I want (somewhat guiltily) to identify myself with the Janet Malcolm and Errol Morris suspicions about journalistic truth, and especially with their jaundiced view of the ambiguous and, yes, manipulative relations between interviewer and "subject." Most interviews are power struggles, and many are righteously stacked and blatantly unfair. One of my own interviewing tricks, I’ve noticed, is throwing out a variety of questions, four and five and a time, maybe to encourage an uneasy guest and give him/her some avenues to travel. But of course it’s also a way of setting out my boundaries on what we’ll talk about. That’s the bad me. The good me is always waiting for the strong spirit in a guest to crash through my framework and shout me down with irresistible ideas. We count on our favorite caller, "Amber," to do that; calling into The Connection, Amber could win most of our power struggles–or her own power struggles on the air with the likes of Camille Paglia and Bill Safire, no small accomplishment.

    Errol makes the key point that a great interview is not one in which the investigator ferrets out the truth. No, the great interview is a dance in which both partners lead and follow; both educate each other; both are revealed, both are changed. The great R. W. Emerson caught a lot of this when he wrote: “We mark with light in the memory the interviews we have had with souls that made our souls wiser, that spoke what we thought, that told us what we knew, that gave us leave to be what we inly were.” It’s a complex interaction!

    Second, I just rejoice in Errol’s saga of transcribing interviews–not looking for the bite, really, but listening for subtleties in vocal sound, puzzling about what’s really going on, tuning in on patterns and subtexts, noticing evasions and euphemisms, waiting for the defenses to go down, or for the skeleton to pop out of hiding, that sort of thing. It becomes a treasure hunt, in which all the little evidences of accent and pitch and tempo and feeling tell you something! I am in the thick of this myself on a self-assigned project recording an oral history of a great heroine of the civil rights movement in North Carolina. She was also a church musician, a pianist and prayer leader. Maybe, Errol, you will coach me in selecting and editing this abundant and moving material. Suffice it to say for now that my favorite of all moments comes with a woman who regularly sang solos with my subject. Without warning I asked her in her living room if she’d sing their favorite song, and she broke immediately into her own gorgeous version of "Climbing Higher and Higher." The intonation was perfect, the delivery professional, the spirit intense. She told the whole story in a minute or two. I felt "truth" in that moment.

    Third, like Mary McGrath I want to hear more about Robert McNamara. But my question is not about why Errol is doing McNamara. My question is: what is McNamara doing with brother Morris. I want to tie the question back to what’s been said about language as lying. In the case of McNamara, who always presented himself as the hyper-rational numbers guy, this compulsive talking through his 35 post-Vietnam years cannot be taken straight as a rational or analytical activity. All the books, all the speaking tours, all the approaches to confession and apology seem to have delivered McNamara nowhere near a new realm of understanding. He seems to be trapped in an endlessly repetitive monologue of self-justification and denial. What I’ve heard sounds like many, many accounts I’ve heard in prison–habitual, circular "prison raps" in which guilty guys reconstruct and repeat their stories, unto eternity. The first step in any writing program was to help guys get out of their "prison rap." The difference with McNamara is that he is so remarkably bright, and furthermore that there’s no doubt whatsoever: who dunnit? he dunnit! So just what is going on in front of Errol’s camera? Should this be classified as auto-therapy? Errol-assisted therapy? A con job? Pathetic tugging at our sleeve? A Dostoyevskyan spectacle of the last guilty survivor’s suffering? A lie that won’t end this side of death? What is going on here, Mr. Director?

  • Lawrence (Ren) Weschler



    I’ve been following Errol’s and Jay’s and everybody else’s conversation these past several days with increasing absorption–you are all obviously onto important stuff here, trampolining, as it were, on the very nub of the problem. Just a few thoughts to add:

    As for the "discretion" etymology. As Jay recalls, we were speaking of trespass and Malcolm and so forth at Third Coast, and I had occasion to recall a lesson from my own college days. Actually, it was Donald Nicholl, a marvelous English historian (of Russian mysticism, among other things) and lay Catholic theologian, who first broached the subject for us. He mentioned how a few days earlier in the cafeteria line he had overheard one of the students sagely commenting to another (this was in Santa Cruz in the early seventies), "If you can learn to eat shit, well, you can get just about anywhere and do just about anything," or some such, and it had got him to thinking about the St Benedict, the great medieval founder of the Benedictine monastic order, and how for Benedict, perhaps the greatest virtue of the monk was that of discretion. Disecretio. Whereupon, he (Nicholl) offered the following gloss, that the word "discretio" derives from the Latin, to wit, "dis-excretio," which is to say, "to be able to discern the difference between food and shit," to know, precisely, that shit is something you ought not eat–or serve–and yet to know as well that shit has its uses, worthy uses at that, as in manure, for example. it is all a question of proper relation.

    And it indeed seems to me that discretion, understood in this sense, is a relevant category in this discussion. (Incidentally, in this sense–and only this sense–I consider Errol to be a profoundly discreet filmmaker.) These issues of course also came up on the occasion of the release of Janet Malcolm’s "The Journalist and the Murderer." At the time, the Columbia Journalism Review convened a vast print-conclave on the scandal (see their issue of August 1989), and some of what I wrote then might also be pertinent to this discussion….

  • Lawrence (Ren) Weschler


    CJR Piece, Aug. 1989

    You know about all the weird JM business in this story, with Janet Malcolm writing about Joe McGinniss writing about Jeffrey MacDonald and herself having written about Jeffrey Masson and the piece being called “The Journalist and the Murderer”? Well, I was telling someone you could have called the piece Les Jouissances Meurtrieres—Deadly Pleasures or Murderous Orgasms—because the rhetorical tone of the piece is straight out of Les Liaisons Dangereuses . It is out of the Age of Reason, when people took perverse situations and derived from them immutable laws of human nature. Freud, of course, comes out of that tradition and Janet in turn gets a lot out of her rhetorical tone from Freud.

    The marquise in Les Liaisons Dangereuses has all these elaborate theories about the complicated power relationships in love, and she looks down on the ordinary people who think of love as something really quite simple. Janet’s piece in a way, is the sort of piece about journalism the marquise might have written.

    The marquise’s analysis is spellbinding. But in Les Liaisons Dangereuses it falls apart the minute real love enters the scene. Janet’s thesis is spellbinding, too, and I want to emphasize that I think it’s a remarkable piece of writing but it falls apart in the same way. While the dynamic she describes is potential everywhere in journalism, it doesn’t inevitably have to materialize. There are journalistic equivalents of love—compassion, engagement, conscience.

    I am still on far more than talking terms with all the people that I have done profiles of. And I think that I have portrayed some fairly complicated individuals, and portrayed them as both admirable and also demonical and all sorts of other things. My ideal for a profile is that I want it to be as if you were meeting this person. The highest thing that I aspire to is fairness and transparency. Even when I do a profile of someone I am critical of I aspire to do it so fairly that he or she will say, “Yes, that’s me.”

    I mean I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish. I’m all for devastating pieces, but I prefer to devastate institutions rather than people.

    Now some people might feel that if you portray somebody transparently, you’re betraying him. The marquise might feel that way, but I don’t.

    Let’s say, for example, that I am describing someone who, as I get to know him, I realize is an alcoholic. I don’t think I need to say the guy is an alcoholic. I can portray him in bars, talking about being thirsty, or do other things that will provide a kind of feeling about that but not a label. Later on, if someone says, “God, you know, he’s an alcoholic. You didn’t say that.” I can say, “Well, go back and read the piece, it’s in there.”

    To label is in some cases to betray. Whereas if you show things I think you are being fair.

    By the way, sometimes in my political reporting I get into situations directly analogous to what Janet was talking about. In fact, there was one particular incident during my reporting recently in Uruguay when I dealt with these issues in the body of the text, but ironically the paragraph was taken out in part because the editors at the New Yorker did not want to call further attention to the Janet drama. My article ran only two weeks after hers.

    I was interviewing General Hugo Medina, the former junta head who was now the defense minister. He said that sometimes when they were interrogating people during the military dictatorship, they would do so “energetically.”

    And I said, “Energetically?”

    And the way I originally wrote it is as follows: “He was silent for a moment, his smile steady. For him, this was clearly a game of cat and mouse. His smile horrified me, but presently I realized I’d begun smiling back (it seemed clear the interview had reached a crisis: either I was going to smile back, showing that I was the sort of man who understood these things or the interview was going to be abruptly over.) So I smiled, and now I was doubly horrified that I was smiling. I’m sure he realized this, because he now smiled all the more, precisely at the way he’d gotten me to smile and how obviously horrified I was to be doing so. He swallowed me whole.”

    That is how the text read. And what is interesting about that passage is it displays exactly the kind of transparency that I am talking about. It describes the situation.

    But, of course, when I write, “He swallowed me whole,” I swallowed himwhole. So I have the last word. I get to have the Cheshire-cat grin.

  • Jay Allison


    all the questions…

    Errol, where have you gone? Come back. Would it help if I said something to upset you?

  • Robert Krulwich


    Yeah, yeah, reporters are scumbags…but…on the other hand…

    Funny, when I watch an Errol Morris movie, I don’t brood about who’s manipulating whom or how’d Errol get the guy to say that, or is it true or what is truth or any of those things. I just sit there being jealous.
    I get this sense (I may be imagining this; I don’t know the man, just his work)that Morris loves, really loves, what he’s doing. Ferretting into people’s heads suits him. And when he gets deep, deep inside and his person begins to undress, I imagine Morris getting happier and happier unbuttoning each button, not just for the ‘kill’ as so many of these postings suggest, but for the chance to know more, to get, as the poet Paul Celan has written, "all the way to each other."
    Is Errol a manipulator? Sure.
    But is there an excitement, a joy, an athlete’s pride being the fox chasing down the hare? There’s gotta be, and in Errol’s films, the joy trickles out…I can sense it..especially when the hare is a wierd tangle of strangeness like Dr. Death or Robert MacNamara. With hares like them, who wouldn’t want to be the fox?
    I would.
    I don’t have the moves, or the patience, or that odd-ball camera thingy that Errol has, but I can sit there and be jealous that he’s having such a good time.

  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Chris Lydon

    Thank you so much.

    It is a great pleasure to receive questions that I have not already answered…

    You wrote, "Errol makes the key point that a great interview is not one in which the investigator ferrets out the truth. No, the great interview is a dance in which both partners lead and follow; both educate each other; both are revealed, both are changed…"

    I’m not sure I said any of these things. But I do like the part about leading and following…

    You then quoted Emerson, "The great R. W. Emerson caught a lot of this when he wrote: “We mark with light in the memory the interviews we have had with souls that made our souls wiser, that spoke what we thought, that told us what we knew, that gave us leave to be what we inly were.” It’s a complex interaction!"

    But are we reading the same quotation…?

    Emerson opens up with his “we mark with light…” So far so good.

    But look at what follows!

    Interviews that “spoke what we thought…”

    Interviews that “told us what we knew…”

    Interviews that “give us leave to be what we inly were…”

    Is irony intended here…?

    I have to thank you again for your kindness to me on these pages. In particular, pointing out my obsession with spoken language. Listening, reading, transcribing an interview is properly considered, an investigation. And like most investigations doesn’t really have an end.

    There is something endlessly fascinating about how people use language… What it reveals… What it hides…

    There have been several questions about my McNamara movie. I’m sorry, but I would prefer to wait until the movie is finished to talk about it and/or McNamara.



  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Lawrence (Ren) Weschler


    I don’t want to get into the business of attacking or defending Janet Malcolm. [Although I must confess I am an admirer. Even a fan. She is the only true Chekovian journalist.]

    But I do believe that she has been endlessly criticized because it is assumed she was talking about conscious mendacity, conscious journalistic ill-will. .

    In such a view, the journalist imagines himself (or we imagine the journalist) to be in control of an interview and can manipulate it to his own advantage.

    The point I wish to make. Is that we often have the idea that we are in control of what we’re doing when we are not…

    Call it self-deception.

    Perhaps consciousness, itself, is nothing more than a crude device that allows us to deceive ourselves about our own motivations…

    Perhaps that’s the only purpose of consciousness.

    Ren (as usual) makes the unassailable point that the Marquise does not take love into account…

    I would recast this in a different form.

    The Marquise fails to realize that despite his own tortured, convoluted explanations – none of them may be correct.

    Ultimately, it may be that our conscious explanations do not take into account the hidden layers of motivation, intention and belief that determine what we do.

    We observe at best one percent of ourselves. Maybe zero percent.

    I have always wanted to recast the Cartesian cogito… How about, “I think therefore I think I am…”

    Allow me to fall back on one of my favorite quotations. It is from the last living member of Zoar, a failed utopian community in Ohio. In her nineties and on her death-bed, she said,




    (This is where I imagine a death-rattle. She summons up all her strength for one last line…)


    Why do I like this quotation…? Because I believe that we should always entertain the possibility that everything we think is wrong.

    Yours analysis presumes that we are completely aware of what is going on… Conscious of what is going on. And can plan accordingly. And you believe that by faithfully recording the nature of the transaction that you avoid falling into a trap. But the best traps are those that we are not even aware of…

    What makes you (and Janet Malcolm) a great journalist is that you try to be aware of these hidden layers and to capture them in your writing…

    More later.


    P.S. I hang out near the Degas. You look at the ceiling with a worried expression on your face as if there’s some gigantic insect on the crown molding. You then scream out, “What is that…?” I think you know what happens next.

    P.P.S. You are right to point out that the most important philosophical distinction is the shit-shinola distinction. Also known as the ass-hole-in-the ground distinction. Often overlooked.



  • william warner



    Hi there,

    I was thinking about the Morris films I’ve seen, and I started to see them in a bit of a progression, kind of the way Chuck Close uses an image over and over as a way of developing an idea that has nothing to do with the image. Mr. Morris has a way of making a movie and a especially a way of interviewing people, and applies it in a rather detached scientific way to different subjects. It’s as if Mr. Morris poses a question and applies his technique to produce an answer. "A story of small significance to most of its characters?" — Heaven’s Gate. "A story of great significance to it characters?" — Thin Blue Line. "A story of great significance?" — Mr. Death.

    Then there’s the level of sympathy toward his subjects. Sometimes it’s clear that the subject is contemptible, but usually it’s not, and we’re forced to constantly re-evaluate and resolve contradictions. I was thinking I’d like to see Mr. Morris do a character study on somebody who is totally sympathetic, like a person dealing heroically with a fatal disease, and then realized he made the Stephen Hawking movie.



    not sure

    not sure if it’s been discussed thus far on this site, but i’m quite disappointed to find an interview w/errol morris that is printed, but not available for LISTENING, in entirety, or in more than the 1:25 clip provided. seems silly to me, given the nature of the site.


  • Jay Allison


    words, voices, pictures

    There is audio for quite a few of the posts in the Interview. Look for the links.

    Originally Nubar wanted to do the interview on video. Errol preferred audio and wanted the chance to do an edit on the written transcript for his final offering. Each Guest here gets to pick their method. The audio in this case is to be illustrative of the transcript.

    It’s true, though, that this on-screen discussion echoes interestingly, if silently, off Errol’s earlier comments about spoken word, image, and transcript. Certainly audio and visual clues would change the dynamic we perceive here, if indeed we’re all perceiving the same thing, which, no doubt, we’re not. Without hearing we have no sighs, pauses, laughter; without seeing, we have no shrugs, smiles, eyes. As Errol points out, more information is not necessarily more truth. Those clues can lead us closer to truth or to deception.

    There is an intriguing form/content element in this online interview about interviewing. This Internet way of communicating is distinct from the radio/tv interview, esp. in areas of control — one can choose which questions to answer, take days in responding, pick a personna. Manipulation can still occur, but there’s no editing. Everything is on view, if in word only. It’s a performance piece, vaguely theatrical although it occurs over days and weeks. Each of these conversations — e.g. Terkel, Vowell, Krulwich, Morris, all of them — has widely various personalities made of call and response, audience and performer, together, mingled. Even without seeing or hearing each other.

  • Errol Morris


    Reply to the Kitchen Sisters

    Sorry, I missed you guys at the Niemann conference.

    I don’t think I’m either… [OK. OK. Stage Manager or Nathan Detroit…? Of course, it has to be one or the other. Let’s see now… I’d pick the one who’s less in control. Nathan Detroit. OK?]

    How about: Am I an elm or a maple…?

    And, oh, the "death" thing. It comes from my familiarity with the living.


  • Sydney Lewis



    I transcribed your interviews with Nubar and to me the tone of your consciousness in those felt different than the tone you’ve shared in these exchanges. When you interview people, do you create a certain persona? Or do you speak with them as Errol? And if so, are you more the sparring Errol, or more the conversational Errol?

    And, should you choose to respond, if possible, please do not speak of trees…

  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Sydney Lewis

    I’m not sure… Except that (when I am interviewing people) my tone is not confrontational…

    And I guess it is confrontational in these exchanges…

    Isn’t this a very different situation…? I’m not interviewing anyone… I’m not really being interviewed by anyone…

    You said that my tone in the interviews with Nubar is very different. I think I understand what you mean, but tell me more….


  • chelsea merz


    The Audience

    Hi Errol.

    Instead of talking about the interviewing process I’m interested in how you perceive the viewer. How does your perception of the viewer shift when you make films from when you make commercials ? Or does it? Does the filmgoer differ from the potential consumer? And if so, how? And if not, why?

    Many thanks, Chelsea

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg


    4 of you to choose from?

    I have four different Errol Morrises in my head. Will the real Errol Morrises please stand up and tell me which ones he recognizes…

    1) the careful listener that made the thin blue line possible
    Like a film director/I.F. Stone. I imagine you saying, "Let’s be careful. that’s the only way we can get to any truth. Let’s be as fair as possible. It’s important to listen"

    2) the funny entertainer at the Nieman conference. I appreciated the lack of pretensions. Here’s how you ended your amusing keynote session: the previous organization had left a video on fashion or make up in the player."Let’s play that video!" you said. A technical difficulty got in the way of the full hilarity. But we got the point, I think "It’s all crazy and absurd. Let’s party!"

    3) the director of the Apple ads. The only two or three I’ve ever seen were those shown at the Nieman conference. Some friends assured me that based on the other ads they’d observed, you were not making fun of the speakers. The audience, they assured me, was laughing WITH the subjects. I was uncomfortable, watching the subjects look so awkward, like specimens so starkly lit on the white jerking background… In reality, in any context, there’s be more warmth and they’d fit in more.
    I thought the director was saying "Look at how pathetic they look."

    4) Finally, here, confrontational. I’m surprised. Robert Krulwich said it took him awhile before he realized people here were friendlier than some of the people who send him mail. Does it feel like YOU"RE the specimen now? called up before the congressional committee, in front of the cameras?
    or are you just in the mood for confrontation
    or do you think that’s the best way to exchange information?

    I’m really just curious as to how this forum/medium works for people

    I expected this to be more comfortable, but sometimes it seems less intimate than when I heard you on stage. Perhaps it’s just what happens when people are busy and have to be quick… or have to last a month…

  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Nanette

    Do I have to be one of the four…? Can’t people be a variety of things…?

    I try to be a careful listener. It’s part of what I do… But presumably, these postings are from people interested in my views. I’ve tried to give them. It’s not about listening per se… I’m not interviewing thepeople who write in to this group, I’m responding to them.

    I intended something quite different in my concluding remarks at the Niemann conference… That the attempt to control everything is doomed to failure and a lot of interesting stuff comes in unexpected (and uncontrollable) ways. I suppose that includes the Liz Claiborne video. By the way, I took it home and tried to get it to play. No luck. I still would like to know what was on the tape.

    As for my Apple ads making fun of people. I think your nuts. (For what it’s worth, the people in them like them. )

    I have indeed been confrontational at times. I’m sorry. But there has been stuff that seems worth confronting. Sobeit.


  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Chelsea Merz

    I like the question. And I’m not sure this is a simple answer… Although there might be.

    How about this…?

    Do I look at the viewers of my commercials in some different way than the viewers of my films…?

    I’m still thinking about it.

    But I don’t think I do. I think a viewer is a viewer is a viewer. I think the goal is to create something interesting in the time available — even if it’s only 30 seconds.

    I sometimes think of commercials as "American haiku"… Expressing ideas in a very short span of time.

    For example, I directed a series of commercials for United Airlines. This was shortly after 9.11… It seemed that task was not about advertising a product but expressing something real about that historical moment…

    I could argue that there is no clear line between advertising and anything else, but this is not the point I want to make here.

    Simply, I try to do good work. Interesting work. No matter whether it’s advertising or anything else. And part of that is not pandering to a client or an audience. But trying to create interesting things… No matter what.

    And, yes, I imagine that I am in a crazy kind of dialogue with my viewers.



  • Tommy Trussell


    Switcher music

    Maybe Nannette was responding to the background music in the ads. (By the way, you can see a lot, if not all, of them at the Apple web site.)

    I can’t recall if it’s the same musical theme that Apple has been using for a number of years, but it does seem to lighten the tone somewhat, maybe give it a bit of a smirk or something. That plus the stark lighting, I think I can see how someone might react unsympathetically.

    But when I have seen the ads (only on a computer screen — I don’t watch TV enough to have seen them there) the most impressive part to me is the "American Haiku" quality Errol mentioned — they have a rhythm and a form, and the person stating their name (or the feat they just recounted) brings everything to a graceful stop.

  • gasolina


    to errol & all


    has the director in you ever interviewed the subject matter in you? in other words, have you ever turned the camera on yourself and done a personal exploration on some theme in your life for a documentary? even as an exercise?

    i would like to be a fly on the wall in that laboratory.

    i wonder how many producers on this board have ever done that? if any have really, truly taken a risk and put their own life out there in the way you expect your subjects to. what was the experience like? how did the producer and the subject matter inside of you confront each other during the process? at what point did it feel dangerous? what happened after it was out in the world?

    now lets talk about really confronting self-deception head on.


  • Jay Allison



    >To errol & all: has the director in you ever interviewed the subject matter in you? in other words, have you ever turned the camera on yourself and done a personal exploration on some theme in your life for a documentary? even as an exercise? … I wonder how many producers on this board have ever done that?

    I’ll take a whack at this, if you don’t mind, because I’ve been thinking about it in relation to this topic and Errol’s thoughts.

    Yes, I turn the mic around sometimes. Not too often, but enough to remind myself what it feels like to be out there. Of course, I’m only subjecting myself to my own authorship which is quite different from being in someone else’s hands. Still, I put some part of my life on display for the millions and feel the repercussions.

    For instance, last month I did a piece about my marital separation and new house and relationship to my kids (it’s the last piece in This American Life show, "Classifieds"). It’s personal, my kids’ voices are in it. Sure, I have control over what I included, so there’s some safety in that, but there is still risk. I tried to be "honest" in what I said, but obviously didn’t say everything. Finally, though, I told enough so that my kids and the people who know me and work with me would be able to tell if I was deceitful or self-deceiving, to the degree any of us can know such things (ref. above).

    Much of my work demands that others reveal themselves, either to the tape recorders I loan them or when they let me into their lives. Then I put them on stage. Doing it to myself occasionally seems important, like a self-portrait–marking a given time, going on record. I even like doing it. And hate it. And fear it.

    I would say also that this website and even this topic, is some attempt to conflate the interviewer/interviewee, veteran/newbie, performance/critique, process/product, producer/subject–so that we experience it all together, mixed.

    It is also an attempt to give out the tools we use to those upon whom we use them. Seems fair.

  • Jay Allison


    Public Broadcasting

    I’d also like to sneak in a question for you, Errol, if you have time. I know you’re leaving the country and your stint here is almost at an end…

    Do you watch or listen to much public television/radio? What do you think is good or bad about it? What would you change?

  • Errol Morris


    Reply to Jay Allison

    I’m glad you asked.

    I never watch PBS. When I watch TV I usually watch with my son… Now, fifteen. It used to be Nickelodeon and Fox. Now, it’s Fox and Comedy Central.

    I listen to NPR all the time… I used to listen to "The Connection," but since Chris Lydon left, it no longer seems interesting.

    And I loved Robert J. But that’s a thing of the past. And I listen to "Classics in the Morning." But what happened to "American Songbook"?

    And I know you asked me very early on… But I would love to do radio.


  • Jay Allison


    a linguistic thing

    >But I would love to do radio.

    This seems a fitting place to stop, or at least pause, and thank Errol Morris for his time and challenging conversation… and also Nubar Alexanian for his interview and remarkable photographs.

    Transom is built around an intent to help citizens and producers get their voices out there. That help often takes the form of supportive encouragement and sharing of tools, but not always. Sometimes it is more helpful to confront. It is also less boring. Thank you, Errol, for being here.

    As with all Transom topics, please feel free to continue the conversation as long as you want, although I believe Errol is about to start traveling for work soon. A new guest topic will show up in a few days. Stick around.

  • Errol Morris


    Reply to gasolina

    Well, well, well…

    I have been interviewed for a number of programs…

    And, yes, I have tried several times to "interview" myself.

    For example, I tried to interview myself for "The Thin Blue Line". I was having trouble editing the movie, and I thought, if I introduce myself as one of the characters (after all, I was involved in the investigation), then maybe it could help make sense of the narrative.

    It really didn’t work. And I ended up stripping it out of the movie…

    I tried to pretend as though I was talking to another person… That it wasn’t me talking to myself… But it didn’t work. Try as hard as I might I was always aware that it was "I" interviewing me…

    But, I’m not sure this is what you mean by "interviewing" myself…

    OK. There are these various parts of my personality involved in some crazy internal dialogue… But I’m not sure they’re interviewing each other. (Is this the difference between a true psychosis and a mere neurosis…? That is, if I really had multiple personality disorder, my personalities would be truly interviewing each other; whereas if I was just neurotic they would be involved in an internal dialogue…?

    But isn’t that different from an "interview," as well…?

    Isn’t "interviewing myself" an oxymoron…?

    Doesn’t the idea of an interview contain the idea of one person talking to another person…? I think it does.

    But there is something else in your remarks that I find really interesting. This idea that people are being put on the spot, that they are taking a risk… I suppose in some sense, yes, everytime you talk to another person you are taking a risk. You may be misinterpreted. Your words may be taken out of context… But it is a risk that we all repeatedly take — as social animals.

    People can write diaries. They can create first-person narratives based on their own experiences. They can write autobiographies. But that sort of thing is different from an interview.


  • gasolina




    thanks for being open and honest about your experience of turning the mic around on you and your family. it gives some insight to hear about the process. i am fascinated by the constant flux of that boundary between producer/ subject and where it can take you internally. it’s a great piece.

    viva conflation.

  • gasolina


    so tell me about myself


    thanks for sharing your experience about (potentially) casting yourself as a character in the “thin blue line.” the idea of interviewing oneself as an example of an oxymoron made me chuckle. now i‘m a little haunted by the vision of you talking into a camera and saying, “so tell me about myself.” 😉

    point well taken.

    for me, the idea of exposing yourself as a character in your own documentary must be a very difficult and frightening process to go through. it must challenge you in important ways, especially in regards to the idea of truth and honesty. even if, as jay so aptly wrote, you are submitting yourself to your own authorship. it’s still a risk far greater than daily social interactions.

    you wrote. " I would suggest there is a responsibility to the truth."

    lately i’ve been wondering if one can be honest without being truthful? or can be truthful without being honest? if truth deals with the “facts”. and honesty deals with thoughts, feelings and emotions. how do you arrange and rearrange them to tell a story? that is murky territory.

    it’s my perception that every story you receive from a subject must be a gift. whether it is a story from a convict or your mother. (or, sadly, if the convict is your mother) they’ve opened up to you, and allowed you to “view” the parts of them that are damaged, deranged or wonderful. that’s kind of an honor, right?

    it is my understanding (because i just googled it) “interview” is derived from the french word, “entrevous.” meaning to enter and view. that can be a powerful moment when two strangers come together and a honest viewing takes place.

    i sometimes wonder if the character’s story is just a reflection of the author’s story (in some hidden recess). a shared story. but, of course, the author has the opportunity to reshape her/his contribution in the safe confines of the edit room. reissue it — and then the story becomes the author’s gift, albeit a safer one, to offer others.

    in that sense, does the final storytelling reveal more about the author’s psych and pathos than the subjects?

    so many questions, so little time.

    i truly appreciate your honesty (thoughts and feelings). and your truths (ref. oxymoron) 😉 both have been invaluable, not only to me, but i’m sure to others peeking in.

    good night, mr. morris, and god speed in europe.

  • Viki Merrick


    talk about discretion…

    I’m thinking interviewing oneself is probably bullshit. Because you ALREADY KNOW. …what you’re scared to say, want to say, don’t want to say, would or wouldn’t say. The view is FROM the INSIDE. That’s just a sort of exposing oneself, allowing revealment on one’s own pre-determined terms. Altogether different view from the OUTSIDE viewing IN. You can see things a "subject" hasn’t thought about in years.

    Both scenarios are equally uncomfortable for the subject, but they’re two different ball games.

    Good interviews, when they’re working, contain a scintilla of spontaneity which I don’t believe we have with ourselves. Maybe, and just maybe, choosing an ice-cream flavor at 2 am, yes, but not "interviewing ourselves".

  • gasolina


    hmm. good point. but…

    if good interviews contain spontaneity then i’m left wondering why most journalists strip themselves out of that dynamic? why do they choose to write narrative vo for themselves while leaving their subject in the raw light?

    just questions. no answers.

    "That’s just a sort of exposing oneself, allowing revilement on one’s own predetermined terms. Altogether different view from the OUTSIDE viewing IN. You can see things a "subject" hasn’t thought about in years."

    yes, sometimes.

    but aren’t they (journalists) just processing what they view in me (subject ) through their own perspective of the world? and aren’t i still in control as to what i reveal to them? perhaps with the right tools, a safer environment, and a willingness to risk – – i would reveal a far deeper story about my own life or community – and on my own terms.

    being latina i have a difficult time buying that "another" can tell my story or my communities because they have "perspective" or "distance." i say, move in a little closer and give me that new fangled mic. then you’ll see perspective – something real and honest. someone who has real access to questions you never thought to ask. no one can tell my story no matter how insightful his/her interview questions are. they can only tell their story about me. vise-versa.

    and anyhoooo…don’t we want to reclaim our own stories. be the author of our own lives. give voice to our own voicelessness? how do we do it without starting here – with hard questions to ourselves.

    i suppose i used the incorrect terminology "interviewing oneself." sure, i just made it up. i guess i was trying to point out how unnerving it must be for the "subject "to be in the hands of a potentially guiltless storyteller. if you’ve been there, you’d know. so i was trying to say, have empathy for the lives and stories you hold – they are gifts. they were offered to you whether you respect the gift bearers or not. in a very round ’bout way i was trying to express — "walk a mile in their addidas in front of the camera…."

    maybe i should say instead, at times take stock of yourself in the form of questions and tell your own story? let your own voice loose once in awhile. embrace it’s spontaneity and humanness outside of your constructed vo’s. it might be a great awakening in regards to all of our connectedness.

    and if you are brave – and don’t ask yourself questions you already have answers to -and don’t censor yourself to a degree of being self-deluded – than it can be a journey of discovery as honest, surprising and compelling as any other ‘s story.

    yes or no?

    thanks . i love this discussion. i hope i’m not pissing anyone off?

  • Errol Morris


    Yet one more reply to gasolina

    You asked: Does the final storytelling reveal more about the author’s psychology and pathos than the subject’s? An important question.

    Are interviews just projection and transference…? Do we really see the world, or are we just holding up a mirror to ourselves…?

    And if there’s something more, where does all that projection and transference end and reality begin. Or if you prefer, where does the "self" end and the "other" begin…?

    I’m not sure.

    But things get even worse than this. What about the problem of knowing whether an interview is an interview with a real person…? Or an imaginary one? And who is the real author of it…?

    I followed your example. I went to Google. Typed in "interview…" And came up with the web page, "Interview with God."

    Have you seen it?

    It seems as though God very much interested in self-help. He likes to offer all kinds of advice. He also likes to display what he has to say against a backdrop of nature scenes, particularly mountains and mist.

    I noticed that the "Interview with God" was also available in book form. And so, I went to and started reading the various comments on and reviews of the book.

    One person, in particular, became quite nasty — taking exception to the claim that "Interview with God" was an actual interview with God.

    They said, "while there is nothing inherently wrong with the sentiments expressed here, to attribute the words as quotes from God is a VERY dangerous practice. God did NOT say these things — they are only the imaginations of a created being (the unknown author) attributed to the Creator. You’d do far better reading the Word of God Himself, the Holy Bible. That DID come from God."

    The Bible.

    Well, then… Could the Bible be the first interview…?


  • gasolina




    i cautiously approach that last question. i fear a trap door has been set by a secular anti-humanist. 🙂

    let me preface this response with, “God’s" a toughie. the most (unintentionally) spiritual book i ever read was “the lonely hearts of the cosmos, the story of the scientific quest of the universe.” comforting.

    but you trotted him out here.

    and it’s an interesting topic. it gives me brain cramps.
    is the bible the first interview with God? or a least one, in only a handful of “interviews” that God’s PR person has set up during the entire history of the world?

    no. but….

    the concept of interviewing (to enter and view) “God,” and documenting that exploration by recording stories is everywhere and always has been. it may even be at the very heart of why humans tell stories.

    ancient people didn’t sit under the stars. they sat among them. they were surrounded nightly by spectacular views (or entrevous) of the galaxy. a world with zero light pollution. they recorded and passed down the answers they retrieved from the universe in various storytelling art forms.

    i am left wondering in the context of this idea – if the concept of interviewing “God” is really so very different than you asking fred leuchter about his profound denial of the atrocities of the holocaust? even in the face of overwhelming evidence? isn’t that really a question you are asking God?

    and maybe in regards to this (larger) interview you are having with the universe – the answers have revealed themselves in the most unlikely of places. in the look of a man wrongly convicted. in the confession of an unrepentant murderer. in the profound denial of genocide. in the entropy of a black hole.

    when you edit together the answers you discover. which are not always fact, not always fiction but somewhere mysteriously between called storytelling. maybe you are just adding your questions to this never-ending eternal interview we are all having with the universe?

    i mean, are you an investigator or an explorer? which one is it?

    okay, that’s my best shot. anyone else?

  • Viki Merrick



    WHen my daughter was in 3rd grade, living in overwhelmingly Catholic Italy she said: so who says the Pope is God’s voice?
    or that any of these priests are God’s choice? THey are ALL chosen by people. So then God is me too.

    – out of the mouths of babes.

    everything is a manifestation of mankind. including the bible.
    (but Jesus, was a walking soundbite.) To follow the pure logic of a 7 year old, if we are God and God is us, then author is subject is author and together they procreate and it is called:

  • Kerry Seed


    12 hour massage

    Hi Errol,

    First of all, thanks for doing this. It’s really great to be able to interface with someone whose work I’ve long admired.

    You say you don’t speak with your interviewees before filming. Do you tell them what they are getting into? I mean how do you butter them up for the "loss of control"? What is your pre-interview ritual?

    Thanks for your time and for all your great work.

    Kerry Seed…

    PS My favorite scene from all of your movies is near the end of Gates of Heaven – the cemetery rock concert. I think of it often.

  • Sydney Lewis


    teacher’ s guide

    After seeing a screening of this public service work of art film, I spoke with a fellow viewer who just happens to be involved in creating a fabulous teacher’s guide, a copy of which I hold in my hand. Here’s a link:

  • Jay Allison



    Big congratulations to Errol Morris for his Oscar. Well earned.

  • Andy Knight



    I second that! And if their was an award for best acceptance speech, he’d get my vote.

  • Barrett Golding



    just saw Fog of War: essential viewing.
    Morris is a gifted storyteller. he takes a statesman talking history, adds some archive footage, and makes a masterpiece.

  • JohnTTTT


    12 lessons

    One lesson McNamara forgot to mention:
    12) Keep lying until you die.

    One question Errol Morris forgot to ask:
    " Mr McNamara, where were you when the US military sprayed millions of dioxin/Agent Orange over VietNam that still hurts the Vietnamese people, the VN Vets, the allies and their families up until today? Were you on vacation the whole 10 years of spraying? In the restrooms?…"

    Errol Morris also forgot to tell McNamara to "stop it" when the Man cried on camera denying his responsibility over the spraying.

    "9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil"

    Would the devil think the devil evil?

    "11. You can’t change human nature", remember?

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