Toronto’s film community was galvanized this spring by the lively presence of Errol Morris at Hot Docs, where he received that festival’s Outstanding Achievement Award. It’s just one of many honours that have been showered on this gifted filmmaker whose works include the Stephen Hawking portrait A Brief History of Time, the dark and funny “pet cemetery” doc Gates of Heaven and the Oscar winning The Fog of War.
A self-described “secular anti-humanist,” Morris has never shied away from controversy. His incisive, even handed look at Holocaust denier and execution expert Fred Leuchter, Mr. Death, upset many critics and Morris supporters but the filmmaker resolutely stood his ground. Similar sparks of anger accompanied the director’s The Fog of Warwith its sympathetic profile of Robert McNamara, one of the creators of America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam during the 60s. But the ever-philosophical Morris didn’t deviate from his path, defending the choice of McNamara as a subject while maintaining his own liberal credentials.
A career as an independent filmmaker is never easy. Morris worked as a private eye for years and that background proved to be helpful in his career-defining film, The Thin Blue Line. While working on a film about a psychiatrist dubbed Dr. Death, Morris stumbled on a case where there had been a true miscarriage of justice. Thanks to his investigative skills and brilliant filmmaking prowess, Morris was able to make a great film that helped to free an innocent man from a death sentence.
Over the past twenty-five years, Errol Morris has made seven documentaries, a TV series, numerous commercials, a short for the Oscars and a public service campaign for John Kerry. While at Hot Docs, he engaged in two interviews, one conducted by film critic and professor Gerald Peary and the other, with Marc Glassman and an audience of cineastes after a screening of The Thin Blue Line. These remarks are culled from both conversations. POV would like to thank Hot Docs, Gerald Peary, the Cinematheque Ontario, Susan Oxtoby, and Julia Sheehan fortheir assistance—and above all, Errol Morris for his witty, insightful, and forthright observations.— Marc Glassman
On Film Schools
I have a son, Hamilton, who’s just turned eighteen. He’s interested in a number of things, among them film, and I’ve always told him, ‘if you’re really interested in film, DON’T go to film school!’ I’m not sure what you learn at film school. I’ve always thought that the real film school is the movie theatre. I started going to films when I was a graduate student, some what belatedly, at the University of California, Berkeley. There’s a place, which is a part of their art museum, called the Pacific Film Archive and I met all of these truly wacky characters there. I just started going to the movies and then, after a while, I started programming movies there. It was a way of getting to see movies that interested me. I programmed a series of Hollywood misogynist movies called Not Quite White: Obscure Film Noir. I feel the best way to really learn about films is to actually watch them and to make them.
On Gates of Heaven and Anti-véritécinema
Every single film I’ve made has been anti-vérité. In Gates of Heaven, the joke was, “we’ll break all the rules.” Instead of being unobtrusive, we’ll be as intrusive as possible. In fact we’ll have people look directly into the lens of the camera. Instead of using available light, we’ll light everything. Instead of using handheld, lightweight equipment, we’ll use the heaviest equipment we can afford. It’s my way of pointing out something that should be obvious: style doesn’t guarantee truth. The fact that you elect to shoot in a certain style has nothing whatsoever to do with the underlying truth of what you’re saying.
On Vernon, Florida
I read an article in The New York Times in the Sunday magazine, about an insurance investigator. He was on the verge of retirement and was chronicling the worst insurance fraud cases he’d ever encountered during his 30-year career. In the middle of the article, in less than a paragraph in length, he mentioned this town called Love City. He said it was a truly evil place, and that he was not revealing its real name. It had become known as Love City in the insurance trade because of their extraordinary incidence of self-mutilation. In all of these cases, people had suspiciously lost an arm or a leg after taking out an insurance policy. One guy fell asleep with his foot over the railroad—and was awakened by the train severing his foot from his leg. Someone else climbed a tree—with a shotgun. You can take out life insurance, with a provision, that if you lose vision in both eyes, hearing in both ears, lose both arms, lose both legs—I’m not sure if it’s the correct way to describe it, but this is the good part—if you lose an arm and a leg, you get the full value of the policy. So the preferred method became to lose your left arm and right leg, because you can use a crutch; you’re evidently balanced better,and the way it was described to me was that you can still drive your new Cadillac. I went to see the insurance investigator and said, ‘please tell me the name of this town, ’cause I want to go there.’ And he said, ‘no no, you can’t do that. The place is incredibly dangerous. Those people are sick!’ And I kept saying, ‘no no, I really want to go down there’…and he finally revealed the name of the town. It was Vernon, Florida. He said,‘OK you can go down there, but whatever you do, don’t go down there at night.’ And I went down there and actually lived in Vernon, Florida for the good part of a year. It’s a place that I’m still very very fond of. I rather like the characters in Vernon, Florida. I had terrible trouble making the movie, because I went down there hoping to make a movie about Love City and I couldn’t. I don’t know what I was thinking. Did I have the idea that I was going to be able to walk into someone’s front door, stick a microphone in their face, and ask them why they had sawed off their left leg? It was never going to happen. In fact, I was beaten up—the one time in my life—by the son of an ex-Marine, and it hurt! So out of necessity, I very quickly gave up on that Love City thing. And made a different movie altogether.
On being a Private eye
Vernon, Florida put an effective end to my very very short-lived film career. I worked as a private detective, hoping that it would pay me enough money to make another film. I remember applying for one grant and they called me and said ‘Congratulations, Errol, you’re first runner-up!’ I said ‘that’s terrific.’ It was a $100,000 grant. ‘As first runner-up, what do I get?’ And they said, ‘well, if the guy we’re giving the grant to doesn’t want it, then you can have it.’ So for years I worked as a private eye. You know when you work as a private detective, often you need some kind of cover, some kind of pretext. My pretext was that I was a filmmaker!
On the origin of The Thin Blue Line
After years and years, I got money to start another film. A film about a Dallas psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, who had a catchy nickname, Doctor Death. He’d gotten that nickname because of the role he’d played in capital murder trials in Texas. There was a brief moratorium on capital punishment in the 1970s, and various states enthusiastic about the death penalty scurried to devise new laws. Texas came up with a particularly bizarre law that called on the testimony of psychiatrists. In order to sentence someone to death in Texas, under the new law, you had to have a psychiatrist make a prediction about future behaviour. The psychiatrist was invariably Dr. Grigson, ‘Doctor Death.’ He would say, ‘the defendant is dangerous; he will continue to kill and kill again, unless he is killed first by the State.’ I always like to point out that you cannot predict human behaviour, except in one instance, and that’s what Dr. Grigson will say at a murder trial. That can be predicted with great success. So I went to Texas to interview Dr. Grigson. I’m really fond of that guy too, though he’s a real monster. One of the phrases that he used again and again was, ‘They’re different than you and me. You’ve gotta go down and meet ‘em. You gotta go down and talk to ‘em, ‘cause you’ll see the minute you talk to ‘em that they’re different than you and me.’
At his insistence I started interviewing people that he had helped put on death row. There was a fairly large number of them. I started ‘prisoner auditions.’ I always imagined sending them a card, ‘Please dress informally.’ I was at a prison to interview six or seven inmates. It was like a joke. I was brought in to meet the Warden. He had his feet on the desk, huge, Texas shit-kicking cowboy boots. Honest to God, he was reading Playboy magazine. And he asked me ‘what are you planning to pay these guys?’ I said I wasn’t planning to pay them anything. He looked at me and said ‘That’s right…pay ‘em what they’re worth. Absolutely nothing.’ It was on this occasion that I first met a man named Randall Adams, another man who’d been sentenced to death, another man who Dr. Grigson had made a prediction about at his trial for capital murder. Another man who he said would most certainly kill and kill and kill again. And for whatever reason, I became hopelessly involved in his story, in his case.
On Emily Miller in The Thin Blue Line
I’m probably proudest of the interview with the platinum blonde eye witness Emily Miller. She said some of my favourite lines that I have put on film; for example, ‘Everywhere I go there’s murders. Even ‘round my house.’ That’s a great line. I think to myself, ‘I don’t think so.’ But somehow she’s living in that strange, confabulated, self-deceived, crime scene investigator world of her own devising.
On Philip Glass
The Thin Blue Line was the first of my three collaborations with Philip Glass. He’s also worked with me on A Brief History of Time, and most recently, The Fog of War. When I was making The Thin Blue Line, I edited it with scratch music, all by Philip Glass: Mishima and the ballet pieces In the Upper Roomand Glassworks. I worried because the music worked so well. I thought, ‘we’re gonna have to get someone to write something that sounds like Philip Glass for the soundtrack.’ I had the good fortune of actually convincing him to write the soundtrack himself. Someone asked me, ‘Why Philip Glass?’ And I said, ‘because he does existential dread better than anybody. He’s the master of existential dread.’
On Randall Adams and Errol Morris
Randall Adams and I are not really in touch, because another oddity of this case is that he sued me when he got out of prison. The Thin Blue Line got a lot of attention. It was distributed theatrically by Miramax, by Harvey and Bob Weinstein. Randall and his lawyers became convinced that somebody who had a movie in distribution had to be making a lot of money. As I have always wanted to point out to them, ‘before making that assessment you should really meet Harvey Weinstein.’ I can tell you what my profits were on The Thin Blue Line: zero! In fact they were negative and the lawsuit was dropped. The whole thing was just an incredible nightmare. My wife had the definitive comment about Randall when she said, ‘just because you’re a victim doesn’t mean you aren’t an asshole.’
Truth, Style and Vérité
I sometimes think of The Thin BlueLine as my triumph over vérité, because even if I don’t think that style guarantees truth, I most certainly do not believe that choosing a style guarantees in any way the truth of what you’re saying. Documentary film fascinates because of its relationship to truth. What kept me going through three years of investigating this murder was the belief that there are answers to questions. Answers to questions such as ‘did he do it? And if he didn’t do it, who did?’ A fact of the matter if you like. I know that ambiguity in a film is quite fashionable, the frisson of not knowing, but in this particular instance, I was obsessed with finding things out.
On Aesthetics and The Thin Blue Line
I like to think that I was able to have my cake and eat it too. I was able to achieve a real world result and make a movie, which answered certain artistic interests that I had. An interviewer in Dallas at the time asked, ‘don’t you feel guilty that you’ve spent all these years making an art film? If you’d gotten the material out quickly, this man could have been out of prison years sooner.’ Very thoughtful remark…and the answer is ‘No,’ it took a long time to put the movie together; it took a long time to put the investigation together.
On Fred Leuchter, Mr. Death
There’s always an attraction to a character that has got everything wrong. I found Fred Leuchter’s story on page one of The New York Times, in an article about humanizing capital punishment. What agreat concept… There was Fred, a self styled electric chair repair man, saying one of my very favourite oxymorons, with the emphasis on the ‘moron’ in ‘oxymoron’: ‘painless executions.’
He was taking the ‘ouch’ out of the death penalty. ‘You thought it was going to hurt? Not so. Your execution is going to be quite wonderful.’ At the very end of the article as if it had nothing to do with anything, there was a mention of the fact that he had become a Holocaust denier. And I’m sorry to say that the article truly interested me.
I decided to go see Fred. It was the first use of my machine, the Interrotron, because I thought ‘we’ll use it on him; if it doesn’t work, so what? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ We brought him in to the studio, and Fred just loved the Interrotron. After all, this is a guy who likes gizmos. I did an interview with him, which was quite remarkable, The centre of the movie is from these questions and the ones you ask yourself. ‘Is Fred for real? Does Fred really believe this stuff? Is this a ploy? Is he an anti-Semite? Is he a Nazi? What’s going on here?’
There’s a scene in the film where Fred says he drinks up to 40 cups of coffee aday. And smokes over 10 packs of cigarettes, a habit that would fell some lesser mortal. Fred was constantly smoking and drinking coffee. But everytime we tried to film him smoking, he would turn away and put the cigarette out. I asked him, ‘why don’t you want us to shoot you smoking?’ He took me aside and said, ‘you have to understand, I’m a role model for children!’
On Robert McNamara and The Fog of War
I’ve often thought that if you wanted to tell a story about the twentieth century, you could do no better than tell a story about Robert McNamara, a man who embodies the complexities of the issues that were dealt with then and the complexity of history. I often describe this movie as ‘history from the inside out’ because it’s a movie with one character wrestling with his past, trying to understand what it is that he did and why he did it. Good guy, bad guy—who is this man?
At the centre of The Fog of War are the questions: are we victims of history? Do we make history, but are not responsible for it? Are we authors of history? I came to like McNamara during the course of making this movie. I guess it’s surprising, although I like to point out that my feelings about the Vietnam War have not changed in the slightest. It was monstrous then and it remains monstrous now. McNamara’s son Craig said a very kind thing about The Fog of War. He said the movie had achieved what he thought was impossible, that it had in some way captured the complexity of his father and the history that his father dealt with. And if that’s true, then I’m really delighted.
On Making Commercials
I’ve made over a thousand commercials. It’s an alarming profession. I sometimes describe myself as a bride of Mammon, and as a bride of Mammon, I never know when Mammon may demand conjugal relations!
Moving On for the Kerry campaign
I had this very simple idea. I’d done a campaign for Apple computer, a ‘Switcher’ campaign, with people who had switched from PCs to Macs. I thought, ‘what if I take the ‘Switcher’ campaign and do it once again but this time for the Democrats and John Kerry?’ Everybody knows that the electorate was just as polarized in 2004 as they were in 2000. There were people who were going to vote for Kerry no matter what. I like to think that if I were strapped to a tree trunk, and being sent through a lumber mill band saw, that I would still vote Democratic. And of course there were people who were going to vote George Bush, no matter what, so the Election came down to a very small number of so-called ‘swing voters,’ undecided voters.
How do you reach them? I have to say that you don’t reach them with movies like Fahrenheit 9/11. That’s not the way it works. I remember my agent, who I share with Michael Moore, said to me, ‘don’t you understand, Fahrenheit 9/11 is going to win the election for the Democrats?’ And I said, ‘you’re right, what was I thinking?’ Because after Bowling for Columbine came out, the NRA (National Rifle Association) disbanded, and everybody in America turned in their handguns! How STUPID of me!’
So, I thought the way to reach these swing voters was to use other swing voters. If you want to reach voters, use the people who are registered Republicans, people who voted for George Bush in the 2000 Election but are planning to vote for Kerry, and listen to their reasons for why they’re doing so. I thought that this was the best hope of reaching, of targeting, those voters.
I’m sorry to say that I lost a lot of money. I produced commercials for the most part at my own expense, and I really couldn’t get them on the air. I convinced _Move On _ to run a few of them for a very limited period of time, but for the most part, they went unseen.
I also tried to interview Kerry for the Kerry campaign; I thought I had an irresistible argument. I said, ‘if I can humanize Robert McNamara, I can humanize anybody.’ But they could never ever make a decision to do anything. They couldn’t make a decision to say ‘yes’ and they couldn’t make a decision to say ‘no.’ All they could do was remain in a state of indecision. And we know the end of that particular story.