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Q&A: Errol Morris: Highlights from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue

Highlights from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue

Errol Morris filming at Auschwitz for his 1999 film MR. DEATH / Photograph by Nubar Alexanian


Saturday, March 11, 2006

The following interview appears in full in Issue 25: The Documentary Issue

The Stop Smiling Interview with Errol Morris

By James Hughes

What follows is a brief excerpt from our extensive cover story interview with Errol Morris, the groundbreaking filmmaker behind such works as Gates of Heaven (1980), The Thin Blue Line (1988) and the Oscar-winner The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2004). The full interview with Morris appears in Issue 25: The Documentary Issue.

Stop Smiling: Is it difficult for you to choose your next project?

Errol Morris: When I was in graduate school studying philosophy, a friend of mine said, “There's really only one philosophical question: what to do next.” I have these endless ideas about what to do. I came out of the Academy Award, which is now a number of years back, wanting to make features and wanting to apply myself to that whole process. But it can take years to get these projects off the ground. You keep telling yourself, Well, I'm not going to fall into the traditional Hollywood trap. Easier said than done. One project that I still very much want to make involves the theft of Einstein's brain, and my hope is that that is going to come together this year. Plus there are documentaries I'm interested in. I'm also interested in writing more articles and editorials now. I seem like this guy who's constantly sticking his toe in the water. I promised myself — of course I'm a rat-faced liar, and mostly to myself, I might add — but I promised myself that I wouldn't make another documentary. To ensure that, I promised myself that I would stop interviewing people. It's like a 12-step program of withdrawing from this kind of work. But, for whatever reason, I have this need or compulsion to interview people. So I started again. I got these interviews that, unfortunately, really interested me, and suggest they should be put together in a film. Horror of horrors.

SS: What always brings you back to documentaries?

EM: Part of what I love about documentary is this idea that you can reinvent the form every time you make one. And you can create visuals that are really strange. They're not reenactments, per se. They're not show-and-tell. They're, properly speaking, impressionistic. They're dreamscapes that you're creating to go with interview material. Even today, people somehow — although I think this is much less so than just 10 or 15 years ago — people think of documentary as being one thing. For a long time, people thought of the medium as a species of the news, of journalism, with its own kind of rules and requirements. We look at them differently because — unlike fiction films — they make a claim, namely that they are about reality. And as such we can ask questions about claims that they make. For example, are they true or false?

Recently I've shifted from using film to using the Sony 24P high-definition camera. It's quite interesting as well. My limitations used to be that 400 feet of 16mm film and 1000 feet of 35mm is roughly 11 minutes. So I would be an 11-minute psychiatrist. While people were talking, I always knew when the film magazine was running out. I knew when those 11 minutes were, instinctively. Then you have to take the magazine off, you have to reslate. There are constant breaks in the material, but that's how all my films were made, up to The Fog of War. With these new cameras, you can be shooting forever. They're like VCRs: you eject the cassette and put another cassette in. That takes a matter of seconds. Or what I often do is have two decks running, and I seamlessly shift decks. Cassettes are 80 minutes long, and you can shoot without stopping for hours and hours. This really started with “First Person,” where I started doing marathon interviews. The best example of that is Rick Rosner [a male stripper with a genius IQ who became a disgruntled contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”]. I was talking to Rosner for I don't even know how many hours. It was one of the strangest interviews I've ever done. I think we ended up with probably 12 or 13 hours of material. I started hallucinating by the end of the interview, and I thought Rosner might've been hallucinating as well. It's my principle that when the going gets fucked up, the fucked-up getting going. It's become my new MO. “Would you mind if I interviewed you for 27 hours?” Although I'm usually more guarded about revealing this information from the outset.

SS: How would Robert McNamara have responded to this approach?

EM: McNamara would only allow an hour at first. Then that was extended to two hours, and then I convinced him to come back the second day for another two hours. After several days I was able to get a fairly extensive interview. He agreed to the interview only because he was promoting a new book, Wilson's Ghost. Then he called back and tried to cancel it. Evidently he'd heard some stuff about me that did not make him happy. I convinced him to come anyway. He set strict limits on how long he would talk and what he would talk about. Over a period of six or seven months he relaxed those requirements.

SS: Did you ever find out what it was McNamara heard about you?

EM: No, I didn't, actually. I don't think it's based on seeing any of my films, because I don't think he saw any of them. He's the kind of guy who's probably gone to three movies his entire life, and one of them was The Fog of War.

SS: Are you aware of how other political figures reacted to the film?

EM: I met Karl Rove. I was doing commercials for Nike, and my job was to go to three different cities and talk to coaches who coached now-famous athletes. I visited a high school in Waco, Texas, where LaDainian Tomlinson went, and I stayed at the Waco Hilton. That morning I came down to the lobby and I saw Orrin Hatch. I thought, Oh my god, can that really be Orrin Hatch? I'm looking at him, still trying to figure out if it's really him, when Karl Rove walks up beside him. [Laughs] Then they go into the breakfast room.

SS: The free breakfast room at the Hilton?

EM: Yes. I walked up to the table — they're sitting together. I introduced myself. I said, “I'm Errol Morris. I made this film The Fog of War.” Karl Rove said, “That's one of my favorite films. I give that as a present to my friends.” I mentioned to Rove that I knew he was very busy, but that I'd welcome the opportunity to interview him at some point in the future. He gave me this very funny look like, You must be kidding.


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