Though Oscar-winning The Fog Of War director Errol Morris is arguably the premier documentary filmmaker of this age, he originally turned to the form out of intellectual curiosity. Morris was a philosophy student and an artistic dilettante in the mid-'70s when he met German director Werner Herzog, who encouraged Morris to pursue his interest in human oddity by making movies. Morris had planned to start either with a film about serial killer Ed Gein or a film about people who butchered themselves for insurance money, but he got sidetracked by a news item about a mass exhumation at a California pet cemetery. He talked to the owners of the cemetery shipping out the dead pets and the owners of the cemetery receiving them, and he cut the footage together into a laconic, ironic study of the ladder of success. The resulting film, 1980's Gates Of Heaven, was little-seen on its original release, but early champion Roger Ebert named it one of his 10 favorite movies of all time, and gradually the documentary's reputation grew, along with Morris'.
Gates Of Heaven has been newly released on DVD, along with Morris' second feature, Vernon, Florida (which is what became of his planned film about insurance fraud), his third feature, The Thin Blue Line (an expressionistic murder mystery, and one of the films that helped begin popularizing documentaries in the late '80s), and the complete run of his TV series First Person (which presents brief, illustrated interviews with unusual people). Morris recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the differences between his early career and now, and about his bill-paying forays into the world of advertising—including his set of 2004 pitches for Senator John Kerry.
The A.V. Club: When you made Gates Of Heaven, what were the prospects for a documentary?
Errol Morris: Very, very, very bad. Prognosis: poor. The patient will not live. And to compound the problem, the year that the film was finished, when it was shown at the New York Film Festival, there was a newspaper strike in New York. So the movie wasn't even reviewed by the major or even the minor New York papers.
But we had a rough-cut screening at the Pacific Film Archive, and Wim Wenders was there, and when I asked him what he thought, he said, "Well, it's really quite simple. It's a masterpiece." And that came as a complete shock. I mean, I liked the movie, but it hadn't been clear how to put it together. We were editing in Emeryville, which is just south of Berkeley, in this one building where there were a lot of editors. It was next to a rendering factory. [Laughs.]
There was an editor who worked downstairs, doing mostly pornography. His name was David Webb Peoples. He's subsequently become a famous scriptwriter. And Dave Peoples came up and looked at it. I had tremendous difficulty editing the movie, because there was no principle for editing that kind of thing. I don't think that it's even clear now how radically different that movie is from other movies. It involved these very strange dioramas, edited against each other. You can say it's talking heads, but it's not talking heads in a context where they've been stitched together by voiceover and various kinds of visual detritus. There was something extreme and radical about this material, and it wasn't clear whether it was editable. And Dave Peoples said, "You know, I think it's really terrific, but I don't know how to edit it. I have no advice." And he loved the movie, understand. Dave Peoples is a really good guy.
And then I tried to hire various quote-unquote "professional editors," and none of them had any idea. We were editing in a room that was probably, I don't know, 60 square feet. I had an editor, an assistant editor, and an apprentice editor. The editor [George Berndt] had worked on Apocalypse Now, and he was so rigidly hierarchical and bureaucratic. The apprentice couldn't speak directly to me. He had to speak to the assistant, and then the assistant would relay to me what the apprentice had said. This is in 60 square feet, by the way—a trick if you can pull it off. [Laughs.] Within a couple of weeks, it was clear that the editor and the assistant editor could do nothing. And so the apprentice took it over, with a friend of mine from graduate school. Charlie Silver and Brad Fuller and me, we just hunkered down and edited that movie. To a certain extent, I've felt at sea in every single movie that I've edited, but I felt really at sea on that movie. We didn't know what the fuck we were doing.
AVC: Did you have any sense of what you were going for?
EM: I knew that I wanted it to move from Los Altos and the unsuccessful pet cemetery to the extraordinarily successful one in Napa. So the movie follows, in some rough order, that progression. It's an excursion into some very odd dreamscapes, connected with some weird version of reality. From the beginning, I would always object when people would say, "It's the pet-cemetery movie." No, no, no, no! It's not about pet cemeteries. And the next question is always, "If it's not about pet cemeteries, what is it about?" Well, that's tricky! In essence, it embodies many of the ideas that are in every single film I've made. The obsession with language. Eye contact. An interest in accounts of subjective experience rather than objective reporting. The fundamental belief that if you scratch the surface of any person, you will find a world of the insane, very close to that surface.
AVC: You could take any of the long monologues in Gates Of Heaven and say, "This is what the movie hinges on," but the one that sticks is the one by the older brother at Bubbling Well, who's spouting all this business lingo about the path to success, while he's only an assistant at a pet cemetery. An assistant to his younger brother, no less. It's not quite funny and not quite sad.
EM: I would call it hopeless. There's a perverted hopefulness that runs through Gates Of Heaven, and you have to wonder… hope for what? Life after death? Reunion with our loved ones? Hope for some kind of love, mortal or otherwise? For business success? For meaning? Hope for anything! In a sea of utter hopelessness! [Laughs.]
I saw Gates Of Heaven again about a year ago, at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival. I sat next to Roger. I hadn't seen it in probably a decade. And I thought, "This is fucked-up!" That's the nicest thing you can say about a work of art. Usually, the interesting ones are nuts. In literature classes, no one points out that Moby Dick is written by a madman, who probably makes Ahab look like a piker. You're meant to think somehow that literature, in espousing eternal values, is kind of normal and balanced and reasonable. When it fact it's anything but. I kind of liked watching Gates Of Heaven. I thought, "This is nuts!"
One of my favorite guys, the guy I did the Miller High Life campaign with, Jeff Williams, paid me the greatest compliment that I've ever heard. The first day that we worked together, he looked at me in a kind of funny way and said, "You know, when the director has everything set up perfectly, my job is to come in and fuck it up. But with you, Errol, I don't have to come in and fuck it up, because it's fucked-up already!" [Laughs.]
AVC: Once you completed Gates Of Heaven, what were your best hopes? To get it on PBS? Play the festival circuit?
EM: I don't know. If one thought clearly about what one's prospects were, one wouldn't do anything. [Laughs.] One would just go home and live with mom.
There was no festival circuit, really. There were a couple of festivals here and there. It went to Berlin. It went to London. In Berlin, there was a very small audience. It was not translated into German. There were no subtitles. I didn't want to watch the movie again, so the guy from the festival said we'd go out and get a bite to eat and come back 10 minutes before the end of the movie, because they had announced that I was going to be there. We get back—and this was a very, very sad spectacle for a filmmaker—the theater was empty. The film was playing to no one. [Laughs.]
So that was the festival circuit.
AVC: How are the festivals different from what they were 20-odd years ago?
EM: Everything has changed. There was no independent-film movement in those days. Today, I suppose you'd say that Gates Of Heaven is an independent film, but in those days, there was no such animal. And it wasn't necessarily an art film, though I suppose that's what it was pegged as. There was no nomenclature for it.
Documentaries in the '70s had become mired, in my view, in kind of vérité retreads. What's great about documentary, it seems to me, is that it can be experimental filmmaking. You have a license to do a lot of diverse things under the umbrella of "documentary." To call a documentary any one thing would be a mistake, when it includes Chris Marker and Georges Franju and Fred Wiseman and Ross McElwee. But it had become—and this is something I really don't much care for—a form of social work. The documentary filmmaker was a social worker, exposing the perfidies of the world and offering possible solutions and guidance.
AVC: There seems to be a new wave of that with the recent string of low-budget "issue" docs, like Outfoxed.
EM: Well, in a certain sense, I'm sympathetic to that. The fact of the matter is, there's always been an element of agitprop to documentary filmmaking. And let's be clear. Right now, we live in bad times in this country, and the fact that there are filmmakers addressing political and social issues is to me a good thing. I look at them as different from stories about the wheelchair Olympics, or retarded people who are really just like you or me.
AVC: Hey, Best Boy is a fine film.
EM: [Laughs.] I like Best Boy too. But my fear is documentaries becoming just one thing. Early on, I would take complaints from audiences. When you see Gates Of Heaven in a theater with an audience, people are laughing, and I would get complaints. Which came as a surprise to me. Complaints that I had just set people up for ridicule, that it was mean-spirited, that the movie was somehow cheap for that reason. But I kind of love the characters in that film. I find many of them ludicrous, but it doesn't mean I don't like them, or feel sympathetic with them, or compelled by them in some way. Quite the contrary.
AVC: There seem to be a lot of ideologues in documentary filmmaking who are sensitive to tone and style. Some even say that you should never hear a filmmaker's voice in a film, while your voice is in almost every one of your films.
EM: I didn't allow my voice in Gates Of Heaven or Vernon, Florida, but I was forced to put my voice into The Thin Blue Line, because my camera broke on the last day of production, when I was filming my interview with David Harris. That was on a Friday, and I had no camera available. So I went back on Saturday with a tape recorder and taped that final interview. At the time, I thought it was a disaster, but actually, in retrospect, it was a very, very powerful conclusion to the movie.
So my voice went in. And then I started experimenting with it in Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control, and Mr. Death, and of course in The Fog Of War. I'm surprised when people ask me if I did the interviews in The Fog Of War. Like, what, there's this midget that follows me around? [Laughs.] He's hardly noticeable, so it works out well for both of us.
AVC: There are a number of aesthetic positions you can take as a documentarian. You can be Frederick Wiseman and stay completely out of the way, watching without comment. Or you can be Ross McElwee, and make personal essays, or Michael Moore, and be a personality in the film in a different kind of way. And there's a lot of debate over which method is more honest: the pretense of objectivity or the utter abandonment of it.
EM: On my website [errolmorris.com], I have the text of a lecture I gave at Harvard, where I address a lot of these issues. One of the central documentary issues, I suppose, is "truth." Because you are making claims about the real world. You're not creating an imaginary world or a fictitious world. You're commenting in some very direct way on the real world. You can ask yourself, if a film makes a claim, is the claim true or false? Having said that, a style of presenting material doesn't guarantee truth. There's this crazy idea that somehow you pick a style, and by virtue of picking the style, you've provided something that is more truthful. It's as if you imagine that changing the font on a sentence you write makes it more truthful. If I use Times-Roman, is it more truthful than if I use Helvetica? [Laughs.]
Truth exists independent of style. It involves all kinds of issues. Properly considered, it's a quest, a pursuit. To say that vérité is more truthful than something that is narrated is just misplaced. Completely wrong. And the fact that people still talk about it as though they're really talking about something… it puzzles me greatly. A moment of reflection about it tells you that it makes no sense! If someone tells you that George Bush is not the 43rd president of the United States, they might be engaged in wishful thinking, or denial, but if they make that claim, it's either true or false! And you can assess that, regardless of whether there's an omniscient narrator, or an unreliable narrator, or it's shot in vérité, or it's manipulated, it's agitprop, whatever! It makes no difference! It's a style!
Different issues are being addressed than the issues people think are being addressed. This is a long-winded discussion, and yes, I am writing a book on this.
AVC: Coming out when?
EM: [Sighs.] You know, I'm trying to do too much. I'm trying to do drama now. I have a whole number of projects. And I keep up this steady diet of commercials. I'm shooting them constantly. I do my ninth campaign of this year next week. And nine campaigns means that I've probably done over 50 commercials this year alone.
AVC: Do you put the money you make on commercials toward your other projects?
EM: I've never made any money off of any of my films. Statement of fact. So without commercial work, I would be in big trouble. I would be one of those people selling grapefruit by the side of I-10 in Santa Monica. I'd like to think I'd at least move to a warmer climate. [Laughs.] Because of commercials, I can afford to live in the Northeast during the winter.
AVC: Some of your commercial work has been for causes you believe in. A year or so after the fact, how do you feel about the whole MoveOn.org "switcher" campaign? Do you think the ads had an effect?
EM: Well, it wasn't just MoveOn. My producer and I were involved in unending conversations with various 527s, including MoveOn. We were talking to the Democratic National Committee. We were talking to the Kerry campaign. We were talking to everybody! And it just never went anywhere. We just couldn't get anybody to make decisions. If you ask me if it's important to have this kind of grassroots movement in this country, I would say "Absolutely yes." But in terms of being able to meaningfully create effective advertising and marketing, I do not think it worked. I couldn't get my ads on the air, except on a very, very limited basis. I have some 51 of them posted on my website. One of them ran briefly during one week. One of them ran once or twice around the time of the Republican convention. But basically, they were invisible. Would they have done any good if they had been shown more widely? Perhaps they could have. I thought my intuition was sound.
I had done this campaign for Apple, the "switcher" campaign. And very early on, right after I won the Oscar [for The Fog Of War], I sat down with my producer and said, "What if we do a 'switcher' campaign for the Democrats?" Regardless of what anyone says, this country was incredibly polarized. There were people who were going to vote for Kerry no matter what. Myself included. I like to think that if they were sending me to a lumber mill, strapped to a tree trunk, and I was going through a band saw, I'd still vote for Kerry. Just because there was no way I would vote for George Bush. He doesn't believe in what I believe. [Laughs.] I think that's one simple way to express it. And then there are people who are going to vote for George Bush no matter what. Nothing was going to change them. This represented a fairly substantial segment of the electorate.
And so everyone knew—this is what puzzles me even now as I talk about it, it's just so immensely frustrating—everybody knew that the election was going to be decided by a small fraction of the voters! And so you have to say, first of all, that there's no point in creating advertising that preaches to the choir. It's unnecessary! You've already got them! [Laughs.] What are your plans for so-called swing voters? What is your plan to reach those people in the critical states? And you know what? There was none! That's what's so mind-boggling. I mean, if anyone could've told me why… I'm happy to be told, "You're wrong." No one particularly loves it, but if I'm wrong, I should be the first one to hear it.
Tell me what's wrong with this idea: If you're selling to somebody, find someone like that person to sell to them. If you're trying to reach swing voters, if you're trying to reach people on the fence, if you're trying to reach Republicans who are unsure about this candidate… get people who switched! Get people who are registered Republicans. Get people who were George Bush voters who can't bring themselves to do it again. Talk to them, get them to explain what their reasons are, and show them to people. What's wrong with this idea?!
I just couldn't do it. I couldn't get anyone to do it.
AVC: Maybe there's polling data that shows that attack ads and profile ads are more effective, no matter how much they reportedly turn off voters. Maybe the political machines know better.
EM: No, they don't know more than we know, because they lost the election. If they knew so much, why'd they lose? [Laughs.]
I'm sorry, but you brought up the election, and… I mean, I'm proud of having done those ads. I wish I could've done more. I wish the ads could've been used. I kept thinking that the only way ads like this could be effective was to just blanket the markets with them. You don't show one person, you show 50 people. Make it seem as though there's a bandwagon. And one thing that really interested me is, I shot evangelical Christians, and MoveOn didn't even put those in the mix! For reasons that, you know… I'm speechless. It was assumed that you can't touch evangelical Christians. "Oh, they're the Republican Right. Stay away from those people. Don't even try to talk to them." Well, what's interesting is that there were evangelical Christians who were voting for Kerry. There were right-to-lifers who were voting for Kerry. And it's interesting to listen to the reasons why. To ignore that segment of the electorate is moronic. Particularly if you don't know who those people are, or what their concerns are.
We imagine what this country is, but quite clearly, this country is a mystery. I mean, one of the reasons I did the ads is, I thought I could learn something. Like, what the hell is going on? I think anybody—particularly a person of leftist persuasion such as myself—who stops and thinks even for a moment, realizes that something strange is going on and we don't quite get it.
Argh! I'm rambling.
AVC: In a way, it's tough to interview you, because you're renowned for your own interview style, which is to let the subject talk and not interrupt.
EM: Sometimes I say that I interview people because it gives me a chance to shut the fuck up.
AVC: Do you find in general that you interview people with no idea of what you're going to hear?
EM: I think that's really, really, really important. Interviews, when they are just simply an exercise in hearing what you want to hear, are of no interest. And many, many, if not most interviews have that character. The interviewer who comes in with a list of bullet points they're going to address one after the other. Interviews, properly considered, should be investigative. You should not know what you're going to hear. You should be surprised.
AVC: How did you pick the subjects for First Person?
EM: Well, I had so many slots I needed to fill, so there was a scramble, and I did lots of things I'd wanted to do for a long time. Often, there was a certain amount of caprice: "Who can we find?" I'd always been fascinated by the plane that crashed in Sioux City, and we found that guy Denny Fitch, who managed to bring the plane down. [In 1989, Fitch, a pilot trainer, was a passenger on a United Airlines flight that lost all hydraulic control. He worked with the pilots and was able to bring the plan to a controlled crash landing and save more than half the passengers. —ed.] It's an incredible story. I put him in a series of United commercials after 9/11. I found him to be such an interesting and powerful figure. There were just a lot of things that interested me.
AVC: So you were able to clear out some of your famous backlog of unfinished projects?
EM: Some of them, yes. But it's such a backlog. [Laughs.] I would sort of like to continue First Person. I've never really found anybody who wanted to pay for another year. But I think it had a way to go. It was getting better.
And without First Person, The Fog Of War never would've come into existence. We were set up doing interviews, and I just figured as long as we had a crew and a studio, we should see if Robert McNamara would come up for an interview. Yes, I demonstrated against the Vietnam War years ago, but I interviewed McNamara because McNamara genuinely puzzles me. He still does, I might add. Maybe in a different way than before, but my interest in him remains. Within about 20, 30 minutes or so, I realized that it was a film and not a TV show. That first interview with him was pretty damn amazing.
AVC: With First Person, you were using a lot of the hallmarks of your style—the film clips, the recreation—but on a lower budget. Have you gotten to the point where you just see those visuals in your head automatically?
EM: Yes. [Laughs.] I mean, it kind of jumps out at you. When McNamara talked about how they were doing tests by dropping skulls down the stairwells of the dormitories at Cornell… I hear something like that and I know we're going to be shooting a reenactment somewhere. With skulls.
By the way, the skulls we used were a mixture of fake and real skulls. Because real skulls are cheaper. So if you're in the market for, you know, a skull… just keep that in mind. The difference in price, if you're penny-pinching, depends on the condition of the teeth. If there are lots of teeth missing, someone's going to give you a bargain. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is there any one unfinished project in particular that you'd kill to get made?
EM: "Kill" seems strong. Just because, correct me if I'm wrong, I believe it has been criminalized in this country. Not to the extent that it might have been 10 years ago, but it's still considered to be not the right thing to do.
But this project that I always wanted to make about what happened to Einstein's brain… it seems like that may be a possibility sometime in the near future.
AVC: With the recent boom in documentary filmmaking, is it easier to get your projects greenlighted?
EM: I don't think so. Overall, I think I have my own self to blame. The way I go about making a movie… even the ones that are interview-driven, I go into them not knowing what's going to happen, and feeling my way through.
AVC: When you won your Oscar for The Fog Of War, you began by thanking the Academy "for finally recognizing my films," which some took to be arrogant. Did you intend it as a joke, or were you really blowing your own horn?
EM: It wasn't intended as arrogance at all. I was really thankful. I was delighted. I can't tell you how many Tuesdays in February, when they announced the nominated films for documentary features… I remember the year that The Thin Blue Line came out, and The Washington Post had an article where they polled a hundred critics from around the country, and had them rank all of the films, and The Thin Blue Line was number one. Not among documentaries, but of everything! And I remember that Tuesday, the nominations came out, and The Thin Blue Line wasn't nominated, and I was devastated. To say that a filmmaker doesn't care about an Oscar nomination is ridiculous. Of course you do. I mean, even on the simplest level of wanting your film to be seen by people, a nomination or an actual Oscar makes a tremendous difference in the audience a film potentially receives. And so every Tuesday was kind of a Black Tuesday for me. The Thin Blue Line; A Brief History Of Time; Fast, Cheap… Mr. Death, I always said, was going to be the first film about the Holocaust not to be nominated for an Academy Award, and I of course was totally correct. Good call, Errol. [Laughs.]
And so when this thing was nominated, it was amazing! And when it won, it was even more amazing! To me, the fact that people took it as arrogant… I don't know if they knew how many films I had made prior to The Fog Of War and how I was shut out and how much I actually wanted it. [Laughs.] Is that bad to say?
It was not intended as arrogant. I was delighted. But I actually think the more important part of the Academy speech was the stuff comparing Iraq to Vietnam. I haven't seen anything in the several years since that speech was made to indicate I was wrong.