He’s won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. His debut is in Roger Ebert’s 10 Greatest Films of All Time. He was instrumental to solving a murder case. He made Werner Herzog eat his shoe. He needs no real introduction, for Errol Morris is one of the world’s best makers of documentaries, if not the best.
In light of his forthcoming new film, The Unknown Known, which concerns ex-US Secretary of Defense and his interesting use of political language, Errol sat down with HeyUGuys and spoke at length about everything from his own obsessions, the legacy of The Thin Blue Line, the rise of digital technology in cinema, and Rumsfeld’s smile.
I guess I’d like to start by asking a very basic question. How did you manage to get Donald Rumsfeld to sit down and be interviewed?
I asked him. You know, there’s no great trick to getting any of these things. I asked Robert McNamara [the USA’s Secretary of Defense on which The Fog of War centres on] – although Robert McNamara repeatedly tried to back out of doing the first interview, and initially agreed because he thought I was part of his book tour; Rumsfeld agreed. I sent him a letter and a copy of The Fog of War, went down to Washington to meet him, and he agreed to do it.
So it was quite straight-forward?
More or less, yes. It’s an odd question; you have to tell me, when you asked me ‘why did he agree to do it?’, a) do you think I have some secret answer, or b) that there’s some secret sauce that should be revealed? Seriously.
It’s just he’s quite a big character himself, and he was – and still is in some ways – a big figure in America for many different reasons. I just thought that maybe, if he had known about the work you’ve done before, if he was perhaps… a little bit apprehensive maybe, about agreeing.
The whole movie is about his cluelessness. He has a staff, he has a big staff – I gave him a copy of The Fog of War, whether he looked at it, I don’t know – [but] he said he didn’t like it. He said that McNamara had nothing to apologise for. Could he have gotten a copy of the standard operating procedure? I believe he could. Did he have people that could’ve looked at my work, and advised him one way or the other? Yes he did. Presumably, they did. He felt that I would be a good interviewer, that I would listen to him, and I did. I don’t think that he was any way incorrect about that, that I would listen respectfully, that I would – even if I had my thoughts about him and his policies and the Bush administration – that I would listen respectfully to whatever he had to tell me, and I did. In the end I’m appalled, maybe even more appalled than I was going in.
And a lot of what Rumsfeld says [in the movie], or rather the way he says it, it’s quite scary or jaw-dropping. Throughout the film you have these different words pop up, flash across the screen with their dictionary definitions. I’d assume that language and its use by high-ranking people is something that interests you?
Language interests me in general. People have said the movie is Orwellian in the sense that, like Orwell, there’s concern with words and how words can be used to manipulate people. Here, words are used to manipulate people and are used to manipulate himself, almost as if he wants to retreat inside this world of dictionary definitions. It’s a crazy fable; the man in love with himself. The man in love with his bullshit. Who somehow, in the end, sees absolutely nothing around him. I suppose it’s a version of narcissism. It’s not just simply falling in love with your reflection, but falling so much in love with your own reflection that you fail to notice anything else.
All he seems to see is a mirror everywhere.
Yes. And the smile. The smile, which is at the heart of the movie.
Some of the marketing, posters, [have the line] ‘why is this man smiling?’ And by the end of the film, I’m still not sure.
Well, it’s at the heart of the movie. It’s a line that I suggested… ‘why is this man smiling?’ Why, indeed; and the answer to almost everything in the movie which is his final answer – why did he agree to be interviewed? I asked him. ‘Why are you doing this?’ I asked him explicitly; I put it at the end of the movie because so many people asked me the same damn question, even while I was making the movie that I felt it should be part of the movie, why not the very end of the movie. That’s a vicious question. How dare you ask me about why I would do anything? My motivation for anything, to think about anything, to explicate anything, to reflect on anything, and then the really ingenious answer, sincere answer – fucked up, disturbing answer: I’ll be darned if I know. Why did we fight the war in Vietnam? I’ll be darned if I know. Why did we invade Iraq? Darned if I know. I’ll be darned if I know anything. Maybe I’ll write a memo to myself about it.
Near the start of the film, I think I hear you say something along the lines of, ‘I am obsessive!’ – is that correct?
Yes! Damn straight.
How has obsession been a part of your life?
I become fixated on stuff. I wouldn’t be a filmmaker if I wasn’t obsessive in some way. I’m an investigator, also; I worked as a private investigator years ago. I remember when I finally got money to make a movie again, I made The Thin Blue Line, and I said to someone, ‘thank God I don’t have to be an investigator anymore’. And that was the beginning of three years of investigation. This murder case in Texas. Investigators are obsessive, because they wouldn’t be able to do what they did otherwise. You want to fight something out, you want to know something. It’s a crazy idea, wanting to know stuff, but it’s a kind of wonderful idea.
And do you think that perhaps it’s a little bit more important being obsessive as a documentary filmmaker as opposed to a fiction filmmaker?
No… I’m about to embark on making a fiction film this year. And it’s a different set of commitments you’re making, but surprisingly not as different as you might think… when you do an interview, there’s this thought that an interview isn’t a performance. It is. That’s what my job is, is to elicit some kind of performance, and by performance I don’t mean something that’s fake, or something that’s contrived, but something that comes alive in some way that impresses something, that captures something. It’s true; I work all the time with actors, and I’ve probably directed over a thousand television commercials. I work with actors all the time, and getting a performance from an actor is not so different from getting a performance from a real person that you’re interviewing. If you’ve done it well, that you’ve actually captured something real… I often think, say you look at a Fred Astaire movie. It’s part documentary, part drama – it’s in part contrived. But that performance that you see of Fred Astaire dancing, it’s Fred Astaire dancing. That’s something with a very powerful documentary element. It’s one of the things that makes filmmaking interesting. Photography interesting. It’s that combination of the control, whether it’s a documentary or fiction. Maybe the line is drawn in different places, but the same kind of elements are at work.
Is there a particular film in your career that you feel that you hit upon the truth in an especially amazing way?
The Thin Blue Line. Because I cracked a murder case. How often do you get to do that?
Not often, I’d imagine.
I got the killer to confess, and I got the evidence to overturn a capital murder conviction and to release a man from prison.
I think I read somewhere in the vast expanses of the internet that you thought that The Thin Blue Line was a defining moment of your career. Do you still feel that way about it?
I do. It’ll be something that I’ll always be immensely proud of. I was in Columbus, Ohio; I had all these death threats from Texas, and my wife didn’t want me to go back to Dallas at the very end. I came to Columbus, Ohio, and when Randall Adams returned home he flew back home from Texas, and I was in the airport, and there were crowds of reporters – and I thought to myself, wow, you did this. You actually did do this. The Thin Blue Line is the very beginning of the whole interest in false convictions, the innocence project in America; at the time that I discovered that he had been falsely convicted and was able to prove that fact, people weren’t looking at these cases. So it’s the beginning of a whole movement in the United States. It was a very, very influential film – I think it’s a good film. I’m doing something now – investigations, obsessive investigations – and that was an obsessive investigation, you have no idea. I should write about these at some point. I’m interested in investigations that go awry, because I’m a philosophical realist; I believe there is a world out there in which things happen, and in principle we should be able to find out what those things are. We should be able to determine whether the lone gunmen on November 22nd in Dallas was Lee Harvey Oswald or whether there was someone else, or two of them, or three; it’s not up for grabs. We should be able to figure it out. And yet, seemingly, despite the endless claims that are made one way or the other, we haven’t been able to. Why is that? Why, after forty years, can’t we give a definitive answer to the Jeffrey MacDonald case? That’s what my book, Wilderness of Errors, was about – it’s about the nature of investigations, and an attempt to arrive at the truth, and the failure. Usually the failure, because of ourselves, The Wilderness of Error, which my next film is going to be about – about that idea.
Could you tell us a bit more about your upcoming fiction film?
Yeah, it’s in Holland, Michigan, script by a young writer Andrew Sodroski, starring Naomi Watts, Edgar Ramirez and we’re in the process of casting the last role [N.B. according to IMDB, Bryan Cranston has been cast.]
So it’s going to be a little while before it actually comes out.
Gotta make it first. And it’s a thriller – I sometimes describe it as a metaphysical horror story.
Which I can see being an Errol Morris film.
It’s very much an Errol Morris film. I’m looking forward to it; I often seen myself as a visual storyteller. I like working out with a camera, telling stories with a camera, creating images, and this is a kind of cross – I don’t know how to describe it, or what to compare it to – it has aspects of Hitchcock and Polanski, if I’m lucky. I’d like to make the creepiest movie ever made.
Since your Oscar win [for The Fog of War], do you think or feel that your filmmaking has evolved since that win?
Erm… yeah, clearly. I think it’s evolved with this movie, actually; I’m tired, in truth, of interviewing people. Can I interview people? I think I can interview people. I’ve done it before, yes – will I use the Interrotron [a device Errol uses to interview people on camera, but using a double mirror system, retains eye contact] again? Yes, I’ll use the Interrotron again, it’s inevitable. But is that all I really want to do? No. This movie is different. It’s radical. It’s probably more radical than anything I’ve done with interviews. I would say that McNamara [The Fog of War] is much more of an external movie; it’s still internal to his world, but this is really trapped in this kind of strange, self-serving biography, autobiography. The fact that it was shot on green screen, the side angle, the formal nature of it. They’ve just reissued Brief History of Time, Criterion has just put it out. It was never available on DVD, and it was never colour-corrected properly, it’s a really beautiful film that I love. And I loved working with Stephen Hawking. And it’s a film imitated endlessly. It’s interesting to me how influential these films have been, stylistically at least, and I think it has evolved since Fog of War – but I would like to evolve further. How about that?
You spoke just now about Brief History of Time not really being readily available. For instance, just this morning I watched Gates of Heaven – which obviously had massive distribution problems. How do you feel about streaming services, instantly available, VOD…?
I think they’re great. Do I use them myself? You betcha. I mean, today, everything is available – not everything is, but a lot of stuff. If I’m thinking of using an actor in a film, can I see three or four films that they made? Virtually, within minutes? I can. It’s a different world, it’s constantly changing and that’s a good thing. I remember, because I’d seen so many waves of technology, the whole digital editing revolution which really started in the early nineties, that’s now twenty-five years old. It’s hard to believe. The movie I made, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control could not have been made without an Avid. I had multiple formats, 35mm, 16mm, straight 8 , super 8, video. Could not have made it on a conventional editing machine, [which would’ve been] prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. When we were getting The Fog of War ready to be shown at Cannes, we couldn’t create a print in time – a 35mm print. And Cannes had just installed new digital projectors. And I was apprehensive; what are these really going to look like? Is this going to be as good as film? And I watched the film at Cannes, and oh my god; this is better than a film projector! No dirt; a pristine image; and now, film projectors, film projection, it hangs on by a thread here and there. But within a year or so, it will be completely gone. Bad thing? No, good thing; I think images are really, really, really beautiful. Film cameras, they still hang on, I still occasionally shoot in 35mm, but I also shoot with RED, I also shoot with the Sony system, I shoot with the Alexa. You know, I’m one of those guys who grew up in a different world, but I still like film, I still do like film – but, do I think that you can create images with digital cameras? Of course you can. And you can do things on digital cameras that you just simply can’t do with a traditional camera.
Obviously, your next film’s going to be a fiction film. If, when, you return to documentary –
Well, I’m doing a documentary at the same time, so I’m not abandoning it.
Well in that case, you’ve covered a lot of subjects with your documentaries. Is there any subject that you feel you personally couldn’t touch?
Hmm. Not really; I mean, there are subjects that I don’t particularly want to do. They don’t really grab a hold of me. I have started writing now, and I’m publishing books; when I was working on my book about the MacDonald case, The Wilderness of Error, I kept asking this question – it’s in the book, but it’s a question that’s very much still on my mind: Why do some investigations lead to conclusions, and others end up in some strange muddle? Because I’d been in both cases. As an investigator, not just as a filmmaker. I was fortunate enough to crack a major murder case, and if you ask me, ‘are you absolutely certain that the guy who was convicted was innocent, and the guy who was chief prosecution is the real killer?’ Maybe not one hundred percent, absolutely beyond-any-doubt certain – but pretty damn well close to it. In the MacDonald case, can I ever prove that he’s innocent – and boy, would I like to – I can’t. I can prove he was fucked over, that his prosecution was disgusting. I would say, if you want to talk about the crime of the murder of his family, yes, but there’s the crime of how that murder was prosecuted. It’s amazing when you’re writing about a crime, the pressure you feel to bring it to some kind of conclusion, to say something definitive, to say something absolute. Like now, I’m going to tell you to prove this guy is innocent. And I came up short. That’s annoying; it’s really, really annoying to be a compulsive, obsessive, investigator, and why can’t we? We know someone killed Jeffrey’s family. It was either Jeffrey, in all likelihood, or it was somebody else – the intruders that he claims were in the house that night. Why can’t we prove it? And that question really interests me. I sometimes think of a mathematical series – I don’t think it’s a good analogy, but it somehow insinuates itself again and again, that there are mathematical series that converge to a limit. And then there are mathematical series that diverge; they just seem like they would converge, but they head out into nowhere. Here – and then I’ll shut up – here, it’s really us. When we investigate something, are we really investigating something, or creating a muddle? In the MacDonald case, the people investigating it had such strong agendas that they were following, that they muddied the evidence to suit their own preconceptions. And evidence doesn’t just hang around forever. It can be destroyed, it can be overlooked, people can fail to collect it in a timely fashion – and then, you may lose that ability to ever come to a conclusion. Someone’ll tell that story. And I’m interested – I’m doing a movie about conspiracies, I always hated conspiracies but I’m kind of interested in why I hate them.
The Unknown Known is out this Friday, March 21. Click here to find out where to watch it.