Errol Morris -- phone interview

Date: November 12, 1997
Place: Cambridge, MA (him) and Surrey, BC (me)

I conducted this phone interview as part of my research for an article I wrote for Books & Culture. I have liked the films of Errol Morris ever since I saw The Thin Blue Line -- a film that has long ranked among my all-time top ten -- and the film which occasioned this article, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, was easily my favorite of that year. My article for Books & Culture is not on the magazine's web site; however, a review I wrote for BC Christian News is online.

I had heard that Morris lets his interviewees ramble without interruption, the better to see what they reveal about themselves, so I tried a similar approach. Also, for lack of a better word, I describe his laughter as "snickering", though it wasn't as sinister as the word may suggest; it's just that he never really "laughed" as such.

EM: Hi.

PTC: Hello.

EM: How are you?

PTC: Alright. Is this Errol?

EM: Yes.

PTC: Hi, I'm alright, how are you?

EM: I'm fine.

PTC: How much time do we have, would you say?

EM: I don't know. I've been running around doing stuff, so it's hard for me to say.

PTC: Twenty minutes, would you say? Would that be alright?

EM: Yes.

PTC: Alright. With Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, how did you choose your subjects, plural, as in the interviewees?

EM: I don't think there's one criterion that I can point to, like this was the principle by which these four people were chosen. I wanted to make a movie like this [snickers] for some time, namely a movie that would integrate four separate stories, weave them together into one movie. I had known about the lion tamer for many years, and then the other three stories I found relatively quickly, two of them in the area where I live -- I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so one of these stories comes from Rutherford, Rhode Island, which is about an hour and a half south of here, and another one of the stories comes from MIT, which is about a ten-minute walk from where I am, and I'm looking out the window at the Earth Science building as we speak. I was interested in finding a topiary gardener for the movie, and when I found out there was a topiary garden of animals, wild animals, out of privet, that certainly attracted my attention. The robots came from an article that my wife read in Connoisseur magazine, and I was attracted again to the fact that Rodney had a whole number of different robots in a robot bestiary. [snickers]

PTC: Okay. Another question which will sound rather similar to the last one, but is kind of different: How did you choose your subject, singular? Or what is the common link between these four?

EM: Well, there's this idea that there's one common link, as if I've set up some kind of puzzle that's supposed to be resolved by a simple answer, and I don't think that's the case. I don't think there is one common link, I think there are many thematic links between the characters.

PTC: Well, not necessarily a simple answer, but how about a complex answer?

EM: A complex answer! That's even worse! Now I have to do all the work! I mean, there's lots of different themes: the control of nature, our ideas about animals as a way in which we project an image of ourselves on the world, ideas about mortality and immortality, obsession. [snickers]

PTC: You mentioned animals as a way that we project ourselves onto the world, and someone like Ray Mendez would perhaps argue the opposite, that we're learning something or extracting something from the animals.

EM: Well, in fact, he says at one point in the movie, "It's a form of self-knowledge," which sort of belies that characterization.

PTC: Okay. You don't think that that could be a two-way street?

EM: What?

PTC: That we could learn something from the animals just as much as we might be imposing something on them.

EM: Well, that's the question. Yes, I think it could be a two-way street, but the way it's expressed in the movie -- there does seem to be an odd paradox in what he's saying. There is this interest in what he calls "the other", defined as that which has nothing whatsoever to do with ourselves and how we live, the mole-rat perhaps being the quintessential example. And then he says that it's self-knowledge, a learning about who we are. Yeah, it's a mystery, I would say. It's a mystery about whether or not we're looking at the world or looking at ourselves, which I think is part of the entire movie. How does that sound?

PTC: Oh, it sounds good.

EM: Good.

PTC: There seems to be a theme running throughout your documentaries, at least, anyway, that whole notion of self-knowledge, going back to, say, Gates of Heaven, and in Vernon, Florida there's the man who, the first time you see him, he says, "Have you ever seen a man's brains?" and he goes on from there, and there's an interesting moment in Thin Blue Line, where most of the film is dealing with this murder investigation, or whatever you want to call it, but there's that interesting aside near the end, where we're not really dealing with the murder case any more, but where David Harris begins to explain --

EM: -- his own behaviour.

PTC: Yeah. So this seems to be a recurring theme throughout your films.

EM: And I really like you commenting on it for a whole number of reasons, because it seems to me that The Thin Blue Line -- take that example and the example of David Harris talking at the end of the movie. There's one mystery -- there's the sort of obvious mystery, the whodunit, who killed police officer Robert Wood? was it Randall Adams or was it David Harris? -- and that whodunit is resolved, for all intents and purposes, at the end of The Thin Blue Line. It's David Harris, and not Randall Adams. But there are all of these lingering mysteries, which are not resolved, and really can't be resolved. Why did it happen? Why did they happen to meet on the road that day? Why did David Harris do what he did? Why wasn't it more obvious to all concerned at the time of the murder that he was the culprit? And on and on and on and on. The last line before the tape recording at the end of the movie, I think, is one of the most ironic lines I've ever put on film, and people never comment on it.

PTC: Which is that?

EM: This strange epiphany, where David Harris says, "I came to realize I was only hurting myself." And whenever I hear the line, I think, "Not quite, David. [snickers] Others as well." [snickers] This moment of self-knowledge seems to be a moment of self-deception. [snickers]

PTC: Interesting. Do you think that's the case with any of the characters -- listen to me, I said "characters" -- any of the people in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control?

EM: Well, they are characters and they are people. I think that's one of the things that makes my films interesting.

PTC: How do you mean they are "characters"?

EM: I think they're characters because we feel them as part of a theatrical piece, as well as real people. And I don't think that the two are incompatible at all. I think that the two can certainly exist side-by-side.

PTC: Okay ...

EM: But in answer to the question, I think it's the human condition. I don't think it's true of my characters any more than it's true of myself or anyone else, for that matter, that the world is a very difficult thing to see. At the very beginning of Vernon, Florida, for example, Albert Bitterling, my Cartesian philosopher in the swamp, says, "You mean this is the real world? I never thought of that."

PTC: Of course, one comparison that can be made is between the people in your film who study things -- like mole rats and robots and whatever -- and yourself. You, in the film, are studying them. Is making the film a form of self-knowledge for yourself?

EM: I think it is. I think it's an attempt of discovering some aspect of the world, and I think it is, in part, an attempt to understand myself, understand who I am. I like to think that there's a lot of me in this movie -- and all of my movies -- this movie in particular, I think this is more a personal film than anything I've done before.

PTC: Well, it certainly -- the word "interference" comes to mind, I don't mean that in a bad way, but you're not just recording people talk. You're, I think, arguably, more than with any of your other films, you're mixing in a lot of, say, experimental photography and stuff like that, and it's very much a work of art in that sense, it's not simply a document of people talking. Is that sort of what you mean when you say it's one of your more personal films?

EM: I think that, too, but I think that -- I feel the themes are maybe the themes that I feel most acutely in the movie. Y'know, I've talked about the movie so much it worries me, in truth, because part of me truly believes that movies should stand alone, and that I'm engaged in a form of special pleading by, y'know, serving this sort of exegetical function in terms of my own work. So I'm confused about what to do with this movie. I mean, I certainly have talked about it a great deal, and I think about it a great deal. The movie seems to me very mysterious, the way these characters describe their worlds, or these worlds that they've created for themselves, seems to leave really no place for any of them. It's one of the things that's sort of, I find, endlessly fascinating about the stories. Maybe it's just a happenstance of how these people were picked, or how they were edited, but I often think that, for both the lion tamer and the gardener, these are stories about worlds that are coming to an end -- it's not just that their careers or their lives are coming to an end because they're older or they represent an older generation than either the mole rat guy or the robot scientist, it's that they see their worlds ending with them, and the younger guys, the younger generation, see worlds of the future of which we're not a part. I mean, it's most explicit, of course, in the robot scientist, who simply says that, if he's successful, there won't be a place for us in the future. I think that's fairly explicit. So you wonder, where are we supposed to go in all of this? It's like, I remember this scene in Once Upon a Time in the West I've always liked, where this guy is groveling in the dirt and Henry Fonda, the bad guy, is standing in this railroad car and looking down at him. Guns are drawn, and the guy says, "How am I going to live?" The response is, of course, "You should learn to live as if you don't exist," and he shoots him. [snickers]

PTC: Interesting. One question I was going to ask is, in A Brief History of Time, the punchline in there, or one of Hawking's mottos anyway, is, once he's sort of explained the universe, is, "What place, then, for a creator, or a God?" And one thing -- and I hope this doesn't seem like it's coming from too far out of left field -- but one question that comes to mind, looking at some of the things in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is, y'know, if humans are just more complex collections of feedback loops or whatever, what place then for the soul? is one question that comes to mind. Do you see a parallel there as well?

EM: Well, the Hawking book also -- It's interesting to me, you know, there's a series running on Public Broadcasting as we speak, which I happened to look at a couple of nights ago, because I met, during the making of A Brief History of Time, a professor of theoretical physics at Harvard who I've remained close friends with, Sidney Coleman, and he asked me to watch part of this -- I kept hoping he would appear in this, he'd been filmed, but I didn't see him, at least in the installment that I saw -- and looking at it reminded me of what I didn't want to make [snickers] quite clearly. And it seemed based on this confusion about the book. I know this is a longwinded answer, but it does address the question. Stephen Hawking would characterize his own book as the most widely sold and least widely read book since the Bible, which may or may not be true, but one thing is pretty clear. The book is perceived as some work of science pedagogy -- this is Hawking's attempt to teach physics to the multitude -- and I never saw the book that way. From my first reading of it, it always struck me as a romance novel: elements of personal biography, attempts to characterize his relationship to his science. If you read essays on 19th century poetry about the pathetic fallacy, well, A Brief History of Time is the pathetic fallacy writ large: inanimate nature endowed with lifelike characteristics -- birth, life, death -- and it goes on and on and on. So what became deeply fascinating about the book was the world as dream, the connection of Hawking with his science and his work, not the science and the work itself per se. And so, when you ask me about lines in Brief History of Time, for example, the line about "first cause" or "what need for a creator", I think these lines all have some kind of deep resonance in terms of his own life. I mean, there was perhaps no need for a creator in Newtonian mechanics as well. It's wrestling with this idea of our place in the scheme of things. Even the last line of the book, it interested me that some professor in Maryland had taken me to task for being some New Age guy, and I think implicitly taking Hawking to task for being some New Age guy, for the last lines of the movie, which were the last lines of the book, talking about knowing the mind of God, where everyone knows the mind of God! A time will come when not just specialists have this knowledge, but we all will have this knowledge! And I hear these lines, and I think, literally speaking, of course they make no sense! I mean, what are we talking about here? A phalanx of garbage collectors, cleaning ladies, luncheon counter workers, all with books on quantum electrodynamics? It's a dream of somehow being one with the universe. I think it's a very complex dream. I think there's something very mysterious also in that book as well, which I tried in part to capture, because if Hawking isn't some kind of simple theist, nevertheless these questions about God run through the entire book. "What place, then, for a creator?" to me is -- well, the creator is the Old Testament creator, in the sense of Genesis, of setting the world in motion. His theories, as he sees them, have no need for such a figure. And then, what does creation mean? What does life mean? What is the purpose of it all? It's not something that resolves all of these questions, I think it just examines them. I like the book, I like Stephen Hawking very, very much, by the way, and I remain in contact with him and I still like him a lot. He's a funny guy, among other things. Is that a bad answer? You have to tell me if I'm being responsive.

PTC: Well, it was good, but I was trying to draw a parallel between that and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, where I think Rodney Brooks talks about the danger of overanalyzing life -- well, "danger" is perhaps my word for it -- he talks about how if you analyze life too much, it becomes meaningless.

EM: Right, there's this feeling of despair lurking there, isn't there? Like, just all the automatons, and we all might in fact be -- I mean, one of the reasons I like some of the shots in the circus is that that world does look robotic in nature, or the insect world looks robotic in nature, or the mole rat world looks robotic in nature, or even -- this is not to denigrate the characters, because I think that all of these stories overlap and there's many different ways of seeing each one of them -- but even if the world were meaningless in that sense, if we were all robots, then there's something deeply mysterious about each one of us in the process of trying to replicate and create life, as if there's some kind of progress into the future, as if that's our destiny. Our destiny is to be a kind of Doctor Frankenstein, collectively. But I like the speech very much, there's something horribly sad about it, it's that sense of loss of who we are, what I was talking about before about the future will not include us, and maybe, y'know, who we are, even of ourselves, is an illusion. There's something so despairing and sad about it. "I don't want to reflect this way," he says, "because it's like you can't live that way!" It's almost like, you know, a speech about the need for illusion in order to -- To me, it's like another image of one of my favorite lines in the movie, which comes from the lion tamer, when he says, "Outside the cage is the cage. [snickers] Inside is their world." Y'know, inside is our world, in Rodney's musings, of mind and soul and intentionality, where outside the cage is maybe this kind of cruel reality of simple feedback loops.

PTC: Is that something yourself would espouse then, or would that be your position?

EM: No, I don't look at these people as, sort of, this-guy-is-a-spokesperson-for-myself. What do I think? I probably do incline somewhere in the direction of Rodney Brooks. I know that I was very depressed during the making of this movie. My mother and stepfather had died. I was very close to both of them, I love them both very deeply and still love them both, and I keep mentioning these Yeats poems in connection with this movie -- I did at the end of my Q&A at the New York Film Festival -- 'Lapis Lazuli' in particular, and also 'Circus Animals Desertion', and this woman came up to me after the screening and said she had read 'Lapis Lazuli' at her father's funeral. Now, there's something -- I don't know if anyone ever asked Yeats to explicate his poem. I'm certainly -- I'm having a discussion with a friend of mine; I went to see a Wiseman film on Friday at the Harvard archive, and there was a Q&A with Fred Wiseman afterwards, and someone was saying to me, "The director shouldn't be put in this position, where they have to answer questions about their work." And I thought, "Well, there is something interesting about it. They can't plead the Fifth, you don't have to Mirandize them before you ask them a question, you can just go at 'em and see what they come up with." But in 'Lapis Lazuli', there's something also -- I like this mixture of a kind of despair, a feeling that the world is just some gigantic tapestry of people just going through the motions of life, that really has no inherent purpose or meaning, but there's somehow some enormous romance and dignity in it notwithstanding. There's something very odd about the world evoked in that poem, and maybe something about, sort of, the rhapsody of the human enterprise, and I can't quite put my finger on it. But I like Fast, Cheap because I think it is a kind of mysterious movie. Even embodied in those last two images of the gardener, the one of him almost in heaven, clipping his camel, and in the other, of him in his garden in the rain and the fog.

PTC: Okay. Also, a couple of more minor questions. Things like the Interrotron, are you sitting in a different room altogether from the interviewee when you do those?

EM: I could be, and I have been, on occasion. I wasn't in the filming of this movie, I was in the same studio with them, but I was not within eye contact with them, if only because of the fact that it creates this diversion. You don't want them looking at me, the person, you want them looking at the virtual me, the image on the mirror --

PTC: Because there is that one point where you hear your voice just before the end of the film.

EM: Well that's just simply recorded separately.

PTC: Alright. Did you try getting Philip Glass to do the music for this one as well?

EM: I did not want to use Philip Glass in this one. Not because I don't like Philip, I do like Philip! I like him and I like his music, it's just that I wanted something different.

PTC: You have made one fictional film [The Dark Wind] --

EM: Yes.

PTC: -- and I hate to say, it's the one film of yours I haven't seen yet. I've looked for it all over video stores in Vancouver here, and the specialty stores that are supposed to cover all the things you never find at normal stores don't seem to have it. Has it been released on video?

EM: I believe it has been, but it's a movie that I was not involved in editing, which in and of itself is sort of strange for me, because I am very much involved in film editing. It's part of what I do. Although I don't take editorial credit in my movies, I'm there in the editing room every day. It was a very weird experience. It's a good reason why people who are used to doing their own work shouldn't find themselves in a situation where they are totally out of control, quote-unquote, where my ability to actually create a movie is so circumscribed and so limited it's not clear why I was even hired to actually work on it, let alone be the director.

PTC: Would you ever want to make a fictional film again?

EM: Yeah, I do, but I don't want to ever do it under those circumstances.

PTC: This may be a silly question, given that you've made five documentaries and only one fictional film, but do you prefer one or the other, or are there any advantages to a fictional film that -- ?

EM: I think there are advantages to a fictional film, in some instances. I mean, there are some stories that need to be told that way, and other stories that need to be told using real people. I don't think I prefer one over the other. I really prefer working, as opposed to not working, and it's been easier for me to make movies that really cost somewhere in the vicinity of $1.5 million to $2.5 million, rather than movies that are nine or ten or eleven million dollars or more. But there's several fiction projects that I have which I would like to see get made in the near future.

PTC: Okay, I don't want to raise any -- well -- Entertainment Weekly. Can I ask a question about that?

EM: Sure.

PTC: Have you seen their review of it?

EM: I have.

PTC: Okay. What would your response be to Owen Gleiberman's description of the film? In particular, his remarks that it is "smug", "callow", "snide" and "condescending" -- those sorts of adjectives?

EM: Well, let me ask you, what do you think?

PTC: Well, a friend of mine and I came to the conclusion that he was very insecure. We didn't think that you were necessarily saying anything about those subjects yourself, about them being dehumanized, but the question was a more broad human question, and perhaps Owen didn't like that, was our guess. But I didn't agree with him.

EM: I'm puzzled by it. I've heard remarks like this about Gates of Heaven, it was absent altogether from The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time.

PTC: Well, it reminded me of some criticisms I've heard of Werner Herzog, whose films yours do resemble to some degree, that he exploits his subjects or --

EM: Well, Owen Gleiberman's specific example was the bowtie being worn by Ray Mendez, but Ray Mendez showed up wearing that tie. So then the question becomes, am I supposed to tell him to take the tie off? What am I, a filmmaker or a social worker? And why would I ask him to take the tie off? Ray Mendez is possessed of a sense of -- and particularly, I'm talking about him, and this is not true of all my characters -- but he's possessed of a sense of irony and of the fact that he's funny, and he's a really, really funny guy, and intentionally so. Citing him as example -- I mean, what's so funny about it, it makes it even more ridiculous, is there's only one time in all of my filmmaking that someone has refused to sign a release following filming, okay? And that was Ray Mendez. And the reason he refused to sign a release is that, years before, he had appeared in a documentary film where he felt that he had been horribly abused and ridiculed and taken advantage of, okay? And he refused to allow it to happen to him again, so he refused to sign a release until he saw the completed movie. Well, I did this interview with him, I liked the interview and I thought, "Well, I'll take a chance." [snickers] Not realizing how long it was going to take to make the movie, how involved the process was going to be, how much I would have invested in it personally, financially, however, emotionally, however you want to describe it. When the movie was finished, I sent an Avid lay-off to Ray to look at it and to release. He loved the movie, and he signed the release and returned it immediately. So here's a person who was extremely sensitive to these issues, and yet he is cited as the one example of my debased filmmaking technique, so I think it's preposterous. That's what I think. And with all of those, I always wonder, "What is he really saying? What is this about? Is it just that I-don't-like-your- movie? I-don't-like-you? I-didn't-respond-to-the-movie?"

PTC: Well, it wasn't just your movie that he responded to, he was responding to the critics who like your movie, too, which was --

EM: Yes! He attacked the people, not just me! Like, those assholes who have had the impertinence to actually like my work! Fuck 'em!

PTC: Yeah, it was an unusually nasty approach to take --

EM: Yeah, I think somewhat vitriolic, would be a description. But, you know, he's entitled. He's a reviewer, he's entitled to his opinion. I just respectfully disagree. And I would cite this example -- his example of Ray Mendez -- and the underlying story, which is true! You know, there's this idea somehow that documentary filmmakers are supposed to be making commercials for humanity. It's like you're hired by some exclusive advertising agency to sell humanity to itself, that you should provide some kind of life-affirming, valetudinarian portrait of the world, and people can say, "Ah! How wonderful life is! What a finely wrought thing is man!" [snickers] Y'know? To me, I guess my response to that idea would be, "Why!?"

PTC: [laughs] Okay, that's an interesting way to look at it.

EM: Y'know, I'm a filmmaker, a film worker, not a creative director at some kind of advertising agency for, y'know, mankind. It's started even annoying me about the whole sort of, like, documentary business, that we become confused somehow, that any movie about a good person has to be a good movie, y'know? Mother Teresa -- any documentary about Mother Teresa has to be a good documentary because, after all, Mother Teresa is a good person. And any documentary about a bad person would have to be bad by some similar argument.

PTC: No, it could be a good documentary if it took an appropriate moral tone, don't you think?

EM: Yes.

PTC: Okay. Oh, but you mean if you let the subject speak for themselves, or how do you mean it would be a bad movie?

EM: Well yeah, I just worry about, certainly in connection with my current film.

PTC: You mean the one you're working on right now?

EM: Yes.

PTC: Oh, what is that.

EM: I don't really want to talk about it, because I can't see how it does me any good at this point, and I'd like to finish it first, and it's a complex movie, and I think it could be my best movie, and it sort of addresses a lot of these themes. [It turned out to be Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. -- a film which Gleiberman praised, incidentally.]

PTC: Okay. Is this going to be like Thin Blue Line, where you get a guy off a murder rap, except he did do the murder?

EM: Well, The Thin Blue Line, there's a lot of luck involved there. I mean, I don't think it's every day that you get to investigate a murder, get the killer to confess [snickers] and get the fall guy out of jail. I mean, there's an element of luck, of the fortuitous, and I think it would be hubris to sort of try it again. Although, having said that, there is another story -- not the one I'm working on now -- the one about Jeffrey MacDonald, the Green Beret doctor who was the subject of Fatal Vision, that does deeply interest me. And yes, I think he might be innocent.

PTC: Another question that may just seem a little unusual. The magazine I'm writing for, actually, is a Christian magazine --

EM: Uh-huh.

PTC: -- and one thing I've noticed in your films is that a lot of them do have this sort of theological content, for lack of a better description, and I'm just wondering if you yourself have any background or affiliation, anywhere at any time, with any sort of religious group or anything like that.

EM: Well, I certainly am obsessed with religious questions, but I don't have any affiliation.

PTC: Any sort of religious upbringing?

EM: I actually don't want to talk about it at the moment, if that's okay.

PTC: Oh, that's okay. Yeah, sure. Your last three films -- well, not including the fictional film -- your last three documentaries have all had scenes from, for lack of a better description, cheesy adventure movies.

EM: [snickers] Yeah.

PTC: What role does that play for you, in your films?

EM: Um, entering into, sort of, people's dreams, that are informed, in part, by cheesy adventure movies. Certainly in the case of Dave Hoover in Fast, Cheap, it's informed by looking at Clyde Beatty when he was a kid in these cheesy adventure movies. Part of his dream, he says at the beginning, is being Clyde Beatty -- not being a lion tamer, but being all that that name implied to him as a child, which was in part this creature that existed on celluloid, of wanting to be part dream, part real lion tamer.

PTC: Is there a cheesy movie, so to speak --

EM: -- that I'm in?

PTC: Yeah.

EM: Um, God, well I've always loved film noir, so maybe I see myself as some kind of film noir character too.

PTC: I know, for my part, there's two kinds of scenes in a movie that I always love. One is of somebody making a movie, the other is of people watching a movie, cuz for some reason a movie, no matter how bad it is, it gets easier to watch the instant they show the characters watching a movie. I don't know why that is, but --

EM: Well, because it allows you the sort of necessary distance from it, and you don't feel that you're trapped or engulfed by its cheesiness or its badness, but you sort of like look at it with a certain kind of ironic bemusement or ironic detachment.

PTC: Right. So, film noir, you figure, but you don't have any particular film that you see yourself being in?

EM: Well, I'm thinking about it. Not off-hand. I should go back to my editing, if that's okay.

PTC: Yeah, this has probably gone on far, far longer than it should have. But thanks very much, though, for the interview.

EM: Oh no, thank you for -- thanks for calling.

PTC: Oh, okay, no problem.

EM: Okay.

PTC: Okay, bye.

EM: Take care, bye.

© 1997-2001 Peter T. Chattaway
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