Errol Morris Curated
Oscar Winning Director for Best Documentary
CURATED BY :
How do you arrive at a subject that you are going to make a film about? Do you see a common theme that connects them?
What would you say about your friend and fellow documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog ?
What is your take on 'there is no such thing called objective truth' ?
Which documentaries/films of others do you like most?
Did your interviewee ever called you a few days later with a second thought and asked you to change something?
Do you show your films to your subjects before you show it to the world?
How long do you spend researching or investigating your subjects before you turn the camera on?
Your interviews give a sense monologues because of your absence. Do you think you are reversing power relationships in your interviews?
What made you decide to make yourself absent in your films?
After being in it for so many years now, how do you describe your job ?
In the aftermath of your films, what kind of relationship do you have if any with your subjects?
Do you think there is any straight fact that you can believe in that's not deluded in some way by perception? Or is that just an impossibility?
Your first essay to NY Times came from photos of cannonballs from 1855 by Susan Sontag. Can you tell how that happened?
When you start to research something, what sends you in the direction of film and what in the direction of writing?
Do you miss being a Private Investigator? If so, why?
Do you think your skill of 'finding weird and incredible things going on when you have a close look at something' became the foundation for your career in films or books?
Did you heard from Rumsfeld since the film?
I told Donald Rumsfeld that I would show him cuts as we went along, and I would encourage him to comment. He had no control over the film, but I was interested in his comments. He wanted me to stress that the policies of the Bush Administration were no different than the Clinton Administration with respect to Iraq. I told him I don't agree. [He] didn't like all of this attention that was given to Abu Ghraib and to torture — to me, one of the blackest marks against the Bush Administration. And yes, it's an important part of the film, and yes, it should be.
Once you said you were disappointed with Rumsfeld's interview. Why so?
I'd hoped that there was more there. I feel a little guilty saying all this. Donald Rumsfeld was cooperative, he came to Boston, where I live. He was charming, he was gracious, he gave me access, for the very first time, to these memos which he had written over the years, and yet, in the end, I think this is the right word: I'm horrified. I made Fog of War now 10 years ago. Two Secretaries of Defense, two disastrous wars: Vietnam, Iraq. I could feel in my interviews with McNamara his desperate attempts to understand what he had done, to figure it all out. Here, 10 years later, no attempt whatsoever to figure it out. [Rumsfeld] has this obsession with language, and with words, and definitions — and in the end, the feeling is that we've descended into a sea of words.
On what parts of Rumsfeld's life made you see him differently?
His failure to engage, meaningfully engage, the central issues of our time. I ask him about the war in Vietnam — he was in the Oval Office with President Ford, Henry Kissinger, as we evacuated the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. I ask him, "What did you learn?" His answer: "Some things work out, some things don't, that didn't." I ask him about the torture memos that came out of the Bush Administration: He said he never read them. To me, the most shocking thing about the interview was not his insincerity, but quite the opposite. The fact that he was telling the truth, but the truth was about a failure to really think about anything.
Why do you feel 'The Unknown Known' was so hard to make ?
It was one of the most difficult interviews I've ever done. Interviews, in my mind, should be investigative — you shouldn't know what you're going to hear going into them, you should be surprised. And I was surprised. But I was surprised by how little I found out, not by how much I found out.
At what point did you decide to make a film about Elsa Dorfman?
I had been thinking about it for a while. I’m a man of mostly unmade films, and one of them was the film about Elsa—although I’ve seemingly remedied that [laughs]. I spent an afternoon with her in her garage, and it’s so very simple when you think about it, but complexity can come out of incredible simplicity. I was with Elsa in the garage, and Elsa starts taking Polaroids out of her flat files, and showing them to me. Elsa can’t show you one of her photographs without telling you a story about it. It’s her occupational hazard. And I thought, this is a movie. The flat files, Elsa, the stories. Done. However, it took me a while to get around to just doing it. I decided to pay for it myself rather than waiting around to get money for it—something that might happen but just as likely might never happen. And dates are fabulous motivators. There was a date when Gentle Giant, the local moving company, was coming to Elsa’s house and was going to move these huge 40x60 Polaroids out of her house to where they could be scanned. So I knew this was a good place to start: I’ll film the movers taking the huge Polaroids out of the stairwell in Elsa’s house. And that’s what we did. That was the first day.
Have you had your own picture taken by Elsa Dorfman?
Yes. We’ve all had our photos taken by Elsa. She’s taken our photos collectively, individually. She most recently took a picture of our French bulldog Ivan, which is pretty wonderful. We have pictures of my mother, my stepfather, various friends, friends of my son. A photograph of my son inside a box. It goes on and on and on.
When did you first meet Elsa Dorfman?
Most of the better people that I know are the result of something my wife did. In this particular instance, we had moved from New York to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when my son was 2-3 years old. And when he was five—we can’t really fix the exact date—my wife saw an ad. Elsa was offering to take pictures as part of a benefit. She took my son in to have his picture taken, and that was the very beginning. I can remember not knowing Elsa, but she’s been such a fixture in our lives, it’s hard to really go back to the pre-Elsa period and the pre-Harvey [Silverglate, her husband] period.
When you stick a camera in someone's face and ask him fair questions, doesn’t it just give him a chance to paint this phony picture?
Okay, but what’s the alternative? It’s a version of the same argument. In the movie American Dharma, Bannon says that neo-Nazis are a creation of the mainstream media. No, they’re not. They’re fucking neo-Nazis. We should pay attention. I’m not going to say that I know the secret sauce to make it all go away, I don’t. But each one of us, in our own separate ways, has to do something. If I’ve done the wrong thing… I don’t think I have… I’m sorry. But I would be even sorrier if I had sat on my ass and done nothing. I actually love this country. I feel this country is being destroyed in front of my eyes. It’s deeply surreal. Trump breaks the law and people become involved in some pedantic discussion about whether he really broke the law or not.
What do you hear when Bannon is going on and on about seeing the West Point uniforms that had “Made in Vietnam” on them?
The story is basically, he’s gone to West Point, his daughter is on the volleyball team, a cadet. He looks over into the corner and there are these boxes, and stamped on the boxes are “Made in Vietnam.” And he’s very vehement, and he tells us that he looked at that with horror. Okay. So the question is, what was the horror? Was the horror that this was an implacable foe that we fought for years and years, and now has become a trading partner? People, very cynically, by the way, say that in Vietnam we were just fighting a war to create new trading partners for the American economy. Cheap labor. So is Bannon’s horror that this is all part of some globalist conspiracy? End tariffs, destroy the American labor force, embrace non-whites as part of our economy? That’s certainly part of it. I actually, and people disagree with me about this, I felt there was a racist element in it too.
Why you didn’t name the movie 'American Dharma' as The Fog of Bullshit ?
It is The Fog of Bullshit, but I prefer American Dharma. At one point we thought of calling it American Carnage, after Trump’s inaugural speech. “American Carnage” just seemed not to capture the real horror of Bannon. American Dharma, the idea that he could reduce everything to dharma, destiny and duty, seemed to be the real fog of bullshit. Because once you put all that nonsense in play, you can justify anything. Oh, that was just the fulfillment of dharma. That was just destiny at work. He’s a mix master of nonsense. And what amazes me is that people thought I’m promoting him. I don’t quite see it that way.
When you’re attempting to ask a question, when you don’t know what question you are going to ask or what you are going to say in an interview, what do you do?
Oh, what do you do? I suppose you slowly digest your insides. I mean, it’s never the “what to say,” because I don’t believe in lists of questions. In fact, I think it’s a real, real bad idea to have a list of questions. When people ask me for a list of questions, I say, “No, I don’t do that.” First of all, if you have a list of questions, it means you’re not engaged in listening to what the person says. Say they say something that inspires a question that’s not on your list. Then what do you do? You know? Pull the pin and jump on your hand grenade? The strongest line in The Thin Blue Line is a line that did not come in response to any question I asked. It was volunteered. And it was a line that just opened up the entire case. Emily Miller, eyewitness, said that she saw the defendant shoot the cop. She basically tells you that she has committed perjury, that she was lying, and that her testimony had no validity whatsoever. But it wasn’t in response to asking those questions. Because I would never have gotten the kind of answer that I had gotten. There was never a question: “Did you commit perjury? Did you lie on the stand? Did you exactly see this person?” It was never anything like that.
What do you notice when you look at spoken language on the page, or when you’re writing spoken language?
You see how people are wrestling with what they themselves think, what they believe or don’t want to believe. It becomes a different kind of enterprise than just reading, for example, discursive writing. And in my movies, and also in my writing, I’ve tried to capture something of that. I’m not sure how successful I’ve been. I know that I like my movies—the movies that I do like, I’m not sure how many of them that I do like—but the ones I do like, there’s a remaining mystery in each one of them about who that person I have interviewed really might be. I know one of the reasons I remain fascinated by The Fog of War is I found myself really liking Robert S. McNamara, this person I had actively demonstrated against at the UN in the 1960s. My feelings about the Vietnam War, about his policies, really haven’t changed much over the years. I looked at it as an abomination then, and I look at it as an abomination now. But the fascinating part of it—I think for many people, they saw my job as somehow forcing McNamara to provide a justification for what he had done or to apologize for it. Just like this whole nonsense about Frost and Nixon’s discussions, that it was Frost’s job, some thinly disguised cleric, to force some kind of guilty admission. I find the idea really boring and besides the point. Because I see my job as being a very, very different kind of job. Namely, the job of figuring out, “Who is this person? Who is Robert S. McNamara? Is he lying to me? Is he telling the truth to me? Is he lying to himself? And if he is, in what way?” I felt that in making that movie, he laid bare this mental landscape, incredibly suggestive and complicated. I never, thank God, have had the opportunity to kill millions of people, if you want to consider that an opportunity. But what if you found yourself in that position? What then? Here’s the bottom line: Interviews give me an opportunity to think about stuff. They give me an opportunity to think about people, about myself, about who I am, who they are. I guess about what it means to be alive.
What precipitated you interviewing mass murderers?
I was still a graduate student. Maybe once a graduate student, always a graduate student. That’s a frightening thought. I was a graduate student at Berkeley and I was entertaining the possibility of a Ph.D. thesis on the insanity plea. Lucky me, in the Bay Area at that time, there were all of these mass murderers. There were three of them, Ed Kemper, Charlie Fraser, Herbie Mullin, and I interviewed all three of them. And I’m trying to get my chronology right. It’s hard for me just to remember what happened a couple hours ago, let alone 40 or 50 years in the past. Uh, I had been an undergraduate the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And in those days, everybody talked about Ed Gein. Ed Gein was the famous mass murderer on the block, the man Psycho is based on. Ed Gein came from a small town in central Wisconsin, Plainfield, Wisconsin. Not so far away, a writer, Robert Block, he was there at the time Ed was arrested. So at the end of the ’50s, he wrote a novel about him, which he called Psycho. And [it] was adapted into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. As it turns out, one of the greatest movies ever made. So that was the beginning, really, of my obsession with talking to mass murderers. I interviewed mass murderers in California, and then I arranged to interview Ed Gein. I had already graduated from University of Wisconsin, I was in Berkeley. Sorry if this is a really roundabout way of telling the story, but I went back to Wisconsin. It was the allure of Ed Gein. I went back to Wisconsin and I interviewed him several times at Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, Wisconsin.
What kind of interviewing were you doing before you were film making?
I was interviewing mass murderers.
You wanted 'American Dharma' out during the midterm elections?
I thought it could help. And I wanted to weigh in on the midterms and the 2020 election. I thought I could do something useful by making this movie.
Were you ever at a point where you gave the DIY route a serious thought for releasing American Dharma?
I did give it a serious thought, but all my movies have been theatrically distributed, why not this one? Look, America has gone crazy. It is a crazy a-- country.
In February you send out a tweet, "F--k 'em. I'll distribute the movie myself." By that time iterally every door had been shut in regards to getting the film distributed? If so, what were the reasons given?
Yes. There were many reasons given, and often in this case there were no reasons given.
Bannon was there in Venice at the time, but was not at the premiere. Was it your call to not have him in the theater?
I didn't want it to be my call one way or the other. I just did not want to be involved.
Was your mother religious?
I believe yes, although that can mean so many different things. My mother’s first language was Yiddish. I never knew her mother and father. They must have been extraordinary. But certainly my mother had a sense of tragedy in life. My father died at forty-three, of a massive heart attack. My brother died at the age of forty, of a massive heart attack. My brother was roughly six years older than myself, and brilliant, brilliant in his own way. Even more than an accomplished pianist, my mother was an accomplished sight-reader. I’ve never, ever, ever seen anybody who had her sight-reading abilities. In the last years of her life, when she had macular degeneration, it was sad because she could never sight-read in that same way that she could when I was a child. The last day of her life, she went downstairs and she played Czerny, which she knew by heart. Czerny, “Exercises.” I’ll never be as good a musician as she was.
Before you were making films, you played the cello? How did you start that?
I still am playing the cello. My mother was an extraordinary musician, a graduate of Juilliard, in piano. My father died when I was two. I have no memory of my father. My mother wanted me to be a doctor, like my father. And I’d say, “I don’t want to be a doctor and like my father. I don’t know my father. I’d like to be like you. I’d like to be an artist.” I always think that, if I could live up to who my mother was, then I would have done something. My mother is very much an inspiration. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother playing the piano, and my sitting next to her, turning pages. It was one of my great pleasures as a child.
You made a commercial about Theranos, the company that Elizabeth Holmes founded. It turned out that the company was built on the lie that it could take a few droplets of blood and test it for a couple hundred diseases. Alex Gibney made a film about it. Is there something about truth to be learned from that?
I have directed over a thousand commercials. I’ve turned down commercials. I most recently turned down commercials for Juul. I was offered close to a million dollars to direct Juul commercials. I didn’t want to be mixed up with it. I’ve consistently turned down military advertising, because I don’t want to be responsible for convincing some poor son of a bitch to get their face blown off in Iraq or Afghanistan. I don’t feel comfortable doing it. Do I vet every single company that I do commercials for? No, I do not. Elizabeth Holmes is someone whom I actually liked. She is a charismatic and compelling figure. It’s one of the reasons why, for a while, Theranos was a success. So I asked to do this. I asked to interview Elizabeth, which I did. I also did a whole series of what I call phlebotomy horror stories, which I loved doing. I’m afraid of needles. I haven’t seen the Alex Gibney film, nor do I want to see it. I was asked to participate in it; I refused repeatedly. The stories that are told about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos now have taken a predictable pattern. If the job of making these kinds of films is demonizing the subject, because everybody has decided that they should be demonized, then are you doing your job? Are you piling on? Are you pandering? What exactly are you doing? To me, what really is interesting about Elizabeth—given that I have much more knowledge now than when I was doing these prospective ads for Theranos—did she really see herself as a fraud? Did she see herself like Bannon, with the Clinton accusers coming into the room, rubbing her hands together? Was it calculation? I have a hard time squaring that with my own experience. Could I have been self-deceived, delusional? You betcha. I’m no different than the next guy. I’d like to think I’m a little different. But I’m still fascinated by her. You know, it goes back to Plato’s Protagoras. No person does evil thinking they’re doing evil. First they construe it as the good. I wanted to do a movie about Elizabeth Holmes right after the commercial. And I wanted to, even after she got into terrible trouble. Let me try to be clear about this, because I think it’s a danger area: it’s not that I wanted to become an apologist for Elizabeth Holmes, or was riddled with guilt for having done these commercials. No, it’s because I became interested. Who is this woman?
You wanted to make commercials for Hillary Clinton?
I did. I offered my services repeatedly. Part of it was to create material with her where she would present herself in a less formulaic, mechanical fashion, to tease out some kind of humanity from the candidate. You do these things, maybe they don’t work. Then you don’t show them. You look at it and say, “This was not as good as we expected. Go fuck yourself, Mr. Morris.” Which is fine! But to not make the effort? Well, remind me, I believe the results of that election were not to her benefit.
What did you feel when you learned that Bannon had loved “The Fog of War,” your film on the former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara?
I had no idea Bannon became a documentary filmmaker because of me. Which is just crazy. Really crazy. I thought, Oh, fuck, am I the cause of everything? Will I be blamed? I thought it was absurd. I find Bannon absurd, as well as frightening. Here is a guy presenting himself as a populist, who really is a product—regardless of his middle-class background—of the élites. Harvard Business School, et al. And the beneficiary of money from right-wing billionaires. And I didn’t confront him, but it’s not about confrontation. It’s about elucidation.
There’s a moment in “American Dharma” when Bannon takes you to task for having voted for Hillary Clinton. Are you sympathetic to his critique?
I was, and I am, sympathetic. My son was really angry with me because I voted for Hillary in the Massachusetts primary. Why didn’t I vote for Bernie? My simple answer is I didn’t think Bernie was electable and I thought she was, which, I think, in retrospect, is a bad answer.
What if you had asked a difficult question once you were in?
I think I did ask a number of so-called difficult questions. I’ve seen probably thirty or forty interviews with Steve Bannon, and they’re all the same. He’s evasive. He avoids answering a question. Often it becomes an extended filibuster of one kind or another. And if that’s what you want, if that’s what, really, the job requires, I guess I’m the wrong person.
What is your favorite moment in any interview that you’ve done?
I have a clear favorite. It would be my interview with Emily Miller, in “The Thin Blue Line.” If I had to point to any one piece of information that led to Randall Adams’s release from prison, it would be information collected in that interview. But the most powerful and revealing things that Miller said to me didn’t come in response to any question, because I didn’t know enough to even frame those questions.
What is your take on question-and-answer format of interviews?
The whole question-and-answer format, to me, really misrepresents what’s going on. First of all, I think all questions are more or less rhetorical questions. No one wants their questions answered. They just want to state their question. And, in answering the question, the person never wants to answer the question. They just want to talk. I used to work, years ago, as a private detective. My boss, who has become one of the most successful detectives in the world, Jimmy Mintz, once defined for me a perfect interview. For him, in the perfect interview, you learn everything about the person you’re talking to and they learn nothing about you. I got a lot of this with “American Dharma.” “You”—this was the accusation, you being me—“didn’t ask the difficult questions. You were a candy ass. You let him off the hook. You gave him a pass. Not only weren’t you tough enough, you were a patsy.”
Why is your company is called Fourth Floor Productions?
I used to have an office in midtown Manhattan. Fifty-third Street and Broadway, in the Ed Sullivan Theatre building, which was really, for all intents and purposes, an abandoned building. Occasionally, they would rent it out to second- and third-rate telethons. But I only had the third floor. Maybe everything that I do is based on misdirection. And maybe some level of irony, hopefully.