Errol Morris Is "Fast, Cheap, & Out Of Control"
by Anthony Kaufman
What do a mole rat specialist, a robotics scientist, a topiary gardener (one who cuts shrubs in the shape of animals) and a wild animal trainer have in common? “Fast, Cheap, & Out Of Control,” the new documentary by Errol Morris which opens today on the heels of its NYFF premiere, shifts between these four engaging characters to contemplate the question. Morris uses a collage of different color film stocks, speeds, and angles, to create a beautifully open-ended portrait of these men of nature and of our own complex existence.
A deeply intelligent and witty man, Morris goes from quoting Yeats and Hawthorne to dissing the self-indulgence of the film industry, saying sardonically, “I’ve always said that film is based on waste, that the people that are usually the most successful waste the most amount in making movies.” Morris doesn’t waste a frame in this new film — or any time; when I say that indieWIRE focuses on independent film, he jumps right in:
Errol Morris: I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of independent film because it’s a term that’s been used in so many different ways to refer to so many different things. Does it really describe something out there in the world? Is it a marketing tool? What is it? I always liked the idea of being an independent filmmaker as far as creativity is concerned, but a dependent filmmaker as far as financing is concerned. I mean, everybody really is dependent in some way as a filmmaker in getting money to make. . .
indieWIRE: . . .their project, however low on the budget scale. . .
Morris: However low it is on the budget scale, it usually represents more money than people can come by anyway. So there’s always some kind of struggle involved. I mean, it is true when people are making a standard film, it comes easier. A lot of film financing is simply built on risk management. How do you manage risk? By hiring a star, by hiring a director that has made a high grossing film in the past or by reading screenplays and thinking that seems sort of appealing. . . well, with my work, it’s not really clear how you manage risk. It’s not clear what you’re getting. I remember going into one studio meeting not so long ago for a new project altogether and the production executive said, “Well, you know, the success of this is going to depend a lot on execution.” (A wry smile)
iW: When wouldn’t it?
Morris: I tried to parse it out in mind. It’s that question, what is he saying? Is he saying the success of this project is going to depend on execution and “Given Who Or What You Are, Buster” there’s no chance that this could be successful. Or is he saying, “I just want projects that really don’t depend on how they’re made.” And there may be projects like that. There’s something deeply cynical about that, or maybe not cynical. There’s something sad about it.
iW: How difficult is it for you to raise money?
Morris: It’s been difficult in varying ways to get money for everything I’ve ever made. I don’t think it’s a rule of thumb to say the more predictable, the less original it is to get money for something, but my films fall between the cracks.
iW: You’ve said before that you don’t really consider yourself a documentary filmmaker?
Morris: It’s not clear what they are, what they resemble. If I’m a documentary filmmaker and I’m making documentaries, then the question immediately arises, why do they cost so much money? Documentary films, by definition, don’t cost as much money.
iW: Do you think the demarcation of a project is a budgetary one?
Morris: Well, of course, it becomes not just a budgetary one, although that’s a part of it. It also becomes a stylistic one, in that sense, that most documentaries are taken to be a kind of news report and the extent that a documentary is shot with handheld camera with a shotgun mike and available light and a crew of 4-5 people, there is no reason why a documentary should cost millions of dollars. If they’re shot with 30-40 people, if they’re storyboarded, and they’re shot much more in the tradition of fiction filmmaking, then the only way to create those images is by spending some money. . . [In “The Thin Blue Line“] I needed the reenactments because that’s part of my conception of this material as a movie. And shooting those was expensive. If not for Lindsay Law and American Playhouse at that particular time, there really would be no “The Thin Blue Line.”
iW: As far as what you were saying what a documentary is before, I think people have said that “The Thin Blue Line” changed that. It changed that meaning for a lot of people. Whether we want to say it’s not documentary or we want to say it reformulated documentary in a lot of people’s minds. . . Morris: Well, that’s nice to hear.
iW: Do you feel that?
Morris: I’d like to think it did. I like to think it opened up questions about what we take to be fiction and non-fiction. . . I mean, “The Thin Blue Line” was this attempt to have my cake and eat it too. Make a film that had journalistic content and at the same time to make a film that worked as a movie. It had movie ideas in it.
iW: I think this is a good place to turn to “Fast, Cheap, & Out Of Control” because there are definitely “movie” elements in it. I think it has something to do with the cinematographer [Robert Richardson, “JFK,” “City Of Hope,” “Casino“] you chose and the visual look of the film.
Morris: Certainly. The visual look of what I do is really, really important. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had really terrific D.P.’s involved with every project. Even “Gates Of Heaven,” I went through four D.P.’s before Ned Burgess. And the irony of it is that Ned was the only one who somehow got it. Because all the other D.P.s had in their heads this idea of how a documentary film had to be shot and they could not bring themselves to do otherwise. One of the premises from the very beginning is to take all the basic tenants of cinema verite and stand them on their head. From the very beginning, I wanted the camera always to be mounted on a tripod, rather than handheld. . .
iW: How much do you feel an affinity with your characters?
Morris: Great affinity. These characters are certainly not different people from me. I don’t think I’m any less obsessive than they are. I mean, the idea of the film is that these people are providing a mirror for ourselves. On the very specific level, they are people I identify with strongly. There are certain themes in each of these stories. The topiary gardener may be for me the emotional heart of the movie. Because in its purest form it seems the most obviously quixotic and dignified, which is interesting in of itself. There is a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called “The Artist and the Beautiful,” which I admire, about a watchmaker, who spends his entire life constructing a butterfly and it’s destroyed in a day. . . There is something I like very much about George [the gardener], spending years and years on things which are truly absurd, a huge camel or elephant or giraffe, but bringing to it a level of commitment, love, passion, hope that makes the enterprise almost sublime.
iW: And I can’t help going back to the idea that it’s a parallel for your job and the filmmaker’s job.
Morris: Cut and wait. Cut and wait. It’s the explicit reference to my job.