A pet cemetery in California, two Secretaries of Defense, and numerous Ronald McDonalds lauding the cuisine of Taco Bell are among the sundry subjects in Errol Morris’ body of work. This Academy Award-winning filmmaker has been working steadily since 1978, crafting a number of invigorating documentaries that examine the way people orate, and what it reveals about themselves and the world around them. He gives special attention not just to how people say the things they do, but also to the things they don’t say.
The Criterion Collection has graciously decided to shine a light on Morris’s first three films: “Gates of Heaven,” which chronicles the transportation of hundreds of dead animals from one pet cemetery to another; “Vernon, Florida,” a portrait of various residents of the titular town; and the game-changing “The Thin Blue Line,” which made reenactments a viable asset to documentarians, and more importantly, set a wrongfully convicted man free. We were able to chat with Morris about these three films. We also talk about his feelings regarding the decline of celluloid, how he relates documentaries to narrative films, and why he thinks “The Unknown Known” is a better film than his Oscar-approved “The Fog of War.”
When you are on the press circuit do you ever think "No, no, you’re asking the wrong question”?
Not really, because I don’t really believe in the "right questions." This reminds me of this series of short films that I just finished for ESPN. Someone sat down and asked what my first question was. And I said, truthfully, "I don’t have a first question. What’s your first answer?" I never really think in terms of questions per se, I do think "Do I enjoy talking to this person, do I think this person is a fucking idiot," so on and so forth.
What was it that ultimately made you do "Gates of Heaven"?
It’s so many years ago now but… my interviewing habit precedes my film habit. I’d been doing that with a tape recorder and maybe this just seemed like a natural extension of that. And I’d seen this article in the San Francisco Chronicle and thought it was crazy enough. I started poking around, and there was a timestamp on it — I knew that they were going to start digging up the pets in Foothills Pet Memorial Park and moving them, and I wanted to be there to shoot them doing that. I think the only way anyone ever starts a film is by not thinking too hard about it, because if you did then you wouldn’t do anything.
Looking at ‘Gates’ and ‘Vernon’ makes one miss celluloid and somewhat lament the advent of digital. Can you imagine a documentary feature being shot completely on film ever again?
I can imagine it but I think it becomes increasingly less likely each year that goes by. I still like 35mm, but for instance… I could not have edited "Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control" without digital editing equipment because it was shot in a number of different formats. How would you even imagine getting that in one format just to edit it? I shot "Vernon, Florida" on Super 16 but I couldn’t even look at it on that format because I didn’t have an editing table that would project them. So I never saw it in what I shot it in until fairly recently, which is crazy.
"The Thin Blue Line" is different from the previous two and can be seen as the birth of your general aesthetic. How did your approach differ for this one?
It’s just different because the use of music, reenactments, etc. I had more money to work with. It was a very strong storyline, it had a more desultory character. There was a story here and I was doing my best to capture in some way, a story about a miscarriage of justice. This story stood apart from the movie. I don’t look at the first two like that; they have a strong story that stand apart from the films themselves….’Thin Blue Line‘ is a different kind of thing all together. The reenactments were a powerful way of bringing the audience to the mystery of what happened. It wasn’t reenacting reality, it was reenacting what people claimed was reality. And as we learn through the course of the movie, those people were wrong. The reenactments allow us to think critically about what happened.
Fast forward to the present… I think "The Unknown Known" is unfairly compared to "The Fog of War."
Thank you. I do too. It was a far superior film to "The Fog of War," I think. I like them both, but if the goal of filmmaking is to get confessions or get your subject to express remorse then I suppose you can have a Redeemed or Unredeemed index to asses the film accordingly. To me it’s a different enterprise. It’s capturing something of the individual on film. And I believe "The Unknown Known" for better or worse captured Rumsfeld very powerfully.
I can’t imagine Rumsfeld every owning up to things the way McNamara did, anyway.
The only thing that would’ve satisfied most people is if I jumped up and hit Rumsfeld with a cinder block. Barring that, there’s very little I could’ve done. But it’d be very easy to make a documentary where you throw questions at him and he’d walk off stage or fail to answer. There’s stuff that leaked out in that movie — a kind of narcissism, arrogance — that’s very powerful in the movie. It scared me, actually. It still does. That this man could have so much power. I remember reading a New York Times article on him and people will forever remember how brilliant he is or how convincing he is, but I didn’t find him to be either. To me he was like the kind of person who shows up at your front door selling aluminum siding or a new vacuum cleaner. He’s like a nightmare.
What in particular really rattled you?
I asked him what he had learned about the war in Vietnam from the experience of being in the Oval Office when they abandoned the war. The answer was one of the most stunning answers I put on film. He said, "I learned some things work out and some things don’t and that didn’t." It’s a way of saying "fuck you!" but it’s also beyond that. It’s revealing a kind of emptiness, a flatness. He’s not going to explain it because he never thought about explaining it or cared to explain it. It’s a "fuck you" but it’s a revelation. It’s revealing a kind of attitude towards history from a person who’s held the positions he has held. It’s shocking.
‘Vernon, Florida’ came out of the dissolution of "Nub City," about people who committed insurance fraud by cutting off their own limbs. I read that you were writing it into a narrative script. Is that still on the table?
That’s something I’d still like to do, yes. Pretty much everything from my past is still on the table. And I seem to be getting faster in regards to projects so hopefully I’ll have a few more under my belt before too long.
You’re about to do "Holland, Michigan," your second narrative feature. How much do you have to recalibrate to do something that isn’t a documentary?
It’s very different in a sense that you have a script that exists well in advance of production. There’s a similarity in the sense that my scripts come out of interview material. In both instances, whether it’s a feature or a documentary, I have to ask myself what’s the visual imagery and how do I want to tell the story, how is the imagery going to serve to advance the story. You’re doing more than telling a story with your imagery, you’re trying to create a world. You’re always constructing something, out of documentary material or out of fictional material. And how you construct it is the central problem of filmmaking. In "The Thin Blue Line" it was clear to me that the imagery was about that roadway. The car that was stopped on the road, and the fundamental question as to whether there were one or two people in that stopped car. You’re not really reenacting the crime, you’re reenacting that mystery itself. There’s a number of different ways to say the same thing.
Werner Herzog also seems to jump between documentary and narrative.
Herzog is a very strong documentary filmmaker. His best feature work is really documentary like. Like ‘Aguirre’ if you think of it as taking Klaus Kinski to the amazon. It’s not that they’re the same thing but there’s more of an overlap than you might imagine. In documentaries you’re looking for a performance, how to bring your subjects alive. And to get a good performance, even in an interview, is not just sitting and listening. Often it’s encouraging a situation where people really do want to communicate and they come alive in front of the camera. I at least hope I have the talent for that.
Errol Morris’ "Gates Of Heaven," "Vernon, Florida" and "The Thin Blue Line" are now out Blu-Ray/DVD via The Criterion Collection.