Errol Morris is a revolutionary; an interrogator, an investigator, an inventor, and a documentarian who creates reality as he reconstructs it. Empire meet him on a pewter grey and dog-wet day in Covent Garden, London. Pausing to sip a mammoth coffee, he talks slowly, often firing the questions straight back. “Why? What do you think? You tell me...”
We should have expected this. Morris sees documentary as montage - claim and counter-claim, reconstructed drama, austere soundtracks, strange angles, archive used as a toy. They’re studies of duplicity, using knowledge against his subjects, against the audience.
Using his invention 'the Interrotron', he invites his subjects to peer into the lens of the camera as if they’re talking straight through to us, exposing what they’re trying to hide. From the off, the rules have been there to break. His first feature Gates Of Heaven (1978) is rated by Roger Ebert as one of the ten best films of all time. The Thin Blue Line (1988) helped Randall Adams – a prisoner sentenced to life for killing a police officer – to walk free from jail. The Fog of War (2003), for which he won an Oscar, allowed the Vietnam-era US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara a stage to unravel the foreign policy he devised.
But for his latest film Tabloid he may have met his match in Joyce McKinney, the former Wyoming beauty queen turned red-top sensation who, in 1977, hired a private airplane and travelled to England to abduct her boyfriend Kirk whom she believed had been brainwashed by the Mormon church - before forcing him to have sex with her for three days. “Like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter,” is how she phrases it.
Joyce McKinney, forever emulated on Errol’s celluloid, is now suing him for misrepresentation, claiming she is portrayed as "crazy, a sex offender, an S&M prostitute, and/or a rapist." She’d better be ready for the fight. There aren’t, after all, many men who can take credit for goading Werner Herzog into eating his own shoe...
For a lot of film fans, you say 'Errol Morris' and they think ‘documentary.’ Is it a term you welcome, and what do you try and achieve with your films?
People use the 'E' word - epistemology - which is about how we come to know things, and about the reliability of the knowledge we have, and the question of whether it really is knowledge.
I don’t know why I’m interested in non-fiction over fiction. At heart I’m an old-fashioned investigator, for better or for worse. I think investigators are born and not made, and investigation is something - properly considered - that takes place in the real world. You’re trying to find something out.
So ultimately it’s about the two questions a detective asks himself; what really happened, and what were people really thinking? They’re two very different questions, and they deeply fascinate me.
Documentary is a very reassuring term, but your films always seem to try and interrogate what it means. Is that an ambition in your films?
|The beauty of documentary is you have the opportunity to reinvent it every time you make a movie. |
The beauty of documentary is you have the opportunity to reinvent it every time you make a movie. It gives you the luxury to re-conceive how to tell a story about the real world.
I think we’re going through the cornucopia of the documentaries, because there are endless forms; diary films, narrative slide-shows, interview films.
Clearly there are elements of documentary that are fictional, as there are often elements of reality in dramatic features. That gives an opportunity to make a film that is both storytelling and philosophical inquiry. I can have my cake and eat it too.
Is there a compulsion to make pure fiction?
I want to make them, but I feel I shouldn’t standard, traditional drama, but I should find with drama a different way of storytelling. I’m writing a lot now, whereas for years I had writers block and didn’t write at all. So I’m about to make a dramatic feature again, about the first man to be cryogenically frozen.
Are you interested in genre filmmaking?
|The Thin Blue Line does everything a documentary should do, yet for consideration The Academy turned it off after ten minutes|
I’ve always watched an awful lot of noir - I still do. The Thin Blue Line is often described as a 'film noir documentary', and that was intentionally so. I wanted to make a documentary that had a certain style, and at the same time captured the investigation I was doing, which was a real murder case.
In a way I feel The Thin Blue Line does everything that a documentary should do. It gets an innocent man out of jail, it gets a killer to confess, it creates a sense of narrative storytelling out of the documentary form. It changes the nature of the genre but still addresses some deep journalistic concern by trying to uncover a hidden story through evidence. But yet when it was submitted to The Academy for consideration they turned the movie off after ten minutes - it’s a well-known story. It didn’t look like a documentary should look, and that’s fine with me.
You’ve interviewed some remarkable people - be it Joyce McKinney for Tabloid, Randall Adams for The Thin Blue Line or Robert McNamara from Fog Of War, and they always seem incredibly comfortable on screen. Is there a method you adhere to to make that happen?
There’s no prescriptive algorithm or formula, but I’ve always been obsessed with eye contact, and my interviewing device the Interrotron is about preserving eye contact in an interview.
Who’s the most difficult person you’ve had to deal with, and how did you handle them?
[Former US Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara was a very difficult customer; it was touch-and-go with him for a long time. It wasn’t clear whether he was going to do the interview for Fog Of War or not, or whether he was going to get up and leave after ten minutes. But he told me he actually enjoyed talking to me because I was unusually well-prepared. My rule of thumb has always been to be well-prepared but not to have any fixed agenda or formal structure of expectation.
There’s a danger in that, though. If you know too much about a story, it’s important not to show it. You’ve to allow the story to emerge from the person telling it, almost as if you’re hearing it for the first time. I used to never interrupt someone, but now I interrupt them all the time. Inevitably you are shaping things in an interview, but the beauty of filmmaking is you can shape things in the edit.
Before you worked as a filmmaker, you travelled across America to interview (serial killer) Ed Gein. Why that particular person, that particular subject?
I’ve always been interested in crime, and I started interviewing murderers when I was a student at Berkeley. I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, and Ed Gein was this celebrated, notorious character. He was the person Psycho is based on - the real life Norman Bates.
Were you nervous, and how did you approach the interview?
No, I wasn’t nervous. It was just an amazing opportunity. I feel I’ve always been good at interviews and I’ve gotten better over the years. I’ve developed my own crazy interviewing style and my own mechanism for recording interviews, but in those days I was just working with a tape recorder.
I call my style the ‘shut up and listen’ school of interviewing. It is just about encouraging people to talk and hope to create a stream of consciousness, or an interior monologue. Of course, that wasn’t very difficult with Joyce McKinney. I asked her about what happened, and I would occasionally stop her to clarify a detail, but they were all her own words, telling her own story...
Tabloid is out in cinemas nationwide on November 11.
Interview by Tom Seymour