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The Grantland Q&A: Errol Morris

In a wide-ranging conversation, the legendary documentary filmmaker and writer talks about interviewing killers, war criminals, and some of society’s most fascinating oddballs. Plus, his take on his best movie, his critics, and what he’ll do next.

Some factual statements I can definitively make about Errol Morris as of the morning of February 9, 2015, four days after his 67th birthday: He met me in a room off the lobby of his hotel in Los Angeles. He was wearing black leather sneakers and gray socks that exposed a few inches of calf when he sat down. He was wearing khakis and a white shirt and the same orange-and-red windbreaker I’d seen him wearing a few days earlier while warily regarding a birthday cake in some film-set person’s Instagram photo, which was how I knew he’d just had a birthday. He was in town to shoot some commercials for a mobile-service carrier. He was shooting these with a regular camera and not with the Interrotron, the teleprompter-camera rig he uses to conduct most of the interviews for his documentary films, and which allows him to interview somebody while sitting at a far corner of a soundstage, or in another room, or — this is something he’s been experimenting with lately — in his office back home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with one teleprompter that’s connected to another teleprompter via Skype. Morris feels that his physical proximity to or distance from his subjects doesn’t make much of a psychological difference for him or them; the important part of the equation is the Interrotron itself. Although the person being interviewed on the Interrotron is looking directly into a camera lens, he or she sees a live video image of Morris. (It’s done with two-way mirrors and is explained here.)

“All it is is me and them,” Morris told me. “It simplifies the world, and we’re looking into each other’s eyes. We’re sitting in a room as we’re sitting in a room now, looking at each other. And there is an intimacy that is much greater than doing a different kind of thing. And that’s preserved, whether I’m 20 feet away from them in the studio or 2,000 miles away from them on Skype.” But Morris also made this statement about his predilection for electronic barriers and their socially prophylactic effect: “I used to say being there is the next best thing to using the phone.” Famous people whom Errol Morris has interviewed on the Interrotron include Mikhail Gorbachev, Al Sharpton, Iggy Pop, and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the subject of Morris’s 2003 film, The Fog of War, who upon being introduced to the Interrotron told Morris, “I don’t care what you call it, I don’t like it,” and then sat down for what became several days of interviews anyway. “He just wanted me to know, I guess — I’m not buying this,” Morris laughs. Morris himself was a surprisingly congenial interview subject, especially for a professional interviewer. He drank coffee and ate two poached eggs. Mid-egg he paused and asked me if I wanted a poached egg, then ordered me two poached eggs, because I looked “intrigued” by his eggs. The truth was I was more curious than intrigued. The truth is elusive. I ate the first poached egg of my life in front of professional interviewer Errol Morris. I started my tape recorder in the middle of a conversation about the series of short films Morris recently shot for ESPN, and how much easier it is to secure the participation of an interview subject when you have a talented producer working with you. Morris gave shout-outs to his talented producers Jesse and Svetlana and would probably want those shout-outs reproduced here.

Are there a lot of stories you haven’t been able to do, for that reason or for other reasons?

Many, many, many, many, many, many stories. Many projects, things that I wish I had done, things that I’d like to do, things that I still might do. It’s a long, long laundry list of material. I went through the ’70s and a good part of the ’80s unable to get money or work. I became a private detective to earn a living. And I would endlessly propose projects. There was no place to really go in those days. Cable television was in its infancy, and there was no independent film per se, let alone theaters devoted to showing that kind of film. So it was dodgy.

I had a subscription to both the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News, two of my favorite papers. There would be endless stories there. I remember Jon Brower Minnoch, the fattest man in the world. I wanted to do a piece on Jon Brower Minnoch without ever seeing him. It would be more of a Jon Brower Minnoch POV. You would just see the effect, the force field created by Jon Brower Minnoch. My wife likes to say there are now entire channels devoted to [the kinds of stories] that no one would give me money [to tell] in the ’70s and the early ’80s. Although my stories have always had a peculiar edge to them, I’ve often said that my work is the perfect blend of the prurient and the pedantic.

How do you define that?

I’m not really sure.

Maybe you shouldn’t define it.

I don’t think I should.

Can we discuss the business side of what you do? How much of your work as a filmmaker is financed by your work in advertising?

Commercials saved my ass.

Do they continue to?

Maybe a little less so, but if they took them away from me completely? [Trails off.] But less so than in the past, because I’m doing too many things at the moment. I have a feature, Holland, Michigan, which is showing signs of happening. I think, although I don’t want to go into detail, I’ve finally got a cast for that movie.1 I have a six-hour series with Netflix.2 I have other projects. I have my writing now — in the old days I didn’t write. But now I’ve been writing books. I did three, and now there’s a fourth coming out and a fifth.

Is this previously published material?

Some of it is previously published, and then expanded and revised. The piece on typography and truth3 appeared in a shorter form in the New York Times. And “The Ashtray”4 is now over twice the length that it was in its original version in the New York Times. I expanded it, and the University of Chicago Press is publishing it. I did interviews with Noam Chomsky, Saul Kripke, Hilary Putnam. Most of the principals are still alive. Thomas Kuhn is not. Kuhn is dead. But the others are still alive. And I’ve been invited to come to U of Chicago to lecture. As a person who’s been thrown out of so many graduate-school philosophy departments, it’s been fun.

You started out as a writer, or with the intent to write books, but then you became a filmmaker instead. Then in the early 2000s, it’s as if some kind of dam broke and you began producing reams and reams of prose for places like the Times. What changed?

I was given this extraordinary opportunity. As I tell people, “I got my job through the New York Times.” I was called by the New York Times and I was asked to write op-ed pieces on photography. And I said, “I don’t think I can do it. I’m not sure I can write.” I had a hard time at first, and then much less of a hard time. I started writing quite a bit.5 I wanted to write a self-help book — From Writer’s Block to Graphomania in Two Easy Weeks.

Was it writer’s block? Was that why you’d never written before?

I would categorize it as something like that. As a kind of unworthiness. And then when I stopped thinking about whether it was good or bad, and I just started doing it, things changed. I still can’t quite believe that I’m doing it, to tell you the truth. I mean, I see that there are these books that I’ve written in the office, but there’s some strange — I’m serious — disconnect between the books and my actually having written them.

You were around your mid-fifties at that point when that happened? When you broke through that wall? I find that encouraging. I have some time to get over my own issues.

You have until you drop dead.

And hopefully there’s some small window of satisfaction between the blocked phase and your death.

You get to enjoy it, maybe. A little bit.

Is it nice to know those books exist, even if you can’t fully believe you wrote them?

As a person that always dwells on the negative, I just think of all the things that I haven’t written that I should’ve written, the things I’d better write if I know what’s good for me. That kind of thing.

There was a period, earlier in your life, before you made your first movie, where you seemed to be on the path to a career in journalism. You spent a bunch of time interviewing mass murderers and the families of their victims. You even interviewed Ed Gein, right?

I did interview Ed Gein. I’m one of the only people to have interviewed Ed Gein outside of lawyers and mental health professionals. But yes.

Why didn’t anything happen with that material?

No one seemed to want to give me the opportunity to write. Maybe I didn’t push hard enough. Ultimately it’s my fault, I guess. There were books I was interested in doing. I want to do a book about these murderers in Central Wisconsin, including Gein. There were actually five murderers that interested me, Gein being one of them. I never really could get anyone interested. I tried to get Rolling Stone to send me out. I remember asking Rolling Stone to send me out to cover Gary Gilmore. This was before Norman Mailer became interested. They told me they didn’t think the story was that interesting. I don’t know. Bad luck, lack of confidence, depression.

It’s just that it didn’t happen. And then I had all of these movie ideas that I wanted to make that didn’t happen. And the movie that I ended up making after years of not having enough money to do any movie project whatsoever was almost happenstance. It evolved from a completely different story. I thought, fuck it — I’m just going to write a proposal, a dumb-ass proposal for public broadcasting. I have a definition of pornography — that which has redeeming social value and doesn’t appeal to prurient interest. Which describes public broadcasting to a T. So I write this dipstick proposal on the prediction of social violence. I figured if it had some kind of academic pretension that they might respond to it, because often that’s what they see having merit.

Back then there was a certain aridity to what they did. So I got this money to make a film about Dr. James Grigson and the prediction of future violence. Well, I never made the movie. I interviewed Dr. Grigson but I never used the interview. I’ve never written this up. This is another thing I should write up. So the Supreme Court, in 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, struck down the death penalty. Not per se, but as practiced. So this allowed the states to come up with new laws that would pass judicial scrutiny. And Texas was the first — big surprise! Texas passed a revised law, and the law was written — this is what’s interesting about it — with these two psychiatrists in mind, psychiatrists who were in the hip pockets of the Dallas district attorney’s office. I often say you can’t predict what someone will or won’t do. You can’t predict future violence, you can’t predict human behavior except in one instance: What those two doctors, Dr. Grigson and Dr. [John] Holbrook, would say in the penalty phase of a capital murder trial. They’ll say the defendant will kill again. And as a result, the jury imposes the death penalty.

So you get the grant to make a film about this guy.

Yeah. I interview him on film. I get along well with Dr. Grigson. Dr. Death. He tells me he’s lost a lot of his patients. Now that he’s known as Dr. Death, people are a little reluctant to come in for therapy.

It’s not good for the brand.

Exactly! So he says, y’know, “You’ve got to interview the people on death row. They’re different from you and me. They’re unbelievable. They’re not like you and me.” So we, together, make up a list of some of the most horrendous criminals that he’s managed to put on death row. Not solely — they had to cooperate by doing horrible things, for the most part — but he was a contributing factor.

He’s the prosecution’s ace in the hole — the guy who comes in and says the defendant will absolutely, positively kill again.

Yes. One of the ironies is that in their eagerness to kill people, the prosecutors would send a psychiatrist in before the trial to decide whether the defendant was competent to stand trial. And what they did is they sent Dr. Grigson in, and Dr. Grigson would say, Of course he’s competent to stand trial. But without ever telling the defendant, he would also do what was supposedly an examination for future dangerousness. So the penalty phase of the trial rolls around, the defense has no knowledge that the defendant has been seen by Dr. Grigson — and up pops Dr. Death with a recommendation for execution.

And he knows things that haven’t been introduced at trial? He knows these people’s deepest, darkest secrets?

Maybe. Who knows what has been said? All of these cases where he did this were overturned by the Supreme Court, because it was a violation of the defendants’ Fifth Amendment rights of self-incrimination. They were never told before talking to this psychiatrist that the information could be used against them. Not just used against them — the material could be used to kill them. It could be used against them in a really dramatic way.

So I go down. I interview people that he’s recommended. People that have ended up on death row because of him. And I meet this guy. He claims he didn’t do it. And I didn’t believe him. A number of people claimed he didn’t do it, but as it turns out, this guy really didn’t do it.

Thin Blue LineMiramax

This was Randall Adams, whose case would become the subject of The Thin Blue Line.6 But you proceeded with the Grigson story anyway, for a while?

Yes, then I abandoned it.

Were you worried at all about not turning in the movie that public television had paid you to make?

I became really motivated by the Adams cases. I investigated further and further and came to believe he was innocent. Then I saw it as my duty to make this movie, plain and simple.

So you knew on some level that you had a better movie there than the one that you had pitched?

I don’t think it was a better movie — I had an important story that I was writing that I had to see to a conclusion.

This is one of the most interesting things about you. I don’t get the sense that you set out with some burning desire to make films. At least in the beginning, it seems like you just had stories to tell and film happened to be the most expeditious way of telling them.

People were willing to give me money. Actually, they weren’t willing to give me money. They were marginally interested in giving me money. Even after The Thin Blue Line, it was still hard. And it’s still hard, actually.

Gates of HeavenNew Yorker Films

You became a P.I. after you made Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida7 but before Thin Blue Line, right?

Yeah. When I got the money to go and interview Grigson, I said to my wife, “Thank god I don’t have to be a private investigator anymore.” Big joke. I am an investigator. I’m an investigator at heart. Proudly so, I might add.

Would you have been happy working in another medium, as long as you’d been able to do that kind of work?

Probably, yes. But I like film. And I like visual storytelling. I’m sick of interviewing. I am really sick of it. I’m not gonna say I do it better than anybody else, but I do it differently than anybody else. I am good at it, for whatever reason. There are a lot of different reasons, but if that’s all I’m going to do for the rest of my life is stick a camera in front of people and say to them, “I don’t have a first question, what’s your first answer?” I think I would be very sad. Philip Gourevitch, who wrote this book with me on the Abu Ghraib material,8 said, “Do you know you start off every interview the same way?” And I said, “No — I used to transcribe my interviews but I don’t do it anymore.” He said, “You always say, ‘I don’t know where to start.’”

Is that usually true when you say it to someone?

I think it is. It’s not that I’m unprepared, but I don’t know where to start. Some of the best lines — and I’ve been lucky to hear really nutso lines over the years — are not in response to any kind of question. It’s in response to, “I don’t know.” I don’t know what it is about me that allows people to say the things that they say to me on camera. I remember this moment very well, in The Thin Blue Line: Emily Miller is one of my favorite, favorite moments as a filmmaker. I think it was very early in the interview, it may have been in the very beginning of the interview, Emily Miller starts off and says that she wanted to be a detective or the wife of a detective, and then she tells me, “Everywhere I go there’s murders, even around my house.” I thought, What the fuck? Who is this person? “Everywhere I go there’s murders, even around my house.” That’s a nutty line, we can all agree. It’s a really strange, nutty line.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this movie Call Northside 777. It’s a Hollywood movie with Jimmy Stewart as a journalist. I’m supposed to write a series, another series that I can’t write because I can’t find the time: What I Learned About Epistemology From the Movies, which I think could be turned into a book. One of the films would be Call Northside 777, and [I’d write] about the role of photography, among other things, in solving a crime. Why did I mention this?

Emily Miller.

It’s a story about a detective who becomes obsessed with one small detail that leads to the unraveling of this case. Oddly enough, like The Thin Blue Line, it’s about an identification, an eyewitness identification, which can be shown to be spurious. In the case of The Thin Blue Line, Emily Miller made this eyewitness identification on the stand. That’s the man, that’s the man who was seated in the driver’s seat of the car. She claimed on the stand that she had picked him out in a police lineup. To me, she explained why she had failed to pick him out of a police lineup. And when I asked her how she failed to pick him out in a police lineup, she said to me, “Well I know because the policeman sitting next to me told me I had failed to pick him out and pointed out the right person so I wouldn’t make that mistake again.” Who says these kind of things? Among other things, it’s a detective’s wet dream.

Right. It’s not supposed to be that easy.

Well, it wasn’t that easy. Believe me.

You mean getting that out of her?

No, just the amount that needed to be done to really kind of firmly establish that this [case] was a terrible miscarriage of justice. It wasn’t just one detail that broke the case, it was a myriad of details. The drive-in movie times, the other supposed eyewitnesses, the policewoman who really lied about where she was when the crime occurred, and on and on and on. A catenation of things. Plus, David Harris, the real killer, and his behavior prior and subsequent to the murder.

You were also able to elicit something like a confession from Harris in the film. You’re credited with saving Randall Adams from the electric chair. Did that change the way you looked at filmmaking, at the purpose of what you did?

This is something that people get wrong, and I almost got tired of correcting them. It didn’t save him from execution. He was sentenced to death; his conviction was overturned on appeal on the basis of jury selection. It had nothing to do with the details of this case. He would’ve been in prison, not with the risk of execution, but he would’ve been in prison for the rest of his life. He had a life [sentence] without the benefit of parole. It was commuted because of those Supreme Court decisions. Did I save him from spending life in prison for a crime he never committed? I did. Could he have been executed for that crime? Yes, he could have. It was almost a miracle that he was not. I wanted so much to write a book about The Thin Blue Line because 99 percent of that story isn’t in the movie. The story of my investigating it, the story of going down to Texas many, many times, made possible by the People Express flight from Newark to DFW.

Adams was a convicted murderer when you met him. You seem to be drawn to the type of person other people hate. It’s as if there’s something about the psychology of widely despised people that fascinates you.

Absolutely. I’ve never heard anyone put it quite that way, but it’s absolutely true. I like pariahs. There are endless examples of them. Randall Adams was a cold-blooded cop killer, labeled a psychopath. Fred Leuchter in Mr. Death — an electric-chair repairman who coincidentally happens to be a Holocaust denier.9

And then Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld.

McNamara, Rumsfeld, probably Joyce McKinney.10

Who’s maybe not as widely and famously despised …

Not famously despised, but abjured, discredited, acquainted with grief. A woman of sorrows. So, yeah. I do like that. I can’t deny it.

Do you have to like the person, as well? In most cases, I get the impression that you do — that it isn’t hard for you to get to a place of comfort with these subjects.

No. When I was interviewing killers years ago, I enjoyed talking to them. I enjoyed being with them. I wasn’t there to moralize with them or temporize with them, I was there to talk to them. And I think that’s still true. Rumsfeld pushed it, I have to say.

Just your capacity for …

Empathy. Yeah.

I can see that. Having seen that movie, I can imagine it’d be tough to just sit there and listen to him say those things, for however long you were in the room.

But I was fascinated, and I still am fascinated. Albert Speer, who was one of the highest-ranking officers of the Third Reich — Hitler’s architect, his munitions expert, et cetera, et cetera — ended up in Spandau. He was one of the last people to be released. And this British journalist, Gitta Sereny, became obsessed with Speer. And she set out on this task to get Speer to admit that he knew of the Holocaust, that he knew of the Final Solution. And Speer would never do it. And she would return again and again and again to this question of these infamous speeches, two speeches in one week, given to Nazi officials by Heinrich Himmler, in which he makes it absolutely clear that they’re killing Jews. That is their program, that is their policy. And Speer was present at at least one of these meetings. So the question becomes How could you have been seated in one of these meetings and been unaware of what was going on? And he never, never, never admitted to it. So much so — and this is an essay I should write, too — that Gitta Sereny convinced herself that he’d admitted to it, even though he didn’t.

Why would she do that, do you think?

Because she wanted it so much. The human mind is a strange black box. Willful ignorance, the desire not to know, how we interpret the world, how we see ourselves in the world. There’s something deeply mysterious about all of it. I mean that was the focus of the Rumsfeld film for me, because that’s what I was curious about. Who are these people? There’s no secret about my attitude to the Iraq War, and it was no secret to him, either, I might add.

That’s the first mystery of that movie — why he agreed to the interviews in the first place.

I think he answers that mystery, because I don’t think he cares.

Do you think he thinks that history will be on his side, that he’s confident he’ll be proven right in 100 years, or 500 years?

He’s confident right now! He doesn’t have to wait 100 or 500 years. He doesn’t care. I really care whether I’m right or wrong. I really do care. And probably for lots of reasons. I don’t want to be seen as a dumbass, I don’t want to be seen as someone who believes in something that’s absolutely false, untrue, something that can’t be substantiated, checked. I believe that there’s some deep virtue in pursuing truth. Maybe it’s the highest virtue. I believe that. Whether you can attain it or not, you can pursue it. It can be a goal. It can be a destination. I don’t believe that’s Donald Rumsfeld’s goal. I believe that Robert S. McNamara really wanted to understand what he had done and why he had done it. You know, we remain a mystery to ourselves, among the many, many, many other mysteries there are. And McNamara’s struggle with his own past — I was deeply moved by it. I think he’s a war criminal, I think he sees himself as a war criminal, but I like him.


Because he embarked on this project with you, regardless of the effect it might have for his legacy?

I wouldn’t say he was entirely unconcerned with his legacy. I don’t think that’s quite right. But yet he was willing to ask questions that very few people in his position have asked. Rumsfeld — I mean, to me, the movie is summed up in that photograph by David Hume Kennerly, who was the White House photographer and gave me access to all his photographs. You see Rumsfeld in the Oval Office with President Gerald Ford, there’s [Henry] Kissinger, John Simon, etc. We’re evacuating Saigon. This is the day that we pull out of Vietnam, one of the worst debacles in American history. So I ask Rumsfeld, “What did you learn from all of this?” It’s a legitimate question. He’s in the Oval Office, we’re pulling out of Vietnam. I ask him, “What did that experience teach you?” Rumsfeld’s answer? “Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t.” Well, OK then. I suppose the usual interviewer move would be to say, “How can you say that? What do you mean?” But there really is nothing to say! That’s it!

The Fog of WarSony Pictures Classics

It’s interesting, though, because while you’ve generally fared pretty well with critics over the years, whenever Fog of War or The Unknown Known were negatively reviewed, it was always for that reason. Especially Rumsfeld — you got a lot of flak for somehow letting him get away. People seemed disappointed that you didn’t grab him by the lapels and shake him, rhetorically speaking.

I think there’s a whole group of people who would’ve loved for me to get out of my chair and to hit him with a cinder block, which I was not going to do. Y’know, it’s really interesting, because they made that whole movie — a horrendous movie, I think — about the Nixon-Frost interviews, and of course they changed it to make it more dramatic and more confrontational. But I think — and I could be just making excuses for myself — that there’s a portrait that emerges [in The Unknown Known] that’s very different and far more interesting than the portrait you would’ve gotten by having him walk off the set or repeatedly refuse to answer questions, which is what would’ve happened. There’s something about his manner that reveals to me much about the man. A refusal to engage stuff with any meaning is really frightening, and I think that’s part of who he is. There’s a whole class of people who love to push people around but don’t love to think about stuff carefully. Maybe it’s a different talent.

The Unkown KnownThe Weinstein Company

In some ways, it’s an asset. If you’re not concerned about nuance, you can barrel through life and get pretty far.

I mean, look how much good reflection did Hamlet. Not so much, if memory serves me correctly.

I think people wanted you to be more prosecutorial with Rumsfeld because no one else was doing it. We want movies to do the work that journalism used to do.

Maybe I should’ve done a better job about that.

It’s as if the experience of that war left us all with this deeply frustrated desire to hold somebody to account, and it comes out in weird ways. The people who lied about Iraq in ways that had real consequences are untouchable, so we’re going to nail Brian Williams.

But that’s part of our culture. We nail Nixon for erasing tapes, for burglarizing Ellsberg’s office and the DNC,11 but we don’t try him for the invasion of Cambodia.

And O.J. Simpson is in jail for armed robbery.

Maybe it’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, I don’t know — the bad-karma idea of history. They’re gonna get ya for something if you’ve been very naughty. I don’t know. I don’t know how the world works. It’s a very strange world out there: moralistic, judgmental, but not always about the right things.

I assume you’ve heard the joke about how Brian Williams is about to become the only person to be punished for lying about the Iraq war.

One of the reasons I hate the idea of lie detectors is that we think of the brain as being a recorder, a memory recorder, so you can go back in there and find out what happened and what didn’t happen, and whether the person is lying or telling the truth. Well, maybe you can figure out whether they’re misrepresenting what they know or think they know, but we all confabulate, we’ve all lied, we all change things in innumerable ways. It’s just part of being human. And part of our job is to try to struggle through this nimbus of confusion and error and get to something that approximates what’s out there in the world. The fact that someone misremembers something, or that there’s an element of wishful thinking in what they remember, am I surprised by that? Not really. Am I horrified by it? Not really. I’m horrified by a lot of stuff. Not so much by that. Or let’s put it this way: I’m horrified by it when it just leads to truly terrible stuff. I think The Unknown Known is a really scary, despairing movie. I think it’s my best movie. It may not do what people want it to do, but fuck ’em, y’know? 

Filed Under: Errol Morris Week, errol morris, The Thin Blue Line, Gates of Heaven, the unknown known, The Fog of War, Mr. Death, Tabloid, Standard Operating procedure, The Dark Wind, Documentaries, Movies, Vernon, Florida, It's Not Crazy, It's Sports, Grantland Q&A

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.