Documentary filmmaker Morris (The Fog Of War, Tabloid) has won acclaim for combining journalism with dramatic recreation, confessional interview and a deft grasp of cinematic style.
Event recorded on 6 November 2011.
Errol Morris: Thank you BAFTA for having me here tonight. I’ve been told that this is part of this new deal, that for the very first time documentaries are going to be honoured by BAFTA [at the Film Awards in 2012]. I haven’t been asked what I think about it but yes, I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s a terrific thing.
Documentaries clearly have come of age. When I first started making them years ago there was a received view of how you were supposed to ply this particular trade. However you want to describe it, cinema vérité, direct cinema, whatever, I was told that you were supposed to shoot with a hand held camera, you were supposed to use available light, you were supposed to be the proverbial fly on the wall. To observe, but ‘don’t touch anything!’ whatever you do. And being a contrarian – I think that’s probably the best way to describe myself – I decided to do everything the wrong way. I lit everything, I put a camera on a tripod, and I got people to directly address the camera.
Part of this idea is that there’s a way to capture truth in filmmaking. You observe a set of rules, procedures and miraculously, truth results. I have never thought it’s that easy. Truth is the central goal, but it’s an elusive one. Style doesn’t guarantee truth. Just because you do things in a certain way doesn’t mean that they’re more truthful as a result. You search for truth through investigating endlessly and, if you’re lucky, you find something approximating it.
Since I’m giving the David Lean Lecture, I thought I should show a David Lean movie, or at least part of it, that was of enormous influence on me when I was a little boy. There was something they called ‘The Million Dollar Movie,’ this is in New York, and over the course of a week they would show the same movie again and again, and if you wanted to you could watch it two, three, four, five, six, seven times.
Now I believe this movie I watched at least six or seven times. And, guess what, it was David Lean’s Breaking The Sound Barrier [aka The Sound Barrier, 1952] and I have a clip from it, and I think I should show it because it is about the nature of evidence and how evidence can be interpreted and reinterpreted. So let’s show the clip, and I’ll have something to say about it after.
(Clip from The Sound Barrier)
A truly interesting clip, at least for me. The whole story is apocryphal. I’m terribly sorry but the British didn’t break the sound barrier, the Americans did. This is a false claim made in a British film. Also the claim that the controls of the aircraft, it’s not made explicitly in this clip, I’ll just give you some background information, claims that the controls of the aircraft reverse at Mach 1. So the intuition is you have the plane in a dive, you pull back on the stick and the plane soars into the sky. You pull forward on the stick and the plane heads into a dive. There are fabulous shots in the movie, the pilot reaches Mach 1 and beyond, he pulls the stick back and the plane dives, leaving a huge, smoker crater. The conceit here, also apocryphal I might add, is that at Mach 1all of the controls reverse. Which made me think about the nature of evidence and whether there were other stories like this.
Which brings me to The Thin Blue Line. I’ve worked as a filmmaker and I’ve also worked as a private investigator, and one of the great dreams is to crack a major murder case, get an innocent man out of jail. In the case of The Thin Blue Line I actually got an innocent man out of jail and I got the real killer to confess to the murder. It’s not something that happens every day. It’s something that I’m immensely proud of. And here’s where Breaking The Sound Barrier enters this story. You would think that you can’t really learn anything when you’re actually making a film, interviewing people, camera crew, lights etc. Much to my surprise I’ve learned extraordinary things while making films.
We all have this picture of detectives who are skulking about in the shadows, obtaining information by some kind of trick or cunning. This case was cracked, actually, in a completely different way. By people telling me things that were completely unexpected and surprising. Also, the guy who ended up – he came within three days of being electrocuted in Texas for a crime he didn’t commit – was diagnosed as a psychopath. He was not involved with the murder in any way. He went to work regularly, he didn’t try to run, he didn’t change his appearance, he acted normally.
Psychiatrists diagnosed him as a psychopath, a sociopath. Why? Because the fact that he hadn’t changed his appearance and that he hadn’t tried to run was proof that he was a cold blooded killer, that he didn’t have emotions like you and me, that he was inherently different. That he had crossed, if you like, Mach 1 and the evidence that would suggest a certain kind of person then counted in the opposite way from what we would expect. Thank you David Lean. I wanted to show a clip from The Thin Blue Line and a little bit of a story about how you can crack a murder case, with a camera.
(Clip from The Thin Blue Line)
Now, this is one of the principal eye witnesses who testified against Randall Adams, the man who was sentenced to death for this crime he didn’t commit. At some point in the interview she said to me that she had failed to pick him out in a police line-up. She had forgotten that she had testified to the exact opposite, and I’m not even sure I remembered it until very late in the interview when she was about to leave. I asked her, ‘Emily, you said you failed to pick the guy out in a police line-up. How do you know?’ She said, ‘I know!’ She got annoyed with me. I said, ‘No, I know you know, how do you know?’ She said, ‘I know because the policeman sitting next to me told me I had picked out the wrong person and then pointed out the right person so I would never make that mistake again.’
And pieces of The Thin Blue Line were submitted in federal and state court as evidence. I am sometimes told that this is a movie that got an innocent man out of prison. Yes and no. My investigation, a lot of which was done on camera, got him out of prison. And the film attracted attention to the case, so that it became very, very difficult for the authorities to sweep it under the rug. So (a) and (b). This clip has two of my great concerns. I think there are two powerful mysteries that concern me. There is of course that mystery that we’re all familiar with, the mystery of what really happened, who killed whom, guilty or innocent.
And then there’s a deeper mystery, the mystery of what’s inside people’s heads. What are people thinking? Who are they? Why are they doing what they’re doing? What is their inherent motivation? I like this clip, because it addresses both of those concerns, the concern of her testimony and its reliability, and also her motivation. I have favourite lines that I’ve captured on film, and you’ve just heard one of them: ‘Everywhere I go there is murderers, even round my house.’ I remember sitting there when I heard this thinking, ‘I like this, this is pretty good.’ I had this picture of Emily Miller’s house, someone being knifed in the kitchen or garrotted in the bedroom, or shot in the living room, and this idea that I had this crazy fantasist who saw herself in some crime drama. And there you go. So if I’m able to do both I’m a happy camper.
Shall we see another clip? This is from Fog Of War. I think it may be redundant with what was already shown.
(Clip from The Fog Of War)
Well this represented an incredible opportunity for me to make a movie with Robert McNamara, a person who I grew to like even although I demonstrated against him as a young man. Another lesson, I suppose, for me from this film... one of the things that fascinates me about documentary, and this would be my real argument if you asked me the question ‘Why documentary?’ Why should I make documentaries? Why should anybody make documentaries? There’s something bottomless about reality, you never have complete answers, you never know what to expect, you really are involved in something truly investigative. A lot of what I do is interview driven but I have a rule of thumb about interviews, it’s never to have a list of questions that I’m going to ask going into them.
Never have a set of expectations of what you’re going to hear that’s going to be fulfilled or unfulfilled. Expect to be surprised; expect to hear something that you could not have imagined. This is certainly true of The Fog of War.
McNamara – up to the point where he really sat down to be interviewed – was a very, very difficult customer. In fact he continued to be a difficult customer, it wasn’t even clear that he was going to agree to anything more than a 10 or 15 minute interview. The first day he stayed for two and a half hours, and he asked to come back a second day. But this part of the interview, and the clip that I’ve just shown you, occurred about 15, 20 minutes in, the very, very beginning.
I look at it as fortuitous; I really couldn’t ask him questions about the firebombing of Tokyo because it wasn’t in any of the biographies written about McNamara. It was a piece of forgotten history. He brought it up. The New York Times had run an article about Bob Kerrey, who had received a Congressional Medal of Honor and had been accused of war crimes in Vietnam. McNamara and I started talking about that article and out of nowhere he began this story about his role in World War Two which I found extraordinary at the time, and I still find extraordinary. It’s what makes this enterprise absolutely great. There is no script, there’s just reality. The richness of reality and the possibility of finding things out which, to me, keeps me going.
I’ll show you one more clip from a film I made, my second film, Vernon, Florida – my ‘philosophers in the swamp’ movie. Now I often go on about self-deception, how self-deception fascinates me. I often talk about the Cartesian error, the idea that we have privileged access to our own brains, that we can know ourselves better than we can know other people. I don’t think we can really know other people or ourselves. I often have taken this clip as the perfect example of self-deception, so let me show it to you and I will comment on it after.
(Clip from Vernon, Florida)
I always use this as an example of self-deception because, as I would point out, of course the sand isn’t growing, sand doesn’t grow, there’s a fixed amount of sand in the jar. I showed this clip and commented after it at a screening at Brandeis University and a guy from the geology department said, ‘Well, you know, that sand, the gypsum sand really was taken from this extraordinarily dry environment in New Mexico and brought to northwest Florida in a very, very humid climate and it probably was taking on water, and it probably was growing.’ I suddenly realised, much to my embarrassment that, yes, this was about self-deception but it was my own.
Adam Curtis: They’ve asked me to ask Errol a few questions and then we can throw it open to you.
EM: By the way, this was my request and I am truly appreciative, I wanted Adam Curtis to do this and he graciously said yes.
AC: Okay, I’m going to ask a deep question to begin with and then we can get silly.
You talked about two things up there, the story of ‘Who really was it?’ whether it be the Vietnam War or murdering the dog. But you also talk about going into people’s brains. Sometimes they’re a bit contradictory, aren’t they? Because it seems to me with The Thin Blue Line what you’re doing is saying, ‘I’m going to tell you what the truth is, what I think – from the evidence I’ve gathered as an investigator – what the truth is.’
AC: With Robert McNamara, and I think probably it was completely right, in the face of the left simplifying him and turning him into this simple demon, you asked him to explain the truth as he saw it in all its complexities. Is that right?
AC: They’re quite different, those two things, because in a way he stops you getting to a grander truth about it, you see the war from his perspective. Are they contradictory?
EM: They’re not contradictory but they’re two different enterprises, quite clearly. I’m endlessly fascinated by what people are thinking. For whatever reason, I kept talking about the possibility of making a movie with one person.
Everybody has seen endless movies of one form or another, documentary films where six, seven, eight, nine, ten plus people are interviewed and there’s a kind of dramaturgy based on people arguing with each other. I thought, ‘What if I make a movie with one person? I can eliminate all of that.’
Although I do think that [there’s] two people in Fog Of War, there’s this strange dialogue between McNamara and McNamara, McNamara aged forty-something and McNamara aged eighty-something, which I also found quite fascinating. Could I answer the question why did Vietnam happen? Well I’m not sure that that has any definitive answer to begin with. There are many ways to look at that question.
AC: But is seems to me you come out of journalism as much as [anything else]. I mean, I was very pleased that you said fly on the wall was limited, because it seems to me you come out of journalism as much as you come out of documentaries.
EM: Proudly so.
AC: Good, excellent.
EM: It took me a long time. It was almost like they were threatening me in some way or it was an accusation. They said, ‘You’re a journalist.’ I was about to deny it and then I thought, ‘No, no, it’s true, I really am a journalist.’ Part of what I see as journalism is the pursuit of the truth. You’re trying to figure stuff out and if your question is ‘Is that a different enterprise than trying to figure out what somebody is thinking?’ – yes.
AC: But I think a lot of modern journalism doesn’t get inside people’s heads, it just wants to know what happened whereas in fact actually people want to know what is going on in people’s heads. Is there a way of fusing the two, can you do a sort of factual search for the truth? Because a lot of your characters seem to be able... they want to make the truth the way they think and feel.
AC: McNamara is one example. Many of the others, that woman there [in Vernon, Florida] although she disproved you, what intrigued you about her was her absolute belief in the truth of that, wasn’t it?
AC: In the face of all the other evidence.
EM: Well one thing that we know is that human credulity, or certainly the capacity to believe, is unfettered. People, as we all know, believe remarkably absurd things and they do it without a shade of embarrassment or misgiving. We can believe anything. That’s in itself truly fascinating. I believe the filmmaker sitting next to me [Curtis] has also made films about the power of ideas, and the power of ideas to influence us and direct us, rational or not. Yes.
AC: But the belief in truth of a woman sitting with a jar of sand has fewer consequences than, say, a man who is convinced that Saddam Hussein has got weapons of mass destruction.
Our recent history is a very good example of a group of politicians being absolutely obsessed by a particular version of the truth which then turned out not to be quite so exact. Those have different consequences, and I just wondered whether one can do a journalism of both on that grand level. I’m going back to the McNamara thing really.
EM: I don’t really know. I mean, I know that I’m fascinated by how people think and what they choose to believe, or what they believe independent of any kind of choice. But the process for me of making a story is trying to do both, is to try to get some purchase...
I feel that Fog of War, and I don’t want to make an unwarranted claim here, but I think it does both. My opportunity to use raw data or history, whether it’s these phone conversations from the White House that were recorded by Lyndon Johnson, or news conferences, set against McNamara’s own memories and his own view of himself in history. I think it has a powerful effect, or at least that’s the hope. You’re not being told so much what to think as you’re being allowed to experience it and to frame a view for yourself. At least that’s my hope.
AC: Can we go to journalism – I have to say that Errol was served with some legal papers yesterday at a showing of the film Tabloid so we have to talk about the most recent film Tabloid in quite general terms – but I’d like to ask you about journalism in general terms because you say you’re a journalist and I do think it is a sort of journalism.
You have made Tabloid, you’ve been a journalist at a time when a lot of mainstream journalism is in decline. It’s sort of losing [its] audience, losing the hook it has on its readers. Is that because it doesn’t go into people’s heads, it doesn’t actually explain why people do things? Are we more and more fascinated by that? It seems to me your fascination with why people do things has risen up. Is it the way journalism could go in the future, that more emotional explanation?
EM: I would put it somewhat differently. I would go back to the Breaking The Sound Barrier idea, that there’s a world behind appearances and it’s our job to uncover it. Some journalism does do that, some just simply recycles accepted views again and again.
I don’t think that journalism is in decline because I think there are people out there still investigating, looking at things, thinking about things. I have this line that journalism without investigation is gossip. The term of investigative journalism puzzles me; what else would it be if it didn’t involve some kind of investigation? But I’m delighted I’m still able to ply my trade, I’m still able to make movies.
It is interesting that documentary filmmakers have picked up some of the slack. In the past we may have expected all of this material to come out of network news shows or whatever. Now it’s much, much more diverse. There are more people doing it in different ways. I love the fact that documentary is a ‘genre’; there’s a cornucopia of documentary genres and forms. There are crazy films put together out of found footage, with interviews. Not that I would do such a thing. There are narrated slide shows, there are diary films, there’s agitprop of one kind or another, there’s interview films or whatever it is that I do.
It’s a garden of diverse forms, and I think that’s fantastic. I said very early on, there is no way to guarantee truth, there’s no kind of stamp that’s put on something by virtue of a style of production or presentation that makes something more truthful than something else. But in all of these diverse genres there are people trying to figure things out, to tell stories and to tell stories that capture a piece of reality that may have gone unobserved. And that’s a good thing.
AC: Do you think things have become more uncertain? You started at a time in the ‘80s when there was a very simple political divide between right and left. There were quite simple divides that had come out of the Vietnam War. Has it got much more complicated, the search for the truth? Or is it always like that?
EM: I think it’s always like that. It’s hard for me to know, but the world seems crazier to me now than it has ever seemed before.
AC: You’ve made some films about scientists as well, and their search for truth. Today’s scientists – searching for things like the dark matter which may or may not exist, but their theories say it does exist – are a bit like some of your characters. They’re absolutely convinced that that is true. Are you ever tempted to go back and do those sorts of people?
EM: Yes. I just started writing books. I don’t know how this happened, because I had writer’s block for many, many years and now I’ve just started. My first book came out this Fall, I have another book coming out early next year and a third book after that. I wanted to write this self-help book from writer’s block to graphomania in two easy weeks... but my second book is about a 40 year old murder case that people have been arguing about for 40 years. Without resolution.
I worked on this case [in] The Thin Blue Line. I was lucky; it had a resolution to it. As I did more research and interviewed more people, and read through more documents there was a convergence. The guy who was convicted was innocent and the guy I suspected was the killer confessed to me. That was a relief because now I think I know what happened.
But not all cases are like that. There are cases that devolve into a kind of strange miasma, where there is no closure. There is no certainty that ‘x’ happened rather than ‘y’. That also fascinates me. I’m writing a whole book about such a case, and the title comes from a line in a short story by Edgar Allan Poe...
I love it when, in the David Lean movie they talk about something ‘Edgar Allan Poe-ish,’ well this is an Edgar Allan Poe-ish story and the title of the book comes from one of my favourite quotes in literature from William Wilson, his doppelganger story. Poe talks about ‘seeking an oasis of fatality amid a wilderness of error’. What a fabulous line. And so my book is titled A Wilderness of Error.
In answer to your question, most of what we believe – and this is one thing we all sort of know in our heart of hearts – most of what we believe is wrong. I had become fascinated years ago by this Utopian community, the community of Zoar, Ohio. This was a failed Utopian community. Unlike the Shakers they had bad furniture, bad songs, really more or less bad everything, and they died out.
AC: What date?
EM: Round about the turn of the 20th century. Perhaps deservedly so. The last living inhabitant of Zoar, on her deathbed said, ‘Think of it, all those religions, they can’t all be right, but they could all be wrong.’
Q (from the floor):Have you considered dealing with issues such as corruption in emerging countries such as India or China?
EM: Have I considered dealing with issues in India or China?
Questioner: Corruption issues, poverty or the legal system for example in India?
EM: I have shot both in India and China and have thought about making films there but I haven’t really committed to anything. Maybe I should.
Q (from the floor):I very much enjoy your documentary films. I also enjoy your commercials, particularly the beer advert with the doughnut which I think is genius. Is it true that you shoot a commercial and then you keep the commercial crew on and that enables you to shoot the drama reconstruction in the very beautiful, high end way in your documentaries? Or is that just not true?
EM: That’s supposed to be a secret. You weren’t supposed to tell everybody that. I did over a hundred ads for Miller High Life and I often tell people my entire documentary work is destined for oblivion but the Miller High Life commercials will live on. So thank you Miller High Life.
Q (from the floor):You talk about this business of fact, that we don’t understand what’s going on in our own heads and that fascinates you. What interests me, particularly about The Fog of War, is this desire that seems to come over people to confess. Perhaps it makes it slightly less intimidating to be a documentary filmmaker.
EM: You’re hoping that I’m about to confess to something, I can see.
Questioner: No. You’ve confessed a bit already. But that to me is one of the major pleasures of being a documentary filmmaker; at some point somebody is going to confess rather than it being the intrepid reporter who’s somehow got to dig it out. Do you agree with that? Because that’s certainly true of McNamara; this sort of wild desire to confess under a camera which has sort of replaced the Catholic box.
EM: Yeah, I’ve been told so many things about Fog of War. There were accusations levelled very early on when the film went into distribution: that I had not gotten McNamara to confess, that I had not confronted him in some appropriate fashion, that I hadn’t gotten him to apologise or say he was sorry. And I’d like to point out that I am a Jewish boy from Long Island New York, I am not a Catholic priest, and my goal is not hearing confession. It’s as simple as that.
People have such a need, by the way, to imagine that they hear confessions, that they hear them all over the place. The Fog of War, to me, is not of interest because McNamara confesses, it’s of interest to me because he reveals something about himself and the way he sees the world which gives me a deeper understanding of him and the world that he was part of. To me that’s the real nature of the enterprise.
People have this odd idea of dramaturgy, as if we go to... a lot of movies do fulfil this function, clearly. We go to movies because we can feel better about ourselves. Characters who have sinned reveal that they have sinned and ask our forgiveness and we can be put in that ultimate empowering position of accepting their apology or not. I would ask myself, do I want Robert S. McNamara to apologise to me for the Vietnam War? And I can tell you quite sincerely the answer is, ‘No, I do not.’ I never saw that as the nature of the enterprise, or why I made that movie.
AC: But there is another style of journalism, which I think you’re referring to, which is that you go and collect your facts and confront the person who doesn’t necessarily want to confess and the weight of evidence makes them crack. That’s the other dramatic form of journalism.
EM: In the United States we have Sixty Minutes, and Mike Wallace. And the standard form, to be sure, of interviewing is the adversarial interview. The confrontational interview, the person who is brought up short, confronted with facts that he wishes to deny, but cannot evade. I’m not saying that that doesn’t have a role, people love it. Clearly it answers to some societal need.
Questioner: That’s not what I meant, it wasn’t that you forced somebody to do so. I just think that very often – and that also includes observational films it seems to me – where the interesting thing is to what extent they want to try to understand themselves by seeing something of the truth that they weren’t able to see without the presence of this camera and this person?
EM: If I understand the question, and forgive me, is the idea that somehow I am McNamara’s therapist? That I’m helping him to understand himself better?
AC: Or maybe he was using you?
EM: We’re all constantly using each other. This idea that somehow people aren’t ‘using each other,’ or people don’t have expectations from their relationships with other people... I’m always fond of this argument that, properly speaking, human relationships should always occur on a level playing field; there shouldn’t be some kind of imbalance of power, one person far more powerful than the other. Well here’s my two cents worth of opinion: if all human relationships had to be played out on a level playing field, there would be none.
AC: Fair enough. Any more questions?
Q (from the floor):The most interesting thing about your films is your absence from that process, the process of asking people questions and them divulging information. What is it that made you decide to do that? It’s more prominent in your early work, and as your work continues you start to reveal yourself more and we start to hear more of your input.
EM: I think there’s a simple answer, maybe I’m embarrassed by myself so in my first films I thought that I should just simply subtract myself from the entire process. In Gates of Heaven you don’t hear my voice at all, and then gradually I introduced myself into the films. I had to for The Thin Blue Line because I had this terrible disaster, the last day of shooting I had worked for close to two years to get an interview with the killer and my camera broke.
This was on a Friday, I could get no camera to replace it over the weekend. I was going to lose the interview, so I came back with a tape recorder on a Saturday, and I recorded this conversation between myself and David Harris, where he does in fact confess to the murder. And that’s at the very end of The Thin Blue Line, it’s my voice and his voice. And then I’ve put a little bit more of myself in each film. In Tabloid there’s still more of me. I’m not sure I like myself any more but I’m able to tolerate myself better. How’s that?
Questioner: There is a sense that your interviews come across as monologues, because of your absence. Is there a sense do you think that you’re reversing power relationships in interviews?
EM: It’s an interesting question, I have never really thought of it that way. Before I became a filmmaker, when I was a graduate student at Berkeley, I started interviewing people. I started interviewing mass murderers and their families. I would go around with a tape recorder, I didn’t have a camera. And I would play games, I guess you would call them interview games, where I would see how long I could get a person to talk without interrupting them so that I would have these interviews where my voice wasn’t present at all.
And that certainly carried over to the films that I made. It was that stream-of-consciousness narration. A friend of mine once said, I think this is true, you can never trust somebody who doesn’t talk a lot, because how else would you know what they’re thinking? Part of the premise is that people do reveal themselves in how they talk, how they express themselves.
I’ve never been interested in the Q&A per se. I ask the question, whether it’s the difficult question or the leading question, and an answer results. I’ve been more interested in that stream-of-conscious narration that’s produced in a completely different kind of interview. You could argue, and I’m sure that this has been argued many, many times, that that’s not an effective way to learn anything. The way to do it, really, is what we would call the Mike Wallace way.
The thing I hate about it – and I secretly do hate it, well maybe not so secretly – the thing I dislike about the Mike Wallace way is that somehow it pre-supposes you already know the answer and so you are going to ask that question which elicits the answer that you’re looking for. And my premise is the opposite of that. My premise is that I don’t even know the answer, or the question. I’m there on a kind of fact finding mission to learn something. And here’s my argument, because I sense a kind of scepticism in the room: it’s worked for me.
Q (from the floor):How many stories do you throw away that you start, that never end up becoming films? And for the films that you have made, how long do you spend researching and investigating them before you’ll turn the camera on?
EM: Let me try the second question, and then the first. I investigate while I’m making movies. Thin Blue Line is a perfect example of that sort of thing. Fog of War is another perfect example. I started with another interview and the interview raised all kinds of questions. started doing research. How was I supposed to investigate the firebombing of Japan and McNamara’s role with Curtis LeMay before I had heard that story? We heard the story, I sent a researcher to the National Archive in Washington and they pulled up a manila folder. I believe no-one had touched that folder since 1945, it just sat there unread, and this was a memo to Norstad written by a young 27-year-old Lieutenant. Colonel Robert S. McNamara on the altitude of B29s in the planned firebombing of Japan.
It’s an amazing memo. It appears in the movie, I made copies of it, it was shown to McNamara, McNamara talked about the memo in the film. That whole sequence where he talks about proportionality, which is the percentage of Japanese cities destroyed versus the comparison American cities. All of that came out of that first interview, and then the research that I subsequently did. I hope this is answering the question, it’s not that as though you sit and do all of this research and decide to make a movie. The movie itself is properly done, part investigative, the two feed off of each other.
The first question was do I throw stuff away, and the answer is yes, quite often I do. I have all of these bits and pieces of films and interviews which somebody [or] I should do something with. There’s something that I did on the Kennedy assassination for example which is a short six minute film that is going to run now in The New York Times some time this month. The Times is talking about putting video content as part of their Op-Ed pages and they’ve asked me to contribute stuff. But all the time, I have lots and lots of stuff. It’s hard to make movies, at least I find it really hard to make movies, and not every interview or every project that I start comes to fruition.
Q (from the floor):I seem to remember that when you made Thin Blue Line the guy who was found innocent was not necessarily that grateful, in that I think he sued you. Even though he got off there was some issue about him feeling that you’d used him or something? Was that right? That’s part of my question, in that when you’re interviewing people it’s like an exploration between you and the person... I was just wondering when you get into the edit room the power is in your domain in that you’re choosing to edit things. I wonder what the relationship between you and your contributors are post filming, whether for example they see the films prior to them being finished?
EM: Yeah, a lot of parts to this. Do I show my films to the people who are in them before they’re released? The answer is yes, always. It seems to be the correct thing to do. I showed Mr Death to Fred Leuchter before it was released, and I thought that it might give him pause to reconsider some of his views. Fred Leuchter was an electric chair repairman and a Holocaust denier, an odd combination – one of the reasons he fascinated me. So I showed him the movie and he was completely unchanged in any of his beliefs. He thought the movie was fair, he was willing to admit that poison gas was possibly used at Auschwitz. He had claimed that it was not. But he still thought it much more likely that there were ‘10,000 electric chairs under Berlin.’
So yes, I show my movies. When I made A Brief History of Time I had this struggle throughout the making of the movie. It’s one of my very, very best movies and I don’t believe it’s ever been shown here which is sad. Working with [Stephen] Hawking was absolutely fabulous. I find Hawking unendingly interesting. When I first started work on this he had told me, ‘I don’t want anything about my biography in the movie, this is just to be about my science not about my personal life or my history, or anything of that sort.’ I would say to Stephen Hawking, ‘Wait a second, I actually have read A Brief History of Time and A Brief History of Time is a thinly disguised autobiography.’ That’s what it is, properly speaking. People often talk about it as though it’s science pedagogy; well it’s nothing of the sort.
It’s far, far more interesting. So we would argue back and forth, my desire to include biography and science, there’s this concept from 19th century poetry – the Pathetic Fallacy – about giving inanimate nature human like characteristics. Well the whole book is an example of the Pathetic Fallacy, and I often said maybe what’s really interesting about the Pathetic Fallacy is that it’s not a fallacy.
When Hawking talks about the life and death of the universe and about his own mortality, all of this is connected up in a very powerful way. So back and forth arguments, blah, blah, blah – finally Stephen Hawking saw the movie before it was released in Los Angeles at CAA. I was really quite nervous about this, I needed his approval and the first thing he said when he came out of the screening room was, ‘Thank you for making my mother a star.’
You’re dealing with real people and in trying to capture their complexity there’s always trouble. Sometimes in unexpected ways. The guy I got out of prison sued me. A long, long story, he died last year, we never reconciled really after all of this. All I can say is that I really worked for three years to get this man out of prison. I believe it’s my investigation that achieved that end. I didn’t really need his gratitude really. It would have been nice but I did it because I felt that it was an important thing to do and I would do it all over again knowing the outcome. It doesn’t change it one little bit. It’s part of what makes this interesting.
Q (from the floor):Has it ever happened that an interviewee has called you a few days afterwards with second thoughts and said, ‘I’d rather you didn’t put that in?’ And, if it did, what’s your response?
EM: It’s never happened, believe it or not. I don’t know if I have any kind of general answer to that. It depends on the nature of our relationship. I mean, if Emily Miller had asked me, ‘Excuse me, but would you mind not saying anything about my failure to pick out Randall Adams in a police line-up and the coaching that I received from the Dallas police? Would you please not say anything about that?’ I’m afraid I would not have honoured that request. Making a movie often can be a partnership. I don’t think there’s any general answer that I can give you.
McNamara and I talked about passages in the movie, things that made him unhappy and we worked it out. I don’t think that there’s anything in that movie that he wouldn’t stand by and I really didn’t have to change anything because he insisted that I do so. That doesn’t mean we didn’t talk about the movie or that he wasn’t shown the movie, but in the end it was something that both of us could live with. I’m not sure that answers the question but I think it varies from project to project, person to person.
AC: Okay, here are some Twitter questions. From Tim: Has your opinion of one of your subjects changed from making a documentary about them?
EM: Well yes, of course. An interview, by the way, I sometimes describe as a kind of human relationship in a laboratory setting. It’s this controlled environment of one person talking to another person etc., but ask yourself does your opinion of people change from talking to them?
AC: Okay, I’ll ask you another one. Which documentaries of the last few years does Errol rate, and why? This is from Christine. I think she’s asking about other people’s films.
EM: Well there’s a lot of films that I’m very enthusiastic about. His films [Adam Curtis] for example.
AC: Any others? No, right okay. Go on, what are the films?
EM: No there are lots of films. It’s interesting, my background in documentary, it comes from some very weird place. I didn’t grow up watching documentary films. Really, who does?
EM: When I started watching them, the Pacific Film Archive at Berkeley, a lot of it was early documentary. Documentary almost as art films. Vertov, Vigo, Bunuel’s Land Without Bread, actually the early films of Werner Herzog. There’s a line I read in a Paris Review interview with Gabriel Maria Marquez, and he was talking about his experience of reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the first time and he said, ‘I didn’t know you were allowed to do that.’ Which is, I think, a very important thought.
The documentaries that have meant the most to me have been [by] people that have really redefined the nature of the genre, of what it means to make a documentary, of what a documentary film can be. It is, again, that idea, ‘I didn’t know you were allowed to do that.’ The Thin Blue Line was rejected by your counterpart, the Academy in the United States. It was not nominated for anything. Except I did get an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, which I’m deeply grateful for.
And they didn’t like it because it did everything the wrong way. I have Philip Glass music, re-enactments, what’s this? This isn’t the way a documentary should be made. It goes back to the Marquez line, ‘I didn’t know you were allowed to do that.’ And the films that excite me the most are films that really changed the nature of the genre, of what we consider to be possible.
Q (from the floor):I’m the guy who actually did grow up watching documentaries, believe it or not.
EM: Has this had an adverse effect in any way?
Questioner: Some of my employers are here tonight, you can ask them. I have heard a word come up a few times tonight, which is truth, and it can obviously be argued that there’s no such thing as objective truth...
EM: No it can’t. WHOA! I have one example that I love to offer to those people who say that there is no such thing as objective truth, there is just subjective truth; truth for you, truth for me, truth for anybody who really wants to claim it as truth etc. Let me give you the following scenario: You are being strapped into an electric chair in Texas. Now I got to visit the death chamber in Texas. You may not know this but the last words the warden [says] to the condemned [are], ‘Please have a seat.’
Of course my version of that was, ‘No thanks, I’d rather stand.’ But no. You are strapped into Old Sparky, the Texas electric chair and you are screaming, ‘I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it, dear god help me, I didn’t do it!’ And the chaplain comes along and says to you, ‘You know, there really is no thing as truth, there is no fact of the matter, of whether you did it or didn’t do it. Truth is really up for grabs. Truth is what anybody considers to be the truth. So suck it up!’ I don’t know where this nonsense started, but forgive me there is such a thing as truth. THE TRUTH.
AC: Right, that’ll teach you. Any more questions?
Q (from the floor):You were saying that you liked documentaries that changed the way documentaries should be, I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the use of animation in documentary?
EM: Why not? Waltz With Bashir, partially a documentary, partially constructed. To me, in the end, being unforgivably redundant, but please forgive me. In the end it’s not about style, it’s about that underlying pursuit of truth. There isn’t the regulation way of pursuing truth, you pursue it in any way you can. It’s that you have that goal in mind, that you are trying to uncover something, to learn something, to resolve something. And even if you’re unsuccessful in the end, that has been at the heart of the enterprise. The reason why you’re doing it. And I like to think I’ve never wavered from that.
Yes, you can make films about how people see the world and how they become lost in their own fantasies. And certainly that endlessly fascinates me as well, but there are stories, there’s a certain class of story, where you really want to find something out and stopping short of that will never, in the end, be satisfying.
Q (from the floor):This is probably a question about the world of un-objective truth, or downright lies, i.e. fiction and I notice unless I’ve got it wrong, that you only once strayed into that area with The Dark Wind a long time ago. Was that so traumatic you never wanted to do it again? Why have you not dabbled again?
EM: No, I have another project, I’m supposed to direct another fiction film based on a true story, this next year about the first cryonic freezing. The first man frozen for future resuscitation, based on a book We Froze The First Man, by Bob Nelson. So no, I haven’t given up on it altogether.
Q (from the floor):I’ve really enjoyed your films over the years, and I want to ask about your relationship with your editor or editors. I would love to say that I’ve noticed whether you’ve worked with one, several people but to me that seems the most important relationship in your filmmaking. Can you talk about that please?
EM: Editing is the most important thing in my filmmaking. I often tell people that I am a director but what I really want to do is edit, and I spend such an extraordinary amount of time in editing rooms. Someone asked earlier about my relationship with my subjects. One of the strange things about my filmmaking, and maybe this is true of many people, say Robert S. McNamara. Yes I spent some time with him, but the actual time that I spent with him in a studio compared to the amount of time that I spent looking at him on an editing machine just really does not compare.
It’s a version of, I guess, some late night television host who’s watched by millions of people, who see him constantly, but has no knowledge of those people watching on television. I do an interview and then I can spend a good part of a year watching that interview again and again, while I’m editing it.
Questioner: I don’t know if you’ve continuity with one editor, or if you constantly change your editors, that’s what I’m intrigued by.
EM: I’ve had, over the years, a number of truly gifted editors. Gifted as editors and gifted in being able to spend that much time in a room with me. One of them, well I simply could say my finest editor, Karen Schmeer was senselessly killed in an auto collision in Manhattan last year. And that’s an enormous loss to me, but I’ve had many, many gifted editors working with me. I’ve been lucky in that regard.
Questioner: So you don’t have continuity with one person, you changed over the years.
EM: Karen edited at least three, possibly four films but I’ve used a lot of different editors, yes.
AC: I think we have to finish there. Thank you very much, I think that was a real privilege, it was brilliant: Errol Morris.
We produced a small print programme for this event for attendees, featuring original contributions from Nick Broomfield (Sarah Palin: You Betcha!), Asif Kapadia (Senna), Kevin Macdonald (Touching The Void) and James Marsh (Man On Wire).