The celebrated filmmaker behind such documentary landmarks as The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War opens up about the non-fiction medium and his latest film.
Errol Morris is one of documentary film’s true pioneers. While his reputation rests in a popular sense on a series of powerful and political challenging documentaries—The Thin Blue Line (1988), the Academy Award-winning The Fog of War (2003), and more recently, Standard Operating Procedure (2008)—he’s also noted for his quirky and frequently bizarre casts of characters. His latest, the wildly enjoyable Tabloid, is a return to the entertaining Morris of old: a gloriously unreliable account of a beauty queen’s attempt to win back her ex-fiancé (and the ensuing tabloid frenzy).
Morris came to film late, but has never looked back from the time his documentary on pet cemeteries, Gates of Heaven (1978), was released. To this day, he doesn’t quite know why film became his chosen medium. “I’ve never been completely sure, except that it’s this fabulous vehicle for expressing ideas. There’s nothing quite like it. And I’d like to think I’ve put it to good use. I can’t be completely sure. There’s opportunity to reinvent a certain kind of storytelling with film. It’s exciting, and always new, always interesting.”
Gates of Heaven took so long to be completed that Werner Herzog famously told Morris that he’d eat his own shoe if the film was ever released to the public. The subsequent meal—made into a short documentary by Les Blank (fittingly called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe)—gave Morris some impetus. Morris adds, however, that Herzog “promised to eat his foot, and I’m still waiting for him to fulfil the bet.”
Morris’s early films struggled for distribution, in stark contrast to documentaries of today. “It’s strange. It has become fashionable. When did that happen? I’m fond of quoting this line from Conan the Barbarian where one person said to another, ‘it used to be another snake cult, now you see it everywhere.’ That’s certainly true of documentary. It was something very, very few people were interested in. When I first started making documentaries, the idea that you would put them in theatres, and people would pay to see them, was virtually unheard of. And now, there are many, many documentaries in theatres, dozens of them. I’m not sure how it happened.”
Morris says he was attracted to documentary in part due to its unpredictable nature. And given his modus operandi is frequently around the use of interviews, it’s an approach that has seen him come up with some incredibly potent moments, especially when characters reveal things they may not have realised. “That’s certainly part of it. Part of it is investigative. Part of it is exactly what you describe. Not knowing what you are going to find out, not knowing what you are going to uncover, the element of the unexpected, the unplanned, the spontaneous. Interviews are of course a very big part of what I do, talking to people. To me, an interview is investigative; you don’t know what people are going to say, what people are going to do. I don’t even know what questions to ask. I go into interviews frightened and a little dumbfounded.”
Morris’s turning point came in 1988 with The Thin Blue Line. “There are so many oddities about that investigation,” he recalls of the film’s inquiry into an innocent man (Randall Adams) on death row. “Of course, it was a miscarriage of justice, or so I believed was a miscarriage of justice at its heart. The key piece of evidence that led to this innocent man being released from prison involved a key eyewitness, [who] without even knowing what she was doing, revealed to me that she had committed perjury. An amazing moment, it wasn’t in response to any question I asked. It just happened. I had asked her about the police line-ups where she had identified, supposedly identified the culprit. And she started to explain to me why she had failed to pick out this guy, and so I said to her, ‘wait a second, at the trial [you] said the exact opposite.’ I didn’t ask her, she volunteered the information. So I said, ‘how did you know you failed to pick this guy, Randall Adams, the guy who was convicted and sentenced to death for murder? How do you know you didn’t pick him out.’ [She responded], ‘because the policeman sitting next to me told me I had picked out the wrong person and pointed out the right person, so I never made that mistake again.’ Out of nowhere, the crucial central witness has completely discredited herself.”
Furthermore, he had no idea how much it would affect his career. “Certainly I knew I had the goods to get this man out of prison, but it still amazes me to tell you the truth. And yes, it made an enormous amount of difference to my career. It put me on the map. Before that I was completely unemployed. I was working as a private detective because I couldn’t get any money to make movies.”
Despite its critical acclaim and limited commercial success, The Thin Blue Line wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, deemed ineligible as “non-fiction” as opposed to documentary. “Of course I was disappointed that many of my films were never nominated,” he says. “In fact, I was never nominated until I won one for The Fog of War. But I feel like this movie did everything you could expect a documentary to do. It certainly changed the nature of the genre, it had an extraordinary score by Phillip Glass, [and] it got an innocent man out of prison. I’m very proud of it.”
In the past, critical reaction to Morris’s films has often ignored his role as an auteur, perhaps influenced by the notion that he simply believes his protagonists’ point of view. Of particular controversy was Mr Death (1999), about Holocaust denier and executioner Fred Leuchter Jr. In that film, he was forced to explicitly critique Leuchter’s views, for audiences might have believed that he was endorsing Leuchter. “It hadn’t really been the way I had wanted to make [documentaries] when I made Mr Death,” he regrets. “Certain kinds of ambiguities I had to resolve, I had to make it clear, I found my protagonist’s view that the Holocaust hadn’t happened to be wrong and repellent—I’m a Jew after all—[and] I’ve had no reason to doubt the essential details of the Holocaust.”
Making Tabloid, on the other hand, Morris found a completely different experience. “In this movie, I left the ambiguities. I felt like I couldn’t answer them. Of course, in the case of Fred Leuchtner, I could answer them; I could reveal that the kind of ‘science’ he had adduced to ‘show’ that poison gas wasn’t used was nonsense, that it was fake science. Here, I do like this movie because the ambiguities are there. I haven’t papered them over. I left them in the kind of raw form. There were questions I could not answer—I left them unanswered.”
Tabloid is an almost gleeful take on what could very well have been a controversial subject (alleged rape, abduction, spiritual destruction). And it’s also very funny. “I wanted to make an entertaining movie. This was an incredibly funny story. I’ve heard people criticise it because it is funny. It’s not really my fault. I captured the absurdity in the story. But they were there long before I arrived on the scene.”
The protagonist, Joyce McKinney is a wonderful figure—one of the most fascinating interview subjects seen in recent memory. But she is also a fragile subject, and when compared to someone like Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, it would be easy to make the accusation of exploitation. Morris doesn’t think so, though. “This is not to say there isn’t such a thing as people being exploited. But Joyce is not an unwilling participant in all of this. Joyce came to Britain with a bottle of chloroform, Smith and Wesson handcuffs, [and] rope, with the intention of kidnapping her ex-boyfriend. You do this kind of thing, you’re not being exploited by the press. That’s not to say she wasn’t maligned by the tabloids. If the question is ‘is Joyce an innocent victim in all of this,” I can’t really agree.”
After all, Morris’s approach is to give her space and freedom to talk. And like all of his films, it is the characters who either hang themselves or whose words offer a wider critique of society than they originally intended. With Tabloid, the end result is a darkly hilarious, thoroughly entertaining account of l’amour fou. “Also, I like her,” says Morris of McKinney. “She was this amazing romantic figure. She complained to me [that] doesn’t the like the fact the movie isn’t a screed against the Mormon Church, or the movie wasn’t an out-and-out attack on the tabloid press. I think it’s a richer story, of which she is a central part: this story of a hopeless love affair, this amazing romantic figure, as well as these other themes. I think I’ve captured some aspect of Joyce. At times she seems to like the movie, at times she seems to hate it. I think that reflects the complexity of her as a character.”