The HuffPost Interview: Errol Morris

[Editor's Note: Noah Helpern is a former research assistant for Arianna Huffington who is now a second-year student at Harvard Law School. Not finding that time-consuming enough, he has decided to use his connection to the Huffington Post as a pretext for getting to talk to a bunch of cool people he’s always wanted to meet. The first of these is award-winning filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War)]

HuffPost: How are things?

Morris: I’ve been so crazy. I have a number of projects – it’s just turned into this insanely busy time. I’m trying to make more movies to try to justify in some small way my existence. So I’ve been juggling my own projects with the advertising and I’ve been trying to write this book.

HuffPost: What’s the book?

Morris: I’ve been asked to do a book that I sometimes – I guess, patronizing myself – refer to as the Errol Morris coffee table book, but that’s not actually the intention. The intention is to put together my thoughts on a wide range of different topics.

I remember seeing an old David Letterman episode and they had Tahnee Welch on, Raquel Welch’s daughter, and Brian Dennehy and they had just been in a movie together and she came on and started dissing the movie and Brian Dennehy said, “She’s an actress, but what she really wants to be is a waitress.” And, I don’t know, I’ve always wanted to write, I’ve always had trouble with writing, and I’m trying to force myself to write regularly.

HuffPost: Sometimes there is a very poor reaction to people who try to do more than one thing.

Morris: I’ll be punished.

HuffPost: For leaving the pigeonhole?

Morris: And what form will the punishment take? Will I be horsewhipped, or crucified?

HuffPost: They can take back your Oscar.

Morris: Oscar revocation!

HuffPost: I’ve heard it happens.

Morris: You know, you don’t own them anymore, the Academy owns them, they’re just on some kind of permanent lease because apparently there were too many of them being sold on eBay.

HuffPost: What draws you to do so much work in advertising? It seems to be pretty far from documentary film…

Morris: Yes, it’s a different field, I think I can say that with some assurance. Part of it is that I have to earn a living, and none of the films that I’ve made have made any money for me. In most instances, they’ve lost money. I think I lost more money on The Fog of War than any other movie.

HuffPost: Your website has a lot of your work on it, and a lot of your writing, including stuff that hasn’t been published in other places. Is the Internet going to play a role in the work you’re doing now and in the future?

Morris: The web really interests me. I’ve been writing a lot more, I believe, because of the Internet. I’ve been posting stuff that I’ve written and I’ve just been writing. I’ve always looked at myself as a frustrated writer, or a frustrated something, and there’s a whole number of things that I’ve wanted to write about in the past but just haven’t done it. A movie is like a tip of an iceberg, in a way, because so little of what you do in connection with making a movie actually gets into the movie. Almost everything gets left behind. So, yeah, I like the Internet.

HuffPost: You could start a blog, there are not nearly enough of those.

Morris: I know, the Huffington blog—

HuffPost: The Huffington Post.

Morris: Yeah. I’d love to contribute to that.

HuffPost: I’ll see if I can pull some strings, but it’s really quite selective. I’m extremely qualified.

Morris: I like the Larry David piece.

HuffPost: About Bolton?

Morris: Yeah, I thought it was very funny.

One second…

[puts me on hold]

That was my day job calling.

HuffPost: Who?

Morris: [company name removed]

I have to go back to LA to shoot more commercials. They’re building an Ames room* in LA as we speak.

HuffPost: What kind of room?

Morris: They’re these rooms, they’re built in a completely distorted way in order to create an optical illusion based on perspective. I’ve always wanted to shoot in an Ames room and now we’re going to.

HuffPost: I’m looking at an Ames room online right now, but I’m having trouble visualizing how it would look on film.

Morris: Well, I’ll find out.

HuffPost: Are they going to be the same format as the earlier ads?

Morris: It’s not clear yet. You know, I actually like doing commercials. I don’t like doing them to the exclusion of everything else, but I like doing them. The 30-second format is very hard. I sometimes call it American Haiku. And I think some of the commercials I’ve done are not so bad.

HuffPost: I’m a fan of the High Life ones.

Morris: Yeah, the High Life ones are good. Jeff Kling, who wrote a lot of the High Life spots, I once told him he had written the greatest line since Shakespeare, which was: “If the pharaohs had duct tape, the sphinx would still have a nose.” Excellent writing.

HuffPost: You’ve recently reflected on the human capacity for self-deception and our distaste for the truth. How truthful are your films? Do they reflect something objective about the people you interview?

Morris: Films are neither true nor false. That includes my films, as well as others. They may make claims that are true or false, but films are too complex. They have too many ingredients.

What I do, I suppose I should be able to characterize it in some simple way. Take a movie like The Fog of War -- it creates an entirely subjective account, but it’s McNamara’s subjective account of his experiences. To that end I interview him at length and he tells me stories. Like any first person account it may be filled with factual errors, it can be self-serving. On the other hand, it can be incredibly revealing and can reveal things that very, very few people know about.

HuffPost: You’ve talked and written about how a photograph doesn’t necessarily convey the truth, but it gets people thinking about what the truth is. And so I’m wondering, in what way do you think your films, and not just The Fog of War but your earlier films as well, have a similar effect?

Morris: In the Times essay I tried to say something to the effect that photographs provide evidence. It’s not something that you can just read the truth off of. You don’t look at a photograph and see what really happened and what really transpired. They provide evidence. Evidence isn’t the truth; evidence is a way to think about what’s out there in the world and to try to some conclusion about things.

I’ve tried to provide, on the one hand, a really subjective set of accounts to try to capture what people believe, and perhaps why they believe what they believe, and set those accounts off against evidence and see where you get out.

So I guess the dream is that you can tell an entirely subjective account and set it against evidence and create something interesting as a result.

There’s a model for how we’re supposed to make these kinds of films, and what I do violates that model. But I would argue that the model that is supposedly a guarantor of truth is no such thing. The model is, of course, an adversarial model, it’s the Mike Wallace school of interviewing. You take the subject, you interview him, you back him against the wall, and if you hear something you believe to be untrue you confront him with that fact and force him to address it. I suppose it’s the idea of a courtroom drama, and you are supposed to arrive at the truth.

I’m not suggesting the adversarial method doesn’t work at times. But in the context of what I do, I’ve gotten far better results by avoiding that altogether, and I’ve heard some pretty amazing things in the process. I would contrast the “back ‘em against the wall and make them confess” school with the “shut up and listen” school, where my goal is really to collect stories.

HuffPost: But there’s certainly been criticism, especially with McNamara, that you may not have pushed hard enough.

Morris: In truth, I wish I had done something like that when he went on and on about the Gulf of Tonkin incidents. Didn’t we try to provoke them? A number of people have criticized me and the movie for giving a false impression or what they consider to be a false impression of those events.

HuffPost: You and Eric Alterman had a conflict about this issue in the film, about footage that may or may have existed showing McNamara discussing secret intercepts regarding the Gulf of Tonkin.

Morris: Right. Alterman just engaged in hand-waving. It’s sort of, “You’re not a historian so why should I listen to you?” I’m not a big enthusiast of that kind of argument. It’s like in Mr. Death, Fred Leuchter, the Holocaust denier, has a degree from BU in history. Does that mean that his historical views are more valid? No.

I’m always puzzled when people ask if a film is true or false. Fog of War, true or false? Fahrenheit 911, true or false? Sorrow and Pity, true or false? Isn’t what interests us about documentary film, that there is a claim that relates to the world and hence does have truth value? You can think about things that are said by people and think, is this true, is this false, what is this?

HuffPost: When I watch your movies and I see an interview with someone, do you think you are showing me something objective about that person or am I seeing a reflection of your relationship?

Morris: I think it’s a really important question, and I’m not sure I have the answer. I think that every one of us is aware of an audience when we’re speaking to somebody, it’s not as though we are just delivering ourselves to another person in the void. We’re talking to someone. It could be about ourselves, but we’re still talking to someone about ourselves.

There’s this idea that a person is one thing, or the self is one thing. And I often think of people as being like a deck of cards, although my guess is that it’s a lot more than 52 cards. When people say to me, this is just some self-serving account that McNamara has provided, part of my feeling when I hear that is, “Well, yeah, of course it is!” But that’s not all it is. It’s not just a self-serving account, it’s a complicated account. We all have narratives about ourselves, about who we are and why we do what we do. We have accounts of ourselves for ourselves and we have accounts of ourselves for other people to try to convince them about who we are and our underlying motivations. Part of the premise here is that people reveal themselves through their use of language, through talking.

I guess to me the greatest mystery is what’s inside people’s heads. And it really interests me – that conceptual space. It’s very easy to say that McNamara is a villain. On one hand, how could you say otherwise? But I know McNamara and my feelings about him are different now than they were in the 60’s, but my feelings about the war haven’t changed in the slightest. The role that McNamara played in American history is, to me, just endlessly fascinating. And what makes it even more disturbing is not that he was an evil man, or a man with bad intentions who did evil things, but that he was a man with good intentions who did evil things. And I know that there will be a host of people who will disagree with me about that.

HuffPost: What’s good right now?

Morris: Banksy. I love Banksy. Can’t beat the feeling. Now that’s art.

* Update: The Ames room Errol Morris describes is for an upcoming, but separate, campaign for Quaker Oats.