Flavorwire Interview: Errol Morris on Redefining Documentary, His Netflix Series, and ‘The B-Side’


There’s something particularly intimidating about interviewing Errol Morris, and it’s not just because he’s a brilliant filmmaker, responsible for some of the finest documentaries of our time (including The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, Fast Cheap & Out of Control, and Roger Ebert’s favorite movie, Gates of Heaven). It’s that he’s a great interviewer himself, so how stupid am I gonna look? He got a guy to confess to murder in an interview – what’s he gonna make of my stupid questions?

That’s all silly, of course; in person, Mr. Morris is easy-going, affable, and generally delightful. Part of that is due to the subject of his press tour: he’s promoting his new documentary feature The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, a film much more homey and intimate than, say, a portrait of a combative former Secretary of Defense, or an investigation of a police officer’s murder. Ms. Dorfman isn’t just a remarkable photographer, known for her large-scale portraits on (a no longer extant) Polarioid film; she’s also a personal friend of Morris, so he enjoyed not only making a film about her, but having the opportunity to sing her praises to press and festival audiences as The B-Side worked the circuit on its way to its June 30th theatrical release.

Flavorwire: Did you first know Elsa personally, or were you introduced to her through her work?

Errol Morris: I think it’s a mixture of both. We had mutual friends. [My wife and I had] just moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts from New York City, 27 years ago. We had a mutual friend who wanted my wife to meet Elsa; Elsa was taking photographs, a benefit for some charity. My wife brought my son in to have his photograph taken. And that was the beginning.

And that was a large-scale Polaroid portrait, or…

Not the super large scale, not the 60″ x 40″, but it was a 20″ x 24″.

And you developed a relationship at that point?

Yes.

And at what point did you decide that you were going to make a movie about her?

It’s really hard to know how these things happen, in retrospect. I knew that I wanted to make a movie about her for a while. And I even knew that I wanted her to tell stories about her Polaroid photographs, this huge archive of photographs in her garage, back of the house. But I never got around to starting it. And then she told me that she had scheduled a local moving company to pull these huge Polaroids out of her house, that she wanted to have them digitized. The fear of course is that the process produces “fugitive images,” and if you want to keep them, it’s best to digitize them. So that’s how it started; I had about, I would say less than a week’s notice that they were moving the photographs, so we just said, “We’ll be there, and we’ll start shooting,” and we did!

Was there any resistance from her?

No, no, no – I think she was skeptical that I was making a movie, and maybe I wasn’t even making a movie! I don’t know what I was doing. I was there recording those large Polaroids being taken off the wall, which is a remarkable scene. And that suggested that we should continue. And then I spent a day or so with her in the garage, with her showing me Polaroid photographs. We went to Color Services to get her talking about the large Allen Ginsberg photographs, and playing the recording [his last voicemail message to her, and then another about his death] – which she had never heard since the day that she had actually made that recording. And then a day in her studio. So it happened really quickly and we started editing immediately, and it started growing in length – every time we shot, we would add more, and then more, and then it was close to 80 minutes in length and we thought, This is a film. We’ll stop now.

Were there any particular challenges to making a film about someone who you knew personally, who you had a previous friendship with?

Well, I was paying for it, which is… Unusual. I felt if I had to ask people for money and had to explain why I want to do this, it would never get made. We just decided we would do it and we did.

But I never saw it as a problem. I mean Elsa’s one of my close friends, and one of my very, very favorite people. Would I do a good job, a good enough job of recording her on film? That’s a worry.

Well, presumably because of the friendship, there’s a warmth to the movie reminded me very much of some of your earlier work, like Gates of Heaven – though that’s a quality that’s not always allowed by the serious subject matter you’ve tackled since. I’m curious if, even subconsciously, somewhere in the back of your mind, you liked the idea of making a movie about Elsa because you’d just spent, y’know, two or three years making a movie about Donald Rumsfeld.

The answer is yes! That’s pretty simple. Making a film about somebody that I not only like, I love… Honoring Elsa is certainly a part of it, someone who I’ve always admired as an artist, who I think has a rough time of it, in the sense that she’s never, ever really been giving her due. I always tell people, people ask me to recommend them for a Guggenheim, or whatever. And I remind them that although I myself have gotten one years ago, every time I recommend someone for a Guggenheim, they don’t get it. So  I can’t really advertise my wares. But I wrote an application for Elsa. She didn’t get the Guggenheim… which annoyed me, because I felt that she really deserved it. And I described, in the application, her work as “the perfect combination of Renaissance portraiture and dime-store photography.” I don’t know if that’s exactly right but it does capture something about the nature of her art. That element of self presentation. The element of…

I haven’t used this word before, in any of the interviews about this movie or about Elsa, but it’s almost anthropological. There she is in the middle of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Often the people that she is photographing are people who paid money – they’ve come in and wanted her to take pictures, and what emerges is this anthropological, sociological document. It’s very interesting to me, because I know both of them very very well, that Elsa’s first cousin is Fred Wiseman.

Wow. Okay. 

What do I make of that even. I’m not really sure.

Well, they both have that eye, that way of regarding the subject, and giving the subject its distance and permission to be itself, I think, may be one thing they have in common.

That’s absolutely there, yeah. Oddly enough I’ve often disagreed with people who see Fred’s work as being primarily sociological, because I think it’s far stranger than that – though it can be any thing, it doesn’t have to be one thing as opposed to another.

It’s very hard for me to separate [Elsa’s] art out from her. I have had my picture taken by Elsa a good number of times, my family’s been photographed by Elsa, my mother and my stepfather have been photographed by Elsa, our dogs… Robert McNamara… and on and on and on and on. There’s something so deeply unassuming and unpretentious about her work that it could lead you to think that there’s something uninteresting about it, that it lacks of depth, of profundity. But it doesn’t. I think it’s really, really remarkable.

It’s also interesting that there’s a greater and greater interest in artists who never really define themselves as artists, but who are artists nevertheless – who’ve worked in small studios, and created a body of work. And Elsa’s certainly a person has never really been given her due, and yet is a great photographer. So I do look at this is as, in part, my attempt to share her with an audience.

And I think there’s certainly a relationship between Gates of Heaven and Elsa, and First Person and Elsa. My wife talks about Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control – this was a movie made right around the time I lost my mother and stepfather, really in close succession. And there was an elegiac element, a feeling of everything passing, the evanescence of everything. And you certainly feel that in the Elsa film, it’s a feeling of, it could all just vanish, but nevertheless: it’s Elsa’s dream, and maybe it’s everyone’s dream, of nailing down now. Of somehow trying to capture something that remains of our lives, of what we’ve been important to us, what we love. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to make the movie and that I’m friends with Elsa.

And it also seems to fall into this period for you where still photography has been an explicit preoccupation – between Standard Operating Procedure, Seeing is Believing, things you’ve written for the New York Times, and this film, there are very different subjects and approaches, but they share this idea of the still image’s ability to capture a moment, and to seemingly tell us everything and nothing. Have you always had this fascination with photographs, or is there something in particular that has made it such a recurring subject for you as of late?

I don’t know… I think I’ve always been interested – after all, I became a filmmaker, so it must interest me on some level. I mean, it’s endlessly interesting how photographs capture, in part, the person taking the photograph. It’s endlessly interesting what photographs hide and what they reveal. It’s a really complex art form, that is mysterious, and endlessly interesting – philosophically interesting.

I’m still quite taken with it! (Laughs)

In terms of your photography, the intimacy and the scale of the movie reminded me a lot of your IFC series First Person.

Yes.

But it’s done in a very different style – shooting in her space instead of bringing her to yours, choosing not to use the Interrotron for your interviews with Elsa. Why do you make that choice, and how early in the process did you make it?

Well, I’d been hired by Netflix to do a six-part series. It’s taken us a while – it’s almost done, actually. It’s a combination of drama, a lot of it is drama, and… I call it “the everything bagel” because it has drama, it has reenactments, it has interviews, it has archival materials, and on and on and on. And I shot my interviews for the series with ten cameras. No Interrotron, ten cameras.

(Laughing) Okay.

And I had experimented with multiple cameras – it’s interesting you should mention First Person, because I experimented with multiple cameras. In those days, this was what, 20 years ago now? It was impossible. You have lipstick cameras, you had… nothing was high-def, high-def was just coming into existence. There was really no way to manage the data or to get the resolution that you needed to do it properly.

Now everything has changed. For Netflix, I had ten cameras, all recording 4K with Leica Summilux lenses, a different kind of ball game just made possible by technological change. So I decided – since I was paying for it myself, I didn’t have the money to shoot that many cameras, but I think there are five cameras. At least four, possibly five cameras on that shoot in Elsa’s garage. And instead of the Interrotron, I was there sitting really right in front of Elsa, and I was operating the camera, one of the cameras. And talking to Elsa. And I didn’t really so much care that there wasn’t the eye contact because I was there and very much a part of the scene.

And because of your history, that intimacy was going to translate even if she wasn’t looking directly into the lens.

I felt it would, yes. So I enjoyed doing it, it was a different kind of process for me.

The thing you mentioned about all the all the styles that you’re experimenting with in the Netflix series – it strikes me that, thanks to some of the technological advances you’re talking about, there are a lot of great documentaries getting made right now, and the avenues with which we can see it seem to make documentary more available than ever… But I don’t see, personally, with some notable exceptions, a lot of the same kind of formal experimentation that you’ve done throughout your career. If that’s accurate, and if not –

I think it is accurate.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know! (Laughs) I’m interested in trying new things. But I’ve always been interested in – I mean, you yourself have remarked on it, in the philosophical dimension in all of this. What I was doing with The Thin Blue Line, which was my break with any kind of conventional – or at least at that time any kind of conventional – documentary filmmaking, I was punished for it, because people objected to the reenactments in The Thin Blue Line.  But I would think, and I still think a lot, about the relationship between film, photographs, and reality. Particular when you’re dealing with – this is certainly not true of Elsa – but when you’re dealing with a crime, whether it be The Thin Blue Line, or in my new series for Netflix, a 1953 murder by the CIA… and you’re really investigating. You don’t know really how the story is going to end up.

When I first started The Thin Blue Line did I know that Randall Adams was innocent and David Harris was guilty? I did not. But that certainly emerged in the course of the making of the movie. Many details emerge in the course of the series – it’s called Wormwood. So if you’re investigating something, and you don’t know whether it’s true or false, but you’re interested in finding out what’s true and what is false, do you really believe that following some kind of documentary rule is going to get you to that desired conclusion? And for long time I believed, of course not. I can’t even tell whether it was just being a defensive argument, because I felt so abused by being attacked for reenactments.

I would just simply tell people that it’s all a reenactment. That consciousness is reenactment of reality inside of our brains. We have no direct access to the real world. And what a film can do is make you think about the process of how we investigate things,  how we know things, how we find out about things.

And how we see things.

Yes. So to create that element means doing something different. Giving a philosophical dimension to nonfiction means doing something different – and finding new ways to tell a story. Because I use drama or I use reenactment or I use expressionistic moments in the film –  I’m still trying to search for underlying reality. It’s all in service of one common goal.

One of the things I’m fascinated by, as someone who follows your work closely, is your transparency about the films you haven’t made, and how they became other things – how The Thin Blue Line started out as a documentary about Dr. Death, how you initially envisioned A Wilderness of Error as a film and not a book, how your now-notorious Donald Trump interview was for an unfinished project called The Movie Movie. I’m curious, first of all, how more many more great Errol Morris movies we didn’t get, but also if you tend to regret the films that didn’t get made, or if you now look back on them solely in terms of what they led you to?

Well, I like to say that I don’t look back on them with regret, but I do. There was a long time I couldn’t really work at all; after I made Gates of Heaven and Vernon Florida there were six or seven years where no one wanted to give me money to work. And there were projects I applied for, probably 40 or 50 projects. My wife sometimes says that there are entire channels devoted to stuff that no one wanted to do!

It was a much harder time for documentary, certainly. It was a much harder time for offbeat documentary, really certainly. That’s changed. That’s changed markedly even in the last five, ten years. And I… (long pause) I think in part, I lacked self-confidence, to make certain kinds of things. It’s a crazy thing to say, but I feel like I’ve been able to jump-start my career again. My hope is that the Netflix project shows people that I really can direct drama. Do it as well as the next guy – and that I have something interesting to say.

It’s interesting that these two projects come out around the same time. Because Elsa, in part, was Can I do something quickly and can I do it cheaply? Can I do something when I don’t have to go to someone and ask for them for millions of dollars? Can I pay for it myself and get it done, and get it done quickly. Seemingly I can! And I should probably do more films like this.

With Netflix it was a desire to reinvent nonfiction, to do something that I’ve always wanted to do, to blend drama and documentary, in service of an investigation – not reenactment but straight drama. And I think I’ve done it. I think I’ve done it successfully. We will see what other people think!

And I want to do more. I’m just actually excited about filmmaking at the moment. I want to make more films. There are probably 20, 30 projects that I’d like to do, that I just didn’t, or couldn’t, or wouldn’t, whatever. I mean, it was very, very hard making Wormwood, but I really liked doing it – and would like to apply that technique, I have two big projects that I’m hoping that the money is available for. And I can continue doing this!

Well, I can’t wait to see it.

I can’t wait to finish it! (Laughs)

“The B-Side: Elsa Dorman’s Portrait Photography” is out Friday in limited release. “Wormwood” debuts on Netflix later this year.



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