Master Interviewer Errol Morris Proves a Slippery Subject at IDFA Q&A

Oscar-winning 'The Fog of War' director and IDFA central guest Errol Morris dictates the rules of documentary filmmaking — and how he broke them.

Errol Morris
AGF s.r.l./REX Shutterstock

According to documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’ own interview philosophy, through which he has coaxed controversial personalities ranging from Donald Rumsfeld to Robert S. McNamara to Fred A. Leuchter into revealing an unexpected side of themselves oncamera,  “If you leave people alone and don’t interrupt them, within three or four minutes, they’ll show you just how crazy they really are.”

Audiences of the Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam got to see that theory in action as Morris, who’d been invited as IDFA’s central guest, commandeered a 90-minute masterclass, all but ignoring film theorist and moderator Bill Nichols’ questions as he spun amusing anecdotes and ideas for the overcrowded Pathe Tuschinski theater.

Nichols opened the session by likening the revolutionary impact of Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” on the documentary medium to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” rolling a clip that cut from the bone a primitive ape hurls in the air from “2001” to the milkshake tossed from the patrol car window in Morris’ true-crime investigation — a reenactment made in open defiance of the so-called “rules” of documentary filmmaking.

Before Nichols could go further, Morris took the milkshake cue and launched into an extemporaneous riff on how that shot has gotten him into trouble over the years, later explaining how the Academy’s documentary committee at the time reportedly switched off the film when the first reenactment appeared on screen.

“Over the years, I have been put in this very defensive position, as if I have to really defend many of the techniques that were used in ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ reenactments being one of them,” Morris said. “Finally I have come up with an answer that I find somewhat satisfactory: That everything is a reenactment. Consciousness is a reenactment of reality inside of our skulls. None of us have direct access to the real world as such. And the job of nonfiction is not just simply turning on a camera and pointing it in one way or another, but in creating a relationship and the real world.”

Morris explained how his first serious exposure to documentary filmmaking occurred during college at screenings programmed by Tom Luddy at the Pacific Film Archive, several of which he selected for the “top 10” series the festival invited him to curate: Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera,” Werner Herzog’s “Fata Morgana,” Luis Bunuel’s “Land Without Bread” — none of them standard verite-style documentaries.

“Everything that I’ve done has been toying with the idea of what a documentary is and what a documentary could be,” he told the crowd. “When I made my first film, I made the conscious decision to take all the rules of documentary filmmaking and discard them because I hated them.”

As he put it, the rules — and his inversions thereof — were:

• Be a fly on the wall. “A friend once said you might be a fly on the wall, but it’s a 500-pound fly,” Morris joked.

• Don’t move anything. “So I move everything. Move as many things as you can, as often as you can.”

• Don’t manipulate the scene that you’re documenting. “I filmed people on what I guess you would call ‘sets.’ I designed what the frames looked like.”

• Don’t even think of lighting anything. “Lighting something is just a different kind of available light.”

• Documentary subjects should never look directly into the camera. “Well, I created a situation where they were always looking directly into the camera,” he said, explaining the “Interrotron” camera system he developed, using teleprompter-style technology to allow both interviewer and subject to see one another superimposed on a reflective screen in front of the camera. As early as his first feature, “Gates of Heaven,” Morris tried to subvert that rule by pressing his face so close to the lens that (he claims) his hair can be seen in some shots.

“To me, there was a deep confusion that still persists,” Morris told the crowd, “and I don’t know what you can do to disabuse people of this notion. I suppose you could hit them in the head with a large piece of lumber, but I’m not sure that would do the trick. It’s a simple rule: Style doesn’t guarantee truth.

“Truth is something far more elusive,” he continued. “Truth is a quest; you pursue truth. You go after it, you try to uncover it, because we all know that we live in a sea of falsehood. … I mean, there shouldn’t be any tool that should be unavailable to you in the pursuit of truth.”