Aside from screening his Top 10 favorite documentaries, IDFA is honoring Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris with a retrospective. His films show a master of interviewing at work: talking heads who never quite say what you expect them to.
When Errol Morris interviews someone, he usually starts by saying that he doesn't know where to start. A few years ago, exaggerating only slightly, the director described his method as follows: "I stick a camera in front of people and say to them, 'I don't have a first question, what's your first answer?'"
Even before Morris (b. 1948) made his first film in 1978, he interviewed people on a regular basis for a book he was planning to write. That's when he developed his personal style. Looking back on this period, he later said, "The goal in my interviews was to say nothing. I would play this game – I would come in for an interview, I would put my tape recorder on the table, and hopefully the other person would start talking. The game was to keep them talking, no matter what; to not interrupt, no matter what."
His thinking was that people want to tell you their story. If you allow them to keep talking, they will give monologues revealing more than they may realize in the moment. That method may explain why people often say such unexpected things in Morris's films. Like the eyewitness in The Thin Blue Line, who mentions in passing that murders happen wherever she goes – "even around my house".
Considering his style as a filmmaker, it might be surprising that Morris allows the people he interviews so much freedom to say what they want. After all – and the director has admitted as much himself – the things people say are often the only true documentary elements in his films. From his debut feature Gates of Heaven (1978) onward, his method was diametrically opposed to that of cinema verité filmmakers like Jean Rouch and D. A. Pennebaker. Instead of attempting to remain unnoticed while filming, Morris foregrounds the construction of his narratives in the most obtrusive ways: he uses artificial lighting almost exclusively, or he uses reenactments, animations and other constructed material. In Tabloid (2010), he adds to the entertainment value by inserting footage from old films that comically reflects on what's being said. He is deliberately "anti-verité".
Just as remarkable is the fact that those reenactments aren't used to show what actually happened. Sometimes, it's just the opposite: in The Thin Blue Line, Morris creates images that illustrate eyewitness accounts of a murder, but make it clear that those accounts are definitely not true. Morris explained, "They're illustrations of what people claimed had happened but which didn't happen. They're ironic. They make you think about the relationship of images to the world. About the nature of seeing and believing. About our capacity for belief, for credulity, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary." In other words, the fact that Morris allows people to speak freely doesn't mean that he believes them or agrees with them. But he's always interested in them. Not just in their stories, but in how they see themselves, and how that self-image is at odds with how others see them.
Morris's films are instantly recognizable from the way he sets up his interviews: people are filmed in medium close-up or close-up against a neutral backdrop, looking straight into the camera. He doesn't zoom in our out during a shot, but the point of view does change regularly, especially in his most recent films: the faces jump from the left side of the screen to the right, from close to farther away. It's one of the many ways he forces the audience to stay alert, as if he doesn't want their attention to wander for a single moment.
Similarly, he usually opts for abrupt cuts, with a few black frames between shots, over smooth transitions. In The Unknown Known (2013), his film about Donald Rumsfeld, he flashes dictionary definitions on-screen whenever Rumsfeld uses a technical term, making sure the audience can keep up. He uses drawings, films clips and photographs that connect to the matter at hand in surprising ways, never giving boredom a chance to creep in.
Morris developed an ingenious interview machine to capture his candid confessions called the Interrotron. The name reflects Morris's background as a private investigator. Cameras are pointed at both the interviewee and Morris himself, and they each look at the other on a monitor – a variation on the autocue system. This "virtual eye contact" ensures that both speakers look directly into the lens. Even though he's always filmed, Morris never appears in his films, although his voice can sometimes be heard.
At first glance the people that Morris puts in front of his camera don't seem to have much in common. His subjects range from animal cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), a murder (The Thin Blue Line) and two former U.S. Secretaries of State (Robert S. McNamara in The Fog of War, Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known) to scientist Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time), the photographs of torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure) and the sensational stories the British tabloids told about Joyce McKinney in the 1970s (Tabloid).
Asked whether he sees an underlying theme throughout his work, Morris once said, "There's common themes I guess because it's me picking the subjects. My wife once joked that I had only three interests: Nazis, insanity and death." Another interviewer once argued that Morris has a preference for protagonists who are hated: a killer, a Holocaust denier, despised former politicians. Morris couldn't deny it: "It's true. I like pariahs."
But that doesn't account for Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, his playful investigation of the relationships between human and animal, culture and nature – or his film about Stephen Hawking. Morris's interests are wide-ranging, that much is clear. The common thread is his profound fascination with people – weird, crazy, sad, special or ordinary people. Just let them talk.