Film: Fog of War

First Person

Commercials: Miller




space space

Interview with The Believer
April, 2004

THE BELIEVER: I'm curious if you've noticed a change over the years in how your subjects talk to the camera and talk to you. It's a different world from 1978. Are people savvier about talking to a camera? Has their behavior changed?

ERROL MORRIS: You'd think it would have changed. But I don't think it has. You would think that there's so much stuff on television that involves 'real people,' real people would be much, much more aware of the whole process of being interviewed. But what remains the same over those 25 years is that people have a need to express themselves, people have a need to tell their stories in their own words to someone else. And that need is not so different now than it was 25 years ago. I don't really think there is much difference. Maybe we're more aware of so-called reality television or documentaries, but interviews in some basic form have been around forever, and probably will be around for the foreseeable future, because at heart, they're about the relationship of one person to another person. Of one person expressing to another person who they are, what they think, how they see the world. It's pretty much the same as it always has been. And thank goodness, because without it, I would be without a profession.

BLVR: I once heard you say you were waging a war against cinema verite.

EM: A certain kind of war, if it's a war at all. Somebody recently asked me about documentary filmmaking becoming more popular, but when we speak about documentary, it's not clear we're talking about many things. We're talking about different styles, from verite to the collage films of Chris Marker and Dziga Vertov. Even verite, itself, is diverse. The fly on the wall idea with handheld camera, available light, which you can see everywhere from the films of Fred Wiseman to Cops, to all kinds of infotainment. A bestiary of documentaries: reality-based television, diary films, narrated slide shows with tilt-and-pan and an occasional zoom-in or zoom-out, interview based films and whatever it is that I do, which I think is its own kind of odd species of filmmaking. It's not one thing, it's many, many, many things. What I don't like about verite is this claim that somehow you're guaranteed truthfulness by virtue of style. That's my complaint. That somehow because a film has been made in a certain way — handheld camera, available light, fly on the wall — that somehow it becomes more truthful as a result. I respectfully disagree. My films are as much concerned with truth as anything in verite. Maybe more so. I don't believe that truth is handed over by stylistic choice. It's a pursuit.

BLVR: I'm wondering if that could be applied to written journalism.

EM: Well, let me answer somewhat indirectly. I don't believe that you can talk about a photograph being true or false. I don't think such a claim has any meaning. You can talk about a caption underneath a photograph being true or false, because there is a linguistic element. You can claim that a photograph is a picture of a horse or a cow, but it is the sentence that expresses the claim which is true or false, not the photograph. Sentences you can talk about being true and false. You can talk about things that people write being true or false - that does mean something to me. Truth and falsity is something that concerns language, it's a property of language. Not of photographs, per se.

In The Thin Blue Line, I was trying to tell a story about truth and about images, among other things. An ironic story. I was at a screening of The Fog of War just a couple nights ago and someone asked me about Rashomon, and about my comment that he remembered from the time that The Thin Blue Line came out, that I do not believe that truth is subjective. Just thinking something does not make it so. This idea that there is no reality, that truth is up for grabs, or that truth is subjective, I find foolish and unappetizing. But there's a different thesis that I do believe very strongly. There is such a thing as truth, but we have a vested interest in not seeing it, in avoiding it. A very, very different theme, if you like. To me in The Thin Blue Line, there's a truth of who shot the cop. The Dallas cop stops a car without headlights, walks up to the driver's window, and the driver pulls a gun from underneath the seat and shoots him five times. There are lots of recherche possibilities, but it was either Randall Adams or David Harris. And it's not just that the answer to who it was is up for grabs. We may not have all the evidence in hand in order to adjudicate the question, but underneath the question there's a physical reality. I am a realist in that sense, I believe in the real world. Just like there's a fact of the matter of whether there was an attack on August 4th in the Gulf of Tonkin. It's not up for grabs. Either we were attacked or we weren't attacked. There were North Vietnamese gunboats shooting at the Maddox and the Turner Joy, or there weren't. You know, Bertrand Russell says in his Theory of Descriptions: although it's doubtless that the King of France is either bald or not bald, Hegelians, loving a synthesis, would probably conclude he's wearing a wig. I don't want to sound too pedantic here, but to me these are really, really, really important issues.

So I was talking about Rashomon. I looked at Rashomon about a month ago. I re-watched it, and much to my surprise, Rashomon isn't Rashomon. Rashomon is not a movie about the subjectivity of truth. That there's no objective truth, just subjective truth. A truth for you, a truth for me. On the contrary, it's a movie about how everybody sees the world differently. But the claim that everybody sees the world differently, is not a claim that there's no reality. It's a different kind of claim. What really surprised me on re-watching Rashomon is that you know what really happened at the end. It's pretty damn clear. Kurosawa gives you the pieces of evidence that allow you to figure out what really happened. So, it's not what many people imagine it to be, but it is a very powerful story about self-interest, about wishful thinking, about self-deception, about people imagining scenarios at variance with the truth. And so I found Rashomon to be far more interesting than I had remembered it. With an underlying theme very much like The Thin Blue Line. Truth exists, but people have a vested interest in not knowing it.

BLVR: I feel like that film has something in common with The Thin Blue Line, as it has to do with the motives of the various witnesses who saw or didn't see things. I'm thinking especially of the woman in The Thin Blue Line who fancied herself a detective. Her testimony was crucial to putting away the wrong man, Randall Adams.

EM: Emily Miller, the platinum blonde eyewitness, is the perfect example of that sort of thing. In many ways it's the interview that I'm most proud of, because in the course of that interview, she revealed things that were an admission - albeit an unwitting admission - but an admission of perjury. The line that I love, she says, "Everywhere I go, there's murders. Even 'round my house.' She tells you that she watched a lot of Boston Blackie episodes, and that she wanted to be, quote unquote, "a detective or the wife of a detective." And then she says, "Everywhere I go, there's murders, even round my house." I listened to that, I remember when she said it, and I thought to myself, "I like this." I imagine that in her head that she's living in some kind of crime drama. And maybe in her head everywhere she goes "there's murders" - in the bedroom, in the kitchen, in the dining room. But do I really think that there were murders in all these places? I don't. And the fact that I don't informs my belief that what she saw on that roadway that night had been little or nothing.

BLVR: Given that people have various motives for seeing the truth or telling the truth or not, do you, as a filmmaker, feel like you have a responsibility to frame things in a certain way, to take that into account? How does that responsibility square with your enterprise?

EM: Finding truth involves some kind of activity. As I like to point out, truth isn't handed to you on a platter. It's not something that you get at a cafeteria, where they just put it on your plate. It's a search, a quest, an investigation, a continual process of looking at and looking for evidence, trying to figure out what the evidence means. I like to point out that people very often confuse the idea that truth is subjective with the fact that truth is perishable. The perishability of truth. One obvious example is in history. Say you lose all of the evidence of the Battle of Hastings. That doesn't mean there isn't a fact of the matter of what happened. It just means that you may not be able to figure it out, because the evidence has been destroyed. Historical evidence is in fact perishable. People can burn the archives, people can destroy the evidence. Or they can ruin the evidence in many, many, many, many, many ways. Adulterate it, so that it's impossible ever to know what the evidence really was. And I think that's true of many episodes in history. Perhaps the Kennedy assassination is like that. But to say that history is perishable, that historical evidence is perishable, is different than saying that history is subjective. Very, very different. I was fortunate with The Thin Blue Line. There was a lot of new evidence for me to uncover. And the evidence, the new evidence which I uncovered, sometimes with a camera, sometimes by digging in archives and files, pointed very strongly to Randall Adams's innocence and to David Harris's guilt. Do I know with certainty that Randall Adams is innocent and David Harris is guilty? No, I don't. But I know that there's considerable evidence to support those beliefs.

BLVR: There's a certain school of documentary that has an activist component to it, and I don't really think that's where you're coming from. What do you think?

EM: I actually think of myself as an odd activist. I was very much an activist in The Thin Blue Line. I was in no way indifferent to Randall Adams's situation, his mistaken conviction in the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. I believe there was a terrible miscarriage of justice. People get confused about this sort of thing. I remember one Dallas reporter saying to me, "If you had just made this 'straight' documentary, Randall Adams would have gotten out a lot sooner, instead of delaying everything by shooting these reenactments, using a score by Philip Glass, et cetera, et cetera." Yeah, maybe. I made the movie I wanted to make, and at the same time, I did what I believe was a really, really scrupulous investigation into that murder. I had worked in the past as a private detective, and I can tell you that while I am very proud of the movie, I am even more proud of my investigation into that murder. People say the movie got him out of prison. It's not really true. What got him out of prison was my investigation, part of which was done with a camera. But it's the investigation, it's the stuff that I found out, that proved there had been a real miscarriage of justice. Yeah, that's activist... There's nothing inactive about it. Maybe the end product of the film doesn't look like other kinds of investigative journalism, but that doesn't mean that it's any less investigative in nature, or any less powerful as investigative journalism. Again, I object that investigative journalism has to have a certain look, that it has to have the characteristics of an episode of 60 Minutes. Someone showed me a review of The Thin Blue Line on IMDB, and the reviewer chastised me for not doing it 60 Minutes style, for not putting myself into the movie as a Mike Wallace type interviewer. Well, I'm sorry. There's an opportunity to learn a lot of stuff from this movie which would never have been uncovered if I had adopted that kind of style. Does it mean that there isn't a serious investigation at the heart of the movie? Not at all. Mike Wallace's interviews may make great television, but they don't produce great evidence.

BLVR: Do you feel like you belong to any tradition, or that you're the only practitioner of whatever it is that you do?

EM: Why not just say it? I don't think that anybody really makes films quite like mine. That's maybe true of any filmmaker. But I like to think that I have invented a different style of documentary. Maybe I'm not the best one to say it, it's better if others say it, but from Gates of Heaven on — and Gates of Heaven, in its own perverse way, was in my mind anti-verite in the sense of, let's imagine all of the stylistic requirements of verite and let's do the exact opposite; instead of being unobtrusive, let's be as obtrusive as possible. Put people right in front of the camera, looking directly into the lens or close to it. Light everything. Add reenacted material, or constructed material of one kind or another. The naive idea is that because this is so much different than verite, that it's less truthful. But that's only because of the spurious claim that verite makes in the first place. Claims about truth-telling. But style doesn't guarantee truth. Godard is quoted as saying, "Film is truth at 24 frames a second." I prefer, "Film is lies at 24 frames a second."

There is a documentary element in my films, a very strong documentary element, but by documentary element, I mean an element that's out of control, that's not controlled by me. And that element is the words, the language that people use, what they say in an interview. They're not written, not rehearsed. It's spontaneous, extemporaneous material. People talking about their thoughts, their ideas, things that have happened to them. It's interesting — when The Thin Blue Line came out, the use of stylized reenactments was considered unusual. In fact, I have been accused of having jump-started reenactment television with that movie. There was a reviewer at the time the movie was released who accused me of trying to trick people into thinking I had actually filmed the murder! Huh? Did anyone who saw the film really think that I was filming the actual crime? That I had 35 mm cameras and a film crew out there the night of the murder? For what was a routine traffic stop? I hope not. But if we were to make art, journalism or whatever, idiot-proof, no one would do anything. Who knows what people think? The reenactments in The Thin Blue Line are not illustrations of truth. Quite the opposite. They are designed to take you into untruth. 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. And as such, they're a very, very important part of what I do.

BLVR: Maybe it's a matter of how the story is framed and packaged. People like to know whether what they're seeing is 'true' or not, and don't like to have their expectations upset.

EM: Well, it goes to this whole issue, does style guarantee truth? Does printing something in The New York Times guarantee its truth? Because it appears in a certain paper in a certain font, a certain look, can we just say that because of that fact, it's true? A lot of people do think that way. It's interesting that the The New York Times has had a font face-lift. It's gone all Cheltenham. All the time. No more Latin Extra Condensed. No more Century Bold Italic. Just Cheltenham. Maybe people were worried. I'm not sure about what. But maybe they were worried. The mixture of fonts looked less truthful.

I was surprised at the time that The Thin Blue Line came out that people reacted to the reenactments as blurring the distinction between fact and fiction. Between documentary and drama. My feeling was the exact opposite. It was telling us how images can confuse us. Images are not reality, nor do I claim that they are. In fact, they usually bear a very complicated relationship to reality. And when people talk about reenactments, I like to point out that consciousness, itself, is a reenactment. Everything is a reenactment. We are reenacting the world in the mind. The world is not inside there. It does not reside in the gray-matter of the brain. Think of my movies as heightening our awareness, not confusing the difference between truth and fiction, but heightening our awareness of how confused we can become about what is real. Take the first line in Vernon, Florida: "Reality. You mean, this is the real world. I never thought of that."

When Capote wrote In Cold Blood, he called it a non-fiction novel. I remember when I was a little boy and In Cold Blood came out, I got very depressed, because I would read these long, long conversations that he supposedly remembered in their entirety. I thought: how can he do it? I need a tape recorder. I can't remember when I'm talking to someone for 10 hours what they've said verbatim. I just can't do it. I can't do it. I'd like to be able to do it, but I can't. And here was Capote writing pages of this stuff. And I thought, I'm never going to be able to do that, and I was right, I'm never going to be able to do that. And of course the question is whether Capote was able to do it. Whether he was just able to write extremely well about the conversations after the fact. Whether he was making stuff up. There's a lot that's been written after his death that suggests of course that it was the latter. And then there's Hand-Carved Coffins. I don't know if you're familiar with it?

BLVR: No, I'm not.

EM: It's from a collection he wrote, Music for Chameleons. It's a story that he claims is non-fiction, but which is so strange that I'm almost certain it's not. You reminded me of it when you sent me the stuff on Kapuscinski. When I read The Emperor for the first time, it seemed to me clearly a work of fiction loosely based on fact, but maybe that's just me. The voices never change. There was one voice, but a lot of different initials after the various sections. Are these a different people? I don't think so. But I don't know. It raises all kinds of issues. For example, if it is fact based. What are the facts? And what are the fictions?But I think Kapuscinski is a great writer, just like I think Truman Capote is a great writer.

BLVR: The article I sent you called Kapuscinski to task for fictionalizing history.

EM: People like non-fiction presented to them in a certain way, so that they don't have to think about whether it's true or not. They like it to have imprimatur of respectability, of genuineness. But, of course, the imprimatur of truthfulness does not guarantee truthfulness. People should know better. But they don't. The New York Times is written in Caslon Extra-Condensed Bold. I suppose a lot of people read a sentence written in that font and assume that what they're reading must be true. By the way, I have a theory about why The National Enquirer is more reliable than The New York Times.

BLVR: Yes?

EM: Elizabeth Taylor can sue; the Kurds can't.

But am I missing something? Do people really think The Emperor is non-fiction? Isn't it the first question you ask yourself when you read it — is this fiction or non-fiction? The various characters seem more or less the same. The initials, which supposedly identify the speakers, are something out of Nabokov, rather than journalism. And these "voices" are more or less the same. I started flipping back and forth trying to figure out who was saying what and what they had said before, and very quickly, I decided I didn't much care. It was the combined narrative that was of interest. The dream. But, wait a second, was there "a minister of the pillow"? I need to get a Haile Selassie book.

I started reading more Kapuscinski. Many of the books have the quality of tall-tales. The burning roadblocks, the execution squads, one near miss after another. I suppose you could examine the text for what's real and what's not. But this sort of thing reminds me of In Cold Blood and Handcarved Coffins. The "modern thing" of blurring the distinction between fiction and non-fiction: what part of the story - if any - is real? What part has been confabulated from diverse sources? What part is made up out of whole cloth?

I have this perverse argument that this kind of writing doesn't blur the differences between the real and the imagined. It calls attention to the fact that there is a difference between the real and imagined, between the true and the false, that we often ignore, and when we don't ignore it, we are often are confused about where it lies. Often works of supposed journalism pass muster because of their style, and no one bothers to question anything. Anyway, I stick by my belief that The Emperor is the best bureaucratic nightmare since Kafka's The Castle.

BLVR: Are you drawn to these kinds of writers and films, that sort of traffic in fluid perceptions of the truth?

EM: I think there's an easy answer to that. Yes.

BLVR: Where does that interest come from?

EM: From a lot of things. Maybe a profound skepticism, bordering on pessimism. And also an interest in how people see the world, as revealed by the way they use language. I think that's at the heart of my interest. How we "recover" the world from the morass of false beliefs that we entertain on a regular basis.

BLVR: It seems like a natural thing, then, that you would become a documentary filmmaker in the style that you have. Did you always think that that would be something you would pursue? Did it just occur to you one day that this was how you could investigate these things further, or did the interest in revealing language develop once you started making movies?

EM: Well, I never intended to be a documentary filmmaker. I think I became a documentary filmmaker because I had trouble writing, and I had trouble finishing things.

BLVR: I'm not convinced making movies is any easier.

EM: Well, it's easier in the sense that you take somebody's money, and then it becomes important that you actually finish something, so that they can get their money back. Guilt becomes a motivating factor. There's nothing like it.

But I've never seen myself as a documentary filmmaker. I see myself as a filmmaker, period, and I am interested in drama as well as in documentary. There are many dramas that I would like to make: dramas based on real stories. It's approaching things from the other side, if you like. But there's the problem of how to tell a non-fiction story. For years I was interested in Ed Gein, the killer that Hitchcock's Psycho was based on. I even lived in Plainfield, Wisconsin with Ed Gein's neighbors. I was there for about a year. And I interviewed Gein at Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, Wisconsin. But it's taken me years to figure out that I didn't want to remake Psycho or to make a movie about Ed Gein, that I wanted to make a movie about my obsession, my relationship with Ed Gein.

Keep in mind, a lot of the distinctions that we make between drama and documentary are spurious. We're deeply confused about these issues. About the difference between the two, about where documentary ends and drama begins. For example, some critics claim that Gates of Heaven or The Thin Blue Line are not documentaries - The Thin Blue Line in particular because of the use of reenactments - that they violate some kind of basic tenet of what a documentary must be in order to still be a documentary. It was conjectured that that was one of the reasons the Academy frowned on the movie and it was not even nominated. I was even told that the screeners turned it off after 5 minutes. But here's my two cents worth of opinion. It is a documentary. The interviews are with the real people - the real killer, the real fall guy, the real cops. And what they say is extemporaneous. It'ss not scripted. This is the documentary element, ok?


EM: Say someone hands you a piece of film. On the film a scene is recorded: a woman is walking down the street, She's walking a dog. She stops at the corner, looks to the right, looks to the left. Waits for the light to change, and then turns left and crosses the street, ok? Now, it's just a piece of film. How can we know whether it's a documentary or a drama, by just looking at it? My claim is we can't, and here's why. On the film a woman's walking down the street; she's walking a dog, She turns, right, left, crosses the street to the left with the dog. We've just recorded this action in classic verite fashion. But imagine that we subsequently learn that there's a director who has cast this woman. Now maybe he's looked at hundreds of people on casting tapes, and this woman's the perfect one. He's also has looked at hundreds of little dogs, from agencies supplying animal actors for the movies. And so on and so forth. And the director is yelling out instructions. Of course, he's coached the actor in advance, but he's yelling instructions as she walks down the street: "Stop there, absolutely perfect, it looks so very natural. Now look to the right, oh wonderful. Look to the left, perfect. Now pause and cross the street to the left." Well, what's different on that piece of film you're looking at?


BLVR: Uh, would you like me to answer?

EM: Sure, why not?

BLVR: Ok. Nothing, I would say.

EM: Yup. That is my belief. You can't tell by looking at a film-clip whether it is a drama or a documentary without knowing how it was produced. I do a lot of commercials, and people say they hire me because things look "documentary-like." And I usually have no idea what they're talking about, but I assume that's because things look natural in some way.

Let's talk about drama vs. documentary. I believe we have two ideas (about how movies are made) in our heads. Idealizations. Platonic ideals. One of them is of a movie that is completely uncontrolled, and another is a movie that is completely controlled. The auteur theory vs. cinema verite. What does the auteur theory tell us: everything you see on the screen has been controlled. The casting, the lighting, the framing, the selection of what emulsion to use in the camera, the words that are spoken, the wardrobe, the makeup. Everything that you're seeing has been controlled by some central authority. There is a kind of puppeteer - the director - pulling the strings. The flipside of it is verite: everything you see in front of the camera is uncontrolled. The director observes, records, but in no way influences, in no way determines what will happen in front of the camera. And so what people are really talking about is not truth and fiction when they talk about drama and documentary. What they're talking about is control and lack of control.

What I think I've done, and I guess that's what makes me perhaps 'modern' is that I draw the line in a different place. The line between the controlled and the uncontrolled is somewhere else.

Here is yet another thesis. That what is so powerful about film is it makes us wonder where that line is drawn, and it can always be drawn in different places. So for example, you can have films that have real people as actors that are unrehearsed, which have an element of, if you like, the spontaneous. You can have feature films that verge on verite. Movies like the Battle of Algiers, which have verite elements in them. And you can imagine constructed documentaries, which are highly controlled. Like mine, for example. But there is an element that's uncontrolled, and the element that's uncontrolled is: I don't tell people what to say. My use of extemporaneous talk turned into narration is the documentary element in what I do. What people are going to say in front of the camera, and how they are going to present themselves in front of the camera are not controlled by me. It's one of the strengths of my interviews that I really honest to god have no idea what people are going to say.

BLVR: You must have some suspicion of what they're going to talk about.

EM: Yeah. I like to think that I differ from other interviewers in the sense that I hide my agenda more successfully, and I'm more open to hearing stuff that is surprising and unexpected. That I'm actually involved in an investigation, through monologue, at times. When we were making Mr. Death at Auschwitz, there was the Center for Dialogue, which was run by some Christian organization. And I always wanted to open up a Center next to it - the Center for Monologue.

BLVR: Maybe you can launch that after you're done making movies.

EM: A friend of mine said to me years ago that you can't really trust anybody who doesn't talk a lot, because how will you know what they're thinking? And I guess my work is an example of this, I subscribe to that view.

BLVR: Do you think that also holds true for writing, or is talking its own thing?

Well writing is a form of talking, although writing is such an odd thing in and of itself. People go about it in such different ways. It's clear that people sometimes write the way they would talk. But talk often is less premeditated. There's a line in this Andy Warhol film I really like, it's the one Andy Warhol film that's not directed by Paul Morrissey or Andy Warhol, and it's Bad. I don't know if you've ever seen it.

BLVR: What's the name of the film?

EM: It's called Bad.


EM: It's about a group of hit ladies working out of an electrolysis parlor in the Bronx. All the women are cold-blooded killers, and all the men are extremely sensitive. They want to talk about their emotions. It's really, really, really funny. And there's a line from Bad, where one of the hit ladies says, "We don't want crazy, we want premeditated." I think it's the other way around. We don't want premeditated, we want crazy. You see it many writers. And filmmakers. The control over what they're saying breaks down. It's one of the reasons I've gone from doing interviews that are two or three hours in length, which is what I did in the past when I was working on film, to... Now that I have 24 frame high def, I can literally interview people know, I've done interviews in one day that went on for 15, 16 hours. And at a certain point, the control over what they're saying breaks down; it becomes different. It becomes really powerful, and for me, real. It becomes out of control. Maybe that's why I envy certain writers, because there are writers who do go into a kind of different zone, where the writing isn't controlled anymore. Sometimes I feel that really strongly while reading Norman Mailer, and actually he probably went so far off in that direction that it became unreadable at a certain point. It became just too crazy, the experience of having lost your moorings, and you're adrift. But there is that sort of a place, it's a kind of a strange place where writing, too, like speech, starts to drift. It becomes almost automatic, or autonomic. Writers who can put themselves in that position, I'm always envious of them. And maybe I only find that kind of thing for me in interviews.

BLVR: I have one last question. You've made a career out of interviewing people. What's it like having to give interviews?

EM: I like doing them. I like talking. In fact, I used to say that interviewing others was perhaps the way I could stop talking and start listening. It's a kind of enforced silence.

space space space space
space space space space space space space space space space space space space space space space