Josh Siegel: I'm delighted that Ron Rosenbaum is here with us tonight to talk with Errol Morris. They share a similar sensibility and a similar approach to the process of writing about history or filming it. In his profound and challenging book Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum describes the method he used to interview scholars and theorizers - "a preference for close reading of documents, memoirs, police reports and for close listening to the voices of the explainers, in an effort to hear the unspoken subtext, the significant illusion, the hidden agendas, conflicts, and in particular, the doubts beneath the surface, to sense the nature of the longing that drives the explainers, and the kinds of solace explanations offer."
He might well be speaking of Errol Morris, who also brings a private detective's obsessive attention to how people and evidentiary objects speak to us. I think we're in for a terrific evening. So, please welcome Ron Rosenbaum.
RR: Thank you, Josh. And I would like to thank the Museum of Modern Art and Errol for including me in this. I do think Errol is one of the most provocative filmmakers in America. But, I also think he's one of the most provocative thinkers. And I know he's one of the great talkers in America.
Listening to Errol talk is one of the great pleasures in my experience. I often think of myself, when I'm in a conversation with Errol, as one of the bit players in a Socratic dialogue, one of the clueless Athenians who's function is to every once in a while pipe up, "Yes, Socrates," or, "How can that be, Socrates?" just to keep the flow going, which I hope I can do.
But, in a way, I think Errol is a more interesting thinker than Socrates. Socrates thought he had all of the answers. And Errol's work is about questions. I think he's a brilliant questioner. What I love about Errol's work is the delight he takes in the investigative process, the delight he takes in the texture of investigation, of investigating investigation, the self-consciousness of it.
And I think, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, as Josh mentioned, but I don't think many people are widely aware of the fact that Errol, for two years, when he was a struggling filmmaker, made a living as a private investigator, studying with some of the most legendary and brilliant private investigators in America.
You can see it in his work. I think in a way, Errol is our culture's most searching private investigator. I guess I should say, I first met Errol through our mutual interest in Doctor Death, and I should say, that's the original Doctor Death. There are three now. This is the Texas Doctor Death, Dr. James Grigson, who is known as the hanging shrink. He was a forensic psychiatrist who sent 250 people to death row.
The Thin Blue Line started out when Errol wanted to make a film about Dr. Grigson, the original Doctor Death, who has since been eclipsed by the Michigan usurper Doctor Death, Dr. Kevorkian, with whom I've also spent some time. And now I feel sorry for poor Fred Leuchter, who was struggling along as a kind of New England regional Doctor Death and has now been demoted to avoid confusion in the title of Errol's film, from Doctor Death to Mr. Death, a kind of civilian Doctor Death now.
But, the point I want to make is, I think it's a mistake to think of Errol's work as mainly preoccupied with death. Now, it's true that his first film was about dead pets. And it's true that his most recent work is about animal slaughterhouses, electrocution devices, gas chambers. And it's also true that one of his recent Interrotron stories, which I really recommend you see, it's some of his most brilliant work, but there's one he made recently about a guy who's accused of murdering his mother so he could freeze her head for immortality purposes. It's a film that Errol gave the title, I Dismember Mama.
I think that even in I Dismember Mama, you can see that Errol is after a larger philosophic game than merely the macabre. I see the frozen, severed head of mama in this film as a metaphor for the mind/body problem. And I think that actually Errol's work is not so much about death as it is about knowing. It's about knowledge. It's about what the philosophic profession calls "questions of epistemology."
How do we know what we know? How do we know the truth? How do we know what's in each other's heads? And I think what Errol specializes in is how do we even know ourselves? How do we even know with a web of self-deception that we weave around ourselves and imprison ourselves in, do we even know ourselves? And I think he's fascinated by the great, human instinct, the genius, the artistry of self-deception.
I'd even call Mr. Death the Citizen Kane of self-deception.
But, anyway, enough of what I think. I'd like to bring Errol up and maybe we can find out what he thinks. Errol, do you want to come up?
EM: Ron is, of course, far too kind.
RR: Errol just told me he hated my first question because everyone asks him that, but it seems worth asking and finding out why he hates it. We've just seen this beautiful film about Temple Grandin, and what she seems to share with Mr. Death is, they both believe that humane execution is not an oxymoron. Do you think that's true?
EM: Well, I first heard about Fred in an article in the New York Times where Fred was discussing about painless executions.
Both of these stories are about killing, machines, designers of death equipment. So, why does the question make me nervous? I think that would be the best way to describe it. It makes me nervous. It creates anxiety for me.
Very simple answer - I really, really admire Temple Grandin and I really don't admire Fred Leuchter. I think it comes down to something as simple as that.
RR: But haven't you said that you loved Fred Leuchter at one point?
EM: Oh, I guess so. I get into trouble with this . . . Then, I have to endlessly qualify what I'm saying.
Well, how about this. I hope this is not too smarmy or self-serving. Loving and admiring Fred are two very different things. When I say I love Fred, I love the idea of Fred; I am fascinated by Fred. He has to be the most ingenuous person I have ever come across. Well, either ingenuous or absolutely insane.
For many, many years I have been in search of what I would call the absolutely clueless narrator, the narrator who has absolutely no perspective about himself, whatsoever.
You've all heard about the examined life. Here's an example of a life, which has not been examined at all. That's right, the totally unexamined life.
RR: If Temple Grandin is autistic, would you call Fred Leuchter morally autistic?
EM: Beyond morally autistic - morally idiotic. What's so puzzling about Fred's story is how he sees himself. How he imagines himself in the story about himself that he narrates in the film.
We're introduced to Fred. He's talking about designing humane execution equipment. Quite clearly, Fred sees himself as the Florence Nightingale of Death Row, the guy who took the "ouch" out of the death penalty. He is positively bursting with enthusiasm. I almost here him saying, "I never thought the death penalty could be so wonderful."
So there you have it. Fred sees himself as: Fred: humanist, humanitarian, seeker of truth, civil libertarian, champion of the underdog . . . At times, he even talks about himself as if he is some sort of Galileo figure, a guy pursuing truth despite the consequences.
I watch this movie - and I assume others watching this movie feel the same way - and I see Fred as deeply mistaken about who he is.
RR: Let me ask you a question about heaven. You've got heaven in the title of your first movie, Gates of Heaven. And this is Stairway to Heaven. And you explore with Stephen Hawking his view of the heavens and whether or not God exists. Do you believe that there is an afterlife, and will I be reunited with my cat, Stumpy, in it?
EM: These are two separate questions. No, I don't believe in heaven, but yes, I do believe that you will be reunited with Stumpy.
RR: Thank you. That's reassuring. So, you don't believe in an afterlife?
EM: I'm not sure what that would even mean. I think this life really is quite enough without having to imagine yet more. And then again, more of what . . .?
I have enormous trouble getting anything done. What if I could live for a hundred million years? The usual refrain is: With all that time I might really get something accomplished. But what if turned out to be a hundred million years of telling myself I was going to accomplish something tomorrow - a hundred million years of equivocations, evasions, vacillations, procrastinations. What a nightmare. It's a great blessing that it all does come to an end. You know, the old saying, I guess I should attribute it to myself, "Where there's death, there's hope." Well, it's true.
RR: Well, let me ask you another theological question. You've said that your interview machine, the Interrotron, is a way of getting at truth. Putting someone on the Interrotron, you can look him or her in the eyes. Continuing to see a logical theme, if you had God on the Interrotron, what would you ask him?
EM: If he was really capable of self-knowledge.
RR: What does that mean?
EM: Does God know himself?
RR: Or is God a self-deceiver, like all of us?
EM: Yeah. After all, in Genesis, God starts creating stuff, pauses and then sees that it was "good". Good, eh? It's a little self-serving, don't you think?
You know, I have this version of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
God, in expelling Adam and Eve, kind of felt bad. He had gotten very angry, right? You know, you get angry and then you feel, "Well, maybe I overreacted."
So, God was in that kind of mood when he expelled Adam and Eve from the garden. But his hands were tied. He had to go through with it; he had made the decision. God doesn't want to constantly second-guess himself. But he thought, "I know. I'll give them self-deception. Things are going to be truly horrendous out there, but they'll never notice."
RR: Are you able to tell when you're deceiving yourself?
EM: Probably not. I don't think that I'm in any better position than anyone else, certainly not the people I put on film. I don't feel that I'm in any way different from them. There's a certain, I have to say, suspicion I have about people who claim absolute knowledge of any kind, including absolute knowledge of themselves.
Dr. Grigson, the psychiatrist from The Thin Blue Line, is a perfect example of this . . .
Ron, incidentally, has often taunted me with "the hat trick". Who would be the first to interview all three Doctors Death? Him or me. He had interviewed Grigson and Kevorkian, but not Leuchter. And I had interviewed Grigson and Leuchter, but not Kevorkian.
RR: You're not missing anything with Kevorkian. He's very much like Fred, actually.
EM: Well, I still always wanted to interview him . . . In fact, Kevorkian called me on one occasion to tell me . . .
RR: That's a call you don't really want to get.
EM: Yes and no. I was actually quite flattered. He called me to tell me that I was his favorite filmmaker. And he was hoping that I would be interested in making a movie about him.
RR: Oh, you've got to do it. That's great.
EM: Well, I wanted to, but no one would give me the money. I told one film executive that I was willing to be euthanized by Kevorkian at the end of the film, if he thought that it would make the movie more commercial.
RR: But going back to the Grigson . . .
EM: As the death penalty was written in Texas, there's a penalty phase in every capital trial, where a decision has to be made about whether the defendant should live or die, whether he should be given a life sentence or be sent to the Texas electric chair.
To help the jury make this decision, prosecutors would bring in a psychiatrist who would testify about the defendant's future dangerousness. Grigson played this role in many, many trials and always said the same thing, namely, that the defendant would kill and kill and kill again unless he, in turn, was killed by the state.
Of course, I don't believe that you can predict human behavior, except in one instance - what Dr. Grigson will say in the penalty phase of a capital murder trial.
RR: Is it that you're fascinated by him because he's someone who claims to know what's inside someone else's head? And you're skeptical of that sort of thing . . .?
EM: That's the essence of it.
OK. In my first interview with Dr. Grigson, he made this claim, a very surprising and ambitious claim: that he could tell whether someone was lying or telling the truth. So, essentially, Dr. Grigson claimed to have solved the Cartesian riddle of whether we can know for certain what's out there, whether we can have certain knowledge . . . His solution: Just ask me, Dr. Grigson, what's out there, what's true or false, I'll tell you.
And then, he offered an example: the story of Big Chief Greenfield. This defendant came into his office one day and claimed to be accompanied by Big Chief Greenfield. No one else was there. Just Grigson and this defendant-guy. No Big Chief Greenfield. Or at least, no visible Big Chief Greenfield.
Grigson started by asking him a number of questions.
"I asked him, 'How tall is Big Chief Greenfield?'" This is Grigson now telling me the story. "And the guy said, 'Well, he's about so-tall.'" He motions with his hand. And then Grigson says, "At that instant, I knew he was lying."
Grigson looks right at me and says, "Do you want to know how I knew?" And I said, "Sure. Of course, I do." And he says, "If Big Chief Greenfield had actually been there, or if the defendant had thought that Big Chief Greenfield had actually been there, he would have just pointed to him and said, "Just see for yourself.'"
I remember thinking, although I didn't voice these sentiments out loud, "Well, what if Big Chief Greenfield was sitting down?"
I found Grigson's argument pretty unconvincing. And then, of course, I became involved in this investigation which later became The Thin Blue Line, and in the course of the investigation, I learned that Grigson had made two predictions in this one case - the murder of Dallas Police Officer Robert Wood. He made a prediction about the defendant, Randall Adams, and he made a prediction about the chief prosecution witness, David Harris, this kid who turned out to be the real killer . . . That's right. David Harris, the guy who confesses to the murder at the end of the movie.
So, let's look at Grigson's scorecard . He predicted that Randall Adams, the guy who had been convicted of the crime, would kill and kill and kill again. I don't believe he has ever killed anybody. And since he has been released from prison, he has lived an ordinary life, no violence, no felonies, no nothing.
And he predicted that David Harris, the kid who had really killed the police officer and who committed God knows how many other murders and felonies, would never kill.
So, there you go. In one fell swoop he provided two predictions, a false negative and a false positive. Or if you want to think of it in a slightly different way, in this one case, he was 200 percent wrong.
RR: Did you initially want to do a film about him, and it became The Thin Blue Line?
EM: That's exactly what happened.
RR: I want to ask you a little bit about private-eye techniques, because I envy your private-eye training. You were telling me various distinctions I found fascinating, like pretext and heavy pretext and various FBI techniques. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you learned as a private-eye?
EM: My boss would often talk about "pretext" and "heavy pretext." I finally asked him what's the difference. I never got a completely satisfactory answer. Later, I suggested a set of definitions to him: Is pretext where some of the things you say are lies . . .? And is heavy pretext where all the things you say are lies?
Ron said to me, just before this screening, that he always wanted to be a private detective, that he was envious of my former employment. But in fact, he is one of the great private detectives already. A private detective working in service of his own stories and an extraordinary one at that.
When you remove all of the hype about being a private detective, really, what is it? It's the ability to sit and talk to people. And have people, even more importantly, talk to you. It comes down to an interest in finding out things. So, I learned quickly that what I did as a filmmaker was not so different from what I was doing as a private investigator.
RR: Was it that thing you told me the FBI guy used to say when he would arrive at someone's home, show his badge and then what would he say?
EM: Ron likes this story, quite clearly. I used to work with a lot of FBI guys. One of them, Harry, told me he quit the FBI because of his partner. He just couldn't deal with his style of investigation any longer . . .
It went like this. His partner would knock on a door, flip open his wallet, show his FBI badge and say, "I guess we don't have tell you why we're here today . . ."
He wouldn't even be talking to the target of an investigation. It might be just background work. Someone down the block. Someone who lived around the corner . . . Someone who had nothing to do with anything. Invariably, the guy at the door would break down and start sobbing.
Then one day. They were at this one door. The partner goes through his routine. Flips open the wallet. Delivers the line. The whole bit. And the guy starts bawling like an infant, "How did you find out . . .? How did you know . . .?" Then he confessed to being a World War II deserter.
I asked Harry, "Well, what did you do?" And Harry told me, "We had to turn him in, of course." After that, he couldn't take it any more.
My work, when I was a private detective was really, really exciting. I had the opportunity to work for one of the best private detectives in America.
But I was embarrassed a lot of the times because often I had to pose as a filmmaker in order to get people to talk to me. Which is, when you come to think of it, rather sad.
RR: Returning to film then, I don't think you want to give away too many secrets of your private-eye techniques. I want to ask you about your visual style, which really changed, it seemed to me, in The Thin Blue Line, when you began to use these extreme close-ups, almost fetishistic close-ups of coffee cups, of a footstep splashing on the concrete, in a kind of almost mock-film noir sort of atmosphere. You were sending it up, but in some ways you were also doing it. Did you have to send it up in order to do it? What was going on with that?
EM: I became obsessed by the details of this particular case and how it was so easy to misread these details. Minor details, you might even think, insignificant details, that nevertheless made a very crucial difference in how you saw the entire crime. And I tried to abstract those. My obsession with various elements, whether it was the tossed milkshake, I tried to capture them in the images of the movie. They become metaphorical and fetishistic at the same time.
RR: What about, for instance, what I loved as a coffee drinker, was your beautiful shots of perking coffee in Mr. Death. I'm in awe of his 40 cups a day. Why is that? I was fascinated; I loved it. But why?
EM: When I first heard that Fred drank more than 40 cups of coffee a day, I thought, "This is very, very important." Although, I'm not sure why. It just seemed, to me, a significant detail. And so it was important to me to put it in the movie. Maybe it's Fred's claim to be immortal, or to be invulnerable . . . You know, I build electric chairs, I drink 40 cups of coffee a day, I smoke 6 packs of cigarettes, and I feel just great . . .
I first filmed Fred in 1992. We had gone down to Nashville, Tennessee, to film in an death chamber which he had designed. He had built their execution system, he had built their chair. He had designed their execution room. And I went down there to film at the scene of what was for him one of his greatest triumphs.
Fred was already in trouble. Stories had come out about his involvement with Ernst Zündel and his role as a Holocaust denier. The warden in Tennessee didn't want to be seen with Fred. Fred had become a hot potato, so to speak. So, he locked us - this was to ensure that we couldn't photograph Fred with any prison personnel - he locked us in the death chamber with Fred for the entire day.
We had lots of coffee, sandwiches. Fred was smoking at that time, I don't know how many packs of cigarettes a day, but he was smoking a lot. But he declined to be photographed smoking a cigarette. And I said, "Well, how come?" And he said, "Because I'm a role model to children."
RR: I wanted to ask you about an epistemological question. Your films like The Thin Blue Line suggest that reality is just a series of perspectives, or they seem to suggest that. But, on the other hand, you believe in truth that Randall Adams was innocent and the other guy did it. Same with Holocaust denial, or is Holocaust denial sort of the end of relativism? Do you believe that there is such a thing as real, historical truth? Or is it all socially constructed or a matter of perspective?
EM: Yes, I believe there is such a thing as real, historical truth. I am no post-modernist. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And one of the nice things about Cambridge, Massachusetts is that "Baudrillard" isn't in the phone book.
To me, there's a physical world out there, pure and simple. There's a world where things actually happen. In The Thin Blue Line, it was of all-consuming importance to figure out who was driving that car; who pulled the gun out from underneath the seat, who shot the cop. Questions like these are not up for grabs.
There's a real world in which real things happen. And in some small way, my job is to look at that world and to try to figure out what those things might be.
RR: But you've also said that rather than "seeing is believing," you think "believing is seeing." In other words, that we see what we want to see. Is that right?
EM: I believe that we face incredible obstacles in our attempts to see the world. Everything in our nature tries to deny the world around us; to refabricate it in our own image; to reinvent it for our own benefit. And so, it becomes something of a challenge, a task, to recover (or at least attempt to recover) the real world despite all the impediments to that end.
I often think that when people talk about truth, they have this idea that truth is just sort of handed over to you. Say on a combo platter, the truth combo platter. But it doesn't work that way. It's difficult to come by, and properly speaking, it's a quest; it's the pursuit of an ideal. It's the business both of us are in - an attempt to get at truth and at the same time to provide a chronicle of evasions of the truth.
The fact that there is a knowable world out there informs everything that I do. To me, it's impossible for me to even think of the Leuchter story without calling attention to the fact that he is investigating something that really happened. And that Leuchter (either wittingly or unwittingly) is in the business of denying something that really happened.
RR: I want to ask you about serial killers. I saw a tape of this amazing Interrotron story [The Killer Inside Me]. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about why America cannot see these Interrotron Stories, or if they will. But, one of the Interrotron Stories was about one of the scariest people I've ever seen, Sondra London, a woman who writes letters and has romantic, jailhouse, mental affairs with serial killers.
EM: She's engaged to marry a serial killer.
RR: And at the end of Sandra London, this piece of film, you say, "Why this attraction to serial killers?" And yet, we know that you started your film career trying to make a film about Ed Gein, a serial killer who you befriended. What is it about serial killers that fascinates you?
EM: There's something truly fascinating about murder because it brings you to that fundamental question about why people do things. I suppose we could devote ourselves to asking questions about why someone crosses a road on a certain day at a certain time. The chicken-crossing-the-road question.
Murder raises the stakes. It makes it important, even essential for us to come up with answers. I suppose you could consider it a dramatic device that raises the stakes and draws us in. However, we are still asking basic questions about motivation, just as in an interview, we are asking basic questions about the relationship of one person with another.
RR: But, are you also interested in the question of what is the nature of evil? Do serial killers open up that question for you?
EM: I don't think that evil is the specific province of murderers. I think that we all share a capacity for it. But they do allow for the possibility of examining evil in a highly charged (possibly less ambiguous) context. But I think that we are all truly capable of doing really, really bad things.
RR: And you kind of believe in "the banality of evil?" Or Fred as an instance of that?
EM: This is definitely a leading question, because Ron has written a polemic that appeared in the New York Observer against the phrase: the banality of evil. He has taken Hannah Arendt to task. I'm glad you mentioned this.
The line that I remember from the New York Observer article is: Hannah Arendt, good philosopher, bad court reporter.
RR: I think I said, "world's worst court reporter."
EM: And I went back to Arendt's Eichman in Jerusalem and re-read sections of it. I guess I was looking for a clue as to what she herself had meant by the phrase. And the line I came up with was her definition of the phrase: "Banality of evil as a kind of thoughtlessness . . ."
That phrase struck me as resonant, particularly in light of the story of Fred Leuchter. If his life is truly the unreflective life, it moves the question beyond, "What was he thinking?" to the question, "Was he thinking?" Was there an ethical dimension present?
I guess I think of evil as in some way connected with self-deception . . .
RR: And do you think he was, in some way, that he did not know that he was...
EM: Banality of evil. OK. I'm not sure I like the expression either. But Arendt was not saying that evil is banal. I don't think that's what Arendt meant by the expression at all. Evil is evil. It's just that people commit evil acts for many different reasons, including truly banal ones.
RR: When you're introducing Fred's idiotic trip to Auschwitz to scrape away at the walls, his flight there, didn't you cut to some of Lenny Riefenstahl's footage [from Triumph of the Will] of Hitler's flight to Nuremburg?
EM: I just love that footage. The opening sequence of Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will is Hitler's plane coming through the clouds. Hitler as God. His plane as some kind of weird bird, I suppose, a vulture disguised as a phoenix.
It is one of the grand delusions of all time, the Third Reich. And as Fred is flying off to Poland on his supposed fact-finding mission, it's nice to see a companion piece, Hitler on his way to Nuremburg.
RR: Both of them deluded in the same way?
EM: No, I can't quite say both of them deluded in the same way. But think of the magnitude of the delusion. Clearly, here is Fred, imagining himself as a hero, and in fact, he is involved in something totally despicable, something truly grotesque. I mean, there is some kind of disjunction between how Fred sees himself and how we see him, what's he's doing. It's really quite amazing.
It's quite amazing that we're capable of such things. You'd think there would be some additional Fred inside of Fred that would leap out and smack him around and demand that he come to his senses and stop this nonsense. But of course, there isn't. There's just Fred.
That's why they're people who have complaints about this movie. There is the view that a film about a Holocaust-denier shouldn't even be made, let alone seen. There is that need to have someone - say, the second Fred, the good Fred - to have someone, stand up and say, "Look at yourself. Look at what you're doing. This is nasty. This is despicable."
RR: You succeeded in your film, I think, admirably, in exploding Fred's alleged science and his botched historical research. But in conversations with me, you always felt resentful that you had to do that. You kept saying, "I feel like I'm engaged in proving the obvious. Maybe the next film I'll make will be proving the sky is blue." Do you still feel resentful?
EM: Yes. It could be a whole series. I could take a camera to the airport and show that there are heavier-than-air flying machines. I didn't want to make a film showing that Fred was wrong. It has always been obvious to me that Fred is wrong. And furthermore, the story is not about whether he is right or wrong; it's about how he thinks he's right when he's wrong.
RR: But when you first showed the Leuchter film to an audience, I think you said, to a Harvard film class, they bought it, or half of them bought it, and the other half thought that you were a Holocaust-denier. So, you somehow felt the need to counter-balance that, to investigate and explode Fred's obvious fraudulent science that's still out there, right?
EM: Well, it shocked me. I guess it's little bit like the Stockholm syndrome. You're trapped in a room with this one man - namely, Leuchter. He's talking and talking and talking and talking. There is no one in the movie to grab you by the shoulders and say, "You know, this is, of course, nonsense."
It's a scary thought. What if there is no one (or not enough people) in a society to say a man like Leuchter is crazy . . . Or wrong . . . Or evil . . . Isn't there enough stuff inside ourselves . . . An insanity detector . . . Something. Well, in this Harvard class, there wasn't . . .
One of the professors - Dick Rodgers - got up and took me to task. "How could the same filmmaker who made The Thin Blue Line not investigate Fred's claims and call him to account. "
In the end, I decided he was right.
There are people who would argue that answering Fred is playing into the hands of anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, you name it . . . But there is no belief so sacred that it should be beyond scrutiny, no canon of historical knowledge so buttressed by evidence that it can not be challenged, that it can not be examined, including the Holocaust.
Looking at Fred's claims - and I am speaking now as a Jew - reconnected me with the history of WW II, particularly looking at the Nazi documents in the Auschwitz archives . . .
But I also very much wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. I wanted to make a movie that had a strong factual element but at its heart told a story about an interior world.
I'm very much interested - I guess it's obvious - about how people see themselves. When we think about documentary, we think about documentary as being some species of journalism . . . We're engaged in providing a picture of the reality.
From my first film, Gates of Heaven, I believe I've been involved in a somewhat different enterprise - revealing an interior world, a mental landscape, how people see themselves as revealed through how they use language. If you listen to what people say, that gives you a route into how they see themselves. A different kind of enterprise.
RR: Let me ask you about the planetarium, Frankenstein, lightning-show opening of Mr. Death. You've also got that footage of the electrocution of the elephant . . . Was that the first film ever made, Edison's film of electrocution?
EM: It's not Edison's first film. It's a film done by the Edison Company. It goes back to 1905.
RR: Really horrifying.
EM: It's the only real execution that we see in the movie...
RR: And horrifying to watch. Is there some suggestion in this use of electricity and electrocution that maybe film itself is some Faustian device? Are you fascinated with the Frankenstein concept, that we've created something in film that is, in some way, monstrous?
EM: Maybe. If film is monstrous, it's because we are monstrous. In film we've created a way of capturing not only the world but our dreams, as well. Certainly, that may be a truly monstrous thing. I think it's a good thing, actually. Perhaps monstrous and good.
I wanted to put Fred in the Van de Graff generator from early on, from when I first heard about this story.
This is the world's largest lightning machine. From very early on, just this image came into my head, Fred and the lightning machine, Fred as God, Fred as Zeus or Thor, hurling lightning bolts. It seemed to capture how Fred saw himself, Fred as the arbiter of life and death.
Where actually, a better way of putting it, is Fred is the person who denies that there's really any difference between the two. One of my very favorite lines in the movie is he explains to us very patiently, "There is no difference between a life support system and an execution system, except..." He goes on to qualify, "If a life support system fails, you die. If an execution system fails, you live. That's the difference between the two." Subtle, very subtle. But yet, a difference.
So, this idea of Fred as godhead, the two central images in the movie is Fred in that machine, in that infernal machine, and Fred chipping away endlessly at the rock in Auschwitz.
We spent a good part of the day filming Fred in this machine at the Boston Museum of Science. And I've often thought about the whole experience of being with him that day. Not once did he ever ask me, "Why are you doing this? What is this for? How is this going to be used in the movie? What are you thinking, Errol?" He just enjoyed this whole process of actually being in that cage, riding up in down, and firing bolts of lightning at his command.
It's very much as when we built a lethal injection system, a faux lethal injection system for the purposes of photographing a scene, when we put Fred in the set, he suddenly came alive as if... It became unclear whether he realized this was a set, that this was a fantasy . . . Or did he see himself as somehow really there, in that place, doing that thing.
I think it's a big problem for all of us, what's real and what's been fabricated in our mind.
RR: I wanted to ask you a question about Gates of Heaven, which, if you haven't seen it, is a beautiful film. I could watch it over and over again. I actually got into an argument with someone a couple of days ago about the swerve Gates of Heaven takes at the end, when you get into the successful pet cemetery, the pet cemetery run by disciples of W. Clement Stone's success theory, the pet cemetery that has the bad electric guitar playing, a hippie executive.
And yet, there was a lot of discussion about love in there. There seemed to be some sort of discourse about love in Gates of Heaven itself. Am I right about that?
EM: Yes. I was struck again and again while making that film that what was important was the fact of love, not what it was directed towards. The fact that these people were in love with their dead animals seemed quite wonderful and respectable in the end.
But it also seemed to speak about our tremendous capacity for abstraction. I think, for example, our ability to communicate with live people is questionable at best. When they're dead, I think it becomes even harder to communicate with them. And when they're dead pets, even harder.
But yet there was this strange dialogue going on, which I found magnificent. We didn't put it in the movie, but I recorded all of these, we had this whole loop of material, the grievers. There were people that were wandering around, this was the successful pet cemetery, Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, wandering around, people sobbing. And I recorded a lot of this material.
One person said to me, they were a couple standing at the grave of their dog, between sobs said, "It's a sad day for us every time we come up here." And then he added, "We come up often."
RR: So many of your films involve animals. You've got an Interrotron story about a parrot who was a key witness in a murder story. You've got, of course, the Temple Grandin story. You've got Gates of Heaven. And in Gates of Heaven, there's this moment where some guy says, "The difference between a dog and a human is you turn your back on a dog, and you turn around again, and the dog will be the same. You turn your back on a human, and you never know."
EM: Somebody, evidently, with a pessimistic view of human nature.
RR: Well, that's what I wonder. Is that your view of human nature?
EM: No, no, not really at all. Good people, bad people, good dogs, bad dogs. There are dogs that when you turn your back on them, they bite you.
RR: You've always liked to talk about Edgar Allan Poe's Imp of the Perverse. Can you tell me something about what's the source of your fascination with that?
EM: Well, of the writers that I adore, Poe, Burgess, Nabokov, I in fact, proposed for Ron's recent collection of essays, although he chose a different title in the end, a phrase from Poe's William Wilson, "Seeking an oasis of fatality amidst a wilderness of error." A wildnerness of error. A very, very strong and meaningful phrase for me.
RR: You wanted that to be the title?
EM: Of your collection, yes. A Wilderness of Error. Poe seems to be one of the truly great writers because he is involved in an attempt to understand who we are. He's, among other things, a very, very great psychologist. There are sections in The Imp of the Perverse and in The Black Cat where Poe talks about perversity. He even offers a definition: that essential need of the soul to cause vexation to itself, to do violence to itself, to do wrong for it's own sake. Yes, he's a writer that I adore.
RR: I was struck watching A Brief History of Time again by one thing that Stephen Hawking said. He said, "My theories of the universe don't give God any freedom." And I was fascinated. I wonder if Hawking was doing to God, in other words, robbing him of his freedom, robbing him of his ability to choose, paralyzing him in a way, Hawking was doing to God what he felt God had done to him.
EM: Well, I'm a fan of self-help books, and one of my favorites is: Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. The argument is: "God is omniscient but not omnipotent." You know, I know that you're suffering horribly, but my hands are tied, I just can't do anything about it. I guess it's this idea that God presides over things but doesn't initiate anything.
A Brief History of Time had been described to me as an introduction to general relativity, cosmology, so on and so forth. Science exposition. A primer of some sort. Well, it's nothing of the sort.
What struck me about the book is that it is much closer to a romance. A romance novel. It was a story about Stephen Hawking's personal struggle with the universe.
In 19th century poetry, critics talk about the naturalistic fallacy - projecting life-like attributes onto the inanimate world. Well, here was a story where Hawking was trying to reanimate the universe with the story of his own life.
And so, yes, I felt that there was a very deep connection between his biography and his work. A connection that he, himself, was making in the book. It's one of the things that made the book so powerful and so interesting to me and so romantic to me.
RR: I'd like to get to some questions from the audience in a moment, but one more question from me. What are you working on next?
EM: Stairway to Heaven, which you saw tonight, I come across lots and lots of stories and I have lots and lots of ideas for making movies. And it occurred to me that it would be nice to do shorter films, a half-hour in length, about subjects that I couldn't turn into feature films. Temple was one of them. So, I'm now doing a series for Channel 4 in the U.K. and Bravo of these half-hour stories.
RR: Are these the Interrotron Stories?
EM: It now has the title First Person.
RR: Were they too strong for the U.S.? Weren't you originally commissioned to do them by Fox or something?
EM: I went through a number of pilots with ABC and with Fox Broadcasting. At that time, Fox was going through a change of regimes. When The Parrot was completed, I couldn't find anyone at Fox even to admit that they had seen the program . . .
RR: When you say The Parrot, maybe you should just tell them--
EM: Oh, The Parrot was a story of a parrot that was a witness to a murder.
RR: What did the parrot say, exactly?
EM: This woman was strangled to death, suffocated to death in her mansion in Napa county, northern California. And her African Gray parrot was a witness to this murder. The parrot was found at the crime scene, found in a state of extreme distress, obvious to the law enforcement officials that found him.
Max, who by all accounts, had an extensive vocabulary, a vocabulary of something like 300 or 350 words, probably larger than my own, Max was reduced to saying the same thing over and over again and nothing else, namely, "Richard, no, no, no," followed by these gasping strangling sounds.
And so it was conjectured, not without reason, I might add, that the parrot might be repeating what it heard the moments its owner died. So, I made a movie about this. And I couldn't get anyone even to say they had seen it. It could have been at a dead letter office. No executives would, in fact, say they had seen it.
Later, an executive explained to me - I think he was trying to be helpful - he said, "Errol, when I first got in this business..." he mentioned the name of someone I was supposed to know (at least that much was clear) that I actually had never heard of. He said, "When I first got in this business, so-and-so told me that people really, really like new. People love new. But at most, they want 20 or 30% new. Not, say, 40 or 50% new. And quite frankly speaking, Errol, I think what you have here is probably 50, 60, maybe even 70% new. You've overdone it. The problem is, I think this is just too new."
RR: Did you use a stunt parrot by the way?
EM: A stand-in parrot, yes. Actually, two of them.
RR: After you were done with The Parrot, you thought about doing what next?
EM: Oh, I thought about doing more of these half-hours. And I'm delighted that that's going to happen. And I'm going to be making another dramatic feature with actors and I'm going to be making more feature length--
RR: Can you tell us more about the dramatic feature?
EM: Well, I'm a filmmaker. Shouldn't I be writing a script as well? And I struggled for many, many years. There are so many stories that interest me, and so many stories that I've investigated over the years. But I've never had the desire to make a conventional Hollywood movie. And it suddenly occurred to me, that many of my ideas for dramatic features were based on real people and interviews. That what had struck me most powerfully was the way people talked. And if there was a way to incorporate that into what I did, suddenly it made it possible for me.
I like, more than anything, language. Language in my movies, I think, gives me more pleasure than anything else. Whether it's the lines in Mr. Death where Carolyn Leuchter says, "I was a waitress. He was a customer." Or it's Emily Miller, the platinum-blonde eye-witness in The Thin Blue Line, who says, "Everywhere I go, there's murders, even around my house." Who says, that she "wanted to be a detective or the wife of a detective."
Because it's in that language that, somehow, we learn everything. Well, maybe not everything. But we learn a lot.
RR: So, you're being deliberately vague here about what your feature film is about?
EM: Oh, a story, an autobiography that I bought years ago called Insanity Inside Out about a man who goes home to visit his parents, in his words, "looking for a few moments of kind, compassionate conversation more valuable than all the oil deposits of the world." And they put him in a nut house. And it takes him some 15 years to get out. He takes his case all the way to the Supreme Court and wins this landmark decision, Donaldson v. O'Connor.
People complain constantly about mental patients being released on the streets of New York. Well, he's responsible for that. He put limits on involuntary civil commitment, just being able to put people in a mental hospital because you thought they were nuts. I just love this book. I love Donaldson. I love the book.
But it's taken me so long to figure this out, it seems so simple, but somehow it's taken me many years to realize this. And I kept saying this is not a movie of the week. This is not a triumph over adversity story. I used to say that, if I had a one line description for it, you seek vindication before the highest tribunal in the land, your parents, and if that fails, then you go to the Supreme Court.
But what I really loved about it was . . .
. . .he was always working on his autobiography, and of course he finally did get out of the hospital and published it. And the book is really quite mad and quite wonderful and very deeply touching.
He died not so many years ago and it's a promise I made really to myself that I would see that the story was eventually told, that I would make this movie, so it is on my mind.
RR: And you're going to do it as a feature, not a documentary.
RR: Great. Well maybe it's time for us to take some questions from people out there. Yes?
Question: I was curious in this film that we just saw [Stairway to Heaven], you've illustrated so many aspects of the story, every reference, so many references that you made we saw them. Why did you choose not to show the execution of the animals?
EM: She didn't want me to. It's really a pretty simple answer.
Question: Would you have if she allowed it?
EM: I would have filmed it. I don't know whether I would have used it. It's really not part of her story or even my story about her story . . . As Temple tells her story, she takes the animal all the way up to the point of the bolt gun but not through the bolt gun and after that. It was that part of the story, her story, that I wanted to tell.
I like being puzzled by my characters. I think that's the way it should be.
I first became aware of Temple in an article that appeared in The New Yorker written by Oliver Sach's, called "An Anthropologist on Mars." And this was an article which, among other things, said how Temple was disconnected from the world, disconnected from other people. And I remember feeling my first meeting with her and many, many, many times subsequent to that, how deeply emotional Temple really is, how connected she is with the world. Not that she relates to things like everybody else. That's not quite right. Part of her problem is she seems so deeply - if this is a problem - so deeply ingenious and trusting. I felt that I was in the presence of someone with very powerful emotions and someone deeply connected.
And one of the ironies of her own stories is that she talks about herself as though she's removed, even though she is not.
RR: She's not autistic . . .
EM: Apparently, she is not as autistic as she was when she was a little girl. A lot of people wish they could function as well as Temple. She has a doctorate, a college teaching job. She runs her own company. She has written several books and has functioned as a worldwide spokesperson for autistic people. In a conventional sense, Temple is very, very functional. But my job, such as it is, is not to say - Is she in this category or that category? But I can say that I found her to be a deeply emotional and connected person.
EM: No, I think I'm the fan in my movies.
RR: Okay, back there in the red.
EM: Well, I think we're all capable of deceiving ourselves. I don't think that somehow what's true of one person isn't true of others, or even of us all. Why I admire her . . .? . . .because of her deep compassion. Do I think she self-deceived? I would put it slightly differently. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. I would say sometimes I think she's wrong about herself. When she says that she doesn't have emotions like other people, well, yes and no. As I said, I just prefer to think of Temple as a person with very, very deep emotions. She makes more sense to me that way, and I also relate to her that way. Yes?
EM: You're remembering correctly.
__: I wonder whether you could elaborate a bit on that. ...(inaudible)
EM: Well there's something very interesting about interviews as such. In a sense, we've formalized a human relationship. We've put it in some kind of laboratory for analysis. I mean, I have my own style of interviewing, and I can't even tell you why I do things the way I do. I know that they're important to me. I know that this idea of preserving eye contact is important to me because it's, for me, the difference between the third person and the first person. It's the idea of someone looking directly into the camera telling their story.
I started interviewing people long before I had a camera. And 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. And often I found that by concentrating on keeping them talking, it was to my advantage to look like I was listening.
I even came up with the somewhat perverse idea that the important thing was to look like I was listening; that actually listening would work to my disadvantage. But who knows?
With my interviewing machine, the Interrotron, there are two cameras. There's a camera on me and a camera on my subject, and we're looking at each other's live video images and at the same time staring directly down the lens.
We had a video camera which would turn off unless it was actually running, that is you had to have a videocassette in the camera, you had to have the camera on and you had to push play . . . So there was a record of me listening, or looking like I was listening, whatever was going on there, and so I got to see myself as I appear to my interview subjects. It was horrific. I thought, "How could anybody talk looking at such a thing?" That thing, being me. But for some reason it works.
I think it works because I'm there and I am concerned, I'm interested. I mean, I want to find out more.
RR: Yes, over there.
EM: Yes. I directed one dramatic feature under really unfortunate circumstances. Someone asked me, Well why did you do this?" And I said, "Well really it's quite simple. I did this for the same reason that everybody does everything in Hollywood: vanity and greed." But I plan to go on and make others.
__: I have a question ...(inaudible)
EM: That came out from a project. I was a disaffected graduate student and my way of leaving graduate school was to start interviewing mass murderers. I often thought better to talk to a mass murderer than become one. That simple principle.
What was your question again? Vernon, Florida. Well, I went to Wisconsin and spent a year, close to a year, living in this small town in Central Wisconsin, Plainfield, Wisconsin, which was the home of Ed Gein, this notorious murder in the 1950s. Long story, but to make a long story short, I was looking for some other project, a film project, and I read an article in The New York Times, yet another article in The New York Times. And this was in the magazine section and it was about an insurance investigator. This is long before I became a private investigator myself. And it was telling the story of his experiences working for a major insurance company for 40 years. The worst cases of insurance fraud he had ever encountered, barring none. A kind of real life double indemnity story.
And so he went through this chronicle, and in passing - it's always these things in passing somehow - there was a two-sentence reference to this town called Nub City, a town where there had been this extraordinary history of insurance fraud. There had been some 20 people, actually more than 20 people, who had lost their arms and legs in suspicious accidents. And so this became known in the insurance trade. In those days, no computers, so various different insurance companies were involved. And finally he had pieced these elements together and found this pattern, a pattern of obvious fraud, of people who actually were chopping off their own arms and legs, shooting them off. One guy fell asleep, or so he claimed, with his foot over a railroad track and was, I guess, rudely awakened by the evening express.
So I thought, "Oh, this is interesting." I thought this was a perfect metaphor for America. Those who want to enrich themselves, who literally become a fraction of themselves in the process. So, I went to see this investigator, John Healy, and I said, "This Nub City stuff, I want to go down there." And he said, "No, no, no. Don't be ridiculous. That's out of the question. This is the most dangerous place I have ever been in my entire life. Don't even think of going down there." But we talked and eventually he revealed the name of the town - Vernon, Florida. And I told him I was going down there and he said, "Well, whatever you do, don't stay long and don't go out at night."
I lived down there for a good part of a year, just loved the place. Got beaten up by the son-in-law of a "nubbie".
RR: A nubbie?
EM: Well, yeah, the members of the Nub Club, the amputees, were called nubbies, yes. And I was beaten up by the son-in-law of a nubbie, the first time I went down there. I learned the hard way that it was a bad idea to ask people direct questions about how they lost an arm or a leg, or, of course, in some instances, both.
It was an amazing place. When I first went down there everybody in Vernon, Florida would say, "Why our town? It's Nub City, of course, right?" And I'd say, "Oh, no, no, no. I'm not interested in that." Everyday I felt my nose growing a little bit. And in the end I decided to make a movie down there that had really nothing whatsoever to do with Nub City at all.
And it suddenly occurred to me: Certain movies are best as documentaries or as nonfiction, and certain movies are best as fiction. It really does depend on the story. Like The Thin Blue Line, I can't even conceive of that as being a drama with actors, because the whole point of the movie is that you are involved in an investigation, a real investigation. You're talking to the real people who were involved in this story, and so they are providing in some very, very dramatic sense, clues as to what really happened. I can't imagine it with actors. It would destroy the whole nature of what I was trying to do.
Nub City, different thing altogether. I don't know what I was thinking. What was he thinking? I suppose I should know what I'm thinking, but I don't think I'm in a very good position to know that either. But it did occur to me, that I was asking for something that never was going to happen. Some sort of simple explanation or, if you like, confession. I was going to ask someone to explain to me in detail how they committed insurance fraud? "So, how was it that you did blow off that arm and leg?" And so I just gave it up and I decided to make a completely different movie altogether, a movie I might say that I'm very, very proud of.
Of course, I still want to make Nub City as a feature. It's a fantastic story.
RR: Yes, right there?
EM: Well, sure.
EM: Well, he's strapping himself into his own chair.
EM: Well, I wouldn't say he's a prisoner of his creativity . . .
Well, maybe he is. Okay, let's go all the way. Yes, I would say he's a prisoner of his own creativity, his own creation. I love -- I don't think I'm giving away too much here -- I love irony. There's a very ironic line at the end of The Thin Blue Line that no one ever seems to notice, much to my disappointment, though when I see the film it still seems to me as ironic as ever. David Harris is saying - it's his epiphany at the end of the movie - he says, "I came to realize . . ." he's talking about the death of his younger brother, so on and so forth, his life of crime and violence . . .and murder. "I came to realize I was only hurting myself."
Well, I look at this and I think, "Yes, and no." There's that little me that wants to stand up and raise his hand and say, "Not exactly, David, there were other people involved as well." The scene with Fred, at the end of Mr. Death, is inspired by Kafka's In the Penal Colony. It's a story about a man - an executioner but perhaps also an artist - who wants to build the perfect execution device. He is living in halcyon times. Executions are extremely popular. But time passes and the vogue for executions passes as well. And the executioner is left alone with his device with no one to strap into it. So ultimately, he straps himself into it, he uses it on himself, and of course the machine horribly malfunctions. It's a very, very funny. I would call the story, yes, "kafkaesque".
There are three ironies in the final scene of Mr. Death. It's a layer-cake kind of deal.
Fred, at the end of this movie, is himself into his own electric chair. And, yes, he comes out with one of the truly ironic lines. He says, "Parents came to realize that their children shouldn't sit in the electric chair." That's right, its about, children like Fred. Children of prison guards who sit in the electric chair as children. It's a no-no.
Why? Because one of these kids later went on to commit capital murder, was sentenced to death, and executed in the same chair that he sat in as a child.
You sit in the chair, the legend goes, you die in the chair. Irony #1
Well, Fred then goes on to tell us that sat in that same chair but went on not to die in the chair but to design and repair electric chairs. Irony #2. Hah, hah, hah. I outwitted death.
But, that's still not enough.
These are the two intended ironies. Then he comes up with another, a third, an unintended irony . . .
It's the final line in the movie. Fred is wistful, contemplative. He's clearly thinking. Hoping, wishing . . . He says, "Maybe I created a new legend and some good has come of this after all."
What's interesting about the scene is - it's our knowledge about Fred, that Fred, without knowing it, has been destroyed by his own execution device. In some metaphorical sense it's as if he sat in that damn thing and was executed. Irony #3.
Isn't he, when all is said and done, an example of the walking dead . . .?
Well, here you go, this question whether or not Fred was changed in any way by viewing this film. If anything could prove my underlying belief - that is, that people never ever see themselves - it was certainly this experience of showing Fred the nearly completed version of this film about him. Fred didn't change his beliefs about Auschwitz in any way after seeing the film. If I had been fantasizing about some crazy Fred mea culpa - "I've seen the film and now I see how deeply wrong I've been" -- that was a fantasy.
Fred saw the film, he liked the film, he thought the film was fair, I'm quoting him. He objected to the chemist's story about how he was completely uninformed about what Fred was doing, because Fred told me that he had contacted Jim Roth, the Cornell chemist, prior to going to Auschwitz, although he never revealed to Roth where he was going.
He expressed annoyance with Roth without ever engaging the content of what Roth was saying.
And then I went through a laundry list of documents that had been shown to me in the Auschwitz archive. I worked with this holocaust historian, Robert-Jan van Pelt, who took me to the archives in Auschwitz and showed me these documents. Well Fred, among other things, says no ventilation systems, no gas tight doors, no gas tight windows, on and on and on and on. And yet in this archive there are SS documents, Nazi documents, making specific reference to the existence of all of these things, in places where he said they did not and could not have existed.
You know what's so crazy about Fred's claims? I sometimes call them two kinds of claims. One is the factual claim and the other is the modal claim. Years ago I used to drink this really bad bourbon, Old Calhoun, and there was a picture of Old Calhoun on the label, scowling. Obviously having consumed too much of his own bourbon. But on one side of the picture it said, "Absolutely the very best," an ambitious claim given that this was really bad bourbon. And on the other side, an even more ambitious claim, "Nothing better possible." Oh yeah? So there is Fred, not to make light of any of this, but there is Fred inAuschwitz saying not only wasn't poison gas used, but it couldn't possibly havebeen used. It couldn't possibly have been used. The nuttiness of these claims,the insanity of these claims.
So yes, I give him the laundry list of documents and Fred says, "Well I don'tknow if they're genuine. I don't know where Robert-Jan van Pelt found thesedocuments. I would have to simply take his word for it and since I don't reallyknow enough about this evidence, I'm going to stick to my original position." Which goes to show you that if you really want to hold on to a belief, no matterhow misguided, no matter how pernicious, no matter how wrong, you can do so.
But why he continues in this belief . . .? I think you get into a kind of entrenchedposition and you make a decision to follow some course of action and maybe thereis no going back.
I was flying home from London recently and I was looking for books in the airportshop to read on the flight back and there was a book by Richard Feynman. So Ipicked it up and I was reading it on the plane. And in the book there was thissmall section about-- it was autobiographical-- about Feynman's decision to workon the Manhattan project, his decision to go to Los Alamos as a young Princetongraduate student. His logic was absolutely impeccable. He said, "If the bomb ispossible then it will be made, and if we can make it, they can make it too,therefore I'm working on it." And so he went off to Los Alamos and he played animportant role in the production of the atomic bomb.
But then he goes on to tell you-- I thought this was really one of the mostamazing things I've ever read. I found it really, really interesting. He said"Germany was defeated and all that was left was Japan. Morally speaking, Ishould have reexamined my decision because the reason for why I had originallydecided to work on the bomb was no longer there." He said, "But, I didn'treexamine it." And then he adds the remark, "Okay?"
I thought there was something really interesting, deeply honest about it. And Ialso thought it tells us something about how we as people operate, that you makedecisions and then sometimes those decisions-- I'm not saying this is the case, Ithrow it out as a possibility. Fred gets to be the big shot, he gets to be thearbiter of world history. Who could ask for more? He goes to Auschwitz, hefalls into this role, and then somehow there's just no going back. Not tocompare these two stories; I think there's worlds of difference between them. But there is one element of commonality, and that is that you make decisions andthen sometimes the reasons for why you made those decisions change, but thedecisions don't. And that is a very important fact about human nature.
EM: Doesn't it?
RR: Did everyone hear the question? How do unreliable narrators help ussearch for truth?
EM: But that's all we've got.
EM: There is no alternative.
EM: Even before I became a filmmaker and I was interviewing murderers inWisconsin, I became obsessed actually not with the Ed Gein case, I becameobsessed with the story of this one man named Butchie McBrair, Jim McBrair. AndI thought, he's everything that I'm not, that I'm never going to be. He was kingof the senior prom, class president, Wisconsin basketball, great football player,and a mass murderer.
And I spent a lot of time talking with him and spent a lot of time talking withmembers of his family, and I came up with this idea, which I still believe in, ofpsychological triangulation. When you talk to a lot of people, you startto get a picture of the world. I mean, yes, if I confine myself to talking toDavid Harris alone, I think I might end up with a skewed version, as did theDallas police, of what happened on that roadway when the police officer waskilled. But no, I talked to many, many different people.
I think that was part of the problem that I had in initially working on theLeuchter film. I initially conceived of it as a story of Leuchter alone, therewould be no other characters, just Leuchter, Leuchter, Leuchter and moreLeuchter. But what's interesting, again I think it was something like theStockholm syndrome, is that people trapped in a room with this guy and wouldlisten to this stuff and I would say, "Hmmm!" People would start to buy in, buyinto the argument, which is a scary thought.
So I had to reconceive the entire movie and bring in all of these additionalvoices. I had to interview David Irving, Ernst Zündel, Robert-Jan van Pelt,Shelly Shapiro, Susan Tabasky, Carolyn Leuchter, so on and so forth. Because itbecame essential to put the story in context and to provide these differentperspectives, if you like, about what happened.
RR: One more question.
EM: It was essential to make it absolutely clear that Leuchter was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, and, oh, that's right, wrong.
RR: Maybe on that -- [applause] Thank you. Thank you Errol.
EM: Thank you very much.