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Errol Morris: Probing the Truth

Exceptional Interviewing Skills

By

Errol Morris: Probing the Truth

Documentary Director Errol Morris

Fourth Floor Productions
Director Errol Morris, widely regarded as one of the world’s finest and most important documentary filmmakers, is best known for his 2004 Academy Award winning The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. The film began as a one-day shooting session in 2000, in which Morris was to interview the former Secretary of Defense for the television series First Person. But McNamara was so engaged by Morris as an interviewer, he stayed for a second day of discussion, and later returned for two additional days. The extended interview produced more than enough material for the feature length film.

The Right Equipment

Morris’ exceptional interviewing skills are enhanced by his Interrotron, a device he invented for capturing close up responses of his subjects. The Interrotron (the name was actually coined by Julia Sheehan, Morris' wife) is a single unit that essentially functions simultaneously as camera and TelePrompTer-like projector.

During interviews, the Interrotron (camera) that's focused on the interview subject films the subject while projecting the image of the interviewer inside the lens. So, the interview subject, while looking directly into the lens and responding to questions, sees the face of the interviewer who is asking the questions. A second Interrotron that's focused on the interviewer projects the face of the subject in the lens.

So, it feels to both parties as if their one on one filmed interview is being conducted face to face--or, perhaps more accurately, it seems to them that each is watching a television broadcast of the other, and talking back to it. The result is an unusually casual, less guarded conversation that, when Morris edits it, translates into a uniquely intimate monologue--such as the one we watch McNamara deliver in The Fog of War.

Results of Meticulous Research

The Fog of War certainly establishes Morris as one of the best interviewers in documentary filmmaking, but his previous career as a private investigator made him a superb and meticulous researcher as well.

This skill is evident in The Thin Blue Line, Morris’ 1988 documentary that actually triggered the reversal of Randall Dale Adams’ conviction for the 1976 murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. Morris met Adams in 1985, and began digging deeply into the case, discovering previously unedited witness interviews in which prosecution witnesses frequently contradicted themselves about what had happened. Using this transcribed testimony, interviews and reenactments, Morris showed in The Thin Blue Line that Adams hadn't murdered Wood. For Adams, who had been proclaiming his innocence from death row for fifteen years, the film was essentially a new public hearing of his case. Eventually, one of the prosecution’s lead witnesses, David Harris, confessed to the crime. Adams was released from prison. Had it not been for the film, he probably would have spent the rest of his life incarcerated for a crime he hadn't done.

Morris proves, with The Thin Blue Line, that documentary film can make a difference.

Personal Filmmaking Style

Morris is quite a maverick, and a bit of a mystery. Like other documentary directors, his choice of projects has depended upon what has intrigued him so strongly he’s been willing to commit several years of his life to working intensively on it. But, with Morris, even more than most, the choice is never quite predictable.

Judging by his completed projects--ranging from his first film, Gates of Heaven to his most recent, The Fog of War--Morris seems to be most fascinated by extreme human behavior and circumstances.

Gates of Heaven unveils a Northern California pet cemetery and the extreme measures pet owners take in burying their beloved deceased creatures. And, while The Fog of War is a political potboiler of sorts, it is also Morris’ extremely close up and personal examination of the powerful Mr. McNamara’s sense of the personal responsibility as he guided the nation through a period when the world was on the brink of nuclear war and the consequent annihilation of nations, including our own. Very different films, but both studies about extreme human behavior and circumstances.

Morris is also famous for changing direction and focus in the middle of a project. The Fog of War was intended to be just a short television interview--until Morris revised his ambitions for the project.

Morris also re-envisioned The Thin Blue Line, too. The project began as an investigation of Dr. James Grigson, a Texas psychiatrist known as Dr. Death (because in criminal trials where the death penalty was a possibility, he always served as the prosecution’s expert witness and consistently testified that punishment by execution was justified). But when Dr. Death introduced Morris to inmate Adams, the filmmaker found a new leading character for his film.

Similarly, Morris refocused his take on the subject of his second documentary, Vernon, Florida. Initially, he had become interested in the town, also known as Nub City, because it was the heart of a rather gruesome insurance scam. Apparently, residents were voluntarily amputating one or more of their limbs in order to collect huge payouts from insurance companies. The film’s final cut follows Vernon’s residents and reveals some of their strange behavior, but Morris never identifies the town as Nub City--ostensibly because he received death threats while he was in Vernon, working on the film.

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