Looking through the lens of a groundbreaking director
Profile / Errol Morris
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Errol Morris documents dreams.
The director credited with changing the way we see nonfiction films merges newsreel footage, reenactments, formal interviews, and dazzling cinematic technique to capture subjects' "dreams and nightmares."
"I've never bought the claim that style of presentation equals truth," says Mr. Morris, referring to his latest film, "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr." An exploration of truth and fantasy, the film opened in theaters Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles; it opens elsewhere Jan. 14 (see review, page 16).
"Mr. Death" blends slow-motion flashbacks, digital video, 8-, l6-, and 35-millimeter film, split screens, silent film titles, and a surreal shot simply "because it would look neat." Morris considers all these a "palette of colors and techniques. Why work with one of them when you can work with them all?"
Tall and affable, answering questions slowly and precisely, the former philosophy student and private detective is as reluctant to categorize his subjects as he is his style.
"My films are anti-cinma vrit," he says. "I like the idea of people revealing themselves by what they say, not how they're labeled." He presents their memories as "subjective stories - dreams and nightmares - illustrations of untruth."
Morris's mlange of images has produced critics and imitators. Some traditionalists called his breakthrough 1988 work, "The Thin Blue Line," flawed by its re-creations of varying versions of reality. Although its cinematic sleuthing helped solve a murder, the film has been blamed for triggering a rash of TV shows that blur distinctions between truth and fiction.
This is precisely Morris's point: One person's truth can be another's fantasy. "We think of documentaries as journalism, but I try to delve into the mental landscape, to see how people see themselves and the world. I like to have my cake and eat it, too. I like to think that I'm very subjective, with a clear objective element."
What does he owe the people who bare their souls, and often their absurd notions, before his unblinking camera? "You owe your subjects and yourself the responsibility to tell not so much a balanced story as an interesting story. You owe it to them to take their story seriously."
Since the success of "A Thin Blue Line," Morris has achieved a nonfiction rarity: extended theatrical showings of his films. He has been awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" and honored around the world with retrospective showings. His most frequent phone callers, once bill collectors, are now companies eager to have him direct television commercials.
But for six years, he recalls, "no one wanted to put a penny into" the story of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., a technician equally committed to "humane" executions and to the notion that the Nazis didn't gas Jews during World War II.
Finally, Morris received $2 million to make the film from backers in America and Britain, where the film is in commercial release and will be broadcast in early 2000. "It's easy to condemn Fred [Leuchter]," Morris says. "It's much harder to examine him and to present him as a person. It's very difficult, because his ideas are bad, pernicious. It's kind of a balancing act to be sympathetic to him but not at all to his ideas."
"Mr. Death" - which makes its subject's delusions implicitly clear - includes some of Morris's oldest and newest techniques. For his first, five-hour interview with Mr. Leuchter, he introduced what he has called the Interrotron, which lets people look directly into the lens while the director interviews them.
This "talking head" technique emerged from Mr. Morris's first film, "Gates of Heaven" (1978). In that film, shot for just $120,000, he confronted subjects with deliberately obtrusive camera equipment and simply let them talk - about pets, children, ambitions, anything that came into their minds. The result is beyond any category, a poignant, hilarious glimpse of ordinary peoples' hopes and dreams.
In March, Morris will revisit this genre with a series of first-person vignettes for British TV and the BRAVO cable channel. And despite two earlier fiascoes, he hasn't given up his dream of making a commercial feature. A project on bank robbers he prepared for stars Tom Waits and Mickey Rourke never panned out. He directed an adaptation of Tony Hillerman's mystery "The Dark Wind" for Robert Redford, but was dismissed before he could edit it.
Now, he hopes to document a story about the rights of the mentally ill. A Florida man was involuntarily committed in a state mental hospital for 14 years. He had refused to take medication or submit to electroshock therapy; his lawsuit established the constitutional right to adequate treatment for mental patients. "It's a landmark case, and it's always deeply fascinated me," Morris says. When he takes it on, he won't be bound by Hollywood's traditional shooting schedule. Instead, he films as much as possible. "Don't ask me about shooting ratio" - the proportion of film shot to the finished product. "That's utterly meaningless. More is more!"
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society