Transcribing the tape couldn’t have been easier. Errol Morris speaks clearly and succinctly, his thoughts perfectly articulated. Even his syntax is correct.
In Berlin to promote the screening of his latest movie, Mr. Death – The Rise and Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. at the recent film festival, Morris says he’s language driven.
‘My movies all depend on language, on how people use language to define themselves, to reveal themselves. And so, yes, I need people who can talk. A friend of mine once said you can never trust someone who doesn’t talk a lot because how else would you know what they’re thinking? And that is the premise, language as a form of self-revelation.’
He admits that if Randall Adams, condemned to die for a murder he didn’t commit, hadn’t been someone ‘capable of talking, articulate, who made in some very real sense a quote-unquote ‘good interview,” Morris would never have made his award-winning The Thin Blue Line. And Adams would have been executed.
Morris is also interested in the depth of his subject; peeling back the layers to reveal more layers, the complexity beneath the surface simplicity.
‘My claim is I like to think I can take your standard tabloid story, a story that is weird, sensationalistic, and turn it into something that has depth. That I can find depth in surprising places.’
And in Mr. Death – a film about a man who designs and repairs execution equipment – that’s exactly what he does. What originally started out as ‘another death penalty story’ of no particular interest became, several years later, ‘a story about the Holocaust – in this instance a story about Holocaust denial.’
In terms of his visual language, Morris is happy to make loud noises.
Because of The Thin Blue Line he has, at various times, been held responsible for infotainment and re-enactment television, but ‘for better or for worse, I’ve tried to create powerful images in all of my movies, as a way of trying to telegraph, to dramatize what I consider to be the underlying ideas.
‘For me there are two central images in Mr. Death. One is Fred in the lightning machine. Fred as God. Fred as the man in control of life and death. That’s one very powerful image. The other is Fred as benighted fool. Fred as moral idiot. The Fred of the little hammer and chisel, chipping away in what he likes to think is a scientific investigation, a pursuit of truth, but we know as egregious, pathetic, confused error.’
To get closer to the truth, to the human subject, Morris invented the Interrotron, a system of modified teleprompters with which the interviewer can put their own image in front of the lens. (It is the opposite of cinema verite: Whatever you do, do look into the camera!) And he has since moved on. The Interrotron has now been superceded by the Megatron, which uses 20 cameras to record his subjects.
This fascination with technology, the mechanics of getting as close to the interviewee as possible without resorting to surgical gloves – shades of Fred Leuchter?
Morris laughs. ‘I hope not! I think there’s an important difference between really, honestly wanting to find out about people and executing them!’
For his latest project he turned to the small screen. The almost finished First Person is a series (11 x 30-minutes) of personal portraits, people talking about themselves, destined for Bravo in the U.S. and the U.K.’s Channel 4. Among the subjects: a designer of slaughterhouses; a man searching for a living giant squid; a crime scene cleaner; a man Morris affectionately calls Mr. Debt, (who’s suing banks on behalf of 20,000 credit card holders); and a pen pal of the Unabomber.
There’s talk of his next project being a dramatic feature film. Morris refuses to be drawn but, based on his documentary efforts, he could certainly give John Waters a run for his money.