After making the quirky vérité documentaries Gates Of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, Errol Morris modified his style for the 1988 mystery/procedural doc The Thin Blue Line, staging and shooting illustrations of his interview subjects’ conflicting memories. The attention Morris received for this new approach helped make The Thin Blue Line an arthouse and home-video hit, and Morris used that clout to make two films, both released in 1991: the poorly received fiction feature The Dark Wind, and a documentary adaptation of Stephen Hawking’s bestselling memoir/popular-science book A Brief History Of Time. The latter film received good reviews and did reasonably well at the box office for a documentary, but it didn’t have the impact The Thin Blue Line had, and it’s become one of the more forgotten pieces of the Morris filmography. That may be about to change, now that the Criterion Collection is releasing a nice DVD and Blu-ray edition of A Brief History Of Time, with new interviews and behind-the-scenes reminiscences. Morris spoke with The Dissolve about the Hawking film, the Criterion disc, and what the persistent misperceptions of A Brief History Of Time have in common with the mixed reaction to his latest documentary, The Unknown Known.
The Dissolve: There’s an interview with you on Criterion’s A Brief History Of Time in which you mention you actually have a background in science. Was that vital to making this movie, to have that kind of understanding?
Errol Morris: I did have that background, but was it vital? I don’t know. I don’t think that this is entirely a science movie, nor do I think A Brief History Of Time is a science book. I think that’s a misconception about the nature of the book itself. I never saw A Brief History Of Time as a movie that was explaining theoretical physics to a general public. Whatever movies are, they’re not a really great place to teach general relativity and cosmology. I sometimes think that the fact that I had a background in physics made it possible for me not to make a movie about physics—that I could look elsewhere.
A Brief History Of Time was peculiar in that Hawking always said he never wanted a biography. But the book is a biography. Hawking is endlessly making a link between the circumstances in his life and his work. That’s not me doing it, it’s him. He’s telling us a story about his life and his work, and how the two dovetail with each other in many, many, many ways. There are no exact parallels between biography and science. Often when people make them, it’s a stretch. But here is an unusual set of circumstances, because the person making those parallels is the person writing the book. There’s this person who is gradually being cut off from the world in his ability to communicate with other people, and here he’s studying the regions of space-time which are cut off from the rest of the universe.
I’m not saying anything even remotely controversial when I say that Hawking is really, really smart. He’s also really funny. In A Brief History Of Time, he wrote a very romantic piece of literature about himself and his work. I think it’s one of the reasons that book has been so immensely successful. People see the book as an expression of him and his work.
The Dissolve: You’ve mentioned that what people who’ve never met Hawking can’t understand is how when you have conversations with him, it takes a lot of time for him to tap out his responses. In the film, that’s all very instantaneous. Did you consider giving the audience that experience of having to wait?
Morris: You can never replicate in a film what it’s like actually to be in a room with Stephen Hawking—nor did I really try to. It’s an odd and extraordinary experience. Hawking came to our house many times for dinner. I’ve been out to restaurants with him. I’ve eaten with him in the faculty club in Cambridge. He’s been an extraordinarily kind person, to my son, and to me, and my wife. And he’s a thoroughly engaged person; it’s one of the extraordinary things about him. Stephen Hawking is very much there.
I rather like the movie. I think it’s one of my best efforts, principally because it isn’t a movie about explaining physics to people. There’s physics in it. There are people talking about Hawking radiation, or black holes, or event horizons. But the movie, like the book, works primarily on a metaphorical level, about the man and his ideas. That link between biography and his ideas is what propels the movie, and really propels the book. I became thoroughly engaged with the idea of making this movie when I realized the book really was a different kind of book than I had imagined. Even from the opening line, when he makes this connection between his birth and Galileo, you know you’re in a different kind of landscape: a landscape of odd, personal connection.
I’m really grateful to him for the experience of making the thing. It’s a terrific thing, to be able to spend time with him and make this movie.
The Dissolve: Watching it again made me think more about your cinematic style, from The Thin Blue Line onward. Specifically your illustrations. It’s one thing to think, “I could illustrate this chicken-and-egg analogy by having a live chicken pop up on the screen,” but it’s something else to think, “Okay, now I need to find a chicken and set up a shoot.” What’s that process like, of actually setting up and filming these illustrative bits?
Morris: You ask someone for a chicken! [Laughs.] I remember the day we did that. It was in Cambridge, and I think it worked out rather well.
The Dissolve: Do you ever ask yourself whether it was worth the trouble?
Morris: I think you create images for film. Otherwise, why make a film at all?
The Dissolve: You also have, briefly, footage from The Black Hole, the Walt Disney film from the 1980s.
Morris: That movie is just so absurd.
The Dissolve: Was it difficult to get the rights to use that?
Morris: I don’t really remember. I don’t think it could have been that difficult, actually.
The Dissolve: Has it become more difficult over time dealing with copyright law when it comes to making documentaries?
“I've never met a pariah I didn't like. It's probably wrong to make a movie with Lynndie England, or Donald Rumsfeld, or even with Robert S. MacNamara—but so what?”
Morris: I don’t think so. There’s more fair-use, and the rules have been more clearly defined. I would think it hasn’t become more difficult. I mean, there’s always a chance of a changing landscape of what you can and can’t do. The biggest issue with making this movie was just getting Stephen Hawking to agree to the biographical material in the film. When he came out of the screening of the film for the first time in Los Angeles, he thanked me for making his mother into a star. She’s one of the extraordinary interviews in that movie—an extraordinary presence. And the movie’s never really been seen in the U.K. No one really knows about its existence in the United Kingdom. I was at Hawking’s 60th birthday party, and of course you spend all this time in an editing room looking at these people day after day after day, until it’s almost like you’re living with them, but his mother had no memory of being interviewed. She’d never seen the film, and had no idea how great she is in it. I hope she gets to see it. I think she’s still alive.
The Dissolve: A lot of people didn’t want to talk to you for A Brief History Of Time because they were concerned that you were going to make some kind of tabloid-esque exposé of Hawking’s personal life, right?
Morris: Yes. And that was never my intention. It’s just unfortunate. It happened at a time when it was very, very, very, very difficult, and people were convinced I was doing one thing, and I wasn’t. There you go.
The Dissolve: As someone who has made a documentary about tabloid culture, do you think that mistrust may have come from people in Great Britain being distrustful of the media, due to the ruthlessness of the tabloids there?
Morris: No, I just think the fact that Hawking and his wife had separated was very, very upsetting to many people, independent of any kind of tabloid culture. But yes, I think many people were worried that the film was going to be exploitative in some way, and I could not convince them otherwise.
The Dissolve: Where did this film fall in your chronology? Were you working on The Dark Wind simultaneously with A Brief History Of Time, or did one of them come first?
Morris: I think Brief History followed Dark Wind. I can’t remember now; it’s such a dark area.
The Dissolve: Was there any sense of pressure or expectation for you, following up The Thin Blue Line with something like A Brief History Of Time? Were you thinking about what you could do next, because you’d had wider exposure?
Morris: A Brief History Of Time was odd because it was technically work-for-hire. I’d never really made a documentary as a work-for-hire director. It seemed to me a bad idea. It may be bad for any kind of filmmaking, but it’s particularly bad for documentary, because I have my own way of doing things, and there are all kinds of expectations that people have about what something should be or shouldn’t be. It’s difficult enough to just figure out what your expectations are of how to make a good movie. So there were all kinds of problems. I’d had tremendous problems making The Thin Blue Line—most of which hinged on making the film and getting the money—but there were all kinds of additional problems with Brief History. Again, there was the Hawking divorce, but also the fact that the financiers had a different idea of what this movie should be. I think people imagined this was going to be a science movie. Who knows? It’s hard for me to actually say what other people have inside their heads.
The Dissolve: You worked with composer Philip Glass on this film differently than you have on your other ones, in that you had him do the music before he saw any footage. Over the course of your collaborations with Glass, have you ever rejected anything he’s done? Or do you just trust him to deliver?
“Every single one of my films has been criticized in one way or the other, and I like that.”
Morris: Oh no, we fight about everything. [Laughs.] The only thing we didn’t fight about was Brief History, because the music came early, and I used it to edit the film, and I decided where to place the music. It was the easiest collaboration we’ve ever had, and I hope he puts this soundtrack out, because it’s really good. All the others were available, but not this one, I think it’s because the movie itself hasn’t been available. The movie just vanished. There was no DVD, and you couldn’t see it. The movie was never even really properly transferred ever, and John Bailey did a beautiful job of this.
The Dissolve: What were the origins of this Criterion project? Did the company come to you to make an offer on it?
Morris: They did come to me. Well, actually, that’s not true! What am I saying? What happened was, I bought the North American rights back for the movie, because I felt that otherwise, it would never be seen by anybody, and I love it. I’ve seen how easy it is to forget stuff. I fought for three or four years to get the rights, and when I finally bought the rights back, I took it to Criterion. I think I met those guys up at Telluride, and they said, “Of course we want to do it.” They’ve been lovely, by the way. They’re a terrific company. But no, I did it! [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: Is this going to be part of a series? Can Criterion get a good Gates Of Heaven edition out, and so on?
Morris: They are. I’d like them to put out the Leutcher film [Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.] and I’d like to change the title from the Mr. Death—which no one could keep straight anyway—to Honeymoon In Auschwitz, which is Fred’s line about his actual honeymoon spent in Auschwitz.
The Dissolve: Your current film, The Unknown Known, about former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is still making its way around. The film is very similar to The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara, which is another direct address from a former defense secretary. How much did you try and vary your pitch?
Morris: I think every time I do this, the films turn out a little bit different than what I expected, and a little bit different from what other people expected. That’s partly because of the material. Material for a film has its own logic, or a set of exigencies due to what the material is. McNamara’s interview became a kind of strange… I hesitate calling it a mea culpa, but it was McNamara admitting that things had gone terribly wrong. He was the defining character of the film, and from very early on in the interview, he talked about himself as a possible war criminal, with a connection to the firebombing of Japan in general, and Tokyo in particular.
So there you go. That’s already a very different kind of story than the Rumsfeld movie. It couldn’t be more different. The men couldn’t be more different, and the stories more different. If McNamara was a story of overwhelming shame, this is a movie about overweening pride and vanity. My job really is to capture something about my subject, and I’ve been really quite amazed by this idea that somehow The Unknown Known really should’ve been more like The Fog Of War. No, it shouldn’t! It should try and capture something of the central character in the story, plain and simple. And the central character in The Unknown Known is not ashamed of anything, not interested in apologizing for anything. He’s, if anything, enormously self-satisfied and delighted with himself. It’s a very different kind of story.
Here’s a good way to describe it: I’m flying across the Atlantic, on the way to meet Stephen Hawking at the Department Of Applied Mathematics And Theoretical Physics at Cambridge, and I’m reading the book and I’m thinking on the plane, “This book is really different than what people have said.” At least how I saw it. And then the movie proceeded to capture that idea I had on the plane. With McNamara, I kept talking about this crazy idea about making a movie with one person, and trying to do history from the inside out, to capture how McNamara saw McNamara. I didn’t want to interview anyone else. And I left with actually one of the most despairing films I’ve ever made. People somehow seize on this idea that there’s some kind of redemption, but I’m not sure there is any kind of redemption in Fog Of War. To me, the most powerful line in the movie is McNamara saying rationality will not save us. This is a person who has believed in rationality all of his life. It’s not enough. It will not save us.
And then I made a movie about Abu Ghraib [2008’s Standard Operating Procedure] and the bad apples there. In fact, I filmed Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman in the same studio that Donald Rumsfeld was filmed in. The top and the bottom of the pyramid of power. I like these films. Part of what I like about them is they don’t necessarily fulfill audience expectations about what a film about these figures should be about, or how it should look, or what it should say. They are, in some deep sense, investigative.
The Dissolve: Maybe the criticism of The Unknown Known has to do with misperceptions of what documentary filmmaking should be. Maybe people presumed that you should’ve approached Donald Rumsfeld as though you were Mike Wallace trying to take him down, as opposed to you making a portrait that reveals something of the man.
Morris: Well, it’s a portrait of Rumsfeld how he sees himself, by himself. He’s a person just surrounded by endless memoranda—the kind of person who has disappeared into his own sea of words. It’s a kind of nonsense story, and once again, it’s one of the most dark and despairing stories that I’ve ever tried to tell. There was a news article that appeared during the Berlin Film Festival, and one of the German newspapers said that it would have been pointless to simply ask endless questions and have Rumsfeld deny them. If you want, you can look at countless interviews and press conferences in order to see that. To be sure, a fair amount of that is in the film itself. But just to make a film of me asking him questions and hearing him deny them is really not a film about anything, and this is a film about something. To me, it’s my ultimate film about self-deception and vanity.
The Dissolve: You’ve referred to A Brief History Of Time as the most romantic film you think you will ever make. Do you see yourself making something a little brighter following The Unknown Known?
Morris: Well, I’m making a feature this year. Holland, Michigan. Naomi Watts is attached, and Bryan Cranston, and Edgar Ramirez.
The Dissolve: What genre?
The Dissolve: What’s drawn you back to directing another fiction feature, so long after The Dark Wind?
Morris: The desire to work with actors. I do it in commercials all the time. I’ve always been connected to visual storytelling, and I want to just continue expanding what I do. I’d like to do more documentaries, and in fact, I am doing more documentaries, and bringing different kinds of techniques. I used to say one of the great things about documentary filmmaking is that you get to change what you’re doing all the time. People keep saying I should do the same thing over and over, but I prefer not to. Every single one of my films has been criticized in one way or the other, and I like that. It’s okay. I mean, it can be painful at times. People criticized The Thin Blue Line, saying it’s not a documentary because it has all these so-called “reenactments” thrown into it. Gates Of Heaven was, by some people, not even considered a film. It’s all these talking heads edited together. A Brief History Of Time should have been a science film, and it turned out to be some kind of odd hybrid… with a chicken in it. [Laughs.] And on and on and on.
I remember one person saw the Leuchter film—people can’t get it straight whether it’s Mr. Death, or Dr. Death, or whatever. My wife always felt it should be called What Fred Said. I still think it should be called Honeymoon In Auschwitz. Anyway, I remember one person saw the Leuchter film, and there’s a very early Edison film of the electrocution of an elephant in there. And this person became absolutely convinced that I had electrocuted the elephant! I kept saying, “This is historical footage, done in 1910, 1911, maybe earlier. I didn’t electrocute the elephant. I wouldn’t have electrocuted the elephant. I like elephants! I don’t approve of capital punishment, either for people or animals.” And then people thought, you know, that the movie was anti-Semitic because it’s about a Holocaust-denier and an electric-chair repairman.
I have this line, and while it’s certainly not true of Hawking, it’s true of a lot of my characters: “I’ve never met a pariah I didn’t like.” It’s probably wrong to make a movie with Lynndie England, or Donald Rumsfeld, or even with Robert S. McNamara—but so what?