Acclaimed filmmaker Errol Morris talks about connections, critics, Stephen Hawking, and his new movie, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.
Ever since the 1978 debut of Gates Of Heaven—a multilayered, funny and strangely moving documentary about pet cemeteries—Errol Morris has stood as one of America's most compelling filmmakers. Setting out to investigate a Florida town with a high incidence of amputations committed intentionally for the sake of insurance fraud, Morris ended up with 1981's equally fascinating Vernon, Florida, even though the completed film is a series of conversations with local residents that have nothing to do with the original subject matter. After some time away from filmmaking, Morris made The Thin Blue Line (1988), his most famous film. Line freed Randall Adams, an innocent man, from death row in Texas. (That Adams subsequently sued him, feeling Morris had profited unfairly from the film, is consistent with the oddities Morris has a habit of unearthing.) An unsuccessful fiction movie (1991's The Dark Wind) came next, followed by the Stephen Hawking documentary A Brief History Of Time (1992). Morris' latest, Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control—a baroque set of talks with a mole-rat expert, a lion-tamer, a robotic engineer and a topiary artist—is even harder to classify than its predecessors, but ranks among his best work. Recently, Morris spoke to The Onion about his movies, popular misconceptions of his intentions, and the similarities between filmmaking and being a private eye.
The Onion: You have a habit of making movies that aren't the movies you set out to make. Is there a story like that behind Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control?
Errol Morris: I think there is. I have a hard time recalling it, however. And I don't mean to be evasive. I'm asked endlessly about where this movie came from, and it came from diverse sources. My interest in the lion-tamer predates The Thin Blue Line. Lion-taming seemed to be a kind of control of behavior, control of violence that interested me at the time I was interviewing this Dallas psychiatrist. So the lion-taming stuff goes way, way, way, way back, and I was looking for other control-of-nature stories, other animal stories. It's hard for me to say exactly what criteria, as if I could lay out three or four things I was looking for… But I like the fact that the stories would form a kind of chronology, from past to future. So that was part of selecting this material: that I had something going from a version of the Garden of Eden through to the far-distant future.
O: A lot of people seem to feel the need to make other connections among the four interview subjects. Do you feel a lot of those are invalid?
EM: It depends on which ones you're talking about. I think most of them that people talk about are very much there.
O: What connections would you make?
EM: Well, is this my job? I made this film, which is sort of making the connections between the four of them. I was just complaining this morning that maybe my role with respect to this film is becoming too didactic.
O: You need to explain it a bit too much?
EM: I don't know if I need to do it. Certainly, people ask me to explain it. I don't think that, you know, without an explanation, the movie somehow falls apart. It's still the same movie.
O: It's just tough for a lot of people to get a handle on it.
O: I think that's the immediate reaction. I've been thinking about it a lot since I saw it two weeks ago. And I don't think that's a flaw. Don't take that the wrong way.
EM: No, I'm curious. But aren't there things that come to mind, that it's about?
O: Very much so. Everything is related to animals. I see the topiary artist and the lion-tamer as carrying on an older tradition, and both the scientists working toward something else.
EM: I was just talking about Boogie Nights, with respect to Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control, which is, of course, a bizarre comparison in and of itself. My wife said she read somewhere that the current generation likes movies that are sweet and ironic, and I think there's a sweet and ironic character to Fast, Cheap as well. But at the end of Boogie Nights, you have this feeling of this world closing in and closing down, or at least changing. But there's this odd, happy ending, or a kind of happy ending tacked on. Everyone does have a place, somehow, to go. They can either go back to Burt Reynolds and the family they've known, or they can get their G.E.D. and fulfill that important middle-class goal of getting an education. Or they can become entrepreneurs and luck into enough money to buy a hi-fi stereo store. I like the fact that in these stories, my stories, there is something very romantic about each of them. In a way, I'm tired of talking about this movie as just being this piece of eccentric Americana. That the buzzwords attached to Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control should be "peculiar," "weird," "odd," so on and so forth. I think it is a deeply romantic movie, and I hope also a movie that has some kind of emotional substance to it. But one of the oddities of it is that there really is no place for people to go in these stories. It's one of the things I like about it. There's something romantic about that idea, and there's something very sad and melancholy about it as well. In the case of the lion-tamer and the topiary gardener, [there's] no place to go because their worlds are coming to an end. In the case of the mole-rat guy and the robot guy, [there's] nowhere to go because the worlds of the future might explicitly exclude us. It became for me this question of, where are we? Where do we belong in all of this? If we project ourselves onto the world, or onto animals, or onto nature… And yet these worlds themselves may just be strange mirror images of ourselves. Where are we in all of this? There's a mystery at the heart of the movie that I like. I mean, I like for example that with The Thin Blue Line, people can talk about this movie and say, "Okay, he solved this major murder mystery in Texas." But, of course, there's a mystery that remains at the end of the movie of why it all happened. How Randall Adams, for no reason, almost ended up strapped into an electric chair in Huntsville, Texas—and also, for almost no reason, had this filmmaker stumble on his case and devote himself to getting him out of prison. It's the sort of element of fate and caprice that remains very mysterious in that film, and in Fast, Cheap, I think there's an equal mystery.
O: Without the solution.
EM: Without the solution. There is no solution somehow, to life.
O: One of the criticisms you've had to dodge, and I was really surprised to see it come up with this film, is that you're condescending toward your subjects.
EM: Well, you know, it seems if I protest, it's sort of an admission of guilt. But I do protest. I certainly read the piece by Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly, which was sort of like a cavalier dismissal of the movie as… [Pauses.] As a series of cheap shots. You know, I don't really get it. He singled out the mole-rat guy's bow tie [Ray Mendez wears a bow tie bearing the design of a moth or butterfly], which, by the way, he wore to the interview. So, then, I guess the question could be posed, "Well, if he appears dressed like this for the interview, should I allow him to appear like that?" And my answer is, of course I should allow him to appear like that! I mean, he's aware of how he looks. He appeared in a movie 20 years ago that showed in the New York Film Festival, the same year Gates Of Heaven was shown there, 1978. And there was another movie called Manimals. I don't remember the movie at all, but, evidently, Ray appeared in that movie and felt horribly abused—so abused that when he was interviewed by me for Fast, Cheap, he refused to sign a release until after he saw the completed movie. Now, this is the only time this has ever happened to me.
O: That's quite a risk.
EM: It's an enormous risk, given the amount of time it took the movie to come together, and the amount of time I spent on it. Ray saw it, and he liked it immediately and returned the signed release. Now, here's a guy who is really sensitive to how he's being portrayed, and he loved the way he was portrayed in this movie. Nevertheless, Owen Gleiberman feels like that's not enough. So I wonder what our role, or my role, is supposed to be. Is the role somehow that I am making slick advertisements for humanity? It's like I'm doing a car commercial for humanity. I should see how well humanity tests on the road. I should shoot it in the best possible light, with a healthy amount of diffusion, so the flaws are not so immediately visible. I mean, it puzzles me in a way.
O: What you could do is have a voiceover talking about your respect for the scientist, and how you thought him odd at first and then he grew on you.
EM: [politely and confusedly] Yeah, but…
O: I'm kidding. That's a really bad idea.
EM: Aside from the fact that it would sound incredibly patronizing.
O: I think that's the problem with a lot of documentaries, though, that they end up being more about the documentarian than they are about the subject.
EM: Or they become about a recitation or reenactment of a formula of how things are to be presented.
O: What do you mean?
EM: I see a lot of documentaries which are supposedly really rich in content, but are totally devoid of content. They go through the same kind of hagiographical moves, or they go through the same kind of received views that we have about how subjects should be treated, that we all feel comfortable with… All I can say, by the way, is that if Owen Gleiberman thinks I'm making fun of George [Mendonca, the topiary artist], he's nuts. If I were making fun of him, I hope someone will punish me for it. I'm sensitive about it. It's like someone saying… It's basically like they're saying you're cheap.
O: One thing you work with is the Interrotron [a device that allows interview subjects to look directly into the camera and at a projected image of the interviewer]. Tell me about that.
EM: Well, every kind of interview style fascinates me. Because they're abstractions of human relationships, of how one person relates to another in their essence. I was looking at a new Fred Wiseman film. [Wiseman is a prolific verité documentary filmmaker responsible for, most famously, High School, and, most recently, Public Housing.] It was shown at the Harvard Film Archive on Friday night, and I was saying how I had looked at Fred Wiseman as a kindred spirit. And my wife was seated in the audience. I was introducing him at the beginning of the screening, and my wife was talking to a friend of ours, and said, "Errol hasn't been influenced by Fred in any way." Well, the truth is, I have. There's something about monologue and language, and how people present themselves to camera, and express themselves to camera. Now, in Fred's movies, it's slightly different in the sense that there are usually two people talking in a room, but they're two monologues, and there's never any kind of connection. In my films, it's a different kind of abstraction. People are talking directly to the camera or to me, without any kind of question-and-answer formula. And, yes, they do take on the character of monologues. The Interrotron was a way of doing a lot of different things at once. It removes me from the area around the camera. Instead, there's just a half silvered mirror, an image of me floating in front of the lens. It allows for direct eye contact with me, and out at the audience at the same time. Which I don't think has ever existed before. I don't think anyone else has ever done that. You may see it, of course, when people are reading text on a TelePrompTer, a newscaster or a politician, but it's different for someone who's talking to me extemporaneously and looking right at the audience at the same time. I think it has an arresting effect.
O: You've probably spent more time with Stephen Hawking than most outsiders. What are your impressions of him?
EM: I like Stephen Hawking very, very much. And admire him. You know, there's another interesting thing: There's a series running on PBS called Stephen Hawking's Universe. And I was talking last night to a friend of mine who's a professor of theoretical physics at Harvard. I met him in connection with the Hawking movie, and we've remained friends. He thought he was going to be on the installment last night, so I watched one of them, and it reminded me of how my movie was different from what people expected it to be. This was straight science pedagogy, using a lot of the same energy from my Hawking movie. It nevertheless became a kind of exercise in the ABCs of how the universe works. My movie was never about that. It was about Stephen Hawking's dream about his science, the story of his own biography—but not biography on a kind of factual level, but biography as dreamscape. Of how he himself views his own work, about his own personal or emotional connection to the universe. Which is what I felt about the book, too. I looked at the book as a romance novel, not as an exercise in science instruction. It made me like my movie more, looking at that thing. I'll tell you that much.
O: Do you feel the need to follow up on your interview subjects? To keep track of them over the years?
EM: You mean like an oncologist or something?
O: No, just out of curiosity.
EM: I haven't. In the case of Vernon, Florida, I kept in touch with Albert, my Cartesian philosopher down there, the guy with the jewels. But he died years ago, and my connections really… There is no connection anymore with that town. I'd love to go down there. I love the place. Stephen Hawking I see. I remain in contact with David Harris, the killer in The Thin Blue Line, but not Randall Adams.
O: I understand that he objected to his portrayal in that movie.
EM: Well, he didn't object to his portrayal. He sued me for money. He said I was getting rich off The Thin Blue Line.
O: That strikes me as extremely ungrateful.
EM: Uh, yes.
O: You stay in touch with the killer, though. What is your correspondence like?
EM: It's, you know, not extensive, but I actually do care about him. And it's clear that he will be executed by the state of Texas.
O: Which leads to your next movie, about the electric-chair repairman. What's that going to be like?
EM: Well, you'll have to go see it.
O: The Dark Wind wasn't particularly well-received. What was your reaction to that?
EM: It certainly wasn't surprise. It wasn't very well-received by me either. I wasn't really allowed to direct or edit it. I used to call myself the first below-the-line director. It's a very weird experience to work on a movie where you have no control, really, over the outcome. That was a singular experience in my work as a filmmaker, and something that I would really never like to repeat.
O: What will the next fictional film be like?
EM: Well, if I do Boots, which is this talked-about dog-trial movie, I hope it will be as idiosyncratic or as iconoclastic as my non-fiction.
O: Do you think your experience as a private detective has helped you as a documentarian?
EM: Well, you know, I was a private detective before and after I became a documentarian.
O: That's what you were doing between Vernon, Florida and The Thin Blue Line.
EM: Right. I mean, I think they both have informed each other, because there's a great similarity between the two. I mean, the kind of private-detective work I did, I was sort of on the high end of investigation, because I was a Wall Street investigator doing really, really huge cases. But when you clear aside all of the fancy frills about private investigators and private-detective work, it really comes down to people talking to each other and people being willing to give you information about themselves. Nothing really more than that. That's the essence of it.