Errol Morris, in Five Takes

His films have won an Oscar and freed a man from life in prison, and now he's made the most provocative movie yet about the Iraq war. A guided tour through the singular mind and occasionally madcap methods of Cambridge's cinematic savant.

errol morris

Photograph by John Goodman

The first thing you notice is that the office contains four animals, three of them dead. There’s the horse head on the wall, the marabou stork standing on the windowsill, and—most oddly—the chimp’s head under glass that stares from the desk. Toddling around under their infinite gazes is a saucer-eyed French bulldog named Jackpot, grunting regularly for affection. And beneath the stork’s scabby head: Errol Morris, holding forth. He’s been talking animatedly for five uninterrupted minutes. He’s in the middle of making a stirring argument about how every American bears some responsibility for the Iraq war. Suddenly, he hollers, “Yes, you! Even you!” He’s talking to the dog.

Thanks to Morris’s provocative documentaries and blunt demeanor, the 60-year-old director has often been portrayed as philosophical, irascible, difficult. But here in his East Cambridge office, he’s funny and self-deprecating, and makes it seem a good bet that he’s read the many, many books—encompassing war memoirs, social theory, fine arts, hard science—that sit on the long steel shelves to his right. He gets up in the middle of another sentence to grab his laptop and read aloud a quote from Macbeth, and you see that his glasses are missing the right ear stem. (“I buy piles of these glasses, by the way, on eBay for 60 cents a pair,” he says, “and then I just proceed to lose them.”) Pausing to gather and synthesize the disparate information running through his head, he speaks in essays instead of sound bites, with the occasional F-bomb thrown in. The whole conversation vividly manifests his irreverent intellect, which has guided his 30-year career and eight feature films to critical acclaim, including an Oscar in 2004 for The Fog of War.

On this spring afternoon, Morris is gearing up for the May 2 release of his most controversial work to date, Standard Operating Procedure, about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Through the signature Morris breakneck pacing and profusion of details, SOP focuses on five of the soldiers whose faces, as seen in those notorious digital photographs, are ingrained in minds worldwide. Morris lets each soldier speak candidly—some for the first time—about the horrors of daily life at the prison, weaving their recollections with exact timelines and circumstances of the most well-known images. The material is, in a word, comprehensive: Morris amassed enough to fill an accompanying book, cowritten with award-winning author Philip Gourevitch. Already the project has won a top prize at the Berlin film festival, and also divided opinions, with some critics complaining that he misses the mark by not linking the soldiers’ behavior to Bush administration policies. But whatever your politics, it’s impossible to look at the movie’s deluge of Abu Ghraib pictures—all the more disturbing in Morris’s uncropped (and uncensored) presentation—and not be forced to return to the fundamental, uncomfortable question of whether this war was justified.

Developed over three years, SOP, in trademark Morris fashion, was an arduous film to make. His morbid, quirky, spongelike mind always takes its time to conceive, modify, and execute an idea, then fine-tune like mad until the movie is finished. The process is both inspiring and infuriating, say those who’ve been a part of it. But they also can’t imagine him doing things any other way.


Take 1: Errol the Omnivore

Morris spent his college years pursuing degrees in three disciplines (history, history of science, philosophy) at three different universities (Wisconsin, Princeton, Berkeley), his restless brain constantly seeking out the next thing. As a filmmaker, he remains prone to dramatic changes in tack. That’s what happened with The Thin Blue Line, in which he and cinematographer Robert Chappell started out doing interviews about a Texas psychiatrist who regularly testified in murder trials—and then, after discovering that one of those trials had sent an innocent man named Randall Dale Adams to death row, they switched into a riveting and ultimately successful quest to free the wrongfully convicted. And it’s what happened with SOP, which, when Morris first embarked on the project, wasn’t about Iraq at all.

Julie Bilson Ahlberg (producer on SOP and The Fog of War): Errol wanted to do a movie about war photography. He was looking at stuff from the Crimean War and the Civil War. At the time, Janis Karpinski [the U.S. Army colonel and former commander of Abu Ghraib] was on a book tour, so she was willing to talk to us. That was certainly where he felt, “Oh well, there’s so much photography in this war, why not focus?” Once you had one person, it had a snowball effect…. And then Errol would get on the phone, and whatever it is that he has, he makes people want to talk.

Errol Morris: Very important to me was this article that appeared in Harper’s. They reprinted part of a letter by Sabrina Harman [an Abu Ghraib soldier who had written confessional day-by-day accounts of events in the prison]. When I interviewed Sabrina, one of the first questions was: “This letter, were there others?” And of course, there were many, many other letters, and it was because of the letters that I felt that I had a movie.

Steve Hardie (production designer on SOP): He’s like a squirrel. He goes out gathering nuts, and really it’s only when you get them all back at base that you can make sense of it all.

Mark Hankey (production manager on Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and Mr. Death): I think it’s organized chaos, that’s the best way to describe Errol. When I was working with him, there were 10 things going on at once…. One day you’re on Fred Leuchter [the electric-chair expert in Mr. Death], the next day it’s like, “Hey, you have to go meet this postal worker who just shot all these people in Detroit. Can you go tomorrow? Here’s your plane ticket.” He has a million stories about a million other people he wants to profile. He’d be making films 24 hours a day if he had the resources.

Morris: I don’t even know why I pick these subjects. I think they pick me.