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.

Take 2: Errol the Obsessive

When Morris locks in on a subject, he feels a compulsion to read every relevant book and compile every even vaguely related document, whether or not it leads to a film. For example, while working on his planned examination of war photography, he became consumed by the question of whether Roger Fenton posed his iconic stills from the Crimean War, then wound up writing thousands of words about Fenton in his blog for the New York Times, as if he couldn’t let one fascinating scrap go to waste.

Morris: I had read a number of monographs on Fenton. I interviewed a number of Fenton scholars at the Metropolitan Museum, at the Getty, an expert who’s a professor of the history of film at UC Santa Barbara, the ex-curator of photography at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Let’s just put it this way: I interviewed five different experts on Fenton, and I got really different answers. So, I went to the Crimea. I arranged to direct a commercial that would bring me to Istanbul, and I flew with my cameraman and my first assistant cameraman. We spent four days poking around, and I found where the photographs had been taken.

John Bailey (cinematographer on A Brief History of Time): There’s the story, the surface of what happened, and then there’s the way that Errol looks at the outlines and contours, a real attempt to get beneath the superficial reality. Errol is interested in flaying the surface and getting to the muscle tissue underneath…. He’s almost a forensic pathologist of personality.
Alice Kelikian (film studies chair
at Brandeis University and Morris’s close friend): It’s that kind of obsession to detail that pervades all his work. To see which [Abu Ghraib] photo came out when was an intense research effort. To produce these timelines and to learn who took which photograph at which angle, he had to see the technical details on every photograph.

Ed Lachman (cinematographer on Gates of Heaven during a shoot in one of the featured pet cemeteries): Errol said, “I’ve got a great idea. I want the point of view of the dogs going into the grave.” So I said all right, and we shot the point of view of the dogs being shoveled into the grave from these dumpsters. And then Errol said, “Now get in the grave, and you’ll see the point of view of dirt coming into the grave.” And I said, “Errol, you get in the grave with a camera, and see the point of view of the dog. I’m not getting in the grave with a dead dog!” And so we had a parting of ways.

Paul Barnes (editor on The Thin Blue Line): Right from the get-go, I knew he was a character and that he may be difficult because he was so crazed about the project. He kept saying, “My head is impacted with this material! I have to get it out of my head!”

John Kusiak (composer on First Person, Morris’s 2000–2002 TV series): An editor or a producer will say, “Hey, it seems done to me,” and then you’ll find that next week Errol’s taken it apart and started it all over again, but with a different tack. No matter how much pressure he’s under to finish, he won’t say it’s done until he thinks it’s right.

Andy Grieve (editor on SOP): Errol does a lot of editing, and he knows how to work the machines, so sometimes he’ll sit next to you and rip the mouse out of your hand. At first, I was like, “What the hell!” But then I came to realize he drives the ship, in a lot of ways.

Scott Davis (gaffer on SOP): I think Errol has fun. He isn’t walking around with a scowl on his face, concentrating all the time…. When you see a cut of the film and you think, “Well, that’s brilliant—how did he know that would be the right thing at that place?” If it’s an Errol Morris project, it’s an Errol Morris project, from beginning to end.