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 3: Errol the Interrogator

In the early ’90s, Morris invented his now-famous interviewing machine, the Interrotron, which he’s used on every film since Fast. It works like this: While Morris and his subject sit in separate rooms, both see an image of the other beamed into a teleprompter in front of the camera lens, allowing them to look directly at each other—and dead-on into the camera. In the finished film, the audience is thus given virtual eye contact with the subjects onscreen, an effect that’s unnerving at first but soon heightens the feeling of intimacy and candor.

Chappell: For The Thin Blue Line, there was no Interrotron. He had to lean his head up against the lens—he was trying to get his subjects as close as possible to looking into it—and his hair would always get into the shot. I’d have to push it out with a comb.

Morris: Eye contact is wired into our brains. We are aware when someone is looking at us. It’s one of the central features of communication. People not used to being filmed have no trouble with the Interrotron; they don’t even notice it.

Davis: You might think, “That’s kind of funny, how can anyone talk to an image?” but he’s looking right at you. He gets into these people’s heads, and if they crack or open up, things come out.

Dan Harberts (owner of Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park and subject of  Gates of Heaven): He reminded me of the absent-minded professor. He would show up, and kind of ramble around. It would be like you or me standing behind a camera, looking at a person, and just saying, “You had a girlfriend, tell me about that.” I think that was a part of his genius: Somehow people become themselves on-camera. It was you doing this interview.

Karen Schmeer (editor on Fast, Mr. Death, and Fog): His interviews have become marathons going on for hours and hours. He has the stamina to wait through people being nervous and having guards up until they’re comfortable or willing to talk. With Janis Karpinski in SOP, there’s something like 20 hours of interview with her—not all in one day—but since she’s a military woman, she has stamina, too.

Michael Williams (producer on Mr. Death and Fog): I spent a good year of cajoling and convincing Robert McNamara [the former defense secretary and the principal subject of Fog] to finally come up for an interview. So after sitting in the chair with the Interrotron, McNamara said, “What is this contraption? I don’t like it at all!” But within minutes, it seduces the subject. And Errol being a terrific interviewer, he does the most intense research in the world. So he asks the right questions. After the first interview, I was driving McNamara from Brighton to the Charles Hotel, and he goes, “You know, my entire career of public service, I’ve never had a better interview.”

Morris: I don’t think there really is any strategy, at least that I’m consciously aware of. Philip Gourevitch, when he started working with all of the [SOP] transcripts, told me—which I was unaware of—that I would begin every interview saying, “I don’t know where to start.” And I don’t know where to start; I don’t come in with a list of questions. I’m usually apprehensive.