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 4: Errol the Rule-Breaker

One particularly riveting scene in SOP has Sergeant Tony Diaz explaining how the blood of an already dead Iraqi detainee stained his fatigues as Morris depicts the moment through a slow-mo close-up of a red drop splashing onto a soldier’s uniform. Morris’s use of such reenactments began 20 years ago in The Thin Blue Line, for which he re-created the shooting of the Texas police officer multiple times from different witnesses’ perspectives, and he returns to it in SOP, filming critical scenes in a replica of the prison that he had his crew build. The tactic still surprises many viewers, who expect documentaries to show only footage of actual events. But Morris, being Morris, refuses to limit the arsenal of cinematic tools he can employ.

Morris: I have never liked the idea that films have to be shot a certain way…that if people are unaware that they’re being filmed, then supposedly you’re getting something more natural, more real, more truthful. From the very first film I ever made, I was posing people.

Barnes: Errol wanted the reenactments in The Thin Blue Line to look feature film–like in quality, to have a kind of slickness to them. One interesting thing he did: Instead of hiring actors, he hired dancers to play the parts. They had an abstract quality, and the angles that he chose are so extreme that I don’t think you ever got the sense you’re watching reality. It’s more like a painting of what had happened.

Lester Cohen (art director on The Thin Blue Line): For the reenactments, we had purchased six cars: three cop cars and three Mavericks. And I mean, we shredded them. This was a really low-budget production. So we were doing stuff like cutting roofs off of cars, and the electrical guys were ripping things out, sticking lights in the dashboard for certain scenes. At the end of production, you’d try to blow the horn and wiper fluid would come out instead. Errol just had a great vision. He’s going to get to where he wants to go, and you can either come along, or ge
t out of the way.

Hardie: He’s the guy with the magnifying glass…. Slow motion is used forensically, to explain what went on. It’s just more of an examination, with closer details and higher resolution.

Ahlberg: When we started on SOP, he wanted to make a nonfiction horror movie; he thought the subject matter fit. In making the decision to build Abu Ghraib on a stage, Errol just knew what he wanted. He said, “This is a scary place, not just for the prisoners but for the soldiers, too. That’s what we need to portray.”