Friday, July 15, 2011

Errol Morris on the Early Career That Informed His Interview Style

  Photo by Bridget Laudien

Academy Award winning documentarian Errol Morris is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Who else could spin such engaging yarns about pet cemetery proprietors, cutting-edge robotics designer and a former U.S. secretary of defense? In his latest film, Tabloid, he tells the tale of Joyce McKinney who was accused of abducting and committing indecent assault against her ex-boyfriend, who happened to be a Mormon missionary. To go into too much more detail would not do the story justice and, frankly, would serve up a slew of spoilers on a film that really needs to be seen ASAP.

But before he was a much-lauded director, Morris had an unusual job. At a recent press event he talked about his years as a private investigator and how that informed his interview style for the documentaries that followed.

As Morris recounted, “I was a private investigator briefly in Berkley. And I worked for [P.I.’s] David Fechheimer and Jack and Sandra Palladino but that was very, very briefly. That was probably in the ‘70s. And then my film career, which never really amounted to a film career per se just went completely belly up and I had to find a way of earning a living and so I worked as a private detective in New York… It was in the early ‘80s.”

Morris also recalled his post-graduate work in a fascinating, if not totally eerie discipline. “I started interviewing murderers… I interviewed [convicted murderer] Ed Gein. I interviewed a whole number of different murderers in northern California and Wisconsin… It goes back so many, many, many years.”

He continued telling his own chilling tale, “I had this, do you call this a relationship? I had a relationship with Ed Kemper. I had gone to all of these trials. I was going to write a PhD thesis on the insanity plea. I went to all of these trials. In those days there were three mass murders in Northern California — the big three, Ed Kemper, Herbie Mullin and [Charles Frazier]. And so I had gone to the Kemper trial, part of the Kemper trial, part of the Mullin trial. And I was really, really interested in writing about, they had [invoked] the insanity plea. I was interested in writing about them.”

As a result, Morris started to hone a skill that would come in handy for the filmmaker. He remarked, “I started interviewing people. I believe those are my first real interviews. And then I went back to Wisconsin. I had been an undergraduate at Madison. I went back to Wisconsin. I started interviewing people in Wisconsin. I developed this whole style of interviewing… I would play this game where I tried to say as little as possible. So I had tapes that I was particularly proud of where my voice wasn’t on the tape. I would see if I could get the person I was interviewing just to talk for a full hour. [The tapes] were an hour on a side — a full hour without my voice being on the tape. And the idea was just this pure stream of consciousness. It’s the, for want of a better way to describe it, the Joycean interview.”

Morris explained how he then used that style during production of his first film. “That certainly informed Gates of Heaven and it became the idea behind Gates of Heaven. And I never included my voice I always excluded my voice in editing these movies.”

He had also hoped to apply the skill to another form of expression. He admitted, “I wanted to publish a book. No one was really interested in publishing any of my writing. And I really stopped writing. I stopped writing for years and years and years and years and years.”

But the tides have changed on that front and besides Tabloid, Morris fans will be happy to know he’ll be generating quite a bit of written material in the next few months. He mentioned, “Now I’m publishing all of these books. I have a book coming out September 1 from Penguin Believing is Seeing. I have a second book coming out from Penguin on the Jeffrey McDonald murder case. And I have a third book coming from U. Chicago Press based on a set of essays I did for the New York Times called The Ashtray. So I’m writing a lot.”

And still there are those classic Morris films. Tabloid opens on July 15 in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Washington D.C. and expands nationwide beginning July 22. 

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