Errol Morris on His Early Films, and What He Thinks of The Jinx

Errol Morris. Photo: D Dipasupil/FilmMagic

This week sees the release of wonderful new Criterion editions of three of the greatest documentaries of all time: Errol Morris’s first three films, Gates of HeavenVernon, Florida, and The Thin Blue Line. Re-watching these films, it’s at times odd to think that the same man made them: Gates of Heaven is the deadpan, deliberate tale of pet cemeteries in California; Vernon, Florida is a weirdly meditative, austere portrait of the offbeat personalities in a rural southern town. And The Thin Blue Line, one of the most influential documentaries of all time, is a gripping investigation into a cop killing in Texas — complete with an evocatively tense Philip Glass score, stylized cinematography, and detailed, cinematic slow-motion reenactments. (The film was famously instrumental in the eventual release of Randall Dale Adams, who had been wrongfully convicted of the murder and condemned to die in the electric chair.) But look closely and you’ll see that the films share a remarkable sense of candor, of empathy, and a fascination with offbeat yet very human characters. That fascination with people, combined with an investigative spirit, has served Morris well over the years, as he has become one of the foremost filmmakers in the world — with films like A Brief History of TimeFast, Cheap & Out of Control, and The Fog of War among his many credits. He spoke with us recently about his early films, his interviewing style, and some of the potentially ethical issues around getting involved with a true crime tale. And yes, we did ask him about The Jinx.

It’s so odd, after all these years, to see your earlier films Vernon, Florida and Gates of Heaven. They’re so much more austere and deadpan than many of your later movies. Do you feel like your style has changed over the years?
I hope it has. It would be kind of sad if it was just the same thing repeated over and over again ad nauseam. It certainly changed from Gates of Heaven to Vernon, Florida, and it changed from Vernon, Florida to The Thin Blue Line. What I think is unfortunate is that so many years elapsed, particularly between Vernon, Florida and The Thin Blue Line, where no one wanted to give me money to work. I would make countless suggestions for one project after another, and there was never money to make them. That was the period of time when I became a private detective, because I needed to make a living.

Tell me about that.
I had a friend who was a private detective, and he was hired by Elizabeth Holtzman, who was District Attorney in Brooklyn. So I took his place. He was working for a private detective, Jim Mintz, who I believe is the best private detective in America. So I was fortunate. I got to do very interesting work over the course of several years. And when I finally got money to go down to Dallas to interview this Dallas psychiatrist James Grigson, known as Dr. Death, I said, “Thank god, I don’t have to be a private detective anymore.” And that was at the beginning of The Thin Blue Line. Three years of detective work.

And with The Thin Blue Line you wound up doing detective work again.
I certainly was continuing detective work in a different form, absolutely.

The Thin Blue Line is different from those earlier films — highly stylized, very “cinematic,” for lack of a better word, with music, reenactments, dramatic editing. Can you explain your decision to go that route?
As you asked the question, I’m wondering whether it was a decision. I started The Thin Blue Line having no idea it was going to become The Thin Blue Line. Originally it was just going to be a portrait of James Grigson. And although I interviewed Grigson, that interview never appears in The Thin Blue Line. People think he appears in The Thin Blue Line, but people just see pictures of Grigson. You hear Randall Adams talking about Grigson. But we never hear the Grigson interview. The movie changed into something not so much different than I imagined, the movie changed into something that I hadn’t imagined — an investigation into a terrible miscarriage of justice. And not just that. It also turned into an investigation into a murder – and, in fact, a series of murders that I believe were committed by David Harris, the chief accuser of the wrongfully convicted Randall Adams. So there were really two parallel investigations going on at the same time: One looking for evidence that would exonerate Randall Adams and overturn his murder conviction, and the other into David Harris that would establish that he was the responsible party, that he had done the killing. What an amazing story! I should have written it up at the time, and I didn’t. I still should write it up. In The Thin Blue Line, you see just the tip of an iceberg. You don’t see the story of the investigation itself, which is one of the most remarkable detective stories. It’s an amazing story, and something I am immensely proud of. I’m proud of the movie, but I’m even more proud of the investigation underlying the movie.

I think we could say that your time as a detective influenced not just The Thin Blue Line, but the rest of your films as well.
Yes, although there were certainly elements of what I did that go way back — even before to the time before I was making films. I sometimes think detectives are born, not made, and I was very much interested in investigating things. Interviewing – which is a kind of detective work, properly considered – was something I had done from way back. I had my own style of interviewing. I was interviewing mass murderers in Northern California. Part of my style was to leave the tape recorder running. There was a game I played with myself, to see how infrequently my voice would appear on the recording. So, for example, if I was using a one-hour cassette that was 30 minutes on one side, 30 minutes on the other side, could I go through the full hour without saying anything? Remaining completely silent. Just “encouraging” people to continue talking. I was most proud of the interviews where I said the least. I was very much interested in the stream-of-consciousness narration, where the person talks and talks and continues talking — much more monologue than interview. Certainly that technique very much influenced Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida and everything I did subsequently.

Did your interview style change over the years?
Yes, because for years I didn’t have the Interrotron. I first used the Interrotron in the 90s, and then it became a fixture of the interviews I did subsequently. It was on Mr. Death and in the four interviews that comprised Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.

I’m always experimenting. So, my style has changed over the years simply in part because technology for making films has radically changed over the years. I used to call myself the 11-minute psychiatrist. Because when you’re shooting on film, you had magazines. On 35mm you had 1,000- foot magazines, in 16mm you had 400-foot magazines. And they last 11 minutes. So every 11 minutes you had to change the magazine. Which means you have to stop, you have to take the old magazine off the camera, you have to put the new magazine on, re-thread the film, you have to re-slate, etc. etc. So there’s a definite break. But I got used to it. It was part of the style of making those films. Now, with digital cameras, if I’m using the Alexa, which is my preferred digital camera, you can just change very quickly. There are ways to record an hour, two hours at a time. For all intents and purposes you can just keep going forever. Different ballgame. And all of this affects how interviews are done, and how they feel.

What prompted you to develop the Interrotron? [NOTE: This is a device Morris devised that allows the interview subject to see an image of the interviewer’s face while they also look straight into the camera lens.]
I had been interested in eye contact from Gates of Heaven on. Part of it started out of sheer perversity. When I made Gates of Heaven, there were all these tenets of “direct cinema” or “cinema verite” or whatever you want to call it – people are never supposed to look at the camera, the camera is supposed to be hand-held, you’re not supposed to light anything, you’re supposed to use available light, etc. I thought, “Let’s make a movie where we break all the rules, systematically. Let’s have people look directly into the lens, let’s light everything, let’s construct settings, let’s always keep the camera on a tripod.” The people who are being interviewed of course are aware of the presence of the camera. A friend of mine said, “You might be a fly on the wall, but it’s a five hundred pound fly on the wall.”

Some of the best interviews in Gates of Heaven, we shot those at Bubbly Well Memorial Park midday, and it was ferociously hot; the temperature went over 100 degrees, and the sun is blazing down. I called it my magic hour. Because it was so uncomfortable to be interviewed in such a setting that people started simply just saying anything. Things started to happen. And Gates of Heaven was the beginning of my hearing things in interviews that seemed extraordinary. Things you couldn’t make up in a million years — about “the ugly-crisis” and “the pet explosion” and on and on and on. Just remarkable things and remarkable language.

But while I was doing these interviews, I would put my head against the side of the lens. If you know where to look, you can see my hair creeping into the frame. Often, my cameraman Ned Burgess would grab the back of my head and pull it back, out of the frame. And why did I do it? I did it to create the illusion of my subjects looking right into the lens. Looking right into the eye of the potential viewer of the film. But it wasn’t really directly into the lens, because they would look at me, and even though I was close to the lens, I wasn’t smack in the middle of it. And I started to fantasize about what I called “the true first person.” What if they could look directly at me and directly into the lens at the same time? A crazy idea, but it started certainly in Gates of Heaven, and years went by. I didn’t use it on The Thin Blue Line, but I did use that technique of putting my head close to the lens of the camera. And using relatively wide-angle lenses, because the wider the angle, the less it becomes obvious that the person is looking slightly to the left or the right than directly into the lens.

Then I had the idea of the Interrotron. We tried it out on Fred Leucher, who was my protagonist in Mr. Death, the electric chair repairman and Holocaust denier. And I thought, Let’s see what happens. Nothing ventured nothing gained. He’s a person who tends to talk a lot, no matter what. I put him in front of this contraption, and away we went. Away he went. He just started talking.

I’ve always wondered, for a filmmaker like yourself, with such a high profile, is it easier or harder to get people to consent to being interviewed, and get them to open up?
I think both. It changes things, that’s certainly true. It’s not as though I’m a completely unknown entity anymore. People usually know something about me — usually they’ve seen one or more of my films. I kind of miss the good old days when I was a nobody. [Laughs]

Have you watched The Jinx?
I haven’t seen all of it. I’m in the process of watching it.

Do you know how it ends?
It’s hard not to know!

There has been some discussion of whether The Jinx crossed ethical boundaries. I keep thinking of you and The Thin Blue Line. That film was probably one of the very first documentaries to have an impact on a real life case — though the case had been closed for years when you came along.
For all intents and purposes, with The Thin Blue Line, it was a case that was over and done with. Randall Adams had been sentenced to death in the Texas electric chair. He had come within just a few days of being electrocuted. David Harris was let off scot-free, so he could commit another long litany of crimes. There’s a lot of confusion about these things. This is a long discussion; I don’t think there’s a simple way to describe it. Law enforcement in the case of The Thin Blue Line had rendered a decision. And that decision was that Randall Adams was guilty, and deserved to die. The court system in Texas had imposed the death penalty. And as far as anybody was concerned, he was a cold-blooded cop killer who was completely deserving of the sentence of death. So this wasn’t an issue of withholding information from law enforcement one way or the other. And I interviewed many Dallas police officers over the course of making the movie.

I am not familiar with all of what went into The Jinx, and I really shouldn’t comment on it and don’t want to comment on it. There are always ethical questions whenever you get involved in a complex investigation. To pretend otherwise would be naïve. I have been criticized in the past for the use of reenactments, for example. Reenactments were used in The Thin Blue Line. People have told me that even though it was probably the best-reviewed movie in America the year it came out, it was passed over for an Academy Award nomination because some people were appalled by the use of reenactments in the movie. And that discussion continues, really. Much to my surprise. Maybe not to my surprise – I don’t want to be disingenuous.

But there are reenactments, and there are reenactments. There are reenactments that are known in the motion picture business as “show and tell” reenactments. The reenactments in The Thin Blue Line were not show-and-tell. It’s one of the things that makes them unique. So, for example, we see a milkshake being tossed out of the window of the police car by the murdered policeman’s partner, Theresa Turko, the policewoman who may or may not have gotten out of the car until after the shooting – which was it? A crucial issue because it bears on the question, “What did she see? How much did she see? Where was she positioned when the shooting occurred?” So when we see that reenactment, the reenactment isn’t showing us what happened. It’s inviting us to think about the question, Was she in or out of the patrol car? What could she have seen? What did she probably not see, because of her position at the time of the shooting? It’s a reenactment that’s investigative – as much for me as it is for someone watching the film. It’s an attempt to think about what really happened on the basis of the evidence, and to try and reason from the evidence back to reality, to the event itself.