Q&A: Errol Morris on catching the interview bug

A great interview is one of the journalist’s most powerful tools. It can be informative, entertaining, thoughtful. For the next five weeks, the Columbia Journalism Review and MaximumFun.org will broadcast conversations with some of the world’s greatest interviewers. Hosted by NPR’s Jesse Thorn, the podcast, called The Turnaround, will examine the science and art of journalism.

This episode features Errol Morris, documentary filmmaker. An edited transcript is below.

 

THE INTERVIEW BUG

Jesse Thorn: So what kind of interviewing were you doing before you were filmmaking?

Errol Morris: I was interviewing mass murderers.

Jesse: As a hobby?

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Errol: I don’t know. It’s hard to figure out that dividing line between profession and a hobby. I’m sure you know the feeling.

Jesse: I’m feeling it right now. So what precipitated you interviewing mass murderers?

Errol: I was still a graduate student. Maybe once a graduate student, always a graduate student. That’s a frightening thought. I was a graduate student at Berkeley and I was entertaining the possibility of a Ph.D. thesis on the insanity plea. Lucky me, in the Bay Area at that time, there were all of these mass murderers. I don’t know, do you want to call it low-hanging fruit?

Jesse: Sounds like you just did.

Errol: I guess I did! There were three of them, Ed Kemper, Charlie Fraser, Herbie Mullin, and I interviewed all three of them. And I’m trying to get my chronology right. It’s hard for me just to remember what happened a couple hours ago, let alone 40 or 50 years in the past. Uh, I had been an undergraduate the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And in those days, everybody talked about Ed Gein. Ed Gein was the famous mass murderer on the block, the man Psycho is based on. Ed Gein came from a small town in central Wisconsin, Plainfield, Wisconsin. Not so far away, a writer, Robert Block, he was there at the time Ed was arrested. So at the end of the ’50s, he wrote a novel about him, which he called Psycho. And [it] was adapted into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. As it turns out, one of the greatest movies ever made.

So that was the beginning, really, of my obsession with talking to mass murderers. I interviewed mass murderers in California, and then I arranged to interview Ed Gein. I had already graduated from University of Wisconsin, I was in Berkeley. Sorry if this is a really roundabout way of telling the story, but I went back to Wisconsin. It was the allure of Ed Gein. I went back to Wisconsin and I interviewed him several times at Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, Wisconsin.

 I’m not a human tape recorder, I’m just a kind of person. A big sausage patty with ears with a limited ability to retain very much of anything, except maybe urine .

And I got bitten by the interview bug. [There’s] something endlessly fascinating about interviews, still fascinating about interviews. If you ask me why, I think I could come up with a variety of answers; I’m not sure any of them would be true or would really reflect the reason why I do it, and continue to do it. Even though I complain about it constantly. Like, “Why am I doing this? Enough already. Fuck this.”

But I started these interviews, and one of the things that’s impressed me over the years is people will say—I mean I sound like Art Linklater or something, “People will say the darndest things,” you know—people will say the craziest, the bat-shit craziest things, at least to me. I’ve been privileged over the years to hear things that are just quite, I don’t know how to put it…outstanding. And I could give you, I don’t know, a representative sample if you were interested.

 

SHUT UP AND LISTEN

Errol: Um, the rule of thumb is that if you shut up and let people talk—hard for me, because I’m a non-stop talker—if you shut up, let people talk, within three minutes they will show you how crazy they really are.

A friend of mine, a fellow graduate student at Berkeley, Charlie Silver, really gave me the essence of the technique. He once said to me, “You can’t trust people who don’t talk a lot, because how else would you know what they’re thinking?” So by letting people talk, I would create almost a stream-of-consciousness narration. And I had these Sony tape recorders, cassette tape recorders, and depending on which kind of tapes you bought, essentially you had an hour on each side. One hour, you flip it over, you get an hour at the other side. And my goal—this is kind of a crazy goal—my goal was: Could I do an interview where the person talks to me for 60 minutes uninterrupted by me, without stopping?

It’s kind of the pure essence of something. It’s not quite interviews. I guess in an interview there’s supposed to be a kind of yin-yang thing going on. You know, you say “x,” I say “y.” There’s an interchange of ideas. That didn’t interest me so much.

I just wanted to hear him talk. And I achieved this objective, I’m proud to say, a number of times. These tapes without my voice on them. And I got to the point where I would do almost anything to keep an interview going, gesticulating wildly and making grotesque facial expressions. Anything, but please, whatever you do, don’t stop talking to me. I need you to continue.

 

ON LANGUAGE

Jesse: What do you notice when you look at spoken language on the page, or when you’re writing spoken language?

Errol: You see how people are wrestling with what they themselves think, what they believe or don’t want to believe. It becomes a different kind of enterprise than just reading, for example, discursive writing. And in my movies, and also in my writing, I’ve tried to capture something of that. I’m not sure how successful I’ve been. I know that I like my movies—the movies that I do like, I’m not sure how many of them that I do like—but the ones I do like, there’s a remaining mystery in each one of them about who that person I have interviewed really might be.

I know one of the reasons I remain fascinated by The Fog of War is I found myself really liking Robert S. McNamara, this person I had actively demonstrated against at the UN in the 1960s. My feelings about the Vietnam War, about his policies, really haven’t changed much over the years. I looked at it as an abomination then, and I look at it as an abomination now. But the fascinating part of it—I think for many people, they saw my job as somehow forcing McNamara to provide a justification for what he had done or to apologize for it. Just like this whole nonsense about Frost and Nixon’s discussions, that it was Frost’s job, some thinly disguised cleric, to force some kind of guilty admission. I find the idea really boring and besides the point. Because I see my job as being a very, very different kind of job. Namely, the job of figuring out, “Who is this person? Who is Robert S. McNamara? Is he lying to me? Is he telling the truth to me? Is he lying to himself? And if he is, in what way?”

I never, thank God, have had the opportunity to kill millions of people, if you want to consider that an opportunity.

I felt that in making that movie, he laid bare this mental landscape, incredibly suggestive and complicated. I never, thank God, have had the opportunity to kill millions of people, if you want to consider that an opportunity.  But what if you found yourself in that position? What then? Here’s the bottom line: Interviews give me an opportunity to think about stuff. They give me an opportunity to think about people, about myself, about who I am, who they are. I guess about what it means to be alive.

 

ACTIONS V. WORDS

Jesse: Why would you rather do that by talking to people and, in your films, showing people talking? Rather than showing people doing things?

Errol: You know, I don’t know.

Jesse: I mean, I think there’s plenty of folks who would say actions speak louder than words or whatever, right?

Errol: When we talk about nonfiction filmmaking, documentary filmmaking, whatever you want to call it, we all know there are endless varieties of it, that there’s a zoological garden of various different kinds of nonfiction documentary. I remember reading In Cold Blood for the first time. I would say that book, more than any other book I can think of, had this incredible effect on me. Also, when Capote said he could remember everything verbatim, and people would talk to him for hours, and he would just simply write it down, as if he was a human tape recorder. And I got horribly depressed thinking about it. I thought, “Fuck, I can’t do this.” I’m not a human tape recorder, I’m just a kind of person. A big sausage patty with ears with a limited ability to retain very much of anything, except maybe urine . I thought, “I need a tape recorder! And, um, I want to be like Capote, I really would love to be like Capote.” And I still endlessly admire Capote.

One of the things that always bothered me about the Capote movie is they suggested that after In Cold Blood he couldn’t write anymore because he had expended his creative capital. Well, he continued to write. And he wrote really, really splendid stuff. Handcarved Coffins is maybe along with In Cold Blood, a kind of definitive book for me. Well, it’s a novella, whatever you want to call it.

Everything is a reenactment. Consciousness is a reenactment of the world inside of our skulls. Inside of that bone prison where we find ourselves.

But thinking about the relationship between what we perceive, what we create, and reality…I ran into terrible trouble as filmmaker when I made The Thin Blue Line, because I used what they called reenactments. I showed the murder of this Dallas police officer, and I showed it from all kinds of different angles, and I showed variance of what might have happened. And people said, well, this is indefensible. That’s not what documentaries should be. Going back to what you said a moment ago, I had a choice between filming stuff that’s actually happening and filming people talking. I had a lot of other choices, too, but let’s just say those two choices. And why the talking? Partly it’s the historian in me. Endlessly fascinated by the past. And if we’re being scrupulously honest with ourselves, murder investigations, crime stories, are a form of history. We’re looking into the past and we’re trying to figure out what really transpired, what really happened. It’s a form of history.

I used to get really defensive about the reenactment stuff. I’m no longer defensive about it, maybe a little bit. Much, much less so. Because it occurred to me, in a way it’s pretty self-evident, pretty obvious that everything is a reenactment. Consciousness is a reenactment of the world inside of our skulls. Inside of that bone prison where we find ourselves.  And the reenactment isn’t giving you reality on a plate, but it’s giving you evidence so that you can try to reconstruct to the best of your abilities what reality might be. It gives you a way out of, if you like Plato’s cave, or whatever you want to call it. So I think the reason for it is this fascination with that which has already transpired in the past.

But you have a different kind of obligation when you’re telling a story. An obligation to try to figure out what really happened, or what transpired. What is real and what is imaginary. And you’re allowed to use any tool in your arsenal of tools to that end, to figuring something out. And reenactments are a fantastic tool to go back and revisiting a piece of history. And in reenacting it, trying to figure out, could it have happened that way? Does this make sense? Are their pieces missing? Have I elided something or has something been destroyed that I need to know about that would give me a [perspective] on what really happened? I suppose that’s it for me, it’s the mystery of the past.

 

TIPS & TRICKS

Errol: I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, it was said to me by a police officer in Berkeley, California. I had just been arrested in a supermarket for parking tickets and taken away in chains over to the Berkeley Police Department. And the cop put me in this room, and I noted that there was a door handle on the outside, but no door handle on the inside. So I said to him, “Um, officer, how come there’s a door handle on the outside but no door handle on the inside?” And he looked at me and said, “Hey you, shut the fuck up!”

Jesse: [Laughs]

Errol: It’s a good thing to remember. “Hey, you, shut the fuck up!” And I try to remember it during interviews. Were you just about to say something, Errol? You know, remember the immortal words said to you by that kind police officer in Berkeley years ago.

Jesse: When you’re attempting to ask a question, when you don’t know what question you are going to ask or what you are going to say in an interview—and I imagine that comes up sometimes, because some of these movies you’re interviewing people for days—what do you do?

Errol: Oh, what do you do? I suppose you slowly digest your insides. I mean, it’s never the “what to say,” because I don’t believe in lists of questions. In fact, I think it’s a real, real bad idea to have a list of questions. When people ask me for a list of questions, I say, “No, I don’t do that.”

First of all, if you have a list of questions, it means you’re not engaged in listening to what the person says. Say they say something that inspires a question that’s not on your list. Then what do you do? You know? Pull the pin and jump on your hand grenade?

The strongest line in The Thin Blue Line is a line that did not come in response to any question I asked. It was volunteered. And it was a line that just opened up the entire case. Emily Miller, eyewitness, said that she saw the defendant shoot the cop. She basically tells you that she has committed perjury, that she was lying, and that her testimony had no validity whatsoever. But it wasn’t in response to asking those questions. Because I would never have gotten the kind of answer that I had gotten. There was never a question: “Did you commit perjury? Did you lie on the stand? Did you exactly see this person?” It was never anything like that.

If we’re being scrupulously honest with ourselves, murder investigations, crime stories, are a form of history. We’re looking into the past and we’re trying to figure out what really transpired, what really happened. It’s a form of history.

It’s allowing people the scope to say the unexpected. And by the unexpected, [I mean] unexpected by me. McNamara, in the first five or 10 minutes of my interview with him, comes out with a line about the firebombing of Tokyo: Our side won or else I would have been tried as a war criminal. It didn’t come out of my asking some clever question: “Excuse me, Mr. McNamara. You ever see yourself as a war criminal, huh? Huh? Come on, fess up!” Um, I think there are moments in my Rumsfeld film that I am very, very proud of. Because they speak of a certain kind of patience, an ability to listen. I often think that because I babble so incoherently, and so much, that interviewing gives me that opportunity to do exactly what that police officer in Berkeley advised: “Hey you, shut the fuck up.”

I’ve just done a six-hour series for Netflix called Wormwood. And I’ve tried something new again. I’m not supposed to really talk about it, but I’m quite proud of it. I gave up the Interrotron. There are interviews, but there’s scripted drama. There’s a little bit of everything. But it’s all just in service of trying to figure out a solution to a mystery.

When I was just starting to interview mass murderers, I had attended the trial of a guy, Herbie Mullin, who was convicted of 10 counts of first-degree murder. You know, you look for the appropriate Hallmark card to send: “Sorry about your 10 counts of first-degree murder conviction.” This was in a time when there was no death penalty, there was, uh, as they say, a hiatus for a whole number of years in the ’70s.

Jesse: On the plus side, there were more stationery stores then. It was easier to find cards.

Errol: Yes. So I went to visit Herbie Mullin’s father in Felton, the mountains outside of Santa Cruz after his conviction. I believe it was the day after his conviction. And Herbie Mullin never frightened me, but his father did. So we’re up there in the middle of nowhere, and he said to me, he said, “You going to see Herbie?” I said, “Well, I think in all likelihood, yes I am going to try to see him in prison.” And he looked at me and, “Well, if you see Herbie, you tell him he better watch out, or he’s going to be in big trouble.” That’s why I do interviews.

 

The Turnaround is available on MaximumFun.org. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts to get new episodes as they become available.

Photo credit: Fourth Floor Productions

 

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