Learning at Errol Morris’s Knee

errol_morris_foot.jpgLast week, in the Sony Classics offices on Madison Avenue, I sat down to talk with Errol Morris, whose current documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, was nominated for an Academy Award.
Morris’s films are best known for the intensity of the interviews he conducts. He invented the Interrotron, a teleprompter setup that gets the interviewee to look and speak straight into the camera. I, in the mean time, didn’t have a digital recorder, so I decided to use a DV camera, the Sony VX-1000, to record our discussion. (Plus, that’d give me a chance to drop it off at the Sony Service Center downstairs to get the viewfinder fixed when I was done.)
I set the camera on the coffee table. Not only did I not get Morris looking directly into the camera, I ended up with an entire tapeful of Morris’s bouncing sneaker. Just as he did in The Fog of War, I structured our discussion around eleven lessons. [OK, fine. I went through the transcript and stuck eleven smartass lessons in as an editorial conceit. Close enough.]
Lesson One: Start an interview with an Academy Award-nominated director you’ve admired for fifteen years by sucking up. Big time.
Greg Allen: First congratulations on the film and the nomination. I should tell you, seeing Thin Blue Line in college was one of the reasons I wanted to become a filmmaker. It was so powerful and so not what you’d expect a documentary to be, especially at that time. So, thank you.
Errol Morris:
Thank you.
GA: With The Fog of War, a great deal of attention has been focused on the interview footage itself and what McNamara did or didn’t say, and was he going to take responsibility for the war or were you going to grill him about this or that. But your films have such a strong aesthetic and dramatic sense, which you achieve with other elements. I’d really like to hear more about how you go about making a film and what your process is for the putting those other elements together.
Lesson Two: I am a babbling sycophant.

Continue reading “Learning at Errol Morris’s Knee”

The Fog of War Re-enactors

Robert McNamara, Prof. Mark Danner, and Errol Morris at Berkeley, image: berkeley.edu

[via NYT] They’re putting the band back together, Elroy.
For the first time since The Fog of War was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award, Robert McNamara and Errol Morris took their show on the road. They spoke at Berkeley Wednesday, the first time McNamara appeared at the school that led the anti-war movement in the Sixties. It’s also his and Morris’s alma mater.
The webcast is available on Berkeley’s site. [The discussion starts about 11 minutes into the stream.] Whatever else he does, McNamara demonstrates a frustrating but entertaining mastery of the art of answering the question he wants to, not the one he was asked.
Of course, it’s more frustrating when reports of the event miss the big story, perhaps because it involves another paper. The Times claimed that McNamara strenuously refused to comment on the current administration and its policies. That’s not news; he has refused 172 (by his count) journalists’ requests to comment on Bush and Iraq. But the climax of the evening’s discussion was about #173, an interview McNamara gave the Toronto Globe and Mail in Jan. where he revealed his mind in unambiguous terms.
McNamara told a Canadian audience that the lessons he learned in Vietnam (and wrote about in his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect) being ignored and directly contradicted in the present situation. But he told the Berkeley crowd, “What you want me to do is apply them to Bush. I’m not going to do it. You apply them to Bush” [much applause ensues]. Somewhere there’s a headline, “Architect of Vietnam War Condemns Bush’s War in Iraq” searching for a story.
Anyhoo, Errol Morris does very little talking, true to form. What would you ask him? Thta’s not a rhetorical question; I gregPosted on Categories interviews

Phrancis Phord Coppola’s Ophspring

Sofia Coppola being praised for her wok by people who can't bother to spell her name correctly, image: yahoo.com

From Yahoo News coverage of the Golden Globes[note: annoyingly slippery link]:

Director Sophia Coppola holds her award after winning Best Screenplay for a motion picture for her wok on the film ‘Lost In Translation’ during the 61st annual Golden Globe Awards (news – web sites) in Beverly Hills January 25, 2004. (Chris Haston/NBC via Reuters)

Dude, she spells it “Sofia.” This is the Baysinger/Bassinger of her generation.
[And while she’s usually very quiet, the one thing Sofia won’t shut up about is her wok.]
Drew Nieporent’s SF Rubicon is just down the street from The Wok Shop. Sofia’s father is an investor. Coincidence?

FLASH: Pretend-journalists love Sofia Coppola

As you can see by my interview with her last year.
On the subject of pretend-journalists, Lost in Translation beat out indie underdog Finding Nemo for best comedy/musical at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes last night. The 80-page or so outline/story/is it really a script? that funders initially thought was too slight to make a whole film from won best screenplay, and Bill Murray won best actor (for finishing it, I guess).
Gothamist has minute-by-minute coverage of the boozefest which is more entertaining than the show itself. Sort of a Joan Rivers-meets-Andrew Sarris kind of thing.
Scarlett Johanssen goes 1 for 3 on getting thanked. Hmm. On the subject of misbehaving ingenues, it sounds like Britney Murphy didn’t have a presenting meltdown like she did last year at the IFP Awards. Whew.

My Yogurt with Gus

On the occasion of Elephant‘s release in the UK, Simon Hattenstone goes on a publicity pilgrimage to Oregon to interview Gus Van Sant for the Guardian. Gus sends him for coffee before buzzing him up, and later serves him blueberry yogurt [which Simon apparently doesn’t understand is the archetypal food of the Guy Living Alone.] It’s a long account with some nice backstory and several references to Van Sant’s art background (he went to RISD with David Byrne).
Related: My interview last month with Dany Wolf, Van Sant’s producer

Mike Mills, How did you get your f*&%ing awesome job?

[via TMN] Considering the number Google searches I still get for Mike Mills, two years after I posted about his Jack Spade-sponsored documentary, Paperboys, and considering how tight Spike, Sofia, Roman and I have become since then, I should be sitting down with Mills myself.
In the mean time, check out Readymade’s interview with Mills, whose feature debut, Thumbsucker, is based on the novel by the less-Mormon-than-I-am-but-more-Mormon-than-you-are Walter Kirn.
Paperboys is now on DVD, but I like my VHS copy in its Spade-y little box.

Filmmaking Interviews of Note

  • Vadim Perelman, first-time director of House of Sand and Fog, whose tantrums made many people angry in Hollywood (this is news? at least his were entertaining, as are his accounts: “”So I go to his [Harvey Weinstein’s] suite at the Peninsula, and he’s sitting there like Jabba the f–king Hutt with his Diet Cokes and his Marlboro Reds.”). And the film’s getting strong reviews. [Sean Smith for Newsweek, via GreenCine Daily]
  • Ray Pride pulls some information from Milos Stehlik of Facets Multimedia, the North American distributor for Kieslowski’s Decalogue DVD, on whether its jerking aficionados’ chains by releasing a barebones 2-disc version in 2000 and a better, more elaborate 3-disc version this year. [Movie City News, also via GreenCine. David, I’d be boring without you; instead, I’m a cheery mooch.]
  • Ed Halter’s Village Voice interview with Errol Morris about The Fog of War, his mega-interview documentary with Robert “Rumsfeld” McNamara. [bonus: J. Hoberman’s rightfully ecstatic review] [via, I found this one myself.]
  • But the Best Interview Awared goes to: Black Book’s riotous Inside the Actor Love/Hate Studio session between Paul Thomas Anderson and Lars Von Trier. [via Low Culture via Gawker, who I didn’t know cared about film.]
  • Gus Van Sant’s Go-to Guy

    img_0091palme-d'or.jpg
    Gus Van Sant, Elias McConnell, and Dany Wolf
    at Cannes 2003, image: festival-cannes.com

    There he is, scorched in Death Valley and on the Saltflats of Utah; in a mold-closed school with a barebones crew on scooters; and on the Palais steps of Cannes, where he accepted the Palme D’Or this year for Elephant.
    Gus Van Sant? Sure, he’s there, too, but I’m talking about Dany Wolf, the producer. The guy who actually has to figure out how to make the movies Gus sees in his head.
    While I’ve been a fan of Van Sant’s since Drugstore Cowboy, I’ve been very interested in his recent bold filmmaking experiments, which coincide with my own entry into the field. I wanted to find out Wolf’s on-set experience and insight on making the films that are remaking film.
    Below, read my November 2003 discussion with Wolf, an exclusive feature of greg.org.
    [Note: No underage Filipino data entry workers were harmed in the transcription of this 3,000-word piece. Special thanks to Dany Wolf, Jay Hernandez and Jeff Hill, who aren’t doing so bad, either.]

    Continue reading “Gus Van Sant’s Go-to Guy”

    Factchecking Sofia Coppola

    Francis Coppola and Akira Kurosawa on the set of Kagemusha, still from a Suntory whiskey ad in the WNET/NHK/BBC

    While I was being protective of her, Sofia was opening up to me, revealing that her inspiration for the Suntory whiskey commercials in Lost in Translation was a photo of her father Francis and the emperor of Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa, who made Suntory commercials for years.
    I reviewed a whole raft of these commercials, which are hidden on a Kurosawa documentary DVD. Coppola’s nowhere near them, I concluded. I made it sound like I watched the entire doc, not just the easter egg commercials. Weeelllll, I only got around to watching the actual show a couple of days ago. Turns out a huge chunk of the doc’s vintage AK footage comes, uncredited, from the ads, which is odd (frankly, the whole director-free NHK doc style feels like production lifestyle fantasy of a middle-aged civil servant/executive producer, i.e., Suntory’s target demographic. But I digress.) All of a sudden, there’s Francis Ford Coppola milling around the set of Kagemusha. I went back and updated the original entry with screengrabs and backstory.
    I apologize for questioning Sofia’s story and hope this won’t upset the deep bond that developed in the 30 minutes we shared several months ago.

    On interviewing film people

    On MovieCityNews: Leonard Klady shares some insights and some great war stories about interviewing directors and actors, a useful (and timely) resource as I prepare for some upcoming junkets. [thanks, GreenCine, and for the mention, too.]
    Related posts: post-game post on Bingham Ray interviewing Alexander Payne at MoMA; Lily Tomlin and Will Ferrell-as-James Lipton interviewing David O. Russell at MoMA the year before (apparently involved some kind of pipe)

    Behind the scenes with The Road to Europe director, Christoffer Guldbrandsen: a greg.org exclusive

    Fogh and Guldbrandsen, image: drsales.dkHearing a story on the wide-ranging political turmoil which followed The Road to Europe, a documentary on the Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, I wanted to know more; but the reports I found still left me unsatisfied.
    Deutsche-Welle, The Economist, even NPR’s On the Media, referred to the documentary as “reality TV,” a term which belittles both the film’s message and impact and which ignores the history and context of “fly-on-the-wall” filmmaking.
    To get the still-untold story of how The Road to Europe was made, I contacted the film’s 32-year old director, Christoffer Guldbrandsen, at DK, the Danish public broadcaster. Here are my questions and his responses:

    G: How did you develop the idea for The Road to Europe, and what challenges did you face in gaining permission and access from prime minister Rasmussen?
    C: I wanted to make a portrait of Rasmussen and the anatomy of decision making in the EU at a historic moment in time. To make a political documentary that also worked as a well told story. The idea had simmered in me for years, but [had] never been possible to realize until last year, when Denmark held the [EU] presidency.
    The process of gaining permission and access to Rasmussen consisted of four meetings with his head of communications and an e-mail correspondance. We discussed in detail what kind of access I would need to make the film. The prime minister had the following conditions: he wanted to see the final film before is was aired. If there was material that, according to Danish law, threatened the “national security” he could ask to have it cut. Furthermore, civil servants [who] wished not to be in the film should be respected.
    I was concerned that the issue of “national security” could be used as a loophole for the prime minister to have controversial material removed. We discussed it in detail, and his office made it clear that the spirit of the deal was to interpret “national security” in a very narrow way and not abuse the clause.
    G: How did you shoot it? What was your crew and equipment? What restrictions or limitations did you have on equipment and access?
    C: I shot it myself on a Sony PD-150, with a Sennheiser [416] camera mic. I used a monopod to increase stability.[that’s him in the pic. -greg.] There where no restrictions on the equipment. I chose the compact set-up because I wanted to be as discreet as possible. Another problem was that Rasmussen did not want to carry a microport [ie., a wireless mic]. This meant that I had to be close to him all the time to pick up the sound and always point the camera/mic at whoever was speaking. This, of course, limited my freedom to shoot.
    In terms of restrictions: there were a lot of people trying to stop me from working, ranging from bodyguards to various secretaries — I worked in all fifteen EU countries, and not everybody welcomed my presence. However, the staff of Rasmussen quickly got used to me and began to help me out in difficult situations. The rule was that I could film Rasmussen all the time, but that he could, as an execption, ask me to leave.
    G: When did you start to identify the key elements of the program? Did they reveal themselves as you were shooting, or in the editing process? Did this influence how/what you shot?
    I made a series of interviews before I began shooting. I tried to analyse the process, to see were the challenges were for Rasmussen. I looked at who his allies and enemies would be and tried to locate the conflicts. I don’t think it influenced the shooting too much, but it gave me something to steer by when I got lost. A lot of the key elements only surfaced in the editing room, but I always like to have a script when I start out, because I find that it gives me focus.
    For me the script mostly works as a starting point. I had decided to let the camera roll virtually all the time, and then pick up on what I could. In my opinion, the best political documentaries are those that capture the human relations in the story. In my experience, politicians try to control the situation when the camera is rolling, but when they interact with other people, this control erodes. And sometimes, if I’m patient, I can get a glimpse of who they are.
    4. What are the influences or models you used for the program? In the English-language press, the phrase “reality TV” is used frequently, but descriptions of the program make me think of The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus‘ documentary about Bill Clinton’s first campaign for US president. Are you familiar with this film, or other works by Pennebaker or Albert and David Maysles, who also became very well known for “fly-on-the-wall” documentaries, beginning in the 1960’s?
    The War Room has definitely inspired me. It’s a brilliant film that uses human relations to tell a fantastic story. I draw heavily from the tradition of the American Direct Cinema filmmakers. Not directly, but I have their work in the back of my mind. Pennebaker is, in my opinion, outstanding. Another source of inspiration is the Dogme movement — mostly in terms of aesthetics, particularly the camerawork of Anthony Dod Mantle ( The Celebration, etc).
    G: In the US, George Bush’s team is becoming known for its elaborate preparations or productions of imagery, especially for TV. What does your experience show about politicians’ attempts to take advantage of film/entertainment techniques?
    C: That it can backfire badly. I think it is almost immpossible to control a filmmaker if he takes his job seriously. I always search for the honesty of the moment. And even the most staged and controlled situations can contain this honesty – if you deal with them in a right way.

    For news, stories and links, check the earlier post.