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