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Errol Morris Poster

Biography

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Overview (1)

Born in Hewlett, Long Island, New York, USA

Mini Bio (1)

His documentaries helped spur a rebirth of non-fiction film in the 80s & garnered wide critical success. But until 2003's "The Fog of War," Morris was shunned by the Academy Awards.

Morris' first two films won much acclaim (Gates of Heaven (1978) and Vernon, Florida (1981)). In the second movie, Morris intended to explore "Nub City," the town known for residents trading limbs for insurance settlements, but death threats (and some other equally fascinating locals) morphed Morris' focus into profiling other citizens instead.

After his first two films, Morris found financing for new projects scarce, so he turned to a unusual source of income - working as a New York private detective. Finally, after 6 years, he moved into feature-length, (and more serious projects) with The Thin Blue Line (1988).

Errol Morris cites his detective experience as providing new skills for his investigative filmmaking, most notably in "The Thin Blue Line", which resulted in a wrongfully convicted man being freed from a lifetime sentence in Texas after serving 13 years for a policeman's murder. Morris persuaded the real murderer to help free the innocent man. The real killer was subsequently executed for a unrelated murder.

Morris uses techniques not traditionally seen in documentaries, to make his films more dramatic and diverse, such as the Thin Blue Line's incredibly eerie Philip Glass score, and the haunting reenactments of the policeman's murder. Thin Blue Line's multiple points of view have drawn favorable comparisons to Kurosawa's ground-breaking cinema classic, Rashomon (1950). His own striking, innovative film style is very influential. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Morris knows how to create careful doses of emotional reality, which can have much more impact on a viewer than a literal reality can be on film.

Technical problems forced Morris to insert his voice as an interviewer for the first time, at the end of The Thin Blue Line, and he's experimented with using himself in his documentaries since. Morris incorporated his reaction to his parents' recent deaths in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997).

Morris feels his interviewing of subjects, has been greatly enhanced in his later work, by devising the Interrotron (terror and interview). It's two cameras, one on Morris and one on the interviewee. Each sees the other's images staring directly into the lens, to give the audience the appearance the subject is talking directly to them.

While his work explores a wide range of subjects, Morris has stated his films break down into "Completely Whacked Out" and "Politically Concerned." Many focus on people with strong, unusual obsessions. His cable documentary series First Person, was especially effective presenting with great sympathy, power and humor, compelling individuals such as Temple Grandin, an animal scientist who has autism. Grandin designs animal slaughterhouses to be humane.

Fred Leuchter, the subject of Morris' film, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) was slated to be one of the people profiled in Morris' "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control", but Morris decided putting Leuchter in the same film would overpower the other portraits. Leuchter'd been dubbed "The Florence Nightingale of Death Row" for his career of making prisoner execution methods more humane, was invited by a Holocaust denier who was on trial, to examine the site of the Auschwitz death camp. Way out of his league, Leuchter's faulty, amateurish research led him to claim that Auschwitz could not have been used for executions. "Accidental Nazi" was considered as a title for the film. Morris prefers characters who are puzzling.

The film brought Morris (who's Jewish) much criticism and attention. One of Morris' recurring themes is the powerful contrasts between how his subjects view themselves, and how audiences view them. The witty Morris revels in his own off kilter humor, iconoclasm, and extreme skepticism when he's being interviewed.

Morris had problems when he ventured into directing a Hollywood fiction film as did his contemporaries Michael Moore, Joe Berlinger, and Bruce Sinofsky. The Dark Wind (1991) was held up by the studio for 2 years, then released on video. It was an adaptation of a Tony Hillerman mystery novel, executive produced by Robert Redford. Morris has continued entirely with non-fiction, though many of his subjects are much stranger than fiction anyway.

He has taken on difficult subjects, such as A Brief History of Time (1991), about the paraplegic physicist Stephen Hawking, illustrating Hawking's revolutionary theories, and comparing the paralyzed scientist's own rich interior world periled by ALS, with the complex, dying universe Hawking limns.

Morris' film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), examines the architect of the U.S. war in Vietnam, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Morris' academic training in philosophy and history shows in his documentaries' vast depth. While getting a history degree at University of Wisconsin, Morris explored doing a film on notorious local murderer Ed Gein (Gein was the basis for Psycho (1960)). Morris also studied at Princeton and University of California - Berkeley.

Morris' directing career started while he programmed shows at the California's Pacific Film Archive. A newspaper headline spurred his first film "Gates of Heaven," revealing with bizarre developments in 2 widely contrasting pet cemeteries. The uncut film confounded editors, such as Academy Award nominee David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven (1992)). German film director Werner Herzog bet Morris that the film would never get made. At Berkeley, Herzog settled the bet on stage in an incredible display, as documented by director Les Blank (whose son 'Harrod Blank'_ is also an acclaimed documentary filmmaker) in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

Morris, who received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, says none of his films have made him money, so he directs commercials, and won an Emmy in 2001. A series of campaign ads he did for John Kerry was little shown. Morris' much-criticized approach was to Interrotron actual Republicans and conservatives who had switched to support Kerry, versus George W. Bush. Morris has an occasional feature in the New York Times ruminating on the power and meaning of photos.

Opening April 2008 is his new feature, Standard Operating Procedure (2008), which explores abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The film is accompanied by a book of on-set photos of Morris' productions.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: David Stevens

Spouse (1)

Julia Sheehan (1984 - present) ( 1 child)

Trade Mark (3)

[Noir] "Film Noir" stylized cinematography
Frequent Collaborators: composer Philip Glass, cinematographers Stefan Czapsky and Robert Chappell, production designer Ted Bafaloukos

Trivia (9)

Graduated from the Putney School in Vermont (1965).
Name of his production company is Globe Department Store.
Thinks of himself as a "detective director", and he did, indeed, work as a private eye in the early 1980s.
Attended the University of Wisconsin, graduating with a B.A. in history (1969).
Werner Herzog promised that he would eat his shoe if Morris ever completed Gates of Heaven (1978), which he actually did at the movie's premiere. Les Blank's short documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) shows the whole story.
In the 2002 Sight & Sound poll, he listed his ten favorite films as: Detour (1945), There's Always Tomorrow (1955), Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), A Man Escaped (1956) ("A Man Escaped), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), Stray Dog (1949), The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966), Human Desire (1954), Ace in the Hole (1951), and Psycho (1960).
Morris has interviewed two former United States Secretaries of Defense for two of his movies: Donald Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara.
When he was growing up.in Long Island, he never cared much for movies and was into "maps, stamp collecting, and trilobites.".
Morris' interest in films began at Berkeley when he found himself programming film retrospectives at the Pacific Film Archives. Douglas Sirk became a favorite.

Personal Quotes (18)

I directed one dramatic feature under really unfortunate circumstances. Someone asked me, Well why did you do this?" And I said, "Well really it's quite simple. I did this for the same reason that everybody does everything in Hollywood: vanity and greed." But I plan to go on and make others.
I don't believe truth is conveyed by style and presentation. I don't think that if it was grainy and full of handheld material, it would be any more truthful. Oddly enough, people don't want truth. They want to avoid having to think. If anybody really thinks that truth and style are one and the same - that if you obey a set of documentary conventions truth magically pops out - well, that's not the way it works.
Ecstatic absurdity: it's the confrontation with meaninglessness.
If everything was planned, it would be dreadful. If everything was unplanned, it would be equally dreadful. Cinema exists because there are elements of both in everything. There are elements of both in documentary. There are elements of both in feature filmmaking. It's what makes, I think, photography and filmmaking of interest. Despite all of our efforts to control something, the world is much, much more powerful than us, and more deranged even than us.
Once, on the anniversary of the making of Citizen Kane (1941), I was interviewed by The New York Times. Everybody was somehow lined up to say why 'Kane' was the greatest movie of all time or, if you don't like that hyperbole, the greatest American film of all time. And I said, well no, I don't even think it's the greatest American film of all time. I think Detour (1945) is. I really like 'Detour' because it's film noir stripped bare to its essentials.
One of the guards at the Wisconsin state crime laboratory at that time gave me one of the most compelling definitions of what is real. He took me into the room of [serial killer Ed] Gein artifacts and pointed to the cane chair where Ed had removed the cane and sewn in the buttocks of a woman. And without any trace of irony the guard looked at me and said, 'You can tell it's real, because you can see the asshole.'
[re _The Act of Killing (2012)_ (qv] I think I can speak independently of my role as executive producer, because I have no financial interest in this film. The most you can ask from art, really good art, maybe great art, is that it makes you think, it makes you ask questions, makes you wonder about how we know things, how we experience history and know who we are. And there are so many amazing moments like that here.
[re critics' question about whether he was tough enough with Donald Rumsfeld in documentary The Unknown Known (2013)] I believe yes, I was for many, many, many reasons. I look at it as a devastating portrait, a frightening portrait. Do I contradict him? Quite often. But the goal is not to endlessly contradict him. I much prefer it - I hope I am not giving away too much here - I much prefer it when he contradicts himself, which he does unendingly.
It's not as though there's this hidden Rumsfeld I didn't capture. I think I captured the real Rumsfeld and its there on display. Sometimes the power of an interview - often, in my view - comes from things that are not said.
[Rumsfeld has an] absolute inability to appreciate irony on any level. He exhibits endless examples of irony deficit disorder. He has, I would say, almost no awareness of himself. He's aware he needs to justify himself, he needs to explain himself - in the words of Jerfferson, he needs to give 'an account of thy stewardship' but beyond that is little or nothing.
[on criticism of his even-handed characterization of Donald Rumsfeld's personality] I don't mean to sound defensive, though I am defensive. But not all interviews work by virtue of being adversarial. And this film - self-serving for me to say so, but I'll say it anyway - this film could never have worked as an adversarial film for many reasons.
[on his documentary 'The Known Unknown' and perceived differences between its treatment of Donald Rumsfeld and of Robert MacNamara in the earlier 'The Fog of War'] Well, of course I'd expected there'd be invidious comparisons, because why make comparisons if they're not going to be invidious? I used to say that Genesis got it wrong and it needed to be amended, because it assumes that th Heavens are better than the Earth. So if God created the Heavens and the Earth, knowing one was better than the other, he must have first created the invidious comparison. So I would like it to read 'and God created the invidious comparison, and saw it was good. And on that basis did everything else'.
[an interviewing technique when dealing with a perceived untruth] In that moment, you're a chess player - you have various moves open to you. If you're creating some kind of dramaturgy, where you want to capture conflict and an altercation between a subject and an interviewer, then do you want to go down that road and ask him to explain? But if the film is an essay on what is going on inside this one man's head - Is he actually aware of what was just read to him? - well we just sit there looking at each other.
Over the years, I have been put in this very defensive position, as if I have to really defend many of the techniques that were used in The Thin Blue Line (1988). reenactments being one of them. Finally I have come up with an answer that I find somewhat satisfactory: That everything is a reenactment. Consciousness is a reenactment of reality inside of our skulls. None of us have direct access to the real world as such. And the job of nonfiction is not just simply turning on a camera and pointing it in one way or another, but in creating a relationship and the real world. [2015]
If you leave people alone and don't interrupt them, within three or four minutes, they'll show you just how crazy they really are. [2015]
I filmed people on what I guess you would call 'sets.' I designed what the frames looked like. [2015]
Everything that I've done has been toying with the idea of what a documentary is and what a documentary could be. When I made my first film, I made the conscious decision to take all the rules of documentary filmmaking and discard them because I hated them. [2015]
[in a 1987 interview] I don't shoot like a documentary filmmaker. What I do has absolutely nothing to do with cinema verite. The idea isn't to creep up on people or use low or available light. We go in with a lot of equipment, the camera is on a tripod, and the person who speaks to the camera is perfectly aware of what is going on. In some sense, he is performing for the camera.

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