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Director Errol Morris: "The best way to make something look spontaneous is to make it spontaneous"

The Oscar-winner on the power of photographs and “nailing down the now” in his films.

'Errol Morris' Portrait Session - The 70th Venice International Film Festival
Errol Morris at the 70th Venice International Film Festival.

When Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris talks about the subject of his latest film, portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman, he describes her uncanny ability to preserve the immediacy of an unfolding moment and translate it into art.

“Elsa quite poetically describes it as ‘nailing down the now’ — I’ve never heard a better way of describing a photograph,” Morris tells Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff on the latest episode of his podcast, I Think You’re Interesting.

But hearing Morris talk about his own career — which launched with the pet cemetery-centered Gates of Heaven in 1978 and includes acclaimed films like 1988’s The Thin Blue Line and 2003’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara it’s abundantly clear that he has committed to “nailing down the now” in his films. In the case of his latest, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, Morris had been kicking the idea around for some time, but when the perfect moment arose, he knew he had to seize the opportunity.

“I think [filmmaking] happens in a way that I can’t even control. Elsa happened, it had been on my mind for years like, ‘I should make this film,’” Morris tells VanDerWerff.

“She told me the Gentle Giant — the local moving company — was coming to her house to take these huge polaroid photographs into storage where they could be digitized. And I thought, ‘Well, this isn’t going to happen every day, I’d better go out there and film it,’ and so we started making a film. It’s the way I should work at least part of the time, not asking permission to make a film, not looking for money to make a film, but just making a film.”

Over the course of his career, as Morris has interviewed subjects ranging from criminal investigators to Stephen Hawking to government leaders (including Donald Trump, who has a unique interpretation of Citizen Kane), he has worked to capture authenticity and organic reactions. This drive led him to build the Interrotron, a machine that allows his subjects to make eye contact with the viewer and strip away some of the artifice of filmmaking. Morris says that of all of his “customers” — his term for subjects — only McNamara has ever resisted the device

“He objected to it, I believe, because he’s been interviewed 10,000 times and then he comes in and something’s different and he’s immediately aware of that fact,” Morris explains. “He comes into the studio, he’d only agreed to give me five minutes, he sees the Interrotron set up and says, ‘What is that?’”

Still, after explaining what the device was for Morris wound up conducting 20 hours of interviews with McNamara on the Interrotron. This included a stunning moment for Morris where McNamara concurred with Curtis LeMay that they would have been tried as war criminals if they had lost World War II.

Perhaps most critically, Morris’ lengthy career has taught him the importance of letting a conversation take shape naturally and without imposing too many preconceived ideas.

“Things happen in interviews that I could never plan for,” he says, referencing moments from The B-Side where Dorfman examines some of her older photographs.

“I think I follow ideas as they lead me, I don’t think I have a plan. Of course there are things I want to cover and have brought out in the interview, but I have always been surprised that somehow if I shut up and let people talk they will take me where I want to go. … Why that happens, I don’t know, maybe it’s part of my art, but it’s much better when ideas emerge naturally in the course of a conversation rather than are imposed.”

Going into an interview with an open mind and no set agenda was also essential in the making of The Thin Blue Line. When Morris interviewed the principal eyewitness who got his protagonist, Randall Adams, convicted and sentenced to death, he was astounded by the implausible story she told him:

“She told this wild, cockamamie story that I could never have known enough to ask her. In fact, when she started telling me this story I didn’t know enough about it whether to believe her or disbelieve her, but I sat and listened. In the course of that interview she told me things that showed she had committed perjury at this man’s trial, and led to his conviction in Texas being reversed.”

As he continues to work on new projects, including an upcoming Netflix series, Morris remains committed to that sensation of “nailing down the now” that has allowed his documentaries to stand the test of time.

“People ask me, ‘How can you make something that looks spontaneous happen on film?’ And I say, ‘Well, the best way to make something look spontaneous is to make it spontaneous.’ In fact, I think it’s the only way.”

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Morris’s The Thin Blue Line was made in 1998. It was made in 1988.