Errol Morris

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Errol Morris
Born February 5, 1948 (1948-02-05) (age 61)
Known for Director

Errol Morris (born February 5, 1948) is an American Academy Award winning documentary film director. In 2003 The Guardian listed him as number seven in their list of the world's 40 best directors.


[edit] Biography

[edit] Early life and education

Morris was born in Hewlett, New York on February 5, 1948. When he was two years old, Morris' father died of a heart attack. His mother, a Juilliard graduate, supported Morris and his brothers as a music teacher. In the 10th grade, Morris enrolled at the Putney School, a boarding school in Vermont. He began playing the cello, spending a summer in France studying music under the acclaimed Nadia Boulanger, who was the principal teacher of Philip Glass, who would eventually score The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, and The Fog of War. Describing Morris as a teenager, Mark Singer wrote that he "read with a passion the forty-odd Oz books, watched a lot of television, and on a regular basis went with a doting but not quite right maiden aunt ("I guess you'd have to say that Aunt Roz was somewhat demented") to Saturday matinées, where he saw such films as This Island Earth and Creature from the Black Lagoon — horror movies that, viewed again thirty years later, still seem scary to him."[1]

As an undergrad Morris attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduating in 1969 with a B.A. in history. For a brief time Morris held small jobs, first as a cable television salesman and then as a term-paper writer. His unorthodox approach to applying for grad school included, "trying to get accepted at different graduate schools just by showing up on their doorstep." Having unsuccessfully approached both the University of Oxford and Harvard University, Morris was able to talk his way into Princeton University, where he began studying the history of science, a topic in which he had "absolutely no background." His concentration was on the history of physics, and he was bored and unsuccessful in the prerequisite physics classes he had to take. This, together with his antagonistic relationship with his advisor ("'You won't even look through my telescope.' And his response was 'Errol, it's not a telescope, it's a kaleidoscope.'"[1]) ensured that his stay at Princeton would be short. He left Princeton in 1972, enrolling at Berkeley as a Ph.D. student in philosophy. At Berkeley Morris once again found that he was not well-suited for his subject. "Berkeley was just a world of pedants. It was truly shocking. I spent two or three years in the philosophy program. I have very bad feelings about it," he later said.[1] He became a regular at the Pacific Film Archive, as Tom Luddy, the director of the archive at the time, later remembered: "He was a film noir nut. He claimed we weren't showing the real film noir. So I challenged him to write the program notes. Then, there was his habit of sneaking into the films and denying that he was sneaking in. I told him if he was sneaking in he should at least admit he was doing it."[1]

Losing interest in his studies, Morris visited Plainfield, Wisconsin in 1975. While in Wisconsin, he conducted multiple interviews with Ed Gein, the infamous serial killer who was a resident at Mendota State Hospital in Madison. He later made plans with German director Werner Herzog, whom Tom Luddy had introduced to Morris, to return in the summer of 1975 to secretly open the grave of Gein's mother to test their theory that Gein himself had already dug her up. Herzog arrived on schedule, but Morris had second thoughts and was not there. Herzog did not open the grave. Morris later returned to Plainfield, this time staying for almost a year, conducting hundreds of hours of interviews. Although he had plans to either write a book or make a film (which he would call Digging up the Past), Morris never completed his Ed Gein project. In the fall of 1976, Werner Herzog visited Plainfield again, this time to use the scenery for some shots in his film Stroszek. After the shooting finished, Herzog handed Morris an envelope full of cash. Morris walked over to the motel window and tossed the envelope out the window into a parking lot. Herzog went out to the parking lot and brought the money back, again offering it to Morris, saying, "Please don't do that again."[1] Morris accepted the $2,000 and used it to take a trip to Vernon, Florida. Vernon was nicknamed Nub City because its residents participated in a particularly morbid form of insurance fraud where they deliberately amputate a limb in order to collect the insurance money. "In the hierarchy of nubbiedom, the supremely rewarding self-sacrifice was the loss of a right leg and a left arm, because, so the theory went, 'afterward, you could still write your name and still have a foot to press the gas pedal of your Cadillac.'"[1] Morris' second documentary would be about the town and bear its name, although it makes no mention of Vernon, Florida as Nub City, but instead explores other idiosyncrasies of the town's residents. Morris made this omission because of the death threats he received while doing research; the town's residents were afraid that Morris would reveal their secret.

After spending two weeks in Vernon, Morris returned to Berkeley and began working on a fictional script that he called Nub City. After a few unproductive months, he happened to read a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle that read, "450 DEAD PETS GOING TO NAPA VALLEY". Morris left for Napa Valley and began working on the film that would become his first feature, Gates of Heaven. In 1978 when the film premiered, Werner Herzog cooked and publicly ate his shoe, an event later incorporated into a short documentary by Les Blank. Herzog had promised to eat his shoe if Morris completed the project, to challenge and encourage Morris, whom Herzog perceived as incapable of following up on the projects he conceived. At the public shoe-eating, Herzog suggested that he hoped the act would serve to encourage anyone having difficulty bringing a project to fruition.

[edit] Early career as a film-maker

Gates of Heaven was given a limited release in the spring of 1981. Critic Roger Ebert was and remains today a champion of the film, including it on his top ten best films list. Morris returned to Vernon in 1979 and again in 1980, renting a house in town and conducting interviews with the town's citizens. Vernon, FL premiered at the 1981 New York Film Festival. Newsweek called it, "a film as odd and mysterious as its subjects, and quite unforgettable." The film, like Gates of Heaven, suffered from poor distribution. It was released on video in 1987, and DVD in 2005.

After finishing Vernon, FL, Morris tried unsuccessfully to get funding for a variety of projects. There was Road, a story about an interstate-highway in Minnesota; a project about Robert Golka, the creator of laser-induced fireballs in Utah; and the story of Centralia, PA, the coal town in which an "inextinguishable subterranean fire" ignited in 1962. He eventually got funding in 1983 to write a script about John and Jim Pardue, a pair of Missouri bank robbers who had killed their father and grandmother and robbed five banks. Morris' pitch went, "The great bank-robbery sprees always take place at a time when something is going wrong in the country. Bonnie and Clyde were apolitical, but it's impossible to imagine them without the Depression as a back-drop. The Pardue brothers were apolitical, but it's impossible to imagine them without Vietnam." Morris wanted Tom Waits and Mickey Rourke to play the brothers, and he wrote the script, but the project eventually failed. Morris worked on writing scripts for various other projects, including a pair of ill-fated Stephen King adaptations.

In 1984 he married Julia Sheehan, whom he had met in Wisconsin while researching Ed Gein and other serial killers. Morris would later recall an early conversation with Julia: "I was talking to a mass murderer but I was thinking of you," he said, and instantly regretted it, afraid that it might not have sounded as affectionate as he had wished. But Julia was actually flattered: "I thought, really, that was one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me. It was hard to go out with other guys after that."

In 1985, Morris became interested in Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist in Dallas. Under Texas law, the death penalty can only be issued if the jury is convinced that the defendant is not only guilty, but will commit further violent crimes in the future if he is not put to death. Grigson had spent 15 years testifying for such cases, and he almost invariably gave the same damning testimony, often saying that it is "one hundred per cent certain" that the defendant would kill again.[2] This led to Grigson being nicknamed "Dr. Death".[3] Through Grigson, Morris would meet the subject of his next film, 36 year-old Randall Dale Adams.[4]

Adams was serving a life sentence that had been commuted from a death sentence on a legal technicality for the 1976 murder of Robert Wood, a Dallas police officer. Adams told Morris that he had been framed, and that David Harris, who was present at the time of the murder and was the principal witness for the prosecution, had in fact killed Wood. Morris began researching the case because it related to Dr. Grigson; he was at first unconvinced of Adams' innocence. After reading the transcripts of the trial and meeting David Harris at a bar, however, Morris was no longer so sure.

At the time, Morris had been making a living as a private investigator for a well-known private detective agency that specialized in Wall Street cases. Bringing together his talents as an investigator and his obsessions with murder, narration and epistemology, Morris went to work on the case in earnest. Unedited interviews in which the prosecution's witnesses systematically contradicted themselves were used as testimony in Adams' 1986 habeas corpus hearing to determine if he would receive a new trial. David Harris famously confessed, in a roundabout manner, to killing Wood. Although Adams was finally found innocent after years of being processed by the legal system, the judge in the habeas corpus hearing officially stated that, "much could be said about those videotape interviews, but nothing that would have any bearing on the matter before this court." Regardless, The Thin Blue Line, as Morris' film would be called, was popularly accepted as the main force behind getting its subject, Randall Adams, out of prison.

According to a survey by The Washington Post, The Thin Blue Line made dozens of critics' top ten lists for 1988, more than any other film that year. It won the documentary of the year award from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. Despite its widespread acclaim, it was not nominated for an Oscar, which created a small scandal regarding the nomination practices of the Academy. The Academy cited the film's genre of "non-fiction", arguing that it was not actually a documentary. The Thin Blue Line is to this day one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries ever made.

[edit] The Interrotron

The Interrotron is a device similar to a teleprompter: Errol and his subject each sit facing a camera. The image of each person's face is then projected onto the lens of the other's camera. Instead of looking at a blank lens, then, both Morris and his subject are looking directly at a human face. (Diagram) Morris believes that the machine encourages monologue in the interview process, while also encouraging the interviewees to "express themselves to camera".[5]

The name "Interrotron" was coined by Morris's wife, who, according to Morris, "liked the name because it combined two important concepts — terror and interview."[6]

[edit] First Person

Morris used this process to film his critically acclaimed television show, First Person (2000). The show engaged a varied group of individuals from civil advocates to criminals. Both Rick Rosner and Chris Langan possessed extremely high IQs.

Season 1
  1. "Stairway to Heaven" — Temple Grandin, autistic college professor and expert on humane cattle slaughter techniques
  2. "The Killer Inside Me" — Sondra London, serial killer groupie and writer
  3. "I Dismember Mama" — Saul Kent, promoter of cryogenic immortality
  4. "The Stalker" — Bill Kinsley, employer and victim of a disgruntled postal worker
  5. "The Parrot" — Jane Gill, victim of a murder with a possible avian eye-witness
  6. "Eyeball to Eyeball" — Clyde Roper, authority on the giant squid
  7. "Smiling in a Jar" — Gretchen Worden, director of the Mütter Museum of medical oddities in Philadelphia
  8. "In the Kingdom of the Unabomber" — Gary Greenberg, Unabomber pen pal and would-be biographer
  9. "Mr. Debt" — Andrew Capoccia, whiz lawyer for credit-card debtors
  10. "You're Soaking In It" — Joan Dougherty, crime scene cleaner
  11. "The Little Gray Man" — Antonio Mendez, retired CIA operative and master of disguise
Season 2
  1. "Harvesting Me" — Josh Harris, internet entrepreneur (We Live in Public) and Television addict
  2. "The Smartest Man in the World" — Chris Langan, bar bouncer with the alleged world's highest IQ
  3. "The Only Truth" — Murray Richman, lawyer to New York mobsters
  4. "One in a Million Trillion" — Rick Rosner, professional high school student and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? contestant
  5. "Mr. Personality" — Dr. Michael Stone, forensic pathologist and homicide aficionado, host of Most Evil
  6. "Leaving the Earth" — Denny Fitch, DC-10 pilot and hero

[edit] Commercials

Although Morris has achieved fame as a documentary filmmaker, he is also an accomplished director of television commercials. In 2002, Morris directed a series of television ads for Apple Computer as part of a popular "Switch" campaign. The commercials featured ex-Windows users discussing their various bad experiences that motivated their own personal switches to Macintosh. One commercial in the series, starring a high-school friend of his son Hamilton Morris, named Ellen Feiss, became an Internet fad. Morris has directed hundreds of commercials for various companies and products, including Adidas, AIG, Cisco Systems, Citibank, Kimberly-Clark's Depend brand, Levi's, Miller High Life, Nike, PBS, The Quaker Oats Company, Southern Comfort, Toyota and Volkswagen. Many of these commercials are available on his website.

In 2002, Morris was commissioned to make a short film for the 75th Academy Awards. He was hired based on his advertising resume, not his career as a director of feature-length documentaries. Those interviewed ranged from Laura Bush to Iggy Pop to Kenneth Arrow to Morris's 15 year old son Hamilton Morris . Morris was nominated for an Emmy for this short film. He considered editing this footage into a feature length film, focusing specifically on Donald Trump discussing Citizen Kane (This segment was later released on the second issue of Wholphin). Morris went on to make a second short for the 79th Academy Awards in 2007, this time interviewing the various nominees and asking them about their Oscar experiences.

In July 2004, Morris directed another series of commercials in the style of the "Switch" ads. This campaign featured Republicans who voted for Bush in the 2000 election giving their personal reasons for voting for Kerry in 2004. Upon completing more than 50 commercials, Morris had difficulty getting them on the air. Eventually the liberal advocacy group MoveOn PAC paid to air a few of the commercials. Morris eventually wrote an editorial for the New York Times discussing the commercials and Kerry's losing campaign.

In the fall of 2004, Morris also directed a series of noteworthy commercials for Sharp Electronics. The commercials enigmatically depicted various scenes from what appeared to be a short narrative that climaxed with a car crashing into a swimming pool. Each commercial showed a slightly different perspective on the events, and each ended with a cryptic weblink. The weblink was to a fake webpage advertising a prize offered to anyone who could discover the secret location of some valuable urns. It was in fact an alternate reality game. The original commercials can be found on Morris' website.

[edit] Filmography

[edit] Awards

[edit] References

[edit] External links

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