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Interview: Errol Morris on Standard Operating Procedure

He’s endlessly alert and inquisitive behind the camera, a unique combination of detective, storyteller and philosopher.

Interview: Errol Morris on Standard Operating Procedure

Midway through Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’s searching, unsettling examination of the infamous photographs taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, an investigation is described as rigorously “factual, [with] no emotion or politics.” Although Morris himself spent time as an investigator, the description doesn’t really fit his work as a documentarian; whether pondering a pet cemetery, questioning a convicted murderer’s guilt, or looking through the fog of war, his pictures challenge documentary definitions of “fact” and “fiction” and invariably invite strong reactions. No matter how volatile or mundane his subject, he is endlessly alert and inquisitive behind the camera, a unique combination of detective, storyteller and philosopher. I caught up with Morris at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival, where he received the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award and attended the Bay Area premiere of his latest film.

You mentioned at the screening yesterday that you never bring prepared questions to your interviews. I’m not as good yet, so bear with my notes for a second.

Errol Morris: [laughs]

Was Standard Operating Procedure inspired by the way these photographs were received by the media?

Of course. I believe that the pictures have served as both exposé and cover-up. That they have pointed us away from the overall abuses that went on in the prison, and focused our attention, inappropriately, I believe, on the “bad apples.” And their story, turning them back into people, is a very important story. They’ve been used essentially as scapegoats. I don’t see them as lily-white or as morally uncompromised by any of this, but they certainly are not the people who deserve the lion’s share of responsibility.

With exceptions like not being able to talk to [former U.S. Army reservist] Charles Graner, did you have trouble securing any of the interviews?

There’s always trouble, there are always difficulties. [The subjects] have been humiliated, dishonorably discharged. People think they know Abu Ghraib, and there’s a suspicion on their part about anyone who wants to tell the story differently. I’d like to think that I was doing something different, that I was telling their stories. I was able to convince them on that basis.

For the most part, we never hear your questions.

No, I edit them out.

Yet we hear, significantly, you asking whether any of the events did “seem weird” to the soldiers. It’s one of the only times an outside element enters this subjective reality.

Well, I don’t want to have my voice there that much, but I like to have it there occasionally. It’s all editorial choices.

But your presence is always felt: in the music, the graphics, the distinctive placement of the camera, the reenactments. Do you get complaints from documentary purists?

I do. But I actually don’t really care about documentary purists. To me what makes a documentary “pure” or “impure” is whether the person is trying to uncover truths. The fact that they use various different cinematic techniques in pursuit of truth is more or less irrelevant. Style isn’t about truth. Style is about style. And I make movies, proudly so. Whatever I do to put a movie together is, I think, fair game. If I were to make a badly constructed movie, it wouldn’t make it any more truthful.

When you first started directing, did you see your pictures as a reaction against conventional documentary language?

I did. From the very beginning. It’s really interesting to me, because I went through this 20 years ago with The Thin Blue Line. Now people say the reenactments there were okay, but they are not okay here. I think this is crazy talk. The reenactments in Standard Operating Procedure are very much like the ones in The Thin Blue Line. Hopefully it won’t take another 20 years for this film to be seen in a different context. They’re not reenactments. It’s my fault, really: bad choice of words. They’re illustrations of ideas, material that comes out of interviews. I don’t have a very specific, reenacted scene, but rather moments, details caught in ultra slow motion.

Your films have always been debated from different sides.

Oh, yes.

Even early films like Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida are experienced very differently. Some people feel you’re being condescending of your subjects, others detect genuine fondness for them.

That’s gone away, and been replaced by new criticism. The criticism I would hear again and again and again would be that the attitude I had about the people in Vernon and Gates of Heaven was unconscionable. That puzzled me. I often thought, well, both movies are funny, and the fact that people find them funny embarrasses them. They don’t like laughing, they think it’s a guilty pleasure and hence would like to blame me for it. But I like [the] people in [my] movies. I absolutely love all those people, and have no desire to condescend to them. They’re no different from you or me, and I felt grateful that they gave me their time and attention. Albert Bitterling, the old guy on the bench with the jewel [in Vernon, Florida] is one of my very, very favorite characters ever. I adore his first line: “Reality. You mean, this is the real world? I never thought of that.”

It’s almost kind of a big-city critic thing. They hear an accent that’s different from theirs, and “condescending” is trotted out.

Maybe, maybe.

I was struck by the layered notions you found in many of the Abu Ghraib photographs. The infamous snapshot of Lynndie England holding the Iraqi prisoner on a leash, we learn, was orchestrated by Charles Graner, who’s behind the camera. We see a man humiliating another culture through a woman.

I think it’s a really complex picture. It keeps coming back to me, and maybe that’s some grotesque oversimplification on my part, but I see that picture as a picture of American foreign policy. What in the hell are we doing in Iraq? It changes. It changes every day. First, it’s “shock and awe,” we’re gonna show Saddam who’s the boss. Then we’re gonna devote the entire resources of this country to find Saddam and his sons and killing them. That’s our entire foreign policy, and what the rest of the world thinks be damned. Now, the arguments are whether we’re winning the war or not. People have stopped arguing whether the war is even appropriate. “Are we winning?” General X says we’re winning, General Y says we’re not winning. I don’t care whether we’re winning! We’re destroying both countries, we’re not making the world safer, we’re taking our gross national product and pouring it down a rat hole.

And discussion of the photographed evidence was mostly centered on the individuals, rather than on the system that got them there.

Correct. People love blaming people. They don’t like blaming themselves, they don’t like seeing themselves as in any way responsible. I think Bush loved the “bad apples,” because they gave him someone to blame for the failure of the war. “The war is going south because of all these guys, and their damn pictures!” The pictures have served such an extraordinarily propagandistic purpose for the war, it’s frightening and disturbing.

Once blame is assigned, we hardly hear of the pictures or the prisoners anymore. Do we suffer from bad memory?

I think we do. I’m no stranger to despair, but this is a very, very bad time for this country. People hope that in January it will be over with a new administration taking over, that we can go back to business as if nothing had happened. Maybe that will happen, I don’t know. But I think certain things have changed for the worse, like this American willingness to tacitly accept certain kinds of things, this willingness to tolerate certain kinds of things. We have smoking guns everywhere pointing at this administration, and yet there doesn’t seem to be any resolve to really do anything about that. That’s scary.

You’re bringing the issue back into the arena.

That’s the essential purpose, to make people think of the cost of war on people. Remember that the ones involved in this scandal are people; these are kids who’ve been sent to war. They had no way out, they were in the military surrounded by a world in chaos. It’s a sad and disturbing story. I don’t see any other way to describe it, but I think it’s worth looking at them as people.

The putting-a-human-face-on-monsters idea.

Absolutely.

I read that you have always been interested in making a film about Ed Gein.

Yes, maybe I should do that next. I should stop making documentaries for a while. They’re too difficult. [laughs]

How so?

The investigative part. The years of cajoling people to talk to you, getting them to come in for interviews. The struggle to turn a real story into drama is always intricate. Reality doesn’t obey the rules of drama.

Why this fascination with murderers? You told me you used to attend their trials before making films.

Maybe I like pariahs. I’ve taken to calling my last three movies the “Pariah Trilogy.” There’s Fred Leuchter [in Mr. Death], Robert McNamara [in The Fog of War], and now Lynndie England. The “villains.” I don’t think they’re villains at all, they’re endlessly fascinating people.

Bill Weber in the Slant review very interestingly referenced Blowup in the way photographs here can obfuscate as much as they can illuminate. Do you think the movie camera has similar contradictions?

No difference whatsoever between them. [Pause] Everything should be viewed with a certain level of skepticism. I’m not some kind of oracle. I get things wrong, I become as confused as the next guy. But I am trying to use the camera to make sense of this story. Several people have said there’s irony here, that I’m using images to question the validity of images. But that’s no different from using print to question the validity of print. It’s something you can do, and you should do—a way of burrowing in, of looking at things.

Speaking of looking, the Interrotron [the teleprompter-like apparatus Morris has devised so that interviewees can gaze straight at the camera] boils down to looking at your subjects in the eye, doesn’t it?

That’s absolutely correct.

Tell me a bit about your blog for The New York Times.

It’s very interesting, because I’ve had writer’s block for a long time. [laughs] I never thought I could write anything, and out of nowhere someone from the Times called me last summer and asked me if I’d like to write about photography. I said I didn’t know if I could write on a regular basis, and they said to give it a try, see how I’d do. I had a difficult time writing the first one, but it got a good response. I started writing my story about these photographs during the Crimean War, quite a long three-part essay. I thought, “No one is going to comment on these,” but in fact there were thousands of comments that came in. I’ve enjoyed it. It allows me to address things I can’t do in the movies.

Along the same lines, what do you think of the availability of information and pictures to people on the Internet?

I think it’s fantastic. It’s got its upsides and downsides, but in balance it’s a wonderful thing. I can have the resources of the British Library in a laptop on my desk. That’s extraordinary. I can be talking to someone like you, or to the kinds of journalists who might not be able to report years ago. You can conduct your interview here in San Francisco, and be read in Calcutta. In the old way, I’d put a movie out and wait for a couple of reviewers around the country, The New York Times or The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times to write about it. Now there are thousands of people writing about it, analyzing it through their own eyes. Amazing. That’s a true populist revolution.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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