Since releasing his first movie, “Gates of Heaven,” in 1978, about two pet cemeteries in California, Errol Morris has directed eleven feature-length documentaries, one unhappy collaboration with Robert Redford called “The Dark Wind,” and several short films and TV series, including the recent Netflix show “Wormwood,” a hybrid of documentary and fiction, about the suspicious death of a C.I.A. scientist. He has also directed more than a thousand commercials. “The Thin Blue Line,” his investigation into the killing of a Texas police officer, which was released in 1988, led to the release from prison of a man named Randall Adams, who had been wrongly convicted of the crime.
This week, theatres will start showing “American Dharma,” Morris’s movie about Steve Bannon, the former political strategist for Donald Trump. It premièred at festivals more than a year ago and quickly became the subject of contentious debate. “When the Bannon film first came out, I thought that was going to be the end of me, that this was my swan song,” Morris told me. Several of his recent films—including “The Fog of War” and “The Unknown Known,” which are about the former Defense Secretaries Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, respectively—are based on long interviews with a single subject. “American Dharma” draws on around sixteen hours of interviews with Bannon, and dramatizes his rise and his world view with footage from his favorite movies, including the war film “Twelve O’Clock High” and “Chimes at Midnight,” the Orson Welles movie adapted from several of Shakespeare’s plays, which centers on the character of Falstaff.
I recently spoke with Morris for several hours in his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife, Julia Sheehan, and their French bulldog, Ivan. He is at work on a project with his son, Hamilton Morris, about Timothy Leary, and on a docuseries about a well-known British writer whom he asked me not to name. His office was full of books and assorted knickknacks; I sat near a taxidermied penguin, a gift to Morris from Sheehan (“Say it with taxidermy, not with flowers,” Morris quipped), and the head of a chimpanzee, which I recognized as Morris’s avatar on Twitter. Morris tweets often but doesn’t follow anyone on the platform. “Why would I want to do that?” he said.
A few days after the interview, I followed up with him, more briefly, on the phone. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.
Your company is called Fourth Floor Productions, but we’re on the second floor.
I used to have an office in midtown Manhattan. Fifty-third Street and Broadway, in the Ed Sullivan Theatre building, which was really, for all intents and purposes, an abandoned building. Occasionally, they would rent it out to second- and third-rate telethons.
So you had the fourth floor?
No. I had the third floor. Maybe everything that I do is based on misdirection. And maybe some level of irony, hopefully.
This is going to run online, with a short introduction, followed by an edited transcript—questions, answers, questions.
The whole question-and-answer format, to me, really misrepresents what’s going on. First of all, I think all questions are more or less rhetorical questions. No one wants their questions answered. They just want to state their question. And, in answering the question, the person never wants to answer the question. They just want to talk.
I used to work, years ago, as a private detective. My boss, who has become one of the most successful detectives in the world, Jimmy Mintz, once defined for me a perfect interview. For him, in the perfect interview, you learn everything about the person you’re talking to and they learn nothing about you.
I got a lot of this with “American Dharma.” “You”—this was the accusation, you being me—“didn’t ask the difficult questions. You were a candy ass. You let him off the hook. You gave him a pass. Not only weren’t you tough enough, you were a patsy.”
Do you think that criticism had something to do with the expectations that people have for interviews?
Yes, I do. There is one model—I suppose it’s the pugilistic model, for want of a better description. You’re involved in some kind of a boxing match. How many punches did you land? How many punches did you take? When you took a punch, did you come right back with another punch? It’s about the interview as a form of theatrics.
You didn’t ask me, so I’ll ask myself: What is your favorite moment in any interview that you’ve done? And I have a clear favorite. It would be my interview with Emily Miller, in “The Thin Blue Line.” If I had to point to any one piece of information that led to Randall Adams’s release from prison, it would be information collected in that interview. But the most powerful and revealing things that Miller said to me didn’t come in response to any question, because I didn’t know enough to even frame those questions.
I would say it comes down to creating a situation where people want to talk to you. It has nothing to do with strategy, calculation. I’d say it has more to do with a kind of openness, a willingness to listen, which I have a hard time doing. I sometimes think that I have interviewed people simply because I have such a hard time listening to anybody, and this is a way of enforced, regimented listening.
Emily Miller was a witness for the prosecution in the Adams case. The moment that you’re talking about—is that when she talks about murders happening wherever she goes?
“Everywhere I go, there’s murders. Even around my house.” Which is a really great line. It’s really absurd. Presumably false. Everywhere I go, there’s no murders. There are certainly no murders in my house. You’re being given a glimpse inside of a personality that tells you something unexpected.
But the real moment was—I had gotten access to a lot of the district attorney’s files on the Randall Adams case. And there were documents missing. At some point, I think I remember correctly, Emily Miller started making excuses for why she had failed to pick out Randall Adams in the lineup. It was obviously something that had been bothering her. She was defensive about it. I didn’t say, “Why did you fail to pick out Randall Adams in a lineup?” She volunteered the reasons for why she had failed to pick him out. Having forgotten, because so much time had elapsed since the trial, that she had testified to the exact opposite.
And I asked her, perhaps innocuously, “How do you know you failed to pick him out?” And she said, “I know. I know because the policeman I was sitting next to told me I picked out the wrong person, and then pointed out the right person, so I would not make that mistake ever again.”
It didn’t come out of some real or imagined interrogation. It came out of happenstance, or because I was there and I was a sympathetic interlocutor. I was a sympathetic person willing to listen to her story.
There’s a character that’s always fascinated me, Hanns Scharff. Scharff was the greatest of the Nazi interrogators. So you think, Aha! Nazi interrogator? Horribly brutal, no doubt. No: Mr. Nice Guy. He bonded with the people that he was interrogating. In fact, he immigrated to the United States and became a maker of mosaics at Disney World, in Florida. The world is, of course, insane.
So, what about people telling me that I had not asked the difficult questions? I got this almost immediately. The day before my movie premièred at the Venice Film Festival, David Remnick disinvited Steve Bannon from the New Yorker Festival. All of a sudden, people were talking about deplatforming this, deplatforming that, disallowing pernicious speech of one form or another. And I was repeatedly attacked for what I had failed to deliver. I see the task at hand really differently, for better or for worse. I didn’t think it was about difficult questions at all. I thought it was about finding a way in.
What if you had asked a difficult question once you were in?
I think I did ask a number of so-called difficult questions. I’ve seen probably thirty or forty interviews with Steve Bannon, and they’re all the same. He’s evasive. He avoids answering a question. Often it becomes an extended filibuster of one kind or another. And if that’s what you want, if that’s what, really, the job requires, I guess I’m the wrong person.
There’s a moment in “American Dharma” when Bannon takes you to task for having voted for Hillary Clinton, and you seem sympathetic to his critique.
I was, and I am, sympathetic. My son was really angry with me because I voted for Hillary in the Massachusetts primary. Why didn’t I vote for Bernie? My simple answer is I didn’t think Bernie was electable and I thought she was, which, I think, in retrospect, is a bad answer.
But you tell Bannon that you voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary because you were afraid of him, and Donald Trump.
I was afraid of those people. Still I’m afraid of them. Really afraid. If you’re not afraid of them, you’re not really paying attention.
Bannon looks like he’s scored a point.
Maybe he even has, I don’t know. If you see some gigantic scorecard. It’s really not about point-scoring. Sorry.
In other interviews you’ve talked about not being interested in “confessions” from your subjects. The moment when you talked about voting for Clinton, it felt like you were confessing something.
It’s true. I mean, I was expressing my embarrassment. But it wasn’t made clear. It’s the embarrassment for not voting for Bernie. My producer, who was an ardent Hillary supporter, said, “You have to take that out. That’s wrong. You should not be embarrassed for voting for Hillary.”
But even if you are embarrassed—
Why confess it to him? Why not? I think one of the things that people really hate is that I’ve given him a kind of authority. Say that Bannon is laying down a bullshit narrative that, of course, puts Bannon at the center of his narrative. It’s the heroic Bannon. And instead of challenging this bullshit view—this would be the argument—I endorse it. I endorse it by cozying up to him in various ways. I endorse it by exhibiting my self-loathing, which, by the way, I have a harder and harder time of hiding, because it’s there in everything I do. Actually, it gives me a much clearer understanding of the hatred of my being embarrassed for voting for Hillary. I remember something raw about the whole experience of sitting there in front of him.
But here’s why you may hate me even more. It’s that I do buy into this bullshit. I buy into Bannon’s belief that he was the kingmaker. I don’t think people want to give him that.
What did you feel when you learned that he had loved “The Fog of War,” your film on the former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara?
I had no idea Bannon became a documentary filmmaker because of me. Which is just crazy. Really crazy. I thought, Oh, fuck, am I the cause of everything? Will I be blamed? I thought it was absurd. I find Bannon absurd, as well as frightening. Here is a guy presenting himself as a populist, who really is a product—regardless of his middle-class background—of the élites. Harvard Business School, et al. And the beneficiary of money from right-wing billionaires. And I didn’t confront him, but it’s not about confrontation. It’s about elucidation.
But Bannon, and how he’s perceived in the world, has a real human cost.
I would say, if you’ve looked at Robert McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld, two people who I have also profiled, the number of people who died because of them is well in excess of Steve Bannon.
But it’s understandable that audiences would care a lot about how you portray him. And that, if the portrayal seems inadequate, they’d be mad at you.
I guess so! My movies work in odd ways, even for me. Why listen to Bannon’s speech about dharma, duty, destiny? One question that I would ask myself, and I assume that other people watching the film asked themselves, is, to what extent is this bullshit? To what extent are we listening to a snake-oil salesman? This is his sales pitch. Or is he a true believer? Which is a legitimate and, I think, an important question. If my role is simply to tell people, “Hey, this is a bad guy—let’s all have a kind of collective church service, where we pray together against the terrible Trump infidels. . . . ”
I had this exchange with Bannon that I’m fond of, and I keep thinking about it because I learned something. I called Trump the fuck-you President, because I think that captures what’s going on. A lot of people have been deprived of saying “fuck you” to their employers, or their families, or their communities. Here’s someone who is willing to help them out. Fuck you to foreign policy. Fuck you to the Constitution. Just go fuck yourself. And there is something at the heart of Bannon that captures that. I think it’s important to understand that, when we see Bannon on the day of the second debate, ushering in the women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct, he has this shit-eating grin on his face.
That’s a moment where I think the film hits its stride. Bannon speaks gleefully about the choreography around that moment, when Bill Clinton’s accusers show up around Trump. And you dig up the archival footage of Bannon in the corner of the room, sort of standing off to the side, where he’s easy to miss. Pulling the strings, I suppose.
Yes. Rubbing his hands together, gleefully, like some kind of cut-rate Mephistopheles. And it’s powerful for me because cheap shit works. I mean, that’s the ugly truth.
You wanted to make commercials for Hillary Clinton.
I did. I offered my services repeatedly. Part of it was to create material with her where she would present herself in a less formulaic, mechanical fashion, to tease out some kind of humanity from the candidate. You do these things, maybe they don’t work. Then you don’t show them. You look at it and say, “This was not as good as we expected. Go fuck yourself, Mr. Morris.” Which is fine! But to not make the effort? Well, remind me, I believe the results of that election were not to her benefit.
You wish you’d had a crack at it.
Of course I do. I mean, I’m an American. I’m an American Jew. I actually believe in this country, although I’m not sure what it is that I believe in anymore. I made the movie because I thought this was a way of encouraging some kind of discussion and debate and awareness of what had happened in 2016. Silly me.
You made a commercial about Theranos, the company that Elizabeth Holmes founded. It turned out that the company was built on the lie that it could take a few droplets of blood and test it for a couple hundred diseases. Alex Gibney made a film about it. Is there something about truth to be learned from that?
I have directed over a thousand commercials. I’ve turned down commercials. I most recently turned down commercials for Juul. I was offered close to a million dollars to direct Juul commercials. I didn’t want to be mixed up with it. I’ve consistently turned down military advertising, because I don’t want to be responsible for convincing some poor son of a bitch to get their face blown off in Iraq or Afghanistan. I don’t feel comfortable doing it. Do I vet every single company that I do commercials for? No, I do not.
Elizabeth Holmes is someone whom I actually liked. She is a charismatic and compelling figure. It’s one of the reasons why, for a while, Theranos was a success. So I asked to do this. I asked to interview Elizabeth, which I did. I also did a whole series of what I call phlebotomy horror stories, which I loved doing. I’m afraid of needles.
I haven’t seen the Alex Gibney film, nor do I want to see it. I was asked to participate in it; I refused repeatedly. The stories that are told about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos now have taken a predictable pattern. If the job of making these kinds of films is demonizing the subject, because everybody has decided that they should be demonized, then are you doing your job? Are you piling on? Are you pandering? What exactly are you doing?
To me, what really is interesting about Elizabeth—given that I have much more knowledge now than when I was doing these prospective ads for Theranos—did she really see herself as a fraud? Did she see herself like Bannon, with the Clinton accusers coming into the room, rubbing her hands together? Was it calculation? I have a hard time squaring that with my own experience. Could I have been self-deceived, delusional? You betcha. I’m no different than the next guy. I’d like to think I’m a little different. But I’m still fascinated by her.
You know, it goes back to Plato’s Protagoras. No person does evil thinking they’re doing evil. First they construe it as the good. I wanted to do a movie about Elizabeth Holmes right after the commercial. And I wanted to, even after she got into terrible trouble. Let me try to be clear about this, because I think it’s a danger area: it’s not that I wanted to become an apologist for Elizabeth Holmes, or was riddled with guilt for having done these commercials. No, it’s because I became interested. Who is this woman?
Did it add interest that you were taken in, for a moment?
Sure. Well, of course. Why wouldn’t it? Was I taken in? Did I become a true believer? Yeah, of course, it added interest. But it wasn’t the kind of interest, like, How could you have done this, Errol? I know why I do commercials. I have this office here. I have six people working for me. My movies don’t pay the freight. And I don’t want to make excuses for myself, ’cause I kind of like making commercials. Maybe it’s truly evil in and of itself.
I wanted to ask you about dramatic irony, where the audience realizes something that the subject isn’t aware of. There are many moments like that in your films about McNamara and Rumsfeld, when we start to see them with a complexity that they might not see themselves. I think that’s part of what is special about those films.
Well, that’s a nice thing to say.
There weren’t many moments like that in “American Dharma,” I felt. Moments when we see Bannon in a light that he can’t see himself.
I would disagree. Can I disagree strenuously? When I was away at school as a teen-ager, in Vermont, my mother had come up to visit and we were talking. My classmates couldn’t understand what we were saying. Not because of the Long Island accents but because my mother was one of the most ironic people I’ve ever met. And I always thought that my theory of language came from my mother, in good measure—that, when someone says something, sometimes they mean the opposite. There’s something about language that really does fascinate me. You think that it’s a vehicle for communication, but it really isn’t. It’s a vehicle for obfuscation, elision, confusion.
To me, “American Dharma” includes some of the most ironic things that I’ve ever put on film. Because what are Bannon and I really talking about? We watch these movies together. We’re in the “Twelve O’Clock High” Quonset hut. My favorite example is “Chimes at Midnight.” And there is Orson Welles as Falstaff, and Falstaff is grovelling for Henry V. He’s banished. And what does Bannon see? Bannon sees a fulfillment of destiny. Hal has become King of England! He has become Henry V. He’s fulfilled his dharma! He’s fulfilled his duty, his destiny! Falstaff has done his job. Congratulations, Sir John Falstaff! You did your job. And Bannon sees Falstaff’s face radiating happiness.
I don’t see that. Call me an idiot, or maybe call me someone who can’t appreciate adequately the intricacies of Shakespeare. I see that scene as deeply sad, deeply tragic. I don’t see it as a fulfillment of dharma, of destiny. I see it as abject rejection. And Falstaff sentenced to a world of obloquy. Call it a kind of Rorschach test. Because movies are inkblots of one kind or another, as are books. Maybe it’s all just one gigantic inkblot.
I think Bannon knows that he casts himself as a hero, even in this comparison to Shakespeare’s play, in which Falstaff is not a hero. He finds a way to make the narrative about himself, and to make his narrative triumphant. And I wonder whether juxtaposing that film, and his story of himself, is indulging that narrative.
It may. I mean, this is interesting. I’m not sure I disagree with you. But I’m not sure I agree with you, either. I find it incredibly ironic. For Bannon, there’s a nothing there. Once you take on “dharma, duty, destiny,” it explains everything. You no longer have to think about anything. You no longer have to think about the morality of what you’re doing. You can stand in that room with that shit-eating grin on your face, ushering in the Clinton accusers. You can do anything.
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Before you were making films, you played the cello.
I still am playing the cello.
How did you start?
My mother was an extraordinary musician, a graduate of Juilliard, in piano. My father died when I was two. I have no memory of my father. My mother wanted me to be a doctor, like my father. And I’d say, “I don’t want to be a doctor and like my father. I don’t know my father. I’d like to be like you. I’d like to be an artist.”
I always think that, if I could live up to who my mother was, then I would have done something. My mother is very much an inspiration. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother playing the piano, and my sitting next to her, turning pages. It was one of my great pleasures as a child.
Was she religious?
I believe yes, although that can mean so many different things. My mother’s first language was Yiddish. I never knew her mother and father. They must have been extraordinary. But certainly my mother had a sense of tragedy in life. My father died at forty-three, of a massive heart attack. My brother died at the age of forty, of a massive heart attack. My brother was roughly six years older than myself, and brilliant, brilliant in his own way.
Even more than an accomplished pianist, my mother was an accomplished sight-reader. I’ve never, ever, ever seen anybody who had her sight-reading abilities. In the last years of her life, when she had macular degeneration, it was sad because she could never sight-read in that same way that she could when I was a child.
The last day of her life, she went downstairs and she played Czerny, which she knew by heart. Czerny, “Exercises.” I’ll never be as good a musician as she was.
Was there something about music that trained your ear, as you started to make films?
I’m sure. You could see it as a form of music-making. I still love music. I wish I was practicing more. I think my whole life has been dominated by feeling like I’m a fraud of some kind, or deeply dishonest, and I think it comes out of music, in a way—that I can never really develop a kind of mastery of music.
Was filmmaking a backup option for you?
Everything is a backup option for me. I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. I graduated in 1969. I was twenty, twenty-one years old. I was in graduate school in Princeton, and then at Berkeley. I was in trouble in various different graduate schools. I admire these people that just went through school effortlessly. When I went to Berkeley, I started interviewing murderers. And then I went back to Wisconsin, and continued interviewing murders. I don’t understand myself very well.
Ed Gein was the famous “Psycho” killer, arrested in Plainfield, Wisconsin, in 1957. A kind of American fable, if you like, and I really, really wanted to meet Ed Gein. I remember lying to people about how I had met him, when I hadn’t. And then I thought to myself, why lie about meeting him when you can actually meet Ed Gein?
I got in to see Ed, finally, because I had these letters of introduction from various forensic psychiatrists at Berkeley School of Criminology. The head of the hospital, Dr. Schubert, was probably as nuts as Ed Gein. I ask him if there’s any truth to the claims that Ed was a cannibal. He seems insulted, he says absolutely not. I asked Ed about this very issue, and he told me that, although he had tasted human flesh many times, that he didn’t like it.
See, I live for this kind of thing. It confirms some kind of satisfying idea about the world that the world is really fucked. It’s really insane. Our heads are such foreign countries. Such strange, uncharted territories. And it’s fun. It’s fun for me to talk to geniuses, it’s fun for me to talk to monsters. I think I felt less like a fraud when I interviewed them.
I had this theory. No one liked it at Berkeley; I still think it’s really interesting. You might call it a prefiguration of the Bannon movie. I noticed, at that time, that we use “insanity” in two different ways. We talk about insane acts and insane people. So what do we mean when we talk about insane acts? It was epistemic, I guess—what we were saying is that the act was deeply inscrutable to us. That we couldn’t really come up with any satisfactory interpretation.
Were your early films contemplating this?
I don’t know how I would describe “Gates of Heaven.” I mean, I stopped all of this work that I did in Wisconsin. “Gates of Heaven” just came out of despair. I’d been thrown out of all of these graduate schools. I had no career, no real options available to me. I’d tried to make a film, it was a first attempt at making a film. I don’t know what’s ever become of that material.
I don’t know if it was ever clear to me that I was going to make an interview film. I knew—and this has stayed with me—that I had this deep distrust, bordering on a hatred, of how documentary was defined. Documentary interested me, filmmaking interested me, but there was a strong contrarian impulse. Maybe that’s what attracts me to Steve Bannon. The fuck-you impulse.
After you directed “The Thin Blue Line,” which was in part about the misconduct of police, you worked on a fiction film about Native American cops. Can we talk about “The Dark Wind”?
No. Well, we could. But, uh, I have nothing good to say about it.
I’m curious whether there was this moment when you could have become a Hollywood director.
Maybe I just didn’t have it in me, or didn’t want to. I’m not a good person for bureaucracies. Hollywood is like graduate school. You know, it contains a whole set of rules for how you’re supposed to conduct yourself and how you’re supposed to act. The combination of me and Robert Redford was horrifying.
People hired me to do it. That’s how those things happen. It wasn’t some kind of plan. I kind of liked the Tony Hillerman novels that the film was based on. I thought the novel that was picked was the worst one, for a whole number of reasons. Actually, because it involved drug running, it was really not about indigenous culture. I love the Hopi. I love that whole area of the world. And I was lucky to spend some time there.
But I had no control over what I was doing. It’s like I was there as some kind of fall guy. Big, big, big, big error. And someone asked me, “Why did you do it?” I said, “I did it for the same reason anybody does anything in Hollywood. Because of vanity and greed.” I thought I could make a really great movie. But, under those circumstances, there was no chance of that. It was horrifying. I almost gave up filmmaking. I thought, if this is what filmmaking is about, I don’t want to have anything whatsoever to do with it ever again.
I started making “A Brief History of Time” almost right away. I was, again, a director for hire. I’m not a great director for hire. You know, if you’re thinking of hiring me to do your bar-mitzvah video, think twice. Money was raised through Amblin Entertainment, and the money was forthcoming because Spielberg had put his name on it. When he saw a cut of the movie, he took his name off of it, saying it was not even suitable for public television. The fact that I am still working—it’s kind of amazing.
Do you like “A Brief History of Time”? I’m fond of it.
I do like it. That, too, is a really perverse and interesting film. I went over to Cambridge, England, to what’s called damtp, the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, to meet Stephen Hawking for the first time. And I’m reading his book on the plane, and I thought, Oh, my God. This book has just been misdescribed. They think that this book is a primer on general relativity and cosmology. It most certainly is not. It’s a thinly disguised autobiography. The writer is making these comparisons, connections between his science and his biography. And to tell a story based on this book is to capture that.
Hawking was very much against my making a movie that contained his biography. So this became a point of contention. I argued it with him. This went on and on and on, although we became quite friendly. He had dinner at our house three, four times. He saw the first finished version of it at the old C.A.A., in Beverly Hills. He came out of the theatre, and the first thing he said to me was, “Thank you for making my mother a star.”
It actually was lovely. Hawking’s mother was just fabulous. The film could have been better. There’s a line that was taken out of it that’s always bothered me. I’m always bothered by omissions. There was a psychiatrist who was a friend of the Hawking family. Near the very end of the film, she’s talking about the family, those pictures of the Hawking children on the beach. She said, “It’s always about time, isn’t it?” I’ve always missed it.
Hawking had just moved out on his wife, Jane. She wouldn’t talk to me. I went to their house, and there was a cello there. One of the children played, and they made me play for them. I hadn’t been practicing. They had the music for the Fauré “Elegy,” and I did a bad job. I always said that if I had done a better job maybe I could have gotten her to agree to an interview.
I heard that McNamara was at your house and he fell.
That’s correct. He came over for dinner a number of times. He had gotten up from the table, fallen, and hit his head on a footstool in our living room. And started bleeding. How old was McNamara at the time? Eighty-seven, eighty-eight? And we wanted to take him to the emergency room immediately. We were—I wouldn’t say hysterical, but we were really worried. And my wife joked later that, forty years previously, if we had killed Robert S. McNamara, we would have all been heroes. He was reviled. He was hated. And here we were, incredibly worried that he’s O.K., because we’ve come to like him.
You were among those who hated him years before, right?
I demonstrated against him. I demonstrated against the war in Vietnam as a student. Did I hate him? I don’t know, I hate so many people. I don’t think I hated Robert McNamara.
When did you realize that you could make a film that was based on interviews with only one person?
I did a series called “First Person,” which was one person telling a story. And it worked. It all comes out of some dark, contrarian impulse. The documentary police tell you that documentary should be made in a certain way. You should have lightweight cameras, handheld, available light. You should be a fly on the wall. You shouldn’t in any way try to orchestrate what you’re shooting. You should simply be there as a neutral, distant observer. I still hate the whole idea of what documentary is supposed to be. I hate it. Did I say I hate it? I hate it!
So “Gates of Heaven” was breaking all of those rules. The camera was always on a tripod. If people were not looking directly into the lens, they were looking close to it. The idea, before I had the Interrotron, was to create what I call the first person, someone talking directly to the people watching the interview. I would put my head against the lens of the camera, and if you know where to look you can see the side of my head. Breaking all the rules. Although, one of my beloved characters in “Vernon, Florida,” my philosopher in the swamp, Albert Bitterling—he said to me, “Errol, you know, you don’t break the rules. The rules break you.”
So I was doing “First Person,” and we had enough money to shoot one more interview. And I had always wanted to talk to Robert McNamara. I didn’t think he would agree to an interview. He almost cancelled. He had talked to various colleagues who said it was a big mistake to talk to me. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And at the end of this long, long diatribe, he said, “But I said I’d do it, so I’ll do it. I’ll give you five, ten minutes.” When I told my friend Ron Rosenbaum this story, he said, “Oh, yeah, I know that story. That’s the story of Vietnam.”
The ten minutes was extended to hours. Then he asked if he could come back the next day, because he liked talking to me. And I said, “Yes, please come back.” And then he gave me a homework assignment: “You edit this. And if I like it, I’ll come back and I’ll do more. And if I don’t like it, you’ll put it on the shelf and it will never see the light of day.” And I agreed.
So you played him an edited version of the first day?
The first two days.
And you passed the test.
I passed. He liked it. And then I adopted that same technique with Rumsfeld.
I’m hearing the voices of editors in my ear saying, “You can’t show your subject the thing you’ve made until it’s published.” I’m curious if that rule matters at all to you. Not because it’s “how it’s done” but because it affects how the person is portrayed. It maybe makes them look better.
I mean, there’s a thousand things to worry about about everything. The worry is you show somebody something and, if they don’t like it, they won’t go on. There’s also the worry that it will make them more self-conscious. I usually don’t do it. But in this case I had to do it. And when the time came to deal with Donald Rumsfeld, I told him that I had had this deal with McNamara. And I said, “Look, we can sit down and we can have lawyers go over a contract and this movie will never happen. I’d like to do the same thing I did with Robert McNamara. We’ll do two days of interviews and I will edit it. And if you like it, we’ll go on.”
So you actually suggested it that time, as a way of getting around the lawyering.
Yes. As a way of just getting on with it.
Did you do the same thing for Bannon?
It was the same sort of thing—that I would send him a twenty-minute cut. He liked it. He admired me, he admired my filmmaking, and he was predisposed to like what I did. Not that I had to pander to him in any way.
Did you worry that you might?
No. Well, I suppose I always worry about it. But, no, I did not worry. That’s what comes as such a surprise in some of the reactions to the film. The suggestion that I was pandering to him. But Bannon never had a problem. Bannon, for whatever reason, trusted me. Or maybe he was so desirous of publicity that he didn’t really care one way or the other.
When we were making “American Dharma,” we went looking for an airstrip—an old airstrip that would double for “Twelve O’Clock High.” And we find this abandoned airfield. It’s ridiculous. On that site they had built a set for a movie about the Boston Marathon bombers. They had done a piece of Watertown, a street. That was sitting out there, in a state of just deliquescing. And I thought, We should use this. I kept thinking of the Inaugural Address, which Stephen Miller and Bannon wrote. Even though they may claim Trump wrote it.
I liked the idea of it being the “American carnage” speech, knowing that Bannon had written it, and walking in that kind of abandoned set. He loved walking through the set.
Was that O.K. with you, that he loved it?
Was it O.K. with me? I wanted to shoot it. The fact that he was willing to shoot it didn’t mean that I didn’t want to shoot it anymore. I still like the scene. I still think it’s this nightmare. The whole thing is a kind of nightmare, an American nightmare.
When I watched the Rumsfeld and McNamara films, I felt you were revealing to me something they didn’t want me to see. I felt that much less often when I watched “American Dharma.”
I don’t know if there’s anything that Bannon doesn’t want you to see. I mean, he’s an attention hog. Bannon struck me as insane. I mean, you could just simply say that he’s an evil guy, but, when you say someone’s an evil guy, what have you really, ultimately explained? Nothing. Evil is a way of avoiding explanation.
Isn’t saying that he’s insane throwing up your hands in the same way?
Insanity is inscrutability, not being able to lay hands on him. Did I get at the root of it? The heart of it? Maybe not.
Could it be that getting Bannon to be the main source on Bannon just doesn’t work? Could it be that that’s the wrong form for this story?
It could be. But, then, to do the other deal isn’t something that I found particularly interesting.
The talking heads that all contemplate Bannon?
And tell you he’s a bad guy. You know what people are going to say. I think him talking about dharma is interesting. Do you see it as an evasion? Do you think it’s something that he believes?
I think that he comes across as an almost reasonable man in the film.
Really? Maybe he is an almost reasonable man, then.
Does he not come across as an almost reasonable man to you?
No, no, he most certainly doesn’t. I revealed what I thought there was there to reveal. I thought the movies were a way of revealing something. Maybe I’m no less self-deceived than anyone else. I always look for something. I knew he loved movies; that, perhaps, was a way into this kind of crazy Bannon Zeitgeist. Would I make the movie today? I don’t know if I would, actually. It’s the first time I’ve ever tried to enter into something that was like an open wound.
How do you feel?
I feel O.K. I feel worried. I feel like I don’t want to be promoting this movie. I’m tired. I want to write another book. I’m in the middle of writing another book. I want to write my memoirs, too, which are kind of crazy and pathetic and, I think, interesting, and maybe even funny. And I want to go and make something else. I want to go on with it all. I want to return to whatever it is that I do. I want to ply my trade. Moviemaking, for me, is a way of thinking. It’s a way of thinking about the world, and trying to understand the world better.