Errol Morris is considered by many to be America’s greatest documentary filmmaker. He won an Oscar for “The Fog of War” (2003), his portrait of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and “The Thin Blue Line” (1988) got a wrongly convicted man off death row.
His new film, “Standard Operating Procedure,” is a grueling, in-depth study of the outrage and aftereffects of the notorious Abu Ghraib torture photos. Morris talked about his film and his career on a recent visit to Minneapolis.
Standard Operating Procedure
Javal Davis, Megan Ambuhl, Sabrina Harman, Lynndie England, Roman Krol, General Janis Karpinski, Jeremy Sivitz, Ken Davis, Zhubin Rahbar
(Sony Pictures Classics; 2008)
There’s probably more concern with artistically composed visuals in your films than most documentaries. Why is the look so important to you?
I’m a filmmaker. Why wouldn’t it be important? It has nothing to do with fiction versus nonfiction it has to do with filmmaking versus non-filmmaking. I would like to be remembered as a person who made movies and created a different kind of look from anything you will see elsewhere, drama, documentary or otherwise. When I listen to interviews sometimes a line will leap out at me and I try to bring it to the audience’s attention. In writing I would use italics. Here it’s expressionistic lighting or a drop of blood falling in ultra slo-mo. When someone tells me a story I think about the story in visual terms.
What role does politics play in your filmmaking?
“The Thin Blue Line” was political in a broad sense in that I was trying to affect change, trying to right what I was convinced was a terrible miscarriage of justice. Certainly these last two are not normally what you would think of as political films but they are. The issue in this and in “Fog of War” is, are we doomed to war? A real question. In the face of the preponderance of evidence I would say, yes. This is a war that I have trouble understanding but I am convinced it is doing very bad things to the country. Independent of the merits of the war, the effect is has had has been bad.
Do you begin with a predetermined structure for your films or do you discover it in the process?
I have a predetermined structure but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work. I had so many disagreements with my editors over this movie. Endless debates, arguments, discussions in the editing room. It’s always a mistake to follow a strict chronological order because chronology doesn’t obey the dictates of drama.
This had a kind of “Heart of Darkness” structure to it, going down the river deeper and deeper into some nightmare. That is the essence of the story, Sabrina (Hartman, who took hundreds of pictures, and was convicted in military court of mistreating prisoners) sees the (prisoner) with panties on his head in the stress position, stripped naked.
And what are you supposed to do when you see this? Are you instantly supposed to become a conscientious objector? You’re a specialist in the military. And then things just go from bad to worse in a way that is completely surreal. And you’re part of it. Often a willing part of it. Which makes it even stranger. It’s a compelling story for me and the best way to tell it was going through those photographs in a time line.
What was it like constructing a documentary film around a collection of still photographs?
These are some of the most amazing stills ever taken. Under another set of circumstances, Sabrina Hartman would have won a Pulitzer Prize for photography rather than a year in federal prison.
Even before you were a filmmaker, you were interviewing people, including the Wisconsin mass murderer Ed Gein. What was your experience like?
It was at the very beginning of my interest with interviews. The early `70s. I actually went to Plainfield, lived with Ed Gein’s neighbors, talked with Ed Gein, became for the better part of a year completely obsessed with the case. At that time he was at Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, Wis. I still have the interviews after all these many years. He was quiet, soft-spoken. I would go so far as to say sweet. Perverse. Ironic. We never spoke directly about the murders, which may be of some disappointment to people. But we talked about a lot of stuff. His obsession with Freud. I want to make a movie about Ed Gein. In fact I was talking about it with (film composer) Danny Elfman not so long ago. I could see it happening. Everyone’s interested in Ed Gein.