Errol Morris

Errol Morris

The early life of Errol Mark Morris seemed as eccentric and fascinating as some of his documentary subjects. Born in Hewlett, NY, Morris' father died when he was two years old. His mother, a Julliard graduate, supported him and his brother by working as a music teacher. An aunt, whom Morris would later describe as "somewhat demented," frequently took him to Saturday matinee screenings of horror movies, which terrified him. His chief pursuits as a teenager were obsessive reading, watching television, and playing the cello, which he studied in France for a summer under the legendary composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger. After graduating from the Putney School in Vermont, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, from which he earned a degree in history in 1969. For a while, Morris worked in a variety of odd jobs, including cable television salesman, before returning to academia to pursue a graduate degree. He gained entry into Princeton to study science history, a subject with which he was entirely unfamiliar, and soon grew bored with the curriculum. The University of California, Berkeley proved equally unsatisfying, and Morris spent most of his time sneaking into screenings at the Pacific Film Archive, where he developed a passion for obscure film noir.In 1975, while conducting interviews for a proposed documentary on Ed Gein, the Wisconsin killer, cannibal and grave robber whose crimes inspired Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960) and "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1974), Morris became acquainted with fellow filmmaker Werner Herzog. When the Gein documentary ran aground, Herzog provided Morris with the funding to start a new feature; this time about the residents of the small Florida town of Vernon, whose residents had discovered a unique way to defraud insurance companies for hefty settlements: they deliberately amputated their own limbs. Morris began filming the project, but death threats from the community forced to him to abandon his plan. After reading a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle about a large number of dead pets that were destined for a pet cemetery in the Napa Valley region, Morris once again picked up his camera and began examining the lives of societal fringe dwellers. His coverage of a family that operated a memorial park for deceased pets became "Gates of Heaven" (1978), his first documentary to see a theatrical release. Its premiere was marked by Werner Herzog consuming his own shoe - later the subject of its own documentary, Les Blank's "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe" (1980) - to settle a bet that Morris would not complete the film. Despite excellent reviews, the film did not secure a release until 1981. During this period, Morris returned frequently to Vernon, where he completed his second documentary, "Vernon, FL" (1981), which focused on the unusual residents of the town, including an obsessed turkey hunter and a preacher who moonlighted as a carpenter. The project, along with "Gates of Heaven," helped to establish Morris as a unique voice in the documentary feature world. His approach was decidedly unobtrusive and free of opinion or issue; viewers could decide for themselves whether they regarded his subjects as eccentrics or people whose occupations and interests lay outside societal norms. Despite critical praise for both films, Morris found it difficult to gain funding for other films. For the next six years, he worked on a number of dramatic feature scripts and pitches for documentaries, but all went unsold. To support himself, Morris worked as a private investigator for an agency that specialized in Wall Street cases.In 1985, Morris became interested in the 1976 murder of a Texas policeman that resulted in a life sentence for the defendant, Randall Dale Adams. Morris became acquainted with Adams, who insisted that he was innocent, and began a three-year process of investigating the truth behind the case. In doing so, he uncovered not only mountains of contradictory statements regarding Adams' guilt, but also the identity of the real killer, which resulted in Adams' conviction being overturned in 1989. The resulting film, "The Thin Blue Line" (1988) stood apart from other documentaries through its blend of interviews, often conducted in Morris' signature style of the subject speaking directly to the camera, and re-enactments of significant events, as well as a hypnotic score by avant-garde composer Philip Glass. A major critical and box office hit upon its release, "The Thin Blue Line" helped to establish Morris as one of the leading figures in American documentary film, and pioneered the use of re-creations in documentaries in film and on television. It also generated controversy when it was excluded from the nominations for Best Documentary Film due to it being marketed as "nonfiction."After earning a Macarthur Fellowship in 1989, Morris made a brief stab at storytelling with "The Dark Wind" (1991), an adaptation of Tony Hillerman's mystery novel about Navajo Tribal Police investigating a murder. Produced by Robert Redford, the film was held up by its studio, Carolco, for two years, and eventually saw a release with little to no fanfare. Morris then returned to documentary features for "A Brief History of Time" (1994), a biography of scientist Stephen Hawking that struggled to encompass the sheer breadth of its subject's vast knowledge into a feature-length film. He rebounded with "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" (1997), a fascinating look at the lives of four men with extraordinary careers, including a robot scientist, a topiary gardener and a lion tamer. Using found footage from documentaries, cartoons and obscure films, Morris challenged the notion that consumer products and, in turn, people's lives had to adhere to principles of usefulness, reliance and affordability. The film also marked the debut of the "Interrotron," a teleprompter-like device of his own creation that, when mounted onto a camera, displayed an image of Morris to the subject so that a face to face interview could be conducted without the director himself being present in the scene. The device lent a degree of intimacy to Morris' work that was often missing from talking-head scenes in other documentaries.In 1999, Morris directed one of his most controversial features, "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.," which followed the tragic career path of its subject, a self-made expert on methods of capital punishment whose single-minded beliefs on execution led to a stunning declaration that Nazi concentration camps did not use poison gas during the Holocaust. Upon its release, many viewers for allegedly supporting Holocaust denial condemned "Mr. Death," but in interviews, Morris explained that the purpose of the film was to explore how a person could arrive at such a conclusion, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.During this period, Morris produced and directed "First Person" (PBS, 2000), a series of short documentaries on unusual subjects, ranging from Temple Grandin, the autistic animal science doctor and animal rights activist whose life was the subject of an eponymous biopic (HBO, 2010), to a serial killer groupie, giant squid authority and a bar bouncer with the world's highest IQ. He also began a lucrative and award-winning second career as a commercial director for dozens of companies, including an Emmy-winning spot for PBS and numerous campaigns for Apple, Miller High Life, Toyota and other corporations. In 2002, his advertising résumé earned him a commission from the Academy Awards to create a short film for the 75th telecast in which interviewees ranging from First Lady Laura Bush to Walter Cronkite and Iggy Pop discuss their favorite films and the power of motion pictures.In 2003, Morris directed "The Fog of War," a profile of former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, that focused on his involvement in the Vietnam War. Largely regarded as the architect of that conflict, Morris' film sought to find the truth behind that perception while exploring McNamara's wealth of experience and role in decisions that helped to shape the course of American history for over a half century. "The Fog of War" netted Morris a long-overdue Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and solidified his status as one of the leading voices in documentary filmmaking. Morris returned to commercials in 2004 with a series of ads for John Kerry's presidential campaign that featured Republicans and former George W. Bush loyalists who were voting for Kerry. The spots were met with considerable resistance from broadcasters and networks, and only a few were actually shown on television. In 2007, he shot another short film for the 79th Annual Academy Awards, this time on the various nominees and their experiences with the ceremony. That same year, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.In 2008, Morris won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for "Standard Operating Procedures," a documentary about cases of torture and abuse of prisoners by U.S. military police at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The film sought to explore the truth behind the notorious photos, which depicted soldiers reveling in the degradation of Iraqi prisoners, to determine whether they were truly the culprits or part of a larger conspiracy at hand. He followed this with a somewhat lighter feature, "Tabloid" (2010), which examined the bizarre story of former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney, who allegedly abducted and sexually abused a young Mormon missionary in 1977. The film, which was featured at several major festivals in 2010 and 2011, was highlighted by appearances at screenings by McKinney herself, who often vocally lambasted the film for damaging her reputation. In 2011, Morris released Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, a collection of essays written for The New York Times website.