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59 Minutes With Errol Morris

The documentary filmmaker and amateur tabloid archivist goes Dumpster-diving in his own basement.

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A friend once told Errol Morris that someone should make a movie called The Lost Files of Errol ­Morris. The director quite likes this idea, because those files are the archaeological record of the quixotic journeys of his own mind, and that is ­Morris’s favorite story. Also, they are not lost. They are in the basement of his office in Cambridge, very neat, in hundreds of white cardboard boxes that make the space look like the evidence room on a cop show. He hasn’t been down there in years, and he’s very excited to take the tour again.

“It’s weird down here, I must say,” he says as he lopes his way through the racks of ­boxes bearing giant-font labels like “Alien Abduction,” “Einstein,” and “Lobster Boy.” Surveying the room, Morris is the picture of a sloppy genius. He’s sweet and big and doughy and has a lazy eye. “What kind of dementia produced this kind of material?” he mewls.

The files almost always start when Morris reads what he calls “a tabloid story”—they can appear anywhere, he says, not just in the National Enquirer or the Weekly World News, each of which he has subscribed to for years, but as often on the front page of the Times.Gates of Heaven, which is my first movie, is a tabloid story from the San Francisco Chronicle,” he says, reciting a headline he says he will never forget: “500 Dead Pets Go to Napa.” This past week, the Times published the belated obituary of Randall Dale Adams, the man wrongly convicted of murdering a Dallas police officer in 1977 and freed in 1989 thanks in part to evidence uncovered in Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. His newest project, Tabloid, is a kind of tribute to his obsession and opens next week. It recounts the sordid life of a former Miss Wyoming with an IQ of 168 who may have kidnapped, or perhaps honestly seduced, a Mormon missionary in England in 1977. “It’s a quintessential tabloid story,” he says. “Sex in chains.”

“Good Lord, it’s my past,” Morris says as he leafs through a box filled with folders labeled “Manson Girls” and “Lobotomy.” Many of the boxes are cardboard coffins for movies he pursued for years but couldn’t fund. “The Terrible Story of Jon Brower Minnoch,” he says, pointing to a folder containing newspaper clippings and notes on the world’s fattest man. “I was going to create a kind of postmodern masterpiece because I was going to shoot Minnoch from his POV. You would never see him. But he would be like a force field in the middle of the story.” He is still clearly enamored with the idea. “No takers. No one wanted to pay for that one.” He laughs and shakes his head. He loves this. “No takers,” he says again.

As he looks at the boxes all around the room, Morris goes quiet for long stretches. He really wanted a lot of these to be movies, knows they could have been great. For years, he chased one about a coal fire that has been raging for decades under a town in Pennsylvania, and did a lot of research on spontaneous human combustion for a film he was going to call Ablaze. He remembers in particular an interview with the world’s leading “expert” on the subject, Larry E. Arnold. “He looked at me very much in earnest, at the end of our interview, and said ‘Errol, the important thing to remember about SHC is it’s on the increase.’ ”

Morris doesn’t love the idea that these projects live in his basement in boxes. The boxes represent years of his life, and he knows that time is not coming back; those movies will not be made. But now, quite unexpectedly, he has become a prolific writer for the first time; he has a couple of books under contract and a regular gig writing ranty multipart essays for the Times’ website. His most recent one is about his brother, who may have invented e-mail—Morris is exploring the possibility.

Writing so much, he says, allows him to get more done, and more quickly. If he’d published all of this basement research as magazine stories, it could now fill books and books, he says. “Some day I should actually go through some of this stuff,” he resolves, looking around the room again as we leave. “Good Lord, this is all me. This is who I am.”

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