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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Errol Morris, Documentarian

“I enjoyed the creepiness of it.”

A still from Gates of Heaven.  

The first time someone said something really, really nice about what I was doing, it was Wim Wenders, about a rough cut of Gates of Heaven. There were three people in the audience looking at the rough cut, a double system work print held together with Scotch tape, and it would barely run through the projectors. I asked him what he thought about it, and he said, “It’s obviously a work of genius.” And I thought, Oh! Maybe this is something I might be able to do.

Even before I became a filmmaker, I started interviewing people and recording the interviews on tape, audiotape, and that was something that I really, really liked doing. I would transcribe all my interviews. I would sit and laboriously transcribe everything, and I became fascinated by how people used language or they expressed themselves. I would keep lists of the favorite things that I had heard in interviews. I also developed this technique, the “Shut the fuck up technique.” It’s about listening to people, letting them go on, and I just heard some truly extraordinary things in those days. Maybe I’m lucky — I’ve heard extraordinary things for quite a while now. Love of the sound-bite. It’s like being a fisherman and realizing you could actually catch something.

But I don’t think film ever entered into it until relatively late in the game. I had already been interviewing people all over the place before I ever picked up a camera. I started with murderers and their families. It was a good time for murderers in Northern California, because there were lots of them in the ’70s, mass murderers. It wasn’t hard to get them to talk. Maybe I’m just good at that. Maybe it’s the only thing I’m good at. But you hear things that are memorable. I was interviewing the father of a mass murderer who had just been convicted of ten counts of first-degree murder, and I went to see the father right after the conviction to talk to him about his son and his feelings about these terrible crimes he had committed, and the father scared me, even more than the son, who scared me! He asked me if I was going to see his son, and I said, “Yes, I think I’m going to go and visit him, probably in the next week or so.” And he said to me, “Well, if you see him, can you tell him he better watch it, or he’s going to be in big trouble.” This is the week he’s been convicted of ten murders!

I came to enjoy doing it. I enjoy the creepiness of it. I also liked that I was on my own in some very weird situations. Actually, looking back on it, I was in some pretty dangerous situations! It was like being a detective. And when I started really doing detective work, it was to get money to make a third film. This was between The Thin Blue Line and Vernon, Florida. I got a job as a detective, and it was clear from the beginning, you know, that I’m good at this, and actually, I’m good at it because it’s the same thing I do under other circumstances! Investigation has its own powerful logic. Maybe people are born as investigators, rather than becoming investigators, but it’s the desire to figure things out, to find things out, and it’s always been a part of my filmmaking.

The camera, much to my surprise, helped. This is something that I certainly learned in The Thin Blue Line. You would think that the camera would be an impediment to actually doing an investigation. Who’s going to say anything on film? Most movies, certainly up to that point, would just tell the story of an investigation after the fact. No one was really investigating with a camera, and yet I would take the crew out and we would record these interviews, and things would happen in front of the camera that actually overturned the capital-murder conviction of this man who had come within a couple days of being executed in the Texas electric chair, and led to another murder conviction for the guy who was really responsible.

I suppose The Thin Blue Line was my breakthrough, cracking the case, although I don’t believe cases are really cracked because of one piece of evidence. That’s probably a fantasy about investigations in general and crime investigations. There’s a point in The Thin Blue Line where I felt I had gotten this crucial piece of information. If it alone didn’t lead to the conviction being overturned … It’s probably the most intense feeling I’ve ever had, of being connected to reality, of being connected to truth, of being connected to the answer to a question that’s been vexing you ... I had this woman in front of my camera, Emily Miller, and she was saying crazy things, and I let her talk. I let her ramble on. I knew that in the trial, she had fingered the defendant. She had stood up and said, “That’s the man I saw shooting the Dallas police officer.” Classic eyewitness identification. But in the middle of the interview, she told me why she had failed to pick out the defendant in the police lineup. And to justify her failure, she said, “He was looking at me funny.” And I finally asked her, “Well, how do you know you picked out the wrong person?” And this in itself is like out of a movie. She said, “I know I picked out the wrong person because the police officer standing next to me said that I picked out the wrong person, and then he pointed out the right person, so I wouldn’t make that mistake again.” So Randall Adams was wrongly convicted on false eyewitness testimony. I’m particularly proud of revealing that, because it’s a combination of filmmaking and investigation and God knows what else.

I remember when I was making The Thin Blue Line and I kept thinking about the difference between making that movie and working as a private detective hired by someone else to investigate something for a very specific reason, for a specific period of time. I was investigating for myself, making the movie, and of course I was trying to solve a crime, but I kept thinking, This is pretty frightening, because no one tells you to stop, other than perhaps yourself. And I’m not very good at policing myself. You just continue. You just continue until you bring it to some kind of conclusion. For a long time, I wanted to make a movie about the Jeffrey MacDonald case and didn’t, because no one would give me the money to make such a movie, so I wrote a book about it instead. And that’s of course very, very different from making a movie, but it’s the same idea, trying to bring something to a conclusion. But yes, I love filmmaking. I like to pretend that I don’t, but I do. Making movies, filmmaking, is just a way of exploring. A really fabulous way of exploring.