Feel Bad Inc: Errol Morris on true crime, real horror and ridiculous habits

Spy vs. spy: crime writer David Cornwell (John le Carré) with his interrogator, documentarian Errol Morris.
Spy vs. spy: crime writer David Cornwell (John le Carré) with his interrogator, documentarian Errol Morris.

As Errol Morris releases his latest documentary The Pigeon Tunnel, which dissects the mind of John Le Carré, Ella Kemp flips the script and quizzes the filmmaker on his favorite movies—and all the things he hates about cinema, too.

This story was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike, in accordance with the DGA contract ratified with AMPTP in June 2023. Without the labor of writers and actors currently on strike, many of the films covered on Journal wouldn’t exist.

I usually watch movies to be horrified by some way. There’s nothing like a movie to horrify a person.

—⁠Errol Morris

Search the words Errol Morris across Letterboxd reviews and a pattern emerges. “Errol Morris is the man,” says one member. “Errol Morris is Goated,” writes another. “Errol Morris, the god,” “Errol Morris YOU SMART,” “Errol Morris DIGS DEEEEEP.” It doesn’t hugely matter which title these reviews are for, because there are entries like these for all of the documentarian’s titles—here is a filmmaker who has dedicated his life’s work to uncovering brutal truths, work that essentially invented the true crime genre with The Thin Blue Line, and remains at the forefront of every one of his investigations. “Errol Morris is the homie,” indeed.

For his latest film, The Pigeon Tunnel, Morris turns his eye to David John Moore Cornwell, better known to the world as espionage author John le Carré. It’s revelatory for its insight into its subject, of course, but Morris never fades from view. “Damn these two make for such an interesting pair,” writes Rory on Letterboxd. “Love Morris’ interviewing/reenactment style, definitely because of its overblown, constructed nature.”

In a four-star review, Jon praises the documentarian’s craft, writing: “I have always loved Morris’ slickness. I will always be obsessed with the way he captures his subjects with such grandeur and wit.” And, as a useful lead-in to my own questioning, Alexander sets things up nicely: “Hard to tell who has the greater contempt: John Le Carré for Errol Morris, or Errol Morris for his audience.”

I meet Morris at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The filmmaker is sharp as a tack, furious when I double-check if he’s feeling good before the camera crew surrounding us cue me up to introduce myself—half an hour later, he’s happy to answer the question of whether he’s feeling good enough. Morris has seen it all in the near-five decades he’s been exploring the workings of pet cemeteries, police investigations, serial killers, physicists and beloved authors alike.

His patience is—or appears to be—wearing thin, but Morris still has the grace to humor me through our Life in Film questionnaire, and flip the script on this tired but desperately more optimistic Jew about the very reasons we go to the movies. I promise we both crack at least one smile, each.

 Legendary documentarian Errol Morris at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. — Credit… Ella Kemp
 Legendary documentarian Errol Morris at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Credit… Ella Kemp

Can you think of the first movie that made you want to become a filmmaker?
Errol Morris: Psycho. I think I was underage, I had to steal into the theater in order to see it. Psycho was and remains a masterpiece.

Hitchcock was one of the first filmmakers we studied at film school. Another filmmaker you’ve had a close relationship with, beloved by the Letterboxd community, is Werner Herzog. Could you speak to his work and personality in the way he makes movies?
The first ten or eleven movies that Werner made are his best work. I was immediately attracted to them. Years ago, I programmed movies at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California, which was then run by Tom Luddy, who started the Telluride Film Festival. He died this last year very sadly, he was a close friend of mine. I met Werner through him. Tom championed the New German Cinema, and as a result, he had all of these directors who came to the archive, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog among them. I met Werner years and years and years ago. Tom programmed all of his first films.

Which of Herzog’s films moved and surprised you when seeing them for the first time?
Land of Darkness and Silence, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek… these are the early films that he did. And The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner. There’s a whole mess of them.

You’ve championed many filmmakers working today, including Nathan Fielder and John Wilson. Who are some other filmmaker peers who embolden you or give you hope?
The Act of Killing was a very important movie to me, which along with Werner I was involved in the production alongside Joshua Oppenheimer. I’m sort of hidden away in my own corner now, more or less. But I still like movies. I still amaze myself and still have the need to make them.

When you’re watching them, which is the one movie you rewatch when you need to re-center yourself and feel good, when everything else in the world is not?
Psycho is really interesting in so many aspects of my life because I became obsessed with the underlying story, which involves a killer named Ed Gein. Years ago, I spent a lot of time interviewing killers. I remember my mother saying to me once, “Can’t you spend more time with people your own age?” I said, “Mom, the killers are my own age.” With Werner and his producer Walter Saxer, we went to see Ed Kemper, who became quite a well-known mass-murderer.

Ed Gein was not just the subject matter of Psycho, but it fascinated me—maybe it’s the beginning of my love of investigations. I am making a feature film about it now as we speak, so it’s on my mind.

When you’re not making movies, because you spend a lot of time leading the investigations, are you able to enjoy watching fictional investigative and crime movies?
I love noir. I programmed it at the PFA. I was asked my favorite films and the first one I picked was Out of the Past, that’s a crime story. It has one of my favorite investigative lines. Robert Mitchum says, “I could see the frame but I still couldn't see the picture.”

When you’re not wrestling with investigations and crime, I have to bring up another person we spoke to recently. Last night, David Byrne told us he watches documentaries before bedtime because it helps him calm down. Do you have a specific…
Yeah, Shoah?

Does Shoah help him calm down?

We’ll take him at his word. Do you have a specific type of movie that helps you unwind?
No, that seems ridiculous.

Thin blue light: David Cornwell (John le Carré) sits for more investigative Morris magic.
Thin blue light: David Cornwell (John le Carré) sits for more investigative Morris magic.

That’s also fair enough. Let’s move on to something more personal: I’ve found, since working in movies in the last few years, there have been a lot of movies that have helped me see myself as a Jewish person on screen. It’s not my entire personality, but it’s part of it. And it feels good.
Where do you come from?

I’m from London, but my family are from Poland, Hungary, Russia on one side, and Morocco, Spain and Italy on the other.
Diverse. And I’m a Jew from Long Island.

Oh, I know. This is why we had to do this. Do you have any movies where it feels good to maybe see the folks on screen looking back at you?
I remember when I went to see a producer called Lindsay Law, who created American Playhouse. Without Lindsay there would have been no Thin Blue Line. He found the money so that I could do the visual material that made up a good part of the movie. I came into his office—he had created Searchlight Pictures at Fox—there was a poster of The Thin Blue Line behind his desk. I said, “Did you just put that up because I was coming in?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s right, every director I put their movie behind my desk before they come in to talk to me.” I said, “I’m sure you’ve had a lot of feel-good directors coming in. But how about a feel-bad director?”

I don’t watch movies to feel good, to have a better night’s sleep. I usually watch movies to be horrified by some way. There’s nothing like a movie to horrify a person. You like a Bar Mitzvah movie? What do you think of The Zone of Interest before bedtime?

I saw The Zone of Interest in Cannes and it’s one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen. But I haven’t rewatched it yet because it did ruin my day in an incredible way.
How did it ruin your day?

I felt shattered and quite upset afterwards. It’s amazing, because we’ve seen many movies about that time in history and the things that happened, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Have you seen Shoah?

I haven’t yet, for similar reasons. I need to prepare myself mentally—you and I watch movies in a different way.

Have you seen The Zone of Interest? What did you think of it?
I thought it was great.

When you’ve seen a distressing movie, are you able to switch off and carry on with your day?
It's nothing I have to switch off from. I'm already in that mode.

“It seems to be the ultimate movie about the banality of evil.” —Errol Morris on The Zone of Interest.
“It seems to be the ultimate movie about the banality of evil.” —Errol Morris on The Zone of Interest.

There’s so much love for you and your movies on Letterboxd. I’d love to know how often you think about your audience—who may have been following your movies over the years and admire them.
It’s inevitable to think about the audience. As a filmmaker, you want to make things people want to watch. Otherwise it seems too terribly hopeless.

Some filmmakers have told us they make movies for their own catharsis. They hope people see it, but that it’s secondary to that personal experience. Would you agree?
No, not really. I mean, I don’t know why I make movies. It’s some kind of compulsion. But you want people to see them, to like them or appreciate them in some way that is similar to the reason that you may have intended them to be seen by others.

How do you feel about the younger wave of cinephiles today who are so passionate about movies, and who might be engaging in a different way? They’re on the internet and they obsessively go to the movies and rewatch their favorite things. How much do you think about that generation?
Things have changed so much during my lifetime. Growing up, there wasn’t the choice of seeing any movie you wanted to see. Or most movies you wanted to see. I had the good fortune to go to the University of Wisconsin, which was the recipient of all these movies. They had all Warner Brothers film and RKO. You could go to a room and thread up a [Kodak] Pageant projector with 16 millimeter film and programme your own film festival. So I did.

What did you programme?
I loved William Wellman. There may have been 30 William Wellman films done at Warner Brothers in the 1930s and I saw every single one of them, probably multiple times. And then there was the Pacific Film Archive where I could see movies and programme movies and see things over and over again. Today, of course, everything is different. You can just dig up copies of, maybe not every film, but a lot of it.

Tom Neal in Detour (1945), beloved for its dark and despairing nature.
Tom Neal in Detour (1945), beloved for its dark and despairing nature.

Are you still much of a rewatcher today? How often will you revisit something you love?
It goes in waves. I started rewatching Psycho, because I’m making a movie about Ed Gein. I rewatched Out of the Past, I’m not even sure why I rewatched it. It’s a movie I watch again and again and again. I was asked about my favorite movies and I didn’t even mention Detour, one of the most despairing dark movies. See, you seem to have this category: “Movies that will help get me a good night’s sleep.” That’s never been a category for me.

That’s all good, everyone has their own categories—you watch what you need to watch. We just wouldn’t often go to the movies together. Can you remember the last time you were in a movie theater watching a recent release that really impressed you?
It was The Zone of Interest at Telluride.

What was the atmosphere like in the room?
I wasn’t really thinking about the room so much as what was on the screen. I had a number of discussions about the movie after the fact. Several people thought that it was quite amazing in terms of production, but didn’t really say anything new. It seems to be the ultimate movie about the banality of evil. I was overwhelmed by the sound design and the music—Mica Levi is one of my heroes—and the acting. The sound effects were perhaps the most impressive thing of all.

I’m glad you bring up Mica Levi because I adore their work. Have you seen a film called Monos from a few years ago?
No, I know of it but I haven’t seen it.

That could be common ground for us, because it didn’t make me feel good but it’s unbelievable. Mica Levi did the score and it’s incredible.
I’ll see it for that reason alone.

I’m not sure if you can find it on the big screen, it used to be on Netflix. I’d love to know how it plays at home. How do you feel about that phenomenon? When something has played amazingly in a theater and then the only option is a smaller screen.
I really don’t care. The first time I watched Giant, I watched it on a two-and-a-half-inch black and white TV screen. It’s never played quite as well since then.

Do you watch movies on planes?

Is that where you draw the line?
It’s not even a line, it’s just usually the offerings are awful.

When I flew to Toronto from London I was fascinated that most of the movies you could watch were huge action franchises—every Lord of the Rings movie, every John Wick movie.
See, I’m not going to do that.

Right, me neither. And you could watch Interstellar, Tenet, Dunkirk
I actually hate those movies. I still have no desire to see Oppenheimer. I read the underlying book years ago. I’d like to see Barbie though.

Hi, Errol!
Hi, Errol!

If I may recommend you see it in a movie theater…
Well, I don’t even have a choice.

You will have such a nice time. Although I’m not sure you’ll enjoy it, because Barbie makes you feel good…
When anybody tells me about a bittersweet romantic comedy, I tell them my argument against bittersweet.

What’s your argument against bittersweet?
Why not just bitter? Where do you get the sweet from? What’s that about?

True, we live in the world we live in. But you should see Barbie. I hope you love it.
I have a feeling I will.

The Pigeon Tunnelis now streaming globally on Apple TV+.

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