4 Takeaways from Errol Morris on Making a Documentary About a Controversial Figure
“You didn’t hit him with a cinder block in the middle of the interview!”
Filmmaker Errol Morris has never shied away from controversial subjects and unconventional approaches to them, but his latest film about Steve Bannon has landed him in especially hot water. Did he show too much of alt-righter Steve Bannon? Did he ask too little? And more generally, what do we do, as a culture, with pernicious ideas that threaten to break down democracy?
Sitting down for a conversation during the New York Film Festival, these are a few of the questions that Morris addressed. As an auteur of the documentary field, Morris’ answers did not disappoint. However, Morris himself offered up more questions than he answered, including those about the nature of ideas in film and our society.
American Dharma revolves around scenes from classic movies that Bannon had selected as being influential of his worldview. “People have attacked me for quote-unquote qiving Bannon a platform,” explained Morris in the NYFF conversation before citing the popular dissent of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. “In the marketplace of ideas, good ideas would win out against bad ideas. The truth would win out against falsehood. But the Internet has changed everything, and it's not clear where we end up. One thing is still clear, when you start to censor people, who makes the decision who can speak and who must be silenced? If we are really under a threat to our democracy—and I believe that we are—are we going to resolve this by just turning our back on it and pretending it isn't there? I would respectfully submit that that would not be prudent on our part.”
Watch his full conversation and read our takeaways below to get a sense of what Morris finds important to think about as a filmmaker in these turbulent political times.
1. Interesting material doesn’t come from being adversarial
Errol Morris explained that Bannon had reached out to him about the film because he was a big fan of The Fog of War to which Morris opined, “You can’t choose your fans.” This started him down the path to make American Dharma, which features a selection of films that Bannon considers to be influential. The thematic questions of the film end up being about filmmaking itself. About his approach, Morris described it to the audience as pragmatic.
“Every time I do one of these films [about an ideological opposed subject], and I'm not sure what compels me, what kind of deep character deficiency causes me to do them, but I think about the nature of interviews. I've never really believed in adversarial interviews, whatever they might be, because I'm not sure that it's a way to get anything of interest. It's not a moralistic stance. It's a pragmatic stance. You have to find a different way of scrutinizing whatever it is you have at hand. In this case, it was to put Bannon at the center of his dreams, where he inhabits the strange make-believe world of movies, principally movies from the 1940s and 1950s.”
Morris also explained that his methods with Bannon were demonstrably fruitful, especially compared to the numerous times he is interviewed with ‘tougher questions’ by others in the media.
“Since I made this movie, [Bannon’s] been interviewed, I hesitate to use the word endlessly, but how about a lot. He's been interviewed by The Economist, 60 minutes, CNN. Bill Maher. Interview after interview after interview after interview. And were the questions not tough enough? The questions were plenty tough but the answers were all the same: they were a recitation, a kind of strange grim performance art where you parry the question by saying the same non-responsive answer.”
2. Silence is not failure
Since Morris subscribes to his method of interviewing for pragmatic reasons, it’s understandable that his methods get him results. Sometimes, those results are merely silence.
"I've certainly had this experience where you're talking to someone and you're not sure what's there. There's this performance going on, an elaborate performance in his case. But what is really there? I mean, they're just moments that something slips out, moments that I like to think are part of what I do as a filmmaker, of him glowering at me and twitching. People think that the failure to answer a question is a failure on the part of the interviewer. I would again respectfully disagree. Sometimes those moments are the most powerful moments that I put on film."
3. The difference between propaganda and morally complex work? Final cut.
Morris explained that because Bannon is a proudly proclaimed honey badger, he most likely saw the film as an opportunity (to his advantage) to get his ideas out there regardless of moral complexities. And so Morris having no restrictions would be imperative to making the film.
“There were no restrictions. I had final cut. I said to him, 'I'm happy to show you various cuts within reason as we go along but the final decision about what to put in the movie or not to put in the movie rests with me.' Otherwise, the movie would have no credibility whatsoever.”
4. The only hope is to make complex movies
In American Dharma, one of the biggest tropes is that Bannon chooses scenes from films he considers to be influential to his worldview. Morris does the interpretation, noting that they are “some of the strangest and most powerful things I've ever put on film.” There’s a discussion to be had about the ‘fungibility’ of films and Morris explains that he likes to think “that there are unitary explanation —one explanation that's better than all the others.” The films Bannon references? Recognizably classic scenes from Twelve O'Clock High, Paths of Glory, Chimes at Midnight, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and The Searchers, or as Morris describes, specifically “the most racist scene by John Ford.”
“So here you have these movies. I find 'The Searchers' an endlessly complex and fascinating movie, that also in many ways, captures America and many of the contradictions that make up America. It's a sobering thought. Kent and I, and probably a lot of you out there, love movies. That's why we're here. After all is said and done, we fell in love with movies, wanted to make movies, wanted to show movies, wanted to think about movies. But this is another frightening thought, Bannon interpreted the movies in such disparate ways. What if I'm in the Third Reich watching '12 O’Cock High'? What does 'The Searchers' tells us about America and our tortured relationship to race?
And as the moderator, Kent Jones, added, “As you said, The Searchers is an endlessly complex movie. If you were watching it in the Third Reich, it would still be an endlessly complex movie, but it probably wouldn't have been made under Goebbels.He didn't he didn't have a habit of making endlessly complex movies.”