Errol Morris on the present and future of documentary filmmaking: 'Hopefully I can keep it up'
Errol Morris has been in the documentary business for more than 40 years, and is better equipped than perhaps any filmmaker alive to survey the state of the medium. For most of those 40 years, he's been helping push nonfiction filmmaking forward, whether through his famous Interrotron device (which allows interview subjects to make direct eye contact with the camera lens) or his innovative blending of dramatic and documentary techniques.
"I've been roundly criticized through my entire career," Morris tells EW, recalling how his acclaimed 1988 film The Thin Blue Line was rejected for a Best Documentary Oscar nomination due to its stylized reenactments of disputed events. "A story that I was told, why the Academy turned it off after a couple of minutes, they saw the first quote-unquote re-enactment and they decided 'This is not a documentary,'" the filmmaker says, adding dryly, "Many of the techniques that I've pioneered over the course of my career now are everywhere. Go figure."
Indeed, the flourishing true-crime documentary genre is populated with numerous stylistic descendants of The Thin Blue Line; re-enactments are par for the course now, from The Jinx to Tiger King. The success of those docs also reflects another point Morris emphasizes: Documentaries have become much more popular and accessible since he was starting out.
"Forty years ago, you couldn't hardly see a Frederick Wiseman film anywhere," recalls Morris, referring to the filmmaker behind 1968's seminal High School and this year's City Hall. "I'm not so sure it's that easy now, but back then it was impossible. You had to go visit Fred. I made a pilgrimage to come up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I now live, to visit him, and to watch a number of Fred Wiseman films.
"I'm reminded of this line from Conan the Barbarian, where one person says to another, 'Used to be just another snake cult, now you see it everywhere,'" Morris continues. "That's certainly true of documentary. They were few and far between. They had very, very limited distribution. If anything, we had television distribution. Fred Wiseman's films were distributed through public broadcasting. I was fortunate enough, my first films went into theaters, but that was considered totally anomalous. And in the intervening 40 years, [documentaries are] everywhere. I'm not sure that ubiquitous is exactly the right word, but they're ubiquitous."
That ubiquity has helped bring Morris to a larger audience than ever. In 2017, his miniseries Wormwood debuted on Netflix — taking re-enactments even further with full-on sections of scripted drama — and his latest film, My Psychedelic Love Story, premieres Sunday on Showtime.
"I still love filmmaking," the director says. "And I love the idea of mixing drama and documentary. I love being able to explore new ways of telling true stories and exploring the medium. There are a lot of documentary purists who are still in love with a handheld camera, and being in the middle of some ongoing action. But it's good to remember that there's something spontaneous about a good interview too, when it's happening in front of the camera. And there is most certainly an element of the unpredictable and the spontaneous."
More than four decades into his career, he's not done innovating, either. "Each time that I get a chance to make one of these things, I like to try to do something different," Morris says. "And hopefully I can keep it up for a while longer."