Catching Up with Errol Morris on The Unknown Known

Movies Features Errol Morris

Is Donald Rumsfeld, the charismatically cantankerous and contrarian former Secretary of Defense who, under President George W. Bush, presided over a disastrous Iraq War policy and the torture of enemy combatants and other foreign prisoners, a dyed-in-the-wool military adventurist or a cog-in-the-machine bureaucrat and incidental prosecutor? Documentarian Errol Morris spent more than 34 hours interviewing him for his superb new film, The Unknown Known, and he still isn’t sure. Paste had a chance to chat with the Oscar-winning filmmaker recently and, wearing a light green sweater and a wry smile, Morris spoke deliberately, as is his wont, about his movie, its elusive subject, the art of interviewing and his first foray into fictional narrative filmmaking, set to star Bryan Cranston and Naomi Watts. The conversation is excerpted below:

Paste: You mentioned you were frustrated by your recent appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher. What was frustrating about the experience?
Errol Morris: It really goes to the heart of what I do—or what I don’t do. What should a documentary about Donald Rumsfeld be like, what should it try to accomplish, what should be its goal? I came into this, as I come into everything, thinking that my job is to capture that person and at least in some way create a portrait. Maybe it’s not a traditional portrait, but it’s properly considered a portrait of some sort. [But Bill] likes Rumsfeld. I’ll give you an example. I say to him toward the end of the film, “Maybe it would be better if we hadn’t gone [into Iraq] at all.” My answer would be yes, unequivocally. Yes, period, or as they say in the UK, where I just got back from and it has an even stronger sound: full stop. Rumsfeld says, “Well, time will tell.” And Bill Maher says that that’s such a wonderful, humble and honest answer. I hope I’m characterizing it correctly. No other Republican would say anything like that, he says. And I say I don’t agree. To me, it’s not a humble answer at all. I would check the hubris box. What, if you wait long enough, maybe 100 trillion years, someone will come up with a justification of what you’ve done that makes it all okay?

Paste: If time quote-unquote heals all wounds, it also absolves us of a lot of responsibilities.
Errol Morris: Well, time not only heals all wounds, it erases all wounds—everybody’s dead, nobody remembers, and it becomes a moot point.

Paste: Were you prepared for the degree to which Rumsfeld uses language as a weapon, to parry questions that he doesn’t want to answer? He seems sort of like a be-bop jazz artist, pontificating about the elusive nature of knowledge.
Errol Morris: Absolutely, but it’s worse than that. Rumsfeld is the epistemologist from hell. Going into it I had read a lot of his autobiography, the memoir, which is not terribly revealing. But the memos (Rumsfeld’s dictated musings, called “snowflakes,” of which there were more than 20,000 during the Bush administration) are really peculiar and interesting. There’s a lot to think about—maybe too much. I’ve read well over a thousand of them, and so I knew … well, it’s not like I didn’t have thoughts about what this would be like going into it. But I was repeatedly surprised—I think that would be the best way to describe it. I remember at the end of the second day, when he was talking about Saddam being surrounded by statues [and] people who kowtowed to him, and in the end becoming all pretend. I remember that moment because I thought surely he must realize that people hearing him say that might think he’s talking about himself. [long pause] But it’s not there. It’s really, really, really not there. So I started to wonder about the nature of irony—do some people appreciate irony and others don’t? Then I expected he would rattle on with almost pre-taped answers, like pushing a button on a vending machine. But I can wait that out. What surprised me was the lack of any what I would call reflection on much of anything—that if you subtracted the spiel, the performance, and you looked for what was left over, there was precious little. That remark about Vietnam to me kind of sums it up: “Some things work out, some don’t—that certainly didn’t.” It’s a horrible remark—60,000 Americans dead. Speaking for me, as a person who demonstrated against the war many years ago, a whole idea about America I won’t say was destroyed, but was certainly compromised.

Paste: Is it difficult to turn off personal feelings when you’re interviewing someone for a film? Because there are contradictions or false assertions that you let lie without additional comment.
Errol Morris: We were just talking about that, because it’s a real question. I don’t even have a good answer. I really don’t. In the movie, I read the Schlesinger memo to him, and he says I agree with that after saying the opposite … but the movie is filled with contradictions. He’s a walking contradiction, filled with contradictions expressing contradictions while walking. Should I give absolute clarity and dramatic relief by interrupting and saying, “But sir, a minute ago you just said the exact opposite?” I don’t know. I believe it probably would have been more satisfying to an audience if I’d done that.

Paste: But that restraint or scrim holding judgment at bay—is that innate, or honed from years of interviewing experience? Or does that expressly have to do with the interaction that your Interrotron foments between subject and interviewer?
Errol Morris: I think it’s partly how I’ve always done interviews. I was thinking about The Thin Blue Line in this context recently. I did all of these interviews with various Dallas police officers. Did I tell them that I thought there was a real possibility that Randall Adams was innocent when they said things that were revealing or I knew to be based on a false conception of what had happened? Did I correct them? No. The satisfaction came from a case that slowly built where it becomes clear that Randall Adams is innocent and David Harris is guilty. I let the moment lie, and maybe that was inappropriate for Rumsfeld. But I also think there are so many things in it that are powerful and are not like a traditional documentary or adversarial piece of journalism.

Paste: Rumsfeld is a polarizing figure, and your film elicits certain reactions from him that a more pointed and forceful questioning of him couldn’t. But you’ve also been quite candid about doubt and uncertainty over criticisms of the film.
Errol Morris: I think there are all kinds of complaints, like, “I never want to hear from him again. I just want him to disappear.” A lot of people have that feeling about the entire Bush administration, as if somehow you could lift up the acetate window on a magic slate and it would all vanish. I think there’s something important about revisiting. Then there are other people who feel like I should be his prosecutor—that any film that isn’t inherently prosecutorial is bad. Therefore I’m complicit, I’m a bad filmmaker, I should hang it up and go home.

Paste: I know you sent Rumsfeld a copy of The Fog of War when you approached him about this film. Was it always presented to him as a single-subject documentary (with no other interviewees)?
Errol Morris: Yeah, that was always my idea.

Paste: I’m always fascinated by the editing process on nonfiction films. Was this movie any more or less difficult to edit than your others?
Errol Morris: It was horrendously difficult to edit, just because there was X numbers of hours of interviews and often the interview had the character of a filibuster, where he would rattle on and on. Other times, I pressed him for answers. It was such a strange experience. It’s become part of my spiel, but notwithstanding it really is something that does interest me—snake oil salesman or true believer? Is he a guy just up there on a platform, selling Bush administration policies, selling might makes right, selling [that] weakness is provocative, or is he a true believer? Where is that line between A and B? At the heart of the movie is a fascination with that question. I would say that every single answer that he gave is like the answer that he gave at the end of the movie: “Why are you talking to me? Why are you doing this?” [And he says], “That’s a vicious question. I’ll be darned if I know.” “What did you learn from Vietnam?” “I’ll be darned if I know.” Is he hiding something or revealing something? Maybe both. I don’t even know how to categorize it.

Paste: I’m reminded of the line from Thank You For Smoking, which is that 99 percent of all that is good or bad is done in the name of a mortgage. Power is always interested in itself, and protecting the legacy of the decisions that it made, and that just comes off in these overwhelming waves from Rumsfeld. There’s a bemused detachment from any moral weight of any judgments or decisions that were made.
Errol Morris: Yes. I don’t have an answer here either, but I started to wonder whether it just was all ambition and vanity. [long pause] There are these lines in the memos—you read through just piles and piles of boilerplate, and then a line pops out, “rearranging the map of the Middle East.” I remember when I first read that, I thought, “You know, I really think small.” I never think about things like that.

Paste: There was a recent interview where you contemplated retiring from documentary filmmaking, where you said you were tired of interviewing people—does that still hold true? Do you feel spent?
Errol Morris: I don’t feel tapped out. I think the joy of documentary filmmaking is that you can reinvent it and do something completely different. And I’ve done a whole variety of different things in documentary—or at least I think I have. So I am entertaining a number of documentary projects that do something different, and that does interest me. The narrative stuff interests me because I work with actors all the time. I’m a visual storyteller [Ed. note: Morris has directed more than 1,000 commercials], and the script that I have is great, and there’s an opportunity to really make something visually amazing.

Paste: As you alluded to, you’re getting ready to shoot your first fiction feature, Holland, Michigan, with Naomi Watts, Edgar Ramirez and Bryan Cranston. How exactly did that come about, since I have to imagine you’ve been approached about narrative filmmaking many times before?
Errol Morris: It came my way because of a producer here who used to be my agent and then became the head of Paramount, John Lesher, who just brought the script to me. I thought it was the best script I’d ever read. I thought it was extraordinary. Over the years I’ve [been pursued], but this is a good script and project I wanted to make because it has themes that really interest me. The writer, Andrew Sodroski, it’s his first script, and people are beginning to realize how good he is—the script was on to the top of the Blacklist this year. One of the things I liked about it is that there’s ambiguity in it about how to see the characters and their motivations. Many movies, whether they’re features or documentaries, tell you exactly what to think at every moment, and what I liked most about this is that it doesn’t do that. The level of ambiguity that it creates is wonderful. There’s an amazing tension and creepiness that reminds me of Hitchcock, and early Polanski. It’s a fantastic opportunity for me to do something that I think could be great, and I’m really excited about it.

The Unknown Known opens in New York City and Los Angeles April 4, and expands nationally throughout the month. The film is also available on VOD platforms.

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