|Errol Morris has made seven documentary features over the last 27 years. That may not exactly make him prolific, but its not a bad tally if you consider that it includes a weirdly touching movie about pet cemeteries (his 1978 debut Gates of Heaven), a piece of cinematic detective work that got a wrongfully convicted man off death row (The Thin Blue Line), two dazzling studies of life, the universe and everything (A Brief History of Time and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control) and an Oscar-winning portrait of much-vilified former U.S. defence secretary Robert S. McNamara (The Fog of War). Nevertheless, the notion that what hes accomplished constitutes a body of work perhaps the most intellectually audacious and cussedly idiosyncratic of any contemporary American filmmaker strikes Morris as an odd one.
"Im not sure if that ideas come into my career yet," he says in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles, where the 57-year-old resident of Cambridge, Mass., has been starting up new projects and directing commercials for blue-chip clients like American Express and State Farm (you can see a selection of his ads on his website, www.errolmorris.com).
"Ive always seen myself as a frustrated filmmaker with far more projects that I havent made and want to make than projects that Ive actually been able to put on film. That really hasnt changed over the years. If anything, its gotten worse. My hope is that Im going to be working a lot in the next couple of years and making more movies."
A new pair of deluxe DVD sets makes for a fine stopgap. Released July 26 from MGM, Errol Morriss First Person: The Complete Series compiles the interview show he made with the help of his trusty Interrotron, the device that allows him to maintain eye contact with his subjects even as they seem to peer directly into the camera for Bravo and IFC in 2000 and 2001. Released the same day, The Errol Morris Collection contains the directors first three feature-length docs: the aforementioned Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line, plus Vernon, Florida, which portrays Morriss unique encounters with a valiant turkey hunter, several loquacious seniors and many other inhabitants of a decrepit Florida town. Morris is very happy to overhaul his early works, rescuing them from grubby videotapes and film prints that werent only deteriorating, but the wrong damn size.
"This is the first time Vernon, Florida comes out in widescreen, in which it was shot," says Morris. "In the intervening years since these movies were made, our techniques for transferring film to digital have progressed enormously. The films look absolutely beautiful. Most people who know the first two films at all have seen them on very bad VHS copies. They certainly do look better in their new incarnation. I cant speak for how well they hold up as films, though I think they do quite well."
Besides supervising the transfer, Morris had the chance to see Gates of Heaven at Roger Eberts annual Overlooked Film Festival last year. It was the first time hed sat through the whole thing in a theatre for more than 20 years.
"It was different than Id remembered stranger," says Morris, "I understood for the first time Rogers claim that hed seen it 20 or 30 times and it looked different on each viewing. "There was something unsettling about the movie, too. I remember it was a very, very hard movie to edit. What people actually said on film was so crazy. But theres this odd feeling a feeling of dislocation is how I would describe it. Theres this sense of hopefulness in a very barren and disturbing setting."
The early films also bear the two major hallmarks of his filmmaking approach: a willingness to stage fact as fiction and vice versa, a quality he shares with his early patron Werner Herzog; and a serious jones for investigation, a holdover from his days as a bona fide private dick. Curious about where the clues and connections may lead him, Morris says that his films have always gone in directions he couldnt have predicted.
"There are so many examples I could give you of movies that started out as one thing and became something else altogether," he says. "Movies are emergent phenomena for me. For Gates of Heaven thats very true because although its ostensibly about a pet cemetery being moved, the underlying content of the film is completely unexpected unexpected, I might add, to the filmmaker himself. (For) Vernon, Florida, I came to that town with a completely different project in mind. For The Thin Blue Line, I went to Dallas to interview Dr. James Grigson (a psychiatrist nicknamed "Dr. Death" for his involvement in death-penalty cases) about the prediction of future dangerousness and ended up stumbling, completely by accident, on a miscarriage of justice."
As Morris notes of his meticulous and still chilling anatomy of a crime, "Thered have been no way to plan that kind of a movie because no one knew about the story. It was a story that did not exist. I was lucky enough to find it."