Few documentarians are in the same league as Errol Morris, the legendary filmmaker whose decades-long career has been marked by idiosyncratic works that—whether focusing on important political figures or idiosyncratic individuals—are daring, imaginative, incisive and never less than transfixing. Fascinated by the nature of images and issues of representation, his formidable resume includes such non-fiction classics as Gates of Heaven, A Brief History of Time, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., the Oscar-winning The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, and The Thin Blue Line, the last of which redefined the true crime form, both through its inclusion of dramatic recreations and its successful activist effect on the outcome of its central murder case.
Morris returns to theaters on June 30 with The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, a charming snapshot of a Massachusetts shutterbug famed for her use of a 20x24 Polaroid camera that has now, sadly, been discontinued. It’s an intimate, low-key affair buoyed by Dorfman’s irresistible personality, and yet it’s also a deceptively profound examination of mortality, impermanence, and the relationship between artists, their art, and the technological apparatus they employ to create it.
Ahead of the film’s release, Morris chatted with us about his long-standing relationship with Dorfman, the ongoing true-crime renaissance indebted to The Thin Blue Line, and his thoughts on another former subject of his: President Donald Trump.
When did you first meet Elsa?
Most of the better people that I know are the result of something my wife did [laughs]. In this particular instance, we had moved from New York to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when my son was 2-3 years old. And when he was five—we can’t really fix the exact date—my wife saw an ad. Elsa was offering to take pictures as part of a benefit. She took my son in to have his picture taken, and that was the very beginning. I can remember not knowing Elsa, but she’s been such a fixture in our lives, it’s hard to really go back to the pre-Elsa period and the pre-Harvey [Silverglate, her husband] period.
Have you had your own picture taken by her?
Yes. We’ve all had our photos taken by Elsa. She’s taken our photos collectively, individually. She most recently took a picture of our French bulldog Ivan, which is pretty wonderful. We have pictures of my mother, my stepfather, various friends, friends of my son. A photograph of my son inside a box. It goes on and on and on.
At what point did you decide to make a film about her?
I had been thinking about it for a while. I’m a man of mostly unmade films, and one of them was the film about Elsa—although I’ve seemingly remedied that [laughs]. I spent an afternoon with her in her garage, and it’s so very simple when you think about it, but complexity can come out of incredible simplicity. I was with Elsa in the garage, and Elsa starts taking Polaroids out of her flat files, and showing them to me. Elsa can’t show you one of her photographs without telling you a story about it. It’s her occupational hazard. And I thought, this is a movie. The flat files, Elsa, the stories. Done.
However, it took me a while to get around to just doing it. I decided to pay for it myself rather than waiting around to get money for it—something that might happen but just as likely might never happen. And dates are fabulous motivators. There was a date when Gentle Giant, the local moving company, was coming to Elsa’s house and was going to move these huge 40x60 Polaroids out of her house to where they could be scanned. So I knew this was a good place to start: I’ll film the movers taking the huge Polaroids out of the stairwell in Elsa’s house. And that’s what we did. That was the first day.
One of the great things about the film is the feeling of being immersed in her space, as she rummages around in her files and talks about her work and life. It sounds like that approach was dictated as much by necessity as anything else.
I think circumstance and necessity are much better than plans [laughs]. So yes, I think that’s absolutely true. And doing the movie emerged—I think that’s the correct verb—by itself. Elsa would take a 20x24 Polaroid out of the flat file, and she would hold it up in front of her. She’d hold it up in such a way, displaying it to the camera, but sort of hiding herself—you’d just see her hand or the top of her head or her eyebrows. When I saw her doing this in the frame, I really, really liked it. Almost as if she was being effaced by her own work. Supplanted by it.
I was going to ask you where the idea came from for those magnificent shots, because they felt similar to your own work, in the sense that you’re always behind the camera, and thus connected to your images. Do you get the impression that Elsa is really in her photos?
I do, actually. And that’s a very nice thing for you to say. I think really interesting photography—whether it’s motion picture photography or still photography, and particularly if we’re talking about portrait photography or some variant of that theme—preserves the relationship between the subject and the photographer. I feel that way about Elsa. Of course, this could be all projection on my part, because I know Elsa so well, and of course I know many of her subjects, one of whom is myself [laughs]. But there’s something extraordinarily endearing about her.
Here’s one thing I often forget—I try to kick myself, maybe sometimes even literally, to remind myself—is how powerful photography really is. That an unadorned, un-gussied-up photographic image has a kind of Orphic power on its own. And Elsa has, I wouldn’t call them rules, or at least they’re very simple rules. People don’t dress up when they have their pictures taken by Elsa. You don’t see people in tuxedos, cummerbunds, etc. There’s an element of self-presentation, of how they want to be seen, or how they want to present themselves to her camera. And yet there’s also a formal aspect to it to: that you go to see her, to have your picture taken. The images are pretty wonderful.
The film’s title comes from the fact that the photos Elsa is presenting are her “B-sides”—i.e. the ones her clients rejected. And as it turns out, they’re often great in their own right. Have you also found in your documentaries that unexpected “mistakes” often turn out to be better than what you were initially, actively after?
The B-side idea, if there is such an idea, is a complicated one. For Elsa, it’s the fact that she was never really given much attention as an artist, as a photographer. That she was, in some real sense, the B-side. Other people heralded for their work, her not so much. Then there’s the idea of how these photographs would be chosen, which I find endlessly fascinating. You go into her studio, you pay her some money—which went steadily up over the years—and she takes two, sometimes three pictures. And she gives you a choice. I mean, that’s part of the Elsa deal. If she likes you, she’ll take more [laughs]. But it’s the minimum of two, and then you get to pick the one you want to keep—a weird kind of “Sophie’s Choice.” Of course, the irony of it is, as Elsa describes, they both may be great, but it’s often the reject that’s the more interesting of the two photographs.
At one point in the film, Elsa says, “You take 20 pictures in two minutes, and they’re so different. That’s what I love about it. It’s not real at all.” Do you agree?
There’s this confusion, and I don’t know how better to describe it. I’m in the process of finishing a six-part series for Netflix, and it’s part drama, part documentary. Recently, someone said something to me about not liking reenacted drama in a documentary. That’s not exactly what I’ve done here, but let’s put that aside for a second. There’s this idea, and it’s part of the background of photography—I wrote a whole book about it, about believing and seeing—that if you take a photograph in a certain way, it’s truthful. It represents, faithfully, reality. But we all know that’s nonsense. There’s no such thing as photographic truth. If you ask me, I don’t believe there’s any such thing.
So to have Elsa express that, quite forcefully, and un-coached by me [laughs]…It’s not like I said, “Elsa, I want you to say there’s no truth in photography!” It’s Elsa. And we are kindred spirits. I think that’s something I discovered over the years, and if anything, was reinforced making the movie—that we’re interested in self-presentation. How people present themselves to the camera. And we’re also interested in creating the feeling of reality. But one never knows what that feeling of reality is, with respect to reality. It’s one of the great mysteries. If you like, it’s the central mystery of photography.
I had my picture taken by [Richard] Avedon years ago, and Avedon and Elsa have another thing in common. When you stand in front of Avedon’s camera, he’s talking to you, he’s relating to you as a person, and then “click,” the flash goes off, and you had no idea that that was going to happen. You haven’t graced yourself, you haven’t prepared yourself. And Elsa is similarly, genuinely interested in people. You know, she’s not just pretending to be interested in people; she is. And having your picture taken by her is also her talking to you about your life. It’s about her intense curiosity about people. What makes people like that? I don’t know. Certainly, there are people like that. I like to include myself among them [laughs].
We’re currently going through something of a true-crime renaissance, and many (Serial, Making a Murderer, The Keepers) are deeply indebted to The Thin Blue Line—especially in their desire to affect change in their given stories. Do you watch any of them?
Not all of them—there are just too many to watch. But yes, I watch some of them. And in many instances, they’re such clear imitations of my own work, it’s kind of amazing. Sometimes people admit that they’re imitations of my work, and sometimes they don’t [laughs].
For my entire career, I’ve been interested in trying to explore what it means to make a movie about real events, and how to capture real events—or to explore a real mystery on-screen. This new Netflix series is an attempt to redefine how we do that. I feel like I set a kind of new—I hate to use the word “paradigm,” but I set a new model for how that could be done with The Thin Blue Line. And I took an enormous amount of criticism in the process. How dare you do this, how dare you do that, reenactments should never be part of documentaries, blah blah blah. And over the years, I’ve been very fond of pointing out that everything is a reenactment. Consciousness is a reenactment of reality inside of our skulls.
So the issue is not how we present reality; the issue is how we investigate it. And investigating a true crime, for example, the important thing is that you seek the truth. Any way that you can uncover the truth is fair game. It’s not like you’re supposed to use this utensil but not that utensil—you can use a fork, but you can’t use a knife. Everything and anything goes.
Are there any recent true-crime works you’ve been impressed by, or think have followed your lead in a particularly inventive way?
This may sound churlish on my part—I’m sure it is—but I think that not much has broken new ground about how to go about telling stories. And I like to think that I’m trying to break new ground here. We shall see!
Can you say anything about the new series yet?
I shouldn’t. I’m just going to get myself into trouble. I can tell you it’s called Wormwood and it’s about a 1953 murder.
I’d be remiss in not asking you about our current political reality. What do you make of President Trump? And would you like to get him in front of the Interrotron [i.e. the cinematographic system Morris uses for interviews]?
I’ve had Trump in front of the Interrotron—indeed I’ve done it. I interviewed him fifteen years ago for a piece that ran at the beginning of the Oscars. I had Donald Trump speaking about Citizen Kane.
Anything you’d like to ask him now?
I’d like him to seriously consider retirement.
Is there anyone else in his administration that strikes you as a potentially great interview candidate?
It’s not a desire to question them so much as a desire to get rid of them [laughs].
I don’t think you’re alone in feeling that way.
Oh no, no, no, no. I have a lot of company. And you can also read my New York Times piece, which is about a man and the death penalty. I mean, it’s hard not to be just utterly appalled by it all. And so, yes, I am utterly appalled by it all.
I can’t even stand people trying to make sense out of it. There’s no point in trying. There’s a scene I’ve always loved in Dr. Strangelove, where General Turgidson (George C. Scott) is reading his letter from Brigadier General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) in the Pentagon war room, and Ripper is going on and on about precious bodily fluids. Peter Sellers’ president says “Give me that,” looks at the letter, and suddenly says, “It’s obvious: this person is insane!”
Well, it’s obvious! It’s so obvious, it’s overt! I mean, every day you pick up the paper and it’s appalling.
Sometimes multiple times a day.
Yes, you are correct, sir. Multiple times a day.
Lastly, I love your 2015 ESPN short Being Mr. Met. Were you surprised to see the current man in the mascot costume losing it at a recent game?
I hadn’t really followed it closely, but I love that guy, and I loved making a movie about him. I’ve always been fascinated by mascots because there’s a certain knowledge that there’s a person trapped inside—really trapped inside. And what becomes of them? What happens after your self melts away and you become this simulacrum of a baseball with legs? [laughs]
Mr. Met, in particular, is really something.