Morris, Errol: Documentary Director Profile

Errol Morris, the Oscar-winner of the 2003 documentary Fog of War, is one of the most critically acclaimed documentarians.

Morris was born on February 5, 1948 in Hewlett, New York. In 1950, when he was 2 years old, Morris’ father died of a heart attack. His mother, a Juilliard graduate, supported Morris and his brothers as a music teacher.

In the 10th grade Morris enrolled at the Putney School, a boarding school in Vermont. He began playing the cello, spending a summer in France studying music under the acclaimed Nadia Boulanger, who was the principal teacher of Philip Glass, who would eventually score some of Morris’ docus, including The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time and The Fog of War.

Morris attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduating in 1969 with a B.A. in history. For a brief time, Morris held various jobs, as a cable television salesman and then as a writer. His approach to applying for grad school included, “trying to get accepted at different graduate schools just by showing up on their doorstep.” Morris was able to talk his way into Princeton University, where he began studying history of science, focusing on physics.

Morris left Princeton in 1972, enrolling at Berkeley as a Ph.D. student in philosophy. But there, too, Morris found that he was not well-suited for his subject. During that time, he became a regular at the Pacific Film Archive, directed by Tom Luddy (of Telluride Film Festival fame).

Morris visited Plainfield, Wisconsin in 1975, where he conducted interviews with Ed Gein, the famous serial killer. He later made plans with German director Werner Herzog to return in the summer of 1975 to open the grave of Gein’s mother to test their theory that Gein had already dug her up. Herzog arrived on schedule, but Morris chnaged his mind. Morris later returned to Plainfield, staying for a year, during which he conducted more interviews. Although he had plans to write a book or make a film, Morris never completed his Ed Gein project.

In fall of 1976, Herzog visited Plainfield again to use the scenery for some shots in his film Stroszek. After the shoot finished, Herzog handed Morris some cash, which at first he refused to accept.

He then used the money to take a trip to Vernon, Florida. Vernon was nicknamed Nub City because its residents participated in a morbid form of insurance fraud where they deliberately amputate a limb in order to collect the insurance money.
Morris’ documentary would be about the town, though it makes no mention of Vernon, Florida as Nub City, instead exploring other idiosyncrasies of the town’s residents. Morris had received death threats while doing research; the residents feared he Morris would reveal their secret.

Morris returned to Berkeley and began working on a fictional script that he called Nub City. Reading a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, “450 DEAD PETS GOING TO NAPA VALLEY,” Morris left for Napa Valley and began working on the film that would become his first feature, Gates of Heaven.

In 1978, when the film premiered at Berkeley, Werner Herzog cooked and publicly ate his shoe. Les Blank made a short documentary about the event, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. According to Herzog, the shoe-eating spectacle was meant to encourage Morris. Gates of Heaven was given a limited release in the spring of 1981.

Morris returned to Vernon in 1979 and again in 1980, renting a house in town and conducting interviews with the town’s citizens. Vernon, Florida premiered at the 1981 New York Film Festival. Newsweek called it, “a film as odd and mysterious as its subjects, and quite unforgettable.” The film, like Gates of Heaven, suffered from poor distribution, but was released on video in 1987, and DVD in 2005.

After finishing Vernon, Florida, Morris tried unsuccessfully to get funding for a variety of projects. He got funding in 1983 to write a script about John and Jim Pardue, a pair of Missouri bank robbers who had killed their father and grandmother and robbed five banks. The project eventually failed.

In 1984, Morris married Julia Sheehan, who he had met in Plainfield while researching Ed Gein.

In 1985, Morris became interested in Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist in Dallas. Under Texas law, the death penalty can only be issued if the jury is convinced that the defendant is not only guilty, but will commit further violent crimes in the future if he is not put to death. Grigson had spent 15 years testifying for such cases, and he almost invariably gave the same damning testimony, often saying that it is “one hundred per cent certain” that the defendant would kill again. This lead to Grigson being nicknamed “Dr. Death”. Through Grigson, Morris would meet the subject of his next film, 36 year-old Randall Dale Adams.

Adams was serving a life sentence that had been commuted from a death sentence on a legal technicality for the 1976 murder of Robert Wood, a Dallas police officer. Adams told Morris that he had been framed, and that David Harris, who was present at the time of the murder and was the principal witness for the prosecution, had in fact killed Wood. Morris began researching the case because it related to Dr. Grigson; he was at first unconvinced of Adams’ innocence. After reading the transcripts of the trial and meeting David Harris at a bar, however, Morris was no longer so sure.

At the time, Morris had been making a living as a private investigator for a well-known private detective agency that specialized in Wall Street cases. Bringing together his talents as an investigator and his obsessions with murder, narration and epistemology, Morris went to work on the case in earnest.

Unedited interviews in which the prosecution’s witnesses systematically contradicted themselves were used as testimony in Adams’ 1986 habeas corpus hearing to determine if he would receive a new trial. David Harris famously confessed, in a roundabout manner, to killing Wood. Adams was finally found innocent after years of being processed by the legal system. Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, was accepted as the main force behind getting its subject, Randall Adams, out of prison.

According to a survey by The Washington Post, The Thin Blue Line made many critics’ top ten lists. It won the documentary of the year award from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Despite its widespread acclaim, it was not nominated for an Oscar, which created a scandal regarding the nomination practices of the Academy. The Academy cited the film’s genre of “non-fiction”, arguing that it was not actually a documentary. The Thin Blue Line is to this day one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries.

Morris had a critically acclaimed TV show, “First Person,” which included interviews with civil advocates and criminals.

Morris is also an accomplished director of television commercials. In 2002, Morris directed a series of television ads for Apple Computer as part of a popular “Switch” campaign. Other TV commercials were made for Adidas, AIG, Cisco Systems, Citibank, Levi’s, Miller High Life, Nike, PBS, The Quaker Oats Company, Southern Comfort, Toyota and Volkswagen.

In 2002, Morris was commissioned to make a short film for the 75th Academy Awards. He interviewed Laura Bush, Iggy Pop, and even his 15 year old son Hamilton Morris . Morris was nominated for an Emmy for this short film. He considered editing this footage into a feature film, focusing specifically on Donald Trump discussing Citizen Kane (This segment was later released on the second issue of Wholphin). Morris went on to make a second short for the 79th Academy Awards in 2007, this time interviewing various nominees and asking them about their Oscar experiences.

In July 2004, Morris directed another series of commercials in the style of the “Switch” ads. This campaign featured Republicans who voted for Bush in the 2000 election giving their personal reasons for voting for Kerry in 2004. But he had difficulty getting them on the air, and eventually the liberal advocacy group MoveOn PAC paid to air a few of them. Morris wrote an editorial for the New York Times discussing the commercials and Kerry’s losing campaign.

Errol Morris Filmography

Vengeance of Virgo 1972
Gates of Heaven 1978
Vernon, Florida 1981
The Thin Blue Line 1988
The Dark Wind 1991
A Brief History of Time 1991
Fast, Cheap and Out of Control 1997
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. 1999
The Fog of War 2003
S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure (about Abu Ghraib) 2008