Sick, Sad And Funny

Filmmaker Errol Morris Tackles The Unusual

Errol Morris has been making documentaries for more than 20 years. There are no sets, no actors, no scripts, because frankly, you can't make this stuff up.

"The story really doesn't matter that much," Morris says. "You could make films about lots and lots of different stories. It's the people that inhabit those stories that count."

60 Minutes II Correspondent Scott Pelley recently spent some time with Errol Morris.

An Errol Morris film is a feast of eccentricity, whether it chronicles characters tucked away in the town of Vernon, Fla., or the passing of the family dog in California.

For all their differences, the people in Morris' films share one thing in common: They love to talk.

The art of the interview in Morris' films is for the interviewer to be quiet and create a silence that the subject has to fill.

"And my experience is that people - people want to tell you their story,"Morris says.

"If you let people talk, you avoid interrupting them, they will reveal to you, in short order, who they really are," he says.

What fascinates Morris is not only who people are, but who they think they are.

It's not just the world around them, but the world inside them - something Morris calls mental landscapes. Each film is a collection of monologues - long, sometimes rambling speeches of the heart in which people always reveal much more than they realize.

"You know, there's this idea: You know, I am myself, so presumably, I know myself better than others. Absolutely wrong. I think often we can see others far more clearly than we can see ourselves," says Morris.

For an observer, it might be difficult to decide whether Morris is uncomfortable with himself or supremely confident in his own skin. Morris reveals, though, he is indeed uncomfortable. "If I've made a series of films about uncomfortable characters, it's because I'm one of them," he says.

"Errol Morris makes films that I can't wait to see," says film critic Roger Ebert, who ranks Morris alongside directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Federico Fellini.

"After 20 years, I haven't found another filmmaker who intrigues me terms of his off-center, offbeat, very individual approach to human nature," Ebert says.

The latest Errol Morris film, called Mr. Death, features Fred Leuchter, who designs and repairs execution equipment. He is convinced that he can make capital punishment painless.

Visit the official site for Mr. Death.

"The human body is not easy to destroy, and it's not easy to take a life," Leuchter said in the film.

"I sleep very well at night, and I sleep with te comforting thought of knowing that those persons that are being executed with my equipment, that these people have a better chance of having a painless, more humane, dignified execution," Leuchter also said.

"Fred Leuchter is, like all of us, a complex person," Morris says. "My hope is people can go and see this film and become engaged, like I have been, in the question of who he is. A mystery, a mystery story, but a mystery about personality."

An Errol Morris film takes audiences where they don't expect to go. In Mr. Death, the journey leads to genocide. Leuchter, the execution expert, is hired by modern-day Nazis to look for "scientific proof" that the Holocaust never happened.

The Leuchter Report denies the Holocaust happened.

The film follows Leuchter as he steals pieces of the Nazi gas chambers to test for cyanide residue.

"Whether or not these facilities were used for gas execution, that's not a mystery," Leuchter says. "I don't believe they were."

He wrote what is now known as The Leuchter Report, a bible for Holocaust deniers. In it, he claims that there were no Nazi gas chambers.

"There's no mystery about whether the claims that he makes are right or wrong," Morris says. "They're wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. The mystery is not about his claims. The mystery is about why he's making those claims."

The Nizkor site offers some counterpoint to The Leuchter Report and extensive links and research proving the Holocaust did occur.

Said Leuchter in the film, "I have a compelling urge and perhaps a responsibility to countless generations who come after me, a responsibility to the truth."

"Is he a bad guy? Is he crazy? What's going on here?" Morris asks.

The audience wants Morris to clarify this, and he refuses. He lets them leave the theater with more questions than they came in with.

"If part of what I do is make people think, that's OK," Morris says. "I can live with that."

Says film critic Ebert, "You see, that's where Errol Morris gets you, because he's like a magician. You're looking at the left hand, which is the subject of the film, and the trick is being done over here. When the film is over, you realize it was about a lot more than you thought it was, and it's about a different subject than it seemed to be."

Mr. Deth features Morris' trademark style of interviewing; his subjects speak directly to the camera. It's a system Morris designed, and he calls it the Interrotron.

"You can say things on the phone that you would never ever in a million years say to someone who is sitting directly across from you," Morris says. "And the Interrotron, my interviewing machine, plays on that idea."

The idea is to get the person to speak freely; somehow, talking to a machine seems less intimidating. But for the viewer, the result is much more intimate, because the person on screen is looking right back at them.

In a demonstration of the device, Morris explains, "We are looking at each other's live video images, but we're in fact not looking at each other. Simple as that."

It affords him the "ability to create an interview where someone is talking to me, and it's as if they're talking directly to the audience," Morris says.

"Our heads are wired up in some way that makes eye contact very, very important," Morris says. "We all recognize the power of that connection when it happens."

Morris' first film in 1978, Gates of Heaven, made a powerful connection with Roger Ebert.

Check out Errol Morris' official site to find out more about his films.

"Gates of Heaven I picked on my list of the 10 greatest films of all time, because it is totally impenetrable," critic Ebert says. "It is a mystery after 50 viewings that I've never solved."

The film examines two pet cemeteries and the people touched by the lives of their dead pets.

"You can approach this film in a dozen different ways," Ebert says. "It just doesn't have a bottom. You can't get to the bottom of it. And you can't decide, no matter how often you see it, if it's a comedy or a tragedy."

Tragedy struck Morris as a young boy. His father died of a heart attack when he was only 2 years old. Morris' mother raised him and his older brother by herself.

"My mom would always say, 'You should be a doctor like your father,'" Morris says. "But I didn't know my father; I knew my mom. And I always told her, 'I don't want to be like my father; I want to be like you.' She was very much my role model, still is, even though she died four years ago."

Life's hard lessons form a lens through which Morris films the world.

"It taught me, although I may not even realize it, that the world can be a really capricious, crazy place," Morris says. "Things can go wrong, terribly wrong."

Things had already gone terribly wrong for Randall Adams by the time Morris happened to find him. Adams was on death row in Texas for he murder of a Dallas police officer in 1976. Morris's investigation of the case became The Thin Blue Line.

"It may be the only film that really solves a murder," Morris says.

Through interviews and re-enactments, a technique Morris pioneered, The Thin Blue Line revealed that key witnesses against Adams had lied. The film turned the case upside down. Soon after the movie was released, so was Adams, cleared of all charges. When Adams flew home to Ohio, Morris was waiting to greet him.

Three months later, Adams sued Morris.

Morris explains that he was sued "under the belief that I was making a fortune from the film."

It's the perfect Errol Morris story. "What would life be like if it was devoid of irony?" Morris asks.

The greatest irony is that Morris actually lost money on the film.

He makes only a little bit of money on motion pictures, he says. "I have supported myself by making commercials, not by making movies," Morris explains.

Those commercials - for Levi's, Honda and Miller Beer - have probably reached a larger audience than Morris' films ever have. Although Morris has found commercial success - with his ads - he has not been recognized with an Oscar for his documentaries.

"Of course, I care," Morris admits. "Part of being an artist is being interested in commercial recognition."

"He's too good to win in the documentary category," Ebert says. "He's too good for an Academy Award. The Academy Award documentary branch doesn't have people smart enough to understand why Errol Morris makes Oscar-winning documentaries."

It didn't seem to understand this year, either. Mr. Death, the film Morris thinks is his best yet, wasn't even nominated. Morris may be disappointed, but he's not deterred.

"I make these movies because I need to make them," Morris declares. "Part of who I am is finding out about the world. And movie making is my way of doing it."