It seems inconceivable that any film as influential as The Thin Blue Line would go this long without a proper home-video release. More than a precedent for today’s glut of procedural documentaries, the likes of which we’ve seen explode into the culture via Serial and The Jinx — and more than a watershed moment for reenactments, which have hardly been bested since — Errol Morris‘ picture changed people’s idea of what effect cinema could have on the outside world. Few films from their time are as worthy of the Criterion treatment, and the company has, as per usual, rendered a great service in placing it on Blu-ray.
With the releases of Line his first two features, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida (placed on a consumer-friendly double-bill), the director spoke to us about the way these films still speak to people, how it feels to revisit them years down the line, the process of getting a Criterion disc into shape, and a bit on his relationship with Joshua Oppenheimer. Those who’ve seen Morris’ work know what an engaging and revealing interviewer he can be, and it’s my hope that this quality is retained when he’s on the other side of things.
Errol Morris: Hello!
The Film Stage: Hello, sir. How are you?
What have I caught you doing?
Hmm… what am I doing? Just too many different things. I’m sending off copies of the ESPN films to Tom Luddy in Telluride. I was making phone calls related to this feature that now seems likely to happen — Holland, Michigan.
Have you been doing a lot of interviews for these Criterion releases?
Not that I know of. But everything is becoming a blur. There’s been a lot going on.
I ask because I was debating whether or not to throw in an “I don’t know where to start” or Interrotron joke — but, even if nobody’s made it, I’ll just hold off.
My favorite, now, is the answer to the guy in the ESPN series, Streaker. Have you seen those?
He says, “What’s your first question?” I say, “I don’t really have a first question.” So he says, “What’s your first answer?”
That’s much better than my joke, so we’re off to a good start, either way. And since I’d like to start at the beginning: when and how did you find out these three films were coming to Criterion?
Well, I had known that Criterion was interested in them for a while — for a good number of years now — but I did not have any clear idea as to exactly when it was going to happen, and I really am delighted that it finally has happened. I was talking with Owen Wilson recently. Owen Wilson, who I am going to cast in this feature film I’m working on, has always been a fan of these early films — in particular, Vernon, Florida. I remember, years ago, him calling the office trying to get copies of it, because it just wasn’t available anywhere. We sent him a copy, and he told me, very recently, that it was one of the influences on Bottle Rocket. It’s a film they watched again and again and again.
And Vernon, Florida, much to my surprise — and really! I’m not just saying this — is just loved by so many, many, many people. Owen said something, to me, very nice about the film — and my work in general — saying I don’t make fun of people, that the films are truly loving and kind portraits of the people in them. It’s a nice thing to say, and I was delighted to hear it.
Were you surprised that it would be the first three features? Did you see Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida as a natural pairing?
Well, they’re all my films. I struggled for so many years to make films, but it was always on my mind. It was very hard to make Gates of Heaven. It’s hard for anybody to make any film. Anybody who’s actually done it knows of where I speak. It’s a struggle, and if you knew more about it — if most people knew about it before they actually started to make one, they maybe wouldn’t; maybe they would stop in their tracks — but Gates of Heaven was hard to make, Vernon, Florida was hard to make, and then, for years, nobody would give me money to make movies. There’s a huge gap between Vernon, Florida and The Thin Blue Line. I thought my career as a filmmaker really was over after Vernon, Florida, and although I kept making, for years, proposals for one film or another, they were summarily rejected again and again and again and again.
And that might’ve been it. I mean, a very modest proposal for a film about a psychiatrist who had been nicknamed “Dr. Death” — Dr. James Grigson — and that was the project, just to film an interview with Dr. Death and be done with it. I had no knowledge that this project would become something more, and I didn’t know that until quite a while after I first met Grigson and put him on film. It’s a very strange story: a convoluted, circuitous story to do that one interview eventually transforms into an investigation of murder and, ultimately, The Thin Blue Line. I’ve had a very strange — at least, it seems to me — career; it certainly hasn’t been linear in the sense that one thing clearly follows something else.
But I’m really glad these three films are coming out. I think they’re all different; they’re all some of my best work. Roger Ebert put Gates of Heaven on his list of the ten best movies ever made. Vernon, Florida keeps popping up as a truly beloved movie. In a way, it’s one of the essences of me — the absurdity, the philosophical dimension, the metaphysical concerns, the quirky characters, and on and on and on. I’ve never really done anything quite like Vernon, Florida, except, now, the series for ESPN. I was making a story about electric football in Charlotte, a suburb of Rochester, New York; it’s the closest thing in years I’ve done to Vernon, Florida.
What you’re saying really interests me, because I was watching these and thinking that, since these were made so long ago — and you’ve done so much since The Thin Blue Line — and that you see elements of these having carried over into later works, is it strange to look back at these people you photographed decades ago and have them in HD, on a Blu-ray that people can just buy?
You know, it’s a good feeling. I like these films; a lot of other people like them. I’m delighted that they’re available on Blu-ray. To me it’s, quite simply, a good thing. I was horrified because, for years, A Brief History of Time was not available at all. It had never been transferred properly; in fact, it had been really badly transferred. You couldn’t find it anywhere, except bad copies on YouTube — really degraded YouTube copies of the movie.
And it was really beautifully shot. It was shot by John Bailey on 35[mm]. It was really horrifying to see it unavailable and to see it in such a degraded, miserable copy. So Criterion did me an enormous service by putting out a version of it on Blu-ray — a pristine version of it, on Blu-ray, color-corrected by John Bailey, etc. So I’m delighted! You kidding me?
How does the restoration process work? Are you in the offices every day, are they sending you things, or do you go back and forth? I ask because these are “director-approved” special editions, and I’m always curious about how approves a release.
Well, part of it is that I have not done a very good job of maintaining an archive. The job has always been trying to recover original elements, negatives, a soundtrack from what is many, many, many years ago. We had difficulty finding elements from A Brief History of Time; we had difficulty finding elements from all three of those films. The Thin Blue Line, Vernon, Florida, and Gates of Heaven. But fortunately we were able to cobble together enough material to make this possible.
Now, part of it is just an archival problem. Where is the stuff? Is it stored in laboratory X or laboratory Y? Do we have the elements? Do we have the original sound mix? If we have the original sound mix, in what form do we have the original sound mix? And on and on and on. But this represents the best job that we could do, and I, once again, have relief knowing that the stuff has been preserved. Yes, it’s nice it’s going out through Criterion — it’s terrific — it’s nice that it’s being color-corrected — terrific. But the idea that this material hasn’t been preserved, hasn’t been destroyed, hasn’t been lost — that, in and of itself, is an enormous satisfaction.
Getting these materials, going through them, making sure they’re functional, and then placing them onto a disc — does that prove exhausting for you? Can it be a bit trying, getting everything in?
No. Today, I have a lot of people helping me. It’s no more odorous than making a film itself. Part of making a film is attending to all of these issues. Sound mix, color correction, etc. etc. etc. We all know that, ultimately, everything is bound to be recorded on some form of digital media. One of the ironies is that digital media might be more perishable than actual 35mm film, but it’s all heading in that direction. [Laughs] The direction of “digital copy.” So you try to get the best that you can, and I think that we’ve done that. So it’s no more trying than anything else.
One of the things that amazes me most in filmmaking is how easy it is to destroy a film — how easy it is to fail to go through the various elements that you need to go through, whether it’s color correction or sound mix. Getting something the way you want it, it’s close to impossible. [Laughs] I’ve just gone through the process of making six short films for ESPN, and it turned out to be a lot of work. Those six short films represented about 100 minutes of screen time, so, essentially, we’ve made a feature in four or five months.
I really liked the work, but I’m reminded, endlessly, what a struggle it is — the struggle of editing, the struggle with shooting, the struggle with rights and releases, the struggle with sound mixing. The list is interminable. If you don’t do any one thing on that list right, the whole thing can fall apart like a house of cards. And film is perishable; film projects are perishable. A film project can be messed-up, mucked-over. So yeah, I’m just delighted by all of this. Why wouldn’t I be?
I read an extended interview that you recently did, and one thing I found fascinating was your claim that 99% of the story isn’t in the movie, because you’re discovering the story, then researching it, then doing much that doesn’t become visible in the final result. Do you see a release such as this as a way of getting more of that story out there, getting some of that 99% out into the world and more closely tied to the movie?
Well, I wasn’t writing in those days. I suppose writer’s block. I couldn’t really “write” the story of The Thin Blue Line; I could make the movie. But someday I should write the story. I have so much material, and it’s such an incredible story. It’s one of the amazing detective stories that really isn’t in the movie. The movie is a movie with interviews and some of the central characters in the story, but the actual process of doing the detective work day by day by day, and uncovering what really happened is not in the film, and is an amazing story in and of itself.
One thing I really like about these discs are the variety of special features. Were you asked what you might like to see, and then they were laid-out for your approval? How did that work?
Criterion has always just been incredibly kind to me. They asked if I’m willing to do commentary, and of course I’m willing to do commentary. I used to joke that I make movies so I can talk after them — that’s my deal. I can’t really remember hearing, “You’ll do this,” or, “You’ll do that.” It’s just been an opportunity to create a narrative around the film, to record it and kind of incorporate it into the DVD. But it’s all good. Criterion is good. Good, good, good. Thank God that it exists. They have rendered an important service to me, as a filmmaker, but they’ve rendered an important service in general to filmmaking.
You have Joshua Oppenheimer talk on the disc. I’d like to hear a bit more about your relationship — not only producing his films, but having him appear on the Thin Blue Line disc to speak of your work in such a laudatory manner.
On one very simple level, I’m a fan. I knew Josh when he was a student at Harvard years and years ago. He was a student of Dušan Makavejev, who was teaching at Harvard in the ‘90s, and I had seen Josh talk to him off and on during the interim period before The Act of Killing came out. He had asked my help at a certain point; he needed financing to finish The Act of Killing. Josh is actually — people say this, but I mean it in this instance — one of the nicest, kindest people I’ve ever met, and, oddly enough, he’s also a really, truly great filmmaker, and I had no idea how great a filmmaker until I started seeing his work.
The Act of Killing is extraordinary — there’s nothing like it — and The Look of Silence is, to me, even better than The Act of Killing. I think it’s a remarkable film. I’ve called him “the new Bresson,” and I mean it. There’s something quiet and powerful and simple about that movie. It’s one of the most elegant, one of the most emotionally powerful films I’ve ever seen. So I’m a fan!