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Interviewing the Universe
Errol Morris, whose film "The Thin Blue Line" saved a man from death row, has now turned his camera on Stephen Hawking, the wheelchair cosmologist with his own ideas about the secret of life.
By Philip Gourevitch

The New York Times Magazine - August, 9, 1992

It's the first day of spring. Snow is falling over Cambridge, Mass. But on the monitor of the documentary film maker Errol Morris' editing console, in an office above Central Square, the scene is Florida, summer, a circus ring. The soundtrack plays muted calliope music, and David Hoover, a portly man in safari gear, is trying to urge a large, unwilling lion through a hoop of flame.

Cut to Hoover alone, seated against a luminous blue backdrop: "I had one lion, and his name was Leo, of all names for a lion. That sucker. He was on his way around to do the fire hoop. I used to have to crowd him, so he'd go through the hoop. And he might reach over and take a chunk out of me, and then he'd keep right on going like nothing happened. You know, leave a nice size hole in your arm with his teeth. They're all different though. They're like people. That's the problem with the wild animal act."

Morris has seen this clip dozens of times, and he still laughs. "That circus," he says, "they went through a bad period where evidently they were feeding the circus horses to the circus lions."

On a more serious note, Morris is quick to point out that the Hoover footage contains a number of his favorite topics: mortality, the predictability of behavior and the unknowable - in this case, the mind of a lion. Morris filmed Hoover seven years ago for a movie called "Dr. Death, A Series of Seven Stories About Self-Deception or Concepts of Violence in Criminality." But the project was shelved when Morris met Randal Adams, a man wrongfully imprisioned for the killing of a Dallas police officer. The filmmaker conducted an investigation that led to an entirely different movie, "The Thin Blue Line," a critically acclaimed documentary that solved a murder case, and brought about Adams's release from death row.

Totally unpredictable and painstakingly deliberate are terms colleagues often use to describe the unhurried, trial-and-error way the perfectionist Morris makes his movies. He prefers to be called obsessive and readily acknowledges that he has to finish a work to know just what it will be. His approach to a subject can be so bizarre as to seem counterintuitive. When he was hired to direct a series of television commercials celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Stop & Shop, he collected longtime employees of the grocery chain, sat them before a camera and asked them to describe their worst day on the job.

A man from the produce department spoke of his fear of "hairy fruit, any and all the hairy fruit," and a refrigeration specialist relived the day 5,000 ice-cream sandwiches melted, declaring, "Refrigeration, you know, refrigeration is like a woman." Morris was delighted with the results. But, as he recalls, "In the middle of all this, a representative from Stop & Shop comes over and says, 'There seems to be a negative emphasis in this material.' I said, 'No, it's triumph over adversity.' She went off, seeming mollified. Then she came back and said, 'I can see the adversity, but it's hard to see the triumph.'"

In the end, Stop & Shop re-edited the ads before broadcasting them. But if Morris's method and its occasional madness is known to bring on anxiety attacks in producers, the outcome is a collection of documentary films so original that they tend to be described simply as Errol Morris movies, species of cinema unto itself. Three have been released to date: "Gates of Heaven" (1978), which chronicles the fortunes of two California pet cemeteries; "Vernon, FL." (1981), a portrait gallery of backwater recluses in the Florida pan-handle, and "The Thin Blue Line" (1988).

Morris's new movie, an adaptation of the British physicist Stephen Hawking's best-selling book, "A Brief History of Time," won this year's Grand Jury Prize for Documentary Filmmaking and the Documentary Filmmaker's Trophy at the Sundance Festival, and will open in New York and Los Angeles on Aug. 21.

After years as an obscure and mostly unemployed filmmaker - albeit one whose praises were sung by fans as diverse as the German director Werner Herzog and the television movie pundit Roger Ebert - Morris's career has blossomed during since "Thin Blue Line." He received a MacArthur fellowship in 1989 and signed on as a client of Hollywood's great power broker, Creative Artist's Agency. But while titans like Steven Spielberg and Robert Redford have backed Morris's recent efforts, the self-christened "director-detective" remains one of the industry's maverick outsiders.

Breaking with the tradition of (cin?ma v?rit?) objectivity that dominates the documentary mode, Morris has tretched and redefined the lmites of his medium. His pioneering use of dramatic re-enactments in "The Thin Blue Line" to animate and intensify the story's key details was hailed as revolutionary. And his bold use of highly stylized, artificial settings underscores his conviction that "actual people speaking extemporaneously into the camerea" is as real as reality gets. In contract to the familiar newsreel look of documentaries, an Errol Morris movie is composed of talking heads: men and women face an unmoving camera and offer up soul-baring monologues.

The people in Morris's earlier movies are types who had never before been seen speaking for themselves on film -- loners, dreamers, monomaniacal hobbyists, religious cranks and psycho-killers who might have sprung from the tales of Flannery O'Connor or the photographs of Diane Arbus. Yet where others have seen America's outsiders as grotesques and portrayed "ordinary lives" as desperate and pitiable, Morris's vision is more sympathetic than damning. The mordant irony that colors his work is balanced by a disarming generosity of spirit. "He's a cosmi-comic," says Fred Wiseman, a fellow documentarian ("Titicut Follies") and MacArthur recepient. Before Morris's lens, the weird becomes familiar, the unsophisticated is suddenly complex and even the sinister can appear unexpectedly poignant.

"The idea is to allow each character to create a world for themselves, a dream." Morris explains. "I've always thought of my portraits as my own version of the Museum of Natural History, these very odd dioramas where you're trying to create some foreign exotic environment and place it on display."

That challenge was greater than ever in "A Brief History of Time," the first movie where Morris worked as a director-for-hire on a project he did not initiate. Although the subject matter and characters could not be more different from his usual fare, the result is still unmistakably an Errol Morris movie. Hawking, afterall, is eccentric and extraordinary, at once a brilliant and intrepid physicist and a man whose struggle with the degenerative motor neuron ailment amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), has forced him to live for decades in a wheelchair. Even the woman from Stop & Shop would recognize that Morris has succeeded in portraying Hawking as what he calls "a symbol to millions of triumph over adversity and man's insignificance in the face of an implacable cosmos out there."

Stitched together from interviews with Hawking's colleagues, families and friends, the movie treats the cosmologist's debilitating condition and his quest for knowledge about the origins and fate of the universe as inseparable themes. Early on, Morris decided to have Hawking's computer-synthesised voice provide a narrative voice-over, and the effect is such that despite the film's complex content, Morris regards it as "less cerebral and more moving" than anything he has done before. he likes to quip that he has made a "movie in which everyone is smarter than me," but "A Brief History of Time" seems the natural outgrowth of the "epistemological questions" -- what we know and how we know it -- that have compelled Morris since his days as a graduate student in physics and philosophy through the making of each of his films.

With his lanky frame folded into the corner of a couch as a storm whirls past the window behind him, the 44 year old Morris talks about his life's work almost as if it were one single snowballing project, the Errol Morris movie. And he seems to be speaking as much of himself as of Hawking when he says, "It seems not quite science but art that there are these ineluctable things of beauty out there that some people can see, if not create, in this sea of mortality."

When Errol Morris was 2 years old, his father, a doctor, died of a heart attack, and 33 three years later, his older brother, Noel, a computer scientist, died of the same cause.

"I guess it has always been very odd for me that a person, my father, who's really so much part of my life is really unknowable to me," Morris reflects. "In the case of my brother, it was just terrible sad and depressing." He describes life without them as "the enterprise of trying to send out roots into the world and to sort of re-establish oneself." In addition to his movies, Morris has a wife, Julia Sheehan and a son Mel, now 4.

Growing up in Hewlett, L.I., Morris was bookish, asthmatic and precocious. His mother, Cinnabelle Esterman, a Juilliard graduate who supported her boys as a music teacher, claims "it wasn't easy" providing for the family, but Morris says that if there wase hardship, "I wasn't aware of it." Esterman recalls that the future director "was playing chess in third grade and taught all his classmates, and in fifth grade he gave lectures on the solar system and had charts all about that."

In high school, Morris took up the cello, and spent a summer in Fontainebleau, France studying music with the renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger. He graduated from the Putney School in Vermont, took a B.A. in history at the University of Wisconsin and turned for a while to rock-climbing in Yosemite where he performed the first ever ascent of the northwest face of Half Dome in a white shirt and neck tie. Eventually, he began an unhappy career as a graduate student, first in history of science at Princeton, then in philosophy at Berkeley. He had assumed he would be a professor or a "writer of some kind, " but he hated teaching and his proposal for a thesis on the insanity plea, monster movies and a group of murderers in Wisconsin prisons whom he hoped to interview was rejected.

While at Berkeley, Morris took numerous field trips to Santa Monica to observe the trials of serial killers. He grew fascinated with murder cases as "historical narratives," and began an intensive study of the insanity plea and theories about the predictability of behavior. During that period, he also became a movie buff. When he wasn't in court, he was likely to be in a theater watching film-noir reruns like "Out of the Past, " which stars Robert Mitchum and includes one of Morris's favorite lines: "I could see the frame but I couldn't see the picture."

Mitchum might well have been speaking about Morris's sense of direction at the time. When his studies bottomed out, he went to Wisconsin anyway, and found his calling as an interviewer after gaining jailhouse access to Ed Gein, the amateur taxidermist murderer, grave robber and necrophilliac who was the inspiration for Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."

"I've always been unhappy with the way true crime is written," he observes. "I had this idea of just isolating 10 or 11 central details and using them to frame our picture of a murder-case."

Eventually, Morris would tell such a story in "The Thin Blue Line." In the meantime, however, he returned to California, where a newspaper headline --"450 Dead Pets Going to Napa Valley" -- inspired him to make a movie. He began "Gates of Heaven" with no idea what he was after. As a director, he was a total greenhorn, but but by now he was an experienced interviewer with a technique all his own.

"I didn't say anything," he explains. "I just sat there. I said, 'Can you please talk about, you know, your dog.' The first interview I ever filmed was Howard's, and the very first line, which was properly the start of my film career, was when they said: 'Trooper was the kind of dog who didn't have other dogs to relate to. He lived with adult human beings.' Somehow after that interview I just knew that there was a movie." The memory still fills Morris with pride.

"Errol has an incredible ability to get people to talk," marvels Jim Mintz, a friend and private investigator in New York who used Morris as a freelancer in the early 80's. "His ability not to fill a silence is unique."

Off camera, Morris will speak for hours at a sitting, blending anecdotes and technical expertise on a broad range of topics. His tone, like his standard uniform of khaki pants, white shirt and blazer, is vaguely professorial. He can recite complex legal doctrine from memory, and is likely to spring up to read aloud from his favorite author, Edgar Allen Poe, or to declare that "Citizen Kane" is "the quintessential modern movie" because it provides a definite answer to the question, "Is Rosebud the reason why it all happened, or is it a metaphor for the unknowability of why it all happened?"

But whatever he is on about, Morris always circles back to the fundamental problem of making an Errol Morris movie -- how to extract a situation's truth without violating its mystery. That tends to be a difficult balancing act.

"It's a good rule of thumb," he reports, "that 99 percent of everything you shoot is never going to make it into the movie. A lot of what I do involves editing."

Because he works with talking heads, rather than action footage, the moments Morris has to select at the editing board are largely moments of speech. He cuts with an ear carefully tuned to what people say and, to what he calls "the cadence, and how it fits together, and the timing of it, which I think is a kind of music."

Beneath the intensely particular song of each character, there emerges from one Morris movie to the next the distinctive ring of the filmmaker's own voice. Faced with the camera and his silence, the people he films appear to feel compelled to give an account of the ultimate. One after another they speculate about truth and law and death and love and God, creating a collective meditation of on the nature and purpose of life. Filtered through Morris's sensibility, the worlds of California's pet cemetaries, Florida's swamps and Stephen Hawking's Oxford acquire a peculiar continuity.

Here is Albert Bitterling, a retiree in "Vernon, Florida," who has attempted to photograph the night sky through binoculars: "Ever star up there, maybe it is a world. You know, I mean, it was made for some purpose. You know, it's just up there... You don't know God's plan. Even Jesus Christ didn't know. It says right in the Bible that no man knows that, can find out the answer to that, you know, when the end of the world is. Well, not the end of the world, but the end of our, our world..."

Here's Cal Harberts, director of the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial ark, in "Gates of Heaven": My assurance to the pet owners that they will be reunited with their pet at some time in the future, maybe under different circumstances and in a different form -- as remote as this might be and as hard as it is for them to visualize -- it still gives them a degree of hope."

And here are Stephen Hawking's last workds in "A Brief History of Time,": "If we do discover a complete theory of the universe, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason. For then we would know the mind of God."

Stephen Hawking wanted the movie of "A Brief History of Time" to be about science, and only about science. The producer, Gordon Freedman, found it took "a lot of wine and talk" before a physicist would affix his thumb print to a plan for a documentary that would also feature large parts of his biography. Even then, the project seemed impossible until Steven Spielberg, whose Amblin Entertainment helped arranged the financing, picked Morris as the director.

"I was dubious," Hawking writes in "A Reader's Companion to 'A Brief History of Time,'" a new book composed from Morris's interview transcripts. But he says he found Morris to be "a man of integrity, something rare in the film world, " and concludes that, "if anyone could make a film that people would want to watch, but which doesn't lose sight of the purpose of the book, it is he."

Morris grants that public interest in Hawking would probably not be so great is he were not in a wheelchair, able to communicate only through a voice-simulator that makes him sound like the computer Hal in "2001:A Space Odyssey." But in an age when celebrity biography seems increasingly dedicated to unmasking the idea of greatness, Morris's portrait of Hawking manages to be very reverent without indulging Hawking's quasi-deity cult status, as -- in Julia Sheehan's phrase -- "the Mick Jagger of theoretical physics." Rather, Morris's record of Hawking and the people who surround him creates the unexpected impression that he is a normal man who just happens to have the mind of a genius trapped in a devastated body.

Morris worked closely with Hawking in making the movie, and he respected the physicist's wish not to address such matters as his recent decision to leave his wife and set up house with his nurse. Hawking was willing, however, to describe for the movie, his experience of being struck by a taxi last winter. "The accident," he reports, "Destroyed my wheelchair and damaged my computer system, with which I communicate. I required 13 stitches in head, but I was able to get back to work several days later." the anecdote serves to remind the viewer that Morris's choice to begin the movie with Hawking's mother saying, "Luck. Luck, well, we have been very lucky. I mean my family and Stephen and everybody," is not entirely ironic.

The movie dwells at length on Hawking's attempt to develop a theory of the reversibility of time, a theory he is eventually forced to abandon. "I had made a mistake," he explains, "It turned out I was using a too simple a model of the universe. Time will not reverse direction when the universe begins to contract. People will continue to get older, so it is no good waiting until the universe recollapses to return our youth."

Morris says, "A Brief History of time, " was his most difficult movie to make, but he is happy with the outcome. "This feeling of time, of aging, of mortality combined with this search for the most basic and deep questions about the world around us and ourselves," he says, "is pretty persuasive stuff."

As he assembles other people's stories and visions into his own, Morris seems determined to remain an invisible presence in his movies. On the other hand, he dismisses the idea of documentary objectivity as "antiartistic," and argues that "part of what makes great documentary is to capture some of the complexity between the person making the movie and the people who are in the movie." On the other hand, he condemns the fashionable notion that all history is interpretation.

"There is a world out there, and what actually happens in that world is of great importance," he says recalling his work on "The Thin Blue Line." "To me it is of great importance to answer the question of who sat in the driver's seat of the Comet, pulled the gun out and shot Officer Robert Wood in Dallas. I mean, it's the central question."

Morris is proud that people he has filmed tend to like the movies they turn up in. That was not the case, however, with Randall Adams, who sued Morris after the success of "The Thin Blue Line" for financial compensation and to regain full rights to his story. Adams's action, which was settled out of court, left Morris feeling bitterly betrayed.

Adams has since published a book about his case, in which he refers to Morris as "the Easter bunny who gathered the eggs of evidence into one basket so that we could present them to the court," and acknowledges that were it not for Morris, he would either be dead or still in jail. "I still consider Errol to be a friend," he notes. "My family considers him to one of its members." That feeling, however, is not mutual.

The perception behind Adams's suit, that Morris was a Hollywood tycoon, couldn't have been further from the truth. His first two movies won some critical acclaim, but they suffered from poor distribution, and earned nothing. Before "The Thin Blue LIne," he had nearly given up hope of a film-making career. He was living in New York with his wife, Julia, an art historian, and as she remembers is, "every morning we were wakened by bill collectors."

"For years my life had really been falling apart," Morris states. "I applied for this one grant, and they called me up and said, 'Congratulations, you're first runner-up...If one of the people that we've offered the money to decides they don't want it, then maybe we can give you some.' It was really just horrible."

Today, Morris is far from rich but his family is comfortable in a narrow wood house in Cambridge, where stuffed birds -- three parrots and an albatross in the living room, a collection of small shore birds and a cormorant garlanded with chili peppers in the kitchen -- provide an echo of Norman Bate's digs in "Psycho". The setting is decidely modest, but to Morris the greatest measure of success is the fact that he is working steadily.

Still, not all of Morris's recent experience has been happy. Shortly after he began work on "A Brief History of Time," he was hired by Robert Redford to direct his first feature film, "The Dark Wind," based on a Tony Hillerman novel about Navajo and Hopi Indians. Morris jumped at the opportunity but from the outset, the production was plagued by difficulties. Although he saw the filming through to the end, he was le go before he could get to the editing room.

Morris won't discuss what went wrong on the set of "The Dark Wind," and Patrick Markey, who produced the movie for Redford, is also reluctant to ascribe blame. Both men stress the hardships of working on location on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, and negotiating the conflicts between the tribes. Morris compares the situation with making "a film about the Palestinians and the Israelis and shooting it on the West Bank." The finished movie, which remains in limbo since it's distributor, Seven Arts, went belly up, has a number of what Markey calls "very Morrissian touches," but does not have the qualities of an Errol Morris Movie.

Markey says he believes Morris has a future as a director of feature films, but he cautions that "it really has to be his kind of material." With documentary, he says, "there is a sense of autonomy, you sort of find the story within the material. Narrative feature making requires a great deal more planning and plotting."

The two paths need not be mutually exclusive, but the composer, Philip Glass, who scored "The Thin Blue Line" and "A Brief History of Time," wonders if they are equally worthy. "Errol's an artist," he maintains. "Artistic temperment can't work with a Hollywood timetabe. And why should he? You don't tell a painter when his painting is done."

Morris says, "Mine is a circuitous path. I can't see myself as a Hollywood insider, although I definitely want the Hollywood career."

Ask Errol Morris what's next, and he says, "Right at the moment I'm trying to figure out what to do with my life. I'd like to go on making movies. That much is sure. But which one?"

Early this summer, Lindsay Law, the American Playhouse Theater producer who financed "The Thin Blue Line," gave Morris money for a new project tentatively called "Six Stories." The movie, which will have a score by his old friend, Tom Waits, is expected to include footage of David Hoover, the lion tamer, as well as "essays" on subjects that include a topiary gardener, the extinct Utopian community of Zoar, in Ohio, and a hideous flamingo pink rodent called the South African naked mole rat.

"Six Stories" will also mark the debut of Morris's new invention, the Interrotron, an interview-filming machine that allows Morris to project his image on a teleprompter placed directly over the camera's lens. The effect, he says, is to focus the subject's attention and gaze more directly into the camera than was possible in the past.

"We're actually looking at each other down the central axis of the lens," he says. "It's the difference between faux first person and the true first person. There's an added intensity. The Interrotron inaugurates the birth of true first-person cinema."

Halfway through production of "Six Stories," Morris is already looking ahead to future projects. He still wants to make "Ablaze," a movie on spontaneous human combustion, and "Weirdo," about a California teen-ager who bred a 28-pound chicken. And Morris is also impatient to make "King Boots," a feature film based on the true story of an old English sheep dog who enjoyed the most successful show career in American history until he was put on trial in Michigan in 1985 for the murder of Gertrude Monroe, his owner's 87-year-old mother. The project which began as a documentary, has the backing of Warner Brothers and Spielberg's Amblin, and could be under way this fall.

"It's a fantastic story, a story about an American family, a story about evidence," Morris gushes. "It's about how we piece together a picture of the world. Everything you would see in a major murder trial finds its way into this story, arguments about forethought, forensic testimony, character witnesses for and against the dog, mystery witnesses, prosecution witnesses. It's got it all. And it's another miscarriage of justice story. It's great. And I really want to make it."

Morris is out of his chair, leading the way into the next room, where a photograph of a disconsolate Boots, peering out through bars, hangs over a bookcase. "This could be a great movie," Morris says, "This could be my 'Citizen Kane'".

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