Essay | My fun time hanging out with a “serious” Oscar-winning director

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Hanging out with Oscar-winning director Errol Morris, I learn the “serious” filmmaker is actually a fun goofball. Morris has been my doc hero for many years and his latest film, TABLOID, is superb.

Errol Morris sure fooled me. If you’re familiar with this filmmaker’s serious-minded work, it’s logical to anticipate meeting a somber, reserved, deep thinking, perhaps even a somewhat humorless fellow. Nope. The guy I shook hands with is a combination of goofy Mel Brooks with a sprinkling of Steve Carrel silliness who’s powered by the hyper and mischievous energy of a quirky kid sputtering out of a hunkering six foot plus frame.

And I mean all that in a nice way. Because Morris is also quite a pleasant and down-to-earth guy who was a joy to hang out with. Although he was funny and playful, speaking with him, one could not help but also notice his grey head housed a keen, deep-thinking mind which was always percolating.

Errol Morris film director, celebrity los angeles photographer

Filmmaker Errol Morris – photographer Gregory Mancuso ©

Roger Ebert has said, “After twenty years of reviewing films, I haven’t found another filmmaker who intrigues me more…Errol Morris is like a magician, and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini.” Ebert has placed Morris’s first feature GATES OF HEAVEN on his list of the 10 Best Films of All Time. Recently, the Guardian listed him as one of the ten most important film directors in the world.

So there you go, it ain’t just me. I’ve been a big fan of Morris going back 25 years, since the time I saw his first feature documentary GATES OF HEAVEN.

This night I was hired to shoot Morris at a screening of his latest film TABLOID. I was also paid to consume copious amounts of delicious food, champagne, hobnob with celebs, and relax in CAA’s most comfy and superb theater and watch a fine movie. Sometimes my jobs are such a hardship.

Tabloid movie trailer

First off, being the sophisticated film reviewer that I am, I have to tell you the rating I give TABLOID is my top “gotta-gotta-see”! Yes, that’s a rare, double-gotta rating. This true-story documentary was hilarious and made me laugh out loud more often than any Hollywood comedy concoction has in years.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what an official professional film reviewer, Peter Debruge of Daily Variety has to say…

Proof that one must never underestimate another human’s capacity to rationalize anything, Errol Morris’ “Tabloid” is bonkers in all the best possible ways–a welcome return to perverse portraiture after a lengthy sojourn in the realm of more serious-minded subjects. With a former beauty queen in the hot seat, the “Fog of War” director applies his trademark truth-seeking methods to his wiliest subject yet: Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming-turned-Mormon “sex in chains” kidnapper, whose disarming candor masks untold levels of delusion.

There you go, an official thumbs-up. I went into the screening knowing zero about the film, and I think the best experience might be had by watching Tabloid without knowing a lot about it. Letting the unpredictable, true-life plot unfold like the demented fractured fairy tale it truly is. So I’m gonna refrain from describing the plot much. Tabloid poster, celebrity gossipI’ll give you this much though…

With TABLOID, Errol Morris further redefines and pushes the boundaries of documentary film with the tale of the infamous “Case of the Manacled Mormon.” In 1977, Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney flew to England with a pilot and a bodyguard to abduct the love of her life. Or was it to liberate him from a cult? Joyce, all of the people that cross her path, and the British tabloids help construct an epic RASHOMON-like tale that is as hilarious as it is unbelievable. Part black comedy, part film noir, TABLOID is always surprising and features one of the most captivating characters of Morris’s career.

There, satisfied? Well, tough nuggies, if you’re not. Go google yourself silly and find out detailed plot tidbits if you must, but I think you’re stabbing yourself in the foot to spite the nose on your face by doing so. Just go see it.

Anyway, after the screening, Morris held court for a Q&A. So after the fun of seeing this film, I got to have more fun because it’s turns out that this serious, ground-breaking director can be a kick-ass, improv, stand-up comedian. Go figure. He fielded questions from the audience, served up humorous anecdotes, told jokes and I cackled with laughter for a half hour. I do believe I snagged my monthly quota of yuks on this one job.

But enough of this silliness. Here’s the filmmaker in his own smart words.

“TABLOID is a return to my favorite genre-–sick, sad and funny–but of course, it’s more than that,” said Morris. “It is a meditation on how we are shaped by the media and even more powerfully, by ourselves. Joyce is a woman profoundly influenced by her dreams and, in a sense, she was living in a movie long before she came to star in my film.”

When asked about Joyce’s propensity for lying to the audience, Errol says, “To me, it isn’t about truth or lying. It’s about lying and self-deception. And I think that most of us—and I certainly include myself—convince ourselves of the truth of things, so that genuinely, we do not feel that we are lying about anything… Joyce underlines that theme quite eloquently when she says, ‘you can tell a lie enough times that you come to believe it’.”

He discussed his use of titles and graphics in this film, which are perhaps employed more heavily than in any of his previous films, and made a statement that stands to sum up his approach to filmmaking:

“I have this new theory of art… If people find it annoying and offensive? Better yet! I get so few opportunities to ply my trade, I haven’t made that many movies, and I think that every time I get an opportunity to make a movie, I should try to reinvent the form, at least in some way. I should do something different, just for the hell of it.”

Errol Morris on The Colbert Report

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More fantastic Errol Morris films

THIN BLUE LINE

This is probably my favorite Morris film. It is so good that it won the Oscar for best documentary, and it was so effective that it done sprung an innocent man outta jail. What a wonderful double whammy!

THE THIN BLUE LINE is the fascinating, controversial true story of the arrest and conviction of Randall Adams for the murder of a Dallas policeman in 1976. Billed as “the first movie mystery to actually solve a murder,” the film is credited with overturning the conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood, a crime for which Adams was sentenced to death. With its use of expressionistic reenactments, interview material and music by Philip Glass, it pioneered a new kind of non-fiction filmmaking. Its style has been copied in countless reality-based television programs and feature films.

Terrence Rafferty in The New Yorker has called it “a powerful and thrillingly strange movie. Morris seems to want to bring us to the point at which our apprehension of the real world reaches a pitch of paranoia — to induce in us the state of mind of a detective whose scrutiny of the evidence has begun to take on the feverish clarity of hallucination.”

THE THIN BLUE LINE was voted the best film of 1988 in a Washington Post survey of 250 film critics. Premiere magazine, in a survey of films of the 1980s, described it as one of the most important and influential movies of the decade.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME

You better put on your thinking caps for this one, kids. Not a film to see late at night when you’re tired. It takes some concentrating but is well worth the effort and you’ll feel 33.333% smarter afterwards.

In 1992, Errol Morris finished A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, about the life and work of Stephen Hawking, the physicist who is often compared to Einstein and who is paralyzed and has spent much of his life in a wheelchair. In this film adaptation of Hawking’s book about the origins of the universe, Morris has woven together graphics, interviews and archival material in a story about both Hawking’s life and science.

David Ansen in Newsweek has called it, “an elegant, inspirational and mysterious movie. Morris turns abstract ideas into haunting images, and keeps them spinning in the air with the finesse, and playfulness, of a master juggler”.

THE FOG OF WAR

Another Oscar winner here and it’s the story of America as seen through the eyes of the former Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara. One of the most controversial and influential figures in world politics, he takes us on an insider’s view of the seminal events of the 20th Century. Why was this past Century the most destructive and deadly in all of human history? Are we doomed to repeat our mistakes? Are we free to make choices, or are we at the mercy of inexorable historical forces and ideologies?

QUAKER OATS COMMERCIAL

Here’s a commercial Morris made for Quaker Oats. This is not CGI or anything else along the lines of special effects. It’s a classical optical illusion called the Ames room. Even his commercials are darn interesting. Morris appears in this and is the guy in gray shirt.

ESPN TEAM SPIRIT

written by Los Angeles photographer & writer Gregory Mancuso

Hanging out with Oscar-winning director Errol Morris, I learn the “serious” filmmaker is actually a fun goofball. I’ll also tell you about his new film, TABLOID, a hilarious u-turn from his prior work, and toss in trailers and info about his other stellar films you should see.