I’ve been thankful in quarantine that you can find Errol Morris’s documentaries on streaming services, not only because I think about Donald Rumsfeld’s bonkers word salad weekly, but also because Stephen Hawking grappling with the concept of origins helped put things into perspective. A few days ago, Morris quietly uploaded his two-season Bravo series First Person (2000) to YouTube; from a brief perusal, it is a delight. It’s also a product of Morris’s favoured televisual invention, the terrifyingly-named Interrotron.
The series features anybody with a story, but mostly, studies fringe pathology and moral deviance: there’s a “crime scene cleaner,” a woman who dates serial killers, a cryonics trailblazer who describes freezing his mum’s head. The series title and cutaways highlight Morris’s carefully-orchestrated design to get subjects to make direct eye contact with the viewer — an approach accomplished by a set of two cameras and two, two-way teleprompter mirrors, superimposing a live feed of both the director and interviewee over the lenses. (You can see a diagram by production designer Steve Hardie here.) Today, we might think of this as video conferencing, but it’s better; the camera on a laptop is still slightly above the image of the other person’s face.
Prior to the Interrotron, Morris told FLM Magazine in a 2004 interview, he used to strain to put his head right next to the camera lens in order to simulate a real conversation.
“We all know when someone makes eye contact with us. It is a moment of drama,” he said. “Perhaps it’s a serial killer telling us that he’s about to kill us; or a loved one acknowledging a moment of affection. Regardless, it’s a moment with dramatic value. We know when people make eye contact with us, look away and then make eye contact again. It’s an essential part of communication. And yet, it is lost in standard interviews on film. That is, until the Interrotron.” He proudly added that Mikhail Gorbachev, Laura Bush, Iggy Pop, Al Sharpton, and Walter Cronkite had all confronted the Interrotron. He said that his wife had coined the name from “interview” and “terror,” since it removes the fear from the interview process.
The tactic clearly coaxes the subjects to flow, and they reward him, as Morris’s subjects tend to, with offhand remarks beyond an interviewer’s wildest dreams.
“I had a trial in which my client stabbed the guy in the back four times — no, seven times. And my defence was he kept backing into the knife,” a mafia defence lawyer chuckles. “And the jury bought it.”
Murder and crimes are a frequent topic, but it’s also laced with dark humour. Morris occasionally interjects through the screen to loudly crack a joke with, say, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s former penpal.
He also has a singing dog, I see.