Full disclosure: I haven’t seen nearly as many Errol Morris movies as I should have (or want to). Yes, I realize that’s a horrible thing for someone working in docs to say. I’m not going to list the paltry number I’ve seen because snooty film buffs will just disregard my thoughts, so let’s just say this: I have a lot of catching up to do.
What I have seen, I’ve loved. What fascinates me about Mr. Morris is his uncanny ability to make a compelling film out of seemingly niche story or character. I had the chance to see Mr. Morris speak at one of The New York Times-sponsored “Times Talks” a few weeks ago and it reminded me why I love making, and, I suppose, watching docs (I paid $30 to see the talk, but you can watch it free HERE).
Obviously, in the allotted hour, there was only so much of Mr. Morris’ career that moderator George Kalogerakis could cover. But in the wide-ranging interview, they touched on some topics that fascinated Mr. Morris and which he might one day turn into one of his Timesarticles or films. Somewhat jokingly, Mr. Kalogerakis brought up spontaneous human combustion, which, honestly, I only knew of from Calvin and Hobbes, but apparently is a disputed phenomenon. The question may have been tongue-in-cheek, but Mr. Morris went on to describe his fascination with “SHC” and I quickly found myself hoping he’d make a film about it.
And this, my friends, is why I love making documentaries. As there typically isn’t a lot of money floating around at the start of any project, there exists a terrifying amount of freedom to choose a subject. It would seem that because of this, most docs are passion projects. Be it a social issue film like a BORN INTO BROTHELS or a profile like MAN ON WIRE, docs, more than any other medium, seem to be born out of a great idea that grips a filmmaker and won’t let go until the film unspools. At Copper Pot, we have a running list of doc ideas, but the ones that gain traction do so because one of us is so attached to the story, we need to see it get made. Often, it doesn’t even start out as an idea for a movie; it’s more along the lines of an email or text saying, “You gotta check this out,” which inevitably leads to the response, “We should make a movie about that.” Then, for the next year (or few years), we get to become experts in a topic we love.
Granted, there’s not a lot of financial security in docs, so you have to find a way to keep the lights on (Mr. Morris does it through making commercials, we do it by bucket drumming on subways), but if you can find that balance, you’re in for a pretty fascinating life.