Adventure of the Real- Errol Morris Interview (by York Chang)


This is the first in a two-part series investigating the thin line between the fictional and the documentary.

Errol Morris (b. 1948, Hewlett, NY) is a writer and filmmaker. His movie “The Thin Blue Line” was named best documentary of 1988 by the New York Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics His movie “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara” won the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 2004. “Gates of Heaven,” his first film, has been for many years on Roger Ebert’s list of the 10 best movies ever made. “Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography,” a book of his essays on the nature of truth in photography is a New York Times best-seller. Morris’s new film, “Tabloid,” the story of Joyce McKinney, the “manacled Mormon,” and her five pit-bull clones, is now available on DVD. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, winner of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship grant, and lives with his wife and two French bulldogs (Boris and Ivan) in Cambridge, Mass.

York Chang (b. 1973, St. Louis, MO) is a conceptual artist and painter who manipulates the cultural projection of ideology, fanaticism, identity and political power. He creates immersive “total” installations, which explore the exhibition construct’s potential for literary fiction and turn forensic and archival systems into supports for poetic gestures. He earned both his BFA (1996) and Juris Doctorate (2001) from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). York Chang lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. He has exhibited at MASSMoCA; Outpost for Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions; CB1 Gallery, Los Angeles, 18th Street Art Center, Los Angeles, CA; La Central Gallery, Bogotá, Colombia; ARCO, Madrid, Spain; Torrance Art Museum; Center for Democracy at the Japanese American National Museum; Merry Karnowsky Gallery, Berlin, Germany. He is a member of the Artist Pension Trust, a Creative Capital grant finalist, and a 2011 Fellow at 18th Street Arts Center.




(JANUARY 11, 2012)

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

            Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

 -T.S. Eliot

YORK CHANG: I don’t know where to begin.

ERROL MORRIS: (silence)

YORK CHANG: I thought you might appreciate me starting our interview with that. I read in my research preparing for the interview that you make it a point to always start your interviews with a pronouncement like that. To keep it open-ended and all….

ERROL MORRIS: (silence)

YORK CHANG: …rather than making your subject feel like he’s in some sort of constructed cross-examination or something. Not that I would ever be plotting to cross-examine you. I wouldn’t presume to… with all of your experience. And, um,  your Academy Award. And the MacArthur Genius Award…

EM: (silence)

YC: I’m starting to ramble, aren’t I? You’re doing that interview technique thing… that rule you have… aren’t you?

EM: My rule of thumb is leave people alone, let them talk, and in two or three minutes they’ll show you how crazy they really are. [1]
Errol Morris

YC: (laughing) So that’s your rule of thumb for interviewing AND for being interviewed?

EM: (laughing) I thought I was supposed to be doing the interviewing. What happened? [2] A good interview needn’t be a tug of war. I like confrontation as much as the next person, but it’s not what I’m about as a filmmaker. [3] My intention is to remove myself from the interview as much as possible even though I’m very much there. [4]

YC: Well, that’s a relief to hear that you try to be present in the conversation… I had this premonition that this was going to be a tough interview.

EM: I’ve found that self-fulfilling prophecies are the only kind of prophecy that is really reliable. [5]

YC: You know, I read that somewhere as well… but I can’t recall where exactly. Actually, this is an interesting place to start our conversation. This inability to recall such things seems to be a feeling that is really specific to the contemporary moment- we’re drowning in instantly accessible information, but how much do we retain? And so much misinformation and distortion- how much can we trust?

EM: There are so many sources of information you lose track- a sort of hall of mirrors where people are reporting on other people reporting on other people reporting. The connection of all this sea of information, this glut, to reality is sometimes lost. Where did all this stuff originate?[6]


[1] Errol Morris- Interviews, edited by Livia Bloom, back cover; see also How to Interview Someone, Errol Morris, Business Week, September 22, 2011
[2] Errol Morris-, July 10, 2011
[3] Errol Morris-Interviews, edited by Livia Bloom, “It Could All Be Wrong,” Errol Morris, Interview with Paul Cronin, p. 152
[4] Mr. Death, the Executioner’s Song, Errol Morris, Interview with Scott Macaulay, Filmmaker Magazine, Fall 1999
[5] Beliefs- Best Books…, Errol Morris,
[6] Interview: The Thin Blue Line Would Not Have Saved Randall Davis Today, Errol Morris, Interview with Eric Kohn,, July 13, 2011




(JANUARY 11, 2012)

We are unknown, we knowers to ourselves…

of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves…


YC: I am really interested in how your documentaries are essentially constructed from the monologues of your subjects… and so often, the things they say, the language that they use will both obfuscate what reality is, but they also give you these revealing glimpses into these vast mental and emotional landscapes which people have constructed for themselves.

EM: I suppose you might call this self-deception. [7] The question of “what were people thinking” is a question that deeply fascinates me. [8] My belief is that we invented language so we could lie more effectively, that language is a vehicle for self-deception and evasion. [9]

YC: Because very often, a person’s self-image is hidden under layer upon layer of complex calculations, often delusional, of what that person believes other people desire of them, and what they desire of themselves. Do you find that these calculations manifest themselves most often in the language people use or their body language?

EM: Language is the ultimate tool of concealment. [10]
YC: And is it your mission in your films to reveal this concealment, this aporia? To ferret out their lies?

EM: To me, it isn’t truth or lying- it’s between lying and self-deception and I think that most of us, and I certainly include myself in that category, convince ourselves of the truth of things, so that genuinely, we don’t feel that we’re lying about anything, we’re just merely self-deceived. [11] It’s a quest, and often it’s as interesting to chronicle people’s persistent avoidance of the truth as their pursuit of it. It’s our capacity to believe in untruth that fascinates me. [12]

YC: But isn’t it slippery stuff to try to determine truth and falsity when we are discussing individuals’ self-image, their subjective responses to events, how individuals see themselves and their place in the world?

EM: The difficulty of ascertaining the truth in history is often confused with the relativity of truth. Two very different concepts. [13] Truth is not relative. It’s not subjective. It may be elusive or hidden. People may wish to disregard it. But there is such a thing as truth, and the pursuit of truth: trying to figure out what has really happened.  Trying to figure out how things really are. [14] Truth is elusive, and we avoid it. We’re often wrong about things even when we are convinced that we are in complete possession of the truth. [15]

YC: That reminds me of that quote by Mark Twain when he says “I fear not the people who don’t know what they are talking about, I fear the fellow who insists he knows exactly what he is talking about.”  I think that every assumed truth most likely hides another layer of meaning embedded within it, if you are willing to pursue it a little deeper, you’ll find yourself challenged…

EM: The world is an incredibly messy, confused, adulterated place, and finding out the truth about anything usually involves some truly hard labor. It’s a quest, and sometimes you fail. [16]


[7] Errol Morris-Interviews, edited by Livia Bloom, “It Could All Be Wrong,” Errol Morris, Interview with Paul Cronin, p. 157
[8] Recovering Reality: A Conversation with Errol Morris for the Columbia Journalism Review, Errol Morris,, March 4, 2008
[9] Truth is a Linguistic Thing, Errol Morris, Interview with Nubar Alexanian for the Transom Review,, October 2002
[10] Errol Morris-Interviews, edited by Livia Bloom, “It Could All Be Wrong,” Errol Morris, Interview with Paul Cronin, p. 200
[11] Tabloid, Errol Morris, Interview by Blackberry,, September 20, 2010
[12] Errol Morris-Interviews, edited by Livia Bloom, “It Could All Be Wrong,” Errol Morris, Interview with Paul Cronin, p. 157
[13] The Ashtray: This Contest of Interpretation (Part 5), Errol Morris,, March 10, 2011
[14] There is Such a Thing as Truth, Errol Morris,, May 2, 2005
[15] Errol Morris-Interviews, edited by Livia Bloom, “It Could All Be Wrong,” Errol Morris, Interview with Paul Cronin, p. 157
[16] Errol Morris Caught in Bed with a Tabloid!, Errol Morris, Interview with Seth Abramovitch,, July 12, 2011




(JANUARY 12, 2012)

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.

-Mark Twain

YC: I thought the best way to start off our second day was to be as pretentious as possible. Let’s talk about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He essentially asserts that truth comes down to an agreement between human beings that decides what is true, and what is false…

EM: So much for the relationship between science and the world. [17]

YC: I guess that we can say Wittgenstein was a pre-postmodern postmodernist?

EM: Isn’t it time to prosecute post-modernists? You could put them in prison, throw away the key, but it would all be relative, no? [18]

YC: (laughing) Well, these days, the reality is that the relativity of reality is constantly being asserted all around us, which makes objective reality even more complicated to discern. But often times, reality itself is pretty compelling stuff.

EM: That’s the wonderful thing about the world, reality is infinitely richer than any of the schemes that we have ever described to try to capture it. [19] We assemble our picture of reality from details. We don’t take in reality whole. Our ideas about reality come from bits and pieces of experience. We try to assemble them into something that has a consistent narrative. [20]

YC: And yet you’ve been criticized as bringing fictional strategies into the documentary form, manipulating and stylizing your images, aggressive editing, your use of the re-enactment and animation, etc. This sort of deconstructs journalistic objectivity, doesn’t it?

EM: What I like to do is draw people’s attention to the fact that the line between fiction and non-fiction, between documentary and the dramatic- is somewhat more illusory than we’d like to think. Some nonfiction films, mine for example, are highly controlled, while some fiction films, The Battle of Algiers, have very strong elements of cinéma vérité. Where does the real world end and fiction begin? Is an Astaire and Rogers film a documentary of them dancing or is something more than that? [21] It just goes to show you that images- and also writing that purports to be “nonfiction”- often bear a complicated relationship to reality.[22]
Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

YC: So truth is not a state of being, or a mode of presentation, it’s a process?

EM: People love to talk about truth. Truth-telling. Truth in advertising- try that oxymoron on for size. Most of the time, I have no idea what people are talking about when they talk about truth. They somehow imagine that truth-telling is connected with style or presentation, that if its cinéma vérité or it appears on the New York Times it must be true. [23]

YC: But in the cinéma vérité film you mention, in the Battle of Algiers, Director Pontecorvo created something that, although not strictly real, created a sense of authenticity and a credible sense of what a true record of that horrible conflict might have looked like- isn’t there something inherently more truthful about that style of representation, as compared to, say, a musical, for example?

EM: Truth is not guaranteed by style or presentation. It’s not handed over on a tray like a Happy Meal. Truth is not something that you go out and collect with a camera. It is something to be pursued. Truth can’t be manufactured, only the appearance of truth. [24]

Movie still from cinéma vérité film Battle of Algiers, 1966, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo


[17] The Ashtray: This Contest of Interpretation (Part 5), Errol Morris,, March 10, 2011
[18] Errol Morris,, July 11, 2011
[19] The Truth is There, Errol Morris, Interview with Leon Neyfakh,, June 12, 2011
[20] Play It Again, Sam (Re-enactments, Part One), Errol Morris,, April 3, 2008
[21] Errol Morris-Interviews, edited by Livia Bloom, “It Could All Be Wrong,” Errol Morris, Interview with Paul Cronin, p. 154
[22] Id. at p. 161
[23] Truth is a Linguistic Thing, Errol Morris, Interview with Nubar Alexanian for the Transom Review,, October 2002
[24] Errol Morris-Interviews, edited by Livia Bloom, “It Could All Be Wrong,” Errol Morris, Interview with Paul Cronin, p. 158




(JANUARY 12, 2012)

We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.

The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.


EM: What is history- a collection of real events or of subjective memories? [25] What are your feelings about it? [26]

YC: I tend to take advantage of the position that historical truth is a malleable construction, maybe this conception of history gives me a certain informal creative license to do the projects I do- it is what we judge to have happened. But I’m often criticized for the way that this type of murkiness puts me in the same playground as say a Sarah Palin, or Newt Gingrich, who play fast and loose with history and reality for political expediency. I guess the concern is that blurring the line between fact and fiction kind of undermines the notion that history, or truth and reality exist.

EM: Oh, yes, reality and truth both exist. And if you don’t believe it, jump out that window. We’re on the 39th floor. [27]

YC: (laughing) Right. As real and true as the two of us sitting right here.  Wow, first you contemplate prosecuting post-modernists, then you invite me to leap out of a window- with the kind of projects I undertake, posing fiction as reality, I shudder to think how you must think of me as a person- that I’m… that I’m…

EM: …a completely benighted human being who still deserves our sympathy? [28]

YC: Ouch.

EM: The issue is what is out there, what is true, what is false, what really happened?  [29]

YC: Okay. But I think that sometimes by creating elaborate, persuasive fictions which propose a different imagined history, especially in the context of art-making, you can sometimes call critical attention to the hidden mechanisms of credibility, and lead people to a higher state of criticality when evaluating information. There is a certain mental openness with which people come to art, that make them more susceptible to taking in ideas. I think about cultural figures like Augusta Boal and Bertol Brecht, and their arguments on the capacity of film and theatre to achieve social and political change- but it does requires a certain degree of transparency about art’s fictional nature. Plays must become re-enactments if you will, with full acknowledgment of the artifice of the operation behind the curtain.

Vorhang (Curtain), 1965, Gerhard Richter, oil on canvas, 24 cm x 18 cm

EM: There’s clearly a difference between using a reenactment to acknowledge that nobody knows what really happened, and one that purports to show you reality. [30]

YC: I totally agree…

EM: Think about it- the so-called blurring of the line between fiction and non-fiction doesn’t mean we’re denying or manipulating the truth. What it does is make us think about truth and our relationship to the world out there.  [31]

YC: Well, your assistant is gesticulating madly here, I know you have to get going, it’s getting a bit dark in here anyway, I’m really sorry about the lighting. But thank you so much for chatting with me these past two days, it has been a pleasure meeting you. Hope to see you again soon.

EM: What a spectacular evening. [32] Soon. Very soon. [33]


[25] The Ashtray: The Author of Quixote (Part 4), Errol Morris,, March 9, 2011
[26] Id.
[27] Id.
[28] Singer, Mark, 1989. “Predilections,” New Yorker, 64 (51) (February 6): 38
[29] Recovering Reality: A Conversation with Errol Morris for the Columbia Journalism Review, Errol Morris,, March 4, 2008
[30] Errol Morris-Interviews, edited by Livia Bloom, “It Could All Be Wrong,” Errol Morris, Interview with Paul Cronin, p. 161
[31] Id. at p. 155
[32] Errol Morris,, November 8, 2010
[33] Errol Morris, The Grump (no. 6),, accessed April 29, 2012


I invite you to view films of York Chang at Closer, the blog of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions.


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