Errol Morris’s Best Movies Don’t Actually Exist

I recognize Errol Morris’s voice.

If you’ve watched Morris’s enigmatic and fascinating documentaries, you might recognize it, too. It’s a spirited, slightly hoarse voice that rises in pitch when the filmmaker becomes animated or outraged, which is pretty often—animated, intrigued, outraged, one at a time or all at once.

It’s weird to be sitting in a room with this voice, asking it questions, conducting an interview. It feels wrong: Usually, Morris asks the questions. That’s what his movies are. He finds odd, extraordinary characters and asks them questions, often using the “interrotron,” a device he invented to allow subjects to speak to him directly through the camera. He asks tough questions, too, like in his documentary The Unknown Known, when he straight-up asks Donald Rumsfeld why he didn’t just kill Saddam Hussein and skip the Iraq War. That film was a curious portrait of the two-time secretary of defense. Later, in the same documentary, Morris demands of Rumsfeld: “Why are you doing this? Why are you talking to me?” There's no real answer.

I don’t ask Morris why he’s talking to me. I know why: He’s got a new movie to promote. It’s called The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography, and it’s a documentary about a Boston-area photographer who spent decades of her life capturing figures both famous and anonymous with a Polaroid 20-by-24-inch camera. We’re sitting in a conference room, me and Morris and Dorfman. During a career that stretches back to the 1960s, Dorfman, now 80, photographed Bob Dylan and Steven Tyler and Joni Mitchell and Robert Creeley and Robert Lowell and Janis Joplin and Faye Dunaway and AIDS patients and people dying of cancer and, it seems, just about everybody else. She was sometimes associated with the Beat generation, in part due to her close friendship with Allen Ginsberg, whom she photographed on many occasions—both clothed and nude. (The nudity was on Ginsberg’s insistence, Dorfman says in the film: “I’ll always remember the first time Allen opened up the door naked.”)

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The B-Side, which largely takes place in Dorfman’s small Cambridge studio, might be Morris’s most intimate film to date. As Dorfman reveals her favorite portraits, she is sifting through the memories—and the losses—of her life. “When Elsa talks about photographs taking on meaning only after the person who is photographed has died, there is something really interesting about it,” Morris tells me. “I have a collection of Elsa photographs of people that I love: my mother, my father, our deceased dog Jackpot. And there’s this connection with the past and with memory. Something very powerful about those photographs, and something very precious about them.”

This is not, by any stretch, a film about a tortured artist. Dorfman is approachable and charming and in every way unpretentious. She is cheery, despite the specter of loss, and despite the bankruptcy of the Polaroid Corporation on which her life’s work relied. In The B-Side, she remarks that she doesn’t like taking photographs of people who are sad. Why not? “Would you like talking to people who are sad?” Dorfman responds. Well…not particularly. “See, I feel like I have to cheer them up. Let’s say Diane Arbus, for example. She liked people to look half-demented or half-not-there or detached or abused or distracted. I’m not attracted by that at all. Nobody comes to me who’s like that.”

In the film, she explains her philosophy: “Life is hard enough when you're down. You don't need to walk around with a picture of it.”

* * *

I wonder what it’s like to learn that Errol Morris wants to make a movie about you, that he regards your life and work as curious and compelling and worthy of the interrotron. It’s a rare honor that’s been extended to Rumsfeld; to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, the subject of the Oscar-winning doc The Fog of War; to the execution technician Fred A. Leuchter Jr., chronicled in Mr. Death; and to some very eccentric residents of Vernon, Florida (population: less than 1,000), where Morris filmed the equally eccentric Vernon, Florida (1981).

In this case, Morris, who is now 69, and Dorfman had already known each other for 20-something years. They met in the early 1990s, around the time Morris was receiving attention for his landmark true-crime documentary The Thin Blue Line. Dorfman was doing a fundraiser in which she took portraits of anybody who donated $100 for a photography center. She wound up photographing Morris’s wife Julia, a donor, and their son, Hamilton, who was 4. Dorfman knew of Morris’s work, and they became friends.

Errol Morris Errol Morris is the director of quirky, challenging documentaries, including, most recently, “The B-Side.” Errol Morris/NEON Publicity

The filmmaker’s career by that point had been highly unconventional. Morris received some critical success in 1978 with his first feature-length documentary, Gates of Heaven, a curiously moving film about a pet cemetery business in California. Gates of Heaven found a devoted fan in Roger Ebert, who heralded it upon release and later selected it as one of the 10 greatest films of all time, describing it as “a bottomless mystery to me, infinitely fascinating.” (After Ebert died in 2013, Morris dedicated The Unknown Known to his memory.) Others were not so complimentary.

“People had a lot of trouble with Gates of Heaven,” Morris says. “People have had trouble with various films I’ve made over the years, but they had trouble with Gates of Heaven. Is this really a movie? It’s the ‘What the fuck is this?’ question. It’s not, strictly speaking, cinéma vérité or anything of the sort, but it does involve self-presentation.” He compares this approach to Dorfman’s work: “It’s not flashy. It’s recording, in some deep sense, the quotidian.”

The equally oddball Vernon, Florida followed in 1981 and drew raves, including from Newsweek of all places. (We called it “quite unforgettable.”) But Morris’s real breakthrough was the altogether heavier The Thin Blue Line, released in 1988, which has been lauded for its achievements in the realms of both filmmaking (the director’s innovative use of crime-scene reenactments proved influential) and criminal justice (the movie’s analysis of a 1976 murder helped exonerate an innocent man). Decades later, The Thin Blue Line is frequently taught and discussed in college-level film classes. When I bring up the film and ask whether Morris feels like he was ahead of the curve on the true-crime phenomenon in popular culture, the filmmaker answers bluntly: “Well, I was.”

“Right,” I say. “So that’s a yes, you do feel as though—”

“No, I was! No, that’s a different answer.”

Appropriately in this context, Morris’s next project also deals with crime: It's a six-part Netflix series about a CIA murder from 1953. “I think I was way ahead of the curve,” he says. “[The Thin Blue Line] has been just endlessly copied. It sounds pompous and grandiose and it probably is, but I wanted to try to create some new model for nonfiction.”

Many of Morris’s films since then have focused on eccentric individuals with curious careers, like the lion tamer in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997) or the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time). Now, he’s turned toward his old friend Dorfman.

Elsa Dorfman Elsa Dorfman, a portrait photographer, is the subject of Errol Morris's new film. The B-Side

I ask Dorfman how she responded when the documentarian said he wanted to make a film about her. She mimics her reaction: “Ha ha ha ha ha…Errol!

“I had been threatening her with a movie for years,” Morris interjects.

“He had been threatening, but I never took it seriously,” Dorfman confirms. She wonders how many other people he’s “threatened” with a film. “I knew there were other women!”

Morris sometimes followed the photographer to her studio, where she would go through her files and tell vivid stories behind the portraits. “I thought, ‘There’s a movie here,’” Morris says. For years, the idea lingered. When Dorfman told him that a local moving company was coming to transport the big, 60-by-40 Polaroids in her stairwell, he was faced with a deadline. So he started shooting—and he filmed the entire documentary in six days.

I wonder whether Morris has other documentary ideas squirreled away, picking up creative dust until he finds the time to turn them into films.

Yes, he answers with conviction: “Hundreds of them. My best work is the work that I’ve never done.”

He seems serious about this, so I ask for an example of an unmade film. “I always wanted to make this movie, The Trial of King Boots, about this dog who’s put on trial for murder in Birmingham.” The bizarre story was chronicled in People magazine in 1985. “Technically, you can’t try a dog for murder. But for all intents and purposes,” Morris says, “it was a murder trial. Competing testimony, character witnesses…. It’s a story of what I believe is a miscarriage of justice involving a dog.”

I point out that Morris often seems to return to the subject of dogs.

“I like dogs,” he says. “But there’s a lot of projects. I’m a man of many unmade projects. The ones that get made are the tip of the iceberg, really. It’s all the rest that are really of interest.”

The B-Side is in theaters this week. Watch an exclusive clip from the film below.

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