Few documentary filmmakers are more naturally inquisitive than Errol Morris. He focuses that curiosity on a longtime friend in his personal and poignant latest feature, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. When Morris recently sat down to talk to us about his new film, he discussed how The B-Side came to life, his kinship with Elsa, and more. The B-Side is now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
You’ve known Elsa for over 25 years. How did you decide that now was the right time to make a documentary about her?
I think of myself as a person, a wanna-be filmmaker: all of the movies that I have wanted to make; that I haven’t made; movies that I should make: oughta make; would make — this certainly is one of them that has been on my mind for years. And I had started making shorter films, many of which had run on the New York Times website, and I thought this would be a shorter film. I can’t really clearly remember what the thought was, maybe this will be a half-hour film. And there was a date. Elsa was taking these huge 20 x 24 Polaroids out of her house, moving them to color services where they could be scanned or digitized. And there was a date where the local moving company, Gentle Giant, was going to arrive with their moving vans. I thought we should be there. We should start making a little film. So that’s why it started. I knew that was not going to happen everyday. It might not ever happen again. I should be there. I should record it. We shot that one day and we organized additional days of shooting. There was another day of shooting in Elsa’s house, where we shot her dark room. There was a day of shooting at her studio on Mass Ave in Cambridge. There was a day of shooting with the flat files, maybe two days of shooting with the flat files in her garage behind the house and then a day of color services with the large format Polaroids. And while we were doing this, we were editing. We were editing what we shot and it kept getting longer, and longer, and longer; there was just a lot of good material. And all of a sudden it was a feature-length film. I don’t think it was planned in any way. It just happened.
You’ve taken on specific events or themes in your documentaries, but with this one you’re technically providing an all-encompassing view of someone’s life, even if it is more personal. I’m curious what are the challenges or the pleasures you have in this different, wide-ranging approach.
If you describe it as trying to capture someone’s entire life, I’m not sure that I could even do that. Because there’s certainly my awareness — I know Elsa well, all the stuff that’s omitted, I even think in this film all of the stories that I could have told about Elsa that I didn’t: the fact that her father was a professional football player, and on and on and on and on and on. Making a film, probably making any work of art, is always a process of omitting stuff and this is no different. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an attempt to account for someone’s life or it’s about a much more specific, limited event. It’s the same problem.
There’s a quote Elsa has in the movie: “You can predict and predict, but life is unpredictable,” and I think there’s an emphasis of that throughout your filmography, where you start documenting something but don’t quite know how it will end up, and the unpredictability of it is the exciting part.
I think I’m an investigator at heart. And investigators, properly speaking, don’t really know the end result of their investigations. You are interested in finding things out, without knowing what those things are that you were going to find out. I sometimes think that scripted filmmaking is something closer to painting by numbers. There’s an element of the spontaneous, the unknown, that does appeal to me, still appeals to me. Even though the most recent film that I’ve made has large elements of drama in it — part of it is indeed scripted, part of it is unscripted. I like both, but I do like not knowing exactly where something is going to lead. It’s absolutely true; of being surprised. I do a lot of advertising and people will say, “Well how do you make something look spontaneous on film?” And I tell them, “Well the only way to make something look spontaneous on film is to make it spontaneous.” To have it happen in front of the camera and to record it. It’s not something that you can plan; it’s something you can be present and record it. There were endless elements of The B-Side that are like that. Elsa holding her Polaroids in front of the camera, almost obscuring herself in the process.
That’s actually the first still of the film I ever saw. You don’t even see her, which I love.
I remember very well, because I was operating the camera when she did that. I thought, “I don’t know. Is this right?” I can’t even see Elsa. All I see is her hands. [Laughs] And then I thought, “No, no, no. This is really quite beautiful. This is good.” Or Elsa picking up the phone at the very beginning. Again. Is that spontaneous? Of course it is; it wasn’t planned. That interplay between the constructed and the spontaneous, I think, is part of all of my work, and certainly part of this.
Her pictures are warm and inviting for the most part. You are looking directly into these people’s eyes. It’s almost confrontational in the sense that these people aren’t posing, looking at something else. It reminded me of the technology that you’ve developed, The Interrotron, which you don’t use here. I’m curious if that drew you in at all, if that style or the mirroring of what you also developed had any play into how you showed the photos in the film.
It plays an important role in one respect: we’re kindred spirits. Bringing people in front of a camera, there’s an element of self-presentation, of how people would like to be seen in addition to how they are seen. Gates of Heaven strikes me as very much like Elsa Dorfman. It’s different, but you can see a kind of community of interest. I wrote an application for the Guggenheim, for Elsa, and I described her art as “the perfect combination of dime store photography and Renaissance portraiture,” and I would stick with that. There’s something this odd mixture of the formal and the informal in everything she’s done. And it’s also about your relationship with Elsa, that’s also a big part of it. I used to say that really good documentary filmmaking records the relationship of the person making the film with their subjects. And it should be really part of the deal, and I still think that’s true, regardless of whether I’m on screen. I’m on screen now for the first time in this new Netflix series [Wormwood]. Whether I’m on screen or a voice offscreen or I’m absent altogether, you still I believe feel my presence in every movie that I’ve made.
Our tagline has been Film Lives Here for years, but in a response to the global community, we’ve launched a new initiative called Film Lives Everywhere. We’ve asked filmmakers from all over the world to talk about how film can dissolve borders and bring people together; give you a lens into a life you never would live and bring empathy to the world. I’m curious your thoughts on that philosophy. You’ve interviewed people from all around the world and you’ve talked to subjects from everywhere.
Does art bring people together? I like art. I mean, what would I do without art? I’d be really sad; I’d be crying myself to sleep every night. Even though I do cry myself to sleep every night. I mean it gives me something to do. I always said that when I go to a nursing home, I want it to be a nursing home with lots of crafts: woodburning, potholder weaving, maybe some macramé would be excellent. So that’s how I would see the world. The world is kind of a bad nursing home with some crafts, and for that I’m grateful.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is now playing daily. Get tickets here and see a Q&A featuring Morris and Dorfman at NYFF54 above.