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The Unknown Errol Morris

America’s most serious documentary filmmaker reveals his lighter side

Author Peter Keough Illustration Luci Gutiérrez

dispatches5MASSACHUSETTS – The world’s most powerful men have chatted with Errol Morris, often to their regret. In his Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War, the filmmaker corralled former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara into an apology for the Vietnam War. In his latest picture, The Unknown Known, he makes Donald Rumsfeld squirm over the American invasion of Iraq.  

Morris lives in a pleasant wooden house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just across the Charles River from Boston. He doesn’t like giving interviews—he prefers to be the one doing the grilling—but today he has made an exception. He answers the door clutching a cello bow. “Sorry,” he says. “I forgot you were coming.”

A taxidermied cormorant garlanded with chili peppers perches in the kitchen, where Morris busies himself making cappuccinos. In a nearby parlor, next to a grand piano, stands the wispy-haired documentarian Alfred Guzzetti. He and Morris had been playing a chamber piece, and Guzzetti isn’t thrilled by the interruption.

A French bulldog enters the room and pants attentively at his master’s feet. The dog’s name is Ivan. “He had a brother called Boris, but Boris died,” Morris says. “A sad story.” Guzzetti gathers his things and leaves.  

Morris is currently working on a thriller called Holland, Michigan, his first foray into narrative feature film, but talk soon turns to a fast food commercial he recently made, which involves testimonials from ordinary guys who happen to be named Ronald McDonald (and who love Taco Bell). “It’s gotten more attention than my Rumsfeld film,” he says.

When asked if he believes commercials like this can be a means of subversion, Morris shrugs and says, “They can be a means of earning a living.”

A moment later, he takes up his cello and starts playing an excerpt from a Saint-Saëns cello concerto. Ivan sings along. It sounds like the howls of a lunatic, but Morris doesn’t seem to notice. “He just started doing this one day,” he says, smiling indulgently. “He loves the double stops.”

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