Shooting HD, Investigating Abu Ghraib, and Questioning Photography

Probably bound to be Errol Morris’ most controversial film, Standard Operating Procedure examines the cases of torture and murder at Iraq’s now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison. Relying heavily on interviews with the seven low-ranking soldiers who served time for the crimes, it treats them sympathetically, leaving judgment to the viewer. Instead of blaming these “bad apples,” it shows the U.S. military and government’s systemic flaws. Mixing 35mm and HD video, Morris uses re-enactments to depict torture and other images he wasn’t able to film directly.
FILM & VIDEO: You shot most of Standard Operating Procedure in 35mm but did the interviews in HD video. Do you envision using video more in future projects?

ERROL MORRIS: It’s something that greatly interests me. My problem with HD, up ’til now, has been depth-of-field problems. If you want to be able to control the depth-of-field, you need a better chip. They’re now making the transition to digital cameras that have chips as big as a 35mm frame. For interviews, I’ve abandoned film. All the interviews in this movie were shot on high-end Sony digital cameras. They look fabulous.

Do you still use the Interrotron [a device that allows Morris’ interview subjects to look at him, rather than the camera, while filming]?

Yes. I’ve been doing very long interviews, eight to 11 hours. In 35mm, it’s not only prohibitively expensive. There was a great deal involved in production. You’d have to stop, change mags, re-slate. A 35mm 1,000-foot magazine is 11 minutes, roughly. It created its own set of obstacles to long interviews. Now with a digital camera, I can just run and run. You can pop a new cassette in in a matter of seconds. You don’t have to re-slate. You keep going, and you keep going until someone says “uncle.”

Have you used HD on any of your previous films?

Yes. The interviews in The Fog of War were HD. My re-enactments were shot in 35mm, my interviews in HD.

Your interview subjects seem very comfortable with you and your camera. Was it hard to develop that kind of rapport?

I have been able to achieve some kind of intimacy in these interviews. It’s partially me. I don’t entirely know what it is. Certainly, it was true of the films I made before the Interrotron. The Interrotron helps, but it involves a willingness to listen to people, giving them an opportunity to talk to someone who cares.

When did you start using the Interrotron? I remember a program of short films called Interrotron Stories, some of which were later used in your TV series, First Person.

MI’ve been thinking of returning to First Person and doing another season. I liked doing it a lot. It wasn’t my first use of the Interrotron. My first use was my first interview with Fred Leuchter in 1991. Immediately after that, I shot the four characters for Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. It’s a little more than 15 years now. I’ve also used it in many commercials.

Had you planned on interviewing any Iraqis for Standard Operating Procedure?

We wanted to interview the people who were in the photographs. There were two I really wanted: Gus, who was on the leash, and Gilligan, who was on the box with wires. I wanted to get both of them but could find neither. I’m not saying anything that people don’t know, but Iraq is in a state of chaos. Finding people-even if the military wanted to be helpful, which in most instances they don’t-is really difficult.

Where were the interviews conducted? I assume you didn’t do any traveling to Iraq.

I didn’t, but I wanted to. We talked about shooting the re-enactments in Jordan. Oddly enough, Jordan doesn’t have any prisons that look like Abu Ghraib. Abu Ghraib is modeled after Texas prisons. So then there was talk about shooting it in American prisons. We wanted to go to Abu Ghraib just to get a feel for the place and observe the perimeter. By the time we were really serious about going, it was already 2006. The re-enactments were shot in 2007. Iraq had become so impossibly dangerous by then. My wife certainly did not want me going. I’m not a catch-as-catch-can filmmaker. I would bring in a huge amount of dollies and other equipment. How do you even think about doing something like that in Abu Ghraib? We talked about it with one of those companies that provides personal defense in Iraq. It was tremendously costly, and then the prison was transferred out of American hands altogether. Here’s my excuse to myself. I’m talking about things that happened in 2003. The photographs are the evidence of what that place looked like 5 years ago.

Had you always planned to do re-enactments or thought about just relying on still photos from Abu Ghraib?

I had always planned re-enactments. I use them in all my movies. It always surprises me that people bring them up with respect to Standard Operating Procedure. In my work, they’re everywhere.

Did you start using them in The Thin Blue Line?

I was thinking about that. I started writing this essay for The New York Times and said, “The Thin Blue Line was the first time I used re-enactments.” Then I realized it’s not true. In Gates of Heaven, when Danny takes his electric guitar and speaker system and plays to this universe of dead pets, he tells me a story. I asked if he’d be willing to take his guitar and speakers out to the top of the pet memorial park and let me film him. Strictly speaking, that is a re-enactment.

What inspired your recent blog posts about them for The New York Times?

The fact that everyone asks me about them. I thought I better weigh in and say why I use them and what they mean to me.

Has blogging changed your perspective on your work at all?

I love this opportunity to write for the Times. It came out of nowhere and I wasn’t even sure that I’d be able to do it. Now I am doing it. I hope I have something to say. People seem to be responding to it. It was utterly amazing when I wrote this piece on these two Fenton photographs that appeared last fall. I got more than 1,000 replies. I never thought that Roger Fenton would be such a hot topic.

Do you ever find it hard to interview people that you don’t find particularly sympathetic?

I’ve had it happen, but I’ve been fortunate. I like most of the people I’ve interviewed. The people I’ve interviewed for Standard Operating Procedure are really interesting and I was delighted to be able to talk to them.

I was thinking of Fred Leuchter [the Holocaust “revisionist” who’s the subject of Morris’ Mr. Death] in particular.

I find him endlessly interesting, if absurd and puzzling. He’ll always be a mystery to me. I suppose you can take the view “If it talks like a Nazi and walks like a Nazi, is it a Nazi?” I don’t know in Fred’s case. He fell in with some bad fellows and I don’t think, even to this day, that he has a good grasp of what happened.

How did using a digital intermediate affect the post-production on Standard Operating Procedure?

The whole movie is digital: the interviews, the way they’re cut, the color-correction. Digital processes are involved in the whole deal. It used to be that if you were interested in shooting ‘Scope-this is the first movie I’ve done in ‘Scope-you would have to have anamorphic lenses. One thing I learned about HD is that you can blow it up easily. If you blow up a 35mm frame more than 10 or 15 percent, you can see the grain and degradation in the image. HD is different. If you blow it up, it doesn’t change. You can blow it up 15 percent and it doesn’t look any different. What you can do with the tape is amazing.

What inspired you to write a book based on this particular film?

My feeling with every project I’ve made is that there should be a way to express all the stuff that’s not in the movie. Philip [Gourevitch, co-author] said I had a million and a half words of transcript. There’s a tremendous volume of material. Even the book doesn’t come close to touching it all. But it’s another way of looking at the material I’ve produced. It will be published May 15. Hopefully my New Yorker piece won’t be my last for them.

Did your ideas about photography change through the making of the film?

Yes. If anything, I’ve become more skeptical about photos because I know, in some pretty detailed ways, how they can confuse and misdirect. All of that is very much on my mind.

Are there any examples you could point to about how that functioned at Abu Ghraib?

Let me give you two examples. First, the photograph of Gilligan on the box with wires, taken as the iconic photo of torture and abuse. We learn from a military investigator who served as a prosecution witness in many court-martials that it was a picture of standard operating procedure. To me, that’s somewhat shocking. Second, the picture of [soldier] Sabrina [Harman] with her thumbs up, smiling. We think it shows a monster gloating over a dead body. In fact, she’s photographing a murder committed by the CIA to expose it. These are just a few examples of the ways the public view of an image and what it actually is can be radically different.