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Errol Morris on “Standard Operating Procedure”

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04222008_errolmorris.jpgBy Nick Schager

Since his masterful 1980 debut “Gates of Heaven” — and, more specifically, after 1988’s “The Thin Blue Line” — documentarian Errol Morris has boldly expanded the notion of documentary filmmaking, pushing the boundaries set by his cinema vérité forefathers in an effort to discover, if not kindred spirit (and admirer) Werner Herzog’s “ecstatic truth,” then at least an essential truth. Whether examining the life of Stephen Hawking, the ruminations of Robert S. McNamara, or the study of eccentrics like those featured in his “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” Morris has sought to explore fundamental questions about life through a combination of traditional nonfiction interviews and fictionalized reenactments. That hybridized aesthetic design is at the forefront of his latest, “Standard Operating Procedure,” an in-depth look into the infamous photos taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib in which, amidst stylized reenactments of the controversial pics, the director affords a platform for the thoughts of the soldiers-turned-amateur-photographers at the heart of the story. Meticulously crafted and methodically argued, it’s an inquiry into what actually happened at the prison, but also into the nature of images, both topics that Morris took time to discuss with me.

“Standard Operating Procedure” is a film about images — how they’re constructed, and what they tell us. As your film is itself a collection of still and moving images, did it require a more conscious or careful approach?

I’m always conscious about how I’m making the film. This time around, more or less, I don’t think so. I’m well aware of the fact that I’m making a movie about photographs, and there’s something inherently different about doing that, than anything I’ve really done before. But careful? You want to put it together in a way that makes sense, that conveys some sort of idea of what you’re trying to say. I was interested in how pictures can often mislead us, they can reveal things and also conceal things at the same time. And that irony is something which I believe is the heart of the movie.

How did you decide upon the style used for the reenactments, given their stark aesthetic dissimilarity from the photos themselves?

The photographs are always clearly identified as photographs. You see white borders on them, and they’re all presented without zooming in or zooming out. Occasionally, I think there are one or two repositions when I’m calling attention to the fact that something has been cropped or reframed, or I’m identifying a character in the frame or trying, as in the case of Roman Krol, to match his point of view as he’s looking into the prompter at himself in a photograph. But it’s the do-nothing approach, it’s the anti-Ken Burns approach to photographs. There’s very little movement on them, and the reenactments are really quite different. I mean, they’re different in so many, many, many, many ways. It’s the first film that I’ve shot in scope, 2.40:1, and the photographs are, if anything, much closer to square-shaped. They’re very different in aspect ratio from the frame. And they’re still images. The reenactments, no matter how much slo-mo I use, it’s still motion picture film. It’s not a still, although at places, it may approach still photography.

04222008_standardoperatingprocedure1.jpgWhy create such a heightened contrast — glossy and professional vs. grimy and amateurish — between the photos and reenactments?

I wanted a contrast. I think it is heightened contrast. It’s deliberate, and they look completely different. They’re not meant to blend together in the same kind of thing. It’s a different ingredient, if you like. Think, for a minute, of the ingredients of the movie. The movie has these retrospective interviews and people reenacting, in words, things that occurred in the years previously. Then there are photographs, which are the real pieces of evidence from Abu Ghraib. They’re digital photographs, I didn’t alter them in any way — I didn’t frame them, crop them. Those are the photographs themselves. And there are the reenacted elements, which are designed to set up a scene around the photograph. They are designed to take you into that moment that the photograph was taken. Often, I’ll design a reenactment around a phrase, someone will say something and I’ll think of an image. So you add all those ingredients.

Just to go back, I was talking about Roman Krol looking into the prompter at himself. He tells you this story about how he was just throwing this Nerf ball, and how he was really, really angry, and they [the soldiers] were doing this because they wanted to show the people in the cells, the prisoners, their disapproval regarding the inmates possibly raping a young boy (and, in fact, they were found innocent). I have the hands coming through the bars, and it’s a way to bring the audience into the moment that those photographs were taken, and into what he’s saying. The idea that they [the soldiers] are creating these scenes [i.e. throwing the Nerf ball] for people watching in the cells. I think all of that is really, really interesting.

Why, out of all the stories and images from Iraq, did you choose this story and these images?

That was not the intention. The thing is, I made a movie about photographs. Actually, some of the most famous, or if you prefer, infamous photographs taken in the last 10 years. They happen to be perhaps the central photographs of the Iraq war, and photographs that we know little or nothing about, heavily politicized, people with lots and lots of opinions about them, but very few people having asked any questions about them at all.

04222008_standardoperatingprocedure2.jpgLike all of your work, the film is quite journalistic in nature. Was “Standard Operating Procedure” an attempt at providing a corrective to the mainstream media’s coverage of the photos?

I would say not correction, in the sense that I knew what the correction was supposed to be. It was curiosity, that people talked about the photographs as though they knew the circumstances under which they were taken, or they knew who had taken them, or why they were taken. It seemed to me they knew very little. No one had bothered to talk to these people about the pictures, no one had bothered to find out why they were taken, what they thought they were doing, what actually was depicted in the photographs. It seems that they just preferred to theorize about them rather than actually investigate them.

Why not choose to investigate — and attempt to uncover the identities of — the higher-ups whom the film argues are the real culprits of the Abu Ghraib crimes?

People think there’s only one thing to say about the Iraq war, and that’s that Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush did it. What I find so very odd about this war — you would hear, while I was making the movie, “Have you found the smoking gun?” The smoking gun is very easy to see. People prefer not to see it. They just released the full document of John Yoo’s OLC [Office of Legal Counsel] torture memo. It’s not substantially different from anything that we knew already. We knew that the administration had relaxed rules and regulations governing the treatment of prisoners and torture. This can’t really come as a surprise to anybody. There isn’t one story to be told about Iraq, about the war, about America, about these pictures, about Abu Ghraib. There’s a myriad of stories, and I chose to tell a story which I believed, and I still believe, is important. If people want to read some kind of screed against Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, they’re easily available, and I’m sure they can find many of them in order to satisfy themselves.

[Photos: Errol Morris; “Standard Operating Procedure,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008]

“Standard Operating Procedure” opens in limited release on April 25th.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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