Steve Bannon documentary is a tough sell for Errol Morris
CAMBRIDGE — Visitors to Errol Morris’s company, Fourth Floor Productions, don’t need to have seen any of the Academy Award-winning director’s films to get a sense of how idiosyncratic he can be. All they need to do is notice that Fourth Floor Productions is on the second floor.
Morris’s latest documentary, “American Dharma,” screens at the Harvard Film Archive on Feb. 1 at 7 p.m., followed by a conversation between him and Ann Marie Lipinski, head of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism.
Although it premiered last September at the Venice Film Festival, “American Dharma” has yet to find a distributor. Might the credit go to the toxic reputation of its subject, former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon? The decision by New Yorker editor David Remnick to disinvite Bannon from the magazine’s annual New Yorker Festival came at the same time.
“American Dharma” follows in the interrogative line of “The Fog of War” (2003), about former defense secretary Robert McNamara, and “The Unknown Known” (2013), about another former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. It turns out that Bannon is a big fan of “Fog,” the film that won Morris his Oscar.
“Dharma,” which was shot in Massachusetts early last year, includes extensive interviewing of Bannon by Morris, intercut with news footage and clips from several Hollywood films Bannon discusses. The interviewing takes place in a Quonset hut modeled on the set of Bannon’s favorite film, the World War II aviation drama “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949).
Morris describes “Dharma” as “an essay film. It’s not a straight political documentary nor was it ever intended to be.”
Morris, who turns 71 on Feb. 5, has been keeping busy. In 2017, he released “The B-Side,” a documentary about the Cambridge portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman, and Netflix streamed a six-part nonfiction/fiction hybrid miniseries, “Wormwood.” Last year, he published his fifth book, “The Reckoning,” itself a hybrid, combining memoir, intellectual history, and musings on epistemology — a very Morris word.
Early on during a two-hour interview at his office this month, Morris apologizes for “wandering” so much in his answers. That’s all right, he’s told: It wouldn’t be an Errol Morris conversation otherwise.
Q. Why Bannon?
A. [Michael Wolff’s book about the Trump administration] “Fire and Fury” came out in, what, December 2017. Like everyone else, I read it. Bannon, of course, was a big, big part of the book: a primary source, a primary figure — perhaps even more so than Trump himself. So, yeah, I was interested.
Q. You sought him out?
A. My agent, Ari Emanuel, essentially puts me in touch with someone who puts me in touch with Steve Bannon. Bannon wants to meet at the Breitbart “embassy” in Washington, a couple of doors down from the US Supreme Court. I fly down. I meet with Steve Bannon.
Q. Had you known of his admiration for your work?
A. I learn, for the first time, that Bannon is a fan, which is almost too weird. But thank you very much.
Q. So you propose a film, and he’s excited by this?
A. Yes! This was not a difficult sale.
Q. Has Bannon seen the movie?
A. Oh of course he’s seen the movie.
Q. What does he think?
A. He likes it [barks out a laugh].
Q. Do you like him?
A. A complicated answer. Yes. Am I appalled by him? Yes. Do I find his “ideas” repellent? You betcha. I said to him at one point during the interview that I was in favor of the wall. He arched his eyebrows. “How’s that?” I said because I’m planning to move to Mexico, and the wall is the only thing that’s going to keep the American crazies — the rapists, the psychos, the killers — out of my new country.
Q. One of the nicer moments in the movie is when you quote, to Bannon, Lucifer’s declaration in “Paradise Lost ” “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” and he brightens up and says, “I quote that all the time!”
A. All I can say is, who voluntarily compares himself to Satan? “Oh, yeah, that guy, love him! Think about him all the time — try to emulate him — good guy, good politics.” The whole discussion of Milton comes right out of our discussion of [the 1957 film] “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” I had thought about the movies [and Bannon] because they’re mentioned in Josh Green’s book [about Bannon, “Devil’s Bargain”], and I thought that’s a way in.
Q. That Quonset hut!
A. I have this amazing production designer [Adam Stockhausen], and I thought, what if we build a set from “Twelve O’Clock High”? We shot most of it in Allston, the same studio where I shot McNamara and Rumsfeld. Then we went to Weymouth, where there’s an abandoned runway [at the former naval air station] that looks like the abandoned runway in “Twelve O’Clock,” and it turns out there’s an abandoned set from the [Boston] Marathon bombing movie, where they replicate the street where there was the shoot-out with the police. And I thought, we can use this for the “American carnage” speech.
Q. Your film does not have a distributor.
A. No. I believe it was the day before or two days before [the world premiere], David Remnick, to use the current lingo, “de-platformed” Steve Bannon, basically sending the message to a lot of people that this was an OK thing to do. So there was a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival — through the entire credits! That surprised me. I get back to my hotel that night and I read essentially the first review, it was by Owen Gleiberman, in Variety. He called it a “bromance” — my bromance with Stephen K. Bannon.
Q. The idea had been that you’d screen it at Venice and some distributor would sign you up?
Q. So it’s surprising no one has done so?
Q. So what does the artist do in that situation? You wait for the phone to ring? You work the phones?
A. Well, blaming yourself or others is a perennial favorite. I have this version of the Sistine Chapel. It’s not God giving life at all. It’s God teaching Adam the value of finger-pointing.
Q. What about other platforms beside theatrical distribution? This is a high-profile project, both filmmaker and subject. It was Netflix that showed “Wormwood.”
A. I don’t think the film will remain unbought and undistributed. I think as the country becomes less angry, particularly the left, then it would be possible to look at the movie as a movie. If it’s politically incorrect even to show it to people, then what? The issue isn’t whether it’s a good film or a bad film. The issue is if the film should exist at all.
Q. Is it as much a matter of how you handled Bannon as it is Bannon?
A. People have an idea of what the perfect interview is. It’s often, if not always, adversarial — particularly if it’s somebody they don’t like. “Of course it should be [adversarial], there’s a moral element here.” Or that the interview wasn’t adversarial enough. My favorite thing [that people say] is the Torquemada line, “You can hold his feet to the fire.” As if I’m an authorized member of the Inquisition. I didn’t apply the Iron Maiden, the strappado, the rack . . .
Q. [In a Monty Python voice] “Nobody expects Errol Morris!”
A. [Ignoring this] I don’t hold people’s feet to the fire. I want to find out something I don’t already know.