Great Performances with Errol Morris

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"I've always compared directing a commercial to trying to run a race with cinderblocks tied to your legs," says Errol Morris. If that's the case, then this director must have quads of steel. The 53-year-old Morris, who works out of Radical Media, is already a well-known feature heavyweight, with his documentary films like Mr. Death and The Thin Blue Line. In recent years, he's also managed to wring out some impressive realism in campaigns for Citibank, PBS and Miller High Life.

Agencies overwhelmingly applauded Morris for his skills in the Documentary and Performance categories, areas that Morris believes are intertwined. "What we like about certain kinds of documentaries is that they capture moments of reality," he notes. "We often don't think of that as applying to acting, but it can apply to so many different kinds of performances. Great performance is always a mixture of reality as well as acting and control. To me, it's very rarely an issue of real people vs. actors. It's an issue of performance, and how to elicit a performance that is surprising, unexpected, real."

He recalls squeezing the realism out of the "Deviled Egg" commercial from the Miller High Life campaign, out of Fallon/Minneapolis. There's a humorous and "real" moment in the spot when the slovenly, beer-bellied man drops a deviled egg as he attempts to shove it in his mouth. "I got the actor to pick up the egg so many times that he lost control and actually fumbled the egg. If you tell someone to do something accidental, like 'Fumble the egg,' chances are it's going to look like something they controlled. Capturing that sort of thing on film - stuff that is less than controlled but at the same time tells a precise story - is what I'm good at."

Eliciting great performances also involves strategic casting, as on the Emmy-winning "Photobooth" spot he shot for the PBS "Stay Curious" campaign, also from Fallon. The commercial features an opera aficionado who passionately sings an aria from Il Trovatore in a photo booth and makes a flipbook of his performance. At first Morris went the traditional casting route, auditioning actors who had no opera background. "It was all wrong," he recalls. "What it looked like was someone who didn't care very much about opera making a joke out of it. I knew it had to be someone who really sings and who really cares about opera." Morris then turned to New York's Metropolitan Opera. "The one guy I found was in the Met chorus as a baritone, but he had always dreamed of being a tenor. And 'Di quella pira' is one of the very famous tenor arias with a high C. He can't sing at that register very well, but it was sort of a dream for him to be doing this. So there's an element in it of performance but also an element of reality."

Morris' latest work includes the post-attack United Airlines campaign, featuring various testimonials from real-life engineers, pilots and others. Strangely enough, that campaign involved tons of on-camera interviews, which Morris has conducted extensively for film but had never done in commercials. Morris is also working on his next documentary feature, about Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, as well as a fiction film, The Book Thief, done in partnership with Radical.

Be it commercials or features, it's all an exercise in good filmmaking for Morris. "The fact that these stories are confined to 30 or 60 seconds doesn't stop it from being filmmaking," he believes. "It's filmmaking of a different sort, but still very much filmmaking, with its own set of challenges and rewards. And it's certainly challenging. Anybody that tells you it's easy to create a good 30-second spot has never really tried to do it.

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