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Toronto Film Festival 2013 Q&A: The Unknown Known's Errol Morris

The Oscar-winning documentarian meets his match with his latest subject: Donald Rumsfeld.

Donald Rumsfeld, the subject of Errol Morris' The Unknown Known

He's interviewed convicted murders, Holocaust deniers, Guantanamo prison guards and the brainiac behind the Vietnam War. In terms of slippery, double-speaking characters, however, the Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris may have met his match with the subject of The Unknown Known: former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Over the course of 102 mins, the gentleman who, upon hearing that post-liberation Iraq was being looted, proclaimed that "Stuff happens" answers questions about his life, his career in the corporate sector and his tenure in the Bush 43 administration—though whether one feels Rumsfeld "answers" these queries or dances deftly around them is a matter of opinion.

As with most of Morris's work, the result is a compelling look at a complicated figure, and though fans of his previous portrait of a Secretary of Defense—Robert McNamara, the subject of The Fog of War (2003)—will detect similarities in Known's tone and methodology, the filmmaker cautions viewers expecting a mea culpa this time around. "It's not a confessional and it's not The Fog of War Chapter 2," the 65-year-old director declared at the outset of an hour-plus conversation with TONY shortly after his new film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. "That was never the goal. I just wanted to hear what he had to say."     

Time Out New York
: Rumsfeld…why now?

Errol Morris: I'm always puzzled by that question…you have to do something at one time or another, and when an opportunity presents itself, you take advantage of it. I mean, it's not as if I was surveying the vast range of possible dates and thought okay, .…now! [Laughs] One person after the screening the other night asked me why I didn't have the decency to wait until more time has passed. After all, they said, Robert McNamara was interviewed 30-plus years after he left the State Department, whereas I talked to Rumsfeld a scant six or seven years after he exited the building, so to speak.

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Time Out New York: Let me rephrase the question…

Errol Morris: Yes, go for it! [Laughs]

Time Out New York: What inspired you to turn your lens on Donald Rumsfeld in the first place?
Errol Morris: Well, his book [2011's Known and Unknown] had come out, and I'd read it—not an easy task, mind you. It's a brick of a book. But it made me aware of "the snowflakes"—the memos he compulsively wrote to staff about everything—and I thought, Aha! This is a way in to his story. I had Johnson's phone calls to McNamara for The Fog of War, which helped get into McNamara's mindset. But this was way more personal. These memos show you his ideas about policies, but they also show you how he wanted to be perceived by people. That was fascinating to me.

I'm also fascinated by this idea in doing things in a non-standard way; keep doing things in the standard way, and what do you get? The same results. I wanted to tell a different story about Rumsfeld, one from the inside out. Once I figured out I could do that, it was full steam ahead.

Time Out New York: You mentioned at the screening the other night that folks kept saying, "He'll never agree to talk to you, Errol!" What went through your head when you got the phone call saying "Yes, I'll do it"?

Errol Morris: First, I was summoned to Washington D.C. to meet with him, which was quite a surprise. It was amazing, actually…for many, many reasons. He showed me the ballots of the first election in Afghanistan. showed me a crumpled piece of metal that was part of an anti-ballistic missile. To which Rumsfeld said, "Who says you can't shot down a missile with a missile?" [Laughs]

Then he ushers me into this conference room, which is filled with citations from a host of different presidents and political figures, where he's to be interviewed by a journalist from Texas. The odd irony of it all: I'm a journalist asking to interview him, and here he is inviting me to listen in while another journalist interviews him.

Time Out New York: It almost sounds like a passive-aggressive way of auditioning you.
Errol Morris: Interesting. In what way, do you think?

Time Out New York: Eva is the embodiment of that maxim about good intentions.
Errol Morris: She walks down a well-paved road, for sure. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: If he'd ask you to observe him giving what we'll call a "Rumsfeld interview," it might seem like he was doing it to gauge your reaction to his unique style of answering questions, or not answering them. And if you gave the right reaction, he'd let you film him.
Errol Morris: I'm not saying you're wrong; I view it a little differently. [Pause] My god, I sound like Rumsfeld now! That's been my greatest fear all along, that after hours and hours of interviewing him, I would inevitably start talking like him. And now it has happened! [Laughs]

Time Out New York: It's okay, if I hear you say "Stuff happens" at any time during this interview, I will stop you.
Errol Morris: That hasn't happened yet. I'm sure it's just a matter of time. [Pause] Okay, maybe he was checking me out and sizing me up, but…I really do feel like he wanted me to do this, in a weird way. I know a number of folks had approached him about doing a film on him, and I'd heard he'd said to someone that the best person to do a documentary on me would be Errol Morris. I don't know if that's idle flattery or not. But I do think there's a bit of showing off to this gesture of letting me peek behind the curtain.

Time Out New York: As you were interviewing him, did you ever feel that he might have been using either you or this documentary to bump up his legacy a bit?
Errol Morris: Well, we're all using someone or another in a variety of ways, aren't we? We're all involved in writing and rewriting our own personal history.

Time Out New York: True, though not all of us do so with cameras and an Oscar-winning documentarian at the helm…
Errol Morris: Fair enough. I think on one fairly uninteresting level, the answer is yes, he may have been using me. He may be trying to rebrand himself. I tell people stories because I want to reveal to them who I am, as well as influencing how other people see me. It seems natural that Rumsfeld would do the same thing. Again, I go back to the snowflakes: They seem to be written as something that he expects to be read ten, 50, 100 years from now. He's leaving a paper trail on purpose.

Someone asked me where all the talking-head interviews were…why didn't you talk to other people at the Pentagon, etc? I think they expected me to slap my head like the guy in the V8 commercial…"Oh, now you tell me!" [Laughs] But the fact that it's just him is very much by design. I don't care what other people think about Rumsfeld. The point is to see what Rumsfeld thinks about Rumsfeld!

Time Out New York: You filmed in Boston, correct?
Errol Morris: We did. He came to Boston four times. For the first go round, he came for two days. The defining moment of the interview for me came at the end of Day Two: We're running out of time, and I ask him to tell me about his visit to Saddam Hussein in 1993. It's a story he clearly loves telling. So he's telling the story about meeting Saddam, and he says "You know, when your image is everywhere, it's easy to lose touch. Everyone just kowtows to you. No one questions you or challenges you. Eventually, you can get disconnected from reality. In the end, he was all pretend." I just sat there, wondering "Can he really be that oblivious that he's actually talking about himself?!?"

Time Out New York: Wow.
Errol Morris: My thoughts exactly.

Time Out New York: You end the film with what Rumsfeld calls a "vicious" question: "Why did you agree to make this film with me?"
Errol Morris: He never answers it.

Time Out New York: He does not. In your own opinion, why do you think he agreed to do it?
Errol Morris: Vanity played a role, surely. As did the belief, whether it's misguided or not, that I am a smart person and would not go in to this with some sort of agenda—the last part of which is true, by the way. I sincerely believe that documentaries should be investigative. Otherwise, why make something when you already know where it's going to go?

But I haven't answered your question. Why do I think he agreed to do it? [Pause] It's complicated. I think he's aware that he's not liked, and that the policies his name is associated with—whether it's what he did at the Pentagon or as a member of the Bush administration—have caused a lot of consternation. I think Rumsfeld wanted to set the record straight. He wanted to show people who he really was.

The thing is, this accounting of his actions did change my mind about what he accomplished—but given what I've heard from him, I know think it might have been even worse than I previously thought! [Laughs] Is that a bad thing to say? It might be. [Pause] I also think he wanted a movie of his own. Everyone gets a film these days, right? So why not him?

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear