risky business

Morris cuts it close with his Oscar docu

Errol Morris has a problem. It's Wednesday, and he has to complete a four-minute short film in time for it to air on Sunday's Oscar broadcast.

The Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker ("The Fog of War") has a rough cut about five minutes long, comprising 110 short clips of interviews he did around Feb. 5 with this year's Oscar nominees. His problem is, he conducted 20 more interviews Tuesday that he has to add to the film. "I talked to Martin Scorsese for 20 minutes," he says. And he still has to add John Kusiak's score, mix sound and do a final color correction by Saturday night lest Oscar telecast producer Laura Ziskin have one more thing to worry about Sunday.

"Originally, when Laura suggested the whole project, we asked if it was even possible. The compression of time between the (Jan. 23) announcement and the (Feb. 25) awards makes it difficult," Morris says.

But if anyone can pull it off, it's Morris. A consummate interviewer and journalist, he also is a master of one of the shortest forms there is: the 30-second commercial. (He has done tons of them, from beer and bacon to cars and Democratic campaign spots.) He knows how to work short.

And Morris, who looks and sounds like a rumpled professor from the college town where he lives, Cambridge, Mass., has done a similar Oscar film before. In 2002, he interviewed about 100 people, from folks on the street to Susan Sontag and William Wegman, for the charming "Academy Awards Movie" and collected about 24 hours of material. (The movie is viewable at www.errolmorris.com.) The Oscar-night running time: four minutes and 15 seconds.

"Movies are an escape," former California Gov. (and now state attorney general) Jerry Brown says in one of the dozens of interviews shot with Morris' patented interviewing device dubbed "the Interrotron." The contraption uses mirrors to reflect the director's face behind the camera, some distance away, to his subjects looking straight into the camera. This gives them an engaged intimacy that they wouldn't otherwise have. The director jostles and cajoles answers from them.

"Is that all?" he yells at Brown.

"That's a lot!" Brown fires back.

Morris still dines out on the day that he had to play traffic cop when Walter Cronkite, Al Sharpton, Iggy Pop, Donald Trump and Mikhail Gorbachev all piled up at a New York studio. Then there's the gem about how they wrote their own questions and answers for first lady Laura Bush after Morris refused to provide the White House staff with a list of his questions before the interview. "Is your favorite movie really 'The Wizard of Oz'?" he asked her. "No," she replied. "My favorite movie is 'Giant.' When I was a little girl, I had to stand in line to be cast as an extra."

Ziskin tapped Morris for the 2002 "Academy Awards Movie" because she was impressed with his work on a post-Sept. 11 commercial for United Airlines. This time, Ziskin asked all the nominees to fill out a questionnaire (which she will use on the show and make available at Oscars.com). But Morris didn't use them.

"I never prepare a list of questions, ever," he says. "I try not to think about it. I have been known occasionally to go to the movies. You could look at this as my own personal way to meet all the nominees. It was enjoyable, actually."

What was not enjoyable was trying to fit all 130 subjects into four minutes in a way that makes sense. (On the last film, Morris caught hell from some of the luminaries he left out, like U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky.) Morris says Ziskin gave him a much tougher task this go-round. She wanted him to try to interview as many of this year's nominees as he could.

"It's a little moment when everybody gets seen," Ziskin says. "We can't do 'up close and personal' on 177 people. Except for the movie stars who get just four awards, I equate this to a sporting event like the Olympics where you're meeting people in the individual events for the first time with an unknown outcome. In a moment, Errol can capture the essence of somebody. By seeing the people in various ways the audience can be invested."

Morris didn't know who his potential subjects were until nominations morning Jan. 23. And because they were scattered all over the globe, he had to get to most of them around the Academy Nominees luncheon Feb. 5. More of them showed up for the first three sessions that week at a soundstage provided by 20th Century Fox than anyone expected, from Alfonso Cuaron and Penelope Cruz to Peter O'Toole and Abigail Breslin.

"One hundred and thirty nominees — that in itself is a somewhat daunting task," Morris says. "It's the iron-man interview competition — 130 in four days."

Morris had to wedge this little assignment in between shooting his full-length documentary on Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison. One day he interviewed Robert Richardson, maintenance officer for the 2nd Infantry Division, on one stage and ran back to the Fox lot to interview more Oscar nominees. Quite a contrast.

What made it even trickier to shape was Morris' demand that the movie have something significant to impart.

"It has to say something, be about something, and not be a jumble of images," he says. "Not everyone gets the same amount of time. I like to think I am giving the Academy a human face, who these people really are underneath all the glitz and glamour and marketing, that anyone can identify with and like. If I've done that, that's a job well done."

The first unifying principle for Morris, obviously, was that all his subjects are Oscar nominees. He also couldn't ignore their global diversity.

"A large number of films were made outside the studio system or made by foreign directors," he says. "It was unavoidable, how many Spanish-speaking films were nominated: directors, composers, actresses. And how many English writers and directors. You become aware, it's overwhelming, how many categories there are for sound. But I know that location recording, mixing and sound effects are important in movies."

He also gets into issues of thanking people in a painfully short amount of time. "Nominees are always wanting to thank people, and feeling guilt about not thanking people," he says. "That's part of what the Oscars are about."

O'Toole, who frames the short, "has a fabulous story to tell," Morris says. When he asked the veteran actor how many times he had been nominated, O'Toole replied, eight.

"Why didn't you win for 'Lawrence of Arabia'?"

"Because someone else did," O'Toole answers.

Morris hopes that the longer interview footage will somehow get seen. He was especially pleased with what he got from O'Toole, Scorsese and Eddie Murphy.

"They were pretty wonderful," he says. "I hope this will see some life after the fact."

One nominee Morris is sorry he did not get to meet is Sacha Baron Cohen, who was happy to film upon his arrival in town — on Thursday. But adding him at the last minute turned out to be "too difficult," Morris says. By noon Thursday, Morris had his final cut: four minutes, 40 seconds.

"I'm very pleased," he says. "No one is left on the cutting-room floor."
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