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In February, Errol Morris was sitting on the opposite side of an ordinary banquet table from Steve Bannon when he experienced “probably one of my favorite moments in filmmaking.”
The Oscar-winning documentarian behind The Fog of War was invoking John Milton’s Paradise Lost and telling the former White House chief strategist that the epic poem’s protagonist, Lucifer (aka Satan), is sort of Bannon-esque.
That drew a hearty chuckle from Bannon, the subject of Morris’ latest doc, American Dharma, a film shrouded in mystery that will make its world premiere Sept. 4 at the Venice Film Festival.
“It’s not every day that you compare someone to Satan and they embrace the idea,” says Morris with a laugh.
What happens next in the scene lies at the crux of the film, which unofficially completes a Morris trilogy featuring three vilified men who shaped history arguably more than the presidents they served — former Secretaries of Defense Robert McNamara (Fog of War) and Donald Rumsfeld (The Unknown Known) and now Bannon. If you think you know Bannon as the alt-right flame-thrower from Breitbart News or from the dumbed-down 2016 campaign rhetoric uttered by President Trump, Dharma challenges viewers to reconsider their opinion on one of the most polarizing figures in American politics.
“Bannon is an intellectual,” says Morris. “He’s ?well-read. He’s thoughtful and articulate ?and an interesting storyteller. I was very much interested in listening to his account, his prideful account, of how Trump became president of the United States.”
To be certain, Morris will take heat from both sides for giving Bannon a platform and for challenging him every step of the way (“There’s going to be something in this movie to offend everybody,” he acknowledges).
Ultimately, it was Morris’ need to understand what happened in 2016 and why it happened “so that we ?can try to make sure it doesn’t happen again” that compelled him to tackle Bannon. About a month before production began on American Dharma, he read Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which crystallized for him the main protagonist in the story of Trump’s ascent.
“Whatever you think about the book, it becomes pretty clear that the central character is Stephen K. Bannon,” explains Morris. “No Bannon — no Trump.”
For the film, which currently lacks a distributor and will be a hot acquisition title in Venice before moving on to Toronto, the two men spent five days together in February and April on a set in Boston, where Morris is based. The interviews resulted in about 15 to 16 hours of footage. At one point, Morris admits his ?son is still furious with him for voting for Hillary Clinton during the primaries over Bernie Sanders. That admission prompts disbelief from Bannon, who then turns the tables on Morris and peppers him with questions about why he would support Clinton.
“I liked it,” says Morris of being briefly on the receiving end. “I mean, fair is fair. I’m questioning him. He has certainly the right to question me.”
Bannon did not have final cut. Instead, they had an agreement that Morris would show him various cuts of the movie in postproduction and give Bannon an opportunity to respond. Any complaint of Bannon’s that seemed reasonable to Morris, he would try to address. Bannon has told Morris he likes the film and will be on hand in Venice.
For those who would like to banish Bannon from the collective consciousness, Morris is ready for their outrage. “It’s a criticism that I ?expect to hear,” he says. “But I think we have to try to understand what happened in 2016. Hillary made a mistake when she called these [Trump supporters] the ‘deplorables.’ The ?idea that we don’t have to think about these people, we don’t have to discuss these people, I believe that’s absolutely wrong. We have to understand people like Bannon.”
That said, Morris concedes that American Dharma could be an uncomfortable experience for those still wrestling with the realities of ?the Trump era in America: “It’s a kind of horror movie,” says Morris. “I don’t know how better to describe it.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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