Errol Morris on New Docu 'The B-Side,' About Photographer Elsa Dorfman: 'I've Always Seen Her as a Major Artist'

On the surface, The B-Side may look like a B-movie in Errol Morris‘s filmography. Clocking in at just 76 minutes and focusing on a single subject — the life and career of portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman — the movie isn’t as expansive or intensive a documentary experience as past Morris-directed features such as his groundbreaking 1988 true crime tale, The Thin Blue Line, or his Oscar-winning 2003 portrait of Vietnam-era U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, The Fog of War. But The B-Side‘s simplicity is also its chief virtue: As longtime friends Morris and Dorfman talk, they create an intimate space that allows for thoughtful ruminations on mortality, photography, and the impermanence of memory. The grade-A doc, which opened in limited release on June 30, made a lasting impression on us, earning it a place on Yahoo Movies’ list of the 21 best movies of 2017 so far.

The film’s title comes from a key piece of Dorfman’s artistic process: every client who sits in front of her large-format Polaroid camera is given a choice of two pictures. They leave with one, and the other, which the photographer calls a “B-Side,” goes into her personal archive, which houses pictures of notable creative types such as Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. Yahoo Movies spoke with Morris about what it means to own a picture — or film footage — of someone else, how interviewing serial killer Ed Gein was a formative experience in his career as a filmmaker and author, and the 20th anniversary of his documentary Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control.

As we see in the film, Elsa Dorfman keeps all of her “B-Sides” in her home and office. You must have a library of outtakes and unused material from past films — where do you store your own B-Sides?
I have so many projects that never got made, I suppose you might think of them as B-Sides. For Elsa, she came to call the rejected photographs a B-side, and the irony, of course, is that the B-Sides are often the better photographs. Which is really interesting: Why do we pick one photograph over another as being somehow better? But the term has all kinds of resonance, because Elsa tells us that she never got her due as a photographer. She was always an also-ran, never a gallery [artist], and never [received] acknowledgement as a serious photographer. That’s something that I hope the movie helps remedy, because I’ve always seen her as a major artist.

What interests me about the film is the idea of ownership: Elsa owns a piece of her clients’ lives in the form of these pictures, and you own the outtakes of projects that didn’t move forward. How does that make you feel, knowing that you, in a sense, own a little piece of your subjects’ lives?
It’s strange. That’s [the process] of making a movie about someone; you change your life, you change their life. And it clearly is a way of reflecting back on the past. The Fog of War, for me, is a way of thinking about Robert S. McNamara, and reflecting on my relationship with him, and about the history that we’ve both been a part of. Elsa told me very early on, “If you don’t like a photograph, look at it in 10 years. Look at it in 15 or 20 or 25 years.” The McNamara who was in front of my camera — as opposed to the man I demonstrated against in the 1960s — is endlessly fascinating to me. I had come to know him. Was he a different person than he was at the time of the war in Vietnam?

I have thought quite often, and I think this idea comes from Elsa, of stopping time. She tells us [in the film] it’s about nailing down the “now,” but then she reminds us that nailing down the now is impossible. The now is fleeing in front of us, it’s racing on. And that, too, has made me think a lot about photography. The dream of somehow [ensuring] that the past doesn’t escape us altogether. That there can be some remnant, some residue of what’s gone before. And also a sense of loss. My most optimistic notion about my own film is that it’s a kind of elegy for the past where photography plays a very central role.

Do you own any of your own films outright? And is that idea of ownership important to you?
I’ve had to sell off most of my films, just in order to make them, or to go on making them. Many of my films I’ve had [creative] control over: it’s been my choice of how to make them and how to edit them. I own very few of them. I don’t know what I would do with them. But most artists end up selling their work in some way or another. That is, if there are people willing to buy.

In the film, we hear Elsa musing about donating her photographs to an archive. Have you made similar plans?
There’s a number of people who have offered to take them. I’ve gotten offers from maybe half a dozen different institutions that are interested, but I haven’t done anything with them. I would like them to live somewhere, but I’m not going to worry about it for a while. I’d like to make a couple more films first!

Elsa expresses a similar attitude; part of her reticence to the idea seems to be that it acknowledges a mortality that perhaps she’s not ready to accept yet.
I think that’s discussed on camera. Not directly: it’s not my asking her, “Elsa, how do you feel about dying?” [That’s] something that I would never do. But there are ways that you can discuss mortality without doing that kind of thing, and I think it’s something that is discussed, either directly or indirectly, throughout The B-Side. It’s very much part of that movie…the impermanence of everything, including ourselves.

Watch a clip from ‘The B-Side’

Speaking of your unfinished works, early on in your career, you interviewed the serial killer, Ed Gein, whose crimes where the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. What state does that material exist in now? Have you ever revisited it?
I might. In fact, Penguin has asked me to do another book, and I proposed a book entitled, Murderers I Have Known, and certainly Gein would be one of them. I don’t have film footage [of him]. I wasn’t a filmmaker when I interviewed him. They were audiotapes. It’s a remarkable story [that] people are still fascinated with 70 years later. I’m not altogether sure why; perhaps because the crimes were so outlandish. And maybe also because of Psycho.

Was that a formative experience for you as an interviewer? And what techniques have you learned over the years about how you pose questions to people?
All of those early interviews that I did were very much formative. [As was] reaching people to talk to, and investigating a murder. Those are all things that I started to do very early on, even before I became, technically speaking, a filmmaker. I don’t think there’s a technique [to interviewing people]. I think it’s the technique of actually engaging with people: talking to them, listening to them. It’s about a relationship. It’s about actually caring to listen to someone, and trying to uncover something about them that goes beyond the perfunctory, to a level of emotional engagement. If you’re not emotionally engaged in your subject, then you can’t do this, I don’t think. Or you can’t do it well.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, which is one of my favorites of yours. What are your reflections on that film, two decades later?
I love it. My wife pointed out to me that Fast, Cheap is one of her favorite films, and she thinks that The B-Side is the closest film I’ve made to it. And I know why she thinks that’s the case, because that too was an elegy. I made it right after my mother and stepfather’s death, and it is about the loss of everything. All of the characters talk about disappearing, principally the topiary gardener [George Mendonça] and the lion tamer [Dave Hoover]. You have a feeling of, “We’re here today, but gone tomorrow,” but you also see the nobility of it all in carrying on and creating something. [George] gets up on those ladders and he’s trimming. It’s remarkable. He’s no longer with us; he died years ago.

Watch the trailer for ‘Fast, Cheap & Out of Control’ 

The one thing I learned from making The B-Side is that something does remain, and those are the things you can love. I love it when Elsa says about Allan Ginsberg, “He gave me the gift of friendship.” She was giving me that gift as well, and for that, I’m grateful.

We hear a lot today about jobs that are falling away because of automation; society overall seems to be moving in a more mechanized direction. Is there any fear in your mind that filmmakers might be replaced by machines?
I think there’ll always be room for art. I mean, it’s part of what we do. It’s part of the human enterprise. So maybe that will endure. Will it endure forever? Well, maybe nothing will.

Would you be interested to watch a film directed by a robot?
Sure, I’d watch it. If it was a nice robot. [Laughs]

‘The B-Side’:  Watch a trailer:

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