Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris broke open the documentary form with his early embrace of re-enactments and stylized lighting and music. His film, “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), put this reputation front and center, and his Oscar-winning film, “The Fog of War” (2003), cemented his legacy. He also has an irresistible attraction to controversial interview subjects – and “American Dharma” is no different. He breaks down the process behind this 2018 film on political strategist Steve Bannon and the controversy that came with it.
Joe Skinner (VO): I am a huge fan of documentary filmmaking.
Errol Morris: Hello?
Joe Skinner: Hello. Thanks for joining.
Errol Morris: Where are we? We’re in limbo.
Joe Skinner (VO): And if you’re into documentaries — even just a little bit — you’ve probably heard of this guy.
Errol Morris: I’m Errol Morris. I direct films and I hope actually before the bitter end to make a couple more.
Joe Skinner (VO): And, even if you haven’t heard of Errol Morris… you’ve definitely seen movies that were influenced by him. His documentary “The Thin Blue Line,” from 1988, was hugely influential for the way it elevated true crime storytelling.
Prosecutor: The first shot hit him in the arm. He had his flashlight. It hit the flashlight as I recall and went into his arm and the next one hit him right in the chest.
Joe Skinner (VO): In 2018, Morris made “American Dharma,” about the former head of Breitbart News and Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon.
Errol Morris: The movie premiered at the Venice film festival. And the movie was well attended.
Steve Bannon: Dharma is the combination of duty, fate, and destiny. For me to fulfill my dharma, I have to fulfill my duty.
Errol Morris: People clearly liked the movie.
Joe Skinner (VO): At the end of the screening, the audience gave it a standing ovation.
Errol Morris: But I got back to my hotel room and I started reading reviews and the reviews were horrendous. There were comments that this was, quote unquote, a “bromance.” It was my “love affair” with Stephen K. Bannon.
Joe Skinner (VO): The negative reviews kept coming. A lot of them attacked Morris for giving Bannon a platform to spread his ideology.
Errol Morris: This movie is about a bad person. It indeed is a bad movie. Let’s give credit where credit is due. It’s not just a bad person and therefore is a bad movie. It’s about a bad person and it also is a bad movie. And it’s probably a bad movie about a bad person done by a bad director. No one would distribute the movie. They wouldn’t go near it. This is my biggest failure.
Joe Skinner (VO): I’m Joe Skinner. This is American Masters: Creative Spark. And this season, we’re going to try something a bit different. In each episode, we’re bringing you the story of how one work of art came to exist, in the artist’s own words. This is a chance for us to hear about everything that goes into making things. Our goal. Is to demystify the creative process. Today’s focus: Errol Morris on the making of “American Dharma.” How is it that one of the most prominent documentarians alive decided to make a movie about one of the most reviled political figures from the Trump era? And why did it end up, in his words, as his “biggest failure?”
Joe Skinner (VO): “American Dharma” was the third in a series of documentary portraits Morris made about unpopular political figures. In 2003, Morris released “The Fog of War,” a film about Robert S. McNamara, who was defense secretary during the Vietnam War.
Robert S. McNamara: We saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as – a civil war. We were wrong.
Errol Morris: This thing is heavy. I’d like to thank the Academy for finally recognizing my films.
Joe Skinner (VO): “The Fog of War” won an Oscar for best documentary feature.
Errol Morris (Archival): Thank you so very, very, very much. I thought it would never happen.
Joe Skinner (VO): A decade later, Morris made “The Unknown Known.” That movie was a profile of Donald Rumsfeld, who was secretary of defense during the war in Iraq.
Donald Rumsfeld: Subject: Unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know, that it turns out you did not.
Joe Skinner (VO): But while “The Fog of War” won awards and critical praise, “The Unknown Known” was less well received.
Errol Morris: One reviewer criticized “The Unknown Known” because they felt Donald Rumsfeld was not in any way remorseful. I said, “you know, you make a movie with the secretary of defense you have, not the secretary of defense you want to have.”
Joe Skinner: So what’s the Steve Bannon that we want to have?
Errol Morris: I’m not sure we want to have any kind of Steve Bannon. But we’re stuck with him. He exists. And that in itself is something that is worthy of examination.
Joe Skinner (VO): Sometime after the 2016 election, Morris knew he wanted to talk to Bannon.
Reporter: Bannon became a prominent nationalist, conservative voice that helped to create one of the biggest upsets in American politics.
Reporter 2: If you look at the politician Donald Trump became, it’s very much a reflection of Steve Bannon’s politics.
Trump Impersonation: Send in Steve Bannon.
Errol Morris: Bannon was credited with electing Donald Trump.
Steve Bannon Satire (Archival): Hello, Donald, I have arrived.
Donald Trump Satire (Archival): Hi, Steve, you look rested.
Steve Bannon Satire (Archival): Thank you.
Errol Morris: Who in the hell is Bannon? We’re doing the pie graph. What percentage is true believer, true fascist monster? What percentage is a snake oil salesman? Guy who sees this as a way to secure power. It would be disingenuous to say that I wasn’t warned that talking to him was potentially toxic. It was toxic. But I just couldn’t let it go. I asked my agent, Ari Emanuel, whether he knew someone who could connect me with Steve Bannon and yes, he did. And it was a pretty simple process. I contacted Steve Bannon and within a short amount of time, I was invited down to the Breitbart “embassy” as it’s known.
Joe Skinner (VO): The Breitbart “embassy” was a brick townhouse that served as headquarters for Breitbart News, the right-wing site that Bannon ran at the time.
Errol Morris: Very, very, very close to the U.S. Supreme court in Washington. You could look down the street and there are the pillars at the end of the street. I went down and met Steve Bannon. We talk for two or three hours and we agreed to make a movie together.
Joe Skinner (VO): The question then became: How to make an Errol Morris movie about Steve Bannon, a guy who was very much in the public eye.
Errol Morris: I’m always looking for a different way in, so that I’m not doing the same damn thing again and again, and again and again, until I drop dead. I knew Bannon loved movies. I even knew he loved my movies. And I often think that movies are a kind of… is it a litmus test? I don’t even know how best to describe it. It’s a way of looking at how people see things. People see movies in radically different ways. I knew his favorite movie was “Twelve O’Clock High.”
Gregory Peck: Now, I don’t have a lot of patience with this. What are we fighting for stuff. We’re in a war. A shooting war.
Errol Morris: “Twelve O’Clock High” has a speech.
Gregory Peck: We’ve got to fight and some of us have got to die.
Errol Morris: Gregory Peck is in this Quonset hut.
Joe Skinner (VO): A Quonset hut, by the way, is a long, metal, tube-shaped building you might see on a lot of military bases.
Errol Morris: He’s exhorting his troops to battle.
Gregory Peck: I’m not trying to tell you not to be afraid. Fear is normal, but stop worrying about it.
Errol Morris: They’re going to fly over Nazi Germany. Chances are you’re not coming back.
Gregory Peck: Stop making plans. Forget about going home. Consider yourselves already dead.
Errol Morris: Consider yourself already dead. It told me a lot about Bannon, his love of conflict. And he is Gregory Peck in “Twelve O’Clock High,” or at least he liked to see himself as Gregory Peck in “Twelve O’Clock High.”
Steve Bannon: I think it’s a very simple film, with a very simple, powerful message that modernity is based around emotionalism, which you think is helping everybody, but in fact, is not allowing them to fulfill their destiny, fulfill their fate. Even though that fate and that destiny, may be their own personal destruction.
Joe Skinner (VO): “Twelve O’Clock High” is about the importance of winning at any cost. Steve Bannon ran the Trump campaign the same way, like he was channeling Gregory Peck. But even though it’s a World War II movie, the particulars of why, or who, they’re fighting, almost don’t even matter.
Gregory Peck: A crippled airplane has to be expendable. The one thing which is never expendable is your obligation to this group. This group, this group, that has to be your loyalty, your only reason for being.
Errol Morris: When I first saw it, I asked myself. Could this be a Nazi film? What makes this an American film being shown to Americans about American fliers, American service men?
Joe Skinner (VO): Of course, the American pilots in the movie were fighting fascism, but there’s nothing about Gregory Peck’s determination to win at all costs that’s inherently American. Switch the uniforms around, and he could just as easily be playing a bad guy. That ambiguity fascinated Morris. Especially since Bannon was being called a fascist for his hard-right ideology. And that’s what gave him the idea for how to structure his documentary.
Errol Morris: I decided to structure it around films and I decided to structure it around that film in particular, because I thought, let’s build the set of “Twelve O’Clock High.” Let’s build the Quonset hut from “Twelve O’Clock High.” And we’ll put Bannon in it. Because, what could he want more than to be the hero in his favorite film? What we’re doing is we’re creating an environment where something can happen. An environment pregnant with meaning, with emotion, with significance. But I liked the idea of it. I thought, now this is kind of perverse.
Joe Skinner (VO): Errol Morris’s production designer on this film was Adam Stockhausen, who’s worked with Stephen Spielberg and Wes Anderson, among others. He won an Oscar for his work on “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Stockhausen and his team built a replica of the set from “Twelve O’Clock High” at a decommissioned military base outside Boston – and he went looking for props from the 1949 movie.
Errol Morris: At the heart of “Twelve O’Clock High” is the Toby jug.
Joe Skinner (VO): In “Twelve O’Clock High,” the Toby jug is a ceramic pitcher shaped like the head of a bandit. Maybe it’s Robin Hood.
Errol Morris: The jug was turned to the wall. And then when the pilots left to fly out over Germany they turned it around. It became emblematic of the war and the risks that they were taking, and of their courage. And I really, really wanted that Toby jug and my producer found it. And I always liked smashing things. Maybe that’s the secret destructive part of me. We had the Toby jug and I just knew at a certain point, I had to drop it on the floor of the Quonset hut and smash it.
Joe Skinner (VO): The hut and those props in “American Dharma” really are uncanny replicas of the ones from “Twelve O’Clock High.” At one point, Morris has his camera zoom into a clock, ticking on the wall of their film set. Suddenly, he cuts to a shot of that same clock ticking, in black and white, in a scene from “Twelve O’Clock High.” It’s a simple part of a motif, but it’s a striking and deliberate detail.
Errol Morris: One of the things that still kind of gives me pleasure to look at is where you go from one simulacrum to another, from the model of “Twelve O’Clock High,” which in turn is a model of some Quonset hut somewhere during the air war against Germany. Of course, who knows where we really are. Are we in a dream? Wasn’t it that guy Edgar Allan Poe: “What is life, but a dream within a dream?” These last four years, there’s an entire world out of whack, out of balance, where seemingly right and wrong, truth and falsity, don’t even mean anything anymore.
Edgar Allan Poe Reenactment: O God! Can I not grasp them with a tighter clasp? Oh God! can I not save one from the pitiless wave? Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?
Joe Skinner (VO): At points during “American Dharma,” we see Steve Bannon walking around the set, and the overgrown airstrip outside, intercut with scenes from “Twelve O’Clock High” where the actor Dean Jagger wanders a similarly deserted World War II airfield. At one point, we see Bannon strolling a street lined with the facades of derelict houses, while we hear President Trump’s “American Carnage” inaugural address.
Donald Trump: Chief Justice Roberts, fellow Americans…
Joe Skinner (VO): A speech reported to have been written in part by Steve Bannon himself.
Donald Trump: …And people of the world, thank you. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.
Joe Skinner (VO): It turns out, that main street set was built for “Patriots Day,” a movie about the Boston Marathon bombing.
Errol Morris: We’re out in this abandoned airfield. They had constructed a little American street that was used as part of the shooting. And I looked at it, it was falling apart. Boards were coming off the houses. There was litter in the streets, so on and so forth. And I thought, hmm, “this is my American carnage scene. I’ll have Bannon just walking through this, talking about President Trump’s first and, we hope and pray, only inaugural address.”
Donald Trump: And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs, that have stolen too many lives, and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
Joe Skinner (VO): “American Dharma” is a single-interview documentary. There aren’t any talking heads filling in context or critiquing what Bannon says. It’s just Steve Bannon and Errol Morris, sitting across a desk facing each other. Morris interviewed Bannon inside the Quonset hut for about 16 hours over six days. As someone who gets to interview people, I’ve always wanted to know how a master interviewer like Morris prepares. But he didn’t go in with a long list of questions on a pad of paper.
Errol Morris: Interviews scare me. I don’t like to prepare for them, because I really believe that an interview has to be spontaneous. It has to have at least a very strong element of spontaneity.
Joe Skinner: I was just gonna say, did Bannon bring anything that he was hoping for you to cover?
Errol Morris: Bannon had a litany of complaints. He was really angry.
Steve Bannon: It can’t be a pillow fight. You need some killers. You get some killers, you’re gonna see some change. We all know what the problems are. Do you have the guts to do it? Trump had it. And that’s why he’s President of the United States.
Joe Skinner: So what, what is going through your head when Bannon’s saying these kinds of things in the interview?
Errol Morris: What’s for dinner? I’m often thinking, do I have to reply to this? Should I reply to this? Can I reply to this? You could turn it into a total adversarial deal, but that was not the idea. The idea was to tease something out, to learn something.
Errol Morris (Archival): In the 20th century, we decided that these individual nation states at war with each other would produce disaster, that some solution had to be contrived.
Steve Bannon: And when you say we, what do you mean? We? we didn’t decide that at all. I completely totally disagree with that. No, but it wasn’t the common man that got us into World War I,into World War II and in Vietnam and all the other wars have been fought.
Joe Skinner (VO): As Bannon talks, we see him from multiple camera angles, often with Morris in the shot.
Errol Morris: I liked the fact that we had constructed this movie set and I was part of it. So I put myself in it and I filmed myself in it. Because it was more of a confrontation, maybe not as much of a confrontation that people would have liked to have seen, but it was a confrontation with Bannon. I liked the fact that I’m sitting at that stupid desk on one side and he’s sitting at that stupid desk on the other side and we’re having this conversation.
Errol Morris (Archival): I was reading about Lucifer in Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” And I have to say that Lucifer for me had certain Bannon-esque qualities.
Steve Bannon: He’s the interesting character in “Paradise Lost.”
Errol Morris (Archival): Rather reign in hell…
Steve Bannon: …Than serve in heaven. Love that line. I use it all the time.
Errol Morris (Archival): You do?
Steve Bannon: All the time. There’s a lot of truth to that.
Joe Skinner: That scene really stands out as kind of the climax of the film for me. And I was just curious if you could talk about that moment.
Errol Morris: You know, I don’t have enough empirical evidence here, but when you call people Satan, Satan incarnate, the devil, usually they’re offended. “I’m not the devil. I’m not Satan. I’m a nice guy.” Bannon loved it. “Yeah, I’m the devil, I’m Satan. Hi. Hi there. Nice to meet you. I think you’ll really enjoy some of the truly satanic things I have in mind.”
Steve Bannon: You may hate my guts and you may hate what I stand for, but if we don’t allow some way for the system to spread the wealth, we’re going to have a revolution in this country. It is coming as night follows day.
Errol Morris (Archival): What would revolution mean? What are we talking about here?
Steve Bannon: A complete rejection of the system. It’s going to cut like a scythe through grass. It is coming.
Errol Morris: At the heart of this whole movement, this so-called populist movement. The heart of it was just pure destruction.
Joe Skinner (VO): Remember that Quonset hut Morris meticulously reconstructed for the film set? Bannon’s destructive ideas gave Morris an idea for the movie’s most striking sequence.
Errol Morris: I really wanted to burn the Quonset hut down at the very end of the film.
Joe Skinner: Did you know you were going to burn it down before you built it?
Errol Morris: No, no, no. Only after I built it, I thought, hmm. Let’s burn it down at the end. I’m not exactly sure the exact moment, but I remember asking Adam Stockhausen, “can we burn it down?” And he got all excited. Of course we can burn it down. Let’s burn it down. We took the cameras out of the Quonset hut and we shot the burning of the Quonset hut with, I don’t know, probably seven or eight cameras. And it burns pretty fast. In fact, we almost immolated the crew.
Joe Skinner: Was Bannon aware that you were going to be burning it down?
Errol Morris: He liked it. I worried about telling him, you know, we’re going to burn it down. You okay with that? Yeah, no problem. And then there was a discussion whether it should end with the burning. And I thought not. I liked him being on that lonely runway at the end, just like Dean Jagger at the end of “Twelve O’Clock High.” There he was just walking off into nowhere with his crazy ass ideas of whatever.
Joe Skinner (VO): Just like the final scene of “Twelve O’Clock High,” at the end of “American Dharma” we see Bannon wandering the abandoned airfield. It’s as if Morris is showing us Bannon acting out his ideal version of himself as some kind of all-American hero.
Errol Morris: It is really an interesting aspect of our current world. And maybe it was always true that people have never really known who they are. That life is a form of play-acting and we constantly revise who we are. It’s a portrait. And I think an interesting portrait.
Joe Skinner: What do you think you captured in this portrait of Bannon?
Errol Morris: His destructiveness. His Sadism. It’s not just politics as usual. It’s something meaner, nastier, more frightening.
Joe Skinner (VO): Reviewers took Morris to task for not being argumentative enough with Bannon, for not making his views more explicit.
Errol Morris: I thought there was enough stuff there in “American Dharma” to make it absolutely clear what my feelings were towards Stephen Bannon. I find his ideas detestable.
Joe Skinner (VO): “American Dharma” makes its points using irony. Morris uses the old film clips and re-enactments to undercut what Bannon is saying. But, in the middle of the Trump administration, critics didn’t seem to appreciate this approach.
Errol Morris: What am I supposed to do? Have like a placard, not good people on both sides. Okay. Ya [censored]. But if that’s what movies have to do, if they have to just lead you by the nose, if they have to make everything so unbelievably overstated and explicit, it kind of makes me sad.
Joe Skinner (VO): Some critics thought Morris never should have made a movie about Steve Bannon in the first place. They thought the right thing to do was to ignore Bannon. Instead, they said Morris had given him a platform.
Errol Morris: In many ways, I still am an experimental filmmaker and I like being an experimental filmmaker. If you’re required to do things in the same way again and again, and again, what’s the point? The point is I think to discover new ways of telling stories and to find new information, surprising information.
Joe Skinner (VO): Like any documentary, “American Dharma” is a time capsule. It preserves a moment in time after Bannon had left the Trump administration and hadn’t yet been indicted for fraud. But the reverberations of that moment are still with us.
Reporter: The U.S. Capitol is on lockdown as thousands of pro-Trump protestors swarmed buildings in the compound…
Reporter 2: Are they rioters? Was it a mob? Is it terrorism? Is it insurrection? Is it a coup?
Reporter 3: There are ties between lower-level Republican officials and militia groups.
Reporter 4: Fifteen percent of Americans believe the false QAnon idea that the government is controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles.
Errol Morris: The Bannons of the world are still out there. Scares the [censored] out of me. I made the movie because it scared the [censored] out of me. We dodged a bullet, but the gun is still loaded.
Joe Skinner (VO): Thank you to Errol Morris for his interview, and for inviting us into his creative process. Join us for our more episodes weekly, as we continue to look into how artists make their work. And please, subscribe wherever you listen, and tell your friends about the show. American Masters: Creative Spark is a production of The WNET Group, media made possible by all of you. The show is produced by me, Joe Skinner. Our executive producer is Michael Kantor. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Original music is composed by Hannis Brown. Funding for American Masters: Creative Spark was provided by the Anderson Family Charitable Fund and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.