8B - The Michigan Daily Graduation Edition - Thursday, April 13, 2000
THE FINAL WALK
Director Morris discusses current, past projects'
By Aaron Rich
Daily Arts Writer
Errol Morris is an extremely busy
man,,currently working on a television
series and several commercial spots for
corporations, not to mention all the
press he's doing for his latest film, "Mr.
Death - The Rise and Fall of Fred A.
Leuchter, Jr.," and work for whatever
his next film will be. He is especially
hard to track down for an interview.
After canceling plans to fly to Detroit
to speak with press about his new film
because he couldn't leave his directing
work in Boston, his office pushed our
rescheduled interview back several
times because he was in the middle of
meetings surrounding his new televi-
sion series, "First Person," for Bravo.
Once on the phone, though, Morris
demonstrated why his schedule is so
hectic: He talks a lot and he's a really
"Mr. Death" tells the story of Fred
Leuchter, a man who made a name for
himself in the state execution world in
the mid 1980s by fine tuning electric
chairs, lethal injection machines, gal-
lows and gas chambers for several
states who needed their death devices
fixed or rebuilt.
His name appeared again in the
late '80s when he was called as an
expert witness in a case in Canada
involving Ernst Zundel, a man who
claimed the Holocaust was a myth.
Leuchter was employed as an expert
on gas chambers (because he had
had limited design work on them in
the U.S.) to go to Auschwitz-Birke-
nau, the Nazi concentration camp in
Poland, to determine the exact
nature of what are commonly
known as gas chambers used for
executions. Leuchter concluded that
these were not gas chambers, partly
due to bad scientific work and part-
ly due to questionable reasoning.
Morris first read about Leuchter in
the news regarding his domestic work
on capitol execution devices. He con-
sidered Leuchter as a subject in a film,
but concluded that there was "not
enough story there." When the Zundel
story came out a few years later, he had
"These two stories of Holocaust
denial and execution devices connected
in one man. To not tell both stories
together would be to miss the point,"
Morris said. After working on and fin-
ishing another film, "Fast, Cheap and
Out of Control" (1997), he began
searching for somebody to put up the
money to make a film about Leuchter.
"People just did not want to pay to
make this movie. They were just afraid
of it. They did not know what would
result from it and they were afraid of
that fact," Morris said.
"I tried to point out to one man who
was talking to me as if I was a Holo-
caust denier that there's a big difference
between making a movie about a Holo-
caust denier and being one. I am a Jew.
I'm not a Holocaust denier. I've never
doubted that the Holocaust happened
- not even in my craziest moments. I
did finally get the money about a year
and a half ago, and I started work on
the movie," Morris said.
For the interviews, which make up
the majority of the 90-minute runtime,
Morris used an invention of his own
that he likes to call the "Interatron."
The machine works similarly to a
teleprompter where the camera
shoots the subject from behind a
glass panel on which, instead of a
script, they see a simultaneous cam-
era image of Morris talking to them.
Facing Morris is the same set up -
a camera behind the picture of the
subject that the other camera is
shooting. This allows Morris' sub-
jects to look directly into the lens
and to look into his eyes at the same
time, thus avoiding the subject's
eyes looking to the side of the cam-
era where the interviewer normally
"I'm still sort of learning about the
Interatron. I do see a difference
between my interviews now and those I
did before I began using it," Morris
said. "The Interatron is something that
no one else uses. It's so different and
In the film, Morris shows a small
anecdote where Leuchter fixes up the
electric chair for the state of Tennessee.
Leuchter explains that the chair is
haunted by the spirits of some of the
men who were killed in it and proudly
shows as proof a photograph he took of
the chair in which ghostly forms seem
to writhe in agony.
"The ghost becomes really interest-
ing to me - that's why I included it. It
becomes a metaphor for the whole
problem of the film - or at least the
central question of the film. Namely
who is Fred?," said Morris
"I look at that photograph," Morris
said, "and see this hand rising and this
face contorted (maybe two faces are
contorted - I see one; Fred sees
many), and I look at the photograph
and say, 'Ah, a doctored photograph, a
double exposure of some kind.'
"But if that's the case, who produced
the double exposure? Fred? Is he lying
and just pretending that he doesn't
know? Or did he do it himself and then
somehow forget that he had done it -
just wishful thinking that it might be
real or he might be able to sell it. Or
was it done by his associate, and he just
wanted to buy into the bullshit? What's
"It troubles me," Morris continued,
"because it raises exactly the same
questions that are raised about his holo-
caust denial. Does he know what he's
doing? Is he doing it out of some sort of
cynical desire to manipulate people? Is
he's a real bad guy pulling the strings or
is he some sort of innocent dupe, some
fall guy, some moron or moral imbecile
who stumbled into a Nazi camp and
bought into the lying without thinking
about what he was doing? That is the
question. And that same question arises
in that photograph," Morris said.
Working on the film has led Morris
to rethink, at least figure out, some of
his feelings on humanity in general. "I
think the mind is a very mixed up
place," he said. "We like to think it's in
one state or another, like lying or telling
the truth - well, lying and telling the
truth are pretty clear notions. But
whether you know that we're lying or
telling the truth is much less clear."
"I imagine us - Leuchter and the
rest of us - as being like a deck of
cards with a lot of things going on at
once. Layers. Part of us play acting,
part of us sincere, part of us disingenu-
ous, part of us for real, part of us
involved knowingly in what we're
doing; other parts being unwitting
actors in some kind of dimly perceived
play. I think it's a mess," said Morris.
"I think you can ask two kinds of
questions," Morris continued, "Is
what Fred has done, is it bad? Is it
even pernicious? And the answer is,*
unequivocally, yes. This is bad stuff.
Going to Auschwitz and desecrating
the place illegally, chipping brick
and mortar from the ruins of Birke-
nau, is this bad? Yes. Is appearing at
holocaust revisionist conferences or
at neo-Nazi rallies in Europe bad?
Yes. Very, very, very bad.
"Then the next kind of question, is
Fred a bad man? Is he evil? That's trick-
ier. I would also say to that yes. But I
would say also that he's a man not
devoid of our sympathy. Perhaps not of
our approval - and I would say defi-
nitely not of our approval because I dis-
approve of him.
"But there's something so sad, so
deeply disturbing about the story. Do
people knowingly commit evil or do
they do really rotten things somehow
thinking that they're heroes? This is a
guy who, it's clear, wants to see himself
as deeply heroic," sad Morris.
Morris clearly gets deeply involved
in his work. He summed up "Mr.
Death" in a few words: "The film
'Schindler's List' has the rather uninter-
esting thesis that anybody can be a
hero. 'Mr. Death' has the thesis that
anybody can think they're a hero, any-
body can write their own story in their
own mind to construe themselves as
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Stuart dishes screenwriting dirt'
By Erin Podoisky
Daily Arts Writer
Screenwriter Jeb Stuart, never one
to lie but certainly not above putting a
spin on something, finally came clean
on the origin of the classic Bruce
Willis line, "Yippee ki-yay, mother-
fucker!" from "Die Hard."
"I think a lot of people take credit
for it and that's usually the way it
goes in the movies. It was not origi-
nally in the script, per se. I think
Bruce added a little touch to it but
there was something very similar to
that in the script," Stuart, who wrote
the film, said in a recent interview
with the Michigan Daily.
"That's the way it goes. What I will
do is I always take credit for some-
thing that turns out great and I dis-
tance myself from it and blame it on
the actor when it screws up," he said,
Primarily known for his work on
action movies, Stuart had an interest-
ing entry into Hollywood's ranks. "I
went through a sort of academic
course to get to screenwriting, which
is kind of unusual. I did a masters at
of Ckicoc, r i nhere in n Ar orn!
Chapel Hill in communications, and
off of that masters I was then accept-
ed into a program at Stanford Univer-
sity and did another masters in
communication which focused only
on screenwriting," Stuart said.
He then did a year-long fellowship
through Stanford, although the pro-
gram is now administered through the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciences. "It allowed me to write a
screenplay which I then sold to a stu-
dio in Hollywood and got on the other
side of the fence," he said.
"It was kind of an unusual way to
get into the business. Most people get
in sort of non-academically."
That first screenplay knocked
around for 12 years before finally get-
ting made and released in 1997 as
"Switchback." "That was from what
they call a 'calling card' script and it
was optioned at Columbia Pictures. It
was cast and all ready to go and then
it never was made," Stuart said.
"But on the strength of that script 1
was offered a five-script contract at
Disney, which was just getting reor-
ganized. This was 1985 and that's
when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey
Katzenberg came in and took over the
studio. They were sort of scouring
film schools for talent and I was in
the right place at the right time.
"I never got a movie made at Dis-
ney. In fact, I only wrote one script,
but while I was in the down-time after
I turned in a draft, I did a project over
at Fox. It was an old novel that had
bounced around from studio to studio
called 'Nothing Lasts Forever.'
Nobody had been able to crack it
because it was about a 65-year-old
man who, at the end of the movie,
goes to Los Angeles to visit his
daughter and the building is taken
over by terrorists and at the end he's
responsible for dropping his daughter
off this 60-story building.
"I kind of revamped that and made
it more about a guy trying to get back
in the good graces of his wife. That
,became 'Die Hard' and that was my
;second script. And then from 'Die
Hard' on it was a little bit different.
Again, it was kind of an unusual situ-
ation in that it was really, seriously
the second professional script [I
wrote]," Stuart said.
"I never wrote an action movie
before 'Die Hard.' 'Switchback'
really a suspense thriller. I like s
pense an awful lot, I love Hitchcock, I
love De Palma and people like that,"
Stuart said. His resume includes
mostly suspense and action thrillers,
making him a successful specialist in
a tough genre. When asked if he felt
his extensive action credits list limit-
ed him, Stuart admitted that they did,
somewhat -- and that isn't a problem
"I -do think I've been pigeonhole
but it's one I kind of gladly go to. It s
not to say I don't love screwball
comedies. I'm not quite sure I would
really be a good writer for that.
"I don't really do as much action as
I used to. Those movies are driven by
forces that are greater than a great
screenplay sometimes. It's a money
game. You happen to get Tom Cruise
or you happen to get Mel Gibson
Bruce Willis for a picture and hop-
fully you've got a script. And if you
don't it can be a nightmare."
Many of Stuart's screenplays have
been used as vehicles for big-budget
stars like Willis and Harrison Ford.
Working with such demanding talent
can constrain the development of a
movie's story, Stuart explained.
"That was the case on 'The Fugi-
tive.' Hopefully, if you're lucky, you
work with someone like Harris
who has great feelings for charactt
and for the story. Almost every great
actor or big star has good feelings for
the character. But you have to wear
the other hat, which is make sure the
story doesn't get completely lost."
Stuart took on three roles for
"Switchback," on which he was not
only writer but producer and director
as well. "I love wearing all the hats,"
he said. "It makes it easy in song
respects and at the same time if you
like working with other people you
sometimes miss that great input of
somebody from the outside that you
really respect who wants to see it
maybe in a different way."
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