Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Q&A: Errol Morris on his John le Carré documentary 'The Pigeon Tunnel'

NEW YORK (AP) — Errol Morris has just sat down with a reporter when his wife calls. “I’m being deposed,” Morris says, smiling, into his phone. “I hope that it’s going to turn into a criminal investigation, but I believe it’s just an interview.
Filmmaker Errol Morris poses for a portrait to promote his film, "The Pigeon Tunnel" a documentary about John le Carré, during the Toronto International Film Festival, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Toronto. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Errol Morris has just sat down with a reporter when his wife calls.

“I’m being deposed,” Morris says, smiling, into his phone. “I hope that it’s going to turn into a criminal investigation, but I believe it’s just an interview.”

Morris, the veteran documentarian of “The Thin Blue Line,”“The Fog of War” and “The Unknown Known,” knows a thing or two about interviews. He famously invented a contraption called “The Interrotron” to capture face-to-face eye contact on camera.

In his latest film, “The Pigeon Tunnel,” Morris sits down with the celebrated spy novelist John le Carré, the enigmatic author of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” The interviews were conducted shortly before the author's death in 2020 at the age of 89.

Their exchange probes the life and work of le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell, and who as a former British intelligent agent was, himself, expert in conducting interrogations. The film, which opens Friday in select theaters and on Apple TV+, is based on le Carré's 2016 memoir of the same name. It's also an investigation into the murky depths of human nature and of history, where fact and fiction often blur.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.


AP: Some of the first interviews you ever conducted were with the serial killer Ed Gein, whose murders inspired Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho” and Alfred Hitchcock’s film. I don’t know if you consider that the beginning…

Morris: It’s certainly one of the starting points.

AP: Why do you think that was, that your life as an interviewer began in such a dark place?

Morris: I really don’t know if it has a simple answer. Maybe I felt comfortable talking to people. It was one of the ways I investigated murder, certainly Ed Gein’s murders in Waushara County, Wisconsin. It wasn’t just interviews. I mean, it’s a pattern in a lot of the films that I made, certainly the early films. “The Thin Blue Line” was a lot of interviews, but it was a lot of just research. I worked as a private detective, and what did I do as a private detective? The same damn thing. Talking to people. Research. I had a friend who once told me that you couldn’t trust people who didn’t talk a lot because how else would you know what they’re thinking? And I think there is some truth to this. When people talk, they have a way of revealing things about themselves. Didn’t Freud have that idea?

AP: Was that your approach to interviewing le Carré?

Morris: What really puzzles me about some of the press in connection with “The Pigeon Tunnel” is they talk about it as a contest between me and David Cornwell. Maybe he saw it that way, but I never saw it that way. I’ve never seen any interview that way. I often like to say that I belong to the shut-the-f----up school of interviewing. If you just let people talk, within a very short period of time they will reveal how crazy they are. That certainly motivated “Gates of Heaven.” “Gates of Heaven” is a series of interviews but they’re monologues. Then I had this idea, what if I made a movie — this was around the time I did Robert McNamara for “The Fog of War” — what if I break some kind of standard rule? I love, by the way, breaking rules.

AP: Reenactments, most notably in “The Thin Blue Line,” were breaking a rule, weren’t they?

Morris: They were. It doesn’t matter if it’s documentary or drama, it’s all fake. It’s all reenacted. It’s all recreated. The oddity of all this was that there was this idea that documentary by just the very fact that it was made was truthful. Call it a naïve idea — I would call it a naïve idea. Truth isn’t something that’s handed through some kind of style or process of filmmaking. “The Thin Blue Line,” I thought, was endlessly misunderstood.

AP: It did lead to justice, vindicating an innocent man. As much as you’ve thought about subjectivity in photography, that was a film that arrived at some truth.

Morris: Eh. There’s a line that I just adore in “The Pigeon Tunnel.” There’s an illustration from “The Looking Glass War” about how people see the world differently — inarguable. But the fact that people see the world differently does not mean the truth is subjective. It’s an important distinction and a confusion that’s made endlessly.

AP: Especially nowadays.

Morris: Especially nowadays, where the whole idea of truth is challenged. I have a friend who was probably the greatest living philosopher — he died recently — Saul Kripke. And we were talking about “Rashomon.” His explanation for “Rashomon,” he said: “Oh, it’s obvious. They’re all lying.” People don’t have to be lying. They can be self-deceived. They can be confused. We see the world differently. And then David talks about objective truth, that he believes in objective truth — as do I.

AP: Le Carré and you would seem to share some of the same obsessions. Did you feel sympatico with him?

Morris: Well, I really like him. And yes. I mean, I’ve never made a film where I haven’t thought after the fact that I could have done a better job, and this film is no exception. I didn’t know that he would die so soon after that interview. People say I must have known or he must have known that it was to be his last interview. But I don’t think so. Just look at him on screen. He’s all there. This is not a man who is failing. It’s a man who’s at the top of his form. Extraordinarily fast, articulate, knowledgeable, funny, perverse. Yeah, that’s where I identify with him most of all — his funny, perverse sense of humor.

AP: The central, mysterious metaphor of le Carré's, “The Pigeon Tunnel" — a tunnel that funnels pigeons to shotgun-wielding men — looms throughout the film.

Morris: I’ve often compared the writing to a Kafka parable, except John le Carré wrote it. What does it mean? To take one of the most famous Kafka parables, “Before the Law”: “This door was meant for you and you alone and now I’m going to shut it.” Now what does this mean? The pigeons, are they us? Who are the shooters? Is it the kind of parable that you need to think of in that way? It’s Sisyphean. People just endlessly doing things without even knowing why.

AP: That sounds like the view of history in “The Fog of War” — everyone just bumbling through.

Morris: Because we live in an era where people are just saturated with conspiracy theories of one form or the other. Conspiracies sort of simplify the world. They make the world intelligible to people. They do turn the world into string pullers and dupes. When I did the (Steve) Bannon movie ( "American Dharma" ), Bannon was completely obsessed with cyclical history, and I would say fascists love cyclical history. Because: “Man isn’t the author of anything. All there is is dharma, destiny.” I believe something much closer to what you just said — that history is a muddle. People are at cross-purposes with each other. They are really too confused to ever effectively conspire to do anything. I say to (le Carré) at some point: “History is chaos.” And he agrees, “History is chaos.”

Jake Coyle, The Associated Press