Errol Morris Reveals Pay-For-Play Secrets of Documentary Success

We liked Errol Morris's new film Standard Operating Procedure just fine, and we hope he's right about his Abu Ghraib exploration's chances to buck the persistent Iraq-film box-office curse. We can't say, however, we're as eager to see it popularize the trend in Oscar-Winning Documentarians Paying For Interviews — a surprising and fairly icky career pattern Morris revealed at an SOP screening last week.

Evidently feeling the need to clarify (if not defend) himself, Morris responded today to Hollywood Elsewhere:

"As documentaries have become more and more mainstream entertainment, people are aware that there is money involved. The more successful documentaries become, the harder and harder it is to get people to do them for nothing.

"People [are] aware of my success and respond accordingly. I never paid people for the interviews in The Thin Blue Line, but Stephen Hawking was paid a lot of money for the rights to his book and his participation in A Brief History of Time. ... It is difficult to ask people for such an investment of time without taking care of them in some way — and that may involve paying them.

"I paid the 'bad apples' because they asked to be paid, and they would not have been interviewed otherwise. Without these extensive interviews, no one would ever know their stories. I can live with it."

In other words: "Without these extensive interviews, I wouldn't have had a movie." We don't generally look to Errol Morris for these glib oversimplifications, but there you have it. The whole thing gets us wondering who else has commonly been paying their subjects over the years; we can envision Morris's old friend Werner Herzog wandering into the jungle with a camera and a checkbook as he retraced Dieter Dengler's steps in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, or... Wait, what? That version was called Rescue Dawn? Never mind! As you were, Errol. We just know that Ben Stein would damn well never pay off a source — and God knows he can afford it.