Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch

Jan 26th–Update: Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch (2014) has spent a long time in the editing room, but it is finally having its world premiere at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival on February 18th.  Meanwhile we are racing to do the sound mix and pursue color correction on the picture–two parts of the filmmaking process that have changed a lot since the days of working on 16mm film. Meawhile, here is the poster.
Errol Morris Poster (More Red, Horizontal Laurel)



Morris& BIrd 3ERROL’S DEFINITION OF ART: Set up a series of arbitrary rules, then follow them slavishly.–– Tweet, 5 September 2009.

Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch (2012) is finally nearing completion, or so I am hoping.  It’s been deeply rewarding to return to filmmaking after a hiatus of roughly 25 years. The process on this film (like every film, I guess) has taken much longer than I imagined.  I’ve been describing  A Lightning Sketch as a backdoor documentary because Morris and his staff didn’t know what we were doing until we had the footage in the can (or rather on tape).  Of course, we were not at all sure that we were making a full-blown documentary, either.  It started off as a videotaped interview with Errol that turned into something more.  It is also a documentary that has been a long time in the cutting room, which might seem surprising because the film does have a limited number of elements.  But it is a project that has been done in between classes and many other responsibilities.  Moreover, my ambitions for the documentary changed. At first I was concerned to make something where rights/permissions would not be an issue.  It took awhile before I forgot about the possible costs of rights and permissions and just focused on making the best possible documentary with the footage we have. In any case, although the style is generally ery different than Errol’s, I think I follow (and has always followed) Errol’s definition of art.  This documentary also abides by its own set of arbitrary rules.

photo credit: Carina Tautu

I’ve finally come up with a 200-word description for the film.  The fact that I could finally do this makes me feel I am almost at the end:

Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch is a back-door documentary.  Filmmakers Charles Musser and Carina Tautu travel to Fourth Floor Productions to interview Errol Morris in lieu of a personal appearance. They find Errol and his staff struggling with depression, in part from the senseless and unexpected death of Karen Schmeer, who cut many of Morris’s films.  Errol is also depressed over the harsh critical reception of his documentary Standard Operating Procedure (2008).  The melancholic mood is sublimated by a whirlwind of activity.  Morris is in the midst of publishing a multi-part series for the New York Times and is just finishing a new film––Tabloid.   Besides interviewing Errol as he reflects on his career and current work, the visitors shoot a variety of activities.  For the first time, Morris is filmed conducting an interview—an over-the-phone conversation with V.S. Ramachandran for his Times series on Anosognosia.  We also meet Errol’s staff: editor/webmaster Steven Hathaway, producer/office manager Ann Petrone, and researcher/assistant Sophie Gill.  When Errol expresses a desire to be filmed playing the cello, the filmmakers try to oblige.  But their efforts take an unexpected twist as the mood of despair finally lifts, bringing the documentary to a more upbeat conclusion.


The filmmakers: Carina & Charlie                   (Photo: Jay Dockendorf)


I showed Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch as a completed but unmixed and with uncorrected color at the SCMS conference.  I also gave a presentation at a separate workshop, entitled “Writing, Filmmaking, Scholarship: Working with Errol Morris.”


2 comments on “Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch

  1. Hello Mr. Musser,
    I would like to know if there is any way of purchasing your film about Errol Morris. I am a fan of his work, but I live in Bolivia, so all I got to see from him I am sorry to say I saw through piracy. Films like his never get premiered here, much less yours, which is even obscurer. So, if there is a chance, I would love to know. Thanks in advance,

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