For his latest film, Errol Morris trains his lens on Stephen K. Bannon. Morris questions Bannon on his background, belief system, his worldview, his current feelings on President Trump, and how films such as TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, THE SEARCHERS, and Orson Welles’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT became part of Bannon’s understanding of the world. YRB Magazine’s Editor-in-chief Jonn Nubian discussed the making of the documentary American Dharma with Errol Morris, which premiered on the Topic streaming service on November 1st, 2020.
This interview is from a transcript from a video conference call. It has been edited for clarity.
Jonn Nubian: Hello. This is Jonn Nubian. Hi, Mr. Morris. Can I call you Errol?
Errol Morris: You can call me Errol, yes.
JN: Great. Nice to meet you.
Errol Morris: Nice to meet you.
JN: So let me just get started. I screened the movie twice actually. I watched it last week and then I watched it again last night. Why make this movie and why this subject matter?
Errol Morris: Well, you got to do something at least I do as opposed to nothing.
I have made a variety of films of important political figures and Bannon was an important political figure, for better or for worse is an important political figure. I myself can’t say this has changed much over the years. I cannot really understand what’s going on in the world. I can be horrified by it, I am horrified by it but I’m not sure that I understand it. I’m not sure that listening to Bannon has helped me all that much in understanding it.
JN: Well, I have to say after watching your film it actually made me understand Steve Bannon a little bit more. Because at the offset I would have never said “well let me sit down for 90 minutes to watch Steve Bannon talk about whatever he wants to talk about”. But then it was like “Oh, it’s Errol Morris. Okay then now I’ll watch it”. My next question is about the title American Dharma, did you come up with the title or was it based on the interview you had with him?
Errol Morris: Well, both could be true. It was based on the interview and I did come up with a title or at least a group of us here in the office talked about the title. There wasn’t really all that much choice, that phrase that appeared in Trump’s first inaugural “American Carnage” but we preferred American Dharma for a whole number of different reasons. To be sure there’s a bullshit element in almost everything that Bannon talks about whether it’s his pop eastern philosophy or his cycles of history.
JN: It’s a great title, but do you think his definition or his interpretation of dharma is a little warped because he’s all about its duty and its honor and all these things come together? There is no western translation of dharma. It’s law and order or more importantly, its cosmic law and order. Not this sense of you got to do what you got to do and it all comes together and it becomes whatever he thinks.
Errol Morris: it’s a collection of bullshit philosophy piled up often without rhyme or reason. What I took away from much of what Bannon said it really is how the movie ends. It ends with destruction, right? The desire to destroy everything and if I came away with one conclusion is that there was nothing positive about anything that he was proposing. What is he proposing really building a wall?
JN: I know the set in the hangar that burned at the end was all based on the film Twelve O’Clock High. Where did you shoot this?
Errol Morris: Well, I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts and there’s a studio that I use across the river in Allston and we shot most of the film there. In fact, we interviewed him on a number of different days. We built the Quonset hut, we then took it apart, stored it, built it again, and continued the interview. Then ultimately we took the Quonset hut out to an abandoned airfield south of Boston and shot there a third time and we burned it down. We weren’t going to burn it down inside of a studio.
JN: It’s just really well done the way you put the whole thing together, even the end when it’s all burned down.
Errol Morris: I didn’t really plan to burn the set down but then it became clear that was really the only thing to do. What was unclear is whether it should be the very end of the movie or just before the very end of the movie and I chose to make it just before the very end of the movie and to see him walking alone on that abandoned runway at the very end.
JN: Did Steve Bannon see the final film?
Errol Morris: Oh, yes.
JN: What were his thoughts on it?
Errol Morris: He loved it.
JN: He didn’t have anything critical about it or how he’s portrayed in it?
Errol Morris: He didn’t. I remember there was really no basic complaint, which is in itself strange.
JN: You confront his misinterpretation of the films in the documentary. Did he suggest the films The Searchers, Chimes At Midnight as a framework for the discussion?
Errol Morris: Well, he brought up a whole number of films, but those were the films that he really liked. The films that he picked Twelve O’Clock High, that specific scene in Chimes At Midnight, where Henry V is rejecting Falstaff, The Bridge On The River Kwai, Paths of Glory. Steve Bannon selected all of these.
JN: I recently watched the movie Twelve O’Clock High again. I didn’t understand his interpretation of General Savage (Gregory Peck) in that movie. In the documentary, you disagree with him about Falstaff (Orson Welles) in the scene in Chimes Of Midnight with King Henry V (John Gielgud) of whether it is betrayal versus duty. Do you think that’s a broader sense of all the craziness that’s going on in this country? That we’re looking at the same thing in two different ways?
Errol Morris: Well, we certainly are looking at the same thing in many different ways, but politics today is so deeply puzzling to me. Clearly there are major fractions of our population just with respect to Donald Trump who sees him quite differently. I assume that you don’t consider him the least racist president in American history.
JN: The fact that you have to even say that while you are on a Presidential Debate stage on live television says a lot about your racism.
Errol Morris: This is something that really is on at least my mind and it’s on a lot of people’s minds. How is it that anybody would want to vote for this man? People are seeing things in such different ways and we can blame various things for this. We can say that it’s a product of a kind of silo mentality where a certain segment of the population gets all of their information from Fox News.
JN: I also think social media has a lot to do with it, too. I think it amplifies the silo, it makes the silo walls thicker and it’s able to spread a lot more.
Errol Morris: Something strange is happening in our country.
JN: I grew up when they were only four television networks PBS, ABC, NBC, CBS and there was no Fox. I think even when Fox came along you just had to trust certain sources and today it’s so hard to trust those sources. I think people just believe what they want to believe, see what they want to see and run with it. But I think your film is important. If Fox said we’re going to do a documentary on Steve Bannon, I would have never watched it. The fact that it’s someone like you choosing to let us know what Steve Bannon really thinks about. It gave me a different view that he’s not the insane monster that I thought he was. He’s still insane but now I have a whole view of how he looks at the world. There’s a podcast (No Agenda) that I listened to where the theory is that he wrote John Bolton’s book The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.
Errol Morris: Why is that? Where does that come from?
JN: Because they just say it comes from the fact of the speed in which it was written and his relationship with Bolton. There are many things in that book that convey Steve Bannon’s thoughts and ideas.
Errol Morris: Well, this I haven’t heard before. Now I have to look at John Bolton’s book.
JN: Speaking of podcasts, I want to stick to the subject but I want to read a tweet that you wrote on October 13th where you said “Bannon in American Dharma outlines an ideology of pure destruction. It’s not about building; it’s about creating chaos. Trump may not be smart enough to know what he’s doing, but and the end result is the same. Get rid of him, before he gets rid of us.”.
Errol Morris: Here! Here!
JN: Do you think that’s the takeaway you want people to get from watching this film?
Errol Morris: Well, I think there’s a lot of takeaways but certainly one takeaway is I say to Steve Bannon at one point you know he registers this amazing kind of surprise that I voted for Hillary Clinton. I tell him because I was scared of you guys and then I say to him I still am. Now years later I still am scared, I’m frightened. America has gone so far. I’m concerned it has gone so far off course. Where did you come from? I’m curious.
JN: I’m originally from Springfield, Massachusetts now living in New York City.
Errol Morris: Well, there you go. It’s gotten so crazy and I sometimes think of this country being afflicted by multiple plagues, not just Covid-19.
JN: I think it’s a disinformation plague. It’s a lot of things but I think with Bannon and those on the other side, they actually know this and they take advantage of it.
Errol Morris: This is a question that will keep coming up again and again and again inevitably with Trump. Does Trump know what he’s doing? Is he aware of the fact that he’s lying? Does Bannon know what he’s doing? Is he aware of the fact that he’s lying? If you were to do a pie graph – what percentage is true belief and what percentage is snake oil salesman? To what extent do these people see this as just a way to collect vast sums of money and enormous power? Or are they seduced by their own bullshit? It’s a great mystery when Bannon was recently indicted for swindling people over wall construction money, I’m reminded that Bannon has always trafficked with billionaires. It’s his great love. I wish I were better at it (chuckle) at courting billionaires, well in his case right-wing billionaires, and being able to leech money from them to whatever end. In the case of the Mercers, he leeched money from them that certainly helped put Donald Trump in the White House. I don’t believe and it’s become clear to me over the years that Bannon never articulated any kind of positive program. I mean the horror show of the Trump administration things that to me are just beyond the pale, his racism whether it’s racism to Black people or racism to Muslims or racism to Mexicans. Maybe America’s always been like this. Maybe it just created a climate where all of these bugs could start scurrying out from underneath the bed.
JN: I think a lot of people say it’s always been here. It just rose to the top and a lot of it is fueled by people like Bannon. When you get into Breitbart and all that, I think it was a specific mission to spread that stuff out there well.
Errol Morris: It’s really pretty gross. But I ran into an enormous amount of trouble with this film. The film wasn’t out for more than a week when reviewers started to attack it. Distributors rejected it as a possible film for distribution. This is the worst experience that I’ve ever had actually.
JN: If there were no pandemic and movie theaters were open like normal, do you think you would get this film distributed?
Errol Morris: I know that it wouldn’t. Because when the movie was finished in 2018 and premiered at the Venice film festival that fall and no one wanted to distribute it. No One! Have I ever had this experience before? Really I have not. I’ve had difficulties in getting distribution but nothing like this. It’s almost as if people were afraid to go near it. There were reviews that came out that were horrifying; attacking me for having made the movie. There was a kind of mindset. Three days before the premiere in Venice, David Remnick had canceled Bannon’s appearance at the New Yorker Festival and everybody was talking about de-platforming.
JN: It’s the whole de-platforming and canceling. I think a lot of it is “cancel culture” that’s why the New Yorker festival probably didn’t have Steve Bannon. Filmmaking is an instrument for information, whether it’s an Avengers movie or a documentary. It’s a powerful medium. Do you think the distributors did not want Steve Bannon’s values to get out there? Maybe you weren’t critical enough.
Errol Morris: Calling him insane I think is fairly critical.
JN: Okay, of course, you call him insane, but I’ll be honest with you. When I got the email about there’s this new film called American Dharma and it features Steve Bannon and my initial reaction was no. But then, oh it’s directed by Errol Morris, so it has to be good. I think the apprehension is the subject matter. Your main hurdle is the subject matter.
Errol Morris: Well, it shouldn’t be a hurdle it really shouldn’t. I disrespectfully disagree. Plus we’ve entered a strange kind of ostrich mentality. First of all, I never gave Bannon a quote-unquote platform. Bannon already was a national political figure. He had been Trump’s campaign manager. Many people including Bannon himself credit him with putting Trump in the White House. He had been a major advisor to Trump in the early months of his administration. He was a figure to be reckoned with and be understood. The idea that you’re going to stick your head in a hole in the ground and evil is just going to miraculously disappear is stupid.
JN: I agree with you. You’ve given me a better understanding of a person that most people don’t like. More people should see the film for that reason.
Errol Morris: You know you have to know also it’s a different style in the sense of really entering his dream world, the world of the movies of his obsessions. I felt from the very beginning the best way to interview him was to put him in the middle of his favorite movie. He could be, in some real sense Colonel Savage exhorting his troops to kill themselves victim over the common enemy.
JN: Why this style versus using the Interrotron?
(To conduct interviews, Morris invented a machine, called the Interrotron, which allows Morris and his subject to talk to each other through the camera lens)
Errol Morris: I didn’t use the Interrotron for this because I wanted to be in that set with him. I wanted to be in that world. It was different from a classical interview where you might be in a studio with some kind of construction as I used with both Rumsfeld and with McNamara. Here it was entering Bannon’s brain if you like I’m inside of his skull, in his dream movie playing, the hangar set.
JN: Not The Bridge on River Kwai set? (Laughter)
Errol Morris: (chuckle) Because you know movies cost money. That was the least expensive set to build. I didn’t know I was going to burn it down at first but certainly, it became clear that I had to burn it down. That was going to be at the end of the movie. Maybe I could have made it clearer, but I think it’s all there. That whole weird dream that he’s constructed for himself. Bannon is a fantast. A guy who clearly loves movies as do I. We see movies differently and that was really interesting to me. Both of us just like America can look at Donald Trump and see one of the greatest anti-American monsters in history and other people can see him as the messiah. Conjure with that if you will. I like the idea of being able to explore him through his dreams. No one got it and maybe it’s because we’re too close. We’re so much in the middle of this nightmare that no one can actually even look at it in any way other than these people are disgusting! (chuckle) How can we get rid of them?
JN: I didn’t look at it as far as this is Steve’s Bannon’s dream. We want to be so far away from it and I think it’s a timing thing if you know what I mean. If this was 10 years from now, okay the Steve Bannon documentary is a great idea, but we’re living it now.
Errol Morris: (laughter) Oh, I think I do know for sure.
JN: Someone wanted me to ask you about The Fog of War. How close did you think Kennedy was to invading Cuba after talking to Robert McNamara?
Errol Morris: I don’t think he was that close but this is conjecture on McNamara’s part probably conjecture on my part. What’s so scary about the Cuban missile crisis and to me there is one real hero in the Cuban missile crisis and that’s Nikita Khrushchev. The one thing that we know about atomic warfare particularly in the 60s is the thing could have just spiraled out of control. All you needed is to have a kind of minor miscalculation and the world could come to an end. Ultimately Khrushchev saved the world. Khrushchev backed out so it wasn’t necessary for Kennedy to invade or to plan seriously an invasion of Cuba and Thank God that never happened. I hope this answers the question.
JN: My last question is what’s next? I listened to a podcast that interviewed you last month about you wanting to do a documentary about “nub city” in Florida.
Errol Morris: Well, I have a movie that I’ve already finished that goes out on ShowTime in December “My Psychedelic Love Story”.
JN: I saw the trailer for that recently. Timothy Leary. I will watch it.
Errol Morris: So that’s coming out and I have a project with Apple Plus about John Le Carre and I have a couple of other things in the works so I’m a busy little beaver here.
JN: Well, thank you so much for the interview and all the work that you’ve done. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your work!
Errol Morris: I usually don’t enjoy doing this but I enjoy talking to you very much, so thank you.
JN: Next time you coming you’re in New York or I’m in Massachusetts and this whole thing is over…
Errol Morris: Come and visit us if you’re coming up to Cambridge.
JN: I will. Thanks.
Errol Morris: Take care, thank you.
Photos by: Courtesy of Topic, Craig F. Walker, Nafis Azad