Errol Morris Reflects on Apple, Miller High Life and Other Great Commercials He’s Made

Our chat with Biscuit Filmworks' newest director

Photo: Nubar Alexanian

Errol Morris, the great Oscar-winning documentarian, has also had a brilliant career in advertising.

He has shot over 1,000 commercials, including campaigns for Apple, American Express, Nike, IBM, PBS, Target, General Motors, Miller High Life and Cisco. His Apple “Switchers” campaign through TBWA\Chiat\Day and the “High Life Man” spots via Wieden + Kennedy are both legendary ad series. And in 2001, his “Photobooth” spot for PBS, via Fallon Minneapolis, won the Emmy for Best Commercial. (See a vast selection of his ads over on his website.)

Morris, 69, whose 11 films include the classic documentaries Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line and the Academy Award-winning The Fog of War, continues to make films. His latest, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, is in theaters now. He also filmed an upcoming miniseries for Netflix called Wormwood, starring Peter Sarsgaard, about the true story of Cold War-era military scientist Frank Olson. That series will blend long-form documentary interviews with dramatic reconstructions of some scenes.

Morris isn’t done with ads, either. He just signed with Biscuit Filmworks for commercial representation in the U.S. and U.K. (He was previously repped by Moxie Pictures.) And he hopes to bring his signature style to many more ad campaigns.

Adweek spoke with Morris by phone this week about his approach to ads, his way of working on set, how the Apple and High Life campaigns came about, and that time he interviewed Donald Trump about Citizen Kane.

Congrats on the deal with Biscuit Filmworks. What attracted you to Biscuit? Do you have any history with them?
Thank you. I really don’t have a history with them. But yes, I do like them a lot. I wouldn’t have joined the company if I didn’t. I like Shawn Lacy a lot. Why do you join a company? Because you believe they can help you get work. It sounds a little bit prosaic, the way I’m putting it. But in truth, that is a main motivation.

You’ve said you like making commercials, that you find it challenging. What’s challenging about it?
Well, it’s filmmaking, properly considered. I once described commercials as America’s haiku. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but you’re making little films, in essence. And it’s as challenging as any other kind of filmmaking. The fact that it’s all compressed into a very confined piece of temporal real estate makes it harder, not easier. I sometimes say brevity is the soul of concision. Or maybe concision is the soul of brevity. I’m not sure how I would order it. But it’s the goal of finding ways to tell a story. Really good advertising is about telling stories, about creating ideas for a brand. And as such, it’s a difficult and daunting enterprise.

I like to think I’m good at it, also. It’s something I enjoy. I enjoy thinking about how to put across an idea about branding or marketing. I’ve been lucky because I’ve had the opportunity over the years to do a lot of campaigns that are about defining a brand, or redefining a brand. And that’s what I like to do most, because it’s an intellectual activity. “How can I best express this?” “How can I make people think about something in a different way?” Is that so different than making a film? It is and it isn’t.

A lot of creative people talk about how working inside a box, with limitations and constraints, can make the creative process easier. I suppose a commercial is just a smaller box.
It’s still an enormous challenge to do well. I’ve never found them easy. It often is not clear what to do. It’s a form of thinking, if you like. I’ve also been lucky that I’ve done all kinds of commercials. It strikes me as ironic. I’m known, I suppose, for interviewing people, among other things. But that wasn’t always the case. Around the time of The Thin Blue Line, which is now close to 30 years old, people would use me for visual storytelling, because of the re-enactments in The Thin Blue Line. And so the commercials I would get were basically little dramas, including all the work I did for Miller High Life, which in the end, I think, was well over 100 commercials. I think things have changed somewhat, but in those days, you could be hired to do a lot of work for one client. So, I ended up doing a lot of work for Citibank. And Miller, of course.

And then I was hired to do a filmed run at the beginning of the 2002 Oscars. It was people talking about their favorite movies, movies that had influenced them. And among the people I interviewed—well, I interviewed Donald Trump on Citizen Kane, that has made the rounds, certainly in recent years. And it was all shot on a white cyc [cyclorama]. And Steve Jobs was in the audience at that Oscar presentation, saw the film and said, “I want that guy to do my next campaign!”

Ah, that’s where Apple’s “Switchers” came from.
That’s where “Switchers” came from. And suddenly, I became known for doing interviews with people.

You had used the Interrotron before that, though. That just came in handy for what you wanted to do with Apple.
[Ed. note: The Interrotron is a disarming camera that Morris invented with a two-way mirror that allows his interview subjects to look him in the eye while also looking directly into the camera at the same time.] 
It did. And there was a time when people just thought of me—in advertising, it’s very, very easy to be pegged. You do this, but you don’t do that. You do that, but you don’t do this. To me, it’s all of the above. Do I like visual storytelling? Absolutely. Do I like doing interviews? I wouldn’t exactly call them interviews. An interview seems much, much more passive than what I do. I always think of what I do as a form of, dare I say it, directing. You’re directing a performance. An interview, or a person speaking extemporaneously, or however you want to describe it, is a performance. It’s eliciting a performance from people. It doesn’t matter if they’re an actor, or it’s so-called real people, you’re still looking for a performance. And in casting—again, whether it’s an actor or a real person—you’re looking for something that will give you a meaningful, dramatic rendition of something in front of the camera. And I think I’m good at it.

Certainly, many of the “Switchers” ads fit the bill. They were all very compelling in their own way.
Well, thank you.

Did you feel that campaign was going well as you were shooting it?
I did. They kept asking me to do more and more and more! I did well over 100 of those. That’s a sign that you know it’s going well.

Let’s go back to the Miller stuff. So many people in advertising have told me over the years that that’s among their favorite work. Why do you think those ads worked so well?
I think it was a perfect combination of creatives. In those days we would always talk about the three Jeffs. In fact, they were going to form their own advertising agency and be called Jefff, with three F’s. It was Jeff Kling, Jeff Selis and Jeff Williams. We did so much work together. When I first got the job, I was told, “Well, you’re going to have four days to shoot maybe as many as six or seven commercials, but they don’t all have to be good.” We ended up shooting 17 commercials, and they all ran. And they’re all among the best things I’ve ever done. We were on a roll. Often we would make it up as we went along. Often there were spots that had been written by Jeff Kling and rejected, and I said, “Well, let’s just shoot them anyway.” And we did.

And the client was OK with that.
The client actually came to love the campaign. It’s one of those deals where no one has really any expectations for anything. You’re left alone. You’re free to develop work along the lines of the brand. I mean, the idea for the brand was captured very, very early on in this spot that David Letterman fell in love with. He kept running it again and again on the show. “Is your name Sally the salad eater? No. You’re a High Life Man!”

That exposure must have helped the campaign a ton.
Well, of course. And it became quite beloved by many, many people—including, I might add, myself! We had an enormous amount of fun making them.

Do you have a favorite ad from that series?
I’m hard pressed to pick one. There are so many that I really liked. “Fossil Fuels” was one of them, from somewhat later. “Deviled Egg,” early on.

“Deviled Egg” comes up a lot when I talk to people, too.
Yes? What else comes up?

The one with the guy trying to back the boat into his driveway.
Sure! Actually, I convinced one of the creatives to be in that ad. Jeff Williams is the guy standing with the beer bottle, watching the guy trying to engineer his boat into his driveway.

It sounds like there was more freedom on that campaign than usual, certainly than what’s typical today.
It varies. There are jobs where there’s a great deal of artistic freedom. And there are jobs where there isn’t. My feeling is that whatever I’ve done, it’s always been in service of the client, and the agency, of trying to get an idea of what they’re trying to convey, what the brand idea is, and trying to execute it to the best of my ability. To make it work. Often, doing that is not slavishly following a set of boards but thinking, “How can I make this work?” Commercials, after all, are designed to achieve some end. And that end is to get people to buy stuff.

You did a bunch of ads for Levi’s, the “What’s True” campaign. Was that pre-“Switchers”?
It was pre-“Switchers.”

That was pretty bold work for its time.
It was, actually. It involved the use of a lot of process photography, a lot of green screen. And they were seamlessly married together, and actually worked.

I also enjoyed the Ames Room ads you did for Quaker.
That’s another campaign that went on for years. I don’t know the total number of spots that I did for Quaker. It’s up there. Probably 60 or 70. The Ames Room was one of the very last things I did for Quaker. And yes, I liked it! The only problem with Ames Rooms today is that we’re so used to CG, to people manipulating things digitally, that if someone does it practically, you almost assume it’s been done digitally. When Ames first came up with these optical illusions, they had to have been extraordinary, arresting, dramatic. And of course, now that we see versions of them created digitally, they lose that drama they must have had at the very beginning. Still, it looked great.

More recently, you did the Ronald McDonald ads for Taco Bell. What was that project like?
Irresistible. You get to assemble a group of people named Ronald McDonald and have them extol the virtues of Taco Bell. [laughs] It’s really funny! “Hello, my name is Ronald McDonald, and I just had breakfast at Taco Bell!”

Do you have a way of working on set when it comes to commercials?
It’s a collaborative enterprise. I think that’s part of the deal. You often have three or four different tasks that you’re trying to perform at once. With the Taco Bell ads, you want to convey the absurdity of having 20 Ronald McDonalds in the same room. That’s pretty ridiculous. And at the same time, you want to tell a story about Taco Bell. Taco Bell is introducing breakfast, and their breakfast is good! You don’t want the gimmick to overwhelm the message of the spot.

That’s a balance you have to strike with any ad.
Absolutely. But if you do it well, that’s one of the pleasures of doing this.

Is there anything that ties your commercial work to your documentary work?
There are a lot of things. Visual storytelling. Interviewing. The concern with the camera. Unusual framing and camera placements, which is something that has interested me from the very beginning of my career as a filmmaker, and still interests me, of course. I take great pride in the fact that, for a lot of nonfiction filmmaking, there’s a kind of standard of how you’re going to shoot the material. You’re going to shoot handheld with available light. And occasionally I do just that. But often I am looking for different and new and innovative ways of telling true stories. And I’ve been quite successful in finding ways of covering a true story that is almost anti-documentary in character. The lighting can be beautiful. The camera can be controlled. The framing can be very much part of the style of what I’m doing. And yet, at the same time, preserve an authenticity, a genuineness, to the performances that I’m getting in front of the camera. I think if I have one virtue as a filmmaker, that’s it.

That contrarian approach informed your whole style. 
When I first came up in documentary, there was this idea that you should shoot them in a certain way. I remember even getting into an argument with the first person who worked with me on Gates of Heaven about how I should shoot it. I said, “I don’t want to shoot it that way. I want the camera on a tripod.” And the cameraman said, “No no no, you don’t understand how these kinds of movies have to be shot.” And I said, “Yes, exactly! I don’t understand, and I don’t want to understand. I don’t want to shoot it that way!” The camera was on a tripod through all of Gates of Heaven. I used to say there was something incredibly perverse about the style of it. No available light. Everything was lit. Everything was very consciously framed. But there was a very important element of spontaneity, of authenticity, of genuineness, however you want to describe it, of getting people to talk in front of the camera in a way that was surprising, arresting, and on some crazy level, natural.

And that’s something you try to recreate in your ad work.
Absolutely. If you have people doing anything extemporaneously, and acting is a form of extemporaneous communication, you want something to emerge—I sometimes distinguish between taxidermy and something that’s alive. You don’t want something that’s just dead on arrival. You want something that’s breathing, that has some spirit. Today they talk about authenticity. By authenticity, I think what people mean most often is a feeling that you’re being shown something that has a life of its own. That isn’t just endlessly manufactured.

That’s surely what people loved about the High Life stuff. It felt real in that sense.
Yeah. And the writing was really good.

You did some work for ESPN that explored the idea of fans who carried sports memorabilia with them to the grave.
I believe that’s me!

That was offbeat, but more of traditional documentary type work.
And yet it was shot in a very deliberate way, and very beautifully lit. And it led to ESPN commissioning a series of six short films, six 20-minute films which I did for them.

That sounds like an ideal partnership.
I’ve been lucky in that many of the campaigns that I’ve done, there’s been the possibility of turning it into something more. I did a campaign for Visa on the World Cup. And as a result of it, they wanted people who had been involved with peace—in some instances, people who had won the Nobel Peace Prize—and I did a series of short films for Visa that ran in The New York Times. I really loved those as well. They turned out really, really well.

You love to tell stories. Do you have a favorite story from the set of an ad campaign that you shot?
For a long time I did Full Tilt Poker. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of them, but they’re some of my very best spots. And it’s fun to be on a set with 20 high rollers from the world of poker. Being asked if I wanted to join a game where you’re throwing cards against the wall at $50,000 a pop. And I suggested maybe not today!

Probably wise.
Thank you! I know it was wise.

Is there a brand out there that you’d love to work with? Do you think that way?
Yeah, I think that way. I’ve worked for so many brands. There are still some left! I’ve worked for so many high-tech brands—for IBM, for Cisco, for Apple. I’ve worked for many automobile companies—for Chevrolet, for Toyota, for VW. I’m afraid it’s become something of a blur.

I don’t know if you’re exposed to a lot of TV commercials these days. Are there any ads you’ve seen recently that you’ve enjoyed? 
I constantly see ads that I like. I was talking to Kling just recently about what I thought was the greatest writing in a television commercial. And I decided it was writing for a diarrhea commercial. Which I thought was really, easily as good as Shakespeare. Which was namely — I may not be quoting it exactly faithfully, but bear with me — “Four hours in a hot-air balloon? But what about my diarrhea?”

Wow, yeah. That kind of captures it.
Indeed it does.

[Ed. note: Morris is likely talking about this old Energizer bunny spot, which is actually a spoof of diarrhea ads.]

Do you have any projects in the works through Biscuit yet, or is it early days?
It’s early days. It’s too early to say. But I hope there will be many.