Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Behind Ronald McDonald

Perhaps it was fate that my final paper my senior year of high school and my final paper my senior year of college are both on Errol Morris. I was first introduced to Morris during my high school senior year AP English Language class. Our teacher was a fanatic and our final papers were dedicated to deciphering Morris’ intent behind Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control. While I don’t entirely remember what my conclusion was on the film, I distinctly remember being just as confused about Morris then as I am today. The reason why I started a twitter four years ago was to follow Errol Morris as research for my paper and since then, I’ve been baffled at his idiosyncrasies, intelligence, and charm. His ability to direct commercials that are just as whimsical and telling as his documentaries amazes me. Almost five years since my final senior year high school paper and I still haven’t figured this guy out.

Google Errol Morris and you’ll find Roger Ebert calling his first film, Gates of Heaven, one of “the ten greatest films ever made.” You’d never expect to fall in love with a movie about pet cemeteries but somehow Morris makes that possible. I’ve come to love his documentaries for his unique style and his Interrotron, a machine with a name that hints his interviewing knack, a little scary and a whole lot inventive. Through my scouring of the web to read more on Morris, never did I expect to find that he would be a commercial director for Taco Bell.

Disclaimer: there’s nothing wrong with commercials, sometimes they prove to be funnier than you expected. From the Geico’s lime green talking lizard to “Got Milk” to the “iconic” Taco Bell Chihuahua commercials, these short clips selling us a product have become as memorable and as engrained in pop culture as worthy Oscar winning films, actors, and actresses. Often packed with bigger budgets than a movie and much shorter than a television show, commercials are probably more fun to make today than they ever were. I imagine big companies throwing money at ad agencies months before the Super Bowl to make the best commercial the United States has ever seen – a commercial that will be featured in every YouTube top ten Super Bowl commercial list. Why does Morris continue making “Super Bowl worthy” commercials instead of sticking to his documentaries? Since 1970s, Morris has produced documentaries on subjects ranging from pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven) to jailed innocents (The Thin Blue Line) to naked mole rat specialists (Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control) to sex scandals (Tabloid), Robert McNamara (Fog of War), and more. Why would he want to add Taco Bell to that grand list of accomplishments?

Money is almost always the biggest issue for starving artists. His first documentary was contingent on whether Morris would have enough money to finish production of The Gates of Heaven.

Side note: Werner Herzog, the German film director, Morris’ mentor and at that time, current film professor, promised to cook and eat his own shoe if the movie was ever completed. Morris completed the film and Herzog followed through with his bet. The event was captured in Les Blank’s 1980 documentary, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The two, Herzog and Morris, became life long friends and collaborators.

Side note to the side note: The bet was a premonition to their artistic lives together. Morris and Herzog recently collaborated on The Act of Killing, the documentary reenacting the squad leaders of Indonesia’s mid-1960s mass killings, forcing them to confront their crimes by making them reenact the killings for the camera. They were credited as executive producers of the film but are both responsible for getting The Act of Killing funded.

Yet, Morris’ luck with funding has never been that simple and fun. After his second movie, Vernon, Florida, he could not get any financer to back his films. In the eighties he found work as a private detective, polishing his natural investigative skills. His ability to have people confess to him is quite uncanny. In an interview with Smithsonian magazine, Morris revealed a little about his past as a private eye detective. His method of getting people to confess was essentially by ambushing them at their own home. He would go to the house of the person he was investigating and knock on their door. Sounds a little suspicious but mostly pretty innocent, the person did not even have to be part of the case that he was investigating. As soon as they would open the door, he’d flip open his wallet, show his badge, and say, “I guess we don’t have to tell you why we’re here.” The person behind the door would almost immediately start crying and ask, “How did you find out?” There’s just something about Errol Morris that makes one want to confess everything to him. I’m not surprised the person would start crying to him. After reading multiple interviews with Morris, this willingness to confess seems like a trend in his documentaries as well. Having people accidently or willingly confess to him is not a novelty for Morris. Spoiler alert: watch The Thin Blue Line and see how David Harris confesses to the murder, freeing wrongly accused Randall Dale Adams.

Side note: it took Morris over a year to track Harris down. He didn’t have much money and Harris was doing construction work in Houston and would not show up for his interviews. The weekend that Harris killed Mark Walter Mays, a case he was later executed for, he was scheduled for an interview with Morris. Morris’ favorite excuse for missing an appointment: “I’m sorry, I was off killing someone.” The quote alone is a great look into how obsessed Morris is with death and the little understanding people have of other people and ourselves. Previous explanations on murders had left Morris feeling inadequate and uneasy, one motivation for his probing documentaries.

His subjects are unusual people with unusual jobs and stories. His work probes through perceptions and media representations to bring reality to the public watching his documentaries. The Thin Blue Line hinges on fabricated eyewitness testimony. He’s practically continued his career as a private investigator through these documentaries that question human nature. His interviews become less of an adversarial interview where you watch the subject squirming to avoid the question. His style is much more stream-of-consciousness where he spends hours taping his “victims” and letting them ramble. Allowing his interviewers to simply just talk is one way Morris makes his subjects feel comfortable. Morris wants to uncover the truth behind every lie or person and besides his own charm and patience; his Interrotron helps with uncovering truths.

In any Errol Morris movie, you’ll notice the unique documentary style of his interviewees talking right into the camera lens. Like many before me, multiple articles have discussed how Morris shoots the video. By using a two-way mirror with a video monitor mounted under the camera lens, Morris films his subject and makes eye contact with them from the same angle. The Interrotron works both ways: the same mechanism that allows Morris to make eye contact with the interviewer allows the interviewer to make eye contact with Morris. The outcome is real human intimacy. The subject becomes comfortable in their conversation with him because they’re not staring directly at the impersonal camera. They’re having a direct conversation with a man they have gotten to know and probably like. The audience watching the documentary also experiences some of this comfort. While watching his documentary, the interviewers break the fourth barrier by looking directly into the camera and into the audience.

Side note: Morris did not invent the camera angle. Steve Hardie, production designer and Morris collaborator, invented a nearly identical system before Morris used his. Thanks to his numerous Oscar winning awards, Morris is now attributed to the being the inventor of the Interrotron. It’s unique nickname comes from Morris’ wife, Julia Sheehan. The name combined two necessary concepts in his documentaries – terror and interview.

The most important attribute of the Morris documentary is how revealing the interviewee becomes under Morris’ gaze. Let’s take a second to recognize the dramatic moment we all have when someone makes eye contact with us. Either you look away or you brave the glare, staring right back. Morris describes the dramatics of eye contact as “a serial killer telling us that he’s about to kill us; or a loved one acknowledging a moment of affection. Regardless, it’s a moment with dramatic value…It’s an essential part of communication. And yet, it is lost in standard interviews on film.” For him, the Interrotron is Morris’ way of becoming one with the camera and forcing human interaction. He holds the dramatic eye contact, creating this beautiful moment between the two of mutual respect, admiration, and curiosity. Unlike the name, the Interrotron does not seem to actually terrorize people. In an interview with FLM Magazine, Morris explains that oddly enough, people feel more relaxed when they talk to his live video image. His production designer, Ted Bafaloukos, said, “The beauty of this thing is that it allows people to do what they do best. Watch television.” The Interrotron creates a comfortable distance and intimacy that people are familiar with in their living rooms.

The immediately recognizable Morris direct-to-lens feature, the playful almost circus like music tittering in the background can also be seen in almost all of his filmmaking. Morris does not only use the machine for his documentaries, he uses them for his commercials too. One reason behind his involvement with commercials is definitely monetary. As I discussed earlier, Morris had early financial difficulties with his second documentary and had to become a private eye detective to finance his later ventures. As a result, Morris has filmed over a thousand commercials throughout his career which have helped to fund his later workds. His first campaign was “Mobile Judge” featuring a judge who travelled around the U.S. declaring 7-11 to be the best convenient store. He got his big break directing commercials after he created a short film that ran at the beginning of the 2002 Oscar ceremony. Steve Jobs was in the audience and asked Morris to direct his campaign entitled “Switch.” Yet why does Morris continue to create commercials? After his success with Fog Of War, Morris has been able to receive generous funding and backing for his films.

In an interview with Cineaste, Morris briefly touched on his love for commercials.

“Cineaste: You’ve told us that you’ve been very busy in recent years shooting commercials. Can you name some of the products?

Morris: I’ve done a whole line of commercials for Miller High Life, I’ve done commercials for Levis and Volkswagen-for both of which I used the Interrotron—and I’ve also done commercials for Adidas, Honda, Dell, and Datek.

Cineaste: You are rarely asked about your commercials, which is obviously a major source of income for you. Do you like commercials?

Morris: I love commercials, unreservedly. The haiku of the West. And I like to think of consumerism as the most effective preventative to genocide yet devised. When someone shows up at your door and asks you to hack your neighbor to death with a machete, you’re less likely to do it, if you have prior plans, say, to go and buy a DVD player.”

In the answer to the interview question, he realizes the purpose of the commercial: they are meant to sell you something. Consumerism is the best way to prevent genocide, being able to purchase a DVD player instead of kill your neighbor is what makes the United States of America THE United States of America. The ability to transfer this idea to a commercial and create an intimacy between the viewer and the product inherently makes the United States a better place. The intimacy that Morris creates in his documentaries translates well in his commercials. In a twisted way, the barrier that is broken between the advertisement and the consumer makes the consumer more comfortable with buying the product or as Morris said, prevent genocide.

His comparison of commercials to poetry might be offensive to some but Morris has been so innovative with his work in the past that a commercial often turns into a much larger work. For example, one of his latest commercials is for Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu. Taco Bell gathered real people named Ronald McDonald and hired Errol Morris to interview them. The commercials feature the classic Morris whimsical piano background music set up with the interviews looking directly at the camera. Much like his documentaries, you can hear Morris in the background asking the poignant questions. In the Taco Bell ads, he is asking the Ronald McDonalds if they “like the waffle taco.”

The commercials all start with whimsical music and shots of men eating the Taco Bell breakfast menu items. They all introduce themselves and in one commercial, you can hear Morris yelling “you’re who?!” After a couple more shots of the Ronald McDonalds eating Taco Bell, Morris asks, “what do you think?” Creatively speaking, the commercial is not complicated. In the classic Morris style, the commercial is just a bunch of dudes answering his questions. The advertising agency wanted to break away from the traditional food commercial featuring beauty shots of fresh food. For a more intimate commercial, they turned to Morris.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Morris reveals that he found out a lot more about the Ronald McDonalds than what appears in the commercials. Some of the material can be found in the behind the scenes outtakes which are enough to make a mini documentary ala Morris. One McDonald that didn’t make it into the behind the scenes cut said, Taco Bell breakfast is insanely good. And I should know—I work at a maximum-security hospital for the criminally insane.” Another McDonald confessed that he had been married seven times. The name apparently is a “real babe magnet”

Through this superficially humorous commercial, Morris finds a way to seek meaning from his subjects. He used the Interrotron to make direct eye contact with all of the Ronald McDonalds. Morris told the New Yorker “people who have worked with me for a long time have said this was my very best material.” The advertising agency, Deutsch L.A. also had some ingenuity in hiring Morris to create this idiosyncratic commercial. Deutsch did not tell Morris Although the commercial is just intended to sell the new breakfast as well as throw a nice jab at McDonald’s, Morris manages to find a deeper meaning in Taco Bell A.M. Breakfast Crunch Wrap. 

Showing off his degree in Philosophy, Morris tweets his fascination over names and their significance in reverence of Saul Kripke’s theory of connection between names and things in the world: “Rigid designators v. descriptions. Ronald McDonald (the clown), the Ronald McDonalds (the persons), & "Ronald McDonald" (the name).” The name is attached to the cultural association and to the actual person. The line between the cultural association and implication of the McDonalds name and the person becomes thin during first interviews. We see them as representatives of the actual McDonalds and not as real people. The loaded emotions behind the name were difficult for some. For other McDonalds, there was McDonald pride. In one of the commercials we’re introduced to Ronald McDonald II and Ronald McDonald III. Morris asked Ronald McDonald III if he would name his son Ronald McDonald IV and if he hoped his son would name his son Ronald McDonald V? He answered yes. However, not all McDonalds feel this way – Morris found in interviews that some McDonalds changed their name but still saw themselves as “McDonalds,” the name is “inescapable.” The fine print at the end of the commercial speaks to the same thin line Morris studied between the clown, the person, and the name. “These Ronald McDonalds are not affiliated with McDonald’s Corporation and were individually selected as paid endorsers of Taco Bell breakfast, but man, they sure did love it.”

After watching the back-story on the Ronald McDonalds, I felt sympathetic towards the men who have to live with the name Ronald McDonald. The men all thought the commercial was a scam, a prank phone call that they have all received throughout their lives, a small glimpse into the life of a “Ronald McDonald” As the Ronalds’ were brought together, they shared stories about growing up and having to develop a “thick skin” due to all the rampant bullying they encountered. They shared stories about their first day of school experience and how a teacher always paused after reading their name off the list. One Ronald showed off his “stare,” he would give off as a defense measure. Each Ronald shares similar stories but they’re all from different backgrounds. Ignoring the obvious product placement of Taco Bell breakfast, the back-story becomes an interesting look inside the life of men who have to deal with the consequence of being associated with a big scary red fast food clown. Who would have ever thought twice about the implications of being named Ronald McDonald and whether there would be pride or shame entangled with the name? Morris asks the questions we might briefly consider but never act upon regardless of the artistic medium. Whether it’s a documentary, a tweet, or a commercial, Errol Morris makes us question the reality of our perception and gives us insight into a world that we may have otherwise ignored.

Television commercials and smaller projects of his seem to often give him guidance as to what his next project could be. Just as he uses his twitter as a drawing board for his blog, the Morris commercial becomes an inspiration board for a greater documentary. Much like his work with the behind the scenes of Taco Bell, Morris used outtakes of a Donald Trump interview for a commercial to create a mini documentary about the man. If he can get permission from Taco Bell, he wants to make a similar mini documentary about the Ronald McDonalds of the world. This is what I love most about Morris, his ability to create a story about the most unusual things. While he was not the mastermind behind the Taco Bell Ronald McDonald commercial, he took something as contrived as a breakfast advertisement to create something thoughtful and enlightening.


  1. Nathalie,

    I learned so much from this. I had no idea Errol Morris made ads. You bring a whole cluster of artists and filmmakers together--everyone should check out the Les Blank film about Herzog, then watch Les Blank's other documentary about the making of Fitzcaraldo, "Burden of Dreams," and then, for added bonus points, watch Blank's "Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers"--thanks, Nathalie, for all of these referrals. The big question this piece raises is how to assess and judge an art form--the ad--whose aesthetic remains so elusive, because its designs upon consumers seems to totalizing and final.

    Great work--a really surprising final piece. DC