Before Making a Murderer, before The Jinx, before Serial, there was The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary investigation into the murder of a police officer named Robert Wood in Dallas in 1976. A drifter named Randall Adams was convicted of the crime largely thanks to the eyewitness testimony of the other prime suspect in the murder, a teenager named David Harris. Adams had hitched a ride with Harris and spent the evening with him at a drive-in. Later that night, Wood pulled over Harris’ car because its headlights were off. Wood was shot, multiple times, with a firearm Harris had stolen. Harris claimed to the police that he was in the passenger seat of the car and witnessed Adams murder Wood.
It was an improbable story, but the police bought it and proceeded to do just about everything in their power to railroad Randall Adams. Morris made The Thin Blue Line out of two compulsions: He was, he says, “driven to find out what happened. And I was driven to get Randall Adams out of prison.” The remarkable documentary re-examines the available evidence, uncovering police misconduct and prosecutorial malfeasance. In its spellbinding finale, Morris even manages to get David Harris to confess to the murder, the audio of their final interview playing as Morris’ camera hovers over a tape recorder, its counter clicking over in slow motion.
When Morris made the film, Adams was serving out a life sentence, having been commuted off of death row days before his scheduled execution. Thanks in large part to the film, Adams’ sentence was overturned, and he lived out the rest of his days in freedom before dying in 2010. While Adams was in prison, Harris was free to commit more crimes, including murder, and wound up on death row. (He was executed by lethal injection in 2004.)
The Thin Blue Line’s place in film history would be secure had it only freed Randall Adams, but the film also codifies Morris’ signature style, a hypnotic blend of talking-head interviews, swirling cutaways to evidence, slow motion, a pulsing Philip Glass score, and an obsessive drive to determine what really happened, which would influence a generation of filmmakers. The film is perhaps best known for its pioneering use of re-enactments. Throughout, Morris again and again rehearses the murder, incorporating each new piece of evidence his sources provide, even if the evidence is of dubious merit.
The film was snubbed at the Oscars (the re-enactments led some viewing groups to turn the film off partway through), and eventually Randall Adams sued Morris for money and the rights to his life story. Despite these controversies, The Thin Blue Line remains one of the greatest documentaries of all time, and one whose methods and aesthetic shed light on our current true-crime boom. I caught up with Morris via telephone at his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he’s working on (as he put it) “too many projects,” including an ad campaign, a book, a feature film, and a six-part true crime series for Netflix. We talked about why true crime inspires such fervent fandom, what he thinks of Making a Murderer, and how he came to make a movie about a decade-old Texas murder in the first place.
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Butler: Hello, Errol. Just to let you know, I’m, you know, recording this for transcription, accuracy, et cetera.
Morris: And so am I!
We’re recording each other.
You’re doing a true crime series for Netflix.
Is it one serialized story or is it multiple stories?
It’s one story, over six episodes, so far.
As someone who’s done a number of true crime pieces and is working on another one now, why do you think these stories appeal to us so much? Why are they so addictive?
However you want to describe it: the whodunit; the mystery of what really happened; the mystery of personality; of who people really, really are is powerfully represented when you have a crime standing in back of all of it. It’s a way of dramatizing really significant issues: How we know what we know? How have we come to the belief that we have? Is justice served by the various mechanisms in our society? Is the law just? And on and on and on and on and on.
I think it’s a mistake to assume, however, that all of these stories are doing the same thing, because they’re not. They’re doing different things. And … you see more and more criticisms of Making a Murderer because they say it’s biased—it leaves out this, that, and the other thing. To me, it’s a very powerful story, ultimately, not about whether these guys are guilty or innocent—but it’s a very powerful story about a miscarriage of justice.
There’s so many themes in it that are relevant to investigation. But what is powerful in Making a Murderer is not the issue of whether [Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey] are guilty or innocent. It’s the horror of the courts and how that story was handled the first time around and subsequently. I can never ever forget Dassey’s attorney and the investigator. The attorney with the catfish mouth and the investigator crying—unforgettable.
Yeah. And there’s so many lines from those phone calls that are so haunting, like “Poor people always lose”—
Or when Brendan says he likes his attorney because they have the same favorite animal.
There’s something so horrific about process in that story. Another thing that I was struck by watching Making a Murderer was the feeling of the inexorable grinding of a machine that is producing, potentially, error. You know, Brendan Dassey is forced to confess to something that he didn’t do. It’s never explained in the court how it is that it is assumed that Brendan Dassey is telling the truth, but there’s actually no evidence for what he’s saying—none.
And there are many, many unanswered questions. Certainly, the question of their innocence or guilt—particularly, Steven Avery’s innocence or guilt. If you’re asking me, would I sign a petition stating that I believe that Steven Avery is innocent? Well, I don’t know. I really don’t know from watching Making a Murderer, but there’s one thing I do know from watching Making a Murderer—that neither Brendan Dassey nor Steven Avery received a fair trial, and that that trial should be overturned.
The purpose of documentary—whether it’s true crime or anything else, for that matter—is not just to give us reality on a plate, but to make us think about what reality is. And I believe Making a Murderer really does powerfully engage us. It’s engaged millions of people. One thing that you do learn in an investigation is that we’re all prisoners of narrative, and we can’t escape from narrative; we need stories in order to figure out what the world is about. If the police come up with a story, they don’t look for any evidence that would suggest otherwise. And if you don’t look for evidence, you don’t find it, often. I found it extraordinarily powerful, and ironic, because there really is no investigation in Making a Murderer.
Right—it’s reporting on other people’s investigations.
It’s reporting other people’s investigations. Do I look at that as an infirmity of the series? I don’t. It’s using material that was not available to me—I’m jealous: record of the trial, record of depositions, records of interrogations, records of the prosecutor, et cetera. It’s this extended essay with found footage that is really, really interesting.
When people say that there’s stuff that’s omitted, well of course there’s stuff that’s omitted. At the end of it, I felt very strongly that there was a miscarriage of justice. Whether that miscarriage of justice is because Steven Avery is innocent, or Brendan Dassey is innocent, or whether it’s just simply because the horror of the lack of due process—the horror of life, the horror of how we treat people in the criminal justice system. I mean, you look at The Jinx versus Making a Murderer—it’s like flip sides of the same coin. What happens if you have a lot of money, versus what happens if you have no money—none? In The Jinx it’s not whether he did it or not; it’s, you know, how come he’s never been prosecuted successfully for any of the things that he’s done? And I think the answer is a pretty simple one—money.
With The Thin Blue Line, I was always thinking I guess, like, in parallel grooves: “What can be used in order to get him out of prison?” I was thinking like an investigator, as I was, for years, hired to investigate crime: What do I need to uncover in order to make a case on [Adams’] behalf? If anyone thinks that somehow the investigation in The Thin Blue Line was done without the court system in mind, that’s just not true. Always in my mind was the fact that I have to produce evidence that will be sufficient to overturn this conviction in a court of law.
And what do I need to do in order to make a movie—to make a fucking movie? Because you’re doing multiple things at the same time. I remember this one time this Dallas reporter said something that I thought was unusually hurtful to me, saying, “Are you ashamed of yourself because you made this art film—it probably took you years to finish—and you should have just done a straightforward film and gotten him out of prison.” I believe that I did the right thing. I believe that I made a movie that satisfies me artistically, and also it satisfies me as an investigator. But I knew that I had had all of that investigative material—truckloads of it—available, and that the case was being made in different ways.
This is another reason why I believe Steven Avery has a shot of getting out of prison, as well as Brendan Dassey. I believe Making a Murderer makes a very powerful case for why there was a miscarriage of justice, a lack of due process. I suppose the technical way to say it is both of those trials were totally fucked up. But that’s not enough in our world. You have to bring it to the attention of people in a powerful enough way that people are compelled to do something about it. I suppose it’s another sort of thing to be jealous about—not really jealous about, but a little bit—is that in 1988, there was no Internet.
Miramax was the distributor of The Thin Blue Line. It was in ... not all that many theaters. Probably well under a hundred. But people started spontaneously signing petitions. And it spurred a kind of movement. People started writing about it. But much, much more slowly and on a much smaller scale. And I was lucky. Today, with the Internet, it’s possible for—I don’t know how many millions of people have seen Making a Murderer, but there’s a lot of awareness of that story.
I don’t know if you follow this at all, but there’s this phenomenon of—particularly with Making a Murderer and Serial, Season 1—of the amateur Internet sleuth. What do you make of that phenomenon?
I think it’s a good thing, the fact that people are engaged by the world around us and are writing about it. And this doesn’t come out of an enormous respect for Internet commentary!
How did you actually come across Randall Adams?
I had very little interest in interviewing death row inmates. I had been interested in interviewing Dr. James Grigson, who was notorious because of his role in the implementation of the death penalty in Texas. He was a psychiatrist who was called on by the prosecution to interview those accused of capital crimes. Randall Adams was not part of the equation at all.
He’s the guy who calls Randall Adams a psychopath, right?
Indeed. He testified that he could predict—with 100 percent certainty that he could predict—that Adams would kill again, given the opportunity to do so, and that David Harris couldn’t hurt a fly.
It was an opportunity in one instance to be 200 percent wrong. I have often said I don’t believe you can predict human behavior except in one instance: what Dr. Grigson will say at the penalty phase of a capital murder trial. That can be predicted with some accuracy.
Grigson said, you know, “You’ve got to go to death row and interview these people. They’re not like you and me.” That’s the quote: “They’re not like you and me.” And so I set up a series—I call them “prisoner auditions”—at various different prisons in Texas, and at each one of those prisons I interviewed inmates who had been sentenced to death in part because of what Grigson said at their trial.
Adams was in a whole class of defendants who the jury instructions were not administered correctly. You might call it a minor technicality, but it led to a group of convictions being overturned. In their effort to gain executions, they just simply ... I mean, the polite way to put it would be they overplayed they hands.
And so there I am, interviewing a lot of people who, everything else being equal, would’ve been executed.
They would be given the electric chair, or a lethal injection. Adams came within two or three days of being electrocuted. I’m there at Eastham Unit, probably doing three, four, maybe five interviews that day. Randall Adams being one of them. Randall Adams was never picked out as the guy that I was going to be making a movie about. He told me that he was innocent, and he started going on about the kid—and I had no idea what he was talking about. How would I?
I knew nothing about his case. All that I knew was that he had been sentenced to death, in part because of Grigson’s role at his trial. So I did these interviews, and I went to Austin to read the trials. I remember reading that trial transcript very, very well. That’s really the beginning of it all.
Do you remember what it was that first tipped you off?
It’s something true of so many cases—that you know something is wrong. You know someone is being essentially framed, but you don’t know why and how.
If I were going to tell this story, I would have to talk to [David Harris], since he was the kid in the car. I had trouble finding him. I remember calling around, and finally finding out that he had been in prison for years. And this is just pure chance—he had just been paroled from San Quentin.
I got the name of his parole officer in Texas. The parole officer told me that she would not give me David’s number but she would call David on my behalf, and if David wanted to speak to me he would call me back—I would leave a number where I could be reached. He called me five minutes later.
And then he very shortly thereafter went back to prison, right?
He did not go back to prison right away. It was six, seven months after that that he went back to prison.
We agreed to meet at a bar outside of Vidor, Texas—as it turns out, a bar in the swamp, in the middle of fuckin’ nowhere. And I drove all of these back roads. There’s no good road between Huntsville and Vidor—you’re really driving these back roads in East Texas, and it was actually one of the scariest experiences that I’ve ever had. I met David Harris, and David Harris asked me—he expressed, actually, some surprise—he thought that Randall Adams had been executed. He was surprised that Adams was still alive. And he asked me, “Well, what does Adams have to say about me?”
And I often tell this story, as an example of doing something really, really, really, stupid. I started to think: “Could this guy be the killer?” He gave me the creeps. And I said to him, “I’m really glad I have the chance to meet you, because otherwise I might think you could’ve been involved in some way in this murder, and now that I’ve met you I can see that that’s absolutely out of the question.”
And he gave this look—this “What the fuck?!” look. You tell someone that you’re not thinking something because you’re afraid that they’re thinking that you’re thinking something—
But then you give away that you’re—
You give away the fact that, indeed, you are thinking just that.
And he told me when I left to be very careful driving back. He said it to me once, he said it to me a second time, and the third time he said it to me, it just gave me the willies.
And I felt he was following me, for a while. And I stopped at this gas station and called my wife, and said, “I just met David Harris. I think he might be involved in this murder. I think he might be following me.” My wife started screaming at me—“You idiot—What are you doing?”
And that was the beginning of seven months of trying to get David Harris to be interviewed, and we had an appointment for an interview in Houston, where he was working. And he broke the appointment for the interview, and he couldn’t be found. He turned up about a week later—seven, eight days later, and he had been involved in a murder.
As I often say, it’s my favorite excuse for breaking an appointment: “I was off killing somebody.”
You can’t argue with that. That interview with Harris that closes the film— was it really the last interview, period, that you recorded? Had you edited together a bunch of the film already?
Yes. I was desperate to get an interview with David Harris. It kept getting fucked up. In the first instance, you know, he was a murderer.
Then I tried to interview him in Jefferson County Jail, and he used the fact that I was interviewing him to try to escape. He was rattling around in the heating duct system for 24 hours before he just got cold and hungry and crawled his way back in.
Oh my God.
I tried to interview him in Huntsville, on death row, but they refused to allow me to interview him, except through chicken wire. And I felt that it would ruin the movie because it was through chicken wire; you’re just giving away the fact that he’s in prison. Whereas you don’t really know until he lifts up those handcuffs at the end of the movie. He may be in orange prison jumpsuit, but you really don’t know for sure what’s going on. And it was just by good luck—chance—that I got that interview.
Is the on-camera interview with Harris and the tape recorder interview at the end—is that all one interview?
Uh, two days. My camera broke on the Friday. And I couldn’t get a replacement, and I came back with a tape recorder on Saturday. I had been trying to get an interview with David Harris for close to two years. It had fallen through again and again. I had finally managed to arrange this interview at Lew Sterrett Jail in Dallas. I’m still amazed that it even happened.
I had shot—I don’t know—five, six rolls of film. The camera malfunctioned, and I just thought, “Oh my God. This is the end of it.” And we came back the next day, thinking that—you know—I did not have a movie. And I tape recorded that last interview. And there you go.
What I couldn’t put in, because there’s no film—I asked David Harris if he was alone in the car when they were stopped. When he was stopped. And he smiled at me and nodded his head.
And of course, he knew that you couldn’t use that.
I talked to David the day before he was executed.
What did you guys talk about?
I didn’t keep in touch with him for a long time, and then, when it became clear the execution date was approaching I reached out to him.
Did you only talk to him once, or did you talk to him a few times?
Oh, I must have talked to him half a dozen times.
What was he like at that point?
In denial—I think he believed they were never going to execute him. I did not share that view, although I did not say that to David.
I assumed this was Texas and that they would execute him.
In 2011, you broke the news on Twitter that Randall Adams had died the year before. Did you ever speak to him after the lawsuit settled?
I did not. And I had always meant to sort of, like, re-establish relations with him. It’s another long, long, long story of how that all went down.
Do you have unanswered questions about The Thin Blue Line? Are there still things that nag you about those investigations even though—
Even though you got Randall Adams out of jail, which is what you wanted?
Of course there are.
Do you mind sharing them?
There are always things that you wish you knew more about. The actual relationship between the district attorney’s office and those eyewitnesses. I have always been of the belief—because it seems the more plausible interpretation—that no one thought that Randall Adams was not guilty and they would frame him for murder. It seems much more plausible that they truly believed he was guilty. And if he was guilty, then whatever they did was justified. And they didn’t even have to say that to themselves on a conscious level. But it tilts how an investigation is done, how evidence is perceived, and so on, and so forth. It’s one of the reasons why Making a Murderer was so devastating to me, because I could see that same process at work in those two trials.
One thing The Thin Blue Line is famous for is the re-enactments. Every time we learn a new major piece of information about the murder, we see it re-enacted with the new evidence included, even when it’s clear that we should be very skeptical of it. How did the use of re-enactments—that formal strategy—come about?
I’m sure that it’s influenced by Kurosawa. Rashomon is interpreted in multiple different ways. One of the interpretations—not one of my interpretations, but one of the interpretations of Rashomon—is it tells you that all experience is subjective, that somehow we all see the world in such radically different ways that there’s no way to recover what really happened from all these different points of view. I actually think that it is quite possible to recover what really happened. You have to think about it. It’s a puzzle that you are being presented with.
The idea of the re-enactments came fairly early. Because it seemed to me that it was a way of bringing the audience into the investigation. It was how I thought of the crime. “Emily Miller—what did she really see? R.L. Miller—what did he really see?” I think the repetition, the returning to a scene again and again. ... It’s the inexorability of noir, the music of Philip Glass, and just the rhythms of, actually, investigation. At least how I investigate, which is repetitive, pounding your head against documents and interviews.
People ask about The Jinx and re-enactments and The Thin Blue Line—well there’s re-enactments and re-enactments. The re-enactments in The Jinx are just repetitions of the same thing over and over again. You don’t look at the re-enactment as a tool to investigate. When I investigate a crime—and I’ve investigated a fair number of them in my day—I re-enact, in some way, as a way of trying to understand it. And to those people who ... I didn’t have the appropriate language available to me in 1988 when the academy was putting their thumbs down on The Thin Blue Line. The correct answer is that everything is a re-enactment for us. Consciousness is a re-enactment of reality inside of our skull. We’re not given reality on a plate. We create conceptions of reality, pictures of reality, re-enactments—if you like—of reality.
And don’t they say now that memory is largely a re-enactment, as well?
Of course, it is.
That you, essentially, are re-remembering it every time?
We’re not tape recorders. You know, we’re sort of like meat in a can, observing the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.