The roots of Errol Morris' new documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., lie in his last film, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. Originally, Leuchter, an engineer of gas chambers, electric chairs, and lethal injection systems who became a semi-unwitting Holocaust denier, was going to be one of the subjects of that 1997 movie, which was shot by Robert Richardson. But Morris decided the bizarre Mr. Death merited a film all his own.
Enter DP Peter Donohue. "Errol directs commercials, and I shot a few things with him, including a series of Miller beer spots," says Donohue. "Just by luck, and the fact that we had established a good working relationship, he asked me to finish up Mr. Death. It was a great opportunity--he could get anybody to shoot his films."
The length of time it took to see Mr. Death from initial photography to completion is evident in the movie's first scenes. "There's the opening title sequence which Errol and I shot," says Donohue. "And then there's some shots of Fred driving a car, and in an electric chair area. That was all shot by Bob Richardson six or seven years ago. There's some Super 8 footage of him growing up, and then some Interrotron footage shot by Peter Sova." The Interrotron is Morris' invention, a camera that displays a video image of the director while it is shooting, so that subjects can face the lens with less self-consciousness.
"Then you get into the stuff at Auschwitz, and the more abstract scenes, and that's all shot by me," the DP continues. The filmmakers' trip to Auschwitz mirrored one Leuchter took back in the 80s, when, at the behest of a neo-Nazi group, he illegally chipped samples from gas chamber walls to test for cyanide. Video footage of that notorious earlier foray is also shown in the film, taking its place alongside the many formats Morris employs. "It's 35mm, Super 8, 16mm, Super 16, video," says Donohue. "It depends on the situation, but basically Errol likes to shoot every kind of format everywhere, even on commercials. Then he picks the one he likes."
After shooting in Auschwitz, the cameraman and director simulated the site in a Boston studio for more abstract shots of Leuchter at the camp, "and we shot him in locations like a coffee shop, on the highway, in a hotel room. We shot a lot of stuff over a period of about six months, a couple of weeks here and there. It's just the way Errol works: He shoots something, figures out what he wants to do, and goes out to shoot some more. In the meantime I'm off doing other stuff, and so is he."
Donohue says Morris gives him a lot of leeway, but one rule applies: "If it looks normal, he's not going to accept it. He likes the compositions to be a little bit askew, he likes the lighting to be peculiar, abstract, the more bizarre the better. He never discusses lighting with me; he just knows what he likes and what interests him, and I know what that is."
The DP does have to travel light on a Morris shoot, however. "We'll be shooting and he'll say, 'Let's go shoot over there.' So you can't have a zillion guys and a zillion lights." He favors xenons for their power and efficiency, and on the tungsten side, Dedo kits for the same reason. "Kino Flos are amazing too, because you can get a nice soft light very quickly.
"You can light a room with a couple of lights and some mirrors," says Donohue. "You have to use whatever is already there, rather than try to control things too much. And I don't like to take a long time lighting no matter what I'm doing. The crew I work with is quick; I don't have very much patience, and Errol has less."
The DP says that the real heroes on a Morris film are producers Michael Williams, David Collins, and Dorothy Aufiero, who, with very little money, "make things happen. He's a tough guy to produce for, and a tough guy to shoot for, because you never know what you're going to be doing until you do it. You can discuss things forever, and just throw it out the window the second you get there. But I like to work that way too."