Not My Job: Filmmaker Errol Morris Gets Quizzed On Mickey Rooney
In 2003, Errol Morris, who has been making documentaries for 30 years, won an Oscar for The Fog of War about former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. His new film, The Unknown Known, is about former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Once he does a film with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, he can turn in his loyalty card for a free secretary.
We've invited Morris to play a game called "Let's put on a show!" Three questions about Mickey Rooney, who died Sunday at 93.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where people hone their craft over a lifetime just to be asked about something else entirely. It's not a waste of time. It's not my job. Errol Morris has been making documentaries for decades, including the Oscar-winning "The Fog of War," about Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. His new film, "The Unknown Known," is about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Once he does a film with Robert Gates, he can turn in the loyalty card for a free secretary.
SAGAL: Errol Morris, welcome to WAIT WAIT ... DON'T TELL ME.
ERROL MORRIS: Delighted to be on the show. Thank you.
SAGAL: Well, we're very thrilled. Obviously, we wanted to talk to you about the film that you made about an important and somewhat mysterious figure in American life, and that is, of course, your series of ads for Taco Bell about Ronald McDonald. Because I don't know if people know this, that in addition to making award-winning documentaries, you're a big commercial director.
MORRIS: So they say.
SAGAL: Well, it's on the credits. And you made these ads for Taco Bell that have people named Ronald McDonald enjoying their food.
MORRIS: How often do you get the opportunity to speak not to just one Ronald McDonald but to close to 30 of them?
LUKE BURBANK: Oh, every night when I'm having a nightmare.
SAGAL: It does sound pretty creepy. And what's interesting is I was watching, I watched all the Ronald McDonald ads, and then I watched the making of Ronald McDonald. And you used the same techniques with Ronald McDonald - not the classic clown spokesman, but the individuals - that you use with people like Robert McNamara and most recently, Donald Rumsfeld, right. You have your, what is it called, the Interrotron? Is that the device you use?
MORRIS: Yes, indeed, the Interrotron.
SAGAL: And describe that, please.
MORRIS: My interview subject can look directly into my eyes and be looking directly into the lens of the camera and hence, if you're watching, into your eyes, as well.
SAGAL: Right, so basically it's sort of like a teleprompter, I would imagine, in that there's a screen in front of the lens that is reflecting an image of your face talking to him. And when you're talking to Ronald McDonald for Taco Bell and you're talking to Donald Rumsfeld for your documentary, do you ever get confused? Do you accuse Ronald McDonald of war crimes?
MORRIS: Actually, I have a strip of adhesive tape at the bottom of my monitor that identifies who I'm talking to.
MORRIS: In case I forget.
MORRIS: And there was no strip of adhesive tape during the making of the Ronald McDonald commercials. And so I was about to look at my script supervisor and say, what is his name again?
MORRIS: And then suddenly, I realized that's Ronald McDonald.
SAGAL: So your new film is basically this long edited interview with Donald Rumsfeld - other things cut in, but it's mainly you talking to Rumsfeld. How long did you spend talking to him?
MORRIS: Too much time.
MORRIS: You mean if I could get all of those hours back again?
SAGAL: Okay. You are, you are, you are actually...
CHARLIE PIERCE: So you're a fan?
SAGAL: You are cutting to the chase. So the movie is - it's of course, cut from these - it's a lot of direct address interviewing with Donald Rumsfeld. You are often heard asking him questions from off-screen, I guess. And he answers the questions looking at the viewer. And it's a wonderful and interesting and intriguing and kind of discomforting film. But in all the interviews I have seen you done and the things you've written about the film, it is so clear you really don't like Donald Rumsfeld.
SAGAL: Is that fair?
SAGAL: Did you not like him when you started the movie, or were you like, oh, this will be great. I'll talk to Donald Rumsfeld about his very significant career? And by the end it, were you wanting to punch him? Or did you - I mean, what happened?
MORRIS: Not by the end of it.
AMY DICKINSON: But, like...
MORRIS: I made this movie with Robert McNamara.
SAGAL: Yeah, "The Fog of War". You won an Oscar for it.
MORRIS: Yes, thank you.
MORRIS: I disliked McNamara going into it and liked him at the end. Rumsfeld, I started to feel that there was no one home.
SAGAL: That's harsh. It's going to be awkward if you win an Oscar for this one and you have to go accept it with him. I'm just saying.
SAGAL: 'Cause you've been saying some things about him that aren't nice. So I mean, I'm just imagining you both there at the Vanity Fair Oscar party with your champagne, and it's like, oh, hey, Errol. Hey, Don.
MORRIS: I feel kind of guilty about it.
SAGAL: Do you really?
MORRIS: Yes, I do. He was incredibly cooperative. He gave me access to his memos. He read the memos on camera. He came to Boston where I live repeatedly. And yet, the sum total of it left me with a feeling that there was something wrong here.
BURBANK: Have you heard from him since the film came out?
MORRIS: He saw the final version of the film and there was an exchange of e-mails.
SAGAL: And how did that go?
MORRIS: Well, I'm still here.
SAGAL: Yeah, he hasn't had you killed. Hey, you actually - is it true that you've interviewed a lot of, like, serial murderers, right?
MORRIS: I have.
SAGAL: Is that for a professional thing or just a hobby?
PIERCE: It was commercial work, Peter.
SAGAL: Yeah, I heard - this is interesting - that you actually interviewed Ed Gein himself, the crazy serial killer who inspired, among other things, the character, the Anthony Perkins character in Psycho.
MORRIS: I believe I may be the only person ever to have interviewed him, aside from various attorneys and psychiatrists.
SAGAL: And given the choice, who would you rather interview again, Ed Gein, serial killer, or Donald Rumsfeld?
MORRIS: Well, Ed died a good number of years ago, but I would certainly welcome the opportunity to talk to him again.
SAGAL: I understand. Well, Errol Morris, we are delighted to talk to you. And this time, we've invited you to play a game we're calling...
CARL KASELL, BYLINE: Let's put on a show.
SAGAL: So Mickey Rooney died the beginning of this week at the age of 94. We're going to ask you three questions about the life of the beloved actor. Get two right and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl's voice on their voicemail. Carl, who is Errol Morris playing for?
KASELL: Errol is playing for Andrew Forrest of Highland Park, Illinois.
SAGAL: Now, the first question - Mickey Rooney did amazing things, told amazing stories, but he loved to tell one story about himself, at least, that wasn't true. What was it A - that he was really 6 feet 1 and he just crouched for the camera, B - that Walt Disney met him as a boy and was so impressed he named Mickey Mouse after him, or C - that his first wife, Ava Gardner, used to make her third husband, Frank Sinatra, dress up like Mickey Rooney?
MORRIS: I would really like 3...
MORRIS: ...to be true, so I'll have to go at that.
SAGAL: No, actually it was B. Mickey Rooney said, for the entirety of his life, that he met Walt Disney at his office when he was a very young boy. Walt Disney was going to name the mouse something else but said, no, I'll call him Mickey, after you. And although he did meet Walt Disney, the story, we are told by the Disney people, is not true. All right.
MORRIS: Now wait a second. I may be a little confused here. The answer should be what I want to be true...
MORRIS: ...not what is true.
SAGAL: Yeah, I know.
BURBANK: No, no, no, you're thinking of your Donald Rumsfeld documentary.
DICKINSON: That's right.
SAGAL: All right, you still have two more chances, Errol. This is not a problem yet.
SAGAL: Now, Rooney went from being the number one box office star in the world when he was an adolescent to being kind of hard to employ as a grown man. He ended up doing a lot of forgettable movies as an adult, including which of these - A - "Everything's Ducky," in which he costars with Scuttlebutt the talking duck, B - in the "Giant of Glendale," in which he spends the entire movie pretending to be the top half of a very tall man, the bottom half played by somebody else, or C - a movie called "Ben-Hur 2: I Hardly Knew Hur?"
MORRIS: I would have to go with B.
SAGAL: You're going with B - "The Giant of Glendale." So the idea is that he, Mickey Rooney, played the top half of a giant, while another actor, perhaps some unknown, perhaps another famous actor down on his luck, was playing the bottom.
MORRIS: It seems to me that the people who had to watch this movie were also down on their luck.
SAGAL: Yeah, that's probably - it was a sad time for everyone. So is your choice going to be "The Giant of Glendale?"
MORRIS: I'm going to have to go with "The Giant of Glendale," yes.
SAGAL: No, it was "Everything's Ducky." He made a movie called "Everything's Ducky" with Buddy Hackett. To quote IMDB.com, "Two sailors bring a talking duck aboard a ship. Complications ensue."
SAGAL: Last question.
MORRIS: Now, if I get all three wrong...
MORRIS: ...am I to be punished in any way?
SAGAL: We've never done that before, but we could start if that excites you. I don't know. All right. So this is the third chance. We want to see if you can get this one right. Now Rooney, in later years, bragged about how he had squandered the fortune he made as an actor on too many, too much alcohol, too much gambling, and too many marriages. He was famously married eight times. And sure enough, he declared bankruptcy a couple of times and once had to do what for money? Was it A - performing as a Mickey Rooney impersonator at a Las Vegas hotel? Was it B, that hosts of parties hired him to show up and pretend they were old friends, or C - he made money endorsing Mickey's Big Mouth brand of malt liquor?
DICKINSON: Oh, God.
MORRIS: Well, these are all shocking.
SAGAL: They are.
DICKINSON: They're all terrible.
SAGAL: But he did one of them.
MORRIS: Well, I seem to be trapped in the B box, so I think I have to go with B once again.
SAGAL: So your choice is that hosts of parties would hire him to show up and pretend to be their friend. You're right. That's what he would do.
MORRIS: Thank God.
SAGAL: In which for $500, the low, low price of $500, you could get Mickey Rooney to show up at your party and pretend you were old friends.
BURBANK: And for $1,000 you could get him to leave.
SAGAL: Carl, how did Errol Morris do on our quiz?
KASELL: Well, to be a winner, Peter, we had to have two correct answers, but he had just one correct answer.
SAGAL: Errol Morris is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker. His latest documentary, "The Unknown Known," is out now in select cities and is available on iTunes and video on demand. Take a look. It's quite something. Errol Morris, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT ... DON'T TELL ME.
MORRIS: Thank you very, very much.
SAGAL: Thank you, Errol. Take care.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MICKEY")
TONI BASIL: (Singing) Oh, Mickey, what a pity you don't understand. You take me by the heart when you take me by the hand.
Oh, Mickey, you're so pretty. Can't you understand? It's guys like you, Mickey.
Oh, what you do, Mickey, do, Mickey. Don't break my heart, Mickey.
SAGAL: In just a minute, Carl gets loco in our listener limerick challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. Support for NPR comes from NPR stations and Carbonite, providing automatic cloud backup for small business computers and servers, details at Carbonite.com, the Skoll Foundation, supporting social entrepreneurs and their innovations to solve the world's most pressing problems, at Skoll.org, and Lumber Liquidators, offering a variety of sustainably harvested flooring, including prefinished and stained, at 1-800-HARDWOOD. We'll be back in a minute from more of WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.