Errol Morris Tells Us About Finding an ‘Exquisite Poet of Self Loathing’ in John le Carré

Errol Morris has a thing for facing down squirmy subjects. For the 2003 Oscar-winning “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” he cold-called the former U.S. Defense Secretary for an interview. A decade later, the filmmaker trained his Interrotron on another former Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, for “The Unknown Known.”

For the AppleTV+ production “The Pigeon Tunnel,” Morris again captured elusive quarry by recording four days of interviews with John le Carré (neé David Cornwell) in fall 2019; they proved to be the acclaimed author’s last. The film serves as a kind of adaptation of le Carré’s own autobiography, which he wrote after biographer Adam Sisman published “John le Carré: The Biography” in 2015.

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“It’s not surprising to me that David took a competitive attitude towards it,” said Morris in a phone interview. “In the most direct way imaginable, he decided, ‘Hey, this guy’s writing a biography of me. I’ll write one too.’ And better or worse, it’s entirely different. It’s episodic, it’s picaresque. It doesn’t do what we expect biography or even a memoir to do. It does something different. It seizes on moments, often unrelated moments, that add up to something really powerful and interesting.”

The former MI5 and MI6 UK intelligence officer wrote 26 novels — 16 of which have been adapted into movies and/or television including “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” “The Constant Gardener,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and “The Russia House.” However, Morris isn’t much interested in the Hollywood interpretations.

“Oddly enough, David Cornwell is a kind of documentarian,” Morris said. “Many, many of the books are based on elaborate research that he did. He would actually go to places that he was writing about, meet people who are either the people he was writing about or analog for those people. And every single book that he wrote was immersive in research, exploration, and vertical observation. There is a documentary element in all of it.”

Claire Bloom, Richard Burton in "The Spy Who Came in from The Cold"
Claire Bloom and Richard Burton in “The Spy Who Came in from The Cold”Everett Collection

Cornwell, who died in December 2020, had many strong ideas about history. “He told me, ‘History is chaos,'” said Morris. “History isn’t a concatenation of conspiracies of people behind the scenes pulling strings and manipulating this that and the other thing. History is happenstance, confusion, error, and that fits in remarkably with the central metaphor of his book. And the central metaphor of the movie is the pigeon tunnel itself.”

This helps explain how Morris’ film — a mix of articulate, philosophical interviews with vivid reenactments and rich archive footage — lays out the six decades of Cornwell’s life in bits and pieces, with images of the pigeon tunnel at its center. During a childhood visit to a Monte Carlo casino, Cornwell saw pigeons that were kept in cages and thrown into a series of dark tunnels and pushed into the sky to meet almost certain death, he wrote, “as targets for well-lunched sporting gentlemen who were standing or lying in wait with their shotguns.” The pigeons who escaped destruction returned to their roost, only to be sent out again.

“It means that similar to ‘history is chaos,’ who lives and who dies is a matter of chance,” Morris said. “Although we know that we’re all living in a kind of environment that is ultimately murderous. There are the pigeons, oblivious to everything, really. We’re just heading out blindly into death. They’re all being orchestrated by these casino operators, that is, a meretricious version of man. But it’s not as though they’re being killed directly. They’re just being sent to their possible death. Good metaphor. Thank you, David.”

Morris does not see his conversations with Cornwell, who was fighting prostate cancer, as adversarial or competitive. Nor was he seeking to unmask the writer.

“I enjoyed talking to him,” he said. “We discussed a lot of things that were of enormous interest to me. And I found him, if anything, to be a kindred spirit. I liked him. I liked him a lot. I’m sorry he’s no longer with us. He was remarkably forthcoming. One of the things that we started to talk about was interrogations and interviews: Are they the same thing? Are they different? In what respect are they different? Trying to engage another person, trying to learn something about that other person. Maybe we’re also trying to impress that person. It’s complicated.”

a still of David Cornwell, AKA novelist John le Carré
David Cornwell, AKA novelist John le CarréCourtesy of Apple

Cornwell did show emotion over the course of the interview, especially when talking about his con-man father Ronnie. “The relationship with his father is central,” said Morris, “and central to the book itself, ‘The Pigeon Tunnel,’ but there’s so many themes: the nature of history, truth, his relationship with his wives. It’s a complex story.”

Morris didn’t get hung up on whether his subject was telling him the truth. “This is a portrait of David Cornwell and how he sees himself,” he said. “You come right down to it, the whole thing is about lying. Being a novelist, creating this skein of stories, is creating an elaborate cosmology — an elaborate fiction. And what’s the point? By making something like ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ when someone has been falsely accused of murder? There is a point: of saying this man has been falsely accused. And I believe I know who did it and I can prove it. Reality becomes a central feature of what you’re doing. What really did transpire? That’s not a central feature of ‘The Pigeon Tunnel.’ It’s a set of metaphors.”

Morris said he and Cornwell see truth in a similar way. “He has this Pascalian view that truth may not be knowable, but that there is a truth… I was moved by David. As cynical as you might imagine him to be, at his core, there’s a true belief in right and wrong, good and evil, that I found compelling. He tells the story about being invited to the Soviet Union, and asked his willingness to have dinner with [MI6 double agent] Kim Philby. And he refuses. He says, I couldn’t see myself as having dinner with the Queen’s representative on one evening, and with the Queen’s traitor, on another.”

Cornwall was a man who turned down awards offered to him by the British government, while accepting recognition from other governments. He was disappointed and “deeply unhappy,” said Morris, with his own country. “I would call it the Kantian element in David. There’s a belief that there is a right and wrong in everything. He has this extraordinarily fine-tuned ear for language both spoken and written that is quite unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Fast, smart, articulate, shrewd, interesting, and self-hating.”

That’s where Morris identifies with Cornwell the most: “He’s an exquisite poet of self-loathing. And he agrees with me: I sometimes think that the whole enterprise of trying to create anything is ultimately linked with self-hatred.”

Does Morris beat himself up while making these movies, torture himself about how good they are? “Of course I do.”

An Apple TV+ production, “The Pigeon Tunnel” will premiere on the fall festival circuit before streaming on Apple TV+ starting on Friday, October 20.

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