“Contrary to Jean-Luc Godard, This Film Isn’t Truth 24 Frames a Second”: Errol Morris on The Pigeon Tunnel
Heralded as perhaps the greatest espionage novelist of all time (though some find this label horribly reductive), David Cornwell, best known by his pen name John le Carré, wrote 26 novels over the course of his 60-year career. But filmmaker Errol Morris decided to chronicle the life and career of the English writer and former British Intelligence agent through the lens of his 2016 memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life. This decision makes perfect sense on paper: why wouldn’t Morris utilize Cornwell’s own recollections and reflections as the backbone of his documentary profile, particularly with a subject who, at the time, was 88 years old?
With Morris at the helm, however, Cornwell’s past experiences are deftly expanded upon. This isn’t done through direct confrontation during their formal interviews, but rather with evocative reenactments that illustrate Cornwell’s stories, emphasizing how time can impact the veracity (though ultimately not the personal gravity) of our memories. Decades-old encounters—experiences with his thieving father Ronnie Cornwell, his early career at Oxford and the titular structure that a young Cornwell witnessed pigeons emerge from before being hunted for sport—are not merely narrativized, but cinematically staged as a product of hazy reminiscence.
Indeed, Morris does characteristically employ probing queries (though they do skew overly playful) during their days-long conversation, but Cornwell easily meets the filmmaker on his level, bantering and riffing at every opportunity. This film now carries the weight of being Cornwell’s final interview before his death in December 2020, but there’s no palpable air of finality during the two men’s extended chat. “I always thought we would have him back if we needed more stuff,” Morris told me. “Then he died.”
I spoke to Morris in New York shortly after The Pigeon Tunnel screened at TIFF and just before its NYFF debut. The filmmaker’s latest project lands in select theaters and streams on Apple TV+ on October 20.
Filmmaker: When did you formally decide to pursue Cornwell as a profile subject for a film? I’m presuming sometime after his memoir was published, but perhaps you can illuminate the general approach and timeline of getting Cornwell on board.
Morris: I was in London, I’m not even sure why—in fact, I do know why. I was pursuing a completely different project. They were doing a remake of one of David’s novels. The producer, PJ Van Sandwijk, asked me if I was interested. It really came from his interest in doing a film with David and a meeting was set up. I went over to his house in Hampstead. We have a mutual friend, [Seymour] Hersh, who was part of a movie that I made called Wormwood. We still talk fairly frequently. And Sey was a friend of David Cornwell. They corresponded and met a whole number of times in the US and London. [Cornwell and I ended up liking] each other, so we decided to make a movie!
Filmmaker: So it didn’t take much persuading. How far out from that initial meeting did you decide to get the troops together and really sit down and conduct these interviews?
Morris: I don’t think there was all that much time. Part of the difficulty of making any movie—it doesn’t matter what kind—is getting someone to pay for it. [laughs] [Cornwell] was willing to do it, I was willing to do it. We just needed to find someone who would provide the financing to make the movie possible, and it turned out to be Apple.
Filmmaker: Were there any agreed-upon terms the two of you reached before you were able to formally conduct the interview? I imagine, perhaps, that what he detailed in his memoir was roughly what you were expected to tailor your questions toward. Or was it more free-flowing than that?
Morris: It was free-flowing, but I certainly have read the memoir and we were talking about [specifically referencing] The Pigeon Tunnel. I never have lists of questions that I go into an interview with. They’re all freeform, catch as catch can. [laughs] He prepared extensively by watching a lot of my movies, I read a lot of his books and we sat down and talked.
Filmmaker: In the film, you bring up the question of what constitutes an interview versus an interrogation. Did you ever feel that the tables were turned on you more significantly here than in other films that you’ve done?
Morris: No, save for the very beginning of the film, which is odd. He says, “Who are you?” And I say, “I’m not sure I can answer the question.” In fact, I’m pretty sure I can answer the question. But no, I don’t feel that this was so different from other interviews that I’ve done. It was different in the sense that he’s extraordinarily articulate and thoughtful.
Filmmaker: That was actually the point I was just about to bring up. Did you think at any point that you were dealing with somebody who had perhaps prepared what they were going to say?
Morris: I think that is his natural state. He’s extraordinarily articulate and fast. He gives this example of, “’The dog sat on the mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.” And then I gave him my le Carré version of it: “The cat betrayed the dog by sitting on his mat.” He’s so fast! That [exchange] wasn’t prepared, that’s just him. He’s fantastic. I would say of all the people that I’ve interviewed over the years, he’s certainly the most articulate. I enjoyed talking to him.
Filmmaker: In the end, how many hours did you spend chatting with Cornwell on- and off-camera?
Morris: It was almost all on-camera. I mean, I went to dinner at the house. I went and visited him in Cornwall. I don’t know how many hours, but when we were doing those four days of interviews, it was exhausting. I had him out walking in a field of mirrors and so on. There were a lot of scenes that we shot in the house, but we did a lot of interviews. It was probably at least four hours per day—probably 16-17 hours of interviews.
Filmmaker: Did you and Cornwell correspond at all after the four days of filming you did for the film?
Morris: I think there might’ve been some communication, but we were hard at work trying to piece [the film] together. I always thought we would have him back if we needed more stuff. Then he died.
Filmmaker: I want to ask about the editing process, specifically regarding the clips of le Carré film adaptations you splice in. The scenes that you choose illustrate the author’s musings on his personal life, which he apparently mined for his fictional work much more than he lets on. Was it difficult to source the perfect corresponding scene for his insights, or did you make these connections instantaneously during the interview process?
Morris: I make this comparison between Conrad and John le Carré. They took their experiences traveling around the world and turned it into literature: Conrad in the Congo, South America, Southeast Asia; David everywhere [laughs]. Panama, Southeast Asia, Berlin and Bonn. So, one of the strong things about The Pigeon Tunnel is that it’s a parable. And what does the parable mean? It’s not clear. Like any Kafka parable, like “Before the Law” or “The Hunger Artist,” they’re endlessly suggestive. And the parables in The Pigeon Tunnel, also like Kafka, are endlessly suggestive.
Very early on I paired The Pigeon Tunnel with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. You can see how those two stories reflect back and forth between each other. I mean, it’s kind of amazing. The movie itself, Martin Ritt’s adaptation, is extraordinary. That book, along with The Pigeon Tunnel, are my two favorites by le Carré. Someone told me while I was working on this that they didn’t think that the choice of Richard Burton for Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was a very good choice. And I thought, “What are you talking about?” It’s one of the greatest movie performances ever, and he’s perfect—disaffected, despairing, drunken. [laughs] How could you ever do better than Richard Burton in that role?
Filmmaker: It’s fascinating that you chose that film in particular to emphasize, because Cornwell reveals that A Perfect Spy is perhaps more semi-autobiographical than some of his other works.
Morris: They’re all in some way based on his life experience. Spy is based on being a young spy and civil servant in 1960-61 in Germany. And yeah, A Perfect Spy is autobiographical in the sense that there’s [the dynamic of] the young David and Ronnie in some form or another. But I would say autobiographical elements run throughout his entire oeuvre.
Filmmaker: Your film utilizes a good deal of dramatization, which I’m sure was a hefty effort. In the press notes, you say that it’s your belief that some of his familial recounts are “more fantasy than fact.” Did your hunch about this ultimately influence what parts of his story you choose to dramatize with actors?
Morris: Contrary to Jean-Luc Godard, this film isn’t truth 24 frames a second. We live in a world of lies. That doesn’t mean there isn’t objective truth, but I thought a number of these stories could be brought to life by treating them dramatically. I could have probably done it with any of it.
So, I make a movie like the Thin Blue Line. Ultimately, objective truth—or something approximating objective truth—is at the heart of the movie. Who shot the cop? There’s a hand that pulls the gun out from under the seat, a finger that pulls the trigger and shoots five bullets into a Dallas police officer. That’s not subjective. It’s objective, and it’s something that you pursue. Truth isn’t handed to you. I don’t believe that people are truth-tellers and liars; we all slant what we see in some version or another. As David says, if you view an accident, everybody is going to give you a different account. But that doesn’t mean there is an objective truth. It just means you have to investigate.
And the Monte Carlo casino that had the pigeon tunnel is long gone. So yes, that’s something that you have to reconstruct.
Filmmaker: What were the efforts that went into reconstructing? You had four days of interviews with your subject, but how long was the process of production on this?
Morris: Much longer! We shot a lot of those scenes—the Rudolf Hess scene, the inmost room scene, the pigeon tunnel itself—in Hungary. Turns out that if we shot in Budapest, we could shoot for half the price that would’ve cost us to shoot in London.
Filmmaker: Makes sense!
Morris: Yep, that was essential. We couldn’t have done it otherwise. And it was interesting because there’s a lot of greenscreen. When you look at the Monte Carlo casino, that’s a balcony overlooking a parking lot. With greenscreen, it looks like it’s looking out over the Mediterranean.
Filmmaker: Much of the film, as well as Cornwell’s memoir, focus on his exploits as a member of British Intelligence during the Cold War. As anti-communist and Russian sentiments are stoked anew, what can be gleaned from your subject’s attitude toward national fealty and “naming names,” so to speak?
Morris: This is something that endlessly fascinated me. I don’t know ultimately how cynical I am, but I’m more cynical than David. It occurred to me that I would call it Kantian, the real belief in good and evil, right and wrong. He tells you the story about infiltrating the Communist Party at Oxford and his betrayal of Stanley Mitchell. And I asked him, “How could you do such a thing?” And he said, “Because they were wrong.” Fealty to Stalin was wrong. Ultimately, David is a person of queen and country—or king and country today. When he’s in Moscow, he won’t meet with [Kim] Philby. He won’t meet with the Queen’s representative one night and the queen’s traitor on another. There is right and wrong, there is good and evil. I know that he despaired over Brexit, which was going on when this movie was being made. I think he did believe in his country. I mean, if you ask me do I believe in this country, I don’t even know what this country is anymore. I think I once knew. Everything seems so inherently chaotic, insane.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting, because he spoke out against the Iraq war, against Brexit. He seemed to believe that the common person deserves a life that has certain rights and privileges. He also talks about feeling like his life is a series of betrayals. Yet when he betrayed his former colleague, he recounts the act without any retrospective remorse. What do you think is the dissonance there?
Morris: It’s a question to think about. I did a previous interview where we were talking about all of his marital infidelities, because it’s become part of the news subsequent to his death. Now, did that interest me marginally? Sure, but the movie was not about his marital infidelities. But then with the whole history of his father Ronnie, was there a story to be told that I didn’t tell in all of that? Yes. I was fixated on his philosophy, The Pigeon Tunnel and those parables, which endlessly interest me. Is he a complicated guy? Yes. Someone at the New York Film Festival asked me, “Do you feel you got everything?” Of course. I don’t feel I got everything. What are you talking about?
Filmmaker: Your film is touted as the last interview with Cornwell, who passed away three years ago this December. Now that your film is finished, how do you hope this project factors into the overall preservation of his legacy?
Morris: He’s really alive in this. I’m struck now that whenever I read a sentence written by John le Carré, I hear his voice. His voice is so distinctive and powerful. I hope the movie preserves, in some small way, his character, how articulate and engaged he was.
Filmmaker: Even watching the film and knowing it’s the last interview, it’s hard to believe that this is a man reaching the end of his life. He’s so sharp, as you said.
Morris: I had no knowledge. People say that I certainly must have known that this would be the last interview. He was in great shape, until he wasn’t. I mean, it’s an old story about old people: he slipped, fell, had a mild concussion, developed pneumonia and was dead within a couple of days. Was he slightly frail in this interview? Yes. But he was 100% there [mentally].
Filmmaker: Finally, as private aspects of his personal life come to light, do you hope your film challenges people to fixate on certain parts of his life and career as opposed to salacious gossip?
Morris: No, because people have a right to be fixated on whatever they want to be fixated on. [laughs] I certainly exercised that. But I hope the movie serves as an introduction to him, his writing and how persuasive and powerful a character he really was.