In The Pigeon Tunnel, Errol Maurice Grylls writer John Le Carré in his latest interview – IndieWire

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In The Pigeon Tunnel, Errol Maurice Grylls writer John Le Carré in his latest interview – IndieWire

Errol Morris likes to confront crooked subjects. For the 2003 Oscar-winning Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, he called the former US defense secretary for an interview. A decade later, the director trained his Interrotron on another former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, for “The Unknown Known.”

For the AppleTV+ production “The Pigeon Tunnel,” Morris recaptured the elusive career, taping four days of interviews with John le Carré (née David Cornwell) in the fall of 2019; they turned out to be the acclaimed author’s last. The film serves as an adaptation of le Carré’s own autobiography, which he wrote after biographer Adam Sisman published John Le Carré: The Biography in 2015.

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

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The former MI5 and MI6 British intelligence officer wrote 26 novels – 16 of which have been adapted into film and/or television, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Constant Gardener, Tinker Soldier Spy and The Russian House . However, Morris is not particularly interested in Hollywood interpretations.

“Oddly enough, David Cornwell is something of a documentarian,” Morris said. “Many, many of the books are based on sophisticated research that he has done. He will actually go to places he writes about, meet people who are either the people he writes about or a counterpart to those people. And every single book he wrote was immersive in research, study and vertical observation. There’s a documentary element to everything.”

Claire Bloom, Richard Burton
Claire Bloom and Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the ColdEverett Collection

Cornwell, who died in December 2020, had very strong ideas about the story. “He told me, ‘History is chaos,'” Morris said. “History is not a combination of conspiracies of people behind the scenes pulling the strings and manipulating this and that and the other. History is chance, confusion, error, and this remarkably fits the central metaphor of his book. And the central metaphor of the film is the pigeonhole itself.

This helps explain how Morris’s film – a mix of articulate, philosophical interviews with vivid re-enactments and rich archival footage – presents the six decades of Cornwell’s life in bits and pieces, with images of the pigeon tunnel at its centre. During a childhood visit to a casino in Monte Carlo, Cornwell saw pigeons being caged and thrown into a series of dark tunnels and pushed into the sky to meet almost certain death, he wrote, “like targets for well-lunched sportsmen gentlemen who stood or lay in ambush with their rifles. The pigeons that escaped the destruction returned to their refuge, only to be sent away again.

“This means that, like ‘history is chaos,’ who lives and who dies is a matter of chance,” Morris said. “Even though we know we all live in an environment that is ultimately murderous. There are the pigeons who really don’t pay attention to everything. We are just marching blindly towards death. All of them are conducted by these casino operators, that is, a simple version of man. But it’s not like they are killed directly. They are simply sent to their possible death. Good metaphor. Thank you David.”

Morris doesn’t see his conversations with Cornwell, who was battling prostate cancer, as adversarial or competitive. Nor was he trying to unmask the writer.

“I enjoyed talking to him,” he said. “We discussed a lot of things that I was extremely interested in.” And I found him, if nothing else, a kindred spirit. I liked it. I liked it very much. I am sorry that he is no longer with us. He was remarkably frank. One of the things we started talking about was interrogations and interviews: are they the same thing? Are they different? How are they different? Trying to engage another person, trying to learn something about that other person. Maybe we’re trying to impress that person too. It’s complicated.”

photo by David Cornwell, aka novelist John Le Carré
David Cornwell, also known as the novelist John Le CarréCourtesy of Apple

Cornwell showed emotion throughout the interview, especially when talking about his cheating father Ronnie. “The relationship with his father is central,” Morris said, “and central to the book itself, The Pigeon Tunnel, but there are so many themes: the nature of the story, the truth, his relationship with his wives. It’s a complicated story.”

Morris didn’t worry if his subject was telling the truth. “It’s a portrait of David Cornwell and how he sees himself,” he said. “You get to the point where the whole thing is about a lie. To be a novelist, creating this set of stories, is to create a complex cosmology – a complex fiction. And what’s the point? By doing something like The Thin Blue Line where someone was falsely accused of murder? It makes sense: to say that this person is falsely accused. I believe I know who did it and I can prove it. Reality becomes a central feature of what you do. What really happened? This is not a major feature of Pigeon Tunnel. It’s a set of metaphors.

Morris said he and Cornwell see the truth in a similar way. “He has this Pascalian view that the truth may not be known, but that there is truth … I was moved by David. As cynical as you may think it is, at its core is a genuine belief in right and wrong, good and evil, which I find compelling. He tells the story of how he was invited to the Soviet Union and asked if he would like to have dinner with him [MI6 double agent] Kim Philby. And he refuses. He says I could not imagine dining one night with the Queen’s representative and another night with the Queen’s traitor.

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

This is where Morris most identifies with Cornwell: “He is an exquisite poet of self-loathing. And he agrees with me: sometimes I think that the whole enterprise of trying to create something ends up being self-loathing.

Is Morris agonizing over making these movies, agonizing over how good they are? “Yes of course.”

An Apple TV+ production, The Pigeon Tunnel will premiere during the Fall Festival before airing on Apple TV+ starting Friday, October 20.

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