Oscar Winning Documentarian Errol Morris on His Latest Film, Tabloid Journalism, and The Nature of Truth

In my position as writer about film, I sometimes get to interview filmmakers and performers about their work. One man I’ve interviewed twice is Errol Morris, an amazing documentarian who alternates between making films about oddballs and films about political issues. Following you’ll find my latest interview with him about the nutty and apolitical new doc, “Tabloid,” followed by my 2008 profile of him for his prior film about the Abu Ghraib photo scandal, 2008’s “Standard Operating Procedure.”

First, the “Tabloid” story:

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Errol Morris may not be as famous as Michael Moore, but he’s had a profound influence on the documentary genre with 14 films over the past 33 years. While Moore places himself front and center as the entertaining and emotional heart of his films, Morris has largely remained off-camera, preferring to allow his compelling subjects to speak for themselves.

It’s Morris’ unique choice of subject matter, which he classifies as being either “oddball” or political, and the striking visuals with which he surrounds his interview subjects that have made his films cinematic events for connoisseurs. In 2004, he won an Oscar for Best Documentary with his startling profile of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in “The Fog of War” and later returned to dead-serious wartime matters by exploring the circumstances behind the Abu Ghraib scandal with his last film, 2009’s “Standard Operating Procedure.”

But his latest film “Tabloid,” opening Friday at the Laemmle Playhouse 7, fits more squarely within Morris’ usual strengths of portraying quirky people and events through a comedic lens. “Tabloid” follows the much stranger-than-fiction misadventures of Joyce McKinney, a former self-described “beauty queen” who developed an obsessive love with a Mormon man who was quickly relocated to England in order to keep the lovers apart.

When McKinney followed her lover to the UK in an attempt to kidnap him and live happily ever after, it ignited a British tabloid frenzy as gunpoint abduction, bondage modeling, magic underwear, and oddball accomplices all came into play. And just when she thought she could return to a life in obscurity, McKinney re-entered the world’s news radar by cloning her dog via shady South Korean technology.

Morris took a few minutes to share his thoughts with BH on tabloid journalism and the nature of truth.

Big Hollywood: How’d you find out about this crazy story?

Erroll Morris: A wire service article in the Boston Globe. This was very recently. I knew nothing about it years ago when it was happening. The Associated Press wire service story was about her cloned dogs and concluded with a small piece of information that the dog cloning might be connected to this 30-year-old sex and kidnapping story.

Big Hollywood: What grabbed you right away about this as a film — dog cloning or the actual tabloids about her from the ’70s and ’80s?

MORRIS: Both! A combination of A and B brings it out. I saw the story and I thought this could be interesting. Originally I was thinking about it almost as a first-person story. I called Joyce and she wasn’t interested. She has complained about the film, complained that the film was a completely oriented story against the Mormon Church, as if that was the reason I was making “Tabloid” — to attack Mormons and Mormonism, when in fact that was not the reason I made the movie. I know that whenever you do a story about a real person, there’s going to be trouble of some kind. People have expectations of what they’d like the movie to be versus what it is. It’s inevitable.

Big Hollywood: We just had the Casey Anthony trial. Do you watch that with different eyes?

MORRIS: It came as a surprise to me, a terrible thing to admit to. I did not follow the Casey Anthony trial, but I’m aware of it now. I wasn’t following the whole story of News of the World, but, of course, I’m aware of it now.

Big Hollywood: In the 30 years since the “Tabloid” story happened, it strikes me how innocent this all seems. Since then, the line between tabloid and legitimate journalism has become hopelessly blurred, and we’re constantly bombarded with these increasingly sensational stories. Do you think that this is inevitable, as in News of the World?

MORRIS: I think it would be wrong to conclude that all tabloid journalism is bad. It’s focused on stories that grab a hold of us. It could be two or three or four lines. I’d like to think of the Bible as an extended tabloid story. The tabloids clearly played a destructive role for Joyce in her life, and I wouldn’t argue otherwise. That type of journalism, trying to create narratives, is part of a deeper problem in journalism, per se, not just tabloid journalism. The News of the World story is extreme, because here you have parents who are worried their daughter is dead and they start monkeying around with the evidence as the police are trying to find out what’s happening. It’s crossed a deep line of some kind.

Big Hollywood: Is that true of the story of Joyce McKinney?

MORRIS: It’s much harder to make that claim, for me. I’ll leave each one of you to decide for yourselves. Joyce was not an unwilling participant in this. She came to the UK with the chloroform, handcuffs and fake gun. Maybe it got out of hand, but I don’t think that she can simply claim total innocence in what happened. She provided a story for the tabloids that was too good to be true.

Big Hollywood: You spent time working as a private investigator. How did that affect your interviewing?

MORRIS: I worked as a private investigator briefly in Berkeley, but that was very very briefly. In the ’70s, then my film career which really never amounted to a film career per se went completely belly up and I had to find a way to earn a living, and so I worked as a private detective in New York in the early ’80s. I think it’s the other way around, that I started interviewing murderers – Ed Gein, a whole number of different murderers in Northern California and Wisconsin. That goes back so many many years – I had a relationship with Ed Kemper. I’d gone to all of these trials, was going to write a PhD thesis on the insanity defense. In those days there were the Big Three mass murderers in NoCal: Ed Kemper, Herbie Mullen, and Charles Frazer. So I had gone to the Kemper trial, part of the Mullen Trial, and I was really interested in writing about the insanity plea – started interviewing people and I believe those are my first real interviews. I’d been an undergraduate in Madison and went back to Wisconsin and developed this whole style of interviewing where I remembered tape recorders really well – big tape ones. And I would play this game where I tried to say as little as possible so I had tapes that I was particularly proud of, but my voice wasn’t on the tape. I would get the person I would interview talk for a full hour on the tape. The idea was this pure stream of consciousness, the Joycean interview – and that certainly informed “Gates of Heaven” and it became the idea behind “Gates of Heaven.” I’d always excluded my voice in editing these movies. I wanted to publish a book and no one was interested in publishing my writing and I stopped writing for years and years. Now I’m publishing all these books coming out from Penguin – Believing is Seeing, a book on the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case and a third from U Chicago Press based on a set of essays I did in NYT called “The Ashtray,” so I’m writing a lot.

Big Hollywood: How do you decide in your films – subject-wise you seem really known for these portraits of eccentric people, but Abu Ghraib seems like a big change of pace for you, exploring the nature of evil in a serious way. How do you decide what fits for you and what approach – quirky or serious?

MORRIS: I think “The Thin Blue Line” is pretty funny. Not as funny as this. I took out a lot of the funnier stuff in the Abu Ghraib story. These stories have a logic of their own, not a decision per se. once I made a decision to put Joyce on film, it followed in due course: the other interviews and material. It’s certainly funny, it’s sad, and I’d say it’s also sick.

Big Hollywood: “Tabloid” is a love story but also a bit of film noir?

MORRIS: I like the idea of it being film noir, but never even thought about it til this morning. My intro to noir is through Pacific Film Archives. People don’t really have control over their lives in noir, they’re part of some infernal tapestry of design that has a sense of inexorability. There’s a sense of that in this story. The book ends to me on the strongest element. The material of Joyce reading from her still-unpublished complete book is amazing because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy among other things (her reading about loneliness).

Big Hollywood: Do you ever outright, directly challenge your subjects on their tales?

MORRIS: I gave Fred the opportunity to see the movie with “Dr. Death” (about a man who’s the leading expert on executions in America, yet also is a Holocaust denier) – I put him on the Interrotron when he watched the movie, and then I interviewed him. I said, “Fred, I don’t believe in any of this stuff. I believe poisoned gas was used in Auschwitz and your so called proof was not particularly convincing. It’s the most direct I’ve been with anybody. I believe I was direct in “The Thin Blue Line” line too – you’re making a film about a factual matter, making a claim about something that happened or didn’t happen. If the Dallas police say Randall Adams shot police officer Robert Wood, that’s’ a true or false claim and finding an answer to that is at the center of that claim.

Big Hollywood: You leave things more up in the air in those cases…

MORRIS: For good reason. There are answers in history, but sometimes we can’t know what those answers are. Historical evidence is perishable. If someone destroys all of the historical evidence for any given event, it’s going to make it hard to come to a set conclusion about what really happened. It doesn’t mean that something actually didn’t happen, but we may not be able to ever determine what that is.

Big Hollywood: The tabloid people lost their evidence and she lost her evidence.

MORRIS: That’s absolutely correct. A lot of people losing evidence, and you have people dying. KJ. Take the kidnapping itself. We tried to get the partner to talk to us, but supposedly the partner never really saw the kidnapping. KJ is dead and can’t be interviewed, Kurt who refused to be interviewed, and then there’s Joyce. Do I know ultimately what happened: Was he taken by force either in the Love Cottage or his missionary work?

Big Hollywood: Is it possible for both parties in a story as complex as these have room to be wrong?

MORRIS: In the sense was it wrong for Joyce to try to force Kurt’s hand, or wrong for Kurt to abandon Joyce and so on and so forth? There’s so much ambiguity in the story of every stripe, and it’s one of the reasons I like the story. My job as a filmmaker, if I can uncover some underlying truth or reality and it’s essential to the story, I go after it. In Thin Blue Line, in SOP, in Mr. Death, I went after it in all three of those instances. This is a different kind of story in the sense that what really fascinated me in this story are these competing narratives at war with each other between tabloid journalists, both who had a need to tell their own version of reality. Joyce certainly had one more version, and the ongoing uncertainty about what really transpired in all of this. It’s casting a net around it, making sure there’s mysteries, I’m still transfixed by this.

Big Hollywood: Was the ambiguity at the heart of the decision not to include any filmed reenactments for “Tabloid”?

MORRIS: Filmed reenactments for some people are designed to remove ambiguity but they’ve never served that function to me. They’ve called attention to mysteries and uncertainties. In the NYT I wrote a piece about the milkshake being thrown in “The Thin Blue Line” – I’m not reenacting throwing a milkshake. That’s not the reason it exists in the movie and the people who thought that are retarded. I was addressing a question at the time and still trying to address it. Five people take the stand in this man’s capital murder trial and say “That’s the man,” including the actual killer revealed later is a great witness. One of the central questions in the movie is did the policewoman get out of the police car? What was she in a position to see? She gets a milkshake, sees a car with headlights off, they pull it over and her partner gets out and walks up to driver’s side and gets shot five times and killed. The policewoman claims she’d gotten out and was standing at the rear of the suspect vehicle – a position to look at what’s in the back of the vehicle. The police draw a crime scene diagram. You are asked to reconstruct for yourselves what really transpired. If you’re getting out of the car with your partner, do you take it with you or place it on the floorboard. But if you heard gunshots, you’d toss that shake and run towards that car that’s speeding away.

What those devices do – and it occurred to me that I never thought of this until an interview this morning – that the words on the screen serve the same function in a way. But when you see “Kidnapped” come up on screen, you are forced to address the central question discussed. Was Kurt kidnapped and taken by force, spread-eagled on bed and shackled. It focuses the attention of the audience on some salient detail in a mystery. My favorite question was a Dallas reporter at the time the film was first screened in Dallas – asking me how I happened to be on the road that night with a film crew.

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