Errol Morris Talks About His Latest Doc ‘Tabloid’

“It’s got sex-in-chains. It’s got dog cloning. It’s got Mormon kidnapping. What more could you want?”

That’s director Errol Morris describing his latest documentary, “Tabloid.” The movie recounts the strange case of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who became a tabloid sensation in the late 1970s when she was arrested, and eventually convicted in absentia, for kidnapping and committing “indecent assault” on Mormon missionary Kirk Anderson. He called it rape. She called it true love. The media called it “The Case of the Manacled Mormon.”

Some of his other works include “The Fog of War,” his Oscar-winning portrait of Robert S. McNamara, architect of the Vietnam war; “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.,” a look at a prison execution technician and Holocaust denier; and “Standard Operating Procedure,” which looks at the Abu Ghraib scandal.

“Tabloid” centers on McKinney’s account of events as her alleged lover Anderson didn’t want to be involved in the movie. On camera, she is funny, engaging, and, on more than a few occasions, clearly lying. The result is mesmerizing. Compared to some of his recent work, this movie is definitely lighter, though Morris bristles at any notion that the movie is any less complex. On the contrary, McKinney is exactly the sort of charismatic, obsessive, unreliable character that Morris has long been drawn to. He told the New York Times that she was “one of the most extraordinary interviews I’ve ever done.”

McKinney’s reaction to “Tabloid,” however, was less effusive. She’s publicly called the movie a “celluloid catastrophe.” She’s been crashing screenings of the movie across the country in an effort to clear her name, even going so far as to arrive in disguise at a recent screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

This isn’t the first time that a subject of a Morris documentary has balked at the end product. His breakthrough movie, the landmark documentary “The Thin Blue Line,” managed to free Randall Adams from death row. Not long after his release, Adams sued Morris over the rights to the film.

I got a chance to talk with Morris last week about the case, the nature of truth, and the complex, fraught relationship between a filmmaker and his subject.

Jonathan Crow: I very much enjoyed “Tabloid.” It’s a bit different from some of the weightier ones you’ve had recently.

EM: People tell me this, but I look at — it’s all of a piece.

JC: Really? How so?

EM: Oh, I made them!

JC: [Laughs] OK. How are they similar? How is this similar to some of your heavier ones, like “The Fog of War” or “Standard Operating Procedure”?

EM: Well, it’s obviously different because it’s less heavy. Let’s call “The Fog of War” and “Standard Operating Procedure” anvil films. Not only are they heavy, they’re very heavy.

JC: Yes.

EM: I don’t think that the themes [in “Tabloid”] are any less complex or any less profound. OK, if the argument is that Joyce McKinney lacks the gravitas of Robert S. McNamara talking about nuclear Armageddon, I’m not going to argue much. But that’s kind of obvious, and so what?

JC: You described interviewing Joyce McKinney as one of the most extraordinary interviews you’ve ever done. Why?

EM: Funny, absurd, complex, convoluted, sad, and a lot of stuff going for it. Joyce is really smart. You seem surprised.

JC: I don’t know. Joyce is a fascinating character, no doubt. I just find this quote, though, to be a pretty surprising one for me. What drew you to the story? How does the process start?

EM: Think of all of the themes floating around in the movie: The nature themes of narrative vs. telling the truth, the nature of love and obsession. There’s a lot of stuff at least for me to like in the story. Also, I have to say a part of me thinks it’s a little easy to make an important film about an important person. And I like the idea of returning to a film that doesn’t have some big U.S.D.A. stamp of importance on it. That’s moron stuff!

There was a show in the ’50s called “Queen for a Day,” and women would compete to be queen for a day. Each one of them would tell their story, and the person with the worst story would win. There would be an applause meter, and the audience would clap. If the story was really, really, really miserable, they would win and they would become queen for a day. Well, documentaries have a queen-for-a-day element in them. People assess them on how miserable the story is, how important the story is.

But guess what? There’s a craft that stands behind all of that in an attempt to telling maybe a deeper story, which does not exist necessarily on the surface. There’s something more going on.

JC: That actually brings me to the next question I want to ask. Your movies have this sort of “Rashomon”-like sense of subjectivity, which I both very much enjoy and also find kind of unsettling. With much of what Joyce is saying, you do kind of feel like she’s lying to herself. There are a lot of question marks about what she’s saying.

EM: There are question marks with what everybody’s saying. I mean I have [tabloid reporter] Peter Tory saying [in the movie] that he’s making stuff up. You have a whole world of people making stuff up, confabulating, fabricating, lying, and deceiving. Hey, welcome to reality. But that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as truth. It doesn’t mean that there’s no way to ascertain what is true and what is false.

Now, people who will tell you that there are different kinds of truth really are saying they don’t believe in truth at all. The truth is really kind of simple. It’s about the relationship of language to the world and when we say things. When we’re talking about things that happen in the world, we can see if they’re true or they’re false. Is it true or false that Joyce McKinney kidnapped Kirk Anderson? Maybe. I can’t answer that question with the available evidence at hand but, in principle, there is an answer.

JC: That’s a very good point. So, how much of Joyce’s story do you think is true and how much does she think is true?

EM: Well, I believe she believes in her account. I can’t prove it to you, but that’s my belief, my hunch. Myself, I believe a lot of what Joyce has told me. Do I believe that she really raped Kirk Anderson? I don’t really believe that. I buy her marshmallow and parking meter analogy. But this is a very strange story. It is a story about evidence or lack of evidence on our ability to ascertain the truth.

JC: Well, what do you make of Joyce’s response to the movie, because she’s had a very strong reaction to the film?

EM: Well, her reactions have been all over the map. She’s appeared with me last Saturday. We were in front of an audience for over an hour. She has this need to believe that I have made a different film than the film that I’ve made. She said in front of the audience that I unquestioningly accepted the versions provided by the two “Tabloid” journalists. That’s just not true. I have many, many, many questions about the actual contradictory account that was provided by [reporters] Kent Gavin and Peter Tory. No way do I see them nor do I think audiences see them as prevailers of Gospel truth. I think it’s a misreading of the movie.

I also think the movie is immensely sympathetic to Joyce. Contrary to trying to make her look as bad as I possibly could, I tried to make her look as good as I possibly could. She’s a rich, romantic, complicated heroine.

JC: This is not the first time one of the subjects of your documentaries has had a problem with the end product. Randall Adams, the protagonist in “The Thin Blue Line,” who you did free from death row, ended up suing you. Does it…

EM: The important thing to remember is that we’re talking about relationships here. And there are many different kinds of journalistic relationships as there are relationships, period. There can be misunderstandings, confusions, hurt feelings. I will write about the Randall Adams story. It’s a really interesting story, what happened, and I don’t blame Adams for it. I can tell you that much.

Here is a man that came within three days of being electrocuted. Did that experience drive him in part crazy? You bet it would drive anyone crazy. Anything he did in the months immediately following his release from prison I in no way hold against him. I can’t even imagine what it was like to go through that experience.

What you might imagine to be a simple relationship, the relationship between Stephen Hawking and myself in the making of “A Brief History of Time,” was fraught with all kinds of tension.

I’d had a background in general relativity and cosmology. I was going to a degree in history of science at Princeton. I just didn’t see making a movie entirely about Stephen Hawking’s science. Very few people read “A Brief History of Time.” I did read it. It’s not a particularly good book for science exposition. If you really wanted to understand that stuff, there are a lot of better places to read about it. But what makes the book great is it’s a thinly disguised autobiography. It’s a story of Hawking, his life and his science as an expression of his life. It’s the heart of the book. And I would repeatedly tell Stephen I can’t imagine making this movie without really capturing that element of what he has written, and we would disagree back and forth. It went on really through the entire making of the movie. I considered myself fortunate when he finally saw the movie. This is at the CAA screening room in Beverly Hills. He comes out of the screening and he’s clicking away, and he said to me, “Thank you for making my mother a star.”

JC: That’s interesting. Nice tale.

EM: But it’s a really good film. And Stephen Hawking did come to like it. I had the good fortune to have a lot of subjects over the years that are just utterly amazing, whether it’s Robert McNamara or Stephen Hawking or Joyce McKinney or Fred Leuchter or a host of other people. I’ve been lucky.

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