Errol Morris

In a documentary world dominated by cut-and-paste propaganda and strict disciples of fly-on-the-wall vérité, director Errol Morris has long stood out as a visionary and something of a heretic for violating conventional notions of what a documentary should be. After his first two features, 1978’s Gates Of Heaven and 1981’s Vernon, Florida, beautifully (and often hilariously) chronicled the eccentrics surrounding a pet cemetery and a small town, respectively, Morris called on his experience as a private investigator for his 1988 breakthrough The Thin Blue Line. Through the then-radical use of stylized reenactments, Morris poked so many holes in the case against convicted cop-killer Randall Adams that Adams was released from death row. (He famously returned the favor by suing Morris for the rights to his own story.) From there, Morris has enjoyed an eclectic career, from one-of-a-kind portraits of various fringe-dwellers and idea men (A Brief History Of Time; Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control; Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.) to more politically engaged films like 2003’s The Fog Of War (for which he won his only Oscar) and 2008’s Standard Operating Procedure

Morris’ latest effort, the wildly entertaining Tabloid, adds another colorful figure to his gallery of eccentrics. A former beauty queen from Wyoming, Joyce McKinney sparked the juiciest of British tabloid scandals in 1977, when she and co-conspirator Keith May, known as “K.J.,” were accused of abducting Kirk Anderson from the steps of a Mormon church, driving him out to the countryside, and chaining him to a bed in a cottage, where McKinney raped him. According to McKinney, the coupling was a “honeymoon,” and the church coerced him into the rape allegations. McKinney’s criminal journey from California to England in pursuit of Anderson proved how far she would go for love, and she proved it again 30 years later, when she made the news again for her involvement in dog cloning. Morris recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the pursuit of truth, our capacity for self-deception, and the fight to expand what a documentary can be. 

The A.V. Club: How did you first become aware of Joyce McKinney, and what was the process like of contacting her and convincing her to participate in the film?

Errol Morris: I heard about it from an AP Wire Service article in The Boston Globe. I contacted her in North Carolina. I didn’t know exactly what I would do with it, but it interested me. I sometimes find stories combine two disparate elements, and this is a great example of that sort of thing. The story had dog cloning in it, and at the very end of the article, they mentioned in passing that Bernann McKinney might be Joyce McKinney, who might be connected with a 30-year-old sex-and-chains story. And guess what? That interested me. 

AVC: What did you do at that point? What was that first exchange like?

EM: Called her, found her in North Carolina. I got the feeling that she had been hounded by the press. The article had just come out. She wasn’t interested in making a film, and I dropped it. Just simply dropped it, and a month went by—I think six, seven months went by—and I was asked by Showtime to do a series, and I suggested a series called Tabloid. I thought, “This will be the first program in the series. I’ll do Joyce McKinney. We’ll re-contact her and see if she’s willing to be interviewed,” and I found her in Southern California. Much to my surprise, she was no longer in North Carolina, which was fortuitous, because I was shooting commercials in Los Angeles, and if anything, it was easier for me to do it in Los Angeles than on the East Coast. We talked to her a number of times, and she agreed to come in, and I filmed the entire interview in a day.   

AVC: You didn’t have any occasion to go back to her with any additional questions? Or was that not something you’d be interested in doing?

EM: It’s not that I’m uninterested in doing that. It’s just that I don’t usually do that. I try to get all the material I need. I mean, of course there are exceptions to this. Working with Robert S. McNamara [for The Fog Of War] was a very different kind of deal, because the entire movie was constructed around him, and at first he was not even clear that he wanted a movie made, and how much time he would be willing to give me. Those negotiations and filming him went on over a good part of a year, maybe even more than a year. And so that is a perfect example of an interview that was not done in one day, it was done in many days. But where possible, I try to do them in one sitting. A lot of my movies have been done that way.

AVC: When you’re dealing with a subject with a great capacity for deception or self-deception, like Joyce McKinney, or to some degree McNamara—

EM: Whoa, whoa whoa! In all fairness, we are all capable of deceiving ourselves, and often do. And it’s part of the human condition, isn’t it?

AVC: Perhaps, but there are degrees, aren’t there?

EM: Yes, but we all depend on re-imagining the world to ourselves. I think it’s what makes life possible, else we’d all go insane. People sort of imagine that they go to a documentary—and this is also true [when] you read an article, a work of journalism—that they’re [experiencing] a work of non-fiction. We know that what we’re reading is not the absolute truth. If we’re reading a first-person account, we know that each and every one of us, myself included, have a great desire to be seen in a certain way, or to be perceived in a certain way. It’s unavoidable. What a movie can do—and this is what really does interest me, it’s at the heart of documentary—is not so much delivering the so-called truth. Yes, pursuing the truth, trying to investigate what really happened, trying to uncover some underlying reality, but recording that disjunction, that distance between how people see the world and the way the world might really be—that’s at the heart of the enterprise.

AVC: In terms of tone and historical significance, [Tabloid] is obviously a departure from films you’ve made recently, like The Fog Of War and Standard Operating Procedure. But the question about the elusive nature of truth is at the center of all of them. And of the Times blog as well.

EM: Yes, it’s written by the same guy who made those movies. [Laughs.]

AVC: People look to documentaries with the idea that they are being told the truth, even an objective truth, which is not something you would resist—

EM: No, no, no, it’s not something I resist. That’s a confusion that I feel I should correct. As if somehow I’m saying that there is no such thing [as the truth], and I most certainly am not saying that, nor do I believe that. I believe quite the opposite of that. I believe there is an objective truth. The Thin Blue Line is the perfect example of that. Someone shot the cop, it’s not up for grabs, it’s not as if there’s three or four veridical interpretations of reality. There’s reality! Someone pulled the trigger, someone shot the cop, someone is responsible for that murder. Now, people may give varying accounts of it, which are self-serving, are self-deceiving, are wrong. That’s part of who we are, and how narratives are constructed, and how people relay events and lie about events, but none of that means that there is no underlying truth or reality to be uncovered. What we’re telling a story about is the difficulty, not the impossibility of doing that. Just imagine the difficulty in a story like this. It’s one of the things that fascinates me about it. 

AVC: Let’s take Kirk Anderson, for example. Joyce’s perception of Kirk is completely different from everyone else’s. Everyone else will say that he’s an ungainly, pasty fellow, and she would tell you something completely different.

EM: To me, that’s a different kind of thing. In that instance, you could say, “Did Joyce find Kirk attractive?” And clearly she did. Did [former Daily Express reporter] Peter Tory find him attractive? Clearly he didn’t. He showed me a picture of his girlfriend at the time, Julie Christie, so he was a man about town. Obviously he saw himself as a different kind of figure than Kirk Anderson. But I was thinking, aside from the question “Is Kirk Anderson an attractive man?”—I don’t think I’m really prepared to answer this one way or another. Hopefully I don’t have to answer this question. Maybe I can just say he’s not my type, but I don’t want to even say that. [Laughs.] There is a question, “Did Joyce abduct him at gunpoint?” even using the fake gun that she had brought with her to England. And: “Did she rape him in that love cottage”? “Did they even have sex?” I don’t even know whether they had sex! That’s what so strange about this story. In the Bill Clinton sense, she didn’t have sex with any of her customers [as an S&M mistress-for-hire] in L.A. Maybe she never had sex with anybody! That’s what so strange about this story.

AVC: There was also an element of her love for Kirk being an imaginative act, and perhaps connected in some way to his inaccessibility to her, right? If he were emotionally and sexually available to her, would she be at all interested in him? 

EM: I don’t know. What was her relationship with K.J.? See, here’s the problem. You can call it a historical problem—the way I often would describe it to myself, and I have all these unpublished essays, which I guess will get published one of these days, and finished—but if you’re investigating a historical event, and all the evidence to that historical event is in a lockbox, and the lockbox is destroyed, well, then what? The love cottage. Who’s in the love cottage? K.J.’s there. Kirk is there, and Joyce. K.J. won’t talk to me because he’s dead. That’s not gonna happen. That’s, as they say, a non-starter. Never gonna find out from K.J. what transpired. Kirk won’t talk to me. There are registered letters sent to him, but he doesn’t respond to them. [With regard to allegations of Joyce raping Kirk], all there is is Joyce, and her fairly persuasive argument that you can’t put a marshmallow in a parking meter. It has a certain kind of intuitive, shall we say, plausibility.

AVC: And then you have an interview subject talking about option three, something between willingness and rape. 

EM: The grey area. 

AVC: You have to draw this thread between two different Joyce McKinneys. How do you feel like the dog-cloning Joyce McKinney relates to the Mormon-manacling Joyce McKinney of 30 years ago?

EM: Well, I should ask you. I’m really curious, because it was a big problem early on in the editing of the movie. “What do these stories have to do with each other?” I felt they had an enormous amount to do with each other, and that there was no movie without the connection between the two stories. And then one day there was a screening in Los Angeles, and I asked people, “Do you think there was a connection? What do you think the connection is? Tra-la-la-la,” and a woman who was in the front row said, “Of course there’s a connection. She finally got pregnant.” And there’s the line, Joyce’s line again, her lines are just fabulous, she says [referring to the successful dog cloning], “We’re pregnant.” You would have to say, “That Joyce McKinney. She’s a woman who does not give up easily.” 

AVC: You’ve talked about your films as shaggy-dog stories because you never know where they’re going to end up. How does that affect things in terms of getting them made and financed?

EM: It makes it really, really, really hard. I’m amazed sometimes that I have a career, but it gets a little bit easier each time, because people know that I usually come up with something. What’s great about documentary, and this should always be remembered, is not that documentary has to be made this way, or it’s a rule, a documentary rule that can’t be broken. But I can say what interests me about documentary is the fact that you don’t know how the story ends at the onset—that you are investigating, with a camera, and the story emerges as you go along. If you do the job correctly, a story slowly starts to appear, and that’s an amazing thing. It’s an amazing thing to be part of. The first interview with Joyce was remarkable, with its own set of issues, and early on, I had cut an entire version of the movie with Joyce’s voice alone. It was an hour and a half of Joyce. That’s when I became convinced fairly early on that it wasn’t a half-hour show, it was a feature-length film. The additional characters as they came in one by one—Kent Gavin, Peter Tory, Jackson Shaw—just gave these amazing layers to the story. We weren’t even sure if we wanted to interview Jackson Shaw [who served as Joyce’s pilot from California to England], and he came in and it was one of the best interviews I’ve ever done. It was an amazing interview, when he repeatedly gives you that lecherous grin. It’s fantastic! 

AVC: You said this was originally intended as part of a series with Showtime, but it didn’t fit into half an hour. Are you going to continue pursuing stories that might fit, or is that project in the rear-view?

EM: I think it’s something unlikely to happen, at least in the near future, because I’m involved in so many film projects. I did a series for television [First Person], and one of the reasons the series worked was that it was only one character. Even those, several of them ended up as a one-hour show, and the minute I start interviewing more than one person… I feel like I should apologize to somebody, things just start to get complicated really fast. The mistake, if you want to call it a mistake, for me is that I become interested in the material that I’m working on. It’s much easier if you know the story in advance, because then you can say, “Okay this is the story, and I can tell this in so many minutes, and this is the opening, and this is the end, and this is the middle.” But if you don’t know all of those things going in, and you’re gradually uncovering a story taking shape in front of you, it’s much harder to do that. If you told me, “Mr. Morris, you must cut this movie down to 20 minutes or 25 minutes,” I don’t know if I could do it. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it and preserve those aspects of it that interest me. It’s rich, complex, absurd, crazy, and part of the craziness of it and the absurdity of it is being taken in all of these strange, unexpected directions, and if you didn’t allow that to happen, it would be, in my opinion, so much less interesting.

AVC: Your documentaries have persistently been stylistically innovative. This one, for example, has large, headline-like titles for emphasis. Is part of that a rejection of more traditional forms of documentary filmmaking?

EM: I think it’s a number of things. Part of it is a contrarian impulse, probably. But one of the amazing things about documentary is that you can remake it every time you make one. There is no rule about how a documentary film has to be made. The only rule is that one should try to pursue the truth, and try to tell a story about the real world, but how you go about it, to me, is up for grabs. When The Thin Blue Line came out, I was criticized by many people for using reenactments, as if I wasn’t dedicated to the truth because I filmed these scenes. That always and still seems to be nonsensical. I couldn’t have been more committed to pursuing the truth, to collecting evidence, to interviewing witnesses. The use of reenacted material was not to cover up the truth, but to bring an audience closer to understanding what the issues were in the evidence that I had accumulated about the case. There are misconceptions about what it means to pursue the truth. Shooting with available light and a handheld camera has nothing to do with pursuing the truth. All it has to do with is shooting with a handheld camera with available light. That’s it. [Laughs.] Pursuing the truth is trying to provide answers to difficult questions using evidence through interviews, forensic evidence, etc. etc. It’s a quest, it’s a pursuit, it’s an investigation, a mystery. As far as I’m concerned, you should use any tool available to you to try to ferret it out, to try to get at it, to try to uncover it. 

AVC: Doing that, you would have to fight those who are more dogmatic about what a documentary is. That seems like a fight you’ve had your entire career.

EM: Yeah, I’m still having it. There was a New Yorker cartoon, and I’m probably quoting it incorrectly, but there was a picture of these dogs, and the caption was, “Bow wow, he said dogmatically.” [Laughs.] There’s a story, and I don’t know whether it’s apocryphal, but it’s been related to me many times: When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was vetting documentaries for possible Oscar nominations, they turned off The Thin Blue Line after the first 10 minutes. I don’t know for sure what happened, but I imagine they heard the Philip Glass music, they saw the reenactments, and said, “This is not a documentary.” But indeed, it was a documentary, and indeed it was concerned with the truth. Because of my concern with the truth, it freed an innocent man from prison, a man who came within three days of dying in the electric chair in the state of Texas. It’s no accident. It was not just some happenstance of making the movie. It was a result of two and a half years of investigating, sometimes with a camera, sometimes without a camera, but investigating. Trying to answer questions. Trying to interview witnesses. Trying to get at the truth, which to me is what this is all about.

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