A Conversation with ‘Tabloid’ Director Errol Morris

by |

Poster of the documentary Tabloid, directed by Errol Morris

A poster for the documentary Tabloid,
directed by Errol Morris

Errol Morris has been making movies for 33 years, painting fascinating portraits of normal people and extraordinary ones, from Randall Adams (The Thin Blue Line), who was wrongly convicted for the murder of a policer officer, to Vietnam War-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (The Fog of War) to physicist Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time) to the famously photographed Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England (Standard Operating Procedure). His subjects have always captured the public’s fascination, but usually as a result of Morris’ singular storytelling style. Using his Interrotron, a machine he invented so his subjects could stare directly into the camera while having the experience of speaking directly to their interviewer, Errol Morris gives the viewer a seat in the room.

In his latest film, Tabloid, Morris has found a spectacular protagonist in Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who became a tabloid sensation decades ago when she tried to kidnap the object of her obsession, a Mormon missionary. Tabloid is funny and lighter than the last couple of Morris’ films but no less intense or provocative. The movie shows the filmmaker, 63, at the top of his game and showing no signs of slowing down.

Adam Schartoff: You’re prolific.

Errol Morris, director of the documentary Tabloid

Errol Morris,
director of the documentary Tabloid

Errol Morris: It seems to be all of a sudden! Not as prolific as Werner (Herzog). Werner is the prolific one. He cranks them out.

Schartoff: They don’t seem to be cranked out, but he is! I guess when you’re at the stage of making narrative versions of your own documentaries, you’re a busy guy. After making The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure, were you intentionally looking to do something lighter?

Morris: Yes. The critical response to Standard Operating Procedure was all across the board. There were people who liked it and those who didn’t. I felt the movie was harshly judged by many people. Whether I went looney tunes or not, I felt the movie was never really appreciated. It didn’t do particularly well at the box office. One of the things I liked about making Tabloid is that I consider myself a funny person. And this is a funny movie. People looked at Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure and they said, “Errol, not funny! Not funny!”

Schartoff: “What happened to his sense of humor?”

Morris: So, yes, in a way I did want to do that. Like, “—- you, I am funny!”

Schartoff: I recently watched Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. There were definitely similar structural similarities between that film and Tabloid. The subject of the film is on some particular trajectory and they make some choice. Then that choice takes them on some other trajectory.

Morris: A left turn.

Schartoff: Exactly. In the older film (Mr. Death) it was Holocaust denial.

Morris: It’s not the best career move.

Schartoff: Not for Fred certainly.

Morris: Not for anybody.

Schartoff: Why does this occur in your films? Or is this something you don’t think about at all.

Morris: No, I do think about it. It’s interesting you should mention Mr. Death. That’s a story I found in the papers, like the story in Tabloid. It was a story in the paper on page A1 in The New York Times. Really, a crazy place to find the story, it’s a tabloid story. It was about Fred Leuchter, electric chair repairman. And at the very end, the article mentioned that he was a Holocaust denier. And I became fascinated with the relationship between these two stories and how these two stories fit together in one story.

With Tabloid, I saw an AP wire story about the dog cloning. The article mentioned in passing that Bernann McKinney, who cloned her pit bull Booger, might be Joyce McKinney who had been involved in a sex in chains story some 30 years ago. It was sort of looking at those two stories…

Schartoff: I see, so that’s your way in.

Morris: Yes!

Schartoff: It seems very organic. It’s that connection to the backstory that hooks you.

Morris: Yes.

Schartoff: I regret not being at the DOC NYC premiere. [In November of 2010 at the New York premiere, Joyce McKinney made an unannounced appearance and ended up monopolizing the post-screening Q&A, accusing Morris of lying or misleading. She would subsequently appear at other screenings either heckling from the audience or incorporating herself into the Q&A.]

Morris: We had an even bigger appearance where we talked for an hour and a half after a screening, last Saturday night.

Schartoff: Has any progress been made in terms of her [Joyce McKinney] coming around and getting on board with the film?

Morris: I don’t know what “getting on board” would mean exactly. But our discussion the other night was really friendly. We had a good time. It’s really funny.

Schartoff: It’s not personal, I guess.

Morris: I don’t know what it is. I don’t even know if she’s really angry or pretend angry or what’s going on.

Schartoff: And after an hour and a half, it wasn’t any clearer?

Morris: Not after an hour and a half. Not after editing this movie for over a year.

Schartoff: When you began making the film, did Joyce require any prodding to open up? Did you have to court her in any way?

Morris: Well, we talked to her but I don’t like to meet people in advance of an interview.

Schartoff: No?

Morris: I’ve only met her on three occasions. I met her the first time when I interviewed her and then two other occasions at screenings.

Schartoff: Ah!

Morris: I spent a lot of time with her in the editing room. But that’s something different.

Schartoff: You have an ‘off’ button for one thing. It seemed like a challenge to get her to stop talking at the appearance.

Morris: Well, at the L.A. screening we didn’t. It went on for an hour and a half as I mentioned.

Schartoff: On another topic, I was reading in the obituaries a couple of weeks ago that Randall Adams died. [Adams was wrongly convicted of murder and put on death row, then freed in large part because of Morris' investigative documentary The Thin Blue Line.] He died something like nine months ago, yet it was only just reported. It’s odd to have such a delay, don’t you think? The stories continue even after your camera is turned off, it would seem, like what’s been going on with Joyce as well.

Morris: I thought that some day, I should do a book on subject–journalist relationships, my own take on it. I mean, my relationship has gone on with many of the characters I’ve made movies about. And, as you’ve pointed out, the stories have gone on. Randall Adams came within three days of an electric chair appointment in Texas. People are fascinated about what became of him after he was released from prison. Of course, he was never in any trouble before he was imprisoned. Yeah, that story is a pretty big part of my life.

Schartoff: Do you know why it took as long as it did for the obituary to come out?

Morris: Maybe there weren’t people following the story. I had learned about it through a mutual friend. I had learned some time later and then I tweeted it. And then all the wire services picked up on my tweets and started calling me. They were calling me thinking they had heard about it independently and were informing me. Even though they had heard about it from me.

Schartoff: Tell me about scoring your films. You’ve now worked with Danny Elfman (Standard Operating Procedure) and Philip Glass (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time) a number of times.

Morris: And I plan to work with both of them again. Philip and I have done three features and then we did a project for IBM, about their 100th anniversary. You can see it on YouTube. He wrote an original score for it. It’s a half hour film. So we’re planning a fifth film.

Schartoff: You seem really happy about it. You two must have quite the symbiotic relationship.

Morris: I love Philip’s music. I have this project with Ira Glass. The story was first reported on his series, This American Life. And we’re making it into a dramatic feature. It’s a kind of tabloid story about the first cryonics freezing. I don’t know… Will Danny write the music or will Philip? [Laughter.] One of the two of them, in all likelihood. Anyway, they’re both great and I look forward to working with both of them again. They both seem able to tolerate me.

Schartoff: I keep reading about the Interrotron. I take it, it’s a way that people can look into the camera but they have the experience of talking to you.

Morris: Do you know what a prompter is? This was the odd idea. The prompter was designed, as I understand it, so newscasters or politicians can look directly into the lens of the camera and read text. So, what they did is they put a television set, which is mounted flat and there’s a half silver mirror. You don’t see the lens, you just see the text reflected off the mirror. My idea, crazy as it is, was to use two of these things. Cameras are pointed at both me and my subject. We’re both looking at each other’s live video images and right into the lens of the camera.

So, do you think anyone’s going to go see this movie?

Schartoff: Absolutely. But you bring up a point. Do you have trouble finding distribution for your films at this late a stage?

Morris: It’s always been dodgy. But I’m delighted IFC is doing this. But you never know.

Tabloid opens in eight cities on Friday, July 15, 2011, including New York City and Los Angeles. Check showtimes and get more information about the film on its Facebook page. Keep up with documentary film news and more on POV’s Facebook page.

Adam Schartoff
Adam Schartoff
Guest blogger Adam Schartoff is a freelance film journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. He's the founder and programmer of the Brooklyn-based film series Filmwax.