The latest documentary from legendarily eccentric director Errol Morris revisits a 1970s gossip-rag scandal about a woman (Joyce McKinney) and her love for a missionary—a missionary whom, some say, she visited in England and kidnapped.
We sat down with Morris to discuss Tabloid and how it fits into his career. If you're not familiar with McKinney's tale and would like to be entirely surprised about the documentary, beware: spoilers ahead.
Is it true that Tabloid was originally meant to air on Showtime?
I was supposed to do a series called Tabloid for Showtime and there would be various stories. This story was meant to be the first. I did this first interview and thought this is not a half hour for television. This is something more interesting. At least for me. And so we convinced Showtime it wasn't a series, it was a movie.
Have you intentionally kept Joyce's second tabloid story [she ends up cloning her pitbull five times] a surprise ending?
Is it a surprise? I feel it's been given away a thousand times or more! It didn't work at first, which is interesting because my interest in the story came out of the combination. Years ago I found what was essentially a tabloid story on page one of the New York Times which was the story of Fred Leuchter, electric chair repairman and holocaust denier. (Ed. note: The story inspired Morris's 1999 film Mr. Death). The story was entirely about Fred and the question of whether capital punishment can be humane. And in passing, at the very end, it was mentioned, "Oh by the way, and he denies the holocaust." It was an afterthought: "He says that poison gas was not used at Auschwitz." I liked the story because of those two elements. And I would call it a mystery, a mystery that still exists for me— what do those two stories really have in common?
The same can be said for Tabloid. Joyce does me the favor of actually asking the question in the movie. She addresses it directly. "I don't see what dog cloning has to do with a 30-year-old sex-and-chains story." But of course the two were connected. We would have screening after screening and the Showtime executives kept saying, "Take out the dog cloning." I knew the movie was finally working when I asked the question at a screening "Do you feel the dog cloning is working with the movie overall?" and a woman in the front row said, "Of course! It's the line 'We're pregnant!' She finally got pregnant!"
Why did you choose not to use reenactments in this film?
There are kind of reenactments, though I shouldn't use that word because it gets me in trouble. My reenactments such as they are... there are reenactments and then there are reenactments. There are the ones I call powdered wig and silk stocking reenactments. Those are not the kind I trade in. Certainly they are not the reenactments used in something like the Thin Blue Line. It's extracting the details of the story in such a way that you force people to attend to it in a different way than they might otherwise. You force them to attend to certain details. The milkshake toss in The Thin Blue Line forces you to think about the question, "Did the policewoman get out of the car and when did she get out of the car? And what did she actually see?" The milkshake being thrown and where it landed suggests that she did not get out of the car until after the shooting when the car was speeding away and in all likelihood she saw very little. It calls into question her entire testimony.
The words on the screen in Tabloid, I believe work very similarly to the reenactments in The Thin Blue Line. We would argue about it. People liked the words, people hated the words. Particularly when you are trying something new that you haven't seen before there are these questions: Will it work? Is it in execrable taste? Does it make sense? For example there are a couple of moments with [journalist] Peter Torre that I really like. I like his line, "I think it was ropes, but chains sound better." Which is kind of a theme. It's the essential problem, shall we say, of journalism. How do we trade narrative with truth?