Errol Morris on 'Tabloid': 'It's a Nutso Story'

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The director chats about madness, journalism, and his career

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.

Read our review of Tabloid here, and get a refresher in Morris's work here.

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?

How could you better express something? And Peter Torre's clear fascination with Kirk being "spread eagled", "spread eagled and manacled". Now, where he got spread-eagled, whether this was just a figment of his imagination, some kind of personal fantasy, I have no idea! But you can tell he just LOVED saying it. He would say it again and again. By putting the words on the screen- here is my argument- it forces you to think about it, almost the same way a reenactment would force you to think about it. It puts it in your face. Literally.

Do I think that Kirk was spread eagled? I don't really. But it's really, really, funny.

We also argued about the word "kidnapped". Do I know for sure that Kirk was kidnapped, taken by force? I don't because Kirk won't speak to me, so there's Joyce. Now here's the process of reasoning that I go through. My humble attempt. Do I believe she came to England with the intention of taking Kirk by force? Kind of I do, I have to confess. Because she took all those beefy guys and there are the handcuffs and the bottle of chloroform and the toy gun that looks like a real gun. Did she really kidnap him? I don't know. I don't have all the evidence in hand to come to one conclusion. What actually went down I do not know for sure.

I  did wonder, is Joyce a virgin?

Then or still?

Still! Because there are these crazy stories of her working as a hooker but never actually having sex with anybody. I mean it's all so, what's the technical term? So fucking weird. I mean all of it really. It's a nutso story. Everyone seems delusional. Someone said to me, 'Oh Joyce is so crazy' and I said to them, yeah she's crazy but no more crazy than any of the men in the story. The men are all batshit crazy. And look at me! I'm following Joyce around and making a movie about this whole thing. Am I any less crazy than all of them? I hardly think so.

Do you see Tabloid as a move away from films like Standard Operating Procedure and back towards something like Vernon, Florida?

I don't, actually. [Tabloid] doesn't have the same gravitas of the last two films. But Standard Operating Procedure is about a hidden reality behind the photographs and the news accounts. People don't quite get that story. Maybe I didn't present it correctly or maybe they do get it and I just don't realize it. But at the heart of that story there is Sabrina Harman and those letters she wrote to her girlfriend, Kelly. This is such an interesting phenomenon- it will interest me forever. I have a book coming out that deals with this story as well. It was a tabloid story. There is a picture in the New York Post of Sabrina Harman with her thumb up over a dead body and the headline was "The Ghoul Next Door". It had become very much a kind of tabloid deal, but no one had ever really looked behind the tabloid headline at who these people really were and what had really happened and what the photographs meant or did not mean.

So superficially, yes this is not Robert McNamara telling you about the end of the world, but there are common themes in all of these movies. There is the same guy- me. There are the same concerns. And I've always liked to think I'm a funny guy. Though maybe those movies aren't exactly laugh riots.