Errol Morris’ News of the Weird

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Published July 14, 2011

 

ERROL MORRIS. PHOTO COURTESY OF IFC FILMS

A beauty queen gone mad, a Mormon sex slave, and dog cloning: in the new movie Tabloid, documentary director Errol Morris goes behind the salacious headlines. The film follows the story of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen, who went to England in the ’70s to “save” her fiancé from what she thought was a Mormon cult. To describe what happens to McKinney next would ruin a perfectly good trip down the rabbit hole—suffice to say it’s unexpected. Morris rocketed to fame with his groundbreaking documentary The Thin Blue Line, and his investigative style and straightforward interviews have been a signature ever since. In Tabloid, Morris takes a breather from the weightier material. But with the oddball yet charming Joyce McKinney as his subject, Morris creates a portrait as puzzling as it is engaging. Whether McKinney is a virgin, hooker, or tragic romantic is left up with the viewer. With Britain roiling from the News of the World hacking scandal, Morris’ film takes us back to a slightly more innocent—if equally uncivilized—era of tabloid journalism. We caught up with Morris to ask about who would play McKinney in the remake and how he is approaching his first narrative film.

GILLIAN MOHNEY: When you first heard the story of Joyce McKinney, did you hear about the sex-slave story or the dog-cloning story?

ERROL MORRIS: AP Wire service combined both A and B. It was about the dog cloning, and at the end of the story, it mentioned the possibility that [the owner] might could be Joyce McKinney, the subject of the sex-and-chains story from thirty years ago.MOHNEY: When you started did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into?

MORRIS: Not really. It got better and better.

MOHNEY: It just keeps getting crazier. How did the film come together?

MORRIS: The easy part is doing the interviews. The interviews go relatively quickly, and I only met Joyce three times. Once when I interviewed her, a second time last fall, and once this last weekend following the screening of Tabloid.

MOHNEY: So you only interviewed her once?

MORRIS: That’s right. Only once.

MOHNEY: How did you approach that interview?

MORRIS: I don’t even really know, but it just seemed to happen. She was great. She’s really, really, really funny.

MOHNEY: Did your opinion of her change at all when you made the film?

MORRIS: Uh, not really.

MOHNEY: What is your opinion of her?

MORRIS: She’s one of the great romantic characters. She’s a little crazy, maybe she’s a lot crazy. I find her puzzling. She’s gone from attacking to film to saying she loves the film. I don’t entirely know what to make of her. I think that is an honest answer. I don’t even know if she’s a virgin or not. I don’t really know much—oddly enough—about the underlying reality of the story. Kent Gavin says that she was a hooker in LA, but she never had sex with anybody. Could it be true?

MOHNEY: She calls it a love story; do you agree?

MORRIS: “It’s not a porno story, it’s a love story.” I think she’s right, I think it’s one of the great doomed love stories. I joked following one screening that I used to think that love involved two people until I made this movie. I’ve started wondering if love maybe only involves one.

MOHNEY: With the News of the World closing this week—was there something about tabloid culture you wanted to show on film?

MORRIS: I liked Joyce’s story, and I liked the characters in Joyce’s story. I don’t think there was some higher purpose. Yes, you can say it’s a commentary on this kind of culture or that kind of culture. What I think that means is that I did a good job in capturing some kind of—clearly, tabloids are different today than they were 20 or 30 years ago. I don’t think there is a big kind of celebrity tabloid culture that exists now. When did Interview start?

MOHNEY: A little over 40 years ago.

MORRIS: Yeah, that certainly is connected to some kind of art celebrity culture. And it’s way ahead of its time: it had this idea that people would be interested in anything, as long as it came from a celebrity. Take details, no matter how banal or how dull or how inconsequential.

MOHNEY: Your films can feel very narrative—do you look to narrative films even when you’re making a documentary?

MORRIS: I’m making a narrative film now. It kind of comes from a tabloid story that first appeared on This American Life about cryonics—about the first cryonic freezing.

MOHNEY: How is it working in narrative film, rather than documentary? Is it easier?

MORRIS: Yes, I think it is. I think it’s easier. I think documentary, or at least what I do, is really hard. You’re on a tightrope, you don’t know if really there is any kind of ending. With The Thin Blue Line, I didn’t know until the very end if I was ever going to get that interview with David Harris, let alone that he was going to confess to me. This is easy.

MOHNEY: You’re not going to leave the documentary world, are you?

MORRIS: No, no.

MOHNEY: What are you looking for in a story when you start a documentary?

MORRIS: I really like stories where I feel everybody got it wrong. It’s the investigator in me—the obsessive investigator. I feel like if I can tell a story—even if there are fingerprints all over it and ten thousand journalists who have muddied the waters in advance of me—if I can do something really different or find some aspect of the story that people haven’t noticed before, then I get happy.

MOHNEY: Well, this story was amazing, but you mentioned Joyce had mixed reactions to the film—

MORRIS: I wouldn’t describe it that way. She’s seen it many, many, many times and had very strong reactions to it on both sides of the spectrum. I think mixed makes it sound relatively benign. I would say she was as crazy in her responses to the movie as she was in the movie.

MOHNEY: You think you want to do an epilogue with her?

MORRIS: We’ll see. I asked her if she saw the feature-film version of the Joyce McKinney story, who should play Joyce McKinney, and she said she preferred Katherine Heigl. I like it. Katherine Heigl it is! 

TABLOID OPENS IN SELECT THEATERS TOMORROW.