Errol Morris is a celebrated director who has documented a wide range of subjects, from warfare in his Academy Award-winning film The Fog of War to your everyday eccentrics in Vernon, Florida.
In his newest film, Tabloid, he chases the truth in the tabloid story of Joyce McKinney. A former beauty queen follows her object of affection, a Mormon missionary, overseas and shakes things up with his alleged kidnapping and sexual assault. Joyce spins her version of the events of several decades and continents in the film, which is woven with interviews with tabloid reporters of the day, her alleged accomplices and contemporaries.
Errol talks to us bringing his subjects eye to eye with his audience using his patented Interrotron, seeking and preserving the truth of the first person narrative, and the work he feels he'll be remembered for (it's not what you think).
Tabloid is theaters now with limited release, and will roll out to more cities nationwide this summer.
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JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest on the program is Errol Morris, who might just be America's most gifted and acclaimed documentarian. His movies include The Fog of War, which won him an Oscar, The Thin Blue Line, which may have saved a man's life, and Gates of Heaven, which, according to the terms of a bet, forced Werner Herzog to eat a shoe live on stage.
Morris's new film is called Tabloid. In part, it's an investigation of narrative; in part, it's an investigation of a curious character. That, of course, has been a theme of Morris's films going all the way back to his first two, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida.
The movie is the story of a former beauty queen named Joyce McKinney who fell in love with a Mormon missionary and followed him on his mission to England, bringing along a pilot, a muscle-building body guard, and a man who can only reasonably be described as a best friend/bondage slave. When she found the object of her affection, she either convinced him to come with her, or kidnapped him, then, either convinced him to sleep with her, or raped him.
The case was a sensation beyond words in the English tabloid culture of the late 1970s. Here's a tabloid reporter named Peter Tory who covered the story at the time for the tabloids in the late 1970s. In this clip from the movie, he explains how Joyce McKinney's misadventures captured the English public's attention.
Errol Morris, welcome to The Sound of Young America.
ERROL MORRIS: Thanks for having me on.
JESSE THORN: As I was watching Tabloid I was thinking about where it stood with these other films that you've made, and I was thinking about how committed you are to presenting people, telling their stories in a way that's very interesting in the world of documentaries, I think. You're rarely trying to shoot events as they happen, but you're always trying to shoot a person talking about their version of their own experience.
ERROL MORRIS: Fair enough. I love first person story-telling. Putting someone in front of a camera and getting them to tell me their story - - maybe I'm a kind of conceptual vacuum cleaner, Hoovering up this material, but it is essentially what I do.
They're all kinds of interviews. Often, I'm asked why I don't do 60 Minutes or Mike Wallace-type interviews, why I'm not an adversarial interviewers, why I don't back people up against the wall and ask the difficult, embarrassing question and try to trap them in contradictions. Why I don't do that - - to me, the name of the game is discovering something about other people. How they imagine themselves, how they describe their own experiences. It's the opposite of Mike Wallace, if you like. It's creating a situation where people feel free to tell me stuff. It's preserving those ambiguities, those contradictions, not between the interviewer and the person being interviewed, but inherent in the story itself, and I am a kind of nutso journalist, I don't know how else to describe myself. You seek the truth. You have to, on some level.
JESSE THORN: Some of your films have been about going for the truth. I think, for example, The Thin Blue Line, which was about an actual real-life murder and convicted killers who were eventually released.
ERROL MORRIS: There was a guy sentenced to death for the murder of a Dallas police officer, and I investigated and found out he didn't do it, it was a terrible miscarriage of justice. But, at the heart of the story, you want to answer a very simple kind of question: did he do it? Was he the guy who shot the cop? Was it somebody else, and if it was somebody else, who was it? And I got the real killer to confess. This is the end of my movie The Thin Blue Line. There's a factual question - -
JESSE THORN: At the center of that.
ERROL MORRIS: Correct.
JESSE THORN: But on the other hand, I was thinking of, not just this movie Tabloid, but this movie to some extent, but also a lot of your early movies like Vernon, Florida, which I actually want to play a clip from Vernon, Florida. This is just one of the many unusual residents that you encountered in this town. He's talking about the way our minds work in his own amazing way.
That film is about, I don't feel like it's about trying to get to truth, and I wasn't even sure that Tabloid was about trying to get to truth, it felt like it was more about - - the truth at the center of it was a totally subjective personal truth on the part of the people who were telling the story no matter how bizarre and nutso they may be, to some extent.
ERROL MORRIS: There's stories where you can get at the truth. Maybe you don't know it at first, but you persist and eventually something shakes out of, in the case of The Thin Blue Line, over two years of investigating. Here, you're absolutely right. But we're limited. For example, Joyce McKinney came over to England with a gang of accomplices, Smith and Wesson handcuffs, a bottle of chloroform.
JESSE THORN: An actual bottle of chloroform.
ERROL MORRIS: An actual bottle of chloroform, a fake gun. Now there's a question, her love object, a man she was totally obsessed with, the man she had to have: did she kidnap him? Clearly she was prepared to kidnap him, but did she really kidnap him?
JESSE THORN: She had the gear necessary.
ERROL MORRIS: She had the necessary gear, yeah.
JESSE THORN: She purchased a kidnapping kit.
ERROL MORRIS: But did she do it? It's the limits of perhaps what we can know and what we can't know. There were three people present; one's dead, can't interview him; the object of Joyce's obsessive love isn't going to speak to me. We sent the usual registered letters, and it's not as though he said no, he said nothing, we never heard back from him although we know he got the letters, we know he got the invitations for an interview, but he clearly was not interested. So what do you do? You had the outlines of the story that perhaps can't be entirely nailed down, you may never know. There's a mystery. This movie is filled with ongoing mysteries about motivations, about what really happened, about who these people really are.
But on thing is clear, at least I hope it's clear – it's for real! It's proof that there is nothing stranger than reality. You could never do this in fiction, it's just too damn crazy. No one would believe it!
JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest is Errol Morris. He's an Oscar-winning documentarian. His new film is called Tabloid. It's an investigation of narrative culture, and of an amazing and bizarre woman named Joyce McKinney, who may or may not have kidnapped and sexually assaulted a Mormon missionary in late-1970s England.
When did you first actually speak to Joyce McKinney? Did you call her house? You saw something about the dog cloning part of this, which we haven't even touched on, but she was briefly famous for having her bulldog cloned in Korea five or so years ago, and you saw a story about that.
ERROL MORRIS: More recently than that. I lose track of time, but most of my stories come out of the newspaper in one form or another. I'm reading a story, Woman Clones her Pitbull Named Booger - - woman clones Booger, five pitbull clones, South Korea blah blah blah, Korean cloning doctors, Dr. Hong, Dr. Lee, I get to the end of the article, and there's a mention of this woman, I believe she was identified in the article as Bernann McKinney. The suggestion that she was connected with a “sex in chains” story from 30 years ago, a story that was a gigantic tabloid story at the end of the 70s, didn't say for sure, might be a connection.
Bernann McKinney and Joyce McKinney, of course, turn out to be the same person. Of course she's connected with the story. Seven or eight months later, I had started a series for Showtime that was to be called Tabloid, and I thought, let's interview her. Let's see what happens. And she's fabulous!
JESSE THORN: When I saw her on screen I thought of Bill Clinton and how he, like many truly great politicians, has that ability to make you feel like you know him immediately upon looking into his eyes, that you're close personal friends, but also there's this element of, “What's going on inside this man?” that's really intriguing. I felt this way looking at this woman, she's such a sincere and emotional performer as a speaker, but it's also immediately very apparent that something is going on that you don't understand.
ERROL MORRIS: Agreed. To me there are two kinds of mysteries. There's the mystery of what really happened, say, the shooting of the Dallas police officer, who pulled the trigger? Who committed the crime? There's an even deeper mystery, the mystery of what's inside people's heads. You look at Joyce McKinney and you wonder, who is this person? Why did Joyce do all of these things? What was the idea behind it? What motivated her? What was she hoping to achieve?
JESSE THORN: You have this ex-Mormon in the film called Troy Williams. He's a sort of former-Mormon-gay-activist from the Chiron that's on top of him, and he describes in the film some of the scenarios of what might have happened in this situation, and I want to play that here.
I get the impression from this, from reading our recently - - we just got your pre-publication version of your new book. One of the things that strikes me about it is that you are into the mystery part. The first 50 pages of this book, which is about the relationship between truth and photography essentially, is an examination of this one iconic photograph that involves you flying to the Crimea, which I, frankly, only have a vague understanding of what the Crimea is as a place. It's sort of like if you said Mexican Riviera, I would be like, okay, I vaguely have some idea, it's in Mexico I think. But, you fly to the Crimea to borrow a cannonball from a museum and put it out on a field that you tricked a guy to taking you to and photographing it from different angles to try and figure out what time of day this picture was taken from in the 19th century. So it seems like one of the things that you must get a kick out of is just following those steps, pulling strings until the whole sweater is unraveled.
ERROL MORRIS: Absolutely. It's following an obsessive trail no matter where it might lead -- no matter what. Maybe that's one of the reasons I like Joyce McKinney so much and this story of obsessive love. I like to think I share some of that obsessiveness. I remember years ago there was a Sinclair Lewis adaptation of his novel Dodsworth with Walter Huston and Mary Astor. There was this line, and I always loved that line, “Love should stop somewhere short of insanity.” I remember at the time thinking, why? Why does love have to stop short of insanity? Why not go all the way? This certainly is a story of love that does not, with emphasis, does not stop short of insanity.
JESSE THORN: I'll talk with acclaimed director Errol Morris about one of the high points of his career, his Miller High Life commercials, after the break. It's The Sound of Young America from MaximumFun.org and PRI, Public Radio International.
It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest is the documentarian Errol Morris. His new film combines the high mindedness of a consideration of how narrative shapes our understanding of the world, and a sex-in-chains story. It's called Tabloid.
I want to ask you about something goofy, which is how your career and your reputation have been built on your amazing documentary films, but a significant part of how you earn your living is directing commercials, like a lot of independent film directors. You've created some really remarkable commercials, and there's one series I remember where you opened your website and had some of your work on a reel, a commercial reel on your website or something like that.
ERROL MORRIS: Still do.
JESSE THORN: I saw the clips and thought, oh, Errol Morris directed those, that's why they were like that. And that's a campaign for Miller High Life. I'm going to play the audio of one of these commercials called “Olive Loaf.”
ERROL MORRIS: I sometimes think my movies will become completely forgotten. No one will watch them, no one will know about them. But what will survive, ultimately, is my Miller High Life commercials. They're really really good. The writing is extraordinary. I got what we call The Jeffs; Jeff Kling, Jeff Selis, Jeff Williams. It was Errol and The Jeffs that created over 150 Miller High Life commercials. We often wonder, how is it that they let us do this? I think there's a simple answer: no one was really watching. No one really cared. And by the time they did care we'd already done a lot of remarkable work. I'm very proud of them, and I tell Jeff Kling, who wrote “Olive Loaf” among many of these commercials, that he might have written the greatest line since Shakespeare in a commercial about Miller High Life and duct tape. The voice over is, “If the Pharaoh's had duct tape, the Sphinx would still have a nose.” It's very good writing.
JESSE THORN: It looks like a color photograph from the 60s, like a Instamatic or a snapshot. It has those colors in it, and like a lot of these commercials, you see only pieces, especially of the people. And it's usually men, beer commercials are usually targeted at men, but it's like an over the shoulder shot from the base of the neck to the middle of the sternum. Little pieces of things is what you see.
ERROL MORRIS: I'm very much interested in breaking the rules. Probably checked all those bad boxes on my report card in elementary school, fails to pay attention, won't sit still, causes trouble in class. Breaking the rules does interest me. Breaking the documentary rules, breaking rules of photography, of story-telling. Trying to create something hopefully that works, but something different.
There's a lot of rule breaking in Miller High Life that I'm quite proud of. The way people are framed, you pick a frame and you do it all wrong; you do something completely different. The things that you'd normally cut out, you leave them in. People love to control things. Feature film making is, by and large, about control. Do this, don't do that. Stand here, don't stand there. Don't get me wrong, there's control in my movies as well, but I'm really interested in mistakes; things that are not completely in control; accidents. All of that stuff makes film really interesting. I often think of it as taxidermy. You control too much and you end up with something that is unreal and lifeless. The goal is to bring it back to life.
JESSE THORN: I like to listen to this public radio show out of KCRW here in Los Angeles called The Treatment, hosted by Elvis Mitchell, and he interviews a lot of film makers.
ERROL MORRIS: Sure, I've been on it.
JESSE THORN: It's a really wonderful program and he's a brilliant interviewer, but I often think they should have the equivalent of a swear jar when a feature film maker says, I really think of myself as a story-teller. At this point, I think eight out of 10 have a part where they say, “I think of myself as a story-teller.”
ERROL MORRIS: How about this, I think of myself as a failed story-teller.
JESSE THORN: Your new movie Tabloid isn't just telling a story, essentially it's a story about story-telling.
ERROL MORRIS: Uh oh. Now I'm going to lose whatever audience I got from this show, it's gone now.
JESSE THORN: People who were like, Oh, I remember those Miller High Life commercials, those were great! But it is, you have openly discussed subscribing to tabloids, and tabloids are - -
ERROL MORRIS: Wait a minute, I openly subscribe to tabloids, I love tabloids.
JESSE THORN: Yes, and tabloids are about story-telling above all else. Depending on the tabloid, they have various degrees of grounding in the truth.
ERROL MORRIS: Simplified story-telling. Story-telling almost in the abstract. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the tabloid idea is, if you can't hook somebody four or five or six words in, game over. You've got to work fast, you have to be succinct. You might call tabloid story-telling story-telling ground zero. It's the essence of it. I do something a little bit different, I hope I'm not confessing to something that's going to get me into trouble. It's really as you described, I'm very much interested in how stories are constructed. I like tabloid stories, but I also like sneaking a peak behind the curtain of looking at how tabloid stories come to be, how they're manufactured. It's a way for giving us perspective on narrative, on stories, on the relationship between, and this is one of my fiends, certainly something that interests me, the relationship between stories and the truth. Do stories blind us to the truth? Do they help us see the truth? Do we really need stories in order to survive? What would life be without them? How would we ever navigate the chaos of reality without some way of taking all of these crazy experiences and details and making sense of them.
JESSE THORN: Some of my favorite public radio shows, This American Life - -
ERROL MORRIS: You know, I'm doing a feature film with Ira Glass.
JESSE THORN: That's tremendous!
ERROL MORRIS: Based on a story that was reported on This American Life. We're movie partners, I don't know if we're joined quite at the hip.
JESSE THORN: Well, This American Life is a show that is more dedicated to the narrative form than basically anything ever. Another one of my favorite public radio shows is a show called On the Media. When I listen to those, one of the things that is always coming up in my head is wondering about how that human craving for narrative shapes the world – shapes the way we, not just process information, but what information even that we process.
ERROL MORRIS: In countless ways that we can't even imagine. Stories are so powerful that we exclude informational evidence because it doesn't conform to the story that we have in mind, the story that we feel most comfortable with, the story that we wish to believe. Stories may even be more powerful than the world around us.
JESSE THORN: That's serious stuff you're rolling out here Errol Morris.
ERROL MORRIS: Eh.
JESSE THORN: Well Errol, thank you so much for taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America.
ERROL MORRIS: This has been a truly interesting discussion, I enjoyed it. Thank you.
JESSE THORN: Director, Errol Morris. His film, Tabloid, is now in limited release and it's entering wide release later this month. If you want to watch his Miller High Life commercials, which I highly recommend, you can find them online at ErrolMorris.com.
Our transcripts are provided by Sean Sampson. If you're interested in contacting him for transcription work, email him here.