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Interview: Errol Morris Talks The Anxiety Of Making 'Tabloid' & Finding The Laughter In His Films

The Playlist By Christopher Bell | The Playlist July 13, 2011 at 10:27AM

In a time where documentaries are made cheaply and are often no more than glossy, agenda-pushing propaganda bulleted lists, filmmakers like Errol Morris seem even more admirable. Starting in 1978 with the amusing "Gates of Heaven" (which followed a number of people who had beloved animals buried in a California pet cemetery), the man alternated between scrutinizing the weird and picking apart the political, triumphing in both camps due to both his respectful and prudent attitude. He even invented his own interviewing technique called the "Interrotron" which, using two-way mirrors in a similar way a teleprompter would work, allows both camps to see the face of who they are talking to while directly looking into the camera. Because of this intimacy, Morris' films not only avoid the dullness that many talking head flicks fall into, but it also constructs a very personal audience connection to each speaker. As he probes into each subject, he's never condescending, but often unearths uncomfortable truths and manages to portray each person as not just a tool to prove whatever point he's trying to make, but as a complicated human being.
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In a time where documentaries are made cheaply and are often no more than glossy, agenda-pushing propaganda bulleted lists, filmmakers like Errol Morris seem even more admirable. Starting in 1978 with the amusing "Gates of Heaven" (which followed a number of people who had beloved animals buried in a California pet cemetery), the man alternated between scrutinizing the weird and picking apart the political, triumphing in both camps due to both his respectful and prudent attitude. He even invented his own interviewing technique called the "Interrotron" which, using two-way mirrors in a similar way a teleprompter would work, allows both camps to see the face of who they are talking to while directly looking into the camera. Because of this intimacy, Morris' films not only avoid the dullness that many talking head flicks fall into, but it also constructs a very personal audience connection to each speaker. As he probes into each subject, he's never condescending, but often unearths uncomfortable truths and manages to portray each person as not just a tool to prove whatever point he's trying to make, but as a complicated human being.

That said, the "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control" director had his work cut out for him when he embarked on telling the Joyce McKinney story in "Tabloid." Former beauty queen McKinney was in love with Mormon Kirk Anderson, but their romance was cut short when Anderson mysteriously broke ties and flew to England to do missionary work. McKinney then made headlines in her quest to bring Anderson back and de-brainwash him, which meant strapping him to a bed and having sex with him for an entire weekend. Arrested for kidnapping, McKinney became the darling of the Brit tabloids but eventually the story ran its course and McKinney disappeared from view. Years later, McKinney would be back in the news for entirely different reasons in a final act twist that comes completely out of nowhere. It's a capper to a story that is just too outrageous to have been made up, and if you're looking for a documentary that moves in completely bold, unexpected and hilarious directions, "Tabloid" fits the bill.

Morris was nice enough to sit with The Playlist and discuss his new film, the nervousness that accompanies making a movie, and the ever-present humor in his entire oeuvre. "Tabloid" rolls out this Friday.


The Playlist: "Tabloid" is such an enjoyable film to watch, was it at all fun making it?
Errol Morris: It wasn’t what I would call “fun,” because there’s always the anxiety of whether a movie’s going to work at all... whether it’s going to be good, whether it will make sense. There are endless anxieties in putting a film together, and it’s an enormous relief when you know it’s working with an audience. This is an interesting movie to edit, certainly, but it’s all flying by the seat of your pants. There really is no reason why this kind of film should work, it is all editing.

Being so unsure of how things will turn out in the end, do you live for the pleasant surprise of a film finally becoming something? Or some quality moment popping out in the editing room?
I do. I mean, it’s one of the great pleasures to see something actually come together and work. But there is that anxiety of not knowing whether it will ever happen.

How do you know when you’re done with a film? With these kind of subjects, it seems like endless opportunities.
Movies are hard to finish, and they start to gel at a certain point, they take a certain shape. I don’t know how much more you could really cram into this movie, in particular. If I were to have more characters, or if I suddenly got an interview with Kirk Anderson... would I put it in as a DVD extra, would I try to integrate it in? I don’t think so, the movie's done and it was really hard to make it work as a movie. The minute you start to cram other stuff into it, it changes it. Everything becomes different. Not to mention that you have to change the soundtrack. (laughs)

There have been festival screenings where McKinney has showed up, unannounced, and given some unfiltered commentary. What’s it like having Joyce pop up everywhere?
She popped up in Austin for South by Southwest... in Florida at Sarasota... at Seattle... and I wasn’t at any of those festivals. So, asking me what it was like is sort of strange because I wasn’t there. I was there with her in Los Angeles doing an hour and a half Q&A with the audience... that was pretty strange.

But you must hear about it. Are you surprised by her behavior?
I’m not surprised by anything, really, at this point. I don’t know whether Joyce will be there tonight, I believe we offered to send her here but.. don’t know!

How hard did you work for a Kirk Anderson interview?
I used to work as a private detective, and the term is “doorstepping” people. I didn’t do that, I didn’t go to Utah and hang out on the block where he lives. But we sent him registered letters and said that we very much wanted to hear his point of view, and if necessary we’d go to Utah... but short of doing what Joyce did, or might have done, abducting him, etc. I think we did all that we could do.

Considering what he went through, were you less pushy in trying to court him?
Let’s just put it this way: I can think of a thousand reasons why Kirk Anderson wouldn’t want to talk to us. And then it begs the question, will the story work without him? And if I feel it does, and then you accept the inevitable. It’s just not going to happen. And make the movie work without it. It’s probably arguable that the movie is better without him. Who knows! You can’t know!

Though while we were talking I had this weird fantasy, like what if I, endeavoring to get Kirk Anderson into my movie, did what Joyce did. I kidnapped him, chloroformed him, strapped him to the bed, SPREAD EAGLE... (points) Now you’ll talk!

So the film has a lighter touch than your other documentaries...
What is this lighter touch? It sounds like “touched by an angel” or something. That’s a light touch, right? You ever notice when they say “touched by an angel,” they never tell you where. Well I think all of my movies are funny... but maybe I’m delusional.

Hmm…was “Standard Operating Procedure” funny?
Maybe not so funny. [Laughs] We had a couple of funny characters which we removed... big mistake. “Standard Operating Procedure”.... such an odd movie. Which I’m really glad I made, but I wish more people had seen it... but I’m glad to be making a funny movie. “Gates of Heaven” was a really funny movie, which I think is hard for people to imagine when they haven’t seen it with a big audience.

"Tabloid" hits theaters on July 15th.

This article is related to: Documentarian, Interview, Tabloid, Errol Morris


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