Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood

Errol Morris knows that the luck of the Gods is with him. Suddenly, Brit tabloids are all over the media, and his new doc Tabloid is far more au courant than it might otherwise have been. Tabloid is a rare delight that does not have all the answers. Morris keeps us guessing.

Last Friday we did an opening night Q & A (transcribed below) at the Landmark, which was not attended by Morris's subject, Joyce McKinney, who had flown off to Utah to do a Q & A with the networks there. Honestly, I enjoyed having Morris all to myself. Anyone who has seen his features, shorts and commercials or read his NYT blog knows that Morris is not only smart and provocative, but quite witty.

Thompson on Hollywood

The filmmaker and I go way back, to my first interview with him for the LA Weekly at the time of The Thin Blue Line. Later I talked to him at Sundance about A Brief History of Time, interviewed him about how he crammed 130 nominees into his 2007 four-minute Oscar short, did an Apple Store Q & A for the Abu Ghraib doc Standard Operating Procedure, and flip-cammed him in Toronto for Tabloid, which was eventually acquired by Sundance Selects.

When Morris first showed McKinney Taboid, she was aghast. That's because he wasn't telling her story strictly from her point-of-view, Morris says. Among others, Morris includes two writers for the British tabs, who recount their McKinney tales with obvious relish, even affection. All the men in this movie seem to be besotted with the dominatrix siren who kidnapped and tied up her beloved, Mormon Kirk Anderson, in a "honeymoon" cottage--and so is Morris. He believes that it is quite possible that McKinney, who embodies both Madonna and whore, might technically still be a virgin.

You'd have to see the movie--which delves into McKinney's "sex and chains" scandal--to know why that is an outrageous claim. For those who suggest that this doc is Morris Light--after all he won an Oscar for his Robert McNamara doc The Fog of War--I say let the man go light every now and then. "It does not strike me as a slight story at all," he responds. "A very, very funny story at times. A very sad story at times. But a story rich, complex and involving--a theme which is really as old as history: Doomed love. What's slight about that?"

Anne Thompson: Joyce McKinney has a gift for getting people to pay attention to her, doesn't she?

Errol Morris: Very early on in the editing of this film, at a screening someone said, 'Joyce is so crazy,' and I pointed out that she was no crazier than any of the men in this movie, including myself I might add…compulsively following her about, in my case making a movie about her.

AT: When you first started, you looked at a Boston Globe article that was about her cloning her dog?

EM: That's correct, the story that started with the cloning and ended with a possible connection to a 30-year old sex in chains story, with a woman who had cloned her pitbull Booger, was identified as Bernan McKinney, and there was the suggestion at the end of the article that Bernan McKinney might be, dare I say it, Joyce McKinney. So it's that combination of A and B, and it's what makes this movie mysterious. Joyce herself seems perplexed by that very question. At some point in the movie she complains, 'I don't see what dog cloning has to do with a 32-year old sex in chains story.' To me they've always been essential. I can't imagine this movie without both of them. And I knew the movie was working fairly late in the game, I had screenings, I asked audiences, 'do you see any connection between dog cloning and a sex and chains story?" When a woman seated in the front row, in response to the question said, 'of course they're connected; she finally got pregnant!' (laughter). So there ya go.

AT: You had to track McKinney down. Where did you find her?

EM: I found her first with her parents, in North Carolina. That's when the story first appeared, and she did not want to be interviewed by me, boo hoo. And a good part of a year went by and I was hired by Showtime to do a series that I had proposed, called Tabloid. This would be the pilot. And we called Joyce who was at that point in Southern California and she agreed to come in for an interview. I met her once, we interviewed for part of the day. And I didn't see her again for a year, first at a screening before Telliuride in New York, a surprise visit by Joyce and Booger Han, and then twice this last week at two screenings in Los Angeles.

AT: And what was her reaction?

EM: She got very, very angry, and started threatening litigations. It is one of my theories by the way that there must be a purpose to human life. We can't be here for absolutely no reason. And my theory, is that the purpose is litigation (laughter). The opportunity to sue and in turn be sued by others.

AT: But you seem very fond of her.

EM: I like Joyce! Very very much. She's my kind of girl (laughter).

AT: And the camera likes her. You've said that she's the best interview you've ever done. What did you mean by that?

EM: I've done a lot of interviews over the years, and there's this idea that documentaries really aren't directed, particularly interviews, there's an idea that I sit there like some kind of baked potato and wait for something interesting to be said. But the truth of the matter is that an interview is like any kind of relationship you might imagine between two people, and you want it to come alive. You want something to be happening. And Joyce was just remarkable. I don't even know how to explain it. She went through a whole range of characters, emotions. I remember years ago being really fascinated by Peter Sellers' performance in the beginning of Lolita, because he actually seems to be about thirty or forty people sequentially and sometimes simultaneously. I don't think I'd seen anything quite like it until I met Joyce McKinney and I did this interview.

AT: How long did the interview take, and tell us about the Interratron.

EM: The Interratron, my interviewing machine, named by my wife because it combines two essential words, interview and terror. It's a system of modified teleprompters that allows someone to look at my image on a half-silvered mirror, and to look into the lens of the camera at the same time. It's really two cameras, two half-silvered mirrors cross-connected.

AT: How far away are you? You seem to be yelling.

EM: I'm not all that far away. People became aware of my yelling in The Fog of War, but that was because McNamara was hard of hearing (laughter) and I needed to communicate with him. Maybe I kind of like yelling. I get excited.

AT: So how long did it take?

EM: Probably five, six hours, maybe a little longer. All in one go. It's usually best to do this quickly. I don't like to talk to people in advance of interviewing them, because I think it wrecks the interview when someone's told you a story and you ask to repeat it, it's never going to be as good as it was the first time around, so why not avoid that altogether? I had never really met her face to face, I had talked to her a number of times briefly on the phone and this was the first real meeting. She came in, she sat down and she told me her story. And a remarkable story it is.

AT: So she's a con artist, an actress, and a performer.

EM: And--correct me if I'm wrong--a true romantic. I hear that this is supposedly a 'slight' story, and excuse me, I take umbrage. Yeah, it's not Robert S. McNamara, the former secretary of defense, pointing his finger and talking about the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse. It's not about the possible end of the world. But it does not strike me as a slight story at all. A very, very funny story at times. A very sad story at times. But a story rich, complex, involving a theme which is really as old as history: Doomed love. What's slight about that?

AT: Where did you get that movie that she shot of herself?

EM: Remarkable footage, by a Utah filmmaker called Trent Harris, which we stumbled upon. He had wanted to make a film about Joyce and had shot a lot of material. This was shortly after she had returned to the United States. The dailies--of course I could not include all the dailies in this movie--the dailies are amazing. He shot himself picking out a suit, shirt and tie for his interview with Joyce.

AT: Another one of her swains.

EM: Exactly. So there is Joyce, reading from her unfinished story. And what's so amazing because it raises questions that I am really not prepared to answer, and that frighten me. When she's telling her story, she's essentially describing the next thirty years of her life. That it all comes true--is that what we all do? We create a script for our lives and then we re-enact it? Year by year by year by year, until we drop dead? I have a book in my library with a very appealing title-- Self Fulfilling Prophecies --and I would show the book to people and I would say, 'You know I've always known I was going to have a book with that title in my library.' (laughter) This is true by the way. But no…is this what it is?! Just enacting some kind of script written by ourselves in advance?

AT: So after telling us this whole story about how she was making love on the bed with the kidnapped Mormon in the honeymoon cottage in Devon, does she actually look at you straight-faced and say that she was a virgin?

EM: I was asked recently, did I really care about the factual underpinnings of this story? And shouldn't I have asked Joyce very difficult questions about her sexuality. And I didn't. I have this concept that I call anti-curiosity. How much will it cost me to know less? That's not really the case here, but there is a mystery, and I'm not sure that the mystery is resolved by asking a series of pointed questions. I gave a lecture recently about how I've uncovered some amazing things with a movie camera, and not by asking difficult questions or by putting anybody on the spot. They simply come out of a relationship and a willingness on my part to listen. With Joyce, we may never know. KJ is dead. He's not talking to me. Kirk received many registered letters and--big surprise--did not respond. Will I ever know what happened in that love cottage? There's that weirdness that came out of the one tabloid reporter when he says that she never had sex with anybody, at least not in the Bill Clinton sense. And I kind of believe it to be true.

AT: Whoa. She still seems to be very invested in keeping her good name. That seems to be part of her anger at the movie and at you.

EM: When told at these recent screenings that people really liked her? She seemed completely relieved. I think that's the best way to describe it.

AT: When she came the other night, she seemed friendly?

EM: Yes! Here are some of her complaints. Some of them I am sympathetic with and some of them I'm really not all that sympathetic with. She would have preferred if the movie had been 100% Joyce McKinney, with no other interviews (laughter). Sorry. I could say that it would be remiss on my part not to tell the story fully, or more fully than it would have been told with Joyce alone. She wanted it to be a screed against the Mormon Church. Someone suggested I call it RashoMormon (laughter). I buy her argument that her life was in part destroyed by the church, part destroyed by the tabloid press. But I don't really quite buy the argument that she was a complete victim, she was not a participant in all of this. I find that harder to accept. She also at one of the screenings commented that the movie is funny. And I said, 'Joyce, you are really funny, one of the funniest people that I have ever met. When you said a woman can't rape a man, it'd be like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter, can you really tell me that you didn't think that was funny?'

Audience: Was it proven that someone poisoned the dog?

EM: I'd like to tell this particular audience I'm not sure that the dog was poisoned but if it was I want to make it clear that I had nothing to do with it.

Audience: How did she support herself?

EM: I don't know. Her answer has been that she received a massive insurance claim from an accident that she had at the time. This is a strange case for me. I like to think of myself as a dogged investigator. I still am. When I made The Thin Blue Line over 20 years ago, I spent close to three years investigating a case that had closure. The more I found out about it, the more it became clear that this man who had been sentenced to death in the death of a Dallas police officer, it became clear he didn't do it, and I started following the person I thought did it and got a confession from him. I got an innocent man out of jail, and got a confession from real killer, that doesn't happen every day. There's a sense of closure when these mysteries are heading toward some kind of resolution. But there are other kinds of mysteries: the further you go into them the messier andn more confusing they become. One deep mystery at the heart of this movie is the mystery of ourselves, of personality, what's inside our heads. Who is Joyce McKinney, who I still find to be a truly mysterious character?

AT: It's about what she wants to believe about herself?

EM: I think she wants to believe that she's a relatively simple person, she had a simple kind of love and simple kind of quest. If you asked her, she would say something close to that. I see her very differently.

Audience: But who would go and clone her dog? She perceives herself as a victim but she is a strong and controlling person.

EM: I think she is an extraordinarily strong kind of person. I'm sorry, but I find her perplexing, baffling--and still interesting. I thought at one point before meeting Joyce McKinney, I always thought love involved two people or maybe three or four. With Joyce there's that possibly that love involves only one, a strange solipsistic nightmare.

Audience: Why did she choose this particular guy as the object of her affection?

AT: And where did his footage come from?

EM: Would I have picked Kirk Anderson? There's lots of footage out there, this was a tremendous cause celebre in the 70s in Great Britain. Here's something to think about: maybe we should end with this. History and true crime-- and Tabloid is a version of history-- is perishable. We know about things because of evidence, stories people tell, documents that have been filed, transcripts, etc. So much is missing in this story. The photographs that vanished, the trunks of stuff taken from her car. We were never able to get transcripts of the proceedings in Britain. Lost files, missing documents and people who won't talk or can't talk, as in the case of KJ, who I would have loved to interview--but I can't.