Sensational

07.15.11

Errol Morris’ Sensational ‘Tabloid’ Doc

Sex in chains? Mormons? Porn? Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris talks to Marlow Stern about his new movie, the News of the World hacking scandal, and why we love the yellow press.

It was billed as “the quintessential tabloid story.” Sex in chains. Mormon missionaries. A crazy beauty queen. Pornography. Back in 1977, the “Mormon sex in chains case” centered on a young, 300-pound missionary named Kirk Anderson who went missing in Surrey, England. Several days later, Anderson turned up with a story that was hard to believe: He claimed he was abducted outside of his Latter-day Saints church by Joyce Bernann McKinney, a stunning, blond, former Miss Wyoming, driven to a tiny cottage in Devon, tied spread eagle to a bed, and raped seven times over three days.

McKinney, meanwhile, claimed that she and Anderson were in love, the sex was consensual, and he had been brainwashed by the Mormon Church into crafting this outlandish tale. Regardless of what really happened, it became one of the biggest tabloid stories to ever hit the U.K., with nearly every publication jockeying for a different angle on the story. The Daily Mirror went digging into McKinney’s past, discovering that she used to be a call girl and nude model, and ran naked photos of McKinney on their cover for a week; The Daily Express ran an exclusive interview with McKinney, portraying her as a wronged saint; and Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun, not to be outdone, doctored a photo of McKinney for their cover story—placing her head on someone else’s naked body.

McKinney turned up in the news again many years later when, in 2008, she made front-page headlines under the alias “Bernann McKinney,” for having her pet dog cloned in Korea. The story, which made reference to the “sex in chains” case, landed on Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’ (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) computer screen. And just like that, Morris (who got the idea for his debut feature documentary about a pet cemetery, Gates of Heaven, from a San Francisco Chronicle headline that read, “450 DEAD PETS GOING TO NAPA VALLEY”) knew he’d found his next documentary subject.

In a year that’s seen sobriquet-ready tabloid scandals involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Anthony Weiner, Casey Anthony, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Mormon invasion, and now, Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World’s hacking scandal, Morris’ Tabloid, now in theaters, couldn’t be timelier. The filmmaker dished to The Daily Beast about his bizarre film, why we love tabloids, his favorite scandals, the News of the World fiasco, his upcoming Hollywood debut feature with Paul Rudd, and much, much more.

You’ve had a fascination with tabloid stories since your debut film, Gates of Heaven. What attracts you to tabloid stories?

What draws everybody to tabloid stories? I don’t think it’s just sensationalism. Tabloid stories are essential stories that grab hold of us; they speak to us, for whatever reason. Yes, there’s the lurid, sensational element, but there’s something at least for me, and I think it’s true of other people as well, that draws me in and makes me want to know more.

How did you stumble upon the “sex in chains” case?

I don’t remember the story’s first incarnation in the ‘70s. I first heard about it from an AP wire service story that appeared in the Boston Globe about [Joyce’s] dog cloning. [There was] dog cloning, “Bernann” McKinney, and at the end of the story, the possibility that “Bernann” McKinney was Joyce McKinney, and a mention of the “sex in chains” story.

Joyce McKinney gives one hell of a “performance” in this film. How did you convince her to tell her story?

I think you could call it a “performance.” I know that when I first approached her she was not particularly interested, and when I approached her months and months later, she was. I try not to speak to people at length before I interview them. I only interviewed her once, and I’ve only met her three times: once when I interviewed her, another when she appeared at a screening at The Skirball Center in New York, and I appeared with her in Los Angeles last weekend.

What’s your interpretation of Joyce? Is she completely delusional?

I’m not sure if I have one interpretation of Joyce. Joyce, to me, is a lot of things, and there’s a lot of unexplained stuff that will maybe never be explained. There’s missing pieces of evidence, people who are dead. KJ is a big element of the story—dead. Kirk Anderson is a big part of the story—won’t talk to me.

One of the most fascinating things about this story is that this beautiful, Wyoming beauty queen—and former call girl—would be obsessed with a 300-pound Mormon. The public is, in many ways, drawn to tabloid subjects like Casey Anthony and Amanda Knox because of their perceived level of attractiveness.

There’s a mistake going on, that some people make, that tabloid journalism is, by it’s nature, debased. What’s going on in Britain, having just read [Tina Brown’s] piece on it this morning, is the problem tabloid journalism, per se? Or is it yellow journalism—a kind of unscrupulous journalism that will stop at nothing? Telling sensationalist, lurid, even sleazy stories, to me, is fine! I don’t see the problem. In fact, I’m interested in reading those kinds of stories. There was an interesting headline in the New York Post about DSK. Do I read it? Yes. And in fact, I pick up the Post in preference to The New York Times, because I think what The New York Times is going to write about DSK is going to be less interesting than what the Post writes. When Whitey Bulger is arrested in Santa Monica, do I pick up the Boston Globe, or do I pick up The Herald? I pick up The Herald. It’s more fun. I think that’s an important part of it—tabloid papers can be really, really funny. They’ve always traded on the absurdity of storytelling and the absurdity of life. They’re entertaining.

There’s entertaining, and then there’s what the News of the World is accused of doing, such as tapping into a dead 13-year-old girl’s phone and erasing voicemails, etc.

It’s a different deal. It really is. The way I describe it, and it’s one of the central elements in the movie I made, is that in all journalism, there is a pull in two different directions—a pull to narrative storytelling creating reader interest, and on the other hand, there’s a pull to the truth; to providing some kind of faithful representation to the story the way they really are. What happens when journalism becomes completely unfettered reality is one set of problems, and then there’s a worse set of problems when people practicing so-called journalism just start committing crimes—not just manufacturing news but creating news, manipulating news, creating crimes in the course of manipulating news, and so on and so forth. That’s not tabloid journalism per se. It’s criminal behavior. Tina Brown’s essay was in fact an essay on that very sort of thing.

Your film grants interesting insight into the tabloid industry in the U.K., and the different approaches they can take to the same story. The three British tabloids in your film approach Joyce’s story in three different ways: There’s The Daily Mirror, which digs through Joyce’s risqué photos and runs those for a week straight; The Daily Express, which buys Joyce’s line of bullshit and runs a profile of her with a corresponding photo of her as a nun; and then there’s Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun, which just doctors a photo of Joyce and puts her head on top of someone else’s naked body.

Part of what makes it fascinating is there’s a tabloid war at the heart of it. As a tabloid war, the various papers are staking out turf and laying claim to one narrative versus another narrative. It’s absurd. And the essence of it, to me, is my favorite line in the movie, where Peter Tory [reporter for The Daily Express] says, “I think it was ropes but chains sounds better.” And there you have it. One of the great things about Peter Tory as an interview subject is the obvious relish he takes in saying “spread eagle.” I don’t know how many times he said it. I tried to preserve a good number of them in the movie, but he said it in the interview four, five, 10 times. The whole thing is nuts. Someone said to me, “Joyce is crazy.” I said, “Is she any crazier than any of the men in the film?” I don’t think so. Including probably me, making the film.

Is Joyce just obsessed with fame? When she flees her sentencing from the U.K., in disguise, she still manages to pack 13 suitcases full of her newspaper clippings.

The world, as we all know it, is a very strange place. Was Joyce in part a victim of the tabloids? Yes. Is she an innocent victim of the tabloids? No. I remember one of my favorite [National Enquirer] headlines when I was growing up: “Man Kills Wife, Then Carves ‘I Am Sorry’ on Her Stomach.” So they have a picture on page one, and you can kind of make out, “I Am Sorry.” Then, there’s the New York Post’s “Headless Man in Topless Bar,” and all kinds of headlines.

They had a lot of fun with the whole Anthony Weiner fiasco: “Weiner Falls on Sword”: “Weiner Pulls Out,” etc.

[Laughs] Let’s be real here: It is a kind of literature. Haiku! Tabloid sleaze as American Haiku.

Your documentary also falls in with another trend: the questionable documentary. There was Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop, Catfish, and others that leave the viewer questioning if what they see is real.

Well, you never really have a grasp on the whole truth. Sometimes you get close. The Thin Blue Line I felt I got as close as you can get—I get the killer to confess and I get the innocent guy out of prison. That’s getting close. Although I wouldn’t say that I’ve resolved all the mysteries of that story in my mind. Here, we’re missing stuff. We’re missing KJ, we’re missing an interview with Kirk. But I would have to blushingly confess and say yes, perhaps it’s part of a modern idiom where ambiguity is part of the drama of the film. I thought the Banksy film was really great. I did not think Catfish was great. To me, and I don’t particularly like documentaries, but I think some of the best work is being done in documentary. I’m a member of the Academy, and I try to vote as Best Picture even if I have to write it in. Exit Through the Gift Shop was the best film of the year. And, a couple years before that, I thought Brüno was the best picture of the year. Maybe those aren’t thought of as documentaries, but they are, and there is stuff [in Brüno] that is just so fucking brilliant. It’s worth it for those casting sessions alone.

Do you think the documentary genre is peaking right now because of the downright crazy state of the world?

All you have to do is read the Bible to know that the world has been fucking crazy for as long as people have been recording the details about it. One thing that I think is interesting, apropos of what you were saying, is part of making nonfiction, is including stuff about the relationship of the film to reality. It’s not just taken for granted. You imagine an earlier style of documentary where it’s a kind of unreflective journalism on film. Many of these newer films incorporate a perspective of the truth and falsity of what you’re watching; of how stories are constructed or sometimes manufactured; about the relationship of the storytelling to truth and falsity. One of the reasons why I think Tabloid is an interesting movie, and worth the effort to have made it, is for that reason. So what you’re saying, I think, is absolutely correct. If a movie makes you question its own veracity, that doesn’t mean it’s a dishonest movie. In fact, you could argue the opposite and say it’s more honest, because it’s telling you it’s a movie.

There are two Mormon GOP presidential candidates, the Broadway smash hit Book of Mormon, and of course, Tabloid. Why is the world so obsessed with Mormons right now?

The bigger question is: Why are Jews facilitating the Mormon moment? [Laughs] I have no idea.

Were you searching for more levity after making your Abu Ghraib documentary Standard Operating Procedure?

It got to the point where people would say that even the suggestion that I might be a funny person seemed to be ridiculous in the face of the movies I had made most recently. So, sorry, I’m a funny person. Fuck you, I’m funny!

What’s next for you?

My first book is being published on September 1, and people are approaching me about The New York Times essays wanting to turn them into books, which is amazing. I have a feature film with Paul Rudd starring as Bob Nelson. Ira Glass came to me over a year ago with a project first reported on This American Life about the first cryonics freezing. It was a segment that people really loved, we set it up as a movie, Zach Helm, who wrote Stranger Than Fiction, wrote the script, Paul Rudd is starring, and I’m directing.

Many of us are aware of your infamous bet with Werner Herzog, who had promised to—and did—eat his shoe if you completed Gates of Heaven. Do you guys still hang out together?

Of course we keep in touch! I’ve known Werner for over 40 years. He’s one of the greatest of our documentarians. We were having lunch at the Chateau [Marmont] not long after I had finished Tabloid, and he had not seen it yet. As usual, he was talking about being in one absurd place after another. He’s usually talking about Siberia or the Amazon jungle, etc. I said, “Well, that’s interesting. I was just in one of the most desolate, remote, barren places on the face of the earth.” He said, “Where was that?” I said, “Van Nuys.” It’s the opposite kind of filmmaking. I was in a studio in Van Nuys in the middle of fuckin’ nowhere with Joyce McKinney and Dr. Han [the cloning specialist].

So no more bets between you two?

We’ll see!