“Errol Morris is like a magician,” Roger Ebert once said, “and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini.”
Morris’s latest project, Wormwood, is nothing if not magical, peeling back layer after layer of political intrigue to reveal a narrative that is intensely personal.
In 1953, scientist Frank Olson died after a “jump or fall” from a 13th-story window. Wormwood centers on the incident and its aftereffects, specifically focusing on Eric Olson, who has now spent over 60 years trying to uncover the truth behind his father’s death. The further the story goes down the rabbit hole, the harder it all is to believe, though that instinct to skepticism is part of the point. How much of this is real, and how much is made up? And how much can we trust our government?
In anticipation of Wormwood’s release, I sat down to speak with Morris about the series, as well as about Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and the “Hollywood reduction” of history on film.
I know that this project was always going to be about MKUltra, but how did you come to focus on the Frank Olson story?
Well, I needed a story to focus on. I had picked a different MKUltra story to begin with. I couldn’t get the rights, so I decided I’d better find something where I could get the rights, and I knew about the Olson story. I didn’t know enough, really, about it. You have this sort of intuition that something is going to be really, really interesting. I mean, what I knew about Eric Olson is that he had been involved with a 60-year quest to determine who killed his father and why.
So you knew this before you started working on Wormwood?
Yeah. When you describe it that way—son, 60 years, father’s killer—it sounds almost like a 19th-century Russian novel. And it is, in some ways, like a 19th-century Russian novel. I started in on it, and I started off by interviewing Eric. Three days, 10 cameras, probably a total of 20 hours of interviews over three days. And that was the beginning.
When did the dramatic hook of Hamlet come into play? It’s very prominently featured throughout.
That comes from Eric. Eric writes about Hamlet. But I made it a central part of Wormwood. I even took the name Wormwood from Hamlet. I don’t know how many quotations there are from Hamlet throughout the series, but there are a fair number. I would say seven, eight, nine, maybe?
Just by virtue of having 10 cameras, there’s already something of a collage effect in the series, but Eric also talks about having studied and practiced collage therapy, which features in the interstitials. When did you decide to work that into the series’ aesthetic?
Probably early on. I’m not sure that I have answers for this, because filmmaking is problem-solving—you’re solving problems as you go along. Problems of style, problems of exposition, problems of graphic representation of one kind or another. So it’s ongoing throughout the making of it. It’s not that you lay down a set of principles and then you follow them out to some conclusion. Often, it’s a discovery process as you go along. You edit it in such a way, you look at it this way, you look at it that way. Did I know that I was going to try to combine drama and archival material in the way in which we eventually combined them in Wormwood? I didn’t. Such strange moments are discoveries, the discovery of odd things in the editorial process, because these things get made in editing. I think my job, if I had a job description, is creating enough visual material, enough interesting material to deliver it to the editors so that we can make something of it.
Right, to cut it together.
So we can cut it together in some interesting way. So, for example, maybe there was the idea that there would be these discrete sections of interview and drama and archival material, but that quickly changed to the point where you would cut from interview to drama, to archival, and back and forth constantly, as a way of telling the story. Part of it is discovering how to make it, to discover the grammar of the film, which sort of insinuates itself as you work on it.
Was there anything that particularly surprised you in that building process? I know you also mentioned it was kind of hard to get ahold of and wrangle [journalist] Sy Hersh toward the end.
Well, it was hard to get ahold of and wrangle Sy Hersh all the way through it. From very early on, I was talking to Sy Hersh and trying to persuade him to do this interview. And I would tell Sy Hersh various things, like, “Well, you were part of this story from the very beginning, it was because of your investigations into the CIA in the 1970s that we even know about this story.” Sy would bitch and complain, you know, “I’m not going to sit in some chair and toot my own horn,” and on and on. And eventually, he agreed. I couldn’t believe it. It just shows you what nagging will do. If you nag someone long enough, [adopting a whiny voice] “Please, please can I interview you? I wanna interview you!” I think Sy likes me, for whatever reason.
You ended up getting along?
I sort of realized that the more abusive he is to you, the more he may like you. It’s a sign of affection. Tough love.
If he doesn’t like you, he’s not going to waste his time.
When did that peg of “No Other Love” come in? That sort of bookends the film, and also occurs in the middle as well.
Pretty early. Well, here’s the Colby Documents. These documents that were given to the Olson family and their lawyers by William Colby, director of Central Intelligence. And the documents are really interesting. They don’t quite make sense. They tell a story. Is it the real story, is it a cover-up? What is it? But I used them as the drama. I dramatized the Colby Documents, which has to be some act of perversity, since we don’t even know if any of them are true. We don’t know what part is true, what part is false, we just don’t know! And in the Colby Documents—this is the kind of thing that I do—I’m reading the Colby Documents, I know that they’re taking [Frank] to this Broadway show, Me and Juliet. Have I ever heard of it? Uh-uh. It’s the least successful of everything that Rodgers & Hammerstein did.
Yeah, I saw the marquee and I thought, “I know Rodgers & Hammerstein, but I’ve never heard of this musical.”
Of course you haven’t! No one, no one has ever heard of it! It was a complete failure. It was their one totally unsuccessful musical. So of course I wanna hear the whole damn thing. I wanna hear the music. I know from the Colby Documents that intermission time comes, and [Frank] goes batshit crazy, he wants out. He thinks the cops are coming for him, he has an attack of some kind, either a residue of the initial dosing of LSD, or a second, or third, or fourth dosing with something or another, or maybe it’s all a lie! So, I found, somewhere on YouTube, some high school production of Me and Juliet, and I listened to it, and right at the end of act one—
Is the song?
—is the song! And there’s a Perry Como cover of “No Other Love.” And it was number one—it was this huge hit, the song was a hit.
Just the musical bombed.
The play bombed, but the song was a big hit. So I listened to the Perry Como cover of “No Other Love,” and I thought, “Wow, this is the defenestration music. This is the music that I would like to play over Frank Olson going out the window at the Statler.” It just seemed, I don’t know.
And the lyrics seem pretty apt, too.
I know, it seemed great! So that was early on. You know, I just make these things ’cause there are certain kinds of scenes that I wanna see. And that was one of them. I wanted to see the whole deal of him going out the window.
I loved it. As soon as the sequence began, I gasped while I was watching it.
Really? Oh, that’s great to hear, thank you.
So, you didn’t use the Interrotron for these interviews, and I read in a different interview about Wormwood that part of your decision to do that was because you were looking for new ways to tell true stories.
Well, new ways, but also something—I may be putting all of the metaphors in some kind of alignment. Yeah, it’s like coming to a muffler shop. Or not. The Interrotron, I used for the series called First Person, and I used it for Rumsfeld, and I used it for McNamara. And in Rumsfeld and McNamara, you had one character. So you’re sort of boring in on one person and how they see the world, so it is first person, and why not use what I consider to be the visual analog to the first person in language, the Interrotron?
But this was different. This was a different kind of story. It’s a story that depended on collage, on stapling various bits and pieces together into a tapestry. It’s a story about fragments, and I thought, “I think it would be really fantastic to shoot it with ten cameras,” to underline in some way the fragmented nature of how we see the world, and how we approach the world, and how we try to piece the world together for ourselves—how Eric tries to piece the world together, how I try to piece the world together. I got so tired of arguing with people about so-called re-enactments. This goes all the way back to The Thin Blue Line, where I’d say, “Excuse me, but isn’t consciousness the reenactment of the world inside of our heads? Isn’t it all, in some real sense, a reenactment?” We have no privileged access to reality, to the world around us. We construct the world for ourselves.
And it’s always being processed already in one way or another before it gets to our brain, I guess.
Or it’s processed in our brain.
I have to ask about perhaps the most infamous Interrotron subject, Donald Trump. What is your recollection of that experience, when you were filming him that day?
Bizarre. I was in New York City, in a studio in Manhattan, and we had a green room, or what passed for a green room, and at one time—Nick Paumgarten from The New Yorker wrote a piece about it—we had Iggy Pop, we had Jessye Norman, we had Walter Cronkite, we had Mikhail Gorbachev, and we had Donald Trump. Quite a collection of characters. And this weird mayor from some small town in Pennsylvania. He was billed as one of the youngest mayors in America. How weird. How weird, to interview Gorbachev and Trump almost back to back. The piece we used for the Oscars was about King Kong, and it was Donald Trump talking about him conquering New York, and how he could identify with that. But then, and it wasn’t used in the Oscar piece, I asked him about Citizen Kane.
That video is crazy. His answers are—it’s kind of hard to believe that he came out and said those things, but we still somehow elected him president.
It’s a cautionary tale for Trump, just the cautionary tale is you should divorce your wife and marry someone else. “Get yourself a different woman.”
I don’t think anyone else has ever thought that was the message of Citizen Kane.
Well, of course not. I mean, it’s totally revealing. It’s interesting that he somehow acknowledges that wealth might separate you from other people, but his understanding of it is so deeply shallow. It’s odd, because I was going to run it more during the campaign, and then people said, “Well, it makes him look so smart.” Now, I don’t think it makes him look smart at all, but people thought that. Do I want to, in any way, contribute to the possibility of him winning? Not so much! He’s very, very bad news for all of us. An embarrassment at best, and at worst, you know, an abomination.
Maybe also at best an abomination, but that’s not for me to say.
You just said it! And I agree with it.
At least that’s two of us, then. So you’ve also worked with somebody else who’s been in the news a lot recently, Harvey Weinstein. Do you have any recollections of when you were working with him, or what you thought back then?
Yes. I mean, was I ever sexually abused by Harvey Weinstein? No. Was Harvey monstrous? Yes. He was the distributor of The Thin Blue Line. And in many ways, I owe Harvey a debt of gratitude, because he was the only person interested in distributing my film. This was in the early years of Miramax. Now, on the other hand, one of the first things he ever said to me after I signed the contract was, “You’re gonna take 10 minutes out of this film, and if you don’t, I’ll put it on a fucking shelf, and it will never see the light of day. And if you think I care about you, or your fucking movie, I don’t.” I think it’s an important thing to remember about Harvey: Harvey could be charming, Harvey could be personable, Harvey was not stupid. I’ll leave it open, the question of whether he had good taste or not. But Harvey was really interested—and I think the sex is part of it, I don’t know, but that would be my conclusion—Harvey took enormous pleasure in humiliating people and showing people how he was more powerful than they were. That was part of the Harvey Weinstein experience. And for women, I’m sure it took the form of sex as well as other things, but it was always, “You are deeply insignificant, and I can do with you what I will.”
I hope people will watch Wormwood and it not be entirely about Harvey Weinstein. And I feel guilty, he did distribute The Thin Blue Line, but—I remember I would stay at the Mercer, and Harvey would always be at the Mercer during a certain period of time, and I would always see him going upstairs with hookers of one kind or another, or what I assume were hookers of one kind or another, but I knew nothing about him. And I’m not just one of those men who spent a lot of time around him and saw stuff that somehow I conveniently repressed. He was awful to deal with. He was a thief, a consummate thief. He stole money from people. He never honored distribution contracts, he was a nightmare to deal with. It’s amazing that he was able to do what he did for so long. It’s amazing that Donald Trump has been able to continue what he did for so long.
In slightly lighter media news, you recently wrote about Nathan For You for The New Yorker. Had you been watching the show from the beginning or is that something you caught up with recently?
I watched it for a long, long time, because of my son, Hamilton. Hamilton told me I should start watching. He said, “You’ll love it,” and I did, I love Nathan For You. And then he called me quite recently, and he told me, “The series finale is absolutely fantastic, you gotta watch it.” And so I did, and he was absolutely correct. His show is great, too, by the way. Do you watch his show?
It’s on VICE, right?
Yeah. Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia is great. Eight-part series. Six parts last year, eight parts this year.
Is there anything else that you’ve seen recently that you’ve really liked?
I see a mixture of new movies and old movies.
I’m curious if you’ve seen The Post, because that has a brief bit with McNamara.
Well, the only reason I’m interested in history is so that I can see it in movie form. Is The Post any good?
I liked it! There are some bits that are pretty clunky but it’s a nice movie, if that makes sense.
No, it doesn’t. [laughs]
It’s very morally heavy-handed, but it’s fun.
I don’t think I’m gonna see it.
That’s fair! There’s a lot of good other stuff to watch this year.
There’s plenty of other stuff to watch. I saw Three Billboards, I like Three Billboards.
I thought it was great. I love Martin McDonagh, he’s amazing.
So do I. I went to see The Pillowman when it was on Broadway! The Pillowman was great. I still have an affection—I still think it’s his best film—for In Bruges. I thought In Bruges was just absolutely fabulous. And the guy who shot In Bruges, this Danish photographer, Eigil Bryld, I’m working with him. I’m leaving for Kansas City tomorrow morning to shoot commercials, and I’m shooting with Eigil. In Bruges was great. And with my son, we sat down and watched three films over Thanksgiving: the German version of Funny Games, the Haneke. Three great movies! Georges Franju, Eyes Without a Face, Les yeux sans visage. And A Short Film About Killing by Kieślowski. Three really, really great and interesting films.
I don’t know what I feel about filmmaking. I’m excited by it, but a lot of it—there’s this phenomenon that’s going on, which is that history isn’t history until you make a movie about it. You make a movie about this, that, and the other thing, you make a movie about Dunkirk, you make a movie of Churchill standing before the House of Commons, defending Great Britain. You have a movie about Chappaquiddick! You have a movie about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. So every single thing, from the most insignificant kind of historical event to the big, grand, save-the-world kind of historical event, and The Post is very much in that category. Everything becomes grist for some kind of Hollywood reduction. Do I like it? No, I don’t like it. Do I hate it? Yeah, yeah, I hate it. Do I hate it a lot? Yeah, I hate it a lot! And why, why do I hate it? Because the study of history is the study of how we learn about history, how we form an idea of what happened in the past. Wormwood is very much about that. It has an ironic dimension about how things are hidden, covered up, lied about, revealed, and on and on and on and on. And I wanna do more projects like that. If I have to see more standard, meat and potatoes, put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other historical account, I’m going to kill myself. This is a threat! I’m just going to fucking kill myself. Am I going to see The Post? I’d rather be eviscerated by the Iroquois in public. [laughs]
I hope it doesn’t come to that!
I hope so, too.