TABLOID – An Interview With Legendary Filmmaker ERROL MORRIS, Plus Trailer and Showtimes

“It’s not that the truth is subjective or that the truth is unknowable, it’s that we don’t want to know it! Fuck the truth!” – Errol Morris

Errol Morris‘ (The Thin Blue Line, Standard Operating Procedure) latest documentary, Tabloid, about a former Miss Wyoming who is charged with abducting and imprisoning a young Mormon Missionary, is set to hit San Francisco Landmark Theatres on Friday, July 15th.

I caught up with Errol Morris at this year’s SFIFF to discuss his latest film, music, Werner Herzog, and the nature of truths.  Click the jump to read the interview and see the film’s trailer.

Tom Ellis: You started out with a musical background.

Errol Morris: I certainly have done music for a whole number of years. I was telling someone last night about how I haven’t played the cello for years. I was doing a series of commercials for Apple with Yo-Yo Ma, and I interviewed him. And Yo-Yo Ma showed up at the studio with his cello, with his Strad. I had my video gear – I had my Interrortron. I still have all of the material, we were shooting in 35, I still have all of the material in 35. [Julie Ahlberg, Morris’ producer walks in; this to her:] I’m telling the story about how I started playing the cello again.

Julie Ahlberg: I was there!

EM: Were you there?

JA: Yes. It’s been a long road Errol. Why don’t you talk about the movie?

EM: He asked me! He wanted to start with other stuff. To make a long story short we had a conversation about movies, and then I told him I played the cello and studied at Juilliard and, in fact, I studied with the same teachers that he had. And he asked me to play his Strad; I hadn’t been playing in… well, off and on a tiny bit, but I hadn’t really been practicing in 20 or 30 years. And I played part of a Cello Suite by Fauré. I started taking lessons and I’ve been taking lessons now for at least six years. I practice on weekdays for probably six hours a day.

TE: Have you considered recording music for one of your own films?

Philip Glass and Errol Morris

EM: I tell you, Danny Elfman let me play the cello on the soundtrack for “Standard Operating Procedure”. Recently the Seattle University professor Charlie Nelson decided to make a documentary about me. I told him this story – I was making “A Brief History of Time”; I was trying very, very hard to get Hawking’s first wife, estranged wife, when they were not formally divorced yet, to be interviewed. She wouldn’t. I went over her house where she was living at that time with a harpsichordist. I said I played the cello – perhaps that was a big mistake – and they asked me to play for them. One of the children had been a cellist and had a cello; they had a cello in the house, and they dragged out cello, with a copy of the Fauré “Elegie”, and asked me to play. The Fauré “Elegie” is not all that easy. And I played badly. (Laughs) And she wouldn’t give me the interview. I always thought that maybe if I played it a little bit better I would have gotten it. And so I told this story for Charlie’s documentary, and he asked if I would play it for it. I haven’t quite done it yet but I’m planning to it sometime in the next month. I’ve been working at it.

TE: You’ve often worked with Philip Glass, how’s that been?

EM: We worked on a film together for IBM, very recently. He did a great job. All the composers I’ve worked with I really like.

TE: How did you begin your filmmaking career?

Errol Morris with Werner Herzog

EM: By accident really. I started out at the other side of the film world. I helped out at the Pacific Film Archive, which remains an influential part of my life. And in Berkeley I was going nowhere fast, as a graduate student in the philosophy department. I met, at the Archives, Werner Herzog. I worked on one of his movies…

TE: Which one?

EM: “Stroszek”. I eventually decided I should make a movie of my own. That also came out of the Bay Area – “Gates of Heaven”. So it was nothing planned or calculated, it kind of happened. Like a lot of things in life.

TE: And so the legends of Herzog eating the shoe because of your film, are they…

EM: Yeah, I’ve often told Werner… his shoe eating… I don’t even remember the bet. One thing is absolutely certain. It’s not because of Herzog eating his shoe, it’s because I was inspired by the work. There’s a line I’m very, very fond of. It came up in an interview with Gabriel García Márquez in a Paris Review interview. He was talking about the experience of reading Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” for the first time. He said: “I didn’t know you were allowed to do that, I didn’t know you were allowed to just transform someone into a gigantic beetle.”

Seeing a lot of movies at the PFA, a lot of documentaries at the PFA… and Herzog’s early documentaries… I had this sort of American idea of documentaries. That of being journalism, with a journalistic proponent being a very big part of it. The other big part of it, of course, is the tradition of cinéma vérité.

Well, aside from many of the documentaries that I saw at the PFA, like Vigo’s “À propos de Nice”, Herzog’s documentaries were very different from anything I had ever seen before. “The Land of Silence and Darkness”, “Ecstacy of the Great Sculptor Steiner”… They really were, for want of a better way to describe them, “art films”. They all have a kind of journalistic component, but that was not what was standing in the front row in any of his films. They were all expressionistic and personal. And I didn’t know you were allowed to do that. I didn’t know you were allowed to make films like that.

For me, in my life, that was the wake up. It represented a kind of filmmaking that was not about getting a Hollywood production, not about being some studio executive; it was about making movies. And about making movies that were actually about yourself, about how you see the world, what interests you. And that to me was the biggest lesson that I learned from him.

I’ve been a troubled filmmaker for years. I couldn’t write, couldn’t get control of the pay of funding the ideas that I could write. For my entire thirties, it was kind of a disaster. I had this idea, “Vernon, FL”… I couldn’t get funding to pay for anything. No one wanted to have anything to do with my movies.

TE: “Vernon, FL”, by the way, is a little gem I think.

EM: Well, thank you. I had all of these tabloid ideas, by the way, during this time. I remember proposal after proposal to public broadcasting. I wanted to do… stories from the Weekly World News, the National Enquirer…

TE: Rest In Peace, Weekly World News…

EM: Yeah. It’s terrible.

TE: How will we know about the Batboy?

EM: That’s what I was going to say. Who now will warn of him, the Batboy? Batboy escapes prison. Who will tell us about him?

TE: Maybe this is your next film…

EM: Well, you know. (Laughs) I wouldn’t rule it out.

TE: Let’s talk about your upcoming film, “Tabloid”.

EM: “Tabloid” has always been part of my interests. One of the things that drew me to Vernon, Florida, as a city, is the tabloids for it.

TE: Since we don’t have too much time – it seemed to me the main theme of “Tabloid”, other than the ridiculousness and absurdity is the entire story, while being human, is that the film seemed to show to me that we can never quite grasp the truth.

EM: You know, I hear this kind of thing. I think it’s actually wrong. There are simple kinds of facts. Let’s not forget, I’m telling a true story. Presumably a story… if you prefer calling it a “real story”, a story that actually happened, fine. Was Joyce McKinney a beauty queen? She was. Did she fall in love with Kurt Anderson? She did. Did he end up leaving her for missionary work in England? He did. I don’t think you can counter that.

TE: Those ones, true.

EM: Yeah. It’s all true. Check, check, check. Was she incarcerated? Yes, she was. True. Did she take tissue from her deceased pit bull, Booger, and have him cloned in Seoul, South Korea? Check, she did. So, all of these are part of a story that I think we can agree happened. But then there’s another set of questions we might add. For example, did she rape Kurt Anderson, did she take Kurt Anderson against his will? Did she kidnap him against his will? Now, those questions do have true or false answers, but we are getting to an area of the nature of evidence – what kind of evidence do I have – the evidence is kind of sketchy.

There was a love cottage. Who was in the love cottage? Kurt, Joyce, and this weirdo friend of hers who followed her everywhere she went – K.J. K.J., who is dead, and unavailable to be interviewed, as far as I know. By current means, it would be difficult and extremely unlikely.

TE: [Laughs] Unless you are like the summoner from “Rashomon”.

EM: Yeah, the summoner… If we were to do the “Rashomon” we would definitely have the spector, K.J., appearing in the courtyard narrating his story, which would be very funny; I love the idea of it.

One aside – I wrote a part of an essay for the New York Times, which I’ve always wanted to expand to something longer: I wrote something on the Rashomon of Rashomons, my theory that Rashomon is not Rashomon-like. Because in Rashomon, when we watch the movie, we really know what happened. Kurosawa has given us enough evidence that we can actually pick one of those scenarios. Rashomon is always taken as a metaphor for the subjectivity of truth and the unknowability of truth, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. I would take it somewhat differently. Rashomon for me – my Rashomon – is that people have invested interest in not knowing the truth, avoiding the truth, effacing the truth, turning away from the truth. It’s not that the truth is subjective or that the truth is unknowable, it’s that we don’t want to know it! Fuck the truth! We avoid the truth like the plague. It’s like the spector of the truth is the worst spector; it haunts mankind.

So, you could look at many of my films, “Tabloid” in particular, as essays on the avoidance of truth. It’s the flipside, if you like, or Errol’s interpretation of the “Rashomon” idea.


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