Tabloid: Interview with Errol Morris

“If you tell a lie long enough, you learn to believe it,” says Joyce McKinney, the protagonist of Errol Morris’ new documentary, TABLOID

This line could be the centerpiece of Errol Morris’ masterful body of work. From GATES OF HEAVEN and THE THIN BLUE LINE to the Oscar-winning THE FOG OF WAR, Morris examines the lies and constructions we tell about others and the various ways we delude ourselves. With his ninth feature-length film TABLOID, he once again sends audiences into a vortex of self-delusion and human frailty with a protagonist whose story shocks, titillates and mystifies us all at once.

Back in high school, TABLOID’s Joyce McKinney read a short story by Theodore Dreiser, “The Second Choice.” In Dreiser’s story the young woman asks: “Should I wait for the man of my dreams or should I marry the man who loves me?” A conundrum posed by countless young women, but Joyce McKinney wasn’t just any young women—she was a beauty pageant queen with an IQ of 168. She didn’t want just any guy. She wanted a special guy. And so she did what any normal American girl would do—she went after him.

Favorite Genre: Sick, Sad, Funny

Says Morris: TABLOID is a return to my favorite genre—sick, sad and funny. It is a meditation on how we are shaped by the media and even more powerfully, by ourselves – by the narratives we construct in our minds that may or may not have anything to do with reality. As a young woman, Joyce made a decision never to settle, to find true love at any cost, and that’s what makes her an enduring romantic heroine. She’s bound up in a dreamscape that she has created for herself, and very little can penetrate that protective bubble. In a sense, Joyce has always been living in a movie, long before she came to star in my film.  

 

 

Outside Normal Existence

“I’ve always been attracted to tabloid stories,” says Morris. “They involve people who have stepped outside the normal parameters of human existence, but they are not so outside of our own experiences as to seem unintelligible — people who, like in the case of Joyce McKinney, have done things that are truly remarkable and even close to being unbelievable. These kinds of stories represent a kind of portal — a wormhole in reality. You can go through and discover something utterly remarkable that you would not be aware of otherwise.”

TABLOID came together in the wake of Morris’ heavy-hitting films STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE and THE FOG OF WAR – award-winning works that have placed Morris in the front ranks of documentary filmmakers. “After those serious films, we decided to go back and relocate the lighter side of Errol Morris,” says producer Julie Ahlberg. “And Errol wanted to go back to his roots, too, to GATES OF HEAVEN and VERNON, FLORIDA. The kind of thing where he finds an article in the newspaper about something weird or quirky, then gets interested in it and investigates. Which is what he does with TABLOID.” As producer Mark Lipson puts it, “We were thinking about the dark and funny aspects of Errol’s work, versus just the dark. Weird. Crazy. Not so political.”

Fascination with Tabloid Stories

The pursuit of stories like Joyce McKinney’s bizarre, globetrotting journey in TABLOID echoes the beginning of Morris’s career, when subjects like pet cemeteries and the quirky denizens of rural Florida town began to shape his work in a certain way. “My first film, GATES OF HEAVEN, was also based on a tabloid story,” says Morris. “50 Dead Pets Go To Napa was the screaming headline that grabbed me. It appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle rather than The National Enquirer. But it’s still a tabloid story.”

When THE THIN BLUE LINE earned Morris kudos as a major filmmaker in 1988, he still found himself drawn to beloved crackpots. “After the success of THE THIN BLUE LINE, Errol wanted to develop this story called ‘Weirdo,’ about a young boy who had grown — from a hatchery — this giant chicken,” explains Lipson. “There was also ‘The Trial of King Boots,’ about a dog that had been put on trial for murder.” Adds Ahlberg: “Errol has always loved stories in the vein of Lobster Boy from the Weekly World News tabloid. From the minute we started going down the road of Joyce McKinney, the story blossomed on its own.”

The producers tracked down McKinney, who was eager to have her story told. After following the trail of the story through the years, culminating in the dog-cloning episode in South Korea, the team realized they had assembled a motley crew of subjects who were equally willing to talk. “The subjects just started to perform,” Ahlberg recalls. “They were fully there for us, totally engaged. Errol simply lets people tell their story, so in a way this film played out like a performance piece. But Errol also makes films like sculptures — he’s probably the most organic filmmaker working. He genuinely allows the thing to reveal itself.”

For research, Morris and company combed through old newspapers, in particular the British tabloids that devoured Joyce’s story in late 1977. “If we were stuck in the age of microfiche, we’d have been dead in the water with TABLOID,” Lipson insists. “But we’d found this fabulous archive in the U.K. You slap down 40 pounds and a nice package arrives a few weeks later with a bunch of beautiful tabloid newspapers in it. That’s when we really got going. Tabloid really was the story that just kept giving.”

Crazy B-Movie

McKinney met with a researcher at a beauty salon in Pomona, California, which resulted in a five-hour outpouring of information that convinced everyone they had stumbled upon a truly amazing heroine. “Joyce’s story had all the qualities of a crazy B-movie, which was compelling enough for us,” Lipson says. “Joyce laid out her story by bringing along two big baskets full of her own clippings, in addition to all these photo albums.” Morris followed up with a lengthy phone interview with Joyce. As Lipson recalls, “She felt like all her life no one had given her the platform to really speak out and tell her story. She wanted that opportunity, and we were more than willing to give it to her. We understood right away that she was an eccentric individual — and we loved that. She was fabulous to the extent that what’s become a regular saying with us, is that if they gave an Academy Award for best performance in a documentary, Joyce would win it. You see it in the film — it’s a staggering performance!”

Adds Ahlberg, “She’s obviously very smart, and very obsessive. This is her life and it’s the only thing she’s thought about for the past thirty years. She’s smart, she’s funny, and she means what she says. I believe she believes every bit of her story, and that’s everything for the film.”

One of the most fortuitous discoveries during the research phase was stumbling upon the circa-1984 footage of Joyce reading from her memoir, “Once Upon a Time,” which opens the film as well as sets the tone for what’s to come. The footage belonged to regional documentarian Trent Harris, whose unique 2001 cult classic THE BEAVER TRILOGY, about an eccentric Olivia Newton-John impersonator living in small-town Utah, rivals TABLOID in its frenzied depiction of unfettered celebrity as practiced by average Americans living well outside typical showbiz centers. “It was amazing when we located that footage, and it’s great that Trent bothered to document it,” Lipson recalls. “But it was useless to us on 3/4-inch tape for our high-definition movie.” The team spent eight months digging around for the original 16mm film.

As more subjects were interviewed, the story began to take shape as a cautionary tale of rapidly acquired celebrity and its ramifications, a subject that dovetailed strongly with the current age of celebrity train-wrecks from the realms of pop music and reality television. “This rang especially true when the Mormon apostate Troy Williams made a reference to Joyce and the vagina dentata,” says Lipson. “We all saw her story as a cautionary tale about the all-consuming power of self-delusion, but that’s something Errol loves to examine.” Ahlberg confirms the compelling nature of this story of an ex-beauty queen from North Carolina whose life changed dramatically and suddenly in a small cottage outside London, when the abduction stories first surfaced in 1977. “This was just an ordinary woman.” Says Ahlberg. “This plucky little American woman and whatever happened in that so-called Love Cottage captured the imagination not of some backwater small town but all of London and England, in two huge newspapers. There’s something hallucinatory in that. It’s what we were trying to expose, explode and celebrate.”

Anti-Documentary

Morris himself describes TABLOID as an “anti-documentary,” in keeping with the production style of his previous work, something he likens to playing with the idea of documentary. Explains Morris, “Many documentaries make you want to think that what you’re seeing is reality, because it’s shot with a handheld camera. But we’re not asked to reflect on the nature of what we’re looking at — when in fact there’s a world behind the world of appearances. There’s even a world behind the world behind the world! And often that world is inside our heads, a make-believe world. My movies try and capture that world, to make that world come alive. TABLOID is very much in keeping with all of the movies I’ve done in the past — maybe even one of the better versions of it. There’s an element of self-deception, but there’s also something that goes beyond that.”

No Reeanctments

Unlike many of Morris’ previous films, TABLOID contains no filmed re-enactments, instead opting for the use of present-day interviews combined with archival footage of Joyce McKinney’s former self in the form of still photographs, newspaper clippings and material from the BBC — footage that Morris refers to as repurposed media. “We’re in a world that’s just awash with discarded media,” Morris explains. “As time goes on, there will be more and more of it, a universe of discarded media. The idea of repurposing it and using it again in an entirely different capacity (like the use of Trent Harris’s footage of Joyce reading from her memoir) fascinates me. In my other films, I’ve used reenactments to create a hybrid world between the real and the unreal, between the staged and the candid. Joyce’s whole life is a reenactment of a story — of star-crossed devotion or eternal love. What really interested me is Joyce’s capacity for repetition — romantic repetition. She’s this incredibly romantic soul – an absurdist, romantic figure pursuing some quixotic, hopeless love, or the idea of love. Life is a disaster masquerading as some hopeful romance!”

Before there was Britney or Lindsay, there was Joyce McKinney — the original tabloid staple. But why are we so hungry for this kind of story, especially now? “Joyce’s story is about what happens when you step out into the spotlight — willingly or unwillingly,” Lipson explains. “But the difference between then and now is that there was an innocence and fun about Joyce when she was in the tabloids. No one was taking pictures of her getting out of the car with her crotch showing like they do nowadays.” Adds Morris, “At the end of the movie you see a picture of Joyce as a little girl. She says that this story happened to a once-ordinary all-American girl. She wrote this fairy tale about a little girl who lives in a turret high up in a castle, and the prince who comes along to save her. But in the end, Joyce’s ideals remain intact despite whatever tawdry world she entered in the name of love. Someone could simply dismiss TABLOID as a scandalous tabloid story. But it’s far more interesting than that. It’s tragic and ironic.”