In the first installment of indieWIRE’s two-part interview with Errol Morris, the documentarian shared his thoughts on contemporary media and discussed his love for tabloid journalism. In this concluding segment, he talks specifically about the production of his new documentary, “Tabloid,” and the contemptuous reaction of his subject, Joyce McKinney. Morris is in familiar form with his darkly comic non-fiction effort,” which opens in New York this week. The bizarre tale follows McKinney, the colorful midwestern woman convicted of kidnapping her Mormon ex-lover in the U.K. in the late 1970s. McKinney became a tabloid fixture during the height of that scandal, and Morris’ movie puts nearly as much focus on the media obsession with his subject as he does on McKinney herself.
Joyce McKinney has claimed that the movie portrays her inaccurately. Were you surprised by her reaction?
Yes and no. Making any kind of movie, some of the consequences of making the movie and can be foreseen and some of them can’t. Joyce was a completely willing subject – one of the best interviews I’ve ever done. She was amazing on film. That’s my job as a director, supposedly, to get her to come alive on screen. I only met her once, you must remember. I try not to meet people in advance of interviewing them. She came to the studio in California and the interview took place during part of one day. Then I didn’t see her again until after the movie was finished. She came onstage at the Skirball Center [at NYU] and we spoke together briefly, and then that Friday night, we spoke for an hour together following another screening of “Tabloid.” I would like to get that conversation transcribed because I think it’s quite amazing and represents yet another version of all this.
In brief, what was the nature of the conversation?
She made various kinds of claims. I like Joyce. I think she’s this amazing, romantic character and I don’t want to get into a fight with her about details. She seemed to question whether this was really being made for Showtime, and in fact it was; I had been hired to do a series for Showtime and this was going to be the pilot. I shot the interview and I thought, “This is not a half hour episode, this is something much longer, I can turn this into a film.”
Did you tell her that once the decision was made?
Oh yes. She was aware of that.
So what was she upset about?
Well, remember…there are ambiguities about the kidnapping that are preserved within the movie. We could talk about this ad nauseum, but she said, “Why did you put the tabloid journalists in the movie?” Well, the journalists are part of the story. If the idea was that I was never going to tell the story about what happened to her in Great Britain, then fine. It’s not as if we take these tabloid journalists as being reliable reporters on what really transpired. They’re additional voices in the movie. She also said that she had no idea that it would be a funny movie.
Did you tell her that was a ridiculous? She seems pretty self-aware in the interview.
I think she is aware of it. I said to her on that Friday night, “Joyce, you use certain kinds of language. You must know that you’re funny. In fact, you’re one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. When you say a woman can’t rape a man because it would be like stuffing a marshmallow in a parking meter, you know that’s funny, Joyce!” And she said, “Well, I’m just a Southern girl.”
A lot of your movies deal with these characters who don’t seem fully aware of how they come across on camera.
I’m allowing people to express themselves, or to reveal themselves, through language. If you think about an interview, like what’s going on right now, us talking – it’s a human relationship: My relationship to you and your relationship to me. There can be an infinite variety of these relationships, certain kinds of journalistic relationships. I sometimes refer to the “60 Minutes” idea, the Mike Wallace idea, of what a journalistic relationship should be. The idea is that it should be adversarial, and the adversarial idea is based on the need to make things dramatic in certain ways, to show conflict. You know, “I don’t agree with you and you don’t agree with me, and I will expose that fact over the course of this interview.” Don’t get me wrong: That’s a perfectly OK strategy. It can be great drama. I’m just interested in something different. The goal is to get people to talk, to reveal something about themselves, their own first-person account of themselves and what’s happened around them, what they’ve been part of, and to create something out of that.
Have you ever regretted using that approach?
Of course. I always second-guess myself.
But you’ve always made movies in more or less the same fashion.
I put my voice more into my recent movies than I ever have before.
You mean your perspective or…
No, my physical voice! You hear me all the way through “Tabloid.” I think I feel much more comfortable doing that. It creates a kind of energy in the film that’s good.