Errol Morris has been ahead of the curve ever since he broke out with pet cemetery documentary “Gates of Heaven” in 1978. A decade later, “The Thin Blue Line” wowed critics but alienated the hidebound documentary community with its use of “reenactments” and a rousing Philip Glass score. Decades before Netflix created “Making a Murderer,” “The Keepers,” and “Witness,” Morris’ film actually solved a murder mystery and freed an innocent Death Row convict in a Texas prison.
Since then, Glass became a go-to movie composer, earning three Oscar nominations — and could score a fourth for this year’s Oscar documentary frontrunner “Jane.” Reenactments have become standard issue for nonfiction films, filling the void between talking heads, archival footage, cinéma vérité observation, and what isn’t visually available. And Morris isn’t the only filmmaker who is a presence in his films, yelling at his subjects from behind his invention, the Interrotron. However, over 11 lauded feature documentaries, Morris received just one Oscar nomination, for 2003’s Robert McNamara portrait “The Fog of War.” (He won.)
Morris’ new film, “Wormwood,” is an ambitious opus, taking some four hours to explore a complex true-crime story about how — while experimenting with LSD in November 1953 — CIA operative Frank Olson (played in fictional segments by Peter Sarsgaard) jumped or was pushed out a 13th-story window in New York’s Statler Hotel, plunging to his death. The film wowed audiences and critics at the Telluride, Chicago, AFI, and DOC NYC film festivals, and the four-and-a-half hour hybrid docudrama series hits Netflix December 15.
What it won’t be doing is getting an Oscar nomination for best documentary. The documentary branch executive committee deemed “Wormwood” ineligible for Best Documentary Feature, based on post-“O.J.: Made in America” rules designed to weed out episodic documentary series. Yet “Wormwood” qualifies in all other AMPAS categories covered by the general submission form: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and all the crafts.
Morris is very unhappy with the ruling, although he freely admits that he didn’t set out to make a movie. “My intent was to make something good,” he said. “I hate this discussion about nomenclature rules and what I would love to be arguing about is what makes a documentary a documentary. It isn’t theatrical distribution. It’s something deeper and more interesting than that. By the time these Academy rules are formulated, they’re already obsolete.”
The rise of first-rate documentaries not produced for theatrical release has the Academy dancing around what to do with long-form nonfiction. Even though Netflix is giving “Wormwood” a day-and-date, single-showing theatrical release, it’s ineligible because when he first screened it in Telluride, it was simply the six Netflix episodes with episodic interstitials removed.
“It’s not so simple to say, ‘This is television and not movies,'” Morris said. “It’s become harder when you share the two to make that distinction, now that the whole nature of media is changing rapidly. Four to five years ago, the Netflix model didn’t exist.”
While there was some debate about whether the massive Grateful Dead portrait “Long Strange Trip” would qualify under new rigorous Oscar rules about episodic television, it qualifies: The movie screened all four hours at Sundance and opened theatrically as a movie May 26, followed by streaming on Amazon Prime on June 2 in six parts.
“Wormwood” began when Netflix documentary chief Lisa Nishimura met with Morris to find out what stories currently held his interest. He said there was something he’d been trying to make for decades that was “impossible,” about the son of a dead CIA agent who spent 60 years seeking the truth of his father’s untimely demise.
“It involved the U.S. government and multiple presidents in the process,” said Nishimura. “It was going to be a massive endeavor that needed significant financial resources, and more important, flexibility, in order to tell it in the right way. He wanted access to full support of Netflix’s resourcing for drama.”
Nishimura committed to giving the storyteller everything he needed, including cinematographers Ellen Kuras and Igor Martinovic, composer Paul Leonard Morgan and actors Sarsgaard as Olson and Molly Parker as his wife. Morris deployed a new interview room for his 20-plus hours of interviews with Eric Olson, surrounding him with an intimidating array of 10 HD cameras that he could edit into fragmented mosaics. Said Morris, “I told Lisa Nishimura that I was interested creating ‘the everything bagel,’ with interviews shot in a way that has never been done before.”
With this film, Morris combines interviews with imagined fiction sequences of what might have happened. “It’s straight scripted drama,” said Morris. “I’m not trying to present what really happened, but what I knew did not happen. In making ‘Wormwood,’ when you don’t know where you are going, you are trying to learn something you don’t know.”
But what do you call it? “Certainly it’s a true-crime drama, and it’s a television series,” he said. “There’s this endless discussion at Netflix about what kind of an animal are we dealing with here. Somebody has to figure out what exactly all of these proliferating film series are. It’s not television per se, it’s different. Why should it be excluded from certain kinds of awards?”
At the center of “Wormwood,” Morris said, “is the question, ‘What really happened to Frank Olson? What were the circumstances under which he went out that window at the Statler in November of 1953?’ That makes it a documentary, the obsession with truth and finding things out and investigating reality.”
Morris acknowledges that Netflix is an outgrowth of television. “You could create a [Oscar] prohibition against television that’s digital, which makes no sense,”Morris said. Also, the prohibition of things shot with a digital camera and not on film makes no sense… to pretend that [is] not becoming the best of modern media is to stick your head in a hole in the ground.”
Morris has every intention of continuing to blend fiction, fact, interviews, and narrative details with unconventional framing and surprising cuts. “I call it filmmaking,” he said.
Morris finds it ironic that the Academy is holding out theatrical definitions for Oscar viability when at the start of his career, “the whole idea that you would put documentaries in theaters was considered to be ridiculous,” he said. “If a film was paid for by anybody, it was television money. It’s still true that the whole idea of documentaries being put in theaters is almost an afterthought.”
For what it’s worth, Academy Governor Albert Berger agrees. “Just because you rent a theater for a week in both cities shouldn’t determine whether you’re a movie or not,” said Berger, a producer (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Nebraska”) who is heading an Academy committee/think tank investigating new definitions for movies in the digital era. “HBO has been financing many of the best documentaries for a long time and certainly so has Netflix,” Berger said. “We will explore the question of, what does the Academy consider a film at this moment in time?”
Making a theatrical-release version of “Wormwood” involved cutting about 10-15 minutes of titles, plus acquiring the necessary licensing rights and music clearances. This also gave Morris’ many film-critic supporters to have a crack at reviewing Kuras and Martinovic’s lush visuals and Paul Leonard Morgan’s score, as opposed to TV critics he doesn’t know.
And he loved not having to worry about running time. “I edited it like an extended movie,” he said. “But we did try to create chapters, mostly around the vicinity of 45-50 minutes, not exactly the same length. Now you can make things any length whatsoever.”