Thursday, July 14, 2011

I Can be Funny Too: Errol Morris Interview

I'm not a big fan of roundtable interviews. It's not as intimate as one-on-ones and you have to share the short given time with other interviewers. But when an opportunity comes along to interview Errol Morris, one of the most revered American documentary filmmakers, in the week of the release of his uproarious new film, Tabloid, who am I to say no?

Luckily, the time slot I was given was at the end of the day with only two other journalists so I was able to slip in fair amount of questions. Even after repeated interviews, Morris appeared to be chatty and generous in his answers about the film, the state of modern journalism and a new narrative project with This American Life's Ira Glass while showing a bit of his 'funny' side as well. Here are the excerpts from the interview:

[All the questions are mine, otherwise marked with *]

Even though Tabloid is being regarded as aesthetically different from your previous films, I still see it very much as an 'Errol Morris' film. In a way there are a lot of similarities in Fred Leuchter [Mr. Death], Robert McNamara in The Fog of War and Joyce McKinney. Was it that self-delusional, ironical aspect of her story what attracted you to do this film?

Yeah. Maybe in part, I think.

Did the Mormons give you any trouble making this film?

No. Mercifully.

You are not expecting a backlash from them after the release?

We were showing the movie in Salt Lake City and people there seem to love it! I think Joyce might have liked it more if the movie was more antagonistic to the Mormon Church. But as you know, it's an element of the story, not THE story.  

The tabloid culture seems a lot different now than in the 70s with the decline of serious journalism in general, many newspapers going under, the popularity of the reality TV and now The News of the World scandal. What's your take on it?

Things have clearly gotten worse. The News of the World story is not so much of a tabloid story. I mean there are elements of that kind of story in my movie where people no longer care about the facts or the representation of reality or truth. The News of the World story cranks it up a couple of steps further and shows that they not only don't care about the truth, but they don't care about anything at all. It's all lies and manipulation, crimes, hacking into people's phones and playing games with people's lives. With Joyce you can say 'ok she is not a completely innocent victim of the tabloids, she is a participant at least on some level that she sought some kind of fame or notoriety and she got it.' But you take the parents of the girl who got abducted and killed, they didn't seek any fame or attention. And the police were trying to decide whether the girl was alive or dead and the tabloid was fiddling around with the evidence? That's different. That's really truly screwed up version of journalism.

*One good thing that came about was that they shut the paper down.

No, it's not clear if anything is going to happen to the Newscorp. Some low level workers who were dependent on the paper got the blame but at this point, I'm not sure what it means over all.

Do you see Tabloid as your own response to your previous, more 'serious' films?

The Standard Operating Procedure wasn't particularly well received. The reviews were all over the place. I felt that the movie was misjudged by many people. Whether I went loony-toons in it or not, I felt the movie was never really appreciated. It didn't do particularly well at the box office either. And I thought it was good time to do this [Tabloid] because I consider myself as a funny person and this is a funny movie. So people can't quite say ERROL = NOT FUNNY because of The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure. So in a way I wanted to do this movie as a way of saying, "FUCK YOU I AM FUNNY!"

*You've collaborated with Philip Glass and Danny Elfman in the past...

Yes and I will work with both of them again. Philip and I did 3 features together and then we did a short project for IBM for its hundredth anniversary, it's on youtube. It's about a half an hour film and he did an original score for it (search: IBM Centennial Film: They Were There - People who changed the way the world works). I love Philip's music and I'd love to work with him again. I'm planning on one with Ira Glass as it was reported in This American Life. It's a narrative feature about the first cryogenic freezer, which is kind of a tabloid story. Either Danny or Philip will do the music. They both are great and they seem to tolerate me. (Laughs). John Kusiak did the soundtrack for Tabloid and he did a fantastic job.

Are you nervous that it's coming out the same week as the last Harry Potter movie?

I'll just have to face it down.

How are the Boogers [Joyce's dogs] doing?

I think they are doing fine. One of the Boogers was at the screening yesterday in a matching sequin dress with Joyce.

So that means there is really a future for successful human cloning, perhaps?

The clones would be very convenient for the screening appearances and interviews. (laughs)

*So Joyce is coming for the screening tonight too?

We certainly invited her. I get the feeling she will show up at the LA screenings too.

*So her not being happy with the movie and appearing at the screenings uninvited are...

We really had a good time the other day at the screening. She was funny, unlike when I was editing the film for the last six months. She was threatening and talking about suing me and all that. Is it all an act? We don't know. One word that comes to mind in dealing with Joyce McKinney is 'Kevlar'.

IFC Films will open Tabloid in theaters on July 15.

My thanks to Taiyo Okamoto from COOL Magazine and Adam Schartoff from filmwax for their camaraderie during the interview.