There are plenty of things that make Tabloid newsworthy – sex, Mormons, kidnapping, cloning – but it was by total chance that Errol Morris’ documentary opened in theaters just as the tabloid-worthy “British hacking scandal” was descending upon a slice of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid empire.
It was also by considerable chance that Morris happened upon the story of Joyce McKinney, the truth-tangled former beauty queen at the center of his latest you-couldn’t-make-this-up-but-maybe-someone-else-did story. She flew to England, rescued her fiance from the Mormons, and absconded with him to a Devon cottage for a weekend of sex before he decided to return to his missionary friends with the sordid tale. Or so she says. (He says he was kidnapped, and the British tabloids, if not the government, accused her of rape.)
Thirty years later, Morris happened to read an AP wire story in the Boston Globe about a woman who had her dogs cloned in Korea; the last paragraph mentioned the possibility that she was McKinney. He and his crew packed the interrotron – the whimsical face-to-face interview machine for which he’s become famous – and headed for Van Nuys to get one of documentary’s greatest, weirdest interviews.
As a documentary filmmaker – and one-time private detective – Errol Morris has spent his adult life looking for and then, very carefully, at tabloid stories. This doesn’t mean just the sensationalized supermarket-line fodder, of course. He’s trained his sharp, uncanny eye on serious crimes (The Thin Blue Line, Standard Operating Procedure) as often as he has on unlikely characters (Dr. Death, Vernon, Florida). His next film, his first real feature, is an adaptation of a fascinating story on This American Life about one of the first attempts at cryogenics. His interests he said were informed by his aunt, an erstwhile resident of mental hospitals.
“I’ve never had any problem with crazy people, I like crazy people, I probably am a crazy person myself,” he told me. “It’s made me able to listen and enjoy stories. I like to think that I’m nonjudgmental, that I can listen and be engaged by almost anything. My crazy aunt used to take me to science fiction movies and really, really, really scare me horribly. The ’50’s was sort of the high point of American science fiction, with these movies like This Island Earth and The Incredible Shrinking Man, Them. She scared me silly but I really loved her and I really loved those movies.”
Morris’ stranger-than-fiction movies aren’t just examinations of fascinating people but the strange ways that the facts circulate around them. Ways that, he wants to remind you, are affected by the telling of the story itself, by the medium in which they are told. “From the very very very beginning, probably from the first attempt at journalism, whatever that was, in Cro-Magnon times, there was a tension, and that tension remains between storytelling, wanting to entertain, wanting to drag in an audience and keep their attention… and the truth. It’s always there,” he said.