Errol Morris on ‘Alternative Facts,’ CIA Coverups and His New Netflix Series ‘Wormwood’

Errol Morris
AGF s.r.l./REX Shutterstock

Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning director of “The Thin Blue Line” and “The Fog of War,” is back with the most formally daring project of his career, “Wormwood.”

The six-part Netflix miniseries defies easy categorization. It is equal parts documentary and narrative drama — a dazzlingly original dive into the mysterious death of Frank Olson, a CIA employee who plunged out of a New York City hotel window in 1953 after unwittingly being dosed with LSD. The binge-able series follows Olson’s son, Eric, as he tries to piece together what happened to his father, interspersing interviews with dramatic scenes acted out by the likes of Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker. It makes a compelling case that the spy agency, which later apologized for drugging Olson, also had him murdered and spent decades covering up its crime.

“Wormwood” debuted Friday at the Telluride Film Festival. Before touching down in Colorado, Morris spoke with Variety about his passion for truth-finding, the virtues of working with Netflix, and why he wanted to do something radical with his latest series.

Did you always know that “Wormwood” would be a hybrid of narrative and documentary filmmaking?

To say I knew exactly what I was doing at the outset — what’s that called? I think that would be a lie. “Wormwood” is something that was figured out as we went along.

There was a kind of plan. My sale’s pitch to Netflix was “I’m going to create the cinematic version of the everything bagel, except no raisins.” I don’t like them in bagels. I think raisins are wrong, at least as far as bagels are concerned. But I told them I wanted to do something that combines straight drama, reenactments, archival research, various diverse graphics elements, and on and on and on. It wasn’t going to be documentary business as usual. It was going to be something different.

Was it more difficult to direct the dramatic scenes than it was for you to conduct the interviews?

I have suffered for years this idea that interviews aren’t directing and that there’s something really different about real people and actors. Whereas I’ve always believed that it’s really about performance — eliciting a performance, creating a performance on film. That’s true of interviews, it’s true of scripted material, it’s true of reenactments, it’s true of everything. It’s all direction.

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Were there films that inspired “Wormwood”?

I’m guided by many films. I love film noir. I even put a quote from “Out of the Past” in the series. It’s one of my favorite quotes with Robert Mitchum saying to the taxi driver, “I was in a frame, but I couldn’t see the picture.” It captures so many aspects of the film itself. The knowledge that there’s something wrong with this picture, you can feel the frame, the idea of misdirection and confusion, and at the same time you’re pointed toward understanding what that frame might be.

Someone who is obsessed with criminal investigation, as I am, there’s always this question that occurs when you’re investigating anything — how am I being pointed in the wrong direction? How am I being misled? A big part of the story are attempts to lead people in the wrong direction. I once even suggested the tagline for “Wormwood” be: “The LSD was a red herring.”

How did the CIA’s involvement complicate solving the mystery of Frank Olson’s death? Presumably they’re good at covering their tracks. 

You’re always hoping to find something definitive in a sea of confusion, error, misdirection. But you wonder whether you ever can find something out given there’s so many people out there who want to prevent you from doing so. The CIA is there to obfuscate, not elucidate.

I wrote this book called “Wilderness of Error,” about the Jeffrey MacDonald case. It always surprises me that people never link my books with my movies, because the two are closely connected. I have another book coming out at the end of the year called “The Ashtray: The Man Who Tried to Abolish Reality.” It is an essay on truth and our attempts to deny truth, in particular. “Wilderness of Error” is a story about a murder case where in the end I admit I can’t prove Jeffrey MacDonald is innocent. I don’t believe that any of the court cases have proved his guilt except in some technical way, but I believe this case is a horror show for a detective. The detective can’t in the end prove the defendant’s innocence, even though I believe he is innocent.

Does the story at the heart of “Wormwood” defy a definitive conclusion?

In the case of Frank Olson, there’s a strong and growing feeling that he was murdered at the behest of the CIA. Can I prove it? Maybe I can be very close to proving it. When people write detective fiction that’s always the assumption, that some definitive proof will be forthcoming. You don’t want to end in a miasma. You want to end somewhere, you want to have your feet on solid ground. There are two mechanisms that I feel really powerfully in the story — the mechanism of moving toward the proof of a murder and the mechanism of trying to deny that fact. Maybe that’s what the world consists of.

Given how much of your career has been about fact-finding, are you dismayed by the “fake news” era?

We live in a world where people are denying truth. You have someone like Kellyanne Conway saying, “alternative facts.” That’s what my new book is about — the corruption of post-modernism. The belief there’s a truth for you and a truth for me, as opposed to just truth, period. I’m a truth, period person. I believe what separates us from dumb animals is that we pursue, maybe we don’t achieve it, but we pursue certainty. It’s a goal. A dream. To deny that importance of that goal or that dream is unspeakable. Where would we be without it? We’d be out in the jungle having various temper tantrums like the president of the United States.

Do you see “Wormwood” as a conspiracy thriller?

I do not. I think it’s much more interesting than that. How many discussions have I had with people about Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” which I would describe as a perfect example of a conspiracy thriller. We learn at the end of it that everyone’s in the conspiracy, perhaps even Earl Warren, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Conspiracies are for people that want certainty. There’s some kind of satisfaction that comes with a conspiracy. What I’m trying to capture is the agony of investigation and the pursuit of truth. Maybe there are conspiracies. I’m not going to say people never conspire with one another to do one thing or another. This is a story of a coverup, of a murder, of the pursuit of truth without the guarantee that the truth can be proved.

Are documentaries becoming more formally daring?

Yes, and that’s a good thing. Form exists to be played around with. There used to be a documentary police that said, “no, you can’t do this. No, this isn’t proper.” I’ve always hated it and I’ve never agreed with it, but I think they’re growing weaker. I’ve never believed that style guarantees truth. I’ve never believed that because I’m running around with a handhold camera and available light that I’m making something that’s more truthful.

Do you mind having your work premiere on Netflix’s streaming service instead of in theaters? 

Would I like to see “Wormwood” in a theater on a big screen? You betcha. I’d be disingenuous to argue otherwise. But we’re all part of, like it or not, an industry, and what Netflix offers is an opportunity to do different kinds of films in different ways. Maybe part of what is being sacrificed is that they no longer go into theaters. If the choice is between not doing it at all and having it not go to theaters, it’s an easy choice to make.

Is there a person living or dead that you would most like to interview?

Oh, I don’t know. There are people that I’d like to interview who I’d like to be dead.

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  1. William Carden says:

    I admire Erroll Morris and I admire him taking on this massive, complex and very important story. I think he has done something original and brilliant with the film. But at the same time I am surprised and disturbed that he makes no mention in this interview of Eric Olson, who’s story he is telling. It is not just Mr. Olson’s story, it is Mr. Olson’s investigation. You can see from the remarkable interviews Mr. Morris has with Mr. Olson that are the heartbeat of the film that Mr. Olson did all the investigative work on which the film is based, a lifetime of work devoted to the pursuit of the truth which Mr. Morris declares is the goal of the film. I hope this one many articles and events around this fascinating and disturbing story which demands our attention but, please, let’s honor the work and contribution of Mr. Olson as we move forward. Without it the film wouldn’t exist.

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