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Oscars: Netflix and Errol Morris Defy Convention With Hybrid Doc ‘Wormwood’

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has “run afoul” of the film Academy before, he jokes. After all, his unconventional 1988 cinematic investigation “The Thin Blue Line” apparently violated unspoken dogma within the documentary community that year, yielding one of the most egregious snubs in Oscar history.

Nevertheless, he’s ready to test the organization’s boundaries once again this year, and he’s found an apt partner in a trailblazing platform that’s no stranger to upsetting industry status quo.

Netflix will release Morris’ “Wormwood” as a four-hour, six-part event on the streaming site on Dec. 15. But following the series’ world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September, the director has prepared a non-episodic theatrical version with a single intermission, Variety has learned. Netflix plans to submit that version to the film Academy, and not only for documentary feature consideration, but for all other categories as well.

That in and of itself is not uncommon. But what makes it somewhat uncharted territory is that particular attention will be paid to actors like Peter Sarsgaard, Bob Balaban, and Molly Parker, who star in significant, handsomely crafted reenactments — a hallmark of Morris’ work — throughout the film. Technically, they are eligible for Oscar consideration; the Academy’s awards rules do not exclude documentary performers, and a rep for the organization even says there were two instances last year, one involving on-camera performances and one involving a voice performance. All were included on the acting reminder lists.

Then again, if an actor can be nominated for a documentary, is it still a documentary? It seems like a fair question, and one at home in any discussion about the changing face of cinema. Newly elected Academy president John Bailey was pondering that and other ideas about the industry’s ongoing evolution when we discussed Morris’ film, which he saw in Telluride, at a recent Academy function. “These are questions we at the Academy are going to be asking more and more,” he said. Netflix looks to play a major role in the discourse.

For Morris, it’s typical of a career that has been built outside the box. “Are we degrading the whole idea of documentary journalism by allowing it to be ‘polluted’ by all different types of techniques? No, because style doesn’t guarantee truth,” he says. “We ask ourselves, particularly in documentary, ‘Is it true or is it false?’ For me, the greatest films in general, and the greatest documentaries, ask us to consider the mystery of what is true and false.”

“The Thin Blue Line” was a towering example of what a film could do; it played a huge role in getting inmate Randall Dale Adams off death row for a murder he did not commit. “If I’m proud of one thing that I’ve done, I’m proud of that movie, and even prouder about the investigation behind the movie,” Morris says.

But the film, which dealt heavily in reenactments and unusual visual storytelling language, played too loose with convention for members of the Academy’s documentary nominating committee at the time. They were affronted. Many even motioned for the film to be stopped during its official screening for the group, a common practice at the time to deal with the wealth of titles. (The number of films was only 74 back then, however. Twice as many qualify these days, though the culling process has changed drastically over the years.)

Netflix asked Morris to cut the continuous version of “Wormwood” for film Academy consideration, no doubt to dodge recently instituted rule changes. In April, shortly after ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” won the documentary Oscar, new language was introduced that disallows multi-part series in the category going forward. It was a band-aid fix for an issue that continues to yield internal hand-wringing; at a recent all-hands membership meeting, some Academy members reportedly voiced concerns about the place of Netflix and its ilk in the Oscar spectrum, asking whether movies should be able to contend for both film and TV honors.

Incidentally, the episodic version of “Wormwood” will be eligible for the Emmys next year in the documentary series category.

There’s also that old soft spot: Respect for theatrical exhibition. Netflix releases its Oscar hopefuls in very few theaters day-and-date with the streaming release. Some Academy members argue that an exclusive theatrical window of some kind should be honored. At a certain point you have to simply ask, “What is a movie today?” There are no easy answers, but a special Academy committee headed by producer Albert Berger will seek to help the organization define these strictures.

UPDATE (10/27): The film Academy has unveiled its list of submissions for documentary feature. “Wormwood,” as a theatrical feature, has been rejected by the documentary branch.

And just what is “Wormwood?” It’s a deep dive into the mind and obsession of Eric Olson, who has sought the truth behind his father’s death for 60 years. CIA contractor Frank Olson plummeted to his demise from a 13th floor window of New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania on Nov. 28, 1953. It was later revealed he had been covertly dosed with LSD by his CIA supervisor as part of the MK-Ultra program nine days prior. Though the official determination was suicide, Eric — who along with his family received a rare personal apology from then-president Gerald Ford, delivered in the Oval Office — has alleged murder for years. The film is an assemblage of reenactments interspersed with Eric’s compelling talking-head interview.

Morris initially pitched the project to Netflix as “the everything bagel,” he says. “It was going to be a collage of different styles and genres. Collage for me also is a metaphor for detective work. What a detective does is you’re looking at bits and pieces and the detritus of reality. You’re trying to put a picture together of what might have happened, and everything you can bring to bear is fair game.”

Can the Academy be as open-minded? Come what may, Morris is just pleased to be pushing against convention. “I think ‘Wormwood’ is heretical in many ways,” he says, a satisfied grin palpable on the other end of the phone line. “I look at myself as a genre buster. Proudly so.”

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