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Why Errol Morris Reinvented His Approach for His New Netflix Series

The master documentarian on abandoning the Interrotron, doubling down on dramatizations, and why he’s still not done with Wormwood.

Zach Dilgard/Netflix
Peter Sarsgaard in Wormwood. Zach Dilgard/Netflix

Errol Morris’ classic 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line helped pioneer the true-crime detective story as a subgenre of documentary filmmaking. In investigating whether Randall Dale Adams had been wrongly convicted of the murder of a police officer, Morris not only managed to get an apparent confession from the man who evidence suggested was the real killer and spring Adams from jail, but also codified a signature visual style in which interviews are intercut with re-enactments, photographs of evidence, and dream-logic images in ways that seem to mirror consciousness itself.

This style of filmmaking proved immensely influential in the documentary world. It’s perhaps no surprise then that Netflix, home of such Morris-influenced fare as Making a Murderer and The Keepers, would be the home for Wormwood, his latest project. Wormwood, which you can see starting Friday as a miniseries on Netflix or as a four-hour film playing in select theaters, investigates the mysterious death of Dr. Frank Olson in 1953.

If you’re a conspiracy theory enthusiast, you already know at least some of Olson’s story. The government originally claimed that Olson died in an accident (falling out of a window in a New York City hotel). Eventually, thanks in part to the investigative journalism of Seymour Hersh, the government was forced to admit a very different story: Olson, a government scientist, had been dosed with LSD in the early days of MK-Ultra, the notorious clandestine CIA mind-control research program. He suffered a nervous breakdown and then killed himself.

But what if this story is itself another cover-up? Can the truth of what happened to Olson ever be discovered? Wormwood explores these questions using extensive interviews, including with Olson’s son Eric—who has dedicated his life to solving the mystery of his father’s death.

It also pushes Morris’ signature techniques into new territories. The expanded running time gives the film more space to explore thematic digressions into Hamlet, the psychohistory of the Cold War, and the nature of truth. Where before Morris has used re-enactments, here name actors such as Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker perform the events during the last 10 days of Olson’s life in extended scripted sequences. And Morris’ trademark hypnotic intercutting of images is pushed to its limit, using split-screen and overlapping images to create a constantly evolving collage that mirrors the collages that Eric Olson makes to try to understand his father’s death.

Almost two years ago, during the height of Making a Murderer’s grip on the national psyche, I interviewed Morris about the nature of true crime filmmaking and his influence on the field. Back then, he told me that crime documentaries are “a way of dramatizing really significant issues: How we know what we know? How have we come to the belief that we have? Is justice served by the various mechanisms in our society? Is the law just? And on and on and on and on and on.”

I spoke to Morris at Netflix’s Manhattan offices about how Wormwood ponders these questions in new ways.

Isaac Butler: When we talked about The Thin Blue Line a couple years ago, you mentioned that Randall Adams was not originally the subject of the story. You kind of stumbled upon it in the midst of another story. Was Dr. Olson always going to be the subject here or were you originally doing a broader MK-Ultra thing?

Errol Morris: The answer is no, he wasn’t. I was doing a different MK-Ultra thing, not a broader thing. The first story seemed to be a really, really good story, but I couldn’t get the rights to it, so I had to move on, and I did. I moved on very quickly. I called Eric Olson. I liked the story, and I started to make Wormwood.

There are certain connections that you and he share, particularly this technique of collage. Olson works on collage as a potential therapeutic tool, and there’s a kind of collage in your movies as they investigate their subjects—

There’s certainly collage in this movie, in particular.

Yeah. I was wondering about what makes collage such a good or appealing tool for these kinds of investigations?

I had a whole number of metaphors to choose from at the beginning of this, collage being one of them. You know, I had a detective story. And detective stories are, I suppose—is this a stretch?—you are looking at bits of pieces of evidence and trying to create a picture of what happened. You could say it’s a collage.

I would hesitate to say that all of my films have been about collage.
I mean in some vague sense film editing is a kind of attempt to collage. But this is about collage in a different kind of way. There’s a lot of stuff going on in Wormwood. And I think collage is a least one way to talk about it: What do we make of the story? If we have to add up all the pieces, what do all the pieces amount to in the end?

Right. And one of those pieces is the material you’ve dramatized—

Well, the drama.

The drama, yeah.

What is really being dramatized here?

I would say a lot of what’s being dramatized is a story Wormwood eventually portrays as unconvincing, right? It’s dramatizing the government’s official story: Olson and the rest are doing acid, Olson starts flipping out. But where the movie gets to is that this drama you’re showing us is unreliable. There’s an ironic distance.

Thank you.

It seems to me like that’s a big shift from the way re-enactment works in The Thin Blue Line, for example.

It isn’t! What’s being re-enacted exactly? What’s being re-enacted in Rashomon? Take The Thin Blue Line, for example. This is a roadway in West Dallas, a routine traffic stop, two police officers stop a car, and the police officer walks up to the driver’s side of the vehicle, and he’s shot and killed, and the car speeds off into the night.

You have these accounts, not all of which can be true. People who claim to be passing by on the roadway, maybe they saw something, maybe they didn’t. So you’re illustrating these accounts, you’re bringing them to life as a way of bringing the audience into the mystery of what happened on that roadway. It’s a way of getting people to think about the accounts, all of them, which might be apocryphal or mostly false.

In Wormwood, often a really artful line of dialogue in the drama will be revealed to come from the Colby documents, the official record of the last week of his life.

It’s the Colby documents. Right out of the Colby reports is his breakdown and his flight from the Broadway musical Me and Juliet. The double trip to New York. He goes to New York, he comes back from New York, he goes back to New York, he dies in New York. What is all of this about? Is he dosed once? Is he repeatedly dosed? We don’t know. We actually don’t know. Did they plan to kill him at the outset, or did things happen that forced them to kill him? Or forced them to change their mind about not killing him? It’s all in there in some form or another.

But like all lies—I think this is certainly true of the Colby documents—when you’re lying it’s best to include some element of the truth. Then it becomes even more confusing. What’s true and what’s false? Where’s the line between truth and falsity here? What part of the story can I believe? What part of the story is just so clearly false it makes no real sense? So there is something perverse and ironic about putting in the middle of the series a drama, which may in part be false.

Right. And we as viewers are habituated to trust the authority of that.

We as viewers are habituated to trusting the authority of everything. And not for good reason.

Another major difference between Wormwood and some of your more recent films is that you’re in the frame as the interviewer instead of using the Interrotron to get the subject to look directly into the camera. What led you to that?

It’s because Wormwood is not first person. [The Fog of Wars Robert] McNamara is first person. One person is interviewed, only one person. [The Unknown Knowns Donald] Rumsfeld is interviewed, only Rumsfeld. It’s a first-person deal. And to me, the Interrotron is the ideal device to tell a first-person story. [Stares intently at my forehead.] You’re really looking into that one person’s head or at least trying to.

This is not first-person, it’s a general investigation of many, many, many pieces and many people. I shot Eric Olson with 10 cameras. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it. And it allows you to seamlessly cut. Instead of seeming fractured or something stitched together, it comes out oddly seamless.

Another major theme running throughout the film is the play Hamlet. Hamlet, of course, also uses re-enactments to solve mysteries.

And the re-enactment is where Hamlet says the line “Wormwood.”

Did Hamlet come through Eric Olson?

Yes. It came from Eric. And you can easily see why. It’s a powerful metaphor that runs all the way through Eric’s life and it runs through Wormwood, as well. “Wormwood” is a kind of infernal bitterness that will never go away. It’s why Hamlet mutters it during the play, within the play, within the play. It’s why it appears in the Bible in Revelation. The world is turned into something horribly, horribly bitter.

Did you ever feel like you were Horatio? You’re the person he’s giving this whole testimony to, helping him try to investigate and solve this mystery?

I’ve never really thought of it! Maybe I am Horatio.

So what does justice look like for this story? In The Thin Blue Line, it looked like getting Randall Adams out of jail, right?

And you know that wouldn’t happen today. Because the Supreme Court has severely restricted the right of appeal. [Adams] probably would still be in prison, possibly executed. Things have really, really changed since I first started doing this. I used to interview a lot of people in prison. I’ve interviewed lots and lots of serial killers, mass murderers, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, over the years. You can hardly get into a prison anymore. You can’t talk to anybody.

How does this rightward shift—increased secrecy, decreased rights—change the nature of your investigations?

It doesn’t really change the nature of your investigation. It just makes it harder.

And basically everyone involved in Olson’s death is dead, right?

Almost all dead. How do you begin to investigate this kind of a story? It’s tricky. Not impossible, but tricky. This story is either an investigator’s dream or an investigator’s nightmare, or maybe both. You know, the dream of bringing things to closure, the dream of coming up with definitive answers. I know that Eric’s father was executed by the CIA, this much I know. Do I know why? Do I know all the details of the cover-ups from the ’70s on? I know something about it, but not everything that I’d like to know. And it continues to fascinate me.

This is very much an ongoing story. It’s a story that spans six, seven decades in American history, and it is still relevant. I sometimes think the Cold War never really ended, they just replaced “commies” with “Islamic terrorists” without missing a beat. America’s fighting the great Satan in some form or another. A country so deeply beleaguered that it has to resort to a kind of world of lying and deception.

It’s a disturbing story. It will always for me be a disturbing story, and I’m not done with it. There’ll be another episode.

Oh, really?

Yes, I believe so.

So do you think justice is possible for Eric?

I don’t know. I don’t know if there is justice. Justice is a tangled notion. It’s so caught up with our ideas of fairness. Nowadays I wonder what kind of justice is there. I think for Eric, some kind of closure. And not just closure for him but closure for this story.

One thing I’ve learned about history is history’s perishable; it has an expiration date. It’s like food left in the refrigerator too long. Records are lost, people die, evidence is corrupted, manipulated, and it becomes increasingly hard to go back to the actual events. But what makes this story possible is people’s efforts to cover it up, which are ongoing. That hasn’t come to an end. That keeps the story alive and current.

Even if the history is lost, the history of the cover-up—

Is still there—

—and is refreshed as they keep trying to cover it up.

It’s a little fucked up and twisted, but yes.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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