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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Errol Morris Talks About Tabloid and the Joyce McKinney 'Mormon Sex-in-Chains' Case

Posted By on Tue, Jul 19, 2011 at 8:00 AM


Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (Standard Operating Procedure, The Fog of War) has a new film called Tabloid, a fascinating, bizarre roller-coaster ride of paranoia, crime, sex, gutter journalism -- and dog cloning. Tabloid, which opened Friday and is currently playing at Embarcadero Cinema, tells the story of Joyce McKinney, perpetrator of the so-called "Mormon sex-in-chains" case. In 1977, McKinney tracked her former beau Kirk Anderson from Utah to England, where Anderson was serving as a Mormon missionary. Believing Anderson to have been brainwashed by what she saw as a cult, McKinney staged a kidnapping to "rescue" him and rekindle what she believes was their great romance. She kept him tied down in a Devon cottage for several days, during which they repeatedly had sex. The degree to which it was consensual remains in question.

What makes Morris' film so special is that it favors no particular version of the story. Much of McKinney's on-camera testimony for Morris is difficult to believe, but at the same time, the British tabloids that made profitable hay of her story for many months thereafter used deplorable tactics that did not help establish the facts of her case. Tabloid is deftly layered and has many truly surprising moments (none of which are spoiled here).

We spoke with Errol Morris.

Joyce McKinney, in a still from Errol Morris' Tabloid
  • Joyce McKinney, in a still from Errol Morris' Tabloid

How was McKinney to work with? She's obviously forthcoming and likes to talk. Was it hard getting her to go on camera initially?

Once she agreed to come in for a filmed interview, that was it. She came into the studio and she was great. She's a dream interview. Probably one of the very best interviews I've ever done. A friend of mine once told me, "You can never trust somebody who doesn't talk a lot because how else would you know what they're thinking?" And I find [McKinney] to be an ideal interview subject because she has so much to say. And she says it well. She is charismatic. She is compelling. And she's really quite articulate.

People who tend to talk a lot may know how to tell a story, but they also tend to incriminate themselves. Is that right?

I don't know if I would say they "incriminate" themselves. I would prefer, if you would go along with me, to say they reveal themselves. They give us some idea of who they really are. I don't think it's incriminating. I don't think it's a bad thing. Often it can be a very endearing and warm and human thing. There's an idea about interviewing that interviewing is about incrimination, as if I'm a police inspector and the goal is to get the goods, to get the confession. To me, that's never been the goal. The goal is to get the person to come alive onscreen -- to capture the complexity. And McKinney is a truly complex person.

Near the end of the film, we see footage shot in the late-1980s by McKinney herself on a camcorder. She repeatedly pans the expansive grounds of her family property narrating, "Nothing is happening at all." McKinney's home movies are incredibly creepy.

That, for me, is the most amazing material in the entire film. They're creepy, they're sad, they're lonely. Here she goes from being the center of enormous amounts of attention in the U.K., and then the story dies down. She ends up back home with mom and dad and the barking dogs. There's [an] absurd, existential element to the story to begin with. And it's there when she's panning the landscape, and she says repeatedly, "Nothing is happening." You feel her isolation, and the fact that once she's been abandoned by the story that doggedly followed her for so many years, that she's left really, truly alone.

In contrast, you open and close the film with footage of McKinney reading from her own book in progress. These soft-focus clips show a much younger McKinney dressed almost like a fairy princess, in the woods. How did that footage come to be? It looks almost promotional.

It was shot by a Utah filmmaker, Trent Harris, in the early '80s. He very kindly allowed us to use it. It's [from] an unfinished film about McKinney, and it's amazing, actually. I have a book in my library called Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, and my joke was, I'd show people the book and say, "I always knew I was going to have a book with that title in my library." But you look at that piece of filmmaking from the early '80s and it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There's McKinney reading from this unfinished manuscript -- and predicting the next 30 years of her life! I've never seen anything like it, and I'm deeply grateful to Trent Harris for the ability to use it. It's the perfect bookend for Tabloid.

Filmmaker Errol Morris
  • Filmmaker Errol Morris

You couldn't have found anything more ideal.

I completely agree! I think it's fantastic! If I've done the job right, I find myself almost mystified by these stories, as if I'm still trying to figure out what in the hell was going on. Here's one question: Do we just create these scripts for our lives, and then re-enact them? Is life a re-enactment of some God-forsaken principle that we have selected and adhere to inflexibly? This idea that she was destined for this quixotic love affair that would never really be fully realized -- and it comes true!

Why shoot a documentary in widescreen?

Oh, that's real simple. You gave me an easy one. Thank you!

I should have started out with that.

I think interviews look just magnificent in 2.40:1 [the Cinemascope aspect ratio], and it allows me to play this game with editing that I first used in Standard Operating Procedure -- and I used it throughout Tabloid -- where I can shift the image from one side of the screen to the other, and create montage. I'm always playing with the idea of how to cut a documentary, how to edit a documentary, and how to edit -- in particular -- an interview. There's a film I did for IBM, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of IBM, and you can see it on YouTube. And in it, I make extensive use of widescreen and that editorial technique. I should patent it, like the Interrotron, but I haven't.

Tabloid continues through Thursday at Embarcadero Center Cinema, 1 Embarcadero Center (at Davis). Admission is $8.50-$10.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Casey Burchby


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