In his latest film, Tabloid, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris revisits a bizarre story that dominated the British rags 30 years ago. It was a simpler time. Voicemail hadn't yet been invented, so there was nothing to hack. Our heroine, Joyce McKinney, was a busty former Miss Wyoming with an I.Q. of 168. Living then in L.A., McKinney hired a pilot, a private detective, and several musclebound bodyguards, and set off to England to rescue the runaway fiance she was convinced had been brainwashed by the Mormon Church.
What happened next is where things grow murky. Depending on who you believe, Joyce either kidnapped her fiance with a fake gun and some chloroform, tied him up spread-eagle in a remote cottage, and attempted to impregnate herself for the next 72 hours. Alternately, she ran off with the completely willing love of her life for three days of wild sex and fried chicken gluttony. The "Case of the Manacled Mormon," as it would become known in the red tops, and the three-ring circus of a trial that followed turned Joyce into an overnight sensation. So huge was her fame at the peak of McKinney Mania, she even upstaged Joan Collins at an event—or so the legend goes.
We spoke to Morris about the film, and his sordid, lifelong affair with that perpetually beloved and belittled art form known as tabloid journalism.
Gawker: What attracted you to the story of Joyce McKinney ?
Errol Morris: I've always been fascinated by tabloid stories. Still am. So this is nothing new for me, in that sense. Tabloid stories are fabulous stories. I think of tabloid headlines, that by their very nature are short and to-the-point, and grab a hold of you, and you really can't let go.
Tabloids themselves have become the news story lately.
I was talking to a friend of mine today, and inevitably we were talking about News of the World, and the possible inference that all tabloid stories are bad, or all tabloid newspapers are bad. I think that's the appropriate incorrect inference to make. What will happen to Gawker? We have to preserve Gawker!
Yet the same people calling tabloids "bad" are the ones devouring every sensational development in the News of the World case.
That's correct. But what do you think it says about tabloid journalism? I think it says very little. Yeah, there are pressures in journalism to begin with. People want stories to be dramatic, they want them to make sense, they want them to "scan" on some level. I love that line [in Tabloid] from [Daily Express reporter] Peter Tory, because I think it says so much: "I think it was ropes...but ‘chains' sounds better." We all feel the pressure to make a story into a story.
The News of the World story is a different kind of story. It seems to be a story not about tabloid journalism, but about deeply unethical journalism, about journalists committing felonies. Was it wrong to publicize these stories about Joyce McKinney? Well, she played into it. She wasn't an unwilling participant. And I think the same argument could be made about a lot of Gawker stories, by the way. It's not as if you're preying on the innocent. It's part of a whole culture where people do seek publicity. Publicity takes on a life of its own. You think you can control the monster, but in fact the monster controls you.
What do you make of the coverage of the Casey Anthony murder trial?
I have to confess that I did not follow it closely. I was not really constantly watching that story, and so when I read about the verdict, and how it became a cause celebre, I was a little bit surprised. Maybe I'm just working too hard.
The overwhelming sentiment seems to be that a massive miscarriage of justice has just taken place. Which brings me to your 1988 film, The Thin Blue Line, which famously freed a wrongfully convicted man awaiting his execution. What led you to make that film? Was it a determination to bring the truth to light?
Yes, would be the single-word answer to that question. It's a story I stumbled on. I didn't know about the story going into it. Nobody knew about it. It was a forgotten, unknown story about a forgotten, unknown inmate in the Texas Department of Corrections. There were a whole series of accidents that led me to pursue that case, and it could have easily wound up otherwise.
There are people who dedicate their lives to righting those kinds of wrongs, but that doesn't really seem to be your thing.
Um … I'm not sure what my thing is. My thing is … complicated.
What is your thing?
What is my thing. Getting to the bottom of things, where possible, is I think part of my thing. I'm endlessly fascinated by ambiguity, the nature of it in these cases. Whenever you tell a story about a crime, for example, and Tabloid is a kind of story about a crime—an alleged kidnapping and [whispers] rape, you're sorting through the evidence and trying to figure out where reality lies. But what's of interest is the ambiguities. The world is an incredibly messy, confused, adulterated place, and finding out the truth about anything usually involves some truly hard labor. It's a quest, and sometimes you fail. You can pretend that you're "above" Gawker, or you're "above" tabloid stories. But just to make things clear, I'm not above any of that.
Do you read Gawker?
I actually do, occasionally. I like Gawker. Say I'm in New York, and all this Dominique Strauss-Kahn stuff is coming out, do I pick up the Times, or do I pick up the Post? I'll let you answer that question.
Well, you'll find a particularly skewed version in the Post.
You'll have a skewed version in any event. But yes, probably. Some of the Post coverage is utterly outrageous. I mean, just ridiculous.
You speak of ambiguity. Well, that would definitely be the ambiguous story of the year.
Absolutely, and it has certain elements in common with [the McKinney] story. Because, what's our tendency? And I think it's a natural human tendency. At first, we want to see [Strauss-Kahn] as the completely evil guy who beats up on the hotel worker from Guinea. Then all of a sudden it just completely flip-flops, and it's the "horrible" hotel worker from Guinea. The "hooker!" And the "almost-President of France" impugned by the overzealous Cyrus Vance, Jr.
So you have all of these stories fighting with each other, with the sense that, well, we may never be able to get the bottom of it, because there were only two people in that room. The ambiguity at the heart of this case is part of its fascination.
Does any news story attract you now, as far as a topic for a potential movie?
I usually avoid any story that has everybody's fingerprints all over them already. Joyce was largely forgotten. Hopelessly obscure. Which to me is a kind of inducement.
And Robert McNamara wasn't exactly on people's lips when you made 2004's The Fog of War.
McNamara I had thought of interviewing for years, and thought, well, it's never going to happen. But it did happen. It certainly represents a segment of history that I lived through and experienced.
I don't know if it's a simple algorithm, that I can say why story "X" and not story "Y." I am engaged by stuff going on [in the news]. I have a project [in development] with Ira Glass, a [scripted feature film], and where does that come from? Well, it comes from an episode of This American Life, but it in turns come from what you would have to consider a tabloid story. It's about the first cryonics freezing. The guy could freeze bodies, but not keep them frozen. Big scandal. He wrote a book called We Froze the First Man. This movie is based on that quintessential tabloid story.
Is that the title?
I would like We Froze the First Man to be the title. How could you go wrong?
Speaking of Ira Glass, I know you're attracted to oddballs, nerds, the fringe elements of society.
Yeah, maybe because I'm a fringe element myself.
So you see yourself in them?
I do. I don't see myself as any better than the people I'm making a movie about. Certainly I don't see myself better than Joyce McKinney. I think she's a great, romantic-slash-tragic heroine. She's fabulous. She really is!
Tabloids are great. Someone should write something on the varieties of tabloid culture. My son learned to read by sitting with me, and we'd read the Weekly World News together, which I had a subscription to.
Who doesn't love Bat Boy? "Bat Boy Escapes From Cave."
He has his own musical.
And deservedly so. I miss the old Weekly World News. I used to have this one article of theirs framed on my wall: "How To Look Smart When You're Really Stupid."
Do you remember any of the tips?
Let's see. "Carry a book around with you. Big, hefty sucker." "Use big vocabulary words whenever possible." They also mention it's a good idea to know what they mean, in case someone calls you on it. They also said, "Drink a lot of coffee." As you can see, I'm following that one right here. I think it keeps you on point.
Tabloid opens Friday, July 15.
[Photo of Morris at the New York premiere of Tabloid and accepting an Oscar for Fog of War in 2004 via Getty Images. Photo of Joyce McKinney courtesy of IFC]