Errol Morris on Wormwood, Fake News, and Why He Hates the Word ‘Reenactment’

Peter Sarsgaard as Frank Olson in Wormwood. Photo: Netflix

Errol Morris has been one of the most influential American documentary filmmakers since the release of his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, which combined old-fashioned interviews and detective work with highly stylized dramatic scenes to prove that Randall Dale Adams, a death-row inmate convicted of murder, was actually innocent. He has only become more formally restless in the decades since, and his latest project, the six-part Netflix series Wormwood a conspiratorial mystery which tells of a shadowy death in the 1950s — might be his most ambitious work yet, blending visually fragmented interviews and lavishly produced, period-accurate scripted scenes with actors like Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker. Morris’s main subject in Wormwood is Eric Olson, a 70-something man who believes that his father committed suicide after the CIA forced him to ingest LSD. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Earlier this week, Vulture talked to Morris about Wormwood, his evolving aesthetic, his interactions with former secretaries of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Robert S. McNamara, what he thinks of “fake news,” and whether it’s possible to ever really know the truth about anything.

How did you first become aware of Eric Olson’s story?
Well, this story is a pretty expansive thing. I became aware of Frank and Eric Olson pretty early on. There are pretty clear assumptions you make at the very beginning. I mean, I need an interview subject, and Eric was ideal. Just talking to him once was enough.

What’s your definition of an ideal interview subject?
Someone who talks a lot and is smart.

When was your first meeting with him, outside of the actual filmed interview?
Our first meeting was the filmed interview.

Really? So you don’t do a preliminary thing where you meet somewhere before you shoot anything?
No, I avoid it! I avoid it like the plague.

What’s the thought behind jumping right into it?
Because you don’t ever want to ask people to repeat anything. You know, I sometimes say that lack of variety, or repetition, is the spice of life. But it isn’t the spice of a good interview, or a good performance from actors.

It was interesting, we were talking yesterday with three of the actors — Christian Camargo, Molly Parker, Peter Sarsgaard — and one of the things I’ve learned, and maybe I learned it the hard way over the years doing so many commercials — I have done so, so many commercials, maybe over 1,000 of them over the years — is that the client will see on a casting tape a performance that they like, and then they will ask the actor to replicate what they did on the casting tape. This is always, always a prescription for disaster, for many, many, many reasons. A good performance doesn’t come from imitating something external to yourself, even if it’s your own performance on some other occasion. It comes from something inside, of bringing something inside of yourself forward.

And interviews are performances. Making this film, I thought quite often about the relationship between a performance and an interview, and a performance by an actor on set where admittedly there’s a script that they’re following. It’s trying to create an element of spontaneity. I sometimes try to distinguish it from, say, taxidermy, where everything is dead — it’s stuffed, it’s mounted on a wall, versus something that has some kind of life to it.

Is your goal to get past the performance? Or do you simply let the subject perform?
I would say the latter.

Because it’s all performance.

How do you mean?
Doing a lot of commercials, there’s buzzwords you hear again and again. I don’t want to make fun of them because I kind of believe in them, at least in part. One of them is “authenticity.” People in recent years love to use the word “authenticity.” They like something that’s “authentic,” whatever that means. It could mean, God knows, a lot of different things. Do they mean “believable?” “Ingenuous?” Take your pick.

I hear that word a lot in terms of a successful social-media presence, which seems strange to me considering that one of the components of a successful social-media presence is that you’re creating a character who’s either a heightened version of you or maybe bears no relation to you at all.
Well, it probably bears some relationship to you, because you’re doing it.

“Authentic” doesn’t necessarily mean “true” or “factually accurate,” though.
Of course not. To me, it’s one of the deep mysteries about what I do. I’m supposed to be working in the “truth department,” wherever that is.

The Department of Truth?
Yeah, somewhere above Men’s Hosiery. But “truth” is this all-important notion … God knows I’ve thought enough about it over the years. I have a book coming out, by the way, from the University of Chicago press early next year called The Ashtray. It’s really about the denial of truth, and the importance of truth.

I have to say, your approach as an interviewer and a documentary filmmaker is quite different than what I was taught in journalism school.

For one thing, and I think this came out particularly in criticisms of The Fog of War and The Unknown Known …
And The Thin Blue Line.

To some degree, yes, it’s a criticism of everything you’ve done in the nonfiction field, that you’re not trying to get at “the real person.” You sort of take the subject at face value. I don’t mean that you believe everything they tell you. But I don’t see you constantly trying to break through the façade and find “the real them,” whatever that means.
I don’t know. A friend of mine who I was in graduate school with years and years ago at Berkeley said, “You can never trust someone who doesn’t talk a lot, because how else would you know what they’re thinking?” I’d even call it “The Myth of the Real You” — that somehow lurking inside of you is the “real” you, and that it’s my job to expose, reveal, elucidate “The Real You.”

To take one good example, Donald Rumsfeld. Now, my movie about him, The Unknown Known, was criticized by a lot of people because they thought it should be a different kind of movie. They think I should’ve gone after him, hammer and tongs. “How dare you do this! How dare you do that!” I remember having this conversation with Maureen Dowd, of all people, [and she wanted to know], “How come Rumsfeld wasn’t blunt, like [Vietnam War-era Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara?” This was an ongoing complaint about the film. I said, “You make a movie with the secretary of Defense you have, not the secretary of Defense you want to have.”

But as to the question, where’s the real Rumsfeld? I think the real Rumsfeld is there. It may not be entirely appetizing to people, but it is there: the self-satisfaction, the unbelievable obtuseness, the arrogance.

More so than many people you’ve interviewed as subjects of your movies, I was conscious of Rumsfeld having created a persona for himself, complete with little aphorisms.
Yes. When I set out to make a movie, I always lay down a set of principles. I have this stupid definition of art, but I kind of like it. I know it sounds pretentious, but I don’t think it is. My theory of art is to set up a series of arbitrary rules, and follow them slavishly. For The Unknown Known, I knew Rumsfeld had produced acres of memos. During the Ford administration they were called Yellow Perils; during the Bush administration they were called Snowflakes. I thought, let’s base the whole movie on Yellow Perils and Snowflakes. We’ll have Rumsfeld read a memo and then contextualize and explain it to us. That’s the movie!

Like a short-story author commenting on their own work.
Indeed — and it has that ironic quality as well.

You did a series years ago called First Person. What was the arbitrary rule for that?
The idea was, I only interview one person per program, hence the idea of First Person. The idea was, “I’ve seen thousands upon thousands of documentaries where they interview mom, sis, brother, friends, the manager at the bank. Well, why do I have to do that?” I thought it would be interesting to just simply say, “No, I’m not going to do that, and you can’t make me. I’ll interview one person, and it’ll be about one person alone!”

That’s an arbitrary rule I’ve set down for a number of films I’ve made and then I slavishly follow! When I had fulfilled my contract with First Person, I had some money left over to do another interview. There was someone I’d always wanted to interview, and I hadn’t dared approach him about an interview, and that was Robert S. McNamara. That movie [Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara] came out of the series First Person, from the heart of that idea. I said, “I’m not going to interview anyone else. I’m going to interview Robert S. McNamara. Period. Done.”

Well, easier said than done, because I called him on the phone and he thought, clearly, that I was part of his book tour. He’d just written Wilson’s Ghost, I was part of the book tour, he was going to appear because he’s coming to Cambridge anyway, I live in Cambridge and he’ll talk to me about Wilson’s Ghost. And at a certain point, he’d been talking to other people and he realized this might be about something other than the book, although I really liked the book. It’s a very interesting, semiautobiographical book.

Most books are.
Yes! His books even more so than most. So I got a call from him two days before the interview, and he tells me he’s been speaking to friends and they’ve told him, “You don’t want to talk to this guy, this is a real bad idea, you should cancel this interview.”

What did they warn him about?
I’m not sure. I was an anti-Vietnam demonstrator years ago. I’ll fess up to that! If anything, I wish I’d demonstrated more, not less. Anyway, McNamara went on at such enormous length, explaining to me why he wasn’t going to be interviewed by me. And early on, I assumed, “Okay, that’s done with, that’s over.” And then at the end of the conversation he says to me, “I said I’ll do it, so I’ll do it. I’ll give you ten minutes.” He comes in and sees my Interrotron … I know we’re not talking about Wormwood, and we’re supposed to. My apologies!

That’s quite all right. We’ll get to it.
Anyway, McNamara sees my Interrotron and says, “WHAT’S THAT?” and I say, “Well, sir, that’s my Interrotron. That’s my interviewing machine.” “I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU CALL IT, I DON’T LIKE IT!”

For the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the Interrotron, can you describe it?
Everybody has seen film interviews. It’s a staple of TV. When you watch Charlie Rose — well, you can’t watch Charlie Rose anymore, but if you could — you’d see there’s a table and two people sitting there and a camera somewhere else filming those two people talking. The camera is an observer. Like the camera is sitting at the table with them. Well, from the very beginning of making films since Gates of Heaven, I kept having this fantasy — what if people were looking directly into my eyes, and I was looking directly into theirs?

You can’t do that directly because the camera’s in the way. But you can do that if you use teleprompters. Teleprompters are almost always used to put text on a half-silvered mirror in front of the camera, so if you’re a politician or newscaster, you can read copy. My idea was to have two prompters and two cameras. If my camera, the A camera, is on you, I take the video feed of that camera and put it on the B prompter, so I’m looking at that video image of you, live, looking directly into the lens of the camera. I am also looking directly into the lens of the camera, and the B camera feeds that to the A prompter. So we’re both looking at each other’s live video images, and at the same time, we are staring directly down the lens of our respective cameras.

Are you both in the same room?
Don’t have to be. Sometimes I’m in a different room. It really depends. If it’s a big studio, I’m usually in the same room. If I’m in a house, like the one I was shooting in in L.A. a week ago, I’m in a different room.

By the way, people always say I’m screaming at McNamara in Fog of War, but I’m only doing it because he’s pretty far away from me! I’m in the Interrotron, he’s hard of hearing, and you don’t want to leave an open mic on set because that creates all kinds of difficulties in and of itself, so I’m only screaming at him in order for him to hear me!

Some would argue, and I’d imagine some have argued with you, about the whole idea of using the Interrotron. It does give you this sense that you’re looking directly into the person’s eyes …
And you are! It’s video images you’re looking at, but yes, you are looking into the person’s eyes, and vice versa.

… but it’s not what you and I are doing right now, here, in this room. 
Yes. God knows what “you and I” are doing.

My point is, compared to the two us sitting in chairs near each other, what you’re doing when you use the Interrotron is artificial.
It’s all artificial, please! [Laughs.] Oh, I got so tired of people criticizing that.

What else are you tired of hearing?
I hated the term, and still hate the term “reenactment.” Would you say there are reenactments in Rashomon? I don’t think so. He’s showing you alternative versions of what people say happened.

But Rashomon is an entirely scripted, fictional story.
Well, I noticed that even with the scripted elements of Wormwood, people call them “reenactments,” but they’re not reenacting anything, properly speaking. I got so tired of it that. First of all, reenactments came out of a sort of see-and-say type of stuff. You’d have an interview, the person would go, “Blah blah blah,” and then you’d illustrate them with the subsequent reenactment.

“On the night of June 4, 1973, I went to the store and bought a pack of cigarettes,” and you cut to an actor in a wide-lapel shirt and bell bottoms walking into a store and buying a pack of cigarettes.
That’s correct. So I pointed out like, “What exactly am I reenacting?” Am I reenacting truth? No. Am I reenacting belief? More often than not, I’m reenacting claims of what people saw or didn’t see. A version of events, a belief about what transpired, rather than what actually transpired. And I got in the habit — out of annoyance, I would say — of pointing out how consciousness is a reenactment of reality inside of our skulls. This idea that we have some immediate and privileged access to the world around us? Excuuuse me! We do not!

Errol Morris. Photo: Zach Dilgard/Netflix

The older I get, the more struck I am by the sheer amount of self-justifying bullshit that every single person indulges in every single minute of every single day.
Tell me about it!

When you have an argument with someone, and you come away from it and you tell a third person about it, what is the nature of the story? It’s usually about how you won the argument, and how you were the smart, rational person in the room and everyone else was an idiot and wouldn’t listen to your wisdom. It’s very rarely about how you could have done it differently, how humiliated you feel, and what mistakes you made. I think that’s why cell phones were invented, so people can instantly share bullshit accounts of their arguments with third parties.
Technology changes, of course, but it doesn’t make it less communicative. It just changes the parameters. Things happen in phone calls that would never happen with us sitting and looking at each other in a room. Things happen on the Interrotron that would never happen with us just sitting and looking at each other in a room. It’s not meant to replace us sitting across from each other in a room, it’s meant to create something new that has its own set of constraints and limitations, but that also has its own set of possibilities that you would not have otherwise.

Before I watched Wormwood, I had it described to me by a number of people as a “fact-fiction hybrid,” or something along those lines. But I don’t think you ever described it that way yourself, did you?
No. I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t call it a fact-fiction hybrid. There’s this kind of nutty idea of documentary, fact, drama, fiction. First of all, there’s a completely different set of rules. There is no such thing as presenting “truth,” whatever you think it is, in a movie theater. I have always bristled at the idea that style guarantees truth, that if I have a handheld camera, available light, and I don’t move anything on a set, that somehow that’s [acceptable], and somehow, all the rest is not. I think, no! Truth is a quest! It’s a pursuit!

So Frederick Wiseman’s detached way of shooting things is not innately more truthful than, say, Jonathan Caouette in Tarnation, which has a style that’s very subjective and emotional?
No! No! Fred Wiseman! I made a pilgrimage up to Cambridge, Massachusetts — I lived in New York at the time — to meet him, because he was one of my heroes, and he’s still, 40 years later, one of my heroes. He said to me once, “How can you like my films? They’re all wobbly-scope.” He calls his handheld camera “wobbly-scope.” Now, everything he does, or almost everything, is mounted on a tripod. But in those days, it was all handheld cinematography, available light. How does he deal with the question of filming people? He’ll create a situation where you and I are talking and then he is observing us, off to the side.

Fred would ask me, “How is it possible that you like my films?” and I say, “Are you kidding me?” I wrote a piece about Fred’s films for [the Museum of Modern Art] that was reprinted in The Paris Review that I’m quite proud of. For me, Fred is a surrealist working in reality. We may have different interpretations of his work, which I think is interesting in and of itself. I keep calling him “the king of misanthropic cinema,” and he calls me “the king of misanthropic cinema,” and then we get into some kind of argument about it! [Laughs.]

The late Albert Maysles gave me some very complimentary quotes about Fred Wiseman for a piece I wrote about 15 years ago, but he was quite critical of him for that reason. He said Wiseman didn’t like people very much. But how can you spend weeks or months photographing a particular institution if you don’t like people?
That’s possible, but let’s say for a moment that Fred Wiseman didn’t like people. Say, for the sake of argument, that being a social worker at heart is not a required condition of being a documentary filmmaker. I mean, I don’t see myself as a thinly disguised humanitarian or social worker.

I do like my subjects most of the time! I really do! I’ve interviewed mass murderers, psychos of every stripe and description, but I’ve also interviewed friends of mine. I’ve almost liked every single one of them, maybe even loved them. I had a hard time with Donald Rumsfeld, but maybe that’s me. And I guess Al [Maysles] wouldn’t have approved! “How dare you speak to someone you don’t love? HOW DARE YOU!” Really!

[Laughs.] We really should talk about Wormwood a little.
I hope I’m not ruining this interview!

Often, when people become preoccupied with form and the theory behind how stories are told, as you very clearly are, they lose the emotional impact of the story. How do you prevent that from happening?  
I guess you make certain stylistic decisions. It sounds pretentious, but I’m always thinking about how a story is presented. Why is there no Interrotron in Wormwood? Because it’s not a first-person story. It is Eric’s story, to a large degree, but there are other characters in it.

What’s up with all the mosaic editing, where you’re putting four, six, ten images on the screen at the same time?
I liked that whole set of metaphors that emerged from Eric’s work. His collage theory, the idea of detective work, reflections, mirrors, collages — all those are very important. And the use of all of these different genres and forms is very, very important.

Here’s my line, for what it’s worth: The best nonfiction asks us to examine the relationship between what we’re seeing on the screen and the real world. It makes us think about that. It doesn’t lull us into some kind of acquiescence or blind acceptance. It makes us think about how stories are constructed, how they’re put together. Napoleon had this really cynical line, which I disagree with. The line was, “What is history but a collection of agreed-upon lies?” What’s interesting is that so much of history is an agreed-upon lie, but still, history stands outside of us, in that sense that something happened in the real world, and just mere agreement between men and women will not make it so.

Someone asked me if truth is damaged in the modern world, with people screaming about “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Is it alternative or alternate? Whatever it is, whatever Kellyanne Conway came up with, the truth is in great shape. You can deny truth, but that doesn’t mean it’s gonna go away. It has a kind of permanence, and what’s great about us, if there is anything great about us as a species, is that we pursue truth. We understand its value. We see it as a search. It’s not something that’s handed over. It’s a quest.

Eric’s quest in Wormwood, my quest in Wormwood is to find out how and why his father died. If he was killed — and it seemed he was not only killed, but executed by the CIA — why was he killed? What are the details of it? Something happened in that room.

All of Trump’s courtiers can’t change the truth. You can have 100 million people saying that a triangle has four sides, and it ain’t gonna make it so.

Is one of the takeaways from Wormwood that there are some stories where you can never know the truth?
You can always know the truth.

But almost everyone involved in the story that Eric Olson is telling in Wormwood is dead.
Well, that’s the problem.

Once you get beyond a certain point, everyone who was involved in it will be dead. And all their children will be dead, too.
And no one will care.

And no one will care.
That’s a real possibility. But in principle, you can always know the truth.

Let me put it in a Donald Rumsfeld-like way: Are you telling me that the truth is always knowable, but we can’t always know the truth? 
I think that’s correct. It may not always be knowable in the sense that … well, the way I think about it, if history is perishable, there’s an expiration date. You’ve left it in the fridge too long and there’s mold on it.

You gotta make that goulash by Wednesday, otherwise …
You’re outta luck! Wormwood, though, is not just about the fact that history is perishable — of course it’s perishable; people die, documents are destroyed or lost or adulterated, and on and on — but that there are cadres of people interested in effacing history, covering it up, altering it, disguising it.

I like the incompetence theory of history — most major historical events occur out of some kind of stupidity, incompetence, inadvertence. The common history of both Frank Olson’s story and the [John F. Kennedy] assassination is the government’s repeated attempt to misdirect and confuse.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Errol Morris on Wormwood, Fake News, and Documentaries