Miss Wyoming. Kidnapping. Mormons. Cloned dogs. The latest documentary from Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris (Standard Operating Procedure, Fog of War), Tabloid, chronicles the fabulously deranged story of brainy, busty, beauty queen Joyce McKinney and her obsessive love for a dumpy Mormon named Kirk Anderson. Back in the '70s, McKinney, convinced that her budding romance with Anderson had been derailed by the Church of Latter Day Saints, set off for England to "rescue" him from his mission assignment. What happened next is uncertain. Depending who you believe, either Joyce spent 72 hours raping poor Kirk in order to get pregnant, or Anderson was a willing paramour who enjoyed a weekend of wild sex then sicced the authorities on Joyce to avoid excommunication from his church. Whatever the truth, the story ignited a firestorm of tabloid coverage, pitting Britain's two top rag sheets against each other in an attempt to own the "Case of the Manacled Mormon." The feud turned McKinney into both a victim and celebrity.
Metro Times: You have such an entertaining subject in both Joyce and the media frenzy that surrounded her. But other than watching the crazed circus train wreck of what happened, what do you want the audience to take away from your movie?
Errol Morris: It's a kind of modern fairy tale about hopeless love, about journalism, about finding the truth, and about our need to tell stories about ourselves. Maybe it's Errol Morris' version of a modern morality tale.
MT: So, what's the moral?
EM: That we can get so lost inside of ourselves that our connection to reality can just vanish. It's true of Joyce and her obsessive pursuit of Kirk. It's true of the confabulating and fabricating tabloid journalists. One feature of modern documentaries ... or recent documentaries ... or maybe just my documentaries — is the attempt to tell two stories at the same time. If you can tell a story, and you can tell a story about telling a story, you acknowledge that the truth is jiggered. It's changed, it's manufactured, and it's manipulated. Those things are very evident here — the crazy competing interests of the tabloids, Joyce's deep need to see herself as a romantic heroine. Plus, the idea that she could realize her love story, she could finally get pregnant in the most unconventional way possible, by producing five cloned pit bull puppies ... who in a million years could come up with that?
MT: Isn't there a kind of meta-tabloid aspect to your film?
EM: Absolutely! Why deny it? You'd call me a liar.
MT: So, does that make the movie, for lack of a better word, an art-house version of a tabloid?
EM: I don't want to restrict the audience that shows up. I'll lose 95 percent of the possible audience that would see the movie. ...
MT: Then how about "highbrow" tabloid?
EM: You are correct. And I like it. It's an ironic tabloid story, one that doubles back on itself. It is meta-tabloid!
MT: Kirk Anderson didn't cooperate with the making of your movie. His absence is pretty notable. Did you consider other ways of making him more of a presence in Tabloid?
EM: We did toy with one idea, which I think was ill-advised. We considered using chloroform and kidnapping him, then interviewing him using a fake gun. It would have been a perfect conclusion to the tabloid story.
MT: Thus ensuring your meta status.
EM: It was a temptation I was able to overcome. But I am an investigator. I am curious about what really went down. I can't really answer that with just Joyce. I need Kirk. It would have been great if I had K.J., Kirk and Joyce but K.J. is dead. Even with my Interrotron, I have constraints with regard to the dead.
MT: A number of your films seem attracted to eccentrics and oddballs, the misfits in society. But this is probably the first time I've seen you focus so acutely on someone who ... how does that British journalist describe Joyce ...?
EM: Barking mad.
MT: Right. So, is Joyce barking mad? And if she is, are you worried that on some level you're taking advantage of someone who doesn't appreciate what she's getting herself into?
EM: I don't think she's any further gone than the men in the movie. Peter Tory can call her barking mad but, hey, people in glass houses. ... And guess what? The filmmaker who made a film about her, namely myself, what about me? I do worry whether I am taking advantage of a person but Joyce was very much a willing customer.
MT: But wouldn't someone who was crazy be a willing customer?
EM: Not necessarily. She does tend to see herself as a victim, a victim of the tabloid press and Mormon Church. My own two cents is that it's a little more complicated. Yes, I think she was victimized by the church and by the tabloids. But I also think that she contributed to that situation. She is not completely innocent. That's the problem with seeking publicity, you think you can control it, but you can't. You think you can tell your story, but your story is invariably going to change in the telling. But I tried my level-headed best to capture Joyce McKinney in as loving a portrait as I could.
MT: At the beginning of the film you really want to believe everything she's saying because she's so passionate and charismatic and funny?
EM: I do want to believe her. And in many instances I do, but I certainly don't believe everything she says to me. I kind of do believe that Kirk was willing and was turned against her by the church. I can't prove it. The evidence is spotty. I tried to recover all of the court documents and I couldn't get them. It's strange how much stuff has just disappeared associated with the case. Usually when you're investigating something that had a legal component, that's brought to trial, and results in an incarceration, there's a record or file that can be produced. In this case there's very, very little and I can't tell you why. And I'm a pretty determined investigator.
MT: Still, Joyce has been showing up at screenings of your films expressing that she's not happy with what you've done.
EM: Yes and no. I would respectfully describe Joyce's reaction as conflicted and complicated. I appeared with her after a screening on Saturday night and we took questions from the audience for over an hour. I'm not going to clear up every misunderstanding, and I'm not going to say she doesn't have some legitimate complaints but not all her complaints are legitimate. Her suggestion that I treated the two British tabloid journalists as though everything they say is gospel truth just isn't true. And the audiences pretty much agree with me there.
MT: Right now we have two people running for president who are with the Mormon Church. How much of the work on this film was an introduction to the church for you? For instance, the revelation that they believe they'll each get their own planet to lord over after death was a surprise to me.
EM: Someone recently asked me how weird it was that the Mormon Church seems to be everywhere all of a sudden. It wasn't intentional on my part that's for sure. [chuckles] I think that it's interesting that there are all these Jews worrying about the Mormon Church.
MT: Maybe it's because of all those post-mortem conversions.
EM: There you go. But the Mormon stuff isn't at the center of my movie. It is there as an element of the story to be sure, but let's not forget there's a lot of other stuff here. Now, if you interviewed Joyce — which I think you should — she would tell you that she really wanted this movie to be a screed against the Mormon Church and how they had destroyed her life. She blames them for a lot of things. And to the extent that I don't go after those people the way she would like me to, she gets annoyed. And I don't blame her, but, I'm sorry, that's not my agenda.
MT: With new revelations about The News of the World's practice of phone hacking coming out every day there's lots of talk about the tactics and values of tabloids. I'm sure you've become the go-to guy on this topic.
EM: Yes, indeedy!
MT: Is there something out there that's not being said that ought to be?
EM: The one thing I repeat is that The News of the World case is not about tabloid journalism per se. Now after seeing my movie you could obviously say there's a slippery slope. The journalists [interviewed in Tabloid] were obviously fabricating or concocting or however you want to describe it ... they're making up the news as well as reporting it. But it seems to me this is a pretty nasty story as the details come out. It's a story about journalism gone completely awry, with no longer any concern for the truth. One of the themes of my movies is the balancing act between narrative and the truth. But here we see that no one cares about the truth. The only thing that the people in this story care about is circulation, making money, and anything goes. There's no morality. It's creating news not reporting on it.
MT: What's your take on the proliferation of documentaries in recent years? There are a lot of good ones out there, and they seem to be pushing the envelope of what's expected from the form. I think it's safe to say you've had a pretty big influence.
EM: I've been told this by a lot of filmmakers and, of course, I'm pleased. The line I've been quoting from lately is from Conan the Barbarian. There's this road lined with thousands of crucified people and one penitent says to another, "It used to be just another snake cult, now you see it everywhere." And that's certainly true of documentaries; you see them everywhere. And they're every different kind. It's like the zoo. You can see all kinds of animals at the documentary zoo.
Tabloid opens Friday, July 22, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]