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Tabloid: This Beauty Queen is a Hoot

Doc icon Errol Morris presents the lurid, sultry tale of a former Miss Wyoming who just may have tied up a Mormon and had her way with him in the 70s. Or did she?

Tabloid: Errol Morris


For over 30 years, director Errol Morris has been making provocative documentaries about people ranging from the iconic (The Fog of War, A Brief History of Time) to the eccentric (Gates of Heaven, Mr. Death, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control). With his film The Thin Blue Line, he even rescued an innocent man (Randall Adams) from Death Row in Texas, which likely inspired the various “innocence projects” that have sprung up in the 20 years since. So while his movies are hard to pigeonhole, one thing’s for sure: anytime an Errol Morris movie hits theaters, it’s an automatic must-see for serious fans of documentary.


With his latest film, Morris—a former private investigator—U-turns from his recent serious fare (Standard Operating Procedure, TFF 2008) back to the absurd, and there’s only one way to describe the result: Tabloid is a hoot.


The story centers on the decades-old escapades of one Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming with a charming Southern drawl. In the 1970s, the young beauty fell madly in love with a clean-living Mormon man she considered her Prince Charming, one Kirk Anderson. In Joyce’s story, the feelings were mutual, and she and Kirk became engaged. When he suddenly disappeared one day, she did what any smitten fiancée would do: she tracked him down—in this case, she found him in England, completing his Mormon mission. What followed is hard to pin down: either a) the two lovebirds willingly spent a weekend together in a cottage in Devon, or b) Joyce kidnapped Kirk (with the help of a henchman of sorts), tied him down, and had her way with him for several days. The former, obviously, is Joyce’s own account, and the latter is the way the encounter was described in the infamous British tabloid newspapers, leading to kidnapping charges against Joyce.


When we meet Joyce in the movie, she is a lovelorn woman in her 60s, and she’s sticking to her story. She’s also, to put it bluntly, a bit delusional, and the fun of the movie is comparing all the stories—including those of leading tabloideers of the time—which don’t at all coincide. What a stroke of good luck, you might say, that the film’s release date is coinciding with one of the biggest tabloid scandals of all time. We say this: if it helps Tabloid find an audience, that’s quite a silver lining.


We sat down with Morris at a recent roundtable interview*, where he proved to be a jovial, funny man with a twinkle in his eye, a man who is clearly well acquainted with the pleasures of irony.


Tabloid: Errol Morris


So Rupert Murdoch certainly gave you a present this week...


Errol Morris: Do I really think of it as a present, per se? Perhaps not, but it is a gift of sorts, I suppose. Okay, it’s a gift.


I don’t think that the events of the last couple of weeks, the closing of News of the World… Is it about tabloids per se? Or is it about a certain kind of criminal, unscrupulous journalism that has really given up any kind of journalistic concern whatsoever? It’s no longer about truth, it’s no longer about the relationship between story and reality; it’s just about scandal-mongering, falsification of evidence, manipulation of the media, and people who are influenced by the media—namely, all of us.


There are elements of that tabloid story in the movie that I made, and in the story of Joyce McKinney, but it seems to have been taken to yet another level—a criminal level. There’s a kind of good cheer—I don’t know how better to describe it—in the journalists in Tabloid; they know that they are making stuff up, they know they are trying to sell newspapers—there’s a newspaper war going on.


I don’t quite feel that Joyce is a completely innocent victim at all—she came to England with her gang of musclemen with the intention of kidnapping Kirk Anderson, and she may well have kidnapped Kirk Anderson—and the tabloids sprang into action; [they] became quickly obsessed with her and her story. Different time—this current story seems to me ... much worse than the stuff that went on [then].


How do you think things have changed over the past 35 years in that realm, with the advent of 24-hour news?


Errol Morris: So many things have changed! There’s a kind of hall of mirrors, where news just gets bounced back and forth between various sources—you no longer even know where it comes from anymore…


I tweet occasionally, so I tweeted a couple of weeks ago that Randall Adams, who was the central figure in my film The Thin Blue Line, had died last October. And I got all these calls from journalists who think that they are telling me that he died, not knowing that they know that he died because I tweeted it! And who knows where they read it?


Tabloid: Errol Morris


Your film definitely does not seek to demystify a lot of what kind of got lost in earlier tabloid reporting. At the same time, it doesn’t really presume to tell us what is the true, de facto version of anything. In making the movie, how did you set your priorities between “news telling” and “sensational reporting”?


Errol Morris: One of the things that really fascinates me is the perishability—that’s the way I describe it—of history. Evidence can be lost, evidence can be destroyed, someone can fail to collect evidence altogether because it represents an aspect of the story they’re not interested in.


There are aspects of this story that I believe I can know about, and then there are certain aspects of it that are elusive… Not because there isn’t a fact of the matter, just simply because—[for example,] take the love cottage in Devon. As I understand it, there were 3 people in that cottage: there was Joyce, there was Kirk Anderson, and there was this oddball character KJ [a henchman?], who clearly followed Joyce about. KJ [has since] died. I have little doubt that KJ would have been a good interview—I think KJ would have been fabulous. I’m not sure he would have resolved these questions, but…


Everybody knows that Rashomon idea—Kurosawa made a movie based on it—of everybody telling a slightly different story [about] the same set of events. I [used to investigate] murders, and I’ve been obsessed with various murder stories for over 40 years now. I noticed very early on that when you have one event that is described by 3 or 4 different people, yes, they tell different stories about it, but those differences help you to get a picture of what really happened. Far from preventing you from seeing what happened, they provide a guide into some underlying reality.


The problem here is there are not enough of those stories. The stories are disconnected from reality, and there are not enough of them. You can’t really trust either Kent Gavin or Peter Tory [two of the tabloid reporters from the era]. They sort of tell you in a way that they can’t be trusted—Peter Tory tells you, “I think it was ropes, but chains sounds better.” As far as I can tell, that’s a way of telling me, “I made this story up in order to sell newspapers.” I put the word spread-eagled on the screen [in the movie]. Was Kirk spread-eagled? I don’t know; I somehow think not. But clearly Peter Tory LOVES thinking about him being spread-eagled [laughs]; it becomes part of his mantra. I don’t know how many times he used that word—we tried to edit out as many as we could, but he kept saying it again and again: Spread-eagled! And then he chuckles to himself.


Or Kent Gavin, telling you that they’ve lost all the photographs! I tried to get the original photographs, but I couldn’t—it’s usually impossible from copies to really ascertain whether something has been doctored or not, whether it’s a composite or a montage.


Photographs lost, documents missing, court records that we couldn’t obtain from the criminal proceedings in Britain. We tried really hard to get material about this case, and often came up empty-handed. You know, if this was a murder, if I was charged with finding out whether Randall Adams really killed a Dallas police officer, and he’s a guy who is going to spend the rest of his life in prison, or is scheduled for execution, that’s one thing. I don’t feel the same weight of meaning to answer every question [in Tabloid].



You’ve called your style in this film “anti-documentary.” What do you mean by that?


Errol Morris: Most documentaries—I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think I am—try to hide their tracks. I like preserving uncertainties and confusions. It’s about a story, but it’s also about how stories are told, it’s also about what we don’t—and perhaps can’t—know about the story.


I’ve tried to create my own style in every movie that I’ve made, including this one. The use of the words [on the screen], which are tabloid-like, but also I see them almost like the reenactments in The Thin Blue Line. They focus your attention on details—whether it’s spread-eagled or kidnapped or minibar or whatever—and force you to look at the details of the story in an odd way. Maybe they even call attention to the unreliability of the story and the details.


I wonder about your relationship with your subjects. Do you leave it all up on the screen?  Your relationship with Joyce, for example, does it gather a different dimension off screen?


Errol Morris: I’ve only met her 3 times. Once was the interview, once was at the Skirball Center in New York in the fall, and then the third was last Saturday, two days ago, at a theater in Los Angeles.


When she watched the film, did she sense the flair of irony?


Errol Morris: Well, you know, she has responded to the film in so many odd and different ways. She has threatened lawsuits, and she’s been nice, and then she’s threatened lawsuits again.


She doesn’t like the tabloid journalists, but I explained, “Joyce, the tabloid journalists are not just treated as oracles, purveyors of truth! They are suspect. You couldn’t leave them out of the story; that’s the story!” You can’t leave the story out of the story; what kind of a movie would I be making?


Tabloid: Errol Morris


Do you get the sense that she wanted the movie to be My Story, by Joyce McKinney, essentially, without any other witnesses or testimony?


Errol Morris: She has said she would have preferred that no one else was in the story. She didn’t like sharing the screen with others. [Laughs] When Joyce said that she wished I had given some time to her story, [someone in the audience] pointed out that the whole movie was her: “The whole movie is Joyce! You’re on the screen unendingly!”


Is she angry with you personally?


Errol Morris: No. Well, she was up onstage with me for an hour and a half. She [was upset] that people were laughing at the movie, and I said, “Joyce, you’re one of the funniest people I’ve ever met! Your interview was incredibly funny! You really think when you say things like, ‘A woman can’t rape a man; it’s like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter,’ you think that’s not funny?”


What did she say?


Errol Morris: She’s laughing, but she’s like, “I’m just a Southern girl. We have odd ways.”
Have you heard from Kirk Anderson?


Errol Morris: No, never.


Tabloid is somewhat consciously a return to your earlier style—to the tone and subject matter of your earlier films. Was that something you felt a desire to do for some time?


Errol Morris: In truth, if I were just simply to do political movies or movies that were really grim in tone and content, it would be a mistake. It’s not that I won’t return to doing things like that—I think I will—but yes, I did want to do something different, explicitly.


There’s a way in which the film can be seen as a satirical portrait of a delusional person. But it’s also the portrait of a great romantic.


Errol Morris: She is a great romantic! It’s a great romance—a doomed romance, but a romance. In fact, some of the great romances are doomed—it seems to be one of the ingredients for a great romance.


You tweeted that you think this is your best film. What are your barometers for success?


Errol Morris: I think it’s certainly one of my best. It’s rich, it’s complicated, it’s funny. I think it’s a good movie.


Tabloid: Errol MorrisTabloid is now playing. Find tickets.


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*Note: Some questions and answers were edited for space and brevity.


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