On November 28th, 1953, a military scientist named Frank Olson died after falling out the window of his New York hotel room. Did he jump … or was he pushed? That question has consumed the life of his son, Eric. And it’s now the focus of Wormwood, the new four-hour-plus film from Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, who has spent his landmark career exploring the truth that governments and powerful individuals don’t want us to know.
Streaming on Netflix in six episodes and screening in select theaters, Wormwood could serve as a grand summation of Morris’s cinematic trademarks – provocative interviews with fascinating subjects, a clinical dissection of dense information, an obsession with exploring other people’s obsessions. But this opus also represents a radical shift for the director, who incorporates film noir-style interpretations of the fateful events that led to Olson’s death and casts Peter Sarsgaard to play Frank. (Also on board: Molly Parker, Tim Blake Nelson and Bob Balaban.) Are we seeing in these re-creations the truth? And if so, whose truth? What exactly is the government hiding? And, ultimately, if Eric finally learns what really happened, will it make any difference?
On the eve of Hanukkah, the 69-year-old Errol Morris spoke to Rolling Stone from New York about this ambitious, engrossing work that invites comparison to his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. “I’ve never seen anything quite like [this],” Morris says. “There are all these shots that I’ve never really seen in movies before.” Then, he adds, “Maybe I just haven’t seen enough movies, I don’t know.”
In an interview this summer, you said that with Wormwood, you wanted to “reinvent nonfiction, to do something that I’ve always wanted to do, to blend drama and documentary, in service of an investigation.” Was that born out of a desire to shake up your own methods, or just a general frustration with the lack of experimentation in nonfiction filmmaking?
One of the nice things about multiple-choice tests is they often give you a category: “All of the above.” So I would pick that category – you mentioned two things, and I believe certainly both are true.
There’s a contrarian element in my filmmaking, to be sure, and I think it goes beyond just simply that contrarian impulse. But here’s something maybe you could explain to me … I’m not sure I can explain it to myself or to others. Why is it so many movies are coming out that redo historical events? They don’t even matter what the historical event [is] – it could be just Bobby Riggs playing tennis [against] Billie Jean King. It could be Chappaquiddick. It could be anything – as though history doesn’t exist until someone makes a movie about it.
The thinking seems to be, “We need to make audiences understand that these events from the past are relevant to contemporary times.”
[Long pause] Thinking about it. [Long pause]
Of course, we make them retrospectively so that they are harbingers of our own time. And, of course, they have to be, in some sense, harbingers of our own time because they precede us. It’s still a phenomenon that I find puzzling.
“I have my version of the famous quote: ‘Those who are unfamiliar with history are condemned to repeat it without a sense of ironic futility.'”
So do you think of Wormwood in a present context and how the film’s events speak to the modern age?
Well, it’s unavoidable. I mean, more or less, I like to think I live in the present. The difference for me is that part of telling a story about history is telling a story about how we have come to know about that history – and in many instances, how people have tried to prevent us from knowing about it. How it has become altered, sanitized, bowdlerized … however you want to describe it.
What Wormwood tries to do is tell a story about how we know what we know and how reliable is that knowledge. Part of history is telling a story about what we do and do not accept to be true – how we know about anything, for that matter. My line, which seems to amuse me but doesn’t really amuse anybody else, is “It’s taking the ‘piss’ out of epistemology.”
There are so many clues and leads you have to navigate through in Wormwood – including the notion that Frank Olson was involved in a government experiment on the effects of LSD, which might have led to his death.
Going into this, I did not know all the efforts to prevent us from knowing what happened to Frank. Even with MK Ultra – the CIA program involved with memory replacement and mind control, [a] Manchurian Candidate program in America – a lot of the records were destroyed at the behest of the people who ran it. So what do you do if you’re telling a story about history, and the records have been destroyed or adulterated? Can you ever recover under those circumstances what happened and what didn’t happen? Did I know this going into it? No, I did not. This whole LSD element of Wormwood might be just misdirection, sleight of hand: Look over to the right so you don’t notice what’s happening on the left.
Is that where the inspiration came to cast actors for the 1953 segment? Because it allowed you to speculate on what could have happened to Frank?
Yes, that’s the simplest answer, but it goes a little bit beyond that. In The Thin Blue Line, I remember listening to all of these eyewitnesses who claimed they had been on this dark roadway when this Dallas police officer was shot and killed – these contradictory accounts. It seemed to me the best way to do it was not so different than Kurosawa and Rashomon … to illustrate the various contradictory accounts. They all can’t be true, but you want to think about them – you want to try to assess their truth or falsity. I always objected to the term “reenactment” because it wasn’t clear: “What am I reenacting here?” I’m reenacting them so you can think about their truth or falsity. It became a very, very important aspect in The Thin Blue Line.
Well, here, it is not all that different. In 1975, following the Rockefeller Commission report [which investigated the circumstances surrounding Olson’s death], it became clear that the army scientist who jumped out the window was Frank Olson and that LSD – at least according to the government – was involved. He was surreptitiously administered a dose and went crazy, or so the story said. The family gets invited to meet Gerald Ford in the White House, which is extraordinary. How many families get an apology from the President of the United States?
And then, this is when our story, properly speaking, really begins. They’re invited to meet William Colby, the then-director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He lays on them this stack of papers – the so-called Colby Document. We have that whole stack of papers; they’ve been gone over with a fine-tooth comb by Eric and his lawyers. They have reason to believe that the documents created a false picture of what happened, although we don’t know for sure what part of them is false and what part is true. Like any good lie, the best thing to do is include something of the truth in that lie. I thought, “I’ll use the Colby Document as the central drama at the heart of Wormwood.” The drama was a way of bringing them to life.
This is a much longer work than you usually do – and, because it’s Netflix, that you have to think in terms of individual episodes. As a storyteller, how did you find those new narrative demands?
I would say unendingly interesting. This whole series could not have been made without Netflix. I’m being given a much broader canvas than I’ve ever been given before. Before Wormwood, I don’t think I ever thought of making something at this length. There [used to be] all of these demands and time constraints if you wanted your movie to get theatrical distribution – and I always did. That, of course, has changed. Everything has changed: how movies are distributed has changed, the length of movies has changed. It means rethinking how you’re telling stories. I am really excited about the opportunities that exist [to tell] longer stories – and, in some very real sense, more complex stories.
“Pursuing truth is a high aspiration – I believe in it as a calling, and would be crazy to even suggest otherwise.”
Wormwood is easily the most complicated and layered of your films.
Wormwood is a series of Russian dolls, one inside the other inside the other. I get to tell multiple stories. I get to tell a story about Eric Olson and his 60-plus years of investigating his father’s murder. I get to tell a story about the family as a whole and the devastating effect that Frank’s death had on them. I get to tell a story about post-WW II America and the unending efforts of the government to prevent us from actually really ever finding out what happened. This was a fabulous opportunity, and I’m anxious to do more like this.
Was there something specific about Peter Sarsgaard that made you think of Frank?
I had seen Peter in this movie An Education – he’s utterly fabulous. I remember telling him that he was particularly good when he wasn’t saying anything, which seemed to shock him. There’s a scene at the end of An Education where he’s just sitting in the car – he doesn’t get out and we’re just looking at Peter, and it’s extraordinarily powerful. I think of him as, in many ways, an underappreciated actor.
You don’t use your famous Interrotron device while interviewing Eric, journalist Seymour Hersh or any of the film’s other subjects.
I’ve been repeatedly asked, “Why no Interrotron? What’s that about? Was that a conscious decision?” Of course it was a conscious decision – to the extent I’m conscious.
The Interrotron came out of a first-person idea of making a movie with only one character in it. Whether it’s Donald Rumsfeld or Robert S. McNamara, the Interrotron seemed the ideal device. And I hate to use this word – I’ll use it anyway – it’s metaphorically connected. The style is connected with the whole essence of the movie – the exploration of one man. Well, this is not a first-person story. This story is bits and pieces of evidence and the attempt to put them together into a picture of what happened. So, Eric, instead of being shot with the Interrotron, [he’s] shot with 10 cameras simultaneously. He told me that when he came in [for the interview], he was a little worried, but when he saw how many cameras there were, he decided just to give up, to surrender to this process. Like a cornered animal.
How much do you talk to the central figures in your documentaries before they’re on camera? Did you chat with Eric?
I don’t like very much prep time at all. In fact, for a long time I avoided meeting and even talking to people prior to filming them. You want the stuff to spill out on camera, not in advance of filming. Eric, I had a number of conversations with him on the phone, but nothing special. Then we did this long interview that went on almost three days.
Eric has devoted his whole life to finding out what happened to his father, but he doesn’t seem as damaged by that choice as would be expected. Did you feel that way?
Eric is pretty complicated, and I would say a fabulous interview – unendingly interesting. Is he damaged? It’s really hard to say. It’s easy to say that this investigation has come at a considerable cost to himself. It’s not unheard of – particularly in nonfiction – to tell a story about an obsessive investigation and an obsessive investigator who looks back on it with an amount of regret. To me, there’s a heroic element to Eric, and I certainly identify with him. Pursuing truth is a high aspiration – I believe in it as a calling, and would be crazy to even suggest otherwise.
When you won your Oscar in 2004 for The Fog of War, you said on stage, “40 years ago, this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam and millions died. I fear we’re going down a rabbit hole once again. And if people can stop and think and reflect on some of the ideas and issues in this movie, perhaps I’ve done some damn good here!” You’ve continued to make films that question our government’s policies, and yet it seems we’ve very much gone down that rabbit hole. Does any part of you worry that, no matter what you do, it doesn’t make any difference?
There are sort of moments of despair. I have my version of [George] Santayana’s famous quote: “Those who are unfamiliar with history are condemned to repeat it.” My version is, “Those who are unfamiliar with history are condemned to repeat it without a sense of ironic futility.”
I mean, you do what you can do. I was very, very lucky in The Thin Blue Line that I was able to overturn Randall Adams’ conviction. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime success story. It also interests me that, in the quarter-century since The Thin Blue Line was made, I might not have been able to get it out [now]. The courts has moved to the right – it becomes harder and harder to overturn a murder conviction, almost impossible. Some prisons have decided they would no longer allow any kind of visitation; most prisons won’t even allow you to bring a camera in. It’s changed for the worse. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be out there challenging things and looking at things and reporting on them. Futility for me is, like, “Well, why not try harder?”