Filmmaker Errol Morris Discusses "Wormwood"
Errol Morris
Oscar winner reflects on his hybrid documentary containing re-enactments, narrative drama

With a filmography that includes such lauded documentaries as The Thin Blue Line, Gates of Heaven and the Oscar-winning The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, director Errol Morris has continually pushed creative boundaries.

The Thin Blue Line, for example, paved the way for an expanded view of the documentary form, though it paid the short-term price for being different as the Motion Picture Academy deemed the seminal film ineligible for Best Documentary Oscar consideration due to its use of cinematic re-enactments. The Thin Blue Line, though, earned a distinction beyond that of any industry award. It helped to free a wrongly imprisoned man.

Fast forward to today and Morris is still seeking justice while stretching the documentary discipline with Wormwood, a mix of straightforward documentary elements along with re-enactments which play like a narrative drama featuring a cast that includes Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Blake Nelson and Bob Balaban. A six-part event on Netflix, Wormwood --which Morris produced with Moxie Pictures--is almost a film within another film, all to help shed light on the mysterious death of Dr. Frank Olson, a scientist working for the CIA. In 1953, Olson fell from a New York City hotel room. His passing was originally ruled a suicide but a 1975 report tied the death to a top-secret MK-Ultra experiment delving into mind control through drugs such as LSD. Olson had been unwittingly dosed with LSD, and a bad reaction to the drug caused him to commit suicide. The U.S. government issued an apology to the Olson family in 1976 but that didn’t stop Olson’s son, Eric, from suspecting something else. Morris’ series follows Eric and his decades-long quest to figure out exactly what happened to his father. As part of the search for information, Eric checks into the hotel room in which his father was staying on that fateful day and a forensics expert exhumes Frank’s body to find new clues.

With its Netflix rollout, Wormwood is currently in the Emmy conversation. Earlier this year, Wormwood earned Morris his fourth career DGA Award nomination—and his third for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary. The first two came for Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr in 2000 and The Fog of War in 2004. Also in 2004, Morris was nominated for the DGA Award in Commercials (based on work for Miller, Nike and Cisco).

Morris remains active in commercials and branded content. Last year he joined the spotmaking roster of Biscuit Filmworks. Morris has directed more than 1,000 commercials over the years, including campaigns for Apple, American Express, IBM, General Motors, Nike and PBS. For the latter he helmed “Photobooth” out of Fallon Minneapolis, which won the primetime commercial Emmy Award in 2001. Among his latest endeavors is a poignant AT&T campaign on the perils of distracted driving, specifically texting behind the wheel. We are introduced to Caleb Sorohan and Forrest Cepeda—at least what they would look like if they were still actually with us today. They tell us their dreams of what they might have done—at which point we discover that they never got the chance because traffic accidents caused by smartphone distracted drivers cut Caleb’s and Forrest’s lives short. Forensic artists and visual effects teams recreated what Caleb and Forrest would look like today had they not been killed.

Among his many honors, Morris has been the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and the recipient of five fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship.

SHOOT: What drew you to the story of Frank Olson?

Morris: The challenge of how to properly tell this story. And of course it’s a story worth telling—the story of a son who wants justice for his father. Eric was nine years old when his father died. 

For me, it’s almost an ideal story. I think of mysteries as being black boxes that you somehow have to find a way inside of. In this case, the crime scene is a hotel room at the Statler across from the old Penn Station in New York City—room 1018-A. Did Frank Olson commit suicide or was he murdered?

SHOOT: What was the biggest creative challenge that Wormwood posed to you as a filmmaker?

Morris: The idea from the beginning was to combine all these different elements—documentary, re-creations or re-enactments, and straight drama that isn’t re-creating or re-enacting anything. We were also very lucky to have all the original negative for home movies taken by Frank Olson in the late 1940s into the ‘50s. We retransferred it to 5K, making for some amazing looking material. Then we had all the archival material from the 1950s to present time. The big challenge was being able to take all these different elements and create a new hybrid form that would do justice to the story. 

We also shot the interviews in a different way, going with multiple cameras—as many as 12 on occasion. This seemed to capture the nature of the story in that any investigation is like a collage, a crossword puzzle that you’re trying to put together to make a whole. So the idea of shooting these interviews from multiple angles with multiple cameras seemed to be part and parcel of the whole nature of the film.

I’m grateful to Netflix for the opportunity to take these different techniques and bring them all to bear on this project.

SHOOT: What’s your biggest takeaway or lesson learned from your experience on Wormwood?

Morris: That I’d like to do more of this kind of work. This hybrid form works and could be developed further. It’s not the be-all and end-all. More can be done. I hope Wormwood paves the way for something else that’s new. I sold Wormwood to Netflix as “the everything bagel.” I remain interested in more “everything bagel” projects.

SHOOT: What’s the appeal of commercialmaking and branded content to you as a filmmaker?

Morris: I’m working on a campaign that’s allowing me to use the ARRI 65, a digital camera with a huge chip that I was interested in experimenting with.

The point is that you are constantly plying your trade, learning stuff every time you pick up a camera. Commercials provide a great opportunity to try new technologies, new techniques which help you to grow.

MySHOOT Company Profiles