DID YOU READ

“Tabloid” journalism with Errol Morris

“Tabloid” journalism with Errol Morris (photo)

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These are the very last words on my audio recording of my interview with Errol Morris, spoken by the director himself:

“You can say I hate movies. What’s there to like?”

What’s there to like? Well, for one thing, there are Errol Morris movies. The Oscar winning director of “The Fog of War,” “Gates of Heaven,” and “The Thin Blue Line,” makes singular first person documentaries, touching, hilarious, and sometimes shocking films about truth, lies, and everything in between. His new movie is “Tabloid,” the crazy life story of Joyce McKinney, the model and pageant girl who fell in love with a guy who chose to leave her for a Mormon youth mission to England. Or was he brainwashed? Joyce thinks so. Either way, she followed him, and so did rescues (or kidnappings), kinky sex (or innocent love), and malicious (or accurate) reporting of it all by the British tabloids.

To McKinney, it was a grand love story. To the British tabloid press, it was true crime, as lurid as it gets. As Morris tells it, it’s both; a crazy story and a crazy film, one the director captures in uproarious (or is it moving?) detail with his inimitable in-depth interviews.

So why does Errol Morris hate movies? That came later. First we talked about “Tabloid,” and what Morris thinks of his subject’s continuing campaign to discredit (or drum up publicity for) the film. We also touched on how Morris thinks his tabloid story compares to the one currently engulfing News International, and his long-awaited return to fiction filmmaking. That intriguing sounding project is yet another reason not to hate movies, even if Morris claims that he does.

If you had planned it for months or years through careful and unscrupulous phone tapping, could you have picked a better week to release a movie called “Tabloid?”


Do you think it helps?

Yeah, absolutely. You don’t think so?

I don’t know. I really don’t know.

Obviously your story takes place two or three decades ago, but do you think your film still reflects some of the values of journalism that caused this massive scandal?

There are certainly elements in common. But there are also disparate elements. What’s going on in Britain and News of the World, that’s not a problem with tabloid journalism per se. I would call it beyond tabloid journalism; beyond journalism period. It’s journalism run amok, with no interest in truth or accurate, faithful representation of any underlying reality. It’s journalism for the sake of creating sensation and selling papers.

Words are funny. You apply a word to something and suddenly it takes on all kinds of significance. News of the World was a “tabloid” newspaper, it covered what we take to be “tabloid” stories. But there are things about tabloid journalism that I love. It’s not that unscrupulous part, it’s the fascination with certain stories that are bizarre and peculiar. That part of tabloid journalism, I think, is unendingly interesting. Taking a tabloid story, or a story that just might be discarded as a tabloid story and looking behind it and discovering some depth that might not have been apparent at the outset is what my movie is all about. It’s a tabloid story that was covered by the tabloid newspapers as “a tabloid story.” But I like to think it’s something more.

There are a couple hallmarks of all your films, but certainly fascinating and unusual characters are something audiences have come to expect from you. How did you find Joyce?

Joyce was an AP wire service story which involved dog cloning and the possibility that Bernann McKinney, the woman who cloned her dogs, might be Joyce McKinney, the woman who was at the center of the “sex in chains” tabloid story thirty years ago. And that was the beginning of it.

I was just lucky. I think there are stories that kind of by their very nature attract interesting characters. And the characters in this are just fantastic. Each one of them. Peter Tory [reporter, Daily Express]. Kent Gavin [photographer, The Mirror]. Jackson Shaw [Joyce’s pilot]. Dr. Hong [the scientist who cloned Joyce’s dog]. It’s fantastic.

You recently said on Twitter that Joyce was the best subject you ever had. Why is that?

She’s an amazing interview. For someone like myself that specializes in first person storytelling and first person accounts, I’d never really seen anything quite like it. She was really funny, she was really smart, she was really crazy, she was really entertaining. It’s hard for me to imagine a better interview than the interview Joyce gave me. That’s all done in a day, and that’s kind of jaw-dropping.

The whole interview with her is done in one day?

One day. I’ve only met Joyce three times. I appeared on stage with her in New York at the Skirball Center [at DOC NYC last fall] and then I appeared with her on stage Saturday night [after a preview screening] for over an hour of Q & A which was, in itself, really amazing. I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years and a lot of what I would consider to be remarkable interviews. But Joyce is way the hell up there.

How do you feel about her coming to screenings and trying to rebut parts of the film she doesn’t like?

I’m fine with it. I’ve never had a problem with Joyce coming to screenings or talking to her onstage after the screenings. It’s peculiar because she has been so hostile at times, not directly to me but to others involved with this movie. But given what went on onstage Saturday night, it was not hostile. It was friendly and it was interesting. And yes she was unhappy with this and unhappy with that, like why I put the tabloid journalists in the movie. Well, they’re part of the story. I can’t help that. That’s not my fault. I would be remiss if I didn’t put them in. It’s not as though we take whatever they say to be gospel truth. Far from it. They give us ample evidence that the story was in part constructed to sell newspapers. There was a circulation war.

We had a conversation about people laughing at her in the movie. This is in front of the audience there. [I said] “Joyce, when you say that a woman can’t rape a man because ‘it’s like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter’ you know that’s funny.”

It’s a great line.

It’s a great line.

So why is she upset when people laugh at it?

I don’t think she really is, to tell you the truth. She knows she’s funny.

Have you ever had a similar situation happen to you where you were interviewed by a journalist and you felt like they hadn’t told your story properly?

Yes I have, certainly. It’s like a game of telephone. You pass on a piece of information from one person to another person to another person, the chances are it’s going to get changed around in the process.

We all have ways in which we like to see ourselves, narratives that we have created about ourselves. There’s always room for some kind of disagreement. Most of my experiences, I would say 95% of my experiences with journalists, have been really good. The exceptions are few and far between.

I’ve been writing for The New York Times for the last three plus years, and so I do a lot of interviews on the phone. Actually I prefer doing them on the phone. It’s part of the style of what I do. I’m not doing the familiar journalistic trope of “Mr. X adjusted his toupee,” or, “He was wearing green Sansabelt pants.” There’s none of that physical description. It’s a pure conversation. And the transcriptions of the conversation are invariably long, and they have to be edited and reduced to something more manageable in size. So I handle that by editing the material and then giving it back to the person that I’ve interviewed and asking them if it’s okay. Someone told me “That’s crazy! You can’t do that.” But I do do that. The interest isn’t in blindsiding somebody, it’s actually capturing them. It’s a different kind of idea, I guess.

The one question I was left with after the film was over was how does Joyce have the money to do all these things?

You and me both, by the way.

[laughs] She takes these wild trips abroad, she pays private bodyguards and pilots, and then later she clones her dog! None of that stuff is cheap.

They asked her that same question at the screening on Saturday night, and her answer was that she had been in an accident and she had gotten a settlement. But what the details of any of that might be, I don’t know. I mean she’s travelled all over the country! She’s appeared at festivals in Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, New York, and Sarasota. She’s been a lot of different places.

Do you have any interest in making another fiction film?

I’m about to, with Ira Glass. It’s a story first reported on “This American Life” about the first cryonics freezing.

And are you writing and directing it?

The script was written by Zack Helm, who wrote “Stranger Than Fiction.”

Have you been looking to get back into fiction for a while or was it really this project that caught your eye?

I liked the story. It’s one of the best episodes of “This American Life.” Quite remarkable. It’s a tabloid story, kind of.

Okay we’ve got to wrap it up. Before I go: what’s the best documentary you’ve seen this year?

Have I seen any this year? I’m not even sure what I’ve seen.

How about in the last twelve months?

I’m not sure what I’ve seen. It becomes a blur what I have and haven’t seen. I’ve been watching so many feature films this year that I don’t even know how many documentaries I’ve actually seen.

All right, I’ll take a favorite feature film then.

[Long pause] What am I trying to imagine? Then of course there’s the question do I even like movies? Maybe I don’t like movies, maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why I don’t see any of them anymore.

Why don’t you like movies anymore?

I went through years and years of obsessive movie watching. Now I watch them and I’m not sure why I watch them. Certainly not for entertainment. It’s usually in connection with something that I’m writing. Maybe it’s just that my interest in film keeps changing. I’m still very much interested in making movies. That should count for something.

“Tabloid” opens in limited release this Friday. If you see it, we want to know what you think. Tell us in the comments below or on Twitter and Facebook!

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Jurassic Park Cast

Park Rules

5 Lessons Modern Blockbusters Could Learn From Jurassic Park

Catch the Jurassic Park movies this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Jurassic Park wasn’t the first blockbuster that set out to appeal to everyone, but it is arguably the most successful of its kind. Adults, kids, boys, girls, nerds, jocks, and lawyers love it. (Okay, maybe not lawyers). With a script from David Koepp, direction by Steven Spielberg (who also had the Oscar winning Schindler’s List the same year) and groundbreaking special effects that still thrill modern CGI-addled viewers, Jurassic Park was the most ambitious film project of its time. And as we see with dreadful early-’90s megaflops like Waterworld and Showgirls, the bigger they were, the harder they were apt to fall.

Jurassic Park faced the impossible scenario of having to appeal to everyone, and the end result is one of the very few examples that actually succeeded. So what lessons can we take from the shining beacon of both mass appeal and being smarter than the competition?

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Change Your Source Material

Nedry

An adaptation of Michael Crichton’s hit novel, Jurassic Park changes a lot from page to screen, but the most significant changes are in the characters, in that they actually exist. Crichton’s primary interests were scientific morals and philosophy, not character and story, so the characters end up more as vessels for the action and ideas rather than, well, characters. Adding dimension to the characters changed a great deal of the material, since the material flowed more organically not just from ideas and philosophy, but character action.

Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the well-meaning, impassioned lover of science and possibilities, is a much more compelling character in the film than the corporate, grandchild-hating jerk who is poetically eaten by dinos in the book. Nedry (Wayne Knight) isn’t just in the story for some corporate espionage — there’s a genuine “daddy issue” undercurrent in his relationship with Hammond, and his desire to subvert his father figure goes horribly awry.

Tim and Lex (played by Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards) aren’t just whiny nuisances who are kids for kids’ sake, but are given interests and agencies that pay off later in the film — Lex with her computer skills, and Tim with his basic dinosaur knowledge. The movie gives Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) a character arc by getting him to connect with children, whom initially make him uncomfortable, which helps solidify his relationship to Ellie Satler (Laura Dern).


2. Avoid useless characters.

Jurassic World

Often in movies we see half-baked young characters (kids, teenagers) who get jammed into the film for no other reason than to appeal to a wider demographic. For example, the child characters in Independence Day are borderline comical both in their narrative non-purpose and how much they don’t act like children.

Last summer’s mega-blockbuster/franchise extender Jurassic World was guilty of this, too. Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) have no skill, except for (apparently) some world experience from That One Time They Fixed A Car, a skill which was not set up nor ever referred to again. After the kids are rescued, they’re basically fleshy backpacks for Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard to foist around for the rest of the movie.

Lex and Tim not only aid in Grant’s growth, but also use their skills to further the plot. Sure, it’s a little goofy how Lex uses her knowledge to save the day, but this was 1993. Nowadays people know a bit more about UNIX systems (and, let’s face it, most people learned about UNIX systems from other people joking about how Jurassic Park got it oh-so-wrong).


3. You can include complex concepts…but keep it simple.

Jurassic Park Jeff Goldblum

Part of the brilliance of Jurassic Park isn’t that it involves complex philosophical concepts, but all of the different ways it disseminates complex information. It’s like a sampler platter of ways to both world-build and sew in theme.

Jurassic Park grazes over complex concepts like Chaos Theory, but that is not to say that it only pays them lip service, and moreover, the characters don’t just stop the action to explain things to the audience in an inorganic way. As a writer of prose, Crichton is guilty of this. These ideas are present in the original novel, but in the film, they are distilled, focused and sharpened to a fine point. The theme of chaos in an unpredictable environment is shown both implicitly (after Nedry’s meddling throws the trip into chaos) and explicitly, where Malcolm exposits repeatedly, betwixt a uniquely suave mix of “ums” and “uhs” and other Goldblum-isms.

The overarching theme of the movie is not so much that man should not play God (as Malcolm argues), but that man cannot, with perfect accuracy, predict all outcomes. That is a much more complex and satisfying conclusion to come to than simply “man play God, man go too far!”. The “don’t play God” aspect is certainly there, but it doesn’t end there. There is a genius simplicity in Jurassic Park‘s complexity.


4. Exposition should be actually motivated!

Jurassic Park Chaos

Since all of our main characters are experts in different fields, talking to each other about their respective fields is a great and easy way to let the audience in on things the characters already know in a natural way. Some of the scientific concepts are imparted by way of a cartoon in the Jurassic Park visitor center, because it is a theme park, and it is an educational “ride,” as Hammond says.

My favorite example of this is the scene where Malcolm gives Ellie a primer on Chaos Theory in a discussion which could’ve be really pretentious and boring. He gives the elevator pitch in the form of trying to describe the Butterfly Effect, but she doesn’t get it, leading to a more practical (and flirtatious) lesson that she can actually follow. Whereas in old sci-fi B-movies of yore it would have been just a bunch of guys standing in labs, explaining things to each other, here it is motivated.

Ellie and Malcolm didn’t have any kind of a “thing” in the book, but adding this now famous moment to the film not only gives us a little philosophical discussion, it allows for integral character development as well — Ellie egging on Alan by being receptive to Ian’s flirting, and Alan showing his difficulty committing to her by not engaging. It’s subtle, but all of these character traits come in and are built upon later.

Finally, if you learn nothing else from Jurassic Park, remember:


5. Dinosaurs Eat Man, Woman Inherits the Earth.

Jurassic Park Women Inherit

Just sayin’.

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Weird Al Hidden America

Keep America Weird

Watch “Weird Al” in the Trailer for Hidden America With Jonah Ray

Weird Al comes to Comedy Bang! Bang! starting June 3rd at 11P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: SeeSo

Jonah Ray, Nerdist podcaster and future resident of the Satellite of Love on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot, is motoring across the country as part of a new travel parody show on SeeSo. And “Weird Al” is coming along for the journey.

Hidden America with Jonah Ray takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to tourism travel logs as the comedian visits and fumbles through cities like Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Denver, and Austin. Along the way, Ray will meet up with Comedy Bang! Bang! bandleader “Weird Al” Yankovic, Randall Park, David Koechner, and more.

Check out the trailer below. For more “Weird Al,” be sure to catch the premiere of Comedy Bang! Bang! season five on June 3rd at 11P.

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Back to the Future Jaws Parody

Swimming with Sharks

10 Hilarious Jaws Spoofs

Catch the Jaws movies during IFC's Memorial Day Shark Half-A-Day Marathon.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

How much is Jaws a part of our culture? Over 40 years after its release, it’s still prompting parodies that get laughs. To get you ready for IFC’s Memorial Day Shark Half-A-Day Marathon, check out our favorite spoofs of Jaws from across pop culture. Want more? You’re gonna need a bigger list…

1. “Mr. Jaws,” Dickie Goodman

Released just a few months after the movie’s debut on June 20th, 1975, this novelty record spent ten weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at #4. In one of the earliest examples of sampling, comedian Dickie Goodman spliced in snippets of pop songs to answer interview questions with the Great White himself.


2. Jaws II (Land Shark), Saturday Night Live

It took only the fourth episode ever of SNL to establish one of its iconic recurring bits and play into the hysterical fear of sharks that Jaws prompted. A big punchline of this sketch: A sequel to Jaws! Who in 1975 could imagine such a thing??


3. “Jowls,” The Carol Burnett Show

Exactly one week after SNL spoofed Jaws, Carol Burnett and company did their take. Looking back now, what’s most amazing is that network TV allowed a sketch to go on for eleven minutes.


4. Mad Magazine

Mad Magazine Jaws
Mad Magazine/DC Comics

Even Jaws wouldn’t want to take a bite of Alfred E. Neuman in this issue from 1976. The comic inside spoofed the movie with a musical version -– an idea that took off over 30 years later.


5. 1941

How many times has this happened to you? You make a legendary movie, you see people parody it, and you want in! That’s the unlikely scenario that led to Jaws director Steven Spielberg making his own spoof as part of his 1979 war comedy 1941. How authentic did Spielberg get? Yes, that’s Susan Backlinie, the original lady in the water from Jaws, meeting up with trouble in the moonlight yet again.


6. Airplane!

One of the greatest disaster comedies of all time sets the tone for hilarity with its opening sequence. Even before the title appears, you know you’re in for a movie that winks at its place in film history.


7. Back to the Future Part II

1989 brought us this blockbuster sequel making fun of blockbuster sequels, as Marty McFly finds himself in a futuristic 2015 showing Jaws 19. While the actual 2015 came and went with Jaws only having three sequels, Universal treated fans of both movies to a trailer for the film that might have been…


8. Clerks

Kevin Smith was one of a generation of filmmakers influenced by Jaws. Many of his films contain references to his love of the original film, but only Clerks has the salsa shark.


9. Giant Killer Shark: The Musical

Mad Magazine Jaws

Why should live theater be without a spoof of Jaws? Just because of the risk of a massive lawsuit over intellectual property infringement? That may help explain the please-don’t-sue-us title of Giant Killer Shark: The Musical, which debuted in 2006. Just to drive the point home: the action takes place on and around Copyright-Protected Island. Scary!


10. Bill Murray’s Jaws Love Theme, SNL 40

The star-studded SNL 40th anniversary special marked four decades since the debut of SNL and of Jaws. It featured not one but two references to the movie, with Bill Murray as lounge singer Nick Ocean singing the love theme from Jaws we never knew we were missing. (He reprised the song at the event above.) Later, the Land Shark himself appeared on “Weekend Update.” Jaws: The gift that keeps on giving laughs.

Spend Memorial Day with IFC’s Shark Half-A-Day Marathon featuring “fin facts” from “sharks-pert” Jason Alexander!

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