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“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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The Nutty Professor Eddie Murphy 1996

Weird Science

10 Weird Movie Substances That Had Hilarious Consequences

Catch The Nutty Professor this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

If you’ve ever opened your refrigerator to find some seriously gnarly days-old potato salad, then you know that sometimes the most harmless-seeming things can turn freaky. Movies have conjured up some truly bizarre stuff, often the work of crazed scientists. Before you catch The Nutty Professor on IFC, check out some of the icky-est, gooey-ist and just plain weird substances on the big screen.

10. Flubber

Flubber
Walt Disney Studios

Professor Brainard’s “flying rubber” increases its speed every time it bounces, and increases the chaos, destruction and unlikely basketball-dunkage of anyone who uses it. Thankfully the movie ends before its thermodynamic impossibility cause the incineration of the entire universe.


9. Quantonium, Monsters Vs. Aliens

Monsters Vs Aliens
DreamWorks

In Monsters vs. Aliens, both action-packed parties are battling over Quantonium, an exotic material which massively empowers anyone who holds it. Literally in the case of Susan Murphy, whose exposure turns her into Ginormica and enables her to fight against Gallaxhar’s invasion force.


8. Sustengo, Little Fockers

Sustengo
Universal Pictures

After finally finding favor with his hard-bitten father-in-law, Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) finds himself strapped for cash and starts promoting Sustengo, an erectile dysfunction drug. Which means leaving boxes of ED drugs lying around a family who can’t even use a toilet without triggering a series of hilarious misunderstandings.


7. Iocane, Princess Bride

Iocane
20th Century Fox

Iocane is a deadly poison with no odor or taste that dissolves instantly in any liquid. The perfect tool for murder isn’t usually hilarious, but The Princess Bride makes everything funny. Hero Westley (Cary Elwes) tricks cunning Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) into drinking the poison in a game of wits. Vizzini lost, not knowing that the answer is “Don’t drink anything offered by someone who just talked about how awesome their poison is.”


6. PX-41, Despicable Me 2

PX41
Universal Pictures

The mutation compound engineered by PX-Labs turns anything into a purple, fluffy, indestructible killing machine. And when Despicable Me‘s famous Minions are dosed with it, look out. Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) crafts an antidote, PX-41 Antidote, proving he’s much better with chemicals than he is with names.


5. Mood Slime, Ghostbusters II

Mood Slime
Columbia Pictures

When the Ghostbusters came back for their 1989 sequel, the slime they encountered was sillier and scarier. The “Mood Slime” was a special form of ectoplasm utterly saturated in the emotions of everyone and everything around it. And while our heroes energize some positive vibes with Aretha Franklin tunes, the entire city of New York’s psychic outpourings are filling the sewers with something distinctly less positive.


4. The Stuff

The Stuff
New World Pictures

A science fiction soft-serve satire, The Stuff is about an oddly organic treat which is utterly delicious and zero calories. In fact it’s negative calories, because if you eat enough it’ll take over your brain and hollow you out from the inside.


3. Miracle Weight Loss Serum, The Nutty Professor

Buddy Love
Universal Pictures

The core component of The Nutty Professor‘s plot is a miraculous weight loss serum, a simple fluid which re-engineers human DNA all by itself. This allows sweet but sizable Sherman Klump (Eddie Murphy) to transform into the tight, toned and turbocharged Buddy Love (Murphy again). The serum is revealed to be fatally dangerous, but anything which allows Eddie Murphy to play himself cranked up to the max is pure comedy gold.


2. Cobalt Thorium G, Dr. Strangelove

Dr Strangelove
Columbia Pictures

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb is about a bomb built with Cobalt Thorium G. It’s a doomsday device designed to annihilate all human civilization and is, slightly worryingly, based on the least fictional materials on this list. Cobalt and thorium both have applications in nuclear weapon design. Luckily we haven’t got them up to G yet.


1. Ectoplasm, Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters
Columbia Pictures

The Ghostbusters live in a world where ghosts are real but physics is still in charge. So while the ghouls are flung around with proton packs, they get the boys in grey back with their appalling ectoplasm, or slime, trail. As Venkman says, getting covered in the stuff will make you feel all funky.

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Fast Times Jennifer Jason Leigh

Retro Grades

The 11 Best Movie Comedies of the ’80s

Catch Fast Times at Ridgemont High during IFC's '80s Weekend.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

The ’80s gave us so many great things (Tab, anyone?), but when it comes to movie comedies, the Reagan years were a golden age of funny. In honor of IFC’s ’80s Weekend, we’ve selected the best big screen comedies from the decade that gave us Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and other comedy greats. And like one of the movies featured below, this list goes to 11.

1. Back to the Future

“A high school slacker goes back in time, takes his mother to a dance, and gets dangerously close to becoming his own father.” The elevator pitch for Back to the Future doesn’t sound so charming, but the 1985 flick starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover is declared by many as being the perfect movie. (Though we can’t officially say if the Eric Stoltz version would’ve been better.)


2. Ghostbusters

The sheer number of childhoods that were professed to be ruined by the recent reboot should tell you how beloved the original film is. A perfect blend of comedy, horror and fantasy, Ghostbusters has an indelible cast at the top of its game and a heap of one-liners worthy of countless casual references. They have the tools, and they have the talent.


3. Airplane!

Speaking of one-liners, it doesn’t get much more quotable than the 1980 Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker classic Airplane!. Almost a one-to-one parody of the 1957 disaster film Zero Hour!, Airplane! works so well because of how straight faced the zaniness is played — which is something its many imitators fail to notice.


4. This Is Spinal Tap

Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer created the de facto mockumentary film with the hilarious 1984 rock diary This Is Spinal Tap. Heralded as one of the most accurate depictions of backstage life by actual real-life bands, the movie showcases an aging glam metal band struggling for the spotlight while keeping the group intact (especially the spontaneously combustible drummers).


5. National Lampoon’s Vacation

While Caddyshack and Fletch are quintessential Chevy Chase films, nothing beats the bumbling patriarch of the Griswold clan losing his mind en route to Wally World, America’s favorite family fun park. Yes, the sequels saw diminishing returns (aside from Christmas Vacation), but the one that started them all is endlessly watchable. Amen, let’s go!


6. Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe managed to capture exactly what high school life was like in the early-’80s. The awkwardness, the frustrations, the scares, the search for purpose and gratification, Fast Times presents its young characters as fully fleshed-out individuals (even the designated stoner shows nuance) and doesn’t talk down to its audience like many teen movies do. (Click here to see all airings of Fast Times at Ridgemont High on IFC.)


7. Beverly Hills Cop

A reminder of the days when Eddie Murphy was the edgiest comedian in showbiz, the one-two punch of Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hrs. set the template for modern action comedies. We wouldn’t have the Rush Hour franchise and every Kevin Hart film without Axel Foley.


8. Trading Places

A treatise on the Nature vs. Nurture argument at the height of Reagan-era excess, Trading Places depicts the lives that are held in the balance when the mega-rich make friendly $1 wagers and just how joyous the retribution can be. Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis are terrific as the leads, the Duke Brothers are delightfully evil, and in all seriousness, that is a nice purse.


9. Better Off Dead

This 1985 Savage Steve Holland movie is teen angst at its most surreal and affably goofy. John Cusack stars as Lane Meyer, a high schooler still reeling from the loss of his girlfriend to a cocky champion skier. (Is there any other kind in an ’80s movie?) With bloodthirsty paperboys, foreign-exchange street races and stop-motion hamburger interludes, Better Off Dead doesn’t let realism get in the way of accurately portraying pure teen heartbreak.


10. Midnight Run

Of all the critically acclaimed pairings that actor Robert De Niro has had through the years, few are as entertaining as his reluctant team-up with a persnickety Charles Grodin in 1988’s Midnight Run. Perfect foils, the bounty hunter and mob accountant race against time, the Feds and mafia hits until mutual Stockholm Syndrome kicks in and the partnership stops becoming merely professional. (The counterfeit bill scene alone is worth the watch.)


11. Heathers

Heathers is the kind of pitch-black comedy that would never get a major release in 2016. Unflinching in its satire of school shootings, teen suicide and the tragedies that come with the need to fit in, the movie remains relevant to the kids currently growing up in a cruel and judgmental world. And the fact that it’s laugh-out-loud funny while also making a sharp point about youth culture is a testament to how great the movie really is.

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Bill Hader in Conan Star Wars Audition Sketch

Acts of Wars

Watch Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy and More Audition to Play Young Han Solo

The Documentary Now! star shows off his best Han and Chewie.

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Photo Credit: TBS/YouTube

Thanks in large part to The Force Awakens not sucking, the Star Wars universe is about to get a lot more expansive. Sequels, spin-offs, TV shows, and more are underway — which means a helluva lotta casting calls. Fortunately, Conan O’Brien got his hands on a few audition tapes of celebrities trying out for a role as a young Han Solo.

Check out Documentary Now!’s Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy, Portlandia favorite Jeff Goldblum, Todd Margaret star Will Arnett and other funny folks offering their takes on what that younger, brasher space swashbuckler would be like.

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