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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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.