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American Head Trip: Joshua Oppenheimer Talks to Errol Morris About his Netflix Docudrama Hybrid Wormwood

Peter Sarsgaard in Wormwood

Recounting a recent conversation, Errol Morris says that he’s happy his friend understood Wormwood, the documentary filmmaker’s epic new work, as “an essay on ‘doing history.’” “I think it’s a lot of things, too,” Morris goes on to say, “but I like to hear that it’s about my obsessions with epistemology.”

Obsession and epistemology—doesn’t the latter usually require the former? It certainly does in these reality-challenged times, when the act of landing on some honest reckoning with the social and political record requires a scrupulous method, unrelenting tenacity and, indeed, some small degree of obsession.

All these qualities have been present throughout the long and storied career of Errol Morris, whose films have challenged facts, probed psychologies and, with dizzying originality, deconstructed the rhetorical and storytelling methods that allow narratives — some pernicious and some simply fanciful — to take hold among us. As in much of Morris’s work, Wormwood — which streams in six parts on Netflix while also playing in theaters in a four-and-a-half hour version—centers on an interview with a single subject. Like other central figures in Morris’s work—Mr. Death’s euthanasia specialist and Holocaust denier Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., say, or The Fog of War’s criminally efficient U.S. defense secretary, Robert McNamara—Wormwood’s central character, Eric Olson, is highly intelligent and effortlessly garrulous. But in his interviews with Eric—which cut frequently among ten different camera angles and occasionally cascade into arresting split screens—Morris is less a challenger or sparring partner and more of a fellow traveller. Seen in side-angle two shots, the director appears occasionally in frame with Olson, who, with his dramatic tone and lucid ability to link the historical and the personal, the metaphoric and the conspiratorial, comes off as a kind of a Morrisonian ur-protagonist.

The story Eric relays in Wormwood isn’t the story Morris set out to tell when he first conceived the documentary. Originally pitching to Netflix a film about MK-Ultra, the CIA’s so-called “mind control” experiments, Morris shot interviews with journalist and investigator Tom O’Neill who was, at the time, working on an MK-ULTRA related story. A phone call to Eric Olson, however, convinced the filmmaker to shift subjects, with Wormwood becoming the story of Eric’s decades-long quest to verify what he long suspected about his father’s death.

Frank Olson was a military scientist who, in 1953, fell to his death from a window on the tenth floor of New York City’s midtown Statler Hotel. The fall was reported as a suicide, but 25 years later, the Rockefeller Commission revealed that, before his “suicide,” Olson was dosed with LSD as part of a CIA experiment. President Ford issued an apology to the Olson family, who received a $750,000 settlement. Eric and his family also received from CIA Director William Colby a sheaf of papers pertaining to the case. Eric’s suspicion that his father may have been murdered was heightened by what he learned from these documents, and soon his sprawling investigation, which continues to the present day, consumed his life. He learned that his father was the subject of CIA mind-control experiments while also being troubled by the facts he was learning about U.S. germ warfare programs. Was LSD the cause of his father’s death? Or just a fiction created by the U.S. government to obscure a political assassination?

Morris brings the full force of his filmmaking to these questions, mixing the prodigiously realized interview footage with dramatic scenes featuring Peter Sarsgaard as Frank, Molly Parker as his wife, Christian Carmargo as fellow agent Lashbrook and Bob Balaban as CIA allergist and experimenter Howard Abramson. (The incredible sets, including the Statler Hotel’s ominous room 1018A, were created by production designer Tomasso Ortino; Igor Martinovic and Ellen Kuras were the film’s DPs.) Then there are layers of archival footage, ranging from Congressional hearings and war newsreels to Frank’s own Super 8 material—family memories imbued with a sad foreboding by our knowledge of what is to come. And Hamlet, too! Scenes from the Laurence Olivier film adaptation allow the weight of Shakespeare’s play to inflect another tale of a son bent on avenging his father’s death.

These various strands, propelled by an achingly melancholy score by Paul Leonard-Morgan, work in unison, creating a monumental work, both lacerating and tender, in which one man’s attempt to nail down a story that’s just out of reach becomes a proxy for our own political and existential confusions.

To interview Morris we asked director Joshua Oppenheimer, whose own The Act of Killing blends meticulous research with innovative technique and dramatic strategies to find new ways of expressing new meanings in nonfiction filmmaking. Morris executive produced The Act of Killing, and here, Oppenheimer posed questions to Morris about this major new work. — Scott Macaulay

Filmmaker: You have such an eye in this work for metaphors and signs. There’s this sentence in the Quran, “The world is full of signs, and you just have to learn how to read them.” With Wormwood, I feel like you’ve entered America through its bile duct. You’ve looked into all this darkness and bitterness and seen what really matters. And that, for me, is hopeful, even though the film itself is so despairing. I think Wormwood is one of the great works of nonfiction moviemaking ever, and all the more so because, with the fiction scenes, it is also a work of trying to imagine the unimaginable. I think this is the project’s crowning achievement. So, I’d like to go back to the beginning. Three or four years ago, you told me you were going to do a project about MK-Ultra. How did this emerge from that? Because Wormwood isn’t ultimately a film about MK-Ultra.

Morris: No, it isn’t. I started to root around for MK-Ultra alternatives, and the Olson case is something that we knew about. I knew very, very little about Eric Olson, but it seemed that he was the person who I should call. I did, and he was interested. It was not easy, by the way, but I convinced Netflix to switch projects.

Filmmaker: To switch characters.

Morris: To switch characters from Thomas O’Neill to Eric Olson.

Filmmaker: And then, you make a film that’s not really about MK-Ultra at all, but something much more serious, actually, something much darker.

Morris: I used to say I didn’t believe in conspiracy theories. I would have this stock answer because my knowledge of people tells me that people are too much at cross purposes with themselves, too confused to effectively conspire to do anything. But then, conspiracies don’t always demand absolute secrecy. I think of a conspiracy that I’m really quite familiar with, the conspiracy of leaders of the Third Reich to kill European Jewry. You may have heard of this.

Filmmaker: Yes.

Morris: The Wannsee Conference et al.

Filmmaker: Which was, at best, an open secret.

Morris: Are conspiracies open secrets? Sy Hersh once told me that there are secrets — government secrets — that hundreds, if not thousands, if not tens of thousands of people know about. But they’re still government secrets. Maybe I just don’t know very much about conspiracy, or I just imagine that I know a lot about conspiracy, but I don’t. I imagine a very small group of people, a cabal of some kind, plotting and conniving, usually to do something insidious. [The Wannsee Conference is] what made me change my mind, to ask myself the question, was the murder of the European Jews a conspiracy? And I think my answer is yes. I should write something on the philosophy of conspiracy theories because it does interest me.

Filmmaker: I’m sensing that you’re distinguishing between the movie version of conspiracy, where you have evil people plotting in a room, and what humans actually are like when they’re doing things that are wrong or could get them in trouble. And that involves layers of self-deception and systematization. I think in Wormwood you invite the audience in via the movie version of conspiracy, and you reveal a real conspiracy — vast and systematic and much more terrifying.

Morris: Yes. Two or three days ago someone asked me, “What’s the difference between a cover-up and a conspiracy?” No one had ever asked me a question like this, nor had I really thought about it carefully. But I immediately said, “A conspiracy looks to the future. It’s something that you want to accomplish in the future.” Killing JFK, or the Archduke Ferdinand, or something of that sort.

Filmmaker: Or dropping germ bombs on Korea.

Morris: Or dropping germ bombs on Korea. It’s something that you don’t want people to know about because you will end up looking bad, or someone will try to stop you. You’ll obtain the obloquy of the international community and maybe a lot of the national community around you. Cover-ups are interesting because they acknowledge something bad has happened, and you don’t want people to know about it or to know too much about it. And, hence, you try to cover the tracks of what really occurred. It’s a form of hiding evidence on the basis of guilty knowledge.

Filmmaker: The moment you switched [your story] to Eric Olson, you must have realized this wasn’t about CIA drug experimentation any more, that this was about something much bigger and darker.

Morris: I think I quickly realized this. I also felt very fortunate to have stumbled on this story. It’s my kind of story for many reasons — because of its complexity and the layers of story and anti-story.

Filmmaker: What do you mean by anti-story?

Morris: The attempts at covering up the story become part of the story itself. I was fascinated by the Colby documents because here, 20 years after the case, after the defenestration, we’re at the beginnings of the Ford administration. Eric finds out because of the Rockefeller Commission — which, ironically, was set up to answer certain things that had been revealed by Seymour Hersh — that his father jumped out the window, presumably under the influence of a dose of LSD that had been given to him not so long before. So, Wormwood becomes this strange fable of the Colby documents, [which] are at the heart of the drama.

Filmmaker: On a second viewing, I came to understand that [the Colby documents] are what you’re dramatizing. You’re dramatizing this pile of documents, which Eric says are designed not to make any sense. It reminds me of The Thin Blue Line, in a way, where you dramatize people’s postulations about what had happened, but never what you really discover happened. Here, you’re dramatizing the cover-up.

Morris: [I’m] dramatizing the Colby documents. Originally, there were another 40 or 50 pages of dramatic elements, which were cut because of budgetary considerations. I very much wanted to bring the Colby documents to life. There’s something extraordinary about them.

Filmmaker: I don’t know what you wanted to dramatize that you didn’t end up shooting, but we definitely have the feeling from the film that that’s what you’ve done, that you’ve dramatized this contradictory bundle of documents that the family was handed. In that sense, it reminded me of something you’ve talked about before in relation to how I look at human beings in my work — about “peeling an onion.” You start in your film with what’s visible, what we think we know, and peel back these layers of deception and subterfuge, and when we end, well, we end with what, exactly? That’s what’s so stunning about the film: We end with Eric in that empty room and the bitter truth of what his father was a part of and what his father turned against — namely, the germ warfare program. All of that evil, really, and how people could lie to themselves to do it and how they continue perpetrating evil to cover it up. And that’s an amazing thing to reach from this contradictory bundle of documents.

Morris: It’s hard for me to look at the film and say if I really accomplished what I set out to do. There are so many different aspects to this. I became aware of Eric’s work on what he calls the “collage method,” which seemed to be too good to be true.

Filmmaker: And you were already thinking of using multiple cameras —

Morris: I’d already done all of this stuff.

Filmmaker: With O’Neill?

Morris: With O’Neill. In fact, I’d used multiple cameras in my television series [First Person]. But in the late 1990s, shooting with multiple cameras was very, very difficult. Really good digital cameras did not exist yet.

Filmmaker: And to sync them was very difficult.

Morris: Syncing was difficult, finding the right cameras to shoot with was difficult. And none of this, of course, really would be possible on film because on film, whether it’s 16mm or 35mm, you have 11 minutes to do whatever it is that you’re doing, and then the cameras have to be reloaded, resynced, etc. It would just not be feasible to do this on film. So, the idea of the multiple cameras has been with me for a long, long time, just like the Interrotron had been with me for a long, long time before I actually put it to use. And the collage method was this fabulous metaphor because, in fact, what I was imagining was a collage of some kind. When I’d gone initially to Netflix, I had sold this whole project as “the everything bagel.” I said it’s going to be everything except raisins, because I just don’t believe that raisins belong in bagels.

Filmmaker: I agree.

Morris: And what would that everything bagel have in it? What would be the ingredients? It would have interviews, although they would be shot in a way that I’ve never seen before. It would have reenactments, to be sure, but it would have elements that were not reenactments. It was going to have stand-alone drama, scripted drama. And it was going to have archival material. It was going to have everything that you could possibly imagine, and Hamlet as well. So they bought into this, but I’m not sure either they or I understood exactly what it meant. But the intention from the very, very beginning was to create something different. You know, my back has been up from The Thin Blue Line onward, and probably long before it — my hatred of being told how you’re “supposed to” express nonfiction stories. Someone opens a playbook for you and says, “This is how it should be. This, that, and the other thing.” You know, why should it be this? Why can’t it be that? It’s part of my contrarian nature.

Filmmaker: Decades of experimentation with the mise-en-scène of interviews come together in this film in a way that transcends everything you’ve done but holds all of that within it. How did you come to this idea of using so many cameras, where you are fracturing the perspective and crossing every conceivable axis? And when did you come up with this kind of extraordinarily melancholic mise-en-scène? It’s like we’re watching this film from within a ruin of Eric’s life.

Morris: There’s one scene [that] I don’t know whether I’m glad or not that we never got a chance to do it. I wanted to do a scene with Eric in our hotel room, in our version of room 1018A. I wanted to show the set being destroyed around him while he was sitting on the bed, and it never came to be, and maybe it’s just as well. Maybe it’s too obvious, too much of a gimmick — trying too hard. But there a lot of things that have been on my mind over the years that I got to play with, and there are a lot of things that are still on my mind that I have not yet gotten to play with. I like this hybrid idea. I told Netflix I’d like another crack at it. But this time I’d like the balance of drama [to nonfiction] to shift so it’s 65/35, the other way around, instead of 35/65.

Filmmaker: When did you decide that you would shoot these interviews in these derelict, empty rooms, which for me feel like Eric’s whole life?

Morris: We looked around and found this abandoned office building north of Boston, and liked it. Ellen Kuras, who shot the initial set of interviews, was actually quite brilliant about it. She saw the space, she liked the space, this deserted office building, kind of run down, a little crummy. And she figured out where she wanted her cameras. There were 10 of them. The first time around when I did this [shooting O’Neil], the cameras were arrayed 360 degrees, which is a mistake.

Filmmaker: You couldn’t use certain cameras?

Morris: It’s not that I couldn’t use them, it’s that we constantly caught other cameras in our frame. When Ellen did it, she never sees another camera ever, even though there are the same number of cameras. There are ten cameras. And we used mirrors. I really believe in crossing the line. I think the line was designed to be crossed as often as possible. I remember when I was doing this interview with a lion tamer years before Fast, Cheap. I shot this scene with the Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus in Florida, and I was shooting with [DP] Barry Sonnenfeld, of all people. I remember him saying to me, “You can’t put the camera there,” and I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because you’d be crossing the lion.”

Filmmaker: And you didn’t want to cross the lion!

Morris: My beloved production designer Ted Bafaloukos, who died — he had done boards for the shooting sequence in The Thin Blue Line, and they involved constantly changing our perspective and crossing the line. He said that it was a very, very powerful way of creating drama, which it is. In interviews, I do it all the time.

Filmmaker: Did you do interviews with Eric in any other kind of space?

Morris: No.

How did you prepare your first interview with him?

Morris: I don’t prepare interviews, I just do them.

Filmmaker: But how much time had you spent with him before your first interview?

Morris: None.

Filmmaker: So, what is exceptional, and why I think this film comes out of a very particular, serendipitous, maybe fated connection between kindred spirits, is that you took this man, without knowing him, and put him in a setting that becomes profoundly moving — an embodiment of his whole experience, of his whole life.

Morris: There was a clock in that office building, and someone wanted to put the clock in the frame. And I said, “There are always problems putting clocks in frames because, you know, what time is it on the clock?” Then I thought, well, you know, with CG, with visual effects, you can always put whatever time you want on it. And then I decided, why not just freeze the time as the time of the death of his father, and that’s what we went with.

Filmmaker: Time stopped for him at that moment. How much time did you spend interviewing him?

Morris: The basic body of it was three days, and we brought him back for another day of interviews.

Filmmaker: And the last day was on the hotel room set?

Morris: Yes.

Filmmaker: And the three days were the start of your process, and then you chose what to dramatize and what to reenact on the basis of your interviews, is that right?

Morris: No, because then that would say that the drama was driven by the interviews, which it wasn’t. In some respects it was, but it wasn’t. That’s why I say that this is drama and not reenactment. A lot of [drama] came from the Colby reports that sat outside the interview altogether. I mean, yes, I asked Eric about the Colby reports, but I had the documents before.

Filmmaker: Was there a kind of dialogue between the process of shooting interview and fiction or was all the fiction shot in one shooting?

Morris: The fiction was shot in one period because that’s how you have to shoot fiction. You have wardrobe and set designers. But I had a constant dialogue with Eric through this whole process, which went on for more than a year.

Filmmaker: After The Look of Silence came out, you said something I had never thought of about the film, which was about how Adi [Rukun] was a kind of proxy for me, about how I was asking questions through Adi. You were methodologically interested in that. When you were talking about your difficult and close and ultimately intimate relationship with Eric, and him being noble and on a quest, I couldn’t help but think about my relationship with Adi. I think there’s a way that Eric’s never a proxy in that he’s going out and interviewing people and confronting people—

Morris: It’s very different.

Filmmaker: But it’s similar in a sense that there’s a resonance — in that he’s able to say things with such eloquence and clarity, things that you might have written in an essay. He’s able to actually say things that, only very rarely, is one able to have a participant in a movie say. In his telling of his life and experience, there’s this way that he elevates the whole thing to a question of what’s knowable and not knowable and the tragedy of what remains obscure for the people who are affected by it, because then they can never know themselves and their own lives.

Morris: I think that’s true.

Filmmaker: I remember you told me that in Wormwood you were trying to reinvent the documentary form.

Morris: One of the things that makes documentary interesting is that we can reinvent the form every time. There are very few people who have actually done it, as far as I’m concerned. You’re one of them, I might add.

Filmmaker: I understand this distinction between reenactment and drama. People will talk about Anwar chopping up the teddy bear in The Act of Killing as reenactment, but he had never cut up a child, to my knowledge, in front of a mother. It is a drama that’s emerging from his imagination at the moment.

Morris: That’s really interesting, and I think that’s an apt characterization of your own film. But, go on.

Filmmaker; In The Act of Killing, I had to decide while shooting and then while editing, what are we going to show? And how will the audience understand who is imagining what, and why, in creating these dramatic scenes that are being mis-recognized as reenactments? Similarly, what fascinated me watching Wormwood is, how was Errol coming up with the fiction scenes? Were you trying to be faithful to something in the Colby documents or were you inventing and, if so, why? I mean, there are strange, indelible moments with the fish tank in Dr. Abramson’s office — the psychological test where [Frank Olson] is inside this white hemisphere. Or, the way Frank Olson dances before he’s brought back to New York to be killed. What was your creative process in deciding what you were going to script, and why?

Morris: Well, the script was in good measure created by Molly Rokosz and Steven Hathaway, and obviously we talked endlessly. The two questions you’re asking: Where is that dividing line between things that are based in the actual Colby documents or in some documents of one kind or another; and what is just really made up? The Ganzfeld experiment with the dome — I knew that Abramson was involved in doing these experiments, maybe not as early as 1953 but very soon after. I read in a paper he published that these were the kinds of questions that he asked. Sensory deprivation chambers, he conducted, and LSD therapy. So, I threw that [Ganzfeld experiment] into the mix. It’s not completely apocryphal, but it’s not completely based on something that happened to Frank Olson. As far as I know about the fish, Abramson later published a paper where he gave LSD to fish, and there’s an illustration of a fish swimming upside down in his tank.

Filmmaker: You’re kidding? Presumably because they were on drugs?

Morris: Yeah.

Filmmaker: So, they lost their spatial orientation?

Morris: Imagine you were a fish on LSD. Would you swim upside down? I put that in there. So then you ask, where does the documentary and fiction begin? The truth of the matter is, there is really no place. I got so defensive about The Thin Blue Line — I would say. “Well, the reenactments are reenactments of untruth, they are not illustrations of reality,” and on and on and on. Aside from just really wanting to tell people to go fuck themselves, I got to the point where I said, “You know it’s all a reenactment. Consciousness is a reenactment of reality inside of our skulls. It’s our attempt to piece together the evidence of our senses into some kind of coherent whole.”

Filmmaker: And also in this case the cover-up was a marshaling of fiction and lies and elaborate stories that people couldn’t keep straight over the years. Fiction determined the fate of Eric’s life. He was chasing shadows, trying to find anything solid.

Morris: We’re all chasing shadows, aren’t we?

Filmmaker: In some way, we are implicated by your film — because not only has [Eric] had to suffer all these lies, you’re somehow showing the truth of his suffering — what it has meant for him to suffer all these lies — by embellishing the lies further! There’s something radical about your taking this pile of documents that never made any sense — that was a lie — and then imagining the ghoulish picture that the documents imply and showing how this lie has affected this man.

— Which we do, by the way. It’s not part of the Colby documents to see those two assassins.

Filmmaker: Those scenes are absolutely horrifying because you feel like you’re finally seeing truth.

Morris: But we give you two versions [of the Colby death scene], as well.

Filmmaker: For me, it was pretty poignant because I spent really my whole youth working with the thugs a government employs to do its dirty work. Suddenly, oh yes [I thought], of course the CIA also uses gangsters. And so, when we see gangsters at the end of Wormwood in the employ of our government, we remember the germ bombs, or at least I did, and it’s really profound. Tell me how you came up with that.

Morris: We had read various accounts of the murder; it wasn’t made up out of whole cloth. Some wetwork team had been assigned by the CIA to dispatch Frank Olson, and there are versions of this story, and it’s certainly in Wormwood itself, where the order to kill Frank Olson came from the highest levels of the CIA — from [CIA Director Allen] Dulles himself and [CIA Operations Officer] Richard Holm. As Eric, I believe, says, you don’t get your Yale students to do this. You contract it out. You find people who have little difficulty doing this. You hire them, and they do your dirty work for you.

Filmmaker: And then we have this ending with Seymour Hersh, where he can’t quite confirm what we already fully understand from the film. It’s so chilling: Seymour Hersh talking about how you have to protect your source no matter what. You think, why? And the reason why is because this [criminal government activity] goes on and we need more sources. And if we don’t protect our sources, then people won’t step forward and we’ll never know about [ongoing government crimes that are] much more relevant to the present crisis.

Morris: I agree.

Filmmaker: That’s what’s so terrifying — it brings the film and all of the government’s mendacity and criminality right to the present.

Morris: A friend of mine recently said to me that he looked at Wormwood as an essay on “doing history,” among other things, which pleased me. As an historical investigation. I think it’s a lot of other things, too, but I like to hear that, that it’s about my obsessions with epistemology.

Filmmaker: I was about to say that it’s about what’s knowable, just as dark matter bends space and time. How the invisible and unknowable haunts, troubles and corrupts us as much as anything that can be known. And then the agony of the ending: Here it is known, and it still has to somehow remain only partially exposed.

Morris: It’s interesting, that last [interview] with Eric Olson, which I think is one of the finest things I’ve ever done. Eric hated it. He has come to terms with it, but I know what his problem is. He wanted to be seen as a heroic investigator who, after unbelievable efforts of six decades and then some, cracks the case. And I very much like how he brought it around to himself in the end. It was a very true moment. It wasn’t Eric posing, it was Eric expressing a deep existential despair at the damn thing.

Filmmaker: There’s something so arid and sad and yet also not quite right and maddeningly arrogant when Seymour Hersh says that, more or less, Eric has wasted his life. How do you see what this [investigation] has done to Eric?

Morris: There’s a Billy Wilder line that I like, “You know, you have to learn to take the bitter with the sour.” I think the story of Eric’s life is really powerful. He has lived his life like a fable. Or, he has created a fable in living his life. I suppose we all waste our lives in one form or another. At least, I certainly am no stranger to that thought.

Filmmaker: But my sense is that he hasn’t.

Morris: No. There’s something noble in Eric that I appreciate, and I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to make this [film].

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