Skip to main content

Errol Morris Examines MKUltra

Morris' latest, an investigation into whether the CIA assassinated one of its own scientists, pushes the boundaries of "documentary" further than ever before.
Peter Sarsgaard in Errol Morris' Wormwood.

Peter Sarsgaard in Errol Morris' Wormwood.

On the night of November 28th, 1953, a Central Intelligence Agency bacteriologist named Frank Olson fell to his death from the 13th floor of the Hotel Statler in Manhattan, where he had been staying with a colleague. His family was told that he had suffered a nervous breakdown and committed suicide. In 1975, the Rockefeller Commission brought to light the long-secret Project MKUltra—a CIA experiment in mind control. The Olsons learned that nine days before his death, as part of the program, Frank had been unknowingly drugged with LSD by the Agency, and had been suffering a prolonged bad reaction to it up until his "suicide." But even this was not the end of the revelations: It turns out that Frank, who had worked on biological weapons, may have been wavering in his loyalty to the Agency, and might even have been preparing to blow the whistle on the use of biological weapons in the Korean War. For years, Frank's son Eric has worked to uncover the truth of his father's death.

Olson's death, the cover-up, and Eric's mission are the focus of Wormwood, an upcoming documentary for Netflix directed by Errol Morris. Morris, who gravitates toward unusual or esoteric people and stories, has long pushed against filmmaking conventions, famously challenging what audiences expect of documentaries. Unlike most documentarians, he likes to have his interview subjects look directly into the camera when they speak; 1988's The Thin Blue Line, meanwhile, caused a stir over its extensive use of re-enactments, now a staple of true crime shows.

With Wormwood, Morris again pushes the envelope—or tosses it out altogether. Going beyond mere re-enactment, the documentary has extensive dramatic recreations of sequences which look, for lack of a better term, like a "real" movie, complete with a full cast of recognizable actors, including Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, and Tim Blake Nelson. Morris is forever twisting viewers' perceptions of what they think of as "real" or "true" and what isn't.

Eric Olson's investigation into his father's death has produced what he and Morris call "the collage," an extensive mosaic of evidence and stories, some of which are in conflict with each other. Olson, a psychologist, even uses the term "collage theory" to describe his studies into how humans reconcile contradictory information in their own memories. MKUltra entailed disrupting subjects' minds with psychedelic drugs and torture, after which the government strenuously denied all wrongdoing for years. Olson's task, then, is to sort through the multiple "truths" that have been reported to him. Morris' filmmaking techniques reflect this fractured vision of reality.


You've done away with the Interrotron for this film. You shoot interviews not just from multiple angles, but also with a lot of split screen. It visually asserts the collage motif. What went into creating all this, on a technical level?

There are 10 cameras recording. I've often been asked, "What effect does technology have on your filmmaking?" Of course, it has an enormous effect. When I made Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, we were shooting all kinds of different stock—straight 8, Super 8, 16, Super 16, 35, 35 black and white, 35 infrared, 35 reversal as well as color negative, and on and on and on and on. It was a blend of all kinds of things, which could never, never, never, never have been done without a video editing program.

All of a sudden, it became possible to think of creating something in a different way than had been done before. I experimented with multiple cameras in a series I did for Bravo called First Person. I tried it again with Wormwood. Now I could have 10 really high-quality cameras rolling simultaneously. That could not have been done until very, very, very recently.

What else did you experiment with in Wormwood?

Errol Morris.

Errol Morris.

A lot of stuff. I mean, there's so much stuff that really could not have been done [without digital effects]. Even the last shot, of a vacuum-cleaning lady in a hallway—one of the best vacuuming shots I've ever seen—that whole hallway is done with CG. I used digital effects in the Rumsfeld film. I used graphics extensively in Fog of War. Have I used them this extensively before? No, this is the first time. And the idea of multiple images, of split screen, I've never seen that stuff before, not like I see it in Wormwood. The whole collage theory was made for this movie, and it becomes a kind of metaphor for detective work, and for the story as a whole.

Why did you decide to go beyond normal documentary re-enactment to using full-scale constructed sequences featuring recognizable actors? I can't think of a precedent for it.

There's nothing. There's no precedent for this in anything. There's nothing that looks like Wormwood. I'll make that claim, why not?

So, The Thin Blue Line comes out. I had these re-enactments of things I didn't think happened. By creating these re-enactments, I allow the audience to think about the truth of the claims. It's a way of bringing you deeper into the mysteries of the story, so you have an understanding of what might or might not have transpired. And yet people objected to them, because this is not supposed to be done in documentary.

I don't know what's supposed to be or not supposed to be done in documentary. You're supposed to be seeking the truth in documentary. You're not supposed to be following some stylebook. I would remind people that these scenes are often re-enactments of untruth, and it's clear they have an ironic function.

Take the drama in Wormwood. What is it dramatizing? It's dramatizing this stack of documents given to the Olson family by the head of the CIA in 1975. [CIA Director] William Colby, at the request of Gerald Ford, lays on the family this pile of material. These Colby documents may be a fiction from the CIA. They do not necessarily tell you what really happened. Eric tells us that, at one point, he got tired of even looking at them because, for him, they became almost irrelevant. I bring you into them as a way of looking at that most likely apocryphal account of what happened. Maybe people don't like irony, but these sequences (speaking as the filmmaker) have a powerful ironic character.

You've often let audiences hear you asking questions in your films, but I believe this is the first time you're seen on-camera in interviews. You're often holding up your hands before the other person; it looks like you're framing shots.

I would get annoyed if I saw the person sitting like a potted plant in front of the camera, and I wanted to see their hands in the frame. I noticed pretty early on that if I started [gesticulating]—kind of "monkey see, monkey do" principle—that the person that I was interviewing would do the same, and so I got in the habit of doing it. See, now you have me doing it. Look at this, you've influenced my presentation here.

I also believe in creating energy. If you think that interviewing is a passive activity, it isn't. You're directing a performance, properly considered. In directing, part of what you're doing is putting energy into a scene. Now I sound like I'm being crypto-mystical or something, but if you put energy into a scene, it gets bounced back out at you. It's the experience of talking to someone who's dead in the water, versus someone who's alive and listening carefully and engaged by what is transpiring in an interview.

Does that just manifest as trying to get a subject to be more animated, or do you also try to elicit certain emotions?

It's to get them to freely, or more freely, express themselves. One of the things that Peter [Sarsgaard] said when he told me I was the best director he had ever had, which I find immensely flattering, is that I listened more than anyone else he had ever worked with. I didn't interrupt. I didn't interfere. I listened, I paid attention. I was there, in some real sense, watching a performance.

I used to tell each of the actors that I don't believe, before you see anything, in directing a performance, because how do you know that the person isn't gonna do it perfectly without you saying anything, and by saying something, you've ruined it! You wait, you watch, you see what happens in front of the camera, and maybe it's perfect, and maybe it involves just tweaking it slightly, this way or that way.

So you find that interviewing subjects has translated helpfully into directing actors in a fictional context?

I think it's the same goddamn thing. I don't think there is much difference at all. Yeah, they're people reading lines in a script, but you're trying to bring people into a place where they're communicating something.

You could consider them the same because they're both performing in a way? Or because they're both delivering a certain truth? Or both? Or neither?

Well, I don't know if people deliver truth. I mean, there's a problem people have with that word. Truth isn't handed to people. People don't speak the truth. People lie. Endemically. When God created Man, he created a perfect lying machine. We create lies, we're surrounded by lies, we propagate and perpetuate lies. Lies are everywhere. What may make us different is, having created all these lies, we have this desire to penetrate to the world around us and uncover truth. How amazing. But it doesn't happen automatically. It doesn't happen without enormous difficulty. It could be successful, or it could be unsuccessful, but there's something out there to uncover.

I write in my new book, extensively, about how there is a real world out there in which things happen. A certain number of people show up for an inauguration, or they don't. It's not up for grabs. It's not "alternative facts," where Person X can say, "This is the number," and Person Y can say, "No, this is the number." People can argue about the number, to be sure, and they have, but there's a world out there with people in it. We should never lose sight of the fact that whether or not Louis XVI was guillotined in what is now the Place de la Concorde is not up for grabs.

Do think you've been more successful at getting at the truth with certain films than with others?

Well, there are certain things you can ask "yes or no" questions about. Did Randall Dale Adams kill Dallas police officer Robert Wood? [From The Thin Blue Line] I can answer that: No. Do I know it with certainty? Pretty damn close. Did David Harris, the 16-year-old kid who was his principal accuser at trial, kill police officer Robert Wood? Yes. Do I know that with almost certainty? Yes. Not every detective, and not every story, ends up with that kind of closure. I can't even describe it to you, what it's like as a private detective or a public detective—I was a private detective for years—that feeling of a story coming powerfully into focus from a whole number of different directions.

This is another mistake: People love this staple of detective fiction—blame the countless writers, from [Edgar Allan] Poe on, who've written detective stories—they love that one detail that tells you it's the goddamn orangutan in Murders in the Rue Morgue. But in my experience, it's never one detail; it's a whole myriad. Or, to bring us back to Wormwood, it's a collage of material. It's a whole lot of bits and pieces of evidence, which coalesce into something close to a picture of what really happened. We live in a sea of falsehood, and the amazing thing about us as a species, if we're worth anything at all (and we might not be worth anything at all, and we may end up destroying ourselves), is that we have this idea of truth, and we pursue it. Sometimes, we actually even find it.

I mean, why do people love Galileo? And they do! I love Galileo. He caves before the power of the Vatican, and I'm sympathetic. Would I want to be tied to a stake and burned alive? Not so much, really. I would choose to avoid that, if at all possible. But for Galileo, it moves—the Earth, that is. It moves! It's not for Kellyanne Conway to tell me whether it moves or doesn't move. It moves, you fuckers! The fact that we can get to the point of really challenging our beliefs and trying to reach outside of ourselves to some picture of the world.... Way to go, mankind! The rest of it is pretty tawdry, but that is kind of fantastic.

Do you often come up against missing tangible evidence in your projects? How do you navigate such gaps, especially since grappling with the truth requires including them?

Well, when people order records destroyed, they often overlook something. Something's hidden in a closet, or in a file. I did a story about a Holocaust denier, Fred Leuchter. I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau—you know, something every nice Jewish boy should do. The Germans, as they evacuated Auschwitz in January of 1945, before the Russian army arrived, destroyed all of the records at Auschwitz, except the records at Birkenau. The building archive. When I arrived at Birkenau, and stood at that famous location overlooking the train tracks that go to nowhere, the tracks to the gas chambers, I remember thinking, really powerfully: "This is Egyptian in scale. I've never seen anything like this. This is immense. Immense!" To build such a thing required many, many, many people, many contractors, many engineers, many architects, etc., etc. They housed all of the records of this stuff in this one archive, which remained extant, and I was given access to this with a Holocaust historian, Robert Jan van Pelt.

There's a book called Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers, by Jean-Claude Pressac. He was a denier, but he published this book of documents, and there was one in it that really obsessed me. It was a copy of another document, a reprinted facsimile in black and white. At the Birkenau archive, I asked, "Could I please see the original of this?" They put the document in front of me. [From the black and white copy,] you could tell that a certain set of words had been heavily underlined, but then I saw [on the original] that they had been underlined in red, and the underlining was such that the pencil almost broke through the page—onionskin. Also not visible in the book copy was that, in that same red pencil, there was a notation at the top of the document. I asked to have them explained to me. The word underlined was vergassungskeller. "Gassing basement." The notation at the top said, "Never use that word again." When you see someone trying to cover something up, it provides, for me, very powerful evidence that it actually happened.

How much do you think the government actively contributes to this culture you speak about, the increasing competition between different truths and falsehoods?

To me, the most powerful line in Wormwood comes from Eric saying, "What does this mean?" What does it mean, this whole damn story? You, the audience, sitting there for multiple hours, may wonder the same thing. And Eric answers it. He says that, in the aftermath of World War II, America emerges as the most powerful country in the world. Eric asks, in the aftermath of our extraordinary victories in World War II, what exactly produced the Cold War? Lying is not something that was created in the 1940s, to be sure, but why did it become such an essential part of government to actually lie to its citizens? To create a world of disinformation? Why was it essential, for example, to hide all of the documents connected with the Kennedy assassination? (And after so many years, some are still being hidden, many of them.)

I keep coming back to Kellyanne Conway. I should never mention her name under any circumstances. It's always been a war to say, "This is the truth," "That is the truth," "What is the truth?" "Was Kennedy assassinated by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald?" "Was it a conspiracy, was there more than one person involved?" And on and on and on and on and on. There's a phenomenon when there are too many people opining on any issue. You create this kind of buzz, this blur, this kind of miasma.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.