Dear Shaded Viewers,
Filmmaker Errol Morris is one of the most respected documentary
filmmakers working today.
Start of interview
EM: Nice to meet you.
LA: First let me say the date today is September 30, 2011, and this is Laura Albert talking to Errol Morris. Really, I grew up with your work.
LA: Yeah. When you’re a kid growing up and you see a documentary, it allows you to start thinking critically in a way that teachers can’t – to really see that, to penetrate in such a way. And to know that it was a way of upholding what I was seeing and what I was experiencing, and knowing that there’s a world that’s not seen and that there’s another truth available, which sometimes you have to dig a little more to find.
EM: Well, I do like digging.
LA: (Laughter) Yeah, you kept coming up in conversation again and again, and then I saw Tabloid. Tabloid started as a short film?
EM: I’m not even sure how it really started. It started as part of a series for Showtime. I was supposed to be doing a whole number of half-hours, and this was to be the first of them. But early on, from the first interview – the first and only interview with Joyce McKinney – it was pretty clear it was more than a half hour. Or maybe I just wanted it to be more than a half hour.
LM: How did you first encounter her?
EM: Through an AP Wire Service story. I’m not sure that I remember this correctly, but it could have been in The Times. Or it could’ve been from The Globe – I get both delivered to the house.
LA: Do you live in LA?
EM: No, I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
LA: Oh, I was just in Boston for the first time over the summer. I was surprised at how green it is.
EM: It is actually pretty green.
LA: It’s a beautiful state!
EM: I like being here, this is an OK place for me. By the way, I feel like I should be interviewing YOU, not the other way around!
LA: Take a number, and get in line! (Laughter)
EM: Not that I am telling you anything you don’t know, but your story involves so many things that interest me: fiction, non-fiction, the relationship between the two.
LA: Completely, That’s why I was interested in Tabloid – very interested in Tabloid.
EM: And then I wrote a whole series for The Times. I was going to write about two books that appeared back to back, about this Vermeer forger, Hans van Meegeren. The two books came out within a couple of months of each other, so I interviewed both of the writers and I started to talk about the nature of forgery, blah blah blah. But it was really interesting because, in a way, Hans van Meegeren had provided a way of thinking about stuff, which otherwise would not be available.
LA: In what way?
EM: There was a painting, “The Supper at Emmaus,” and the most respected Vermeer expert of the time in the ‘30s, Abraham Bredius, had picked this painting as being not just a Vermeer – of course it was a Vermeer – but it was the greatest of all Vermeers! The non-plus-ultra of Vermeers. And it was enshrined in its own wing in a museum. Then the day came when it was unmasked as being not a Vermeer but a Hans van Meegeren. And what was interesting, of course, is that the painting remained the same. The paining had not changed in any way or form, it was identical to itself, and yet it was perceived completely differently. And you provide a very compelling version of that story. I say version – it’s not the same story at all, but there are a couple of elements in common. Certainly there are common elements in the response.
LA: Oh yeah, it’s very much like where you pull a thread and it unravels the sweater. It reveals so much about our culture. When the reveal came, I was working with David Milch on HBO’s “Deadwood,” and Milch protected me; he really guided me through. I was advised, “You can’t stand up in a tsunami.” And it was true, it was impossible for me to say anything. Whenever I would, I would get smashed. He just told me, “Be still and know that I am God” – not that he’s God, just to be still and to wait. There’s a poem by Robert Penn Warren, and its core is, “The secret of every subject worth telling is time, but you can never say its name.” And after the reveal, I had everyone and their mother offering me book deals, movie deals, this and that. They would look at this complex JT Leroy extravaganza, with Madonna, Bono, the whole around-the-world tour, books, movies, fashion, et cetera, and it looked like the Taj Mahal. But for me it was built popsicle-stick by popsicle-stick. And for them to encounter someone who said that the creation of it was largely a mystery to herself – the WHY it was created, which I don’t know yet – well, that just wasn’t a script that they could tolerate, and it made no sense to them. How could I not have known exactly what I was creating?
But I was willing to wait. You know, like the old ad, “We will sell no wine before its time.” I knew it was a much deeper story, I knew there was much that it revealed – the response and all its varieties revealed so much. It was much bigger than me, and if I continued to get out of the way the way I did with JT, it can be of service. And five years later, I finally agreed to do a documentary with the guy who did The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Jeff Feuerzeig. And you know, I was approached by so many different people to make my story. But it isn’t about me, and it isn’t about Madonna. That’s why I like so much of what you say. There is a continuous questioning of why? Why? Why? Why? That’s what a director has to be fearless about asking.
One thing I wanted to ask you related to Joyce is, what do you know about her father?
EM: Not much. It’s interesting. I suppose we should talk about Joyce.
LA: (Laughter) I am sure we can sit and talk forever. I mean, I’ve been in dialogue with you – it’s a conversation, artists show us what’s possible and then we can begin the conversation. I always feel like you have been a map reader. How do you allow people to question what’s seemingly laid out for them?
EM: Let me see if I can come up with a genuous instead of a disingenuous answer. To fix that I am capable of it, I should offer that qualification. I’ve told different kinds of stories, and each kind of story has its own set of requirements, which often varies the story. It’s not often the same. There are all kinds of questions about Joyce that I would almost prefer not to know the answer to.
EM: Maybe I personally am curious, but it was not at all clear to me how they would serve the interest of making this film. That is a terrible admission to make, I find it almost embarrassing. So for example, in the three years that I spent on The Thin Blue Line, it was essential for me to know as much about that case as I possibly could, and ultimately for me to determine is this guy Randall Adams innocent, is this guy David Ray Harris guilty, and so on and so forth, it’s essential. With Joyce it was a different kind of investigation. I would be kind of crazy and a little stupid and incurious, if I didn’t wonder about her parents. And of course I did wonder about her parents. Because you know that they have to be in some real sense a part of this story. But in what sense? And who are they, and how are they part of it? There were all of these mysteries about Joyce, which I can’t answer. Where does she get the money to travel? How does she get the money to go all around the country? This was recently, since the film has made the rounds this festival and that festival. How does she get the money to appear all over the place with the movie? She appeared at the screenings in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Florida, and New York.
LA: What’s interesting in the beginning of the film is that she’s a beauty queen. At what age did that start?
EM: It all started pretty early on.
LA: So her mother was very invested in putting her daughter in this. There must have been enough film and documentaries and exploration about the relationship in the family, on the mother-daughter connection when a child is put into beauty pageants, right?
EM: Yes. The whole Jon Benét Ramsey story, among many.
LA: Right, and to what extent they become a surrogate to the mothers and the fathers and what role do they play. What interests me is that, at some point, she has this split. No one disputes how brilliant she is.
EM: Although you may be surprised – or wouldn’t be surprised – that all the people who complained to me about the fact that I had put her IQ up on the screen were complaining not because I had put her IQ up on the screen but because I had not investigated it. Surely it had to be false.
LA: Crazy isn’t stupid.
EM: Thank you very much. Stupid is stupid.
EM: Joyce to me is clearly really, really smart.
LA: Right. Well, obviously. But at some point, speaking from experience, she’s living a duality. And it’s a severe kind of split that happens, where she goes off suddenly into a fantasy so driven, so very driven with the white picket fence, the idea of safety.
LA: Did you interview her parents?
EM: I did not. Why didn’t I? For a whole number of reasons. I can say I didn’t think they would want to talk to me. They probably wouldn’t have wanted to talk to me, but that’s certainly not an excuse for not asking them, and I never asked them. I have this concept I call anti-curiosity; I would prefer to know less. How much would it cost me to know even less than I know already? Suppose you tell me nothing more. It changes the entire nature of the story.
EM: Did I really want to know what the nature of her relationship was with her father or mother?
LA: There’s this great line by Chris Rock: “They don’t grade fathers but if your daughter’s a stripper, you’ve fucked up.” And there are just these things where, after she’s in the hospital, she attacks her father. To me, you made these choices, being an artist. And I work in metaphor, I work in the dream state, right? I communicate through those images. Perhaps I impose my experience. Everyone comes to a work of art with their own stories. You were having this conversation, but I’m someone who looks for these things.
EM: No, but that stuff is in there.
LA: It is in there, you made those choices. Where she attacks her father like she was later attacked by the dog.
LA: She bites him, and then your choice is to have the pit bull, which is people’s image of protection. This scene is so very powerful to me it just sends chills. When she is filming, so calmly, her father’s passed out and she’s there talking about wanting to protect him… It’s not him that’s having a problem, with the barking and the way she has been attacked from the outside, and this dog that is impinging again, and she says I am trying to protect my father…. I mean Jesus Christ, the layers.
EM: It’s pretty wonderful for someone making the movie, seemingly myself, when the British journalist Kent Gavin comes up with that line.
LA: Oh, he fucked up bad!
EM: “Always the dog.”
LA: What did he say?
EM: He says at some point “always the dog.” The dog was the connection when he was investigating Joyce in Los Angeles; he made very little headway until he pointed out in various phone calls she was accompanied by a dog.
EM: Millie. “Always the dog.”
LA: We know it was a safe and harmless dog, but later it became a pit bull.
EM: What a crazy story!
LA: One thing that was so poignant to me was that she was a sex worker in – the early ‘80s?
LA: And back then it didn’t have the hipster coolness that it has now. I have dabbled in the sex industry and it’s got a cool to it, but that’s come to be only recently. Back then it wasn’t cool, it had a big stigma to it. So for someone just to go do that, to go into the sex industry like that…. She obviously has these splits, this duality. As an artist, if you are not too invested in the given state of reality, it’s a plus because you can recombine and play with reality; you can stand both inside and out of your culture or society. But if you’re trying actually to function, it’s not a walk in the park. And my question is, again, speaking from experience, this stuff doesn’t happen in a bubble.
EM: The fact that she did that, and I assume that she did do that, is remarkable in and of itself. Someone said to me that they did not find Joyce at all mysterious. And I said you have to be kidding me. I find her unendingly mysterious.
EM: Many reasons. You could describe it as duality, or that there are more than two realities going on there. I think it’s a multiplicity of realities. But you just said something to this effect, if I understood you correctly, the fact that she went from Utah to Southern California and suddenly became a sex worker, is interesting and strange. Was she just trying to accumulate money so she can organize this campaign to free Kirk from the shackles of Mormonism?
LA: Errol, that doesn’t happen in a bubble.
EM: The other weirdness is – and Kent Gavin hinted at this – that perhaps she was a virgin and maybe still is a virgin. I thought, well this is something particularly strange, the insistence that she never really had intercourse with anybody. She was a very peculiar and particular kind of sex worker.
LA: I can completely relate. I was doing the same thing while being a virgin.
EM: Is that true?
LA: Oh, yeah. Let me tell you, there was something very powerful to me when she was on stage with you. I think it was in the New York Times conversation. She went up in the audience and she’s on stage saying that these perpetrators are still out there and the story has not yet been told, and she was asking for help. Oscar Wilde said, “Give a man a mask, he’ll tell you the truth.” And I think that, under the madness that is the mask, she is telling the truth. But for her it’s the metaphor, the cloud of the Mormon obsession, because she cannot afford to bring it back to what is the primary attack or wounding.
My experience of watching the film – which I think was phenomenally well done and brilliant and wonderful – was that I kept asking, Why is he filming the atomic blast and its after effects and not mentioning that someone is damaged by an atomic blast, and they have a reaction and they’re changed? There’s no mention of what caused this adaptation.
LA: Because it is a funny story and she’s a hoot and enjoyable. But if you look at her as someone damaged, it changes everything, right?
EM: Part of the problem – yes I agree, but with a couple of qualifications. It’s clear to me that a number of really bad things have happened to Joyce. And how far back they go is not altogether clear. I resisted, and I still resist, the idea that she is a complete victim.
LA: Yeah, no one wants to be seen as that.
EM: Well I don’t think that she is – maybe this isn’t exactly responsive, let me think for a moment.
LA: Let me ask you this: Did you ever ask her about – I don’t think she would be able to answer you, I don’t know that she has that capacity – but did you ever ask her if she had ever been sexually molested. It is possible, there are various forms of molestation.
EM: You mean, was she molested by her father, for example?
LA: Somebody. What I am suggesting, what’s clear to me, and I’m a half a whack job so, who knows…
EM: Well, we all are. Please, don’t make me competitive!
LA: Yeah honey, well, I destroyed a genre of literature that I didn’t even write within! I destroyed memoir writing, and I published my work as fiction! But I digress.
The thing is that, you can still be a virgin – there are all kinds of sexual abuse that do not have to be rape. It’s like having a child, and you see how delicate their sexuality is, it’s like a top spinning. And just a little nudge can really send its trajectory out of alignment. And the more absorbent you are, the more intelligent, actually…. Joyce is very intelligent, super-absorbent… In the ‘80s there was a book called “The Courage To Heal,” which took everyday common neuroses that most women had experienced, and it said that if you had these feelings, then you were raised by wolves and a victim of Satanic Abuse and had all these repressed memories. And you had people who were, say, garden-variety compulsive overeaters/addicts, who went from that to – as I saw in Overeaters Anonymous meetings – to claiming that they had been raped by UFOs, were the victims of cults and devil worship, et cetera… And actually, when you peel it back, what happened was just as devastating. So that expression of pain was trying to match up with a story to justify its existence. I remember a science experiment in second grade, where we used tin foil to make a connection that would light up the correct answers. So it’s the metaphor – this level of pain must equal that depth of experience.
What I am suggesting is that something disturbed the spinning of her top; what I would further suggest is that level of disturbance that went on for her was so severe that her whole ground, her soil, became deeply turbulent. And so everything she builds on comes into question because her ground is just quicksand. And I don’t even know if the word victim even applies. It’s just that the gravity is different.
EM: What I became obsessed with – and maybe it shows by reluctance, I keep thinking about this while we are talking – it could even be personal fear on my part, to turn it into a more typical Freudian story. What I think about, for what it’s worth, having made this movie and having had this strange relationship with Joyce, I keep thinking of the bookends of the film, which to me are really strange. I was told by a number of people, Oh you must have reenacted this stuff with an actress and distressed the film to make it look old. But sorry, I didn’t do any of that.
LA: Well, we both know that reality is much stranger than fiction.
EM: Well, there was this material that was shot by this Utah filmmaker Trent Harris, and they’re his choice, he’s roughly in his 30s. And after all of this stuff in the UK, she is reciting from her book this fairy tale, the doomed-love fairy tale, that comes true. Almost as if – I shouldn’t use the word almost – as if she had scripted her life in some specific way and then proceeded to reenact it.
LA: OK, my question would be “Why?” You know like when you have a kid – WHY daddy, WHY are the clouds there, WHY… blah blah blah, and at the end the parents get pissed off and they say, “It’s because that’s just how it is.”
EM: I don’t know why, and maybe I’ve been remiss in not trying to directly answer that question. But the fact of it seems so remarkable to me. Yes, I guess the fact is the injury, the sense of injury, and the need to repeat stuff again and again and again. That’s why you ask me why I find Joyce mysterious. I find Joyce mysterious. Why would she go back to Utah, why would she go back to pursue him to the extent where she was arrested for stalking? Why would she do that? Or for that matter, why would she organize this insane trip?
LA: And not only that. Becoming a sex worker especially then, when it was not a hipster cool thing.
EM: The sex-worker thing seems to be the most normal of all that!
LA: It’s not the first choice for most people, unless you have been … unless somehow that line, that boundary has been violated somewhere. Then it’s an easy step, because that membrane then becomes very fluid. And that’s why people are so shocked by it. If it was something commonplace and normal and easy… It wasn’t, “I’m going just get a job at Longs Drugs or Walmart. I’m going be a
waitress.” There were many alternatives available to her. Yes, she needed a certain amount of money in a certain time, but to be able to put yourself in that position – whether she was having sex or not, it didn’t matter. Something had to have happened way before she had that other split, where she had that total – she was telling
that story of doomed love. Errol, show me the explosion way back. What happened?
LA: Because it’s painful for me to hear people calling her a hoot, and or saying she’s entertaining and watching her Bojangle. She’s doing what she does, but that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. She bit her father.
EM: Peter Tory describes it like a vampire. He’s the British journalist telling the story.
LA: What was their reaction after the film, especially when, “The chains stuff sounds better…” I’m probably getting the line wrong.
EM: Well, it’s my favorite line in the movie.
LA: Oh my God!
EM: At one point he says, “I think it was ropes, but chains sounds better.”
LA: I know this. I know this from the inside.
EM: Is it wrong to make a movie – here I am asking you – is it wrong to make a movie… You know that, I suppose, myself included, I’m dealing with pathological characters of one kind or another. But there’s something in the story itself that is really powerful. It’s a different kind of story for me. Maybe it shouldn’t be, maybe I am remiss, maybe my interest is in the wrong place altogether. To me the central question of the story is: Who diddled Joyce when she was a little girl? I’m not sure that would give me the kinds of answers that would satisfy me anyway. It became a different kind of story for me – a story of repetition, a kind of repetition compulsion.
LA: But if you pull the camera back, all a sudden you would see this whole obsessive track. Because sometimes I think we are invested in – there are responses to her as a wanton sexual creature, and there’s this arousal that comes from her. If we hold someone, if we see someone as damaged, as having been hurt, and so their subsequent choices stem from that hurt, then it makes Joyce a little less titillating, it mitigates the fun.
EM: Which I think is fine by the way, because I think there is a tragic element to the story.
LA: Yeah, but I don’t think it has to be Freudian when you examine the pathways people have taken and you see some event in their childhood. I don’t think it’s a cliché – or maybe it is cliché because it is so true – how some event, some trauma in their childhood, in their life, so altered the path they went down and their obsessions…. You find this a lot in artists. And I was just struck by a quote you said: “It got to the point where people would say that even the suggestion that I might be a funny person seemed to be ridiculous in the face of the movies I had made most recently. So, sorry, I’m a funny person. Fuck you, I’m funny!”
EM: Yeah. There has always been an absurdist element in everything that I’ve done. Probably in most everything that I’ve done. I was attracted to the story. Initially –
LA: Oh my God my battery is low, I can’t fucking believe this. I hope we’re still recording.
EM: I’m still recording. So I can always send it to you if you need me to.
I have to take out all the parts that make me look bad – other than that, I can send out an absolutely faithful recording!
LA: (Laughs) I love it, you know I totally adore you. I think you’re absolutely brilliant.
EM: I had all these problems with my first film, and it got to be really, really annoying. I felt that I was being victimized by some kind of Art Police.
LA: It’s a sin you committed as a child!
EM: So with Gates of Heaven, the people in it are kind of sort of ridiculous. They’re really funny, but there’s something really incredibly sad, moving. And I used to defend myself in various ways, I went through a whole number of stages, maybe these are like the Kübler-Ross stages. At first I would deny that I was making fun of people. And then I felt kind of dirty, having to constantly deny that I found these people funny, when in fact I did find them funny. So then I changed that tune to something different, and I would say WELL, just ‘cause they’re funny doesn’t mean they aren’t a lot of other things, the fact they’re funny doesn’t mitigate blah blah blah, this
that and something else. But that didn’t please me either; it annoyed me that I had to say it, it’s like I’m offering this kind of excuse for what I’ve done – please don’t hit me, I promise to never do it again. Then I started to think – I’m not some goddamn social worker. I’m trying to record something, to capture something that does have elements of absurdity, craziness. But it has a lot of other things too.
LA: Well, it has a lot of compassion. It’s also holding other peoples’ hearts. I don’t find your work as laughing at the subject matter, and I get that they feel supported like a bridge.
EM: I like Joyce. I actually find her smart, interesting, entertaining, an amazing romantic character. If this isn’t a romantic story on some level, it’s because maybe every romantic story is deeply pathological. But I would hate to try to find out what happened to Cressida and Isolde in childhood.
LA: It’s like how you referenced Peter Sellers, you were fascinated by Peter Sellers’ performance, that he’s somebody where the mask has been lifted, and you know to explore his past to find what informed that. And there’s a way where the artist, the purer artistry – I don’t know whether our rights are to explore that, but your work is different.
EM: Here’s something else that is relevant. Joyce got really annoyed with me, she wrote these amazing screeds.
LA: I know, I’ve seen them.
EM: She wrote Roger Ebert a 20-, 30,000-word email – my friend Ron Rosenbaum calls it the Finnegans Wake of hate mail. And she was angry, although she appeared with me again and again at these Q&A’s, the New York appearance was the first of many, where she complained that I had not taken on the Mormon Church and I had not taken on the tabloids.
LA: Which I would suggest is a metaphor for something else.
Em: Well, I think you’re right. But if I had taken on something else, that would have not made Joyce happy.
LA: No, it wouldn’t have. I think it’s a Don Quixote, completely. I don’t think she would be any more accommodating.
EM: If I had talked to her father and mother of childhood trauma, et cetera, et cetera, to the extent that they would be even willing to share…
LA: But I’m interested in WHY you didn’t even want to, why you moved away. I mean here, keep asking Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? And you have this women who’s saying – what’s that quote? “If you tell a lie long enough, you learn to believe it.” What was the lie she started telling herself early on?
EM: Maybe you should talk to Joyce. That would be interesting.
LA: I was offered her contact… But I wanted to connect with you and learn your process around it.
EM: You know, we try to find all these people that were connected with Joyce. We tried to find Steve Moskowitz, the guy who – I’m not sure how to describe him, her pimp or whatever he was in Los Angeles. We tried to find him and interview him; we tried to find that woman who worked with her, they were sex workers together. We tried to get all kinds of documents that have mysteriously disappeared.
LA: Oh, I know that whole thing about that truck.
EM: No, no, no, it’s not even that stuff. It’s stuff that goes back to the court case in the UK. We couldn’t get any of those court documents.
LA: Why not? Why aren’t they still around?
EM: They’re just gone. It’s one of the oddities of this story. I’ve investigated a lot of different kinds of things, and sometimes there are bits of material missing and sometimes a lot of stuff is missing. That’s certainly true of this particular story. There were many aspects I didn’t go into, because I felt there was a movie here. The movie was NOT – I should state this is explicitly – a psychological portrait of Joyce McKinney. It was something else altogether. At one point of the interview, she references – and I keep mentioning this because it was on my mind – she references this story by Dreiser. And she started making fun of me at one Q&A because of my obsession with the Dreiser story: “Get off the Dreiser story, Errol!!!”
LA: What is the Dreiser story?
EM: The Dreiser story is “The Second Choice.” Now when she mentioned “The Second Choice,” I hadn’t read any Dreiser, and I went on this crazy Dreiser kick, reading a lot of Dreiser short stories, reading the basic novels – Jennie Gerhardt, Sister Carrie, An American Tragedy, et cetera – and I became a kind of crazy Dreiser fan. I still am, it continues. “The Second Choice” is one of the most despairing stories I have ever read. I think it’s a masterpiece of its kind. Why qualify it? It’s a masterpiece, period. I kept thinking about the irony of A) her liking the story, and B) the fact that her story was the opposite of the Dreiser story and even more terrible in its essence. The Dreiser story is of a woman who tells herself she will never settle for her second choice, she’s in love with this man who is clearly not in love with her. There are these letters that he sends, obviously letters that are written because he doesn’t want anything more to do with her. And there’s a man in love with her who’s boring, and Dreiser’s protagonist says she’s not going to end up like Mom, marrying the boring guy and having the boring life. And of course at the end she settles for her second choice.
And Joyce said, Well, that’s never going to happen to me, I’m never going to settle for my second choice. But in fact, in refusing to settle for anything, she creates a story far more terrible then Dreiser’s – a kind of modern nightmare of isolation. And because I’m, I guess the kind of person I am, I start to wonder about romantic love. I thought to myself, at one point, that love involved two people. But maybe it involves only one.
LA: Or two people with the same kind of mishegas. Usually love works if you have the same … depending on what the mishegas is.
EM: Or as I tell my wife, we’ve found a way to annoy each other, which both of us enjoy and actually have come to depend on.
LA: Exactly. Like they say in twelve-step programs, We’re not all crazy at the same time; we’re all crazy in different ways.
EM: So that was my impetus to hit a kind of short story. And maybe that’s wrong, and maybe when we’re dealing with real people, as opposed to fictional characters, there’s a requirement to keep scratching at it until you reach some hidden layer. I don’t know.
LA: I don’t know either. I think in fiction, in working on “Deadwood,” it was exploring deeper and deeper. We would discuss the characters, and there were things that the audience didn’t know and would never know about a character’s background. And they were based on real people, and we would talk about these things like they were completely true. It could be considered a form of method acting. Even for me, who lived with a being that existed for me and also did not – I knew he was not real, but I also felt him very much as real, I understood that duality of being. And the thing is, that it was a felt authenticity. So we had to go back to where you have that sense of authenticity. Like the game Mouse Trap, you don’t necessarily have to go back to the beginning that this produced this, and this caused that. I think people have a natural sense of that authenticity, so if you go back far enough, whether or not it’s even shared with the audience, we understand what caused this. Why? Why? Why? Why? I think the job of the artist is like what you were saying, I watched how you filmed this, it’s “We rest transparently on the grace that gave us rise.” I thought that’s how you film, and she is resting transparently, and I just felt a yearning for you to take that brilliance and put back a little more. It felt that you loved her so deeply that you were protective of her. It’s funny because there were so many accusations of you being exploitive, but I think it’s more that you can hold it in the realm of, Well, it is what it is, she is what she is. But again, why? I wouldn’t go to her to find out. I don’t know that she has the ability for self-examination. They say in twelve-step programs that the only requirement for membership is the capacity to be honest.
EM: I actually think it would be unkind to Joyce. I agree, there are certain things that I did, it may not seem to be the case, but I do believe it to be the case, that in many ways I tried to protect Joyce. Now she may think that talking to the tabloid journalists at all is a way of holding her up to ridicule.
LA: But it exposes them.
EM: It exposes them, I did point out to her that, if she thinks these journalists just emerge unscathed, that it’s an uncritical portrait of them, well, that’s just, in my view, untrue. Someone said to me how crazy Joyce was, and I said really she’s no more or less crazy than the men in the movie. And I believe it – maybe she’s less functional in some ways.
LA: Maybe she’s holding on to a narrative that allows her to make sense of what’s insane.
EM: Also, she said to me – after the film was finished and we appeared in public in various Q&A’s – that this was killing her father, killing her mother. And I think she did tell me to stay away from them, even early on, that I shouldn’t be bothering them. There are endless aspects to the story, it goes on and on and on. There’s the three-legged-horse story, there’s the litigation involving the Benfields and their hounds, which involved several local newspapers, and on and on and on and on and on.
LA: The rage is being attacked, and she’s going into these situations where she is attacked on a grand scale. It starts off with the choices she’s made, and there again I can relate. You know how abused kids are notoriously loyal and protective; they’re like the dog. What’s her dog’s name that defended her?
LA: OK. That phenomenal loyalty to protect.
EM: I had terrible trouble with Showtime. This was part of the problem of making art for people who are not entirely sympathetic with what you’re doing. Very early on people would say, “Well, you have to take the dog out of the story.” And I said, “Taking the dog out of the story is like taking the story out of the story.”
LA: Who had final cut? Did you?
EM: Well, because it eventually became a movie, yeah, I had final cut.
LA: Thank God.
EM: But this was a repeated question: What does the dog cloning have to do with the rest of the story? To me it has everything to do with it. There was a late screening when we were still in post-production; we were screening it for small groups of people, and I asked that question, because I was worried that people watching the movie would see no connection between the end of the story and the beginning of the story. And this one woman in the front row said, “Well, it’s obvious: She finally got pregnant.” But that doesn’t encompass it by any means completely.
LA: I think there are many roads to Mecca. I’ve had doctorate students write papers about my work, and I’ve said, “Wow, I’ve never thought about it that way.” In my novels, there’s a symbol of three crutches, and I was thinking of the Three Musketeers, and this doctorate student wrote in his paper about my book, that it is obviously an old Christian symbol with the Stations of the Cross, et cetera… And he was correct in a sense, even though I was not referencing that at all. Because The Three Musketeers is probably inspired by the Stations of the Cross. All that is just following a trajectory of truth. I think everything is available to us as artists, so I think nobody is incorrect. To me the dogs represented protection, but then again that’s me seeing through the lens of my damage, my experience. I am struck that now she has this army of protection. And as a metaphor, she would go to any lengths to find that protection, to me that’s just so sad, the extremes to which people go to feel safe and protected. For me that was the creation of JT and the telling of it all, there were many things I was attempting to do, and I understand that.
EM: Here’s something for you, I think that creating a person is in a way an essential act of creativity for every one of us, we are all to a certain extent self-invented. Yes, we have this genetics and that genetics and these childhood experiences. But we’re all involved in trying to manufacture a conception of our own personhood, of who we are. What I find oddest and most interesting about the story is that Joyce has created a version of herself which is so ultimately self-destructive, yet maybe necessary, maybe essential. I identify with her, pure and simple.
LA: What part do you identify with?
EM: This need to construct herself, and the strange self-destructiveness in it. I identify with it, very strongly.
LA: What part is self-destructive?
EM: In her?
LA: In you.
EM: Oh, me…
LA: It’s ultimately about you, her story. Why do we pick the stories we tell? And more interestingly what we choose to leave out… The silences.
EM: Well, I know that in everything I’ve done, that most of the stuff has been left out. It seems to be part of the occupational hazard of doing this in the first place.
LA; It’s impossible to put everything in.
EM: It’s the feeling that, and maybe this is the perverse part, in the attempts to realize oneself one actually ends up kind of facing oneself. I’m not sure how I would put it into words. Joyce is hurt by the fact that I just didn’t create a screed against the Mormon church and start ranting about the perfidies of tabloid journalism, and how she was a deeply tragic victim of circumstances beyond her control.
LA: No, go back to what you were talking about.
EM: There’s something that’s not the story that interests me, I think there are elements of that in Joyce’s story. Yes, she was fucked over by the church and fucked over by the tabloids. I think she contributed to it in good measure, but that’s not the story. Nor do I think the story is the story of what traumas she experienced in early childhood. It’s your story, if your story is trying to figure out how to be somebody in this world.
LA: You know what’s interesting she’s a mystery unto herself, completely.
EM: Well, we all are. I’m very fond of pointing out, it sounds like a broken record because I AM A BROKEN RECORD. I sometimes call it the Cartesian delusion, that we have privileged access to our own brains, that we actually know what we think as opposed to other people. I actually think we know much less about what we think than what other people think.
LA: Well, a neuroscientist can completely back that up.
EM: Well, fuck them! I like this movie being – ultimately, I have to find it mysterious. If other people don’t find it mysterious, well … what’s that expression I just used? FUCK THEM!
LA: Going back, the paradox is that self-empowerment ultimately entails mitigation of the self. Being a filmmaker, being behind the scenes…
EM: You know, her friend that came with her to England, that traveled with her everywhere: Was she sexually involved with him? Who in hell was he? You know, I would have loved to talk to him. This is a huge missing piece of the puzzle.
LA: Well, my interest is before she went off on this Mormon thing. What was she like? When did she go into this obsession? Where did this happen?
EM: You know, she was supposedly obsessed with one of the Osmond Brothers.
LA: Well, it’s the idea of the wholesome. Here she’s a beauty queen, and to me it’s like you’ve got Colonel Mustard with the candlestick –
EM: I should get my Liberace stuff straight.
LA: (Laughter) Please! Anyway. All these things to me are mysterious. I have watched it with people who have a variety of life experiences, and every time I see it with somebody that comes from a past that’s similar to mine, without my saying anything, those who can drop down to a depth of pain, and also have a certain amount of recovery, so they have become less of a mystery unto themselves, after we see your film, our first reaction is, “Jesus fucking Christ! Oh my God! What had to have happened to her?” I’ve had time to sit with my experience, and I can’t say I’m out of being a mystery, but I understand a lot more of what makes me tick. And then the folks who are existing on a different level, or maybe in their life experience they don’t question a lot or they don’t drop down as deeply, when they see the film, they’d go with that line about Joyce, “What a hoot!”
But for me, all of a sudden you’ve invited me into a further dialogue here, it’s like, wait a minute, you’ve planted all these things and you’re going to tell me that’s it! I mean I do not trust the general public if they don’t ask questions, if they don’t pick up these things. It’s like 9/11: “They blew us up, they’re bad, let’s go to war!”
I mean, come on! People don’t extrapolate out to less obvious details.
EM: People don’t embrace complexity.
LA: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” No, that’s not what we want. Is it black or white, is she crazy yes or no. Don’t give me complexities. But I think people can be shown complexities. You know, what’s interesting in The New York Times’ articulation of me, after the reveal that I was
JT LeRoy, they pointedly never asked WHY I created JT. Because that might have changed the response, that might have encouraged a generosity of spirit toward me. Things don’t come out in a vacuum. I think if you pull back the lens and went back to Joyce – not in England, she’s in pure addiction then – but if we widen the lens back further, the way I want to know, how she went from beauty queen right to this role.
LA: That in itself was…. What was that?
EM: I have to get off; I have to get to an appointment. I would be happy to talk more, I just can’t do it right now.
LA: Definitely. Just know that for me, like I said, I love art that engages me, I can be in conversation because it’s just more information. And you do that. When I watched The Fog of War, I was just blown away. I feel like you’ve been training me to peel back layers, and as I’m able to be available to more information I can do that, and in my own coming to be, I have a great debt to you. So just know I’m coming to you with these questions out of that, with gratitude.
EM: Well if you want to talk further, my life is getting crazier and crazier; I am in New York next week
LA: How long are you in New York? I’m actually in New York. I’m on stage with the People Magazine editor on the 7th.
EM: I’m in New York all next week. I guess I am in Washington briefly, I’ll be on stage and I’m shooting on Thursday and Friday.
LA: What are you working on?
EM: I’m working on a number of films. But I’m actually shooting commercials. I’m actually doing a commercial, which is actually not such a bad thing to be doing. Plan B.
LA: Oh, that’s great. Well, so are you in New York? I’m in New York from the 6th to 11th, and maybe we can meet in New York. Maybe we can reconnoiter in person. It was wonderful talking to you.
EM: Likewise! I think we should continue it.
LA: Yeah that’s fantastic. Did Skip give you my Moth appearance?
LA: I’ll send it to you. The Moth is a little story-telling
place in New York… it’s 10 minutes. Wonderful talking to you, you were really generous.
EM: Thank you so much.
LA: Take care.