In 1953, a government scientist named Frank Olson plunged to his death from a New York City hotel window. The fall was ruled a suicide, but it was later revealed that Olson had been surreptitiously dosed with LSD as part of the CIA‘s notorious MK Ultra program. Errol Morris, the man behind such classic documentaries as The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, reopens the case in his new series, Wormwood, which is available on Netflix.
What drew you to this story?
MK Ultra had something to do with it— the fact that the American government might have had a “Manchurian Candidate” program, in which it was involved in training assassins, erasing memories, programming behavior. Could it be true? There’s also a detective story at the heart of it—an unsolved mystery. We know that Frank Olson went out a window at the Statler Hotel in 1953. But was it a suicide? What really happened?
Unlike with your other films, you have more than four hours to tell this story.
I sold it to Netflix as the “everything bagel.” I was going to combine all kinds of diverse elements—collaged images, interviews shot with multiple cameras, reenactment, straight drama. Would it have been possible to pull it off in a much shorter film? Maybe, but I would be hard-pressed to edit this thing down to an hour and a half.
Reenactments have gotten you into trouble in the past.
Thirty years ago, the Academy rejected The Thin Blue Line as something other than a documentary, because it had reenactments. I was told I was making documentaries the wrong way. At some point I started telling people, “Well, you know, it’s all reenactment. Consciousness is a reenactment of the world inside of our skulls.” We don’t have perfect access to the world out there. We may like to think we do, but we don’t.
It’s said that our current moment is “post-truth.”
The sad part of the time in which we’re living is that people have attacked the whole idea of what is true. I blame the internet for a lot of this.
The internet has a lot to answer for.
A hundred years ago, 99.9 percent of human idiocy went unrecorded. Now we have the Internet. It’s as if information has become severed from reality. But that doesn’t mean that the truth doesn’t exist any longer. It just means that truth is buried under an enormous pile of falsehood.
You’ve said that most effective liars always include a little bit of truth in what they say.
I think it’s a basic principle of lying.
With that in mind, what do you make of our current president?
One of the things that’s so disturbing about our president is he’s such an ineffective liar. He’s one of the worst liars I’ve ever seen. It’s embarrassing. I think our country deserves a better liar.
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