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'Wormwood': Errol Morris' new documentary takes a new approach

Director Errol Morris on the set of
Director Errol Morris on the set of "Wormwood."
Zach Dilgard/Netflix

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Errol Morris's new series for Netflix, “Wormwood,' is a documentary. But it’s really more than that.

"Wormwood" is about a family's tragedy — losing a husband and father to an apparent suicide — and a son's decades-long obsession with finding the truth about what really happened.

It's also about the CIA's Cold War paranoia, and how much members of the intelligence community were willing to sacrifice in order to keep secrets they deemed vital to national security.

In November of 1953, a government biochemist named Frank Olson fell from a hotel window in New York City, plunging to his death.

Morris tries to uncover what led to that event through interviews with Eric Olson, Frank's son, and other sources. And woven inside the documentary elements is a narrative film with actor Peter Sarsgaard darkly reenacting what might have been Frank Olson’s final days.

When Morris spoke with The Frame recently, he discussed what attracted him to the story of Frank Olson, and how he went about capturing it on film.

Interview Highlights:

On what Frank Olson's family was told about his death:

They said he fell or jumped out of a hotel window. I suppose if he jumped, that's suicide. For their eldest son, Eric, who was nine years old at the time, the explanation was confusing, disturbing, unacceptable. Eric would repeatedly ask himself the question, What does it mean to fall out of a hotel window? It's something that troubled him, it troubled his brother and sister, it troubled Frank Olson's widow. 

On what Frank Olson's family knew about his job:

They must have known something. His wife must have had some idea. They lived in Frederick, Maryland — not far from one of the major germ warfare laboratories in the United States. And indeed, that is exactly what Frank Olson turned out to be involved in — the creation, design, manufacture of biological weaponry.

And of course, the question was always, Was Frank Olson killed? Didn't fall or jump. Was killed. And if he was killed, why? And was it in any way connected to the bio weapons research he was engaged in at Fort Detrick?

Peter Sarsgaard in a scene from
Peter Sarsgaard in a scene from "Wormwood."
Mark Schafer/Netflix

On what struck him about the story of Frank Olson:

The story of "Wormwood" is the story of partial truths. 1975, when it was revealed that an Army scientist was surreptitiously given LSD, presumably he did not know that he was being dosed. The claim was, because of his reaction to LSD, his behavior became erratic [and] confused, culminating with suicide. So, here you have another story — 22 years later, another story about what happened to Frank Olson. The family is invited to meet the President of the United States in the Oval Office. They meet the then-Director of Central Intelligence, William Colby, who gives them a stack of documents. And the claim is then, Now you know everything! Happy? Happy now? We've told you everything. Just look through that stack of documents. That's the whole nine yards. That's the story. Except for one small problem: It wasn't the whole story.

On choosing Eric Olson as a focus of the film:

In traditional detective stories, the story is really about the mystery and how the mystery is solved. But here, there are multiple stories and mysteries. For any detective — I used to work as a private detective — you are confronted with a mystery or, if you like, a whole number of different mysteries. 

Part of it is a story about Frank Olson's son — his oldest son, Eric  — and his 60 year-plus story to figure out what the hell happened. One thing we rarely think about in mystery stories is what effect does the attempt to solve a mystery have on the detective who's trying to solve it.

Bob Balaban in a scene from
Bob Balaban in a scene from "Wormwood."
Mark Schafer/Netflix

On why he used as many as 10 cameras to shoot his subject:

Part of every detective story is the detective's attempt to sort through disparate information — fragmentary evidence — and create a picture of what happened. That collage-like feeling in a detective story, I try to capture in the way that I shot "Wormwood." To me, eye contact was less important than the feeling that we're trying to look at the story from every angle.

On why he chose to devote time to reenactments in Frank Olson's story:

Because I actually believe that story to not be true ... All of this which we take to be a depiction of what happened that strange week before Frank Olson went out the window at the Statler [Hotel] — all of it, most of it, some of it might be false. Often the most powerful part of any investigation are efforts made to cover it up. "Wormwood" is as much a detective story of putting pieces together as being tricked into following leads by the government.

"Wormwood" arrives in theaters and on Netflix on Dec. 15.


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