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“Wormwood,” Errol Morris’ six-part investigative miniseries about the CIA cover-up around the mysterious death of biological warfare scientist Frank Olson in 1953, pushes non-fiction storytelling in a more personal direction with speculative fiction.
That’s because the story is told from the point of view of Olson’s son, Eric, now in his seventies, who has spent his life trying understand why his father plunged to his death from the 13th floor of the Statler hotel in New York City, a few days after he was secretly drugged with LSD by his CIA boss. Was it suicide? Or was he pushed after refusing to continue to participate in the CIA’s secret mind-controlling program called MKUltra. Eric believes he was murdered but has never been able to prove it.
Eric found a kindred spirit in Morris, who, with his go-to editor and co-writer Steven Hathaway, totally blurs the line between truth and fiction. By cunningly combining interviews, archival footage (including Olson family home movies), and dramatic re-enactments starring Peter Sarsgaard as Frank (culled from the CIA Colby Documents), they create a collage of events. It’s an apt metaphor, given Eric’s passion for collages.
Jumping into the Blender
“It became the blending all of these different elements and trying to find ways in which we could play with truth and memory,” said Hathaway. “It got to the point where we even started inserting real footage into Molly Parker’s flashback as Alice [Frank’s widow and Eric’s mother]. I love Molly looking out the window and seeing the real memories of Frank and Alice [from their home movies]. That’s when the series is really going well.”
For Hathaway, it always begins with Morris’ interviews. The Oscar-winning documentarian interviewed Eric for three days, which resulted in more than 12 hours of footage. Ellen Kuras shot with multiple cameras and they often utilized split screens (up to 32).
“The arc of the show stays with the flow of the interview because the disclosures are natural,” Hathaway said. “It was a gift having Eric tell his story so articulately and reflectively. I don’t know if that’s psychotherapy training, but he’s able to see himself in different ways, which creates these interesting, self-aware moments with this film.”
Morris also interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who first reported the drugging of Frank in The New York Times. But a confrontation occurred between Eric and Hersh when he refused to disclose his father’s murderer for fear of compromising the anonymous source. Hathaway editorially uses the rift as a continued source of frustration for Eric.
“It’s always about finding a twist moment in an unexpected way,” Hathaway added. “And I think in ‘Wormwood’ what happens is you think you’re following a story about Frank and, through side intervention, you learn that it’s really a story about Eric in the end.”
Getting More Intimate
However, the melancholy fictional moments (which Hathaway co-wrote with Molly Rokosz) posed a new adventure for the non-fiction editor. “I was really interested in allowing the viewer to see things different from what Eric was saying, using these documents as a tool to investigate this story,” he said. “So we tried to keep the fiction very much to these documents, binging it to life in a weird way rather than as text.
“We don’t even know if these documents are accurate from the CIA. Here we are re-enacting something that could be completely false. It was a fun dance with all these different themes. All you have are the witnesses who you think are the killers. It’s definitely a different way of telling a story.”
There’s a bizarre moment, for example, when Frank does a handstand and starts dancing while under the influence of LSD. The dancing part was even invented by director, actor, and editor. “The handstand is probably my favorite moment in the whole thing,” Hathaway said. “But there was an account of this and Eric steps in and says, ‘I don’t even know if this is true.'”
At first, Hathaway wanted to ease into the wild use of montages (“the blender”), but Morris wanted to jump right in. “I remember Errol having this revelation that we should set the language of the film right at the beginning,” he said. “Giving myself a license to actually keep doing it was the hardest part because I thought we were pushing it too far. But the more we did it, the more people liked it.”