Errol Morris on 'Wormwood,' a new kind of drama-documentary hybrid
For his new series Wormwood, documentarian Errol Morris used interviews and archival footage to tell the story of Frank Olson, an Army scientist who died a mysterious death in 1953. But he also cast Peter Sarsgaard to play Olson in scripted sequences. Netflix footed the bill, though no one quite knew what they were getting themselves into when they first took on the project.
Documentarian Errol Morris came up with a new form of filmmaking to tell the story of Frank Olson, an Army scientist who died in mysterious circumstances in 1953. For his new Netflix series, Wormwood, Morris used interviews and archival footage but also cast Peter Sarsgaard to play Olson in extended, lavishly produced scripted sequences. Morris tells us about the making of the a six-part series, which involves the CIA, LSD, the Korean War, and even sequences from Hamlet.
Photo: Errol Morris behind the scenes of Wormwood (Shirin Adhami/Netflix)
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For his new documentary project Wormwood, filmmaker Errol Morris spent days interviewing Erik Olson, a man who grew up believing his father Frank -- an Army scientist with connections to the CIA -- had committed suicide by jumping out of a Manhattan hotel window in 1953, when Erik was nine years old.
But in 1975, newly released CIA files added a wrinkle to the story: shortly before his death, Frank Olson may have been part of a CIA experiment in which he was given LSD without his knowledge.
Of course, that came as shocking news to Erik and his family. Erik Olson has since devoted his life to pursuing answers to questions about what his father knew and how he actually died. In Wormwood, Morris puts forth what Olson has discovered, one layer at a time.
What makes the series unique is that it presents the story of Olson not only through interviews and archival footage but through scripted dramatic performances, with Peter Sarsgaard playing doomed scientist Frank Olson. The cast for the scripted sequences also includes actors Molly Parker and Bob Balaban.
Given Morris's hybrid technique, it's tough to say exactly how to categorize Wormwood. Is it a film? Is it a series? When we sat down with him recently, even he had trouble nailing down the exact nomenclature.
Morris recounts approaching Netflix and saying he wanted to make the "everything bagel" of documentaries. The project then grew in scope and expense over the years. He also reflects on his memorable meeting with feisty investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who has his own theory about the Olson case, but he says he's never been able to publish a definitive account without putting his source in danger.
In addition, Morris tells us there might be more Wormwood in the future, and questions the ever-changing rules that govern what is and isn't eligible for best documentary at the Oscars. Wormwood was deemed ineligible by the Academy's documentary branch this year, but still qualifies in the feature categories.
All six parts of the four-hour opus Wormwood will be available on Netflix starting December 15 and will also have a theatrical run in New York and LA.