Errol Morris talks about teaming up with Netflix to delve into the LSD-laced mystery of a CIA scientist's death

NetflixEric Olson in ‘Wormwood.’
  • Following audience thirst for true crime, Netflix has teamed with the master of the genre, Errol Morris, to make his latest documentary, “Wormwood.”
  • But like all of Morris’ work, it’s not just a straight doc. “Wormwood” has the most ambitious reenactments the Oscar winner has ever done.
  • Morris teases more “Wormwood” to come.

In a moment when we can’t get enough of true crime stories, director Errol Morris has teamed with Netflix to prove why he’s the master of the genre.

Morris is known best for having a well-trained eye for compelling true-life stories, and using highly stylised reenactments to tell them. The combination has led to legendary documentaries like 1988’s “The Thin Blue Line,” 2003’s “The Fog of War: Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” (which earned him a best documentary Oscar), and 2013’s “The Unknown Known,” which looked at the career of former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld.

Now, almost one month from his 70th birthday, Morris is unveiling his most ambitious project yet.

Netflix’s six-part miniseries “Wormwood” (available on the service Friday) examines the 60-years-past death of Frank Olson. Olson was a US scientist for the CIA who for decades was believed to have died after being slipped LSD as part of the agency’s top secret Cold War program MKUltra, which focused on mind control. Supposedly due to the effects of the drug, Olson jumped out of a New York City hotel room and died.

But it turned out that wasn’t the real story.

Morris tracked down Frank’s son, Eric, who for the last 60 years has dedicated his life to trying to find out what really happened to his father. Morris conducted interviews with Eric, reporter Seymour Hersh – who broke the story about the LSD link to Olson’s death – and did reenactments of Frank’s nine days from taking the drug to his death (casting actors like Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Blake Nelson, and Bob Balaban to be in the scenes). The resulting series “Wormwood” looks at how unreliable memory really can be, and how far conspiracies can go. Morris does this through a collage of documentary interviews, home video footage, archival news material, reenactments, and a clips from a movie version of “Hamlet” – all told with a psychedelic feel.

A potential cover-up and extraordinary interview subject were too much to pass up

Morris had been wanting to do something on MKUltra for years, but he never knew how to tell it in a way that would work for the screen. The only thing he knew for sure was he wanted to do it in a grand way. Or as he described it, “an everything bagel.” Following a conversation with Netflix over two years ago, the streaming giant agreed to back the Oscar winner’s new project.

Wormwood 2 Mark Shafer Netflix finalMark Shafer/NetflixBob Balaban in ‘Wormwood.’

“It’s an incredibly rich story,” Morris told Business Insider while talking at the New York offices of Netflix. “This is a story that has an extraordinary protagonist and the story in of itself is extraordinary. If you asked me in the outset did I realise how rich it was going to be I would have said, ‘No, not really.'”

Morris knew he had something when he had a phone conversation with Eric Olson before making the movie. The director realised instantly Eric was a documentary filmmaker’s dream: a subject who not only could easily lay out all the particulars of the story, but do it in a way that would entertain the audience.

But Morris’ major interest in doing the project was delving into the movie’s reenactments more aggressively than he ever had before – specifically Frank Olson’s last nine days on Earth and what could have led to a CIA cover-up.

“Often the most interesting part of a story is the cover-up,” he said.

An “everything bagel” worth of information

The reenactments were where Netflix played a vital role. With its deep pockets the streaming giant was able to provide Morris with a budget the director had never been able to work with for any of his feature movies.

Dishing out between $US14 million and $US15 million to make the movie, according to Morris’ estimate, Netflix matched Morris’ enthusiasm for the reenactments. It shows. Set in the 1950s, the production design and costumes have the look of something out of a studio movie for the fleshed-out scenes. And then there is the CGI mixed in for the Olson death scene. It’s an embarrassment of riches that Morris previously only tapped into while directing commercials for major brands over his career like Nike, Target, Chevy (to just name a few).

Wormwood Errol Morris Shirin Adhami Netflix finalShirin Adhami/NetflixErrol Morris on the set of ‘Wormwood.’

And Morris loved the experience and the story so much that he wants to continue the “Wormwood” story.

“I should be done with it, but I’m not,” he said. “I’m letting it be known that there’s more to come.”

Morris said that he still has many questions for Seymour Hersh regarding what he knows from sources on the CIA involvement in Frank Olson’s death, and there were a lot of reenactment scenes he wrote that didn’t end up getting made.

When asked if Netflix knows of his sequel plans he replied, “I don’t know.” Business Insider contacted Netflix for comment about a sequel but did not get a response.

But outside of another season of “Wormwood,” Morris loves the “everything bagel” approach – where all aspects of the story (and storytelling methods) are explored in a single movie on a topic – and he said he has more projects that he wants to explore this way.

“It means you have these layers, and I believe it’s far richer as a result,” he said. “Our attempts to know things, how we know what we know, the efforts to prevent us to know things, and the terrible human costs that come with the pursuit of knowledge. That’s all in ‘Wormwood,’ and that makes a difference.”

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.