The Netflix hit is being submitted for Emmy consideration in a variety of nonfiction categories, including Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. And yet because of extensive dramatizations in Wormwood, the cast of actors Morris deployed—including Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, Tim Blake Nelson and Bob Balaban—will also appear on nomination ballots in dramatic acting categories.
A documentary has never before yielded nominations for acting at the Emmys, Television Academy awards researchers believe. This is more evidence, if any were needed, that Morris is the leading disruptor of the documentary form, willing to blur what to some are sacred lines between what constitutes nonfiction and what does not.
“Part of what I’m doing is I’m trying to extend how we think about truth telling, storytelling, the world around us, misrepresentation, lying, and on and on and on,” Morris tells Deadline. “I’m very, very proud of this film. I think it’s a very rich, complicated, and compelling story.”
There is no doubt about the story being complicated. In Wormwood, Morris—who spent part of his career as a private detective—investigates the mysterious case of Frank Olson, an Army bioweapons researcher who worked out of Maryland’s Fort Detrick in the 1950s. While on a stay in New York with colleagues, Olson fell—or was tossed—to his death from the upper stories of a Manhattan building.
“Frank Olson went out a window at the Statler Hotel in 1953, just right after Thanksgiving. Went down 13 floors to 7th Avenue, died on that sidewalk and no one knows, really, what happened,” Morris states. “What in hell happened in that room, and why? That’s at the center of Wormwood.”
IN 1975 the U.S. government eventually came clean—or said it was coming clean—and admitted Olson had been secretly dosed with LSD as part of a covert CIA mind control program known as MKUltra.
“MKUltra was the Manchurian Candidate program, a program designed to produce, say, programmed assassins, or to change memories, or to erase memories altogether,” Morris explains.
The intended implication was Olson had suffered a bad trip, triggering suicidal impulses. Then CIA director William Colby apologized to the Olson family for the LSD incident and so did President Ford, peronally, in an Oval Office get-together. Congress granted the Olsons a cash settlement and the CIA surrendered a stack of documents that purportedly detailed the circumstances around Frank Olson’s demise.
“The family [gets] a pile of documents…hundreds of pages of material, and they’re told, ‘This is it, this is what we have on Frank Olson. You’ve got everything. You happy?’” Morris relates. “Only problem is when you start looking at these documents carefully, it doesn’t quite make sense, and it’s pretty damn clear that they’ve taken stuff out; that there must be more, that this isn’t all that there is, that the CIA is involved in yet another kind of cover-up—a different cover-up, but a cover-up nevertheless. So what did I dramatize? I dramatized the Colby Documents. I took the story that the CIA created, which may or may not be true—it’s probably untrue—and I turned it into a little movie inside of my movie.”
That’s where the actors come in—Sarsgaard as Frank Olson, Parker as his wife and Nelson and Balaban as shadowy members of MKUltra. Morris, then, is using apparent tools of fiction in pursuit of truth. Paradoxes within paradoxes add layer upon layer of complexity to Wormwood.
“The best documentary film—maybe it’s true of any film that’s connected with a true story—is [one] that makes you think. It doesn’t tell you where reality lies. It makes you think about the relationship between reality and what you’re seeing on the screen,” Morris observes. “And in a way, that’s a really high calling, to make us think of what is real. What is reality? What is truth? What is fiction? What is true? What is false?”
The Emmys will offer Morris an opportunity at awards recognition that was denied him during the Oscars. The Motion Picture Academy’s documentary branch ruled Wormwood ineligible under rules imposed after the seven-hour-long O.J.: Made in America won Best Documentary in 2017. Those rules declare “multi-part or limited series” beyond the pale.
Netflix has marketed Wormwood as a six-part series and individual episodes are being submitted for Emmy consideration in a variety of categories. But Wormwood was released in theaters last fall in a four-hour-plus long version with intermission. In other words, as a single film.
“No one really knows what the appropriate nomenclature is supposed to be. You know, is it a gnu, is it an aardvark, is it a platypus? What is it?” Morris muses. “But that’s fine. I think that’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.”
But Morris worries the talk of whether Wormwood qualifies as a series or single film—not to mention nonfiction, fiction or a hybrid—could be distracting.
“One of the fears that I have, and it’s not an unjustified fear, is that because people don’t know how to categorize it, they kind of reject it. They don’t know how to deal with it, so let’s avoid dealing with it. But please, don’t do that,” Morris urges with a laugh. “I’m really proud of it. And I’d like it to get some more attention. Why wouldn’t I?”