Conspiracy Theories

Errol Morris is one of America’s most respected documentary filmmakers. His work includes The Thin Blue Line (1988), which helped overturn a miscarriage of justice, and the Oscar-winning portrait of Robert McNamara, The Fog of War (2003). He returns with Wormwood, his first project for Netflix. A drama-documentary, starring Peter Sarsgaard, it follows the story of Eric Olson and his quest to uncover the real reasons behind the death of his biochemist father Frank.

ASFF: Do you consider this a film or a TV show?
EM: I don’t know what you’re supposed to call anything. This whole issue of nomenclature … I just read a piece by John Bailey, the new president of the Academy. He’s a photographer I worked with in the past; shot A Brief History of Time for me years ago. He said how much he would like to see these films in theatres.

ASFF: Did you view it as like making a film?
EM: It is different. There are so many, many differences. It’s filmmaking, to be sure. But certainly, it’s an overriding concern for Netflix … you have a six-part series, they want cliff-hangers, it’s episodic. They want the audience at the end of Episode 1 to watch Episode 2; and so on and so forth. It has to be constructed with that end in mind.

ASFF: Where did you come across this story?
EM: It’s a fairly well-known story. I knew about it. It’s this group of MK-Ultra stories; MK-Ultras, beloved by conspiracy freaks. It becomes even more mysterious. The people who ran the programme destroyed the records. So, all the records were burned. The minute you do something like that, when you’re involved in extreme interrogation techniques, the use of drugs, mind control, blah blah blah…and then you destroy all of that, you create a kind of myth. There’s a kind of legend associated with MK-Ultra, and the projects they were involved with, so that was interesting. But this had many things that interested me: a son who spent 60-plus years investigating his father’s murder.

ASFF: He doesn’t come across as a crazed conspiracy theorist. Do you agree?
Eric is really smart. Obsessed clearly. Analytical also. Ideal subject for me: well-spoken. I used to be a private detective years ago. I can even imagine the film as an essay on detective work and the nature of detective work. When I was making The Thin Blue Line, I was aware of the fact I was investigating a miscarriage of justice. That became pretty clear early on. This is really different: there’s every indication to believe that Frank Olsen was murdered, or if you prefer assassinated by the CIA, and that the CIA attempted – perhaps even successfully – to cover it up, to muddy it up, to create a false story, to create false information.

ASFF: Did you have doubts when you met Eric?
I don’t believe anything straight away! I like to think of myself as having some level of critical thinking and scepticism. As I investigated, I became more and more convinced that there was something wrong with this story.

James Mottram

Wormwood streams on Netflix from 15 December. For more details, visit:

1. Still from Wormwood.