This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
In the midst of a boom in true-crime documentaries like Making a Murderer and The Jinx, a Los Angeles courtroom is set to host a sensational trial that exposes the often fraught relationship between these filmmakers and their subjects.
Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, whose 1988 murder mystery The Thin Blue Line influenced a generation of nonfiction directors, will square off Feb. 29 against Joyce McKinney, who believes she is the victim of Morris’ 2011 film Tabloid. That work, which grossed only $600,000 in theaters, covered the circus that erupted in the British press during the late 1970s when the former American beauty queen with a genius-level IQ traveled to England to be reunited with fiance Kirk Anderson, a Mormon missionary. As the story told at the time, McKinney kidnapped Anderson, tied him to a bed in a cottage and raped him.
The case was a gold mine for U.K. tabloids, with the Daily Mail purporting to tell the backstory of a “sex hostess … on America’s shady vice circuit.” She was charged with false imprisonment and skipped bail (though she never was extradited or prosecuted criminally) and since has insisted there was no rape and that the real story was the influence of a Mormon cult. She agreed to participate in Morris’ film in a bid to clear her name.
But much like Robert Durst in The Jinx, Tabloid didn’t work out how McKinney hoped. Instead of exonerating her, the film presented all sides of the case. She now blames Morris for tricking her into an interview, stealing her personal photographs and home videos and hurting her reputation. Four years after the case was filed, the trial should be as odd as the spectacle that occurred decades ago. “They offered me $75,000 to settle, and I told them they could kiss my butt,” McKinney, 66, tells THR. “They made millions off of me. … I’m going to take it all way to the end as I want my day in court.”
It’s a case that should be watched in the documentary community because it will explore how sought-after sources are cultivated and what happens when they don’t like what they see onscreen. Plus, the details are just so bizarre.
Morris at work on a documentary in the 1990s.
To begin, there are dogs. Lots of them. McKinney ran an enterprise that cloned canines. She’s also visually impaired and uses a service dog to help her get around. This factors because she alleges that Tabloid producer and co-defendant Mark Lipson broke into her home and threatened that her dog would die if she didn’t sign release papers. But according to the defendants, Lipson went to McKinney in 2010 with a new waiver once Morris’ work evolved into a theatrical film instead of a planned Showtime series. McKinney told him that her dog was under threat of being killed by court decree after attacking a kennel worker. Lipson had the production retain an attorney to represent McKinney, but the efforts were unsuccessful, and the dog was ordered euthanized.
Many documentarians endure quarrels with subjects. “I’m always amazed why documentarians, in filming so much, don’t also film the signing of the release,” says Lincoln Bandlow, an attorney who represents Morgan Spurlock and others. Although the judge won’t let McKinney pursue defamation, she’s claiming breach of contract, fraud and infliction of emotional distress by the film being sold to her as a way to clear her name. McKinney also could have a professor of psychology testify that Tabloid used images that influenced viewers on a subconscious level. (At the pretrial phase, a declaration by the professor was given to support the theory that Tabloid isn’t what it appears to be.) The suit aims to show the film portrayed her as a prostitute via such tactics as “flashing sex ads with pictures of women who are not McKinney” and showing an “X-ray of a vagina with teeth.” The defendants say she can’t demonstrate she was damaged, and “events in [McKinney’s] life are more likely to have caused problems than the alleged fraud.”
“The evidence will show that Plaintiff willingly — in fact, eagerly — participated in the lengthy interview that is featured in the film,” states the defendants’ trial memo.
Morris didn’t respond to a request for an interview. He was previously sued by Randall Adams, the subject of Thin Blue Line, who felt himself entitled to rights to commercial movies about his life. That lawsuit settled. In an appearance on CNN this past weekend, the makers of Making a Murderer cited Thin Blue Line as a model for their own work.
Bandlow says legal tensions often arise in documentaries because of their shape-shifting nature: “You think you are making this, but as you uncover that, you end up doing something else. That is an interesting dynamic.” As for McKinney, she says: “Everyone comes to California to pursue a dream. Mine was to clear my name. How about writing that story?”
5 Trials to Watch in 2016
Jan. 11: North Jersey Media Group v. Fox News
The cable giant is defending claims that it violated copyrights to photos in commemorating the 9/11 anniversary on Facebook. Fox will try to establish fair use.
Jan. 19: Garber v. Commissioner of Baseball
Fans look to establish that MLB, Comcast and DirecTV violated antitrust law by forbidding teams to sell telecasts outside of home markets. The defendants will present procompetitive justifications for restraints.
Feb. 10: Layne Leslie Britton v. Conrad Riggs
Britton is demanding $14 million in consulting fees from Mark Burnett’s ex-partner for CBS’ Survivor.
Feb. 22: Reese Witherspoon v. Marketing Advantages International
The actress accuses retailers including Sears of violating her publicity rights and trademarks to market jewelry. She’ll need to establish consumer confusion.
TBD: Nicollette Sheridan v. Marc Cherry
An appeals court has granted Sheridan a second trial over her firing from ABC’s Desperate Housewives. In 2012, she fell one juror short of prevailing on wrongful termination claims.