By the mid to late 1970s, public opinion on the performance of America’s Central Intelligence Agency had plunged to an all-time low. Many seemingly ill-considered operations—some against U.S. citizens—had been revealed by a New York Times story, which in turn spurred the creation in 1975 of the Rockefeller Commission (officially known as the United States President’s Commission on CIA Activities Within the United States).
Such exposure was anathema for the secretive agency, and by the end of the decade, the CIA was even being mocked in the fantasy world of James Bond; in 1979’s Moonraker, Bond explains knowledge of U.S. spy gadgets as being the result of having “friends in low places.”
One victim of MK-ULTRA was CIA employee Frank Olson, who, after having been dosed with LSD by another member of his team, fell to his death from a hotel window in 1953. This image is from the Wormwood title sequence.
A particularly damning incident exposed the CIA’s “mind-control” study, MK-ULTRA, in which experiments were performed on human subjects, often without their knowledge or consent, to identify drugs and procedures that could be used to control behavior and coax admissions in interrogations.
One victim of MK-ULTRA was bacteriologist and CIA employee Frank Olson, who, after having been dosed with LSD by another member of his team, fell to his death from a hotel window in 1953. After two decades of suspicion about the death, which was reported as a suicide, Olson’s son Eric and surviving family members received a personal apology at the White House from President Gerald Ford. Eric continued to question the official account, which led to an exhumation and second autopsy that indicated his father had been gravely injured before going out that 13th floor window. Even today, the circumstances surrounding his demise continue to inspire speculation. Olson’s story has even been the subject of an opera, Man: Biology of a Fall, which premiered in New York in 2007.
Peter Sarsgaard plays Frank Olson in the film’s reenactments.
Photo by Zach Dilgard/Netflix
Filmmaker Errol Morris (@errolmorris) —best known for his acclaimed documentary The Thin Blue Line, which helped to exonerate a man wrongly convicted of murder, as well as Gates of Heaven and The Fog of War—became sufficiently intrigued by the MK-ULTRA/Olson affair to approach Netflix about making a film. Morris suggested a collage approach to telling the story, combining interviews with dramatic reenactments (featuring a cast that includes Bob Balaban, along with Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker as the ill-fated Olson and his wife) and a variety of graphic techniques that incorporate multiple screens and visual effects. He began production with DP Ellen Kuras, ASC, shooting a considerable amount of interview material with up to ten cameras at a time.
While editing the interviews, Morris approached director of photography Igor Martinovic (Man on Wire, House of Cards and What Happened, Miss Simone?), who had worked with Morris on commercials and a pair of short films.
The actual Frank Olson
The Croatian-born cinematographer recalls, “After seeing The Night Of, Errol asked me to shoot the narrative part of Wormwood, along with some additional interviews. Since the documentary parts were largely assembled, the needs for the narrative dramatic material were pretty specific.”
Martinovic, who in February 2017 won ASC honors for The Night Of‘s “Subtle Beast” episode—is emphatic in describing the dramatic material in Wormwood as a narrative movement, not simply a straightforward reenactment. “We had a major moment of creative discovery on the project, one that let us achieve a better blend between documentary and narrative. We found that by introducing the real-life people in collage with photographs of our actors, the audience was more inclined to accept the narrative imagery at face value instead of being distanced from it, as would be the case with a conventional reenactment.”
Errol Morris uses a collage approach in telling this story, combining interviews with dramatic reenactments and a variety of graphic techniques that incorporate multiple screens and visual effects.
The film’s visual style embraces a traditional period look, while offering up other looks when appropriate. “Since most of the film takes place in the ’50s during the dark times of McCarthyism, the idea was to develop a color version of film noir, but contrast it with a contemporary shooting approach. Also, we wanted to introduce strong stylistic departures for those subjective moments when Frank is under the influence of the drug, plus more subtle distinctions when portraying the perspectives of his wife and colleagues. I find that very subtle touches affecting the image can create powerful effects in the audience, which for me is the beauty of filmmaking. That’s where I get the most satisfaction: controlling audience response.”
Though not his first choice, the Sony F65 provided by TCS Cameras and Lenses was a very satisfactory tool for acquisition. “It worked very nicely around the murkiest level of exposure, which made me happy,” Martinovic acknowledges. “We had realized during testing that Leica’s Summilux lenses gave us a look that had detail in the blacks, which was important because we didn’t want them crushed and wished to avoid the image becoming too contrasty. They’re super-fast lenses, which helped on the night exteriors and certain interiors as well, working in such low-light conditions.”
Bob Balaban and Peter Sarsgaard
Photo by Mark Schafer/Netflix
Martinovic experimented with various LUTs during prep, then settled on one. “Each scene’s footage would go to the DIT [Edward Viola], who would develop the look further based on my comments and ideas about the scene,” Martinovic continues. “We’d work up five or six different versions before settling on one look for the given scene, and then the DIT matched the rest of the scene to that. At that point, this became our CDL for the scene. That CDL was later used as a guide in the editorial and color correction process.”
Image composition was important for achieving the appropriate imagery. “Though we were often on dollies, we didn’t use any Steadicam, and we relied on a lot of static shots,” Martinovic states. “There is a power in static composition when you find the proper framing and maintain that style throughout the project. Then when you introduce an imbalanced frame—like when we are seeing things from Frank’s drugged perspective—the image has some weight to it. Even if the audience doesn’t recognize it consciously, they feel the subconscious cue that something is ‘off.’ And sometimes we’d go a bit further than that. Errol is a very visual director and understands which moments need more, which is part of what made this shoot such a pleasant experience.”
Director of photography Igor Martinovic (left) and director Errol Morris
Photo by Nicole Rivelli/Netflix
The hallucinogenic scenes allowed the cinematographer to play with various elements, including moving light sources to suggest the character’s tortured state of mind. “That’s a more expressive approach, but it felt appropriate in those scenes,” he remarks. “But for the most part, the logic of light was respected. Lighting strategy was modulated based on the staging as well, making sure the light is there for the character in that moment.”
The title sequence, in which Frank flies out the window and falls to the ground in slow motion, is reminiscent of Mad Men‘s animated opening. “Errol had the opening sequence in mind right from the beginning, including the music,” Martinovic reveals. “We wanted the whole going out the window and falling to appear rather stylized, and varying the frame rates helped with that. We built the front façade of the hotel and threw a performer out, then had multiple cameras going to capture the fall.” Effects facility Ring of Fire handled the compositing and other VFX chores.
Wormwood is a twisting, evolving story of one man’s 60-year quest to identify the circumstances of his father’s mysterious death. Pictured is Eric Olson and interviewer Errol Morris.
While most of the narrative segments were shot on location, the hotel room and hallway were, like the façade, stage builds. Rather than slavishly duplicating the types of lighting that existed in the era, Martinovic often found himself relying on LED units. “If you’re doing period, you normally want to shoot on film and use period-appropriate sources,” he explains. “But I find that if you remain true to the narrative, with the goal of reflecting the states of mind of the characters at that point in their existence, there is a lot of leeway with the technical end of things. I don’t know that there is one right way to do it, but using those LEDs felt right to me.”
The post period on Wormwood was pushed, which meant Martinovic was abroad on another project when Harbor Picture Company supervising colorist Joe Gawler began the DI. “They sent me stills, so I was still able to weigh in remotely. That wasn’t ideal, obviously,” says the cinematographer, “but there’s nothing major I’d have changed from the final. Joe is an amazing colorist, and I enjoyed his work.”
Released both as a theatrical feature and in episodic installments on Netflix, Wormwood may wind up qualifying for both Academy and Emmy Award consideration—which makes it a hybrid not just in content but in presentation as well.