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Other blogs received similar missives. I ask Morris if he has seen them. He hasn't. He suspects they could be from McKinney, whose disappointment, Morris believes, derives from the fact that Tabloid isn't a straight attack on the LDS Church.

"She would have liked me to have made a film about how her life was destroyed by Mormonism," he says. "But that's not the story I was telling. It's part of it, but it's a bigger story — at least for me."

To understand exactly what that story was, Morris turned to Theodore Dreiser — the American author of Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, obsessive character studies depicted with haunting, unadorned naturalism. In this case, Morris refers to "The Second Choice," a Dreiser story that McKinney told Morris she had read as a little girl.  

>> READ: "Review: Tabloid" by Peter Keough <<

"The Second Choice" concerns a woman who falls in love with a man who doesn't love her back. Upon realizing she'll never have him, the woman decides to marry the drab suitor who loves her, thus consigning herself to a dreary fate. After she returned from England, McKinney wrote a fictional account of her romance with Kirk Anderson. In a scene in Tabloid, she reads the end of her book to a reporter. In it, she ends up alone.

"What's so bizarre is that the book is a self-fulfilling prophecy," Morris says. He thinks McKinney's determinism befits a Dreiser character. "In Dreiser, the characters never get what they want," Morris says. "That wanting something is usually their downfall, in some way or another."

As Morris understands her, McKinney's big dreams were her downfall. "I asked myself: did she thwart herself, was she thwarted by others, or was it a combination of both? She participated in her own demise through the obsession she would never let go of. She's really so deeply self-destructive. She just would not give up."

Morris's voice drops to that of a theatrical announcer's. "She's the woman who will not give up."

The easiest reaction to the film, Morris says, is to dismiss McKinney as a nutcase. "The important thing to remember is that Tabloid is about a person who is struggling in an interesting and thought-provoking way," he says.

"I make movies about people that interest me. Do I understand Joyce? Not really. Did I try to capture what I consider to be the essence of the tragedy? Yes."

A fan of naturalist authors, Morris also looked to Sinclair Lewis in order to explain McKinney's quest. He cites a quote from William Wyler's screen adaptation of Lewis's novel Dodsworth, starring Walter Huston. " 'Life should stop somewhere short of insanity.' There's your question for Tabloid."

Natural selection

"I was obsessed with Frank Norris for a while," Morris tells me, invoking yet another 20th-century American naturalist writer, the author of the muckraking classic The Octopus, about the human toll of corporate monopolies (in this case the railroads). Morris's own favorite among Norris's novels is the near-forgotten Vandover and the Brute, which has been called "a naturalist retelling" of the Jekyll and Hyde story.

Like the vast majority of his contemporaries, Norris's prose can seem shockingly dated to the 21st-century reader. Take, for instance, this passage from The Octopus, describing the mystical wanderer Vanamee's recollection of his murdered sweetheart:

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