Without fail, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has been one of the most consistent directors of the last 10 years, especially when it comes to making films about liars. Gibney has a special gift for not just finding lies (although usually the lies he's profiling have been committed long before his cameras arrive on the scene), but more to the point, for finding out how people got away with telling them for so long. Sometimes, the answer is as simple as money, but not always. There is often a collective acceptance of things that our logical brain tells us can't be true, but the truth is often too scary or would disrupt the peaceful world too much to let it escape.
Over the years, Gibney has analyzed liars in big business (ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM), the military (TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, which won a Best Documentary Oscar), the government (CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY), politicians (CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER), and the church (MEA MAXIMA CULPA: SILENCE IN THE HOUSE OF GOD). He's also dabbled in sports docs (CATCHING HELL for ESPN) and personality profiles of uncooperative subjects, such as Julian Assange in WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS from earlier this year.
But his latest film centers on what might be the lie heard 'round the world of sports, namely the claim by cyclist Lance Armstrong that he never took performance-enhancing drugs to win any of his Tour de France titles. What's even more shocking about Armstrong's admission that he did, in fact, dope to improve his performance was that Gibney had a film called THE ROAD BACK in the can, ready to be released, about Armstrong's incredible Tour de France comeback in 2009, but as the charges against Armstrong grew louder, Gibney wisely held back the film from release until Armstrong finally came clean to Oprah Winfrey in January of this year. Waiting in the wings of that interview was Gibney and his crew, who was ready with far more detailed and pointed question for a man he'd become friendly with and whom he'd even began to root for as a cyclist riding "clean."
Retitled THE ARMSTRONG LIE, Gibney's new film picks apart this lie that, in retrospect, was hiding in plain sight. In the film and during our interview earlier this week, Gibney acknowledges his role in the Armstrong publicity machine during the 2009 race, and how he proceeded once much of the original film's content was rendered largely ridiculous by falsehoods. The film is a dissection of how Armstrong kept people in line who knew the trust with a pattern of intimidation and publicly discrediting former friends. It's a fascinating profile of not just a sportsman's bad behavior but also the tearing down of a reputation of a man who was an inspiration to cancer survivors around the world. Check out the film and enjoy my talk with director Alex Gibney…
Capone: Alex, how are you?
Alex Gibney: Good, thanks.
Capone: Do you approach a piecing a film together differently when you do not have the cooperation of your main subjects? As opposed to something like this, where you had access to Lance Armstrong.
AG: I suppose so, but often in a lot of movies, I keep trying to get the access anyway, no matter what. And even when I don't get the access, I’m always trying to understand people from their perspective, but it makes it a lot easier if you get the access.
Capone: Of course. Where do you start when you realize, okay, we’re probably not going to get this person or these people?
AG: Well, sometimes in a film like WE STEAL SECRETS, it forces you to go off in another direction, which can be very positive. In that film, I ended up focusing a lot more on Bradley Manning than I think I would have otherwise. And that ended up being really good. One of the things that’s so great about documentary is that the unexpected can yield unexpected benefits.
Capone: Which is what happened here with Lance Armstrong as well, although you may not have viewed it as a benefit at the time.
AG: Yeah, it took a darker turn, but I think it became a more interesting film.
Capone: Has there ever been a subject that you wanted to make a documentary about, and the lack of access made you just give up?
AG: No. I don't think lack of access should ever be a reason to give up. I remember once, there was a great film by a Canadian filmmaker named Michael Rubbo called WAITING FOR FIDEL, and it was supposed to be a film about Fidel [Castro], and they were going to portray Fidel, and they went down to Cuba, and Fidel just kept them waiting the entire time, and they never met Fidel, and you know what? It was a great movie.
A lot of it was about these guys hanging out waiting for Fidel, and they begin to have these conversations about capitalism and socialism, and it was also funny because you begin to look at the characters.There’s that great quote from Godard, which was meant about fiction films, but I think it really applies for documentary, which is “Just because you're shooting a conversation in a room doesn’t mean you can’t look out the window.” If the guy in the room isn't going to give you the interview, well then look out the window.
Capone: I’m a huge fan of documentaries that don't end up where the film maker thought they would. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS is the classic example in recent years.
AG: Yes. It was going to be about birthday party clowns.
Capone: The director actually did finish the short film about birthday party clowns, but that didn't get quite the same attention. So with this film, is this about the most off the rail any film has ever made on you?
AG: It was pretty hard. Because in a way, I just set out to make a film about a pure sports story, but then it became an investigation into a very elaborate lie. And what was odd about it was, it wasn't like, “Oh my gosh, he doped.” You’d have to have been living in a hermetically sealed cave not to have heard some of the allegations of doping about Armstrong. But I think there was a general consensus that the story, because there was no definitive proof, would have to be that the jury’s out. So we'll have to proceed along, in the absence of any solid proof, innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, move forward: innocent. The most interesting part of the story was that the story that this ended up becoming was sitting there in plain sight, but it couldn't be talked about. Or if it did, and I did talk about it a little in the first film, it had to be talked about in very roundabout, elusive ways rather than dead on.
Capone: Because of legal reasons?
AG: Partially because of legal reasons. Armstrong had sued people. When I would interview people, I would ask them questions: “Do you think Armstrong doped?” And their answers would always be very cautious, in part because of the criticism they might receive, because Armstrong had so many followers who would rain hell on you and partially for legal reasons. So, I included one of those answers in the final film, which was actually shot for the initial film. I asked Frankie Andreu [a former Armstrong teammate], who knew very well that Lance had doped. And he knew very well that other people on Lance’s team had doped, even in 1999. And I asked him, “In 1999, was there a team program?” And Franky’s way of answering that question then was to pause, pause, pause, pause, and say, “I don’t wanna talk about all that.” That was his way of saying, “Yeah, of course there was a fucking team doping program. But if you think I’m going to say it, forget it. But this is your clue that there was.” Because the pause was so long and the gaze was so intense, you got the idea of the answer, but that’s how the question had to be answered back then.
Capone: One of the most revealing things about the film is how personally vindictive he could be about anyone that threatened to expose this lie. If there’s one thing that made me dislike him the most, it was that. It wasn't the doping.
AG: Yes. I think what Lance can’t really accept or understand is that people are far more angry at him for the stuff he did off the bike rather than the stuff he did on the bike. And it was that and also the fact that he made the lie so big. He didn't just say "I’ve never tested positive," which, by the way, might have been true. He said, “How dare you say that I as a cancer survivor would ever use performance-enhancing drugs.” Thereby using people's faith and hope in him as a kind of a shield.
Capone: How deep into that first film were you? It was pretty much done, right?
AG: It was done. It was mixed.
Capone: It had a different title too…
AG: THE ROAD BACK.
Capone: Very inspirational. When this news broke, when Lance went on Oprah, did you set the film aside in disgust and say, “I can’t even look at that for a while.” Or did you dive right into investigating and reworking it?
AG: I had some preparation. When we put the film aside, and we put the film aside because of revelations, I had an inkling that we would go back, so I was keeping my ears and eyes open. I had a dinner with Lance in which he gave me a clue that he was thinking about coming clean. And then not long after he had a face-to-face meeting with my producers, he called me up on the phone and said, “It’s true. I doped.” This was about four or five weeks prior to Oprah. “I lied to you, and I apologize.” So by the time Oprah came around, we were ready. We were filming and we were ready to complete the film. And to take it wherever it was going to lead. And that’s why we were there, as you saw.
Capone: Yeah, right there.
AG: Right there.
Capone: You say he apologized, but if that original film had aired and then he confessed, that would have made you look like a joke. The damage to your reputation would have been terrible. Do you think he understand that?
AG: I hope he understood it. I certainly did make him aware of the fact that he put me in a pretty compromised position. At the same time, without meaning to seem defensive at all, I would say that the first film wasn't clueless. There was a pretty big section actually about doping. But the mood of the film was definitely defiant and accepted a new version of Lance’s myth.
Capone: You acknowledge in the film that there were times even when you felt a little too part of what was going on and the publicity machine around that 2009 return.
AG: I think to me the hardest part of all was, in retrospect, to recognize that, even though I tried very hard not to be, inevitably I think I had become in some way a part of the PR machinery, and that’s the part I resented the most.
Capone: Did you ever consider at that point handing the footage over to someone else and saying, “Can you put this together because I’m too close to it?”?
AG: No, but it was hard but also necessary I think to go back in. In a way, it would have been easier just to do a straight-forward investigative film. Here’s how the doping started, here’s how it was discovered, here’s part of the adjudication process. But I thought what was more enduring and more interesting was to actually go back into the first film and re-examine it in the light of what we know now, to see it with new eyes, a little bit like David Hemmings in BLOW-UP. To look at my own role, that would both be honest and important, not only in terms of dealing with the Lance Armstrong story, but in terms of dealing with stories like this in general. How you inevitably become convinced about certain things or allow yourself to be fooled. And sometimes that’s important. You don't wanna live your life where you think everyone's out to get you, where you’re totally cynical, where you no longer have any affect. You don’t wanna live in a world where it’s impossible to fall in love just because your heart might get broken, right? But you have to be aware, particularly when you're making a film about real events, how your own perceptions lead you and mislead you.
Capone: Do you think going forward,, this will make you wanna stay a little further back from now on?
AG: Maybe. I think in a way, you don't wanna stop becoming engaged. Part of what you do as a journalist, which is always walking a line, or a filmmaker is establishing a certain relationship with subjects. Now, you should be clear and honest, you know? I never pretended to Lance that I was going to make the film that he wanted to make. The fact is that he never had any control over the process, so I was always making it for viewers not for Lance. Still over time, you have a relationship with somebody, and I think that’s important. You don't want to be walking into a room like a cardboard cutout.
Capone: Here are my questions: 1, 2, 3…
AG: Right, right. I don't think that’s particularly interesting.
Capone: And it probably doesn't help the interview either.
AG: It doesn't help the interview and it doesn't help the connection. You're hoping to establish some kind of connection, and with that though comes some responsibility about trust--when you can trust and when you can’t. And I think I was more reluctant to put certain things in that I had observed in the first movie than I was in the second. Because by that time, Lance had breached the trust. He had clearly lied to me, and so there are a lot of things I saw that I was able now to include even though the cameras weren't running; I could reflect on them. The things that Lance would do like that plot he had to make Frankie Andreu be the only guy [interviewing him during the comeback race]. The cameras weren't rolling when I heard Lance hatch that plan.
Capone: Are we going to see this original film as part of a future video release?
AG: I hope so, but I’m not sure.
Capone: What would keep that from happening?
AG: Legal reasons having to do with the Tour de France. Because they charge you. It’s weird because you have to pay an access fee to shoot there, and our contract means that only a certain portion of our film can be about the Tour. So we’ll have to see. We’re trying to work that out, because I do think it would be interesting to ultimately release the original film.
Capone: It’s one of those things you figure at some point down the line it’s going to happen, and it will be like the greatest double-feature. You’ve obviously made several films about people that have concocted some of the most elaborate lies in history, whether it’s big business, the government, the military, the church. What is the fascination?
AG: Well, I’m interested in power and I’m interested in abuses of power. And when you're looking at abuses of power, many people look at the effect those abuses of power have on the victims, which I think is important. But generally speaking, I’m more interested in the perps than the victims. Because over time, the way you prevent abuses of power is to understand how they come about. And it’s not the victims who cause the abuses of power; it’s the perps. So it’s more useful to just focus on the perps. That’s how you should be able to know what’s coming down the pike next time, not that is helps us. I thought I did a pretty effective film about how Enron happened. That didn’t seem to have much impact on 2008.
Capone: One of the most amazing things that your films always seem to reveal is that the secrets aren't that secret, it's just that no one is talking about them. It’s not like one person knows all the secrets.
AG: We agree on a certain set of facts, and very often that set of facts is actually a fictional story that we all agree upon. We all agreed upon a fictional story that Lance Armstrong was the only clean cyclist in the dirty era. As fantastic a story that would have been, since we know what an advantage doping gives you in sport, we all agreed on that. At one time Jeff Skilling was called America’s greatest CEO, right? We all agreed that Enron was this great company.
For a long time, the Catholic church made us believe that it was impossible for good priests to commit bad actions. After all, they’re priests. And these stories which reflect badly on them reflect badly on the church, so we should keep that quiet, shouldn’t we? And I think there was a broad agreement about that. You talk to children who remember that their parents were ignoring their pleas for help when they were being molested or raped by priests, because they were saying, “Don’t be silly, a priest would never do something like that.” It’s their own children. So, sometimes you allow yourself to believe in things--after all, the church is all about belief--that you normally never would never believe in because you need to, seemingly. We needed to believe that Lance Armstrong was clean.
Capone: In his case, the actual truth dismantles so many good things that he was a part of that you don't want to do that kind of damane by exposing him.
AG: Look, we share responsibility in that, but also Lance played a huge role in that. In order to support cancer victims all over the world, he didn’t need to make the lie so big. But he felt he had to, and I think he felt he was living up to our expectations.
Capone: How did you get pulled into the Armstong project into the first place?
AG: Frank Marshall, famed Hollywood producer, and Matt Tolmach [another producer] had been developing a fiction film on Armstrong [set to star Matt Damon], and they couldn’t get the script right or for whatever reason they didn’t get the greenlight for the picture, and Lance came back and said, “Well, let’s make a doc about this.” So in that context, they called me up to see if I was interested, and I was interested because I thought for me it would be a departure. It would be something new and different!
Capone: So you weren't a big Tour de France or biking enthusiast before this?
AG: I wasn’t. I told Lance the first time I met him, “I know you ride a bike and that you’re good at it. Beyond that, that’s about all I know about the Tour de France.”
Capone: You were talking about the film about the Catholic priests [MEA MAXIMA CULPA], and if I remember the timeline correctly, that aired on HBO, and then a week later the Pope resigned. Do you feel personally responsible for that?
AG: All I can say is I hope I was. [Laughs] I believe I was.
Capone: And your next film is something about Fela Kuti?
AG: Yeah, that’s right.
Capone: Again, were you a fan, or is that something that came to you?
AG: No, I haven’t been. Again, sometimes these projects come to me. But I latched onto that because I certainly had listened to his music, and also the mixture of music and politics for me was a rich brew.
Capone: Is that going to include up to the musical that just happened?
AG: Yeah, in fact there’s a bunch of scenes from the musical in the film.
Capone: Alex, it was great to finally meet you. Thank you so much.