2010 Person of the Year in Documentary Film: Alex Gibney
Over the next week, Paste will announce our 2010 People of the Year in Documentary Film, Narrative Film, Fiction, and Nonfiction.
It’s safe to say that Alex Gibney just turned in one of the most impressive years in the history of documentary film. After winning an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, he shot no less than four complete documentary features in 2010 and contributed a segment to a fifth. His topics ranged from political corruption on both the Right (Casino Jack: The United States of Money) and the Left (Client 9: The Eliot Spitzer Story), to an economic detective story about sumo wrestling (his segment in Freakonomics), to baseball scapegoats (the soon-to-be released Bartman/Buckner ESPN doc), to an intriguing blend of memoir, theater, psychology, history, and political theory (My Trip to Al Qaeda). In a banner year for documentary features, no star shone brighter than Gibney’s, and he’s shortlisted again for another well-deserved Academy Award nomination, for Client 9.
Gibney can be an intimidating figure—fiercely intelligent, with an intense stare and a no-nonsense personality. He obviously takes his watchdog role very seriously and knows full well the importance of the work he does. But he’s a marvelous interview subject because of that same intelligence and passion. He’s not shy about discussing his motivations, his process, or the films he produces. Paste had the opportunity to speak with Gibney four times during the course of 2010, and parts of the conversation below are drawn from each of those interviews. For audio versions of those interviews, keep your eye on the Indie-Minded Podcast, and for a look at Gibney’s masterful use of music in his films, and for a more in-depth exploration of Casino Jack, see the “Related Links” below.
Paste: What in the world is it like working on five films at once? Do those ideas just sort of all come to you and you can’t resist them?
Alex Gibney: Well, sometimes in the execution of a film there are delays. With the Abramoff project or even My Trip to Al Qaeda or Spitzer, sometimes for reasons of access they get delayed. Sometimes for technical reasons they get delayed. Sometimes for financial reasons they get delayed. My Trip to Al Qaeda had to get put on hold while we raised the rest of the money. Certainly it wasn’t my intent to do it this way. But when it all came together, we realized that was what we had to do. And it took a tremendous amount of work. It’s still hard. But thank God, I have smart and hardworking people around me.
Paste: In Freakonomics, I found your segment the most visually arresting of all the chapters, and it was visually very different from most of your other work. The palate was this wonderful dark, primary color, noirish kind of thing. Were you more inspired for that by the setting there in Tokyo, or by the subject matter of a seedy underworldish story?
Alex Gibney: I think it was a little bit of both. Tokyo is a beautiful city, but it’s really only beautiful at night. There’s something wonderfully mysterious about it at night. And also, in a story about a corruption, it seems to have a vibe of things that are kept hidden. And also, it was because it’s a mystery story. I love noir, and even the Spitzer movie had a nourish feel to some of it. But in the case of Freakonomics, it wasn’t archival; there was the sense that you were going somewhere, going into the depths.
Paste: For Client 9, how did you decide to tackle that subject?
Alex Gibney: Some people actually contacted me to do the Eliot Spitzer film, right after the scandal happened. And I wasn’t sure, right off the bat, whether it would be a good idea so soon. But I quickly came to believe that it would be because everyone was talking about it; no one could believe that he of all people had done what he had done. And it brings up a lot of important issues to me, about men and women, and about fidelity and infidelity. But also, no sooner did he go down than the financial markets that he had policed did, too. He had been this kind of lone voice saying there’s a problem here. The SEC seemed to have been asleep at the switch, and so in its own way had the Department of Justice. So it had a kind of intriguing mystery quality. There was no neat and tidy answer to why everything had happened, which is one reason I went there. I thought that maybe in the telling of the story, something would be revealed, and in the meantime I can investigate the mysteries.
Paste: And did that turn out to be true? Did you feel like at the end of the film you had a better feel for what had gone on than in the beginning?
Alex Gibney: I certainly had a better handle on what had gone on, but there were still mysteries aplenty. There are still now unanswered mysteries, even though the basic story—Sherriff of Wall Street uses hookers—was still at the heart of it.
Paste: My Trip to Al Qaeda is so chock full of content, and although there’s a lot to talk about stylistically about that film, I can’t resist asking a content question. Lawrence Wright, who is of course brilliant, has these two great quotes in the film. One is “Al Qaeda offers young Muslim men glory as against humiliation.” The other is “For Al Qaeda, there is no plan for success—only devastation.” It reminded me of that great quote in the Batman film where Michael Caine’s character says “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Is it that humiliation that drives them to that almost nihilistic place?
Alex Gibney: I think there’s a need to rescue from that humiliation some sense of glory, some sense of magnificent battle that can be fought in a way that ennobles everyone fighting it. And it gets detached from reality. In terms of death, there is a tradition in Islam around martyrdom, and I think while the Islamist radicals take it someplace that is not found in the Koran, there is this idea that it is in death that you find your glory. Well, that’s a hard enemy to fight, when the purpose is not to win territory but to die. And in a way, it informs, for me, a better sense of what our reaction to it needs to be. Because sometimes our attempts at humiliation, in terms of some of the enhanced interrogation techniques or torture we inflict on them, tends to simply reinforce the terrorist ideal.
Paste: Let’s talk about Tom Delay in Casino Jack and the United States of Money. First, I’m curious as to how you convinced him to sit for an interview. But also, when you go into an interview like that, and you have a pretty strong opinion of the man and his role in all of this, do you go into the interview open to hearing his side, open to being persuaded?
Alex Gibney: We got Tom Delay when he was on his book tour, so that made it easier. And because of logistics, it was actually one of my producers that interviewed him. But my philosophy on the interview in general is that it’s our job to get the people we interview to say what they want to say in the way they want to say it. And obviously we ask probing questions and we redirect, but I’m not really into the gotcha interview. “On September 24 you said X, and it’s actually Y—your response?” I try to get them to lay out their point of view. And I’m open to what they have to say. But at the end of the day, in the cutting room, I put that in a larger context.
Paste: You touch on so many important themes and issues in Casino Jack. This may seem like a hokey question, but what can we take away from this film? What lessons can we learn?
Alex Gibney: I don’t think it’s a hokey question, I think it’s a good question. I think the lesson to take away is, we have to take the money out of the electoral system. It just has to happen. Because if it doesn’t happen, we’re done as a democracy. We just have to decide as a nation that it’s that important. Right now Congressmen and Senators spend two-to-three days out of every week raising money. We’re electing them and then paying them to raise money. It’s just obscene. Not to mention the bad decisions that are made as a result of the constant need to go get money and to do what money demands. So we have a website called takepart.com, and it’s got some great things on it, like identifying exactly where your own Congressperson or Senator gets their money. So that’s a way forward. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly something to do, and something that should be done.
Paste: How does the film concept start for you? How do you get the ball rolling?
Alex Gibney: Coming into anything, I kind of pre-visualize. I imagine what they story might be, so that it doesn’t become this sort of vast fishing expedition. At the same time, once I have an outline, I start digging in and getting anything I can about the subject. That also means finding all sorts of what I call unofficial archive—home movies, videos, artwork, webpages, whatever. Then of course, there’s arranging interviews with people I want to talk to. And very often I will change my original conception. Sometimes the story has wildly altered from what you thought it would be, and that was certainly the case with Client 9. But sometimes also the stuff you thought would be really great, and really leap off the screen, isn’t so great. And you have to change the narrative to adjust to the material. And that’s good! If there’s one thing I learned over time, it’s that. Back in the day, when I was starting doing documentaries, I’d say, “Well, I have this idea, so I’m going to tell this story.” Sometimes that meant using material that wasn’t that interesting or provocative. Why would you do that? That’s a lecture, not a movie. A movie is finding the material that’s magic, that pops out. So it’s a big process of first narrowing it down to a story outline that seems to make sense, but then violating it by going in and collecting all that stuff and embracing the contradictions—not only the stuff that seems to fit, but the stuff that violates or contradicts it. That’s important.
Paste: Your ratio of footage to finished film must be pretty high.
Alex Gibney: It’s pretty high, mostly because I’m not really a verite filmmaker. The Lance Armstrong film was somewhat of an exception; that’s more of a verite type of film. But mostly my high ratio has to do with the archive, the materials we collect. That’s a vast amount, and it takes a lot of trolling through. I’ve got great people around who do some of that trolling, but you find stuff in surprising places. In Taxi To The Dark Side, we found the autopsy for the taxicab driver in San Antonio. It’s a long story, but that’s where it was. For Client 9, we were led mysteriously to a bunch of old web archives where we found some of the old web pages of the escort sites, and that taught us a lot. We even found the old cell phone of one of the bookers.
Paste: Wait, the cell records, or the actual cell phone?
Alex Gibney: The actual cell phone. So we charged it up and it had quite a bit of information on it.
Paste: Wow. I’d say that’s unconventional archives, for sure. It’s almost more detective work than anything else.
Alex Gibney: It is detective work; that’s exactly what it is. And like a lot of detective work, some of it is sort of fun and secret-agent-y, but most of it is just shoe leather. “Oh, do you know someone who has this?” “Maybe this person has that.” We found great material on the Spitzer film just in the public archives of some of the state meetings in New York, because the cameras are rolling all the time. But that’s not news footage; we had to troll through hours and hours of public record of meetings. It doesn’t sound very interesting, but sometimes it turns out to be very, very interesting.
Paste: You seem to draw the best of both worlds, so to speak, from verite documentary and from a more constructed approach.
Alex Gibney: Fundamentally, it’s about curiosity. Look, I know Pennebaker, and I know Maysles, and their theory of documentary filmmaking is just different from mine. But we’re fundamentally united by the notion of curiosity. You know, Al [Maysles] has a great ability to get people to open up, and he points his camera in unconventional ways—to say he’s just recording would be wrong. No matter what he says! It’s about curiosity, about finding things, about seeing the world a little bit differently. Because otherwise, if you saw the world they same way we all see it, there’d be no point in making a movie.
Paste: Early on, speaking of filmmakers like that, who was it that inspired you?
Alex Gibney: Well, Al Maysles did. Gimme Shelter, in particular, was a big inspiration. Marcel Ophuls was a huge inspiration to me. In a way, his films are very interview-oriented, but he also has a broader sense of cinema; his dad was a [narrative] feature filmmaker, Max Ophuls. So he brought that kind of broader cinematic perspective to the documentary enterprise. Early on, Errol Morris was certainly an influence. Alain Resnais was an interesting influence for me, because he did a film called Night and Fog. And when I was first coming up, the fashion was, “No narration! Narration is bad!” Because narration was the “voice of God” and that’s what they do on the networks, and that BS. Well, I don’t think it’s BS. I’m a big fan of Werner Herzog, for instance, and he has great narration. But if you watch Night and Fog, that is the most beautiful narration you will ever hear, and it gives a texture to the images that you’re seeing that simply watching the images would never be able to convey. So what’s wrong with that? If you’re putting together a film, and particularly one that’s complicated, why would you exhaust the audience with ten minutes of cobbled together interview bites from various sources so that you can try to convey a bit of expository information, when you can do that in a minute with narration? I don’t get it.
Paste:: It seems like it’s all about using whatever tool will get the job done, and not letting dogma get in the way of your choices.
Alex Gibney: That’s right. Because let’s face it, it’s all been done. Every time they say something is brand new, it’s really not. But it is a question of, what is the voice of the filmmaker? That’s one of the great things in the last ten years. So many great documentary films are out there which not only have great attention to the contradictions of everyday life, but also show a great deal of the filmmaker’s personality. That’s great, that’s important. And that’s what’s new, that’s what’s fresh. We’re all different. It’s just like when you’re reading a really good non-fiction book, you feel the tone of the author in a way that’s quite intimate. You get to the end of the book and you think, not only have I gone through this journey, but I’ve been told a great story by this interesting person.
Paste: How about this year? Did you have any time between five documentaries of your own to see anyone else’s this year?
Alex Gibney: (Laughs) Yeah, I did, and I wish I had had time to see more. I’ve heard Marwencol_is great, but I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen about half of Exit Through the Gift Shop_, which is very inventive. Of course I saw Inside Job; it’s a good film. I loved Last Train Home; it’s devastating. I saw Armadillo, which I thought was fantastic. And a film that ESPN did for the 30 for 30 series, The Two Escobars, was just riveting. I thought The Oath was great. There’s a lot of great work being done out there, and of course I’m going to forget a ton.
Paste: Speaking of the 30 for 30 series, your Bartman piece has not aired yet, correct?
Alex Gibney:: Right. ESPN did what they should never do with a director, particularly with me. They said, “Make it longer.” So I did. And it’ll be out sometime next year. It’s really about scapegoats. I’m a Red Sox fan. And the other great scapegoat in baseball history is Bill Buckner. So it’s Buckner and Bartman. It really focuses on Bartman, but Buckner is my way in. You know, ESPN has been great, and I have to say, what they did was courageous. So many cable channels still feel so strongly about the primacy of the brand. But this was one where they managed to keep the ESPN brand, but to say that within that brand, 30 filmmakers can do 30 wildly different films. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s better.
Paste: And just the audacity of that idea. Connor Schell says, in one year, we’re going to do 30 top-quality documentaries.
Alex Gibney: Absolutely. Now, mind you, the budgets weren’t that high. But what they offered was freedom. And sometimes you’re willing to accept some budgetary duress for a little more freedom.
Paste: In the big picture, when you look back on your career, what’s the driving force? What is your body of work doing?
Alex Gibney: I tend to gravitate toward films about power. I’m interested in abuse of power. It makes me angry. I always feel uncomfortable looking for common characteristics in my own films, but I suppose if there is one it usually has to do with a fascination with the perp. I’m attuned to the suffering of the victims, but if you want to stop crimes you have to go where the criminals are. And oddly enough, the longer I do this the more sympathetic I become to the perps, but in peculiar ways. I think the biggest danger we sometimes face in terms of social policy is imagining that there are categories of good guys and bad guys. That person did a bad thing because he’s a bad guy. And you see—what was that old TV series, Good Pets Go Wrong or something? Well good guys go wrong, a lot of the time. And so I want to look at why? How did that happen? Self-deception interests me a lot.
Paste: And bringing that to light in the specific instances, or more generally?
Alex Gibney: Well, I think there’s always a specific and there’s always a general. But there should always be a healthy tension between the two. You don’t want to twist the story to fit a larger point. But at the same time, without a larger context the individual story becomes kind of a curio.