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Alex Gibney makes documentaries
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"If you want to stop the crimes, you have to know how the criminals work."
1 October 2011

Alex Gibney makes documentaries

Interview by Patrick Pittman
Photography by Davi Russo

Patrick Pittman on Alex Gibney

I’m standing with Alex Gibney in the foyer of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. A queue is snaking around several flights of stairs, here for a sold-out screening of a pieced-together collection of archival footage of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, a bunch of tripping wannabe revolutionaries at the dawn of hippiedom. It’s a couple of days after Rupert and James Murdoch’s testimony to the UK parliament on the phone hacking scandal, and pranks are in the air; we have just been laughing with a well-respected film critic about her failed attempts to have Rupert Murdoch cream-pied in the early 1980s.

Six years ago, Gibney furiously burst onto the international scene with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Before Enron, we’d had plenty of angry documentaries about corporate America in the twilight of late capitalism. Gibney’s film, with its freewheeling mix of absurdity, rigour, righteous anger, and emotional depth, stood apart. By focussing not on the victims of corporate crime but the perpetrators, he showed himself as something more than a Michael Moore. He did not set out to expose new truths previously unreported, but to take a scandal that was already played out in the financial pages of the world’s press, and to hold it up for reflection. His challenge to viewers was not to get angry, not to stick their heads out the windows and yell “I’m as mad as hell”, but to do something much more important: to ask themselves just how Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and their corporate cohorts had managed to take global finance on a joyride, burning everything and everybody in their path.

The threads that run through all of Gibney’s work can be found in there. Enron received an Oscar nomination, but it was Taxi to the Dark Side that got him on the podium and cemented him as a great. Taxi was the story of an Afghan taxi driver, Dilawar, beaten to death while held in detention by American soldiers. It was a film about torture, sure, and about broken foreign policy. But the worth of torture was not the burning question that fuelled this harrowing, soul-crushing film. Instead he asked, and continues to ask, what drives the reasonable mind to unreasonable action. You can find this question, too, at the heart of his latest, Client 9, a confounding character study of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, a crusader for rights and justice whose misadventures with high-end escorts have become a sad kind of legend.

When a Gibney story breaks, studios seek him out. He is in the early stages of a Wikileaks-related project. He can’t, ha ha, say anything about it. Whether in his ‘serious’ films, or in the release valves like this Kesey road trip, he is a man driven to get stories out, not afraid to thumb his nose when needed. We get a little too caught up sometimes looking for the truth of the matter. Sometimes, I’m thinking, dragging him to the ACMI cafe as the lights go down in the cinema, you need to throw a little pie.

This story originally ran in issue #29 of Dumbo Feather

PATRICK PITTMAN: As I was watching Client 9 and thinking about Eliot Spitzer, I got to thinking about something that runs through a lot of your films. Pursuing ideas of truth, some sort of understanding of corruption and the failures of humanity, you’ve got to lie down with a lot of dogs. People are all telling you very particular versions of stories. You’re trying to put together the story of somebody like Spitzer with a whole collection of unreliable witnesses—that’s a tough starting point for getting to the heart of the matter.

ALEX GIBNEY: You have to laugh to keep from crying. Once you start to assume that everybody in some way, shape or form is going to lie to you, it becomes a little bit easier. Also, my interest is not so much in doing ‘gotcha’ interviews. Sometimes they’re very good on live television, where you’re prepared, like David Frost was with Nixon, with all of the rejoinders, to make them look bad. My thing is to let them say mostly what they want to say, the way they want to say it. But the wheels are turning, and you know sometimes by what people say that they are either misremembering—to be charitable about it—or more often just lying to you. In some cases, particularly in Client 9, I actually began to have a kind of perverse admiration for the rather inventive and baroque quality of some of the lies. These guys were really spinning some pretty good yarns and coming up with mendacious details that you never would have imagined. It’s like, woah, this is a fiction seminar now! But it’s usually in the service of some political aim, which is very much a feature of the new way. I suppose it was always like that to some extent, but it’s been refined so much now. There is a relentless hunger by the media to print stories, and a very compelling lie can go viral very quickly; people react to it as if it’s true and all sorts of things happen. They can have huge consequences before anybody dials back and asks, “Wait a minute, was what they said true?”

I was staying up late watching the Murdoch phone-hacking testimony the other night, and one of the MPs brought up Enron.

Oh really?

Yeah, the idea of willful blindness. It struck me, the stuff you were talking about, in that film and this one, that stuff runs deep.

What is really interesting—you see it in Enron, you see it in Client 9, to some extent in Taxi to the Dark Side, and now you’re seeing it in the Murdoch territory—is that the best liars are people who don’t think they’re lying. They’ve convinced themselves that they’re actually telling the truth. You can’t be a really effective salesman if you’re selling some shitty product and you’re thinking man, these people have got to be suckers to buy this. I think you have to convince yourself there’s something good about it before you can be a great salesman. Likewise, with good liars, a lot of them end up convincing themselves that the end justifies the means, that they have a glorious and important crusade and if they end up telling a few lies along the way, that’s just part of a necessary evil. What they don’t really get or understand is that they’ve undermined something essential—the truth.

This story originally ran in issue #29 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #29 of Dumbo Feather

The chutzpah of Spitzer’s delivery was fascinating. Talking about his enemies, burning people along the way, he was all that’s just how I am, completely unapologetic. But as soon as you ask him about the sex, the personality, the body language, everything changes completely.

Trust me, I know. It was not easy asking those questions. He himself says, “I don’t do introspection.” I think he was willing to sit for those questions, but was, as you saw, not terribly forthcoming. I think, believe it or not, I got more out of him than most. But he’s very uncomfortable talking about that stuff. It seems like he’s very forthright, and indeed in combat he’s perfectly happy to tell you anything, but on that personal stuff he’s very uncomfortable.

I think it’s because he’s such an extraordinary compartmentaliser. It allowed him to be a very high-functioning, super-efficient individual and still carry on this wild extra-curricular activity on the side. Imagine a guy who is about to be President of the United States taking time out from his security detail—governors call it ‘detail ditching’—so that he can make calls on his cellphone or payphones to talk about how he’s going to get the money order in to Emperor’s Club on time so he can make an assignation with Angelina, or Ashley Dupré in Washington DC. You’ve got to wonder. But at the same time, as soon as he was done with that phone call, he was back on government business and able to focus.

As a documentary maker, what is it that drives you? Is it a search for an objective truth, or is it an interest in human behaviour? I find your early film on Stanley Milgram’s human behaviour experiments to be a fascinating companion to everything that followed. What are you looking for when you set about a story like Spitzer’s? What do you want to tell?

Well, I don’t want to get all French, I really don’t like the ‘everything is relative’ thing but in some sense, everything is relative. There’s no objective truth, it all depends on your point of view. But, you can get close to it, and closer to it than some people do. What motivates me is abuse of power and how power works, and how powerful people commit very big and dangerous crimes. I’m also increasingly interested in human psychology. The Milgram Experiment was very interesting to me, and I’m also interested in this kind of self-deception. You see it in Spitzer but you also see it in Spitzer’s enemies, this ability of human beings to believe that they are telling the truth when they’re really telling a lie, to convince themselves that because they know that they’re fundamentally good, they can’t therefore do anything that’s bad.

I’m also interested in the way stories get told. I’ve come in on a lot of big public scandals, and I’ve gone in after the fact to see if everything was the way we were told. Very often, not surprisingly, people miss things. But you also see a kind of intentional misdirection; intentional lying that’s meant to fool us all, and that’s what we all have to be careful about.

Probably my own motives are impure and hard to discern. Sometimes I just like stories because they’re good stories.

The Enron story, I wasn’t that interested in doing it until I read Peter and Bethany’s book, then I thought wow, those are some unbelievable characters, and that’s a story.

What got you into the directing game? When we were talking earlier, you mentioned that you were in fiction film editing.

Yeah, my dad was a journalist. My stepfather was a kind of crusading minister who was very big on the public stage in the anti-Vietnam, anti-nuclear debates in America, so I had some Don Quixote sense of exposing stuff. But increasingly, a lot of documentary makers who take on crimes tend to do so from the point of view of the victims, to elicit sympathy for them. I do think that’s important, but I’m more interested in the psychology of the perps rather than spending an enormous time on the suffering of the victims. That only encourages a kind of easy pity. If you want to stop the crimes, you have to know how the criminals work.

There was a lot that was learned from the Enron scandal, but there was so much more that could and should have been learned.

Yeah, we didn’t really learn any lessons. There’s another theme that pops up over and over again in my films, which is the ‘bad apple’. The bad apple idea is the ultimate smokescreen, that’s how we all get fooled into believing that everything is okay when it’s really not. Enron was a convenient bad apple, and so it was oh, we’ve taken care of Enron, now it’s all good. But nobody really paid attention to the fact that Enron had all those enablers—Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse, First Boston, Deutsche Bank, Citibank—these guys were all really helping Enron do what it did, and profiting enormously from it. So if they were, then how? What, were they duped? No. They were in it for the money. We didn’t really look at that very carefully and prepare ourselves for the fact that these guys were all dirty along with Enron.

You can track down a particular type of bookkeeping that they might have used, but the bigger picture outside of that…

Right. The larger lesson, which was ‘we’ll do anything to make money’, and it doesn’t really matter. The point of view of the Enron guys towards regulators was that it’s their job to catch us. When I heard that from Jeff Skilling, it reminded me a little bit of a mafia don. It’s like ‘dude, this is my job, it’s the job of the cops to catch us so let’s see how good they are.’ Or those serial killer films where the serial killer is always leaving clues for the cop. ‘Come on copper, see if you can catch me!’ So we didn’t really learn that lesson, and we didn’t understand that there was, in Enron’s philosophy—‘if it makes money, it’s good’—a real danger, because it implies that there is some moral value in just making money, that there is a kind of willful denial, or willful misunderstanding, of Adam Smith. The “invisible hand” is not meant to say that everything will always be good if everyone aggressively pursues their own private interest. It says that there can be a kind of a balance,

but even Adam Smith never imagined that this was a world in which government would somehow be irrelevant. You make money for the good of society, not so a few greedy pigs can get fabulously wealthy and the rest of us suffer.

After the global financial collapse a couple of years ago, did you think there would be any kind of justice?

I was briefly hopeful and then deeply disappointed. In that moment when Obama was inaugurated, it was fantastic—the idea of this scarred country, formed so much on the backs of a system of slavery, now an African-American is elected President of the United States—I mean, wow, it really was something. The first thing he did was say that he was going to shut down Guantanamo, and I’d made a film about torture and I thought this was fantastic. There was an opportunity right then and there for him to take the bully pulpit and say we’ve been misled, we’ve let a group, a small group of very selfish and greedy individuals take us to the brink of ruin. And we’re not going to let it happen again. An economy is for us, it’s for all of us, it’s how we make our living. Capitalism is great, let’s make money, but it’s our job as politicians and as citizens to make sure that we’re here to assure equality of opportunity and some fundamental sense of equity.

He didn’t do that, he didn’t take a hard line and, interestingly enough, he failed to learn a lesson from his predecessor George Bush, who always from a political standpoint took very extreme positions, and then would modulate and compromise and would move back to what from the start would have seemed like an extreme position but now seemed like a big compromise. Instead, Obama always moved to compromise first, and never really cast that moment in terms that we could all agree on: to say these guys screwed up, and

they screwed up because they said that government was irrelevant, that the country was irrelevant, that only they were important. They were reckless and greedy, and they almost cost us everything.

I was in DC for the inauguration. That feeling on the streets, that moment, that power, I wasn’t imagining that. There was something there. Is that gone?

Hmm… It’s in deep hibernation. There was something there. There was a great sense of opportunity, and idealism, and wonder. Sometimes, look, I know this from having made films, all those people who put all their hope into somebody like Spitzer that he was going to be their crusader, and then they were wildly and deeply disappointed when he didn’t turn out to be the perfect person they imagined him to be. Well, we all thought Obama was perfect, and that he inhabited a set of liberal values that some of us believed he did. But I don’t think he was perfect, and I don’t think he necessarily inhabited those values. Or, he may have inhabited them but he, like Spitzer, practices a weird sort of compartmentalisation, where he feels he can believe in something, but then transgresses those very values for practical reasons that he thinks are necessary. So, yeah, that moment was real, and we should savour it because those moments don’t come often. It doesn’t mean we can’t be disappointed now, or angry, because he hasn’t delivered on his promises. It would be one thing if he didn’t promise it, but if you promise something and then you do precisely the opposite of what you promised, everybody has a right to be angry.

Taxi to the Dark Side was a little different to your other films. It was still a deeply political story but it wasn’t so much focussed on those immediate ideas of power, it was about human tragedy first and foremost. What brought you to that story?

Somebody approached me and said, “Would you do a film about torture?” I was initially reluctant. It’s hard to make films about big subjects like that. You need a human story. But my dad really encouraged me to take it on, and so I did. I was doing a film about torture but I knew I had to find the story. I found the Dilawar story and it seemed to me to be a very poignant story about a truly innocent victim, but it also led to a bigger story about corruption of the spirit of the United States, and corruption of the democracy. In that sense, I think it was also a story about abuse of power. Torture, fundamentally, is the ultimate abuse of power. After all, even in an interrogation room, if you are the interrogator and you have somebody who is helpless before you, and you begin to inflict pain on that person in order to get that person to tell you what you want to hear, not necessarily the truth, that is what Orwell defined as tyranny. It’s a boot stamping your face forever.

It took me a long time to understand what I was doing in that film, but really that’s what it’s about, because it seeks to answer the question of why? There was a pretty good body of evidence that showed that torture was not a reliable form of interrogation. You could torture somebody and you would occasionally get the truth, but you would also get lies just as often. So why was it necessary to torture somebody, even if you were looking at it pragmatically? So why then would people torture? Sadly, the answer that I came up with, which is a pretty grim answer, was that politicians, or people in power, like echo chambers, they like people to tell them what they want to hear. The Bush administration wanted to go to Iraq, so they began to torture people, who would then tell them that yes, there was a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, when there was none. That is really terrifying.

Then to have at the center somebody like Dilawar, who is, from the standpoint of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, just a cog in the machine, he doesn’t matter. But he’s a human being. Sometimes when you look at a human being who has been so utterly crushed in the service of higher ideals, it was all about the war on terror, he was beaten to death in the service of that ideal (Alex flicks his water bottle cap across table angrily). It makes me angry just talking about it.

You said your dad wanted you to make that film. What was his interest?

He was an interrogator in World War II, in the Pacific theatre. He was on Okinawa and, you know, he was just in a fury over what Rumsfeld, Cheney, et al, were doing to the rule of law. He felt that what he was doing in World War II was fighting for an idea, and he felt that these guys were extinguishing that idea. He encouraged me to take it on, and I shot this little interview with a little consumer camera, just a few weeks before he died. We unplugged his oxygen machine, because he wanted to have a say about it. It was a very powerful moment for me. I didn’t want to inflict that on anybody necessarily in the cutting room, but we all took a look at what it might look like, and they said, “no you’ve got to put it in.” On that basis, I rewrote the narration and, for the first time, decided to narrate it myself rather than have somebody else actorly narrate it.

When you do narrate with your own voice, it’s kind of a thing for your films now, does that have an impact on how people read them? I’m not really talking about objectivity, but do they become more personal for you when they are told in your own voice?

I think so. In every film you try to find a slightly different tone, depending on what the subject is. I’m not precious about that. I think about films in terms of the style changes according to the subject rather than the style being something that comes from me. Being able to put it in my voice allows a flexibility. I don’t like to intrude too much. I’m not like Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore, but at the same time, in the course of making a film, you observe certain things, you learn certain things, and why not share those with a viewer, and be able to say things that wouldn’t be at all allowed in the old voice-of-god narrator rules of the game? In the Spitzer film, I talk about this Albany politician named Joe Bruno, and I say that he was the ‘turd in Eliot Spitzer’s punchbowl’.

You can’t say that in a BBC voice.

No. I feel like you have a certain licence to give it a little more texture.

Let’s talk about the power of telling those stories. In terms of critical response, Taxi to the Dark Side, you don’t get better than that.

No [laughs]. No, you don’t.

Do you feel like the film made a difference?

I think it did. I think it played a role in terms of engaging that debate. Indeed, it’s now required viewing at the army JAG school. That made me proud, that I created a space whereby the military could look at that film and say ‘this is something we want to show to our soldiers, because we believe strongly enough in the principals that we like to espouse that we want to make a change.’ Great. So, I think in that sense it did make a difference.

But I’m always very careful in my films. I do feel that there’s something going on there about human behaviour that transcends immediate political policy issues. If you’re not making films for the long term, I mean, it’s a different kind of film. It’s not to say I wouldn’t do it, I just find it more satisfying. The critical reaction to Client 9, which was much more mixed, was interesting to me. Some people loved it, some people found problems with it. The problems people found with it seemed to relate to the idea that there was an assumption that I was peddling a particular kind of a message, like I was peddling a PowerPoint presentation. I found that disappointing and kind of galling. I wasn’t doing that. Bob Dylan says when you write a song—I’m not comparing myself to Bob Dylan—but he says when you write a song, it’s up to people to interpret it the way they want, so they can go ahead and do that, but I think they weren’t watching the same film. They were expecting a kind of PowerPoint, to say okay, you should feel this way about Spitzer, Spitzer good or Spitzer bad. Spitzer’s a mixed bag, and what he did was both great and delusional. There’s a lot that his critics say that is apt and right, but then his critics are committing far greater crimes than he ever committed. The idea of being with an escort, those are consenting adults and he’s paying her and she’s making a lot of money, so I don’t have a problem with it, but then you have a guy who had previously prosecuted escort services, what kind of hypocrisy is that? And how is it fair to his wife? That is maybe not our business, but when she stands there broken-hearted next to him on the podium, you can’t help but wonder.

It’s the experience of watching the film, which means that you can’t have a simple or easy reaction that boils down to a thumbs-up or thumbs-down idea, or some particular policy formulation. You’ve got to watch the movie. Why can’t non-fiction films inhabit the same space as a fiction film? I mean that in a sense of ambiguity that you can enjoy, rather than be disappointed by. There seems to be some hangover expectation that documentaries are meant to set out a legal point and prove it like a legal brief. Well, I don’t think every documentary should have to inhabit that logic.

It’s a different genre of documentary—the Errol Morris, the Werner Herzog—there is a tradition there…

And look, some of my films are about abuse of power. And gosh, you know, Jesus, I mean I want people to be angry. I don’t want them to sit there thinking ‘well, it’s all ambiguous’. You watch Taxi to the Dark Side,

you don’t think ‘is torture good or is torture bad? What does Alex think?’ It’s pretty fucking clear.

But at the same time, the beating heart of that film, in a peculiar way, is not so much Dilawar as those guards, who are the ones that killed him. They murdered him. But there’s humanity in those people, and you see how they were twisted in order to serve a rather evil end. That is one of the great horrors of that film.

That good old banality of evil. At the same time as you’re making these films, you’re a ridiculously prolific filmmaker, you’re also making so many other films. The Ken Kesey film is a very different film,

Yeah it’s very different.

And Gonzo, the Hunter S Thompson one. Very different again. Do you try and maintain a balance, or are you just pursuing what seems interesting at the time?

I try to maintain a balance, and that’s what life is all about. You can go crazy doggedly pursuing the dark side without looking around you, listening to good music. I’ve been doing a lot of sports films lately. I may start doing a music film. That’s fun. It also enables you to see things without blinders on; it’s one of the dispiriting things about many, not all, but many writers who doggedly follow the political process in Washington. You want to wake them up and say ‘why don’t you leave that city?’ It should be a rule. You should be sent away to some small town in America or some interesting city overseas where you don’t have any, you just have to write about what you see and what you hear, instead of this rather predictable series of charades that they have to watch all the time. It’s fun.

You’re producing on your own now, is that a different experience?

I always have been really. A lot of the big projects I did, I did as a producer. I’m a big admirer of Luis Buñuel, and one of the things that I admired about him, in addition to his great filmmaking skill, was that he worked as a producer for other people and it taught him how to be smart, how to put the money up on the screen, how to save money when you need to save money. So I like that. And I like producing for other people too, I find that fun. Where you’re trying not to figure out how to bring the tools together to be able to say what you want to say, you’re trying to bring the tools to somebody else to say what they want to say. Your job is just to make sure that the chef has enough spoons and spatulas in the kitchen—that’s kind of fun.

I know you can’t, or don’t really want to, talk about the Wikileaks film, and the number of secret Wikileaks projects continues to amuse me no end…

That’s the joke. I mean, maybe I should make a film about all the other films that are being made.

Is that you looking at that story and needing to understand what’s happening?

It was a commission. Universal came to me and said ‘would you do this?’ They gave me a bit of time to look at it to see whether I wanted to do it, and I did look at it, and thought yeah, this is pretty interesting. So I’m digging in, and you know, I hope what I come up with will be of some interest [laughs].

You mentioned Buñuel as a big influence. Are there any others in the documentary sphere that inspired your work?

Marcel Ophüls was big for me. My editor will joke that he was big for me because he made endlessly long films, but he was a big influence. His dad was a fiction filmmaker, and he approached the documentary enterprise with both a sense of what the truth was but also with a narrative and cinematic sensibility that came from the fiction world. I like that. I like the Maysles Brothers a lot, particularly Gimme Shelter. I go back and watch that over and over again. Another film that influenced me a lot was Night and Fog, Alain Resnais’ film. You know, for a long time there was a view, in the United States in particular, that if you had narration in a film it was somehow a cop-out; that you were some kind of fuddy-duddy or whatever. Only the good documentaries had no narration. Well, watch Night and Fog sometime, and tell me that narration in a film isn’t important. That really poetic narration, and the juxtaposition of those words and those images, creates a new kind of power that one or the other wouldn’t be able to manage.

Patrick Pittman

Patrick is a writer, editor, broadcaster, former editor of Dumbo Feather and one-time nightshift carer of a supercomputer. More at patrickpittman.com

Photography by Davi Russo

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