Note - This is the third in a series of interviews with the filmmakers behind some of my favorite nonfiction features of 2010...
A few years ago, I started referring to Alex Gibney as "the hardest working man in documentary" - but these were back in the days when the man only had two films come out in the same year. This year, it was nearly impossible to keep track of everything Gibney was doing - from his nonfiction take on Jack Abramoff to his segment of FREAKONOMICS to his HBO project, MY TRIP TO AL QAEDA, to his eagerly anticipated film on Lance Armstrong and his just-announced Sundance 2011 feature, MAGIC TRIP.
And in the midst of all that, the Oscar winner's take on disgraced, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and the forces that may have helped bring about his fall. I didn't see the film until a few weeks ago and I really took to it. While Spitzer and his adversaries are crackling, great characters - and a sex scandal is always good for grabbing your attention - Gibney greatest success may be in laying bare the seeds of the global, financial meltdown in ways that are both entertaining and infuriating.
We talked last week by phone about his latest film - including some of his somewhat controversial creative choices (including casting an actress as one of Spitzer's escorts and not revealing up front that she's actually an actress) as well as how he balances the huge slate of projects in front of him. Caution - if you haven't seen the film or don't know anything about Spitzer's story, there are spoilers aplenty.
All these wonderful things: I finally got to see CLIENT 9 and I really, really liked it and one of the things that I was particularly glad to see was that it upended my expectations going in, pretty much having everything to do with how another filmmaker might have handled it, whether it would be dwelling solely on the sexual nature of what helped to bring Eliot Spitzer down or setting him up to be some kind of saint. I love that you make a strong argument that in some ways it wasn’t the sex scandal that did him in but the fact that he’d been so mean to so many people that there was really no one to stand up for him when the scandal came down.
Alex Gibney: That’s right. That’s absolutely right. It’s a funny kind of film, too, because you don’t come out of it with any easy – in a way it was kind of the fun of doing it, also – but you don’t come out of it with any easy conclusion about what to think. I think that’s important, too, this intersection of public and private, how do we think about that? And then, you’re right, it wasn’t just the sex. Other people have had sex scandals and they’ve survived them. But Spitzer was like Sherman, Sherman’s march to the sea, he left people in his wake, so not only was there no one to support him, but people were viciously and eagerly and gleefully trying to bring him down.
ATWT: Yeah, I loved that you were able to get his adversaries in this story, which is something that I think we don’t often see in terms of truly getting both sides. And if you want to think that he was brought down by quote, unquote big business or bad Republicans, you can, but these guys come across as such great, fully formed characters.
AG: Yeah, and I had a blast talking to those people and I was fascinated by them and I think I showed them in all their complexity. And you can see how gleeful they are in taking him on, and also how much enmity they have. But then you step back and well, wait a minute, here’s a guy that everybody’s jumping on because he had sex with a high priced escort – we never heard about that 500 million dollar heist conducted by AIG prior to the global financial meltdown. That’s utterly escaped our notice. It’s so funny to me because almost nobody mentions the audio tapes of the AIG people talking about a pretty big crime prior to the economic meltdown. It’s sort of proof positive of exactly what was going on there. (laughter) But it’s always eclipsed by the sex. There’s just no doubt.