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.
AG: Well, I think in a way I think he may not have been as successful in bringing the corruption to light. I think one of the reasons he was so successful was because he was so tough. And he was so determined. I think one of the reasons people hated him was because he embarrassed them and he was willing to go after them and go after them hard. But, of course, that’s easier for an Attorney General to do than it is to try to make things happen with an elected body. Then you really have to understand how people work, even though I think Spitzer was the classic example of the guy – you know I have some, really I have more than some, tremendous respect for the notion that ideas and the force of arguments should win the day. Albany’s not about ideas, it’s about whose back is being scratched. And also it’s about feelings and bruised feelings and are you going to be my friend, are you not going to be my friend. We don’t want to think it, but all too often it does (come to that). He was not so well equipped to operate in that environment. But I think, actually, that the way his personality worked allowed him to go after people on Wall Street in a way that was actually really effective.
ATWT: There was a great piece earlier this year on This American Life that dealt with how New York’s political situation dooms the state to these financial crises that it finds itself in. And one of the things that I liked about what you did stylistically in the film, you kept underlining with the visuals how this was really a New York story. And these were really New York characters.
AG: I tried to make the city a character.
ATWT: I thought that really came through.
AG: We tried stylistically – there was an earlier version of the cut in which we had a lot more archival footage and at some point that just seemed wrong and we started going out and shooting lots of tableaus of the city and sometimes very odd corners of the city, odd angles that you wouldn’t normally see, gargoyles and puddles and reflections. It’s a sense that it’s a living, breathing character and you’re inside it. It was kind of what I wanted to do with the music, too. This guy Pete Nashel – rather than trying to knit together disparate pop songs we talked about how I wanted him to pretend he was kind of a world weary piano player in a piano bar on the Upper East Side, kind of playing the story of Eliot Spitzer, the rise and fall, so there was that vibe that sort of extended throughout the whole film. And then, since it’s about sexual obsession, I’d been watching VERTIGO a lot - some of the sort of suspense sections, there’s a bit of Bernard Herrmann in there, but it’s still a very singular character, rather than a whole lot of different things. And the other thing we tried to do – I tried to be playful and not be too over-the-top about it, but there’s all these reveals, like Hulbert (Waldroup), the artist, the black guy with the wild straw hat, who at first you think, who is this guy and what is he doing here and then you realize he’s the booker (for the escort agency) and so on. He has a turn of phrase about angels and animals and that’s what all his painting are about. And so we ended up spending a lot of time at the zoo – I didn’t want to be too heavy-handed and to me it was playful and fun and it was also just another piece of the city. You can go to Central Park Zoo – there it is.
ATWT: And I also really liked the use of the actress. Can you talk about that, maybe you felt like that was the obvious way to go under the circumstances, but I thought it worked particularly well both in how you reveal her to be an actress but also just the use of her.
AG: Well, I’m glad you liked it because it has become controversial and I guess I could have anticipated that it might have been, but I guess in retrospect it’s kind of hard to understand exactly why. I didn’t know how I was going to deal with that. I found Angelina, nobody had found her before, but she just wouldn’t agree to go on camera and she was even a little bit nervous about having the light behind her kind of thing, so I couldn’t even play her voice. So what could I do? And this solution just seemed right in all sorts of ways. One is she was so un-hookerish, meaning that she didn’t fit into any stereotype. She was smart, she was pretty but in a way like you just see a woman walking down the street and you say, oh, there’s a pretty woman. You wouldn’t say, oh, there’s a hooker. And she had a very genuine personality. She was very appealing to talk to and I didn’t want that to be lost. So that was one reason to do it. The other reason to do it is that escorts in some ways are actresses. In the high end trade, it’s part of the “girlfriend experience”, you’re pretending to be someone’s girlfriend for the night. So it was also very appealing from that perspective. But it was really more the humanity, so that you’re now drawn into the story instead of being pushed out of the story. But obviously at the same time I have to disclose it, so I do, but I shot it purposely in the way – I had a sort of sumptuous fun with the idea of her being made up and set in that setting. I’m glad you like it, I think it works pretty well.
ATWT: I’d like to talk briefly about your larger year and all the projects that have not only come out this year but you have a new film that’s just been announced for Sundance and I know you have at least one other that you are working on and maybe more. Can you talk generally about what kind of team you’ve constructed that helps you be able to juggle all of these projects and how do you, in your mind, deal with all these competing ideas all going on at once?
AG: The last part is the really hard part. The way I – I don’t know if I’ve made it work, but the way I do it is that I have kind of a core team that helps me to coordinate the different projects, and I also have the key people that I’ve worked with over the years that I trust, my cinematographer Maryse Alberti, a group of editors I really like and so there’s a kind of central coordination, my music clearance guy, all of that. And then on each project, there has to be at least one person and usually more than one, who only does that project, whose head is only into that all the time. Because that allows me to dip in and out of that world as I need to. There’s a reason sometimes for doing so many at once. In part, it’s because you don’t have to be panicked about finishing right away, because sometimes, with investigative films, anyway, you don’t always get the people you want or the information or the materials that you want as quickly as you’d like. It takes a while. If you’re stalled you have another film to work on and push forward on that one, even as you’re trying get stuff going on the other. So, that’s kind of the idea. I wish I could say I have a more rigorous plan, but it’s sort of evolved that way. I got used to it when I was doing GONZO and TAXI at the same time. And now it’s become a kind of a model. I think of it as kind of a leapfrog approach. There are certain efficiencies that can be had, but it does fracture my attention and it is hard and sometimes frustrating not to be able to just sit down and focus on one thing. But sometimes for the good of the film, it’s better to be able to have the time to do them right and to get the people that you need to have. Because I think the thing that makes the Spitzer film work is access. Somehow, I was able to deliver on getting to all these different characters, and honestly, that took time.
ATWT: Yeah, if you don’t have all those guys – that just gives it a layer of complexity that a lot of films skimp on these days. The shadings that his adversaries give him are, I think, so important. And obviously just getting him to talk was quite a challenge.
AG: It was a challenge and it took a long time to get him to talk, and even then it took a long time to get him to talk about things that he was not comfortable talking about. He was obviously very uncomfortable talking about some stuff. But I think the interesting thing about the film, and you knowing documentary as well as you do, it’s sometimes gets misunderstood. You put in somebody who’s having difficulty answering the question, some people see that as he, meaning me, somehow didn’t get the goods because there’s no Oprah-like moment of full confession, but that’s who (Spitzer) is. That’s his character. He doesn’t do introspection as he himself says. And he has problems. He’s emotionally weak, I would say and he’s also intellectually strong and you see that on film. You see that in his eyes. But if you were to see it in a transcript it wouldn’t have any meaning. But seeing it on screen, you’re able to read discomfort in a way that tells you something about his character that’s more meaningful than the content of what he says.
ATWT: To me, just watching him clearly wrestle with his own weaknesses when you’d ask those questions, whether it was about his temper or these other things, that was really revealing about him.
AG: Yes, I agree.
ATWT: Before I let you go, can you talk a little bit about this year that we’ve had in documentary. I don’t with all the work you’ve been doing how many of the other nonfiction films you’ve been able to see this year, but a lot of people talk about this being a golden age of work and I’m just curious on what your thoughts are on the landscape right now.
AG: Well, I think we been in a golden age for a while. I don’t think it’s just this year. To me, the doc form is at its height. What’s so exciting is that you’re seeing so many authored films – and by authored films I mean talented individuals with their own styles telling stories in a way that are both true to the subjects as well as true to their own voices. That’s to me what’s so exciting. So you see a film like – and again, I haven’t seen as many films as I would like – but you can see a straightforward film like RESTREPO or, even ARMADILLO, which I liked more, and then you see something like LAST TRAIN HOME, which is almost painful to watch because of the family dynamic and those scenes in the train station. It’s a bolt from – now you realize there’s a whole new kind of voice that’s emerging all over the world, it’s not so colonialized anymore, the Chinese are telling their own stories in a way that’s internationally approachable. And then you have something so wild and idiosyncratic as the Bansky film, which I haven’t seen but I just sort of celebrate the kind of brio of that idea. Look, I think it’s awesome and I just think it’s great.