There’s no doubt that Alex Gibney is on a historic roll as a documentarian. Within only a few years, he’s been involved with probably the largest number of popular and influential documentaries of any single human being not named Michael Moore. Those works would include the outstanding “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and the equally strong, and Oscar winning, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about American use of torture in the “war on terror.” Gibney has also made his share of more historically themed documentaries, including “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.” He was also involved as a producer in two of the other most important and controversial documentaries of recent years, the Iraq-war expose, “No End in Sight” and “Who Killed the Electric Car?”
If Gibney’s past output is hugely impressive, however, his upcoming list of films is dizzying. At the recently wrapped Tribeca Film Festival in New York, he premiered as a “work in progress,” a new and apparently very revealing, look at former New York state governor, attorney general, and Wall Street watchdog Eliot Spitzer and the sex scandal that drove him from office. He also has a segment in the upcoming film version of the super-hot bestseller, Freakonomics, as well as new films about two very different cultural legends: bicyclist Lance Armstrong and author/super-hippie Ken Kesey of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Merry Pranksters fame.
There’s also the recently completed “My Trip to Al-Qaeda” and the film Gibney was promoting at his publicist’s L.A. office one recent afternoon, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” It’s a work of amazing journalistic detail that also works very hard to be lively and accessible.
Even if I felt that Gibney didn’t quite master that “accessible and lively” aspect too consistently this time around, his “Casino Jack” reviews so far have been great overall. He’s certainly a filmmaker to be reckoned with and one with an outstanding body of work behind him and much, much more to come. Not my idea of a lazy person.
Premium Hollywood: Things have been busy for you lately.
Alex Gibney: I’ll say.
PH: They’re calling the Tribeca Festival the “Alex Gibney Fest”…
AG: Right, right, right.
PH: I was reading the Wall Street Journal article about you and it said that the reason these have all come out at once is that all these interviews have materialized for you fairly recently. These are movies you’ve been working on for several years, though.
AG: That’s right. Some of them were supposed to have been finished one or two years ago, but they weren’t quite ready and we hadn’t quite gotten to the center of the story. You hope that these not only have an immediate impact but a kind of lasting impact. If you’re trying to tell a story from the inside out, you can’t really tell it until you get to the inside.
PH: Which brings us to “Casino Jack.” Now, you did speak to Jack Abramoff off-camera but not on-camera. What made you decide that you were ready to go?
AG: In waiting for Jack, two other people came forward, [jailed former Ohio congressman] Bob Ney and [ex-Abramoff gambling associate] Adam Kidan, who were close enough to the center. So, it feels like a story from the inside out. I was telling somebody earlier, in “The Wizard of Oz,” you don’t spend a lot of time with the Wizard of Oz. It’s called “The Wizard of Oz.” But you learn an awful lot about the Emerald City and the Land of Oz. I think in this film you find out a lot about the Oz-land of Washington, D.C., and you find it out from the inside out. Bob Ney also closed the circle. Not only did he know Jack, he was part of Jack’s circle, and he was manipulated by Jack. Also, his close personal relationship with Neil Volz, who was Bob’s chief of staff and then went to work for Jack — by having those two people in the film, that showed in a very personal way not only how this “revolving door” thing works in Washington and how people like Jack manipulate it, but also how corruption tears at the fabric of human relationships.
PH: I was looking in the press notes, and one of the interesting things you allude to there and in the movie is the whole question of “rotten apple or entire barrel?” You definitely lean toward the entire barrel side of the story.
PH: Do you think it’s always been this bad or do you think this is a recent development, that it’s gotten worse?
AG: It’s not like powerful people didn’t always have influence in government, they always did. They probably always will. What has changed is the cost of getting elected now is just going through the roof. It shows no sign of abating. These TV spots turn out to be very effective. They’re very expensive to produce and they’re also very expensive to buy the time to put on. Every year, the price of getting elected gets higher. When you need that much money to get elected, what do you do? First of all, you spend more than half your time, sometimes, raising that money, but also you go to lobbyists who have connections with people or companies with lots of money to be able to solve your election problem. Then, we have a real problem because it’s become so immense that it’s now unbalanced. In the past, big money would be balanced by, say, popular rage. It’s very hard to mount enough popular rage to counteract the power and influence of money.
PH: And, of course, we have that recent [Citzen’s United vs. F.E.C.] Supreme Court decision…
AG: Which will exacerbate the problem, which says now that corporations have the same rights as citizens. I have huge issues with that. By the way, I do think that, [about] that Supreme Court decision, a modest decision that was more focused on that particular case would have been appropriate. In other words, I think that Citizens United had a certain good argument, but the idea that a corporation is the same as a citizen, I don’t buy.
PH: Changing gears just a little bit, one of the things I noticed in the movie was that you constantly go back to movies. You start off with Jack Abramoff’s career advice to you about giving up documentaries and to start making action films and then you elude to “Patton.” “Fiddler on the Roof” plays a big part….
AG: “The Manchurian Candidate”…
PH: There’s a clip from that and also…what was the other one?
AG: There’s a couple of other ones. There’s actually a pirate movie, one of my favorite pirate movies, “The Crimson Pirate.”
PH: Really, “The Crimson Pirate” with Burt Lancaster? It was in black and white [in “Casino Jack”] though…
AG: Yeah, I know, we took the color out. Don’t tell anybody — and also “The Natural” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” And, “Patton”…did I say “Patton”?
PH: We mentioned “Patton.”
PH: “Red Scorpion” [the propagandistic Dolph Lungren action film from 1989, produced and with a story by Abramoff and his brother, Robert]. Yes, I decided to not look it up and see who directed that because then we’d end up talking about nothing but that.
AG: Oh my God.
PH: But, obviously, movies play a part in your understanding of Abramoff’s psychology.
AG: He was a movie buff and I also think he was a fantasist — a man of great imagination. I think to some extent he was Walter Mitty-esque. He imagined himself as inhabiting a sort of larger-than-life narrative. And he was a not only a movie buff but a movie producer. So, it seemed somehow essential to his life and in that sense I felt I had license to go there. It was part of telling the Jack Abramoff story.
PH: You do indulge [the movie side of the story] a little bit. I actually really like the opening a lot, where you follow up that suggestion from Abramoff that you should make action films with….
AG: An action film.
PH: An action film sequence.
PH: You’ve done this in other films, as I recall.
AG: “Enron,” I think.
PH: When do you decide that it’s time to do a staged sequence?
AG: Both “Enron” and this one, they happen rather early in the film. They each come out of a certain moment. In this one, it follows immediately off that Jack Abramoff e-mail — and, by the way, that was a playful bit of mine, too. It was a comment he made to somebody that I put in e-mail form because, later on, we’ll get to a whole e-mail section. But, up front then, within that context, that serves the function of creating that action movie but also, in a very visceral way, showing the violence of a murder [the mob-style killing of Greek ex-casino owner Konstantin Boulis]. And then we immediately flash — which has similarities to “Enron” — to the real-life consequences of that murder: the actual car on the sidewalk. The news report saying that someone’s been murdered on a Miami street. So that, rather than in the middle of a real sequence suddenly going to a recreation, you’re in a moment emotionally which is purely that. And then you snap out of it and realize, “Oh my God, I’m in real life now.” It’s done for that reason and partially to get you into the movie vibe but also partially to elicit that emotional vibe of a murder. In the Enron film, it was to put you on the seat of an executive who might blow his brains out — who does blow his brains out. I think by being on that seat you see the Enron executives and the cost of that corruption more effectively than would just by covering that with archival footage. So, that’s the purpose. I’ve never done it to kind of fool you or to be a recreation inside the film which says, “Well, we don’t have good footage now. Let’s hire some actors.”
PH: I don’t think anybody ever doubts what’s real and what isn’t in your films.
PH: That actually brings me to an interesting thing. I was thinking about how you’ve got this body of work behind you — I can’t think of anybody else who’s put out this many documentaries and with a lot of acclaim. But when I think about “what makes an Alex Gibney documentary?” it’s not the same thing as thinking about what makes an Errol Morris or a Werner Herzog doc.
AG: My view is that form follows functions. So, you look at the story and try to craft a style for a film that seems to suit the story rather than become precious about your own style.
PH: I was going to get to the flattering part where I mentioned William Wyler and Stephen Frears and other great movie directors without obvious personal styles. I mean, if Errol Morris is kind of the Orson Welles of documentaries….
AG: I mean I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t denigrate that at all. I think it’s important. For some people, that’s a kind of a signature thing. That’s not what interests me.
PH: [I look up and see the very nice publicist making a “wrap it up” gesture behind Mr. Gibney.] They’re telling me to finish. I’ll give you just one more thing. This came up in The Wall Street Journal today and, getting back to the politics a little, all of these last few films — “Enron,” “Casino Jack” — and the upcoming one that’s getting all the press right now, the Eliot Spitzer film, all seem to come back to Wall Street.
AG: Look, it’s the problem of our time. Our economy and our polity has been hijacked by people who have found an extraordinarily lucrative way of making money, in part by manipulating the federal government, that’s unproductive. It’s also outrageous in the sense that there’s never been a kind of money machine that bestows so much on so few. Yeah, Henry Ford made a lot of money. Rockefeller made a lot of money. They also employed a lot of people.
PH: Right. [Wall Street is] not really producing anything.
AG: They’re not producing anything except wealth for themselves and at some cost to us now. It’s one thing to enjoy the fact that a guy goes out at night and wins at baccarat and takes home a million dollars. It’s great. God bless. But when he loses $20 million and comes to us and says “Now, you have to pay,” that’s a kettle of different fish.