Known for his gripping, deeply insightful documentaries, Academy Award winner ALEX GIBNEY is one of the most accomplished non-fiction filmmakers working today. His 2008 film, TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, received an Oscar for Best Feature-Length Documentary, a Best Director nomination from the Director’s Guild of America, as well as a Writer’s Guild of America Award for Best Screenplay. He also received another Academy Award nomination in 2006 for ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, which also won the Independent Spirit Award and the WGA Award, and he served as an Executive Producer on the Academy Award-nominated NO END IN SIGHT (2007).
His new documentary, THE ARMSTRONG LIE, follows one of the most fascinating stories in the history of sports, the extraordinary rise and fall of former cycling champion, Lance Armstrong. Embarking on what he believed would prove the ultimate comeback story, Gibney started by turning his cameras on the sports hero, his teammates and trainers in 2008-2009. But once Armstrong admitted to using performance enhancing drugs in early 2013, the film emerged as a riveting insider’s view chronicling the collapse of one of the greatest legends of our time.
The following interview was taken on October 16 at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.
Dana: Why Armstrong in the first place?
Alex: Well, I had an opportunity, a famous producer Frank Marshall and a guy from Sony, Matt Tolmach, were developing a fiction film on Lance Armstrong and they couldn’t get the script rights so when Lance wanted to come back they thought of making a documentary and asked me if I would direct it. And I thought that that would be a pretty interesting film, following a champion as he came back, and what interested me about Armstrong, even with the rumours of doping that we all knew even back then, was his will. So I was interested in making that film.
Dana: When you found out everything that happened suddenly, what was your first thought, that you had been lied to or that the film was a lie?
Alex: I was pissed off, not so much that I’ve been lied to, I’d certainly been lied to before, but I felt that I’ve been used. That I was used as kind of a prop and promo campaign, and that did piss me off. But remember this happened over a period of time, it wasn’t like there was a lightening bolt that came down and suddenly it was like: “Oh my God, everything’s changed”. Bit by bit by bit stuff came out and Lance for a long time responded as he always had, which was: “bullshit”, denial, so I had time to work it out. And was I pissed off?Yes I was pissed off but I wasn’t shocked.
Dana: What do you think of him?
Alex: On a day to day basis, I like him. I like hanging out with him, I’m interested in talking to him but I also recognise that I can’t always trust him.
Dana: How challenging was it to change the initial film into the final version?
Alex: It was hugely challenging. I think the only way it was going to work was for me to became a character in the film. I had to become the person to whom this had happened. So that I could explain it all in its many levels. And also I stood in for the fan or for the cancer survivor who felt that they invested so much in this myth that Lance had created and now they were disappointed. From a filmmaking standpoint it was hugely complicated because it involved fracturing the narrative, going back and forth in time, in 1999, before that, 2009, the present, pre-Oprah, post-Oprah. It was a very complicated story in that sense. And the only way possible to make it I think was telling it through the first person.
Dana: Michele Ferrari was quite a cue, how did that interview come about, was it just a question of building trust?
Alex: He wouldn’t do the interview unless Armstrong gave his permission and Armstrong did. And I think that was all part of a campaign at the time which was: 2009 – I have nothing to hide, come take a look. So I was surprised that I got the interview with Ferrari but I was pleased.
Dana: How do you think Armstrong felt when the truth came out?
Alex: Well it came out over time. I think Armstrong was probably surprised that the old tactics didn’t work. Let’s remember, he’d already accused his critics? many times in the past, he always defeated his enemies by attacking them or sometimes slandering them and he tried to do the same thing here but it didn’t work this time. Why?Because the level of details was so enormous that his story was no longer believable and I think that was a blow to Armstrong and suddenly, while he always had enemies and critics he also had millions of fans and suddenly his fans started to run for the hills.
Dana: Has he seen the film?
Alex: No. He sent his representatives to see it and so far he hasn’t seen the film, I hope he will. We gave him the opportunity to.
Dana: Have you spoken to him since making the film?
Alex: The last time I spoke to him was when, there were some bits that I went to him with while making the film, because he had some interesting information about UCI and sponsors but the last time I contacted Lance was when I told him it was going to be called the Armstrong Lie.
Dana: And what was his response to that?
Alex: I don’t think he liked it but he accepted it. I heard from other people that he said: “I’m ok with it. I did lie”. In some ways Lance is honest, in some ways he’s not so honest.
Dana: As a filmmaker, are you glad about everything that happened, because you now have a much more interesting film than the original one…
Alex: That was a different film. This one is much more layered and frankly much more like the themes of all my other films. So in that sense while I was hoping to do something different, I ended up being back at base camp for me as a filmmaker.
Dana: What has been the biggest challenge in making this film?
Alex: The biggest challenge in making the final film was to find the structure for it because it was so intricate and complicated in terms of understanding what had gone on before and how to present to the viewer a sense of going back in my experience in 2009 and seeing with the eyes of today what I’d seen in the past. And at the same time recreating my feeling in the past so you could see how I would become excited and enthusiastic about Armstrong only to realise I’d been deceived.
Dana: Where did you stand with him at the beginning anyway?Were you a fan?
Alex: I didn’t know that much about him, or about cycling. I told him the first time I met him: “I know you ride a bicycle and that you’re good at it. That’s about all I know”. But I’ve come to a lot of subjects that way, I was interested in him because of his will. And I assumed from the beginning that will was both an inspirational thing and something that was also quite dark.
Dana: Does he come from a position of arrogance, he can sometimes strike viewers in that way.
Alex: He certainly does and he rubs a lot of people the wrong way as a result.
Dana: What did you learn from this film and would you do it differently if you had to do it again?
Alex: I hope I wouldn’t have to do it again. I guess what I learnt from this film was one of the most amazing things about this story, I talk about the Armstrong lie as if it was a big secret that was suddenly exposed. But it wasn’t really like that. It was a secret hiding in plain sight. Hundreds of people knew that Lance had doped, not just a small number, and a lot of critics had come forward with the evidence. But it was the power of the myth that Lance created that was so enormous that no one wanted to believe any of that stuff. And in fact everyone realised that they could make so much money, and the cancer survivors realised that they can have so much hope from this story that no one wanted to believe that it wasn’t true. That was the most amazing thing to me.
Dana: On this note, do you think truth should always prevail, considering how powerful and beautiful this story was, and important for some people?Is truth more important than anything?
Alex: Almost. Truth is very important and I can think of times where a little truth is not necessary to tell within a certain context but in an essential way, truth is very important.