Academy Award

Should Truth Always Prevail? Acclaimed Documentarian ALEX GIBNEY about THE ARMSTRONG LIE

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).

Alex-Gibney

Alex Gibney

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.

the-armstrong-lie-posterDana: 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.

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GLORIA Is Glorious in SEBASTIAN LELIO’s New Film

Gloria_posterWhat are the options for a 58-year old divorcée whose job is not engaging enough to take over her entire life and whose children have long fled home and have a life of their own? To spend her evenings in front of the TV, looking after the neighbour’s cat or indulge in nostalgia and tearful memories about the good old days gone by? Maybe for some this is an option but nor for Gloria, the extraordinary heroine of Chilean director Sebastian Lelio‘s third feature film.

Winner of the Berlinale Silver Bear for Best Actress and  the Chilian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, GLORIA is a most engrossing character study of a mature single woman whose unbridled optimism and zest for life are simply contagious. Drink in hand and dressed in her most glamorous attire, Gloria is constantly teasing life with her heart wide open to anything that this might bring: adventure, romance, new friends, new lessons…Avoiding the all too easy, conventional clichés that surround representations of older people, Gloria is surprising, warm, genuine and very uplifting. No matter your age,  at the end of the film you wish you were more like Gloria.

In an interview taken on October 18 at the Filmmaker Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013, we pick the director’s brain about the film and the amazing performance that makes Gloria such a delight to watch.

Dana: How did you come up with  such an amazing character?Gloria is so brave, so strong, so inspiring, I so admire this woman and also Paulina Garcia’s breathtaking performance.

Sebastian: Thank you. Yes the film is all about this character and in a way in order to create the character I created an entire film around it. I created a mechanism for Gloria to be alive, which is cinema, it’s the complexity, it’s a narrative strategy, it’s also camera style, the uses of a narrative of “iceberg tips”, elliptic storytelling, the lack of written dialogues, there were no written dialogues in the script, so everything comes from the actors. I guess the answer for that is […] I had the intuition that it was a strong film in this lady’s world, in this character that in a way didn’t deserve a film, because she should have been like a secondary character in a normal film…but I thought no, I see a film there and we will make a great protagonist out of this forgotten character.

Dana: How did this protagonist come alive?If there were no written dialogues, I assume you worked a lot with the actors.

Sebastian: Yes but in order not to write dialogue, you need to write a lot, even more, because then when you are on set you can afford the luxury of getting lost, but to get lost you need to have the map in order to get lost within a certain battlefield or territory. And concerning the actors, I have an “invasion strategy”. I invade them, I become their friend, win their hearts and then I torture them. (laughter)

Dana: And they make your film…

Actors Sergio Hernandez, Paulina Garcia and director Sebastian Lelio at the 63rd Berlinale International Film Festival

Sebastian: Exactly, by their own will…It’s a very empirical strategy but for good reasons. I love actors and I do believe that when you see a film in a way you’re seeing the artistic battle, in this case of Paulina Garcia, you see how she’s giving her fight, the fight of her life, she’s like Rocky at the end of Rocky, round fifteen, she thinks she’s going to die but she wins. So I’m much more interested in the person than in the character, I’m much more moved by the human being, the actress, the characters are like an accident.

Dana: Was the role of Gloria a projection of a side of the actress herself? I read in an interview that they are very different, the actress from the character she plays.

Sebastian: The only way to answer that is yes and no at the same time. Paulina indeed said that she would have liked to be a little lighter, like Gloria is. Gloria is the kind of character who knows how to surf life but I think Paulina is wonderful, she’s so fun to be with, she’s funny and smart, but still…The character has a lot of things from her because since we didn’t use written dialogues, she was forced to use herself. So it’s the grey area between character and actress, or human being I would say.

Dana: Is it true that you were inspired by Cassavetes’ Gloria for this character?

Sebastian: Cassavetes is one of the directors of my life and when it comes to a cinema that is able to capture the mystery, madness and complexity of being human, Cassavetes is like the Pope, he is the master, so I would like to capture that complexity also. It’s impossible not to think of Opening Night or A Woman Under the Influence, or even Gloria. Gena Rowlands was very present in our conversations, because of this energy, this woman who in a way is bigger than life, always with a drink, and high heels, and you know, “bring it on”, I love that…

Dana: It seems that Gloria wants to have a good time despite everything, she wants to enjoy life.

Sebastian: Yes, she’s laughing and enjoying herself, she’s not opaque or withdrawn. I’m so tired of these opaque, “interesting” characters that are hiding what they are thinking and you never know how they think about anything, aren’t they empty maybe? Which is OK, I just wanted to go in the other direction, this is her, transparent, in your face.

Dana: And at the same time the film is very nuanced, very subtle. Another interesting thing is that at the end Gloria finds herself on her own again, which is basically the scene at the beginning. 

Sebastian: Yeah.

Dana: She goes back to square one after experiencing all these emotional ups and downs…Was that the idea of the film, to show a woman experiencing life even if it doesn’t lead her anywhere basically, the film doesn’t have the ending that you’d expect.

Sebastian: Exactly, and this is a very interesting insight because vision is a theme in the film, the glasses, whether she sees or not, how she sees other people and how people see her, she puts the glasses on, she takes them off, she goes to the oculist, being a little maybe blind towards the others, towards life, towards herself, or literally blind, whatever…Dancing without glasses at the end is such a strong gesture. For me it is very interesting what you’re saying because it’s the same social context but I would say that at the end she sees that same context with new eyes, somehow everything has changed because the vision has changed. We can say it’s the same, but in a way it’s not. It is transformed, because her vision has transformed, because vision transforms, which is the core idea for the film, when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.

GloriaDana: What did she see at the end that she didn’t see at the beginning?

Sebastian: Well I think at the beginning she’s looking for the sources of meaning outside her jurisdiction, in men, in family, in therapies and it seems that, but the film doesn’t observe that, it seems that at the end she understands that those sources of meaning might be inside her, so maybe she’s not looking outside, she is dancing blindly but is she blind? So it’s very delicate.

Dana: That’s a very interesting reading of the film.And you’re entitled to your own reading of the film!

Sebastian: (laughing) No, but it’s just a reading, I mean I see myself as a spectator also.

Dana: What were the challenges in making this film?

Sebastian: I would say the main challenge was taking all these low-level materials, like not very sophisticated songs, a lady who’s supposedly a not very interesting character, a boring life, feelings, emotions, and all these dangerous things for an actress, and through combination and alchemy, elevate them and turn them hopefully into cinema. That was the thing, because it is much easier to work with serious issues than to be serious about cinema.

Dana: Is your method of working on this film different from your previous films?

Sebastian: No, my films always had humour and I think they have that complexity but before I made a film that was very sad, because it had to do with the earthquake and tsunami that we had in Chile, and it was impossible not to be serious. We shot only six weeks after the earthquake on real locations where people had died, and we were shooting a fiction based on real events in the real places. But it was very heavy. So very naturally I felt the need to counterbalance, to reconnect with life.

Dana: One last tricky question: why do you make films?

Sebastian: Because for me it’s the best vehicle to cross life, the perfect excuse, it’s a great place from where to think the world. And cinema is a great way to contaminate the world also with what you feel. It’s a wonderful toy.

GLORIA, this wonderful toy from director Sebastian Lelio, is playing in London cinemas now, book your tickets here: Curzon Soho, ICA, Barbican Centre and Ritzy Cinema.