Alex Gibney

by Fiona Rae / 13 April, 2011
The director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side tackles the “Sheriff of Wall Street” felled in a sex scandal.

Documentary maker Alex Gibney is director of the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side. He has two films in the World Cinema ShowcaseClient 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer is about the crusading New York attorney-general who was dubbed the “Sheriff of Wall Street” for taking on white-collar criminals and the dubious practices of high finance, was later elected state governor, and was then felled in a sex scandal after being caught using prostitutes. Gibney also directs a segment of Freakonomics, based on the best-selling book by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner. On a roll, he has a raft of other projects coming out or in the pipeline, including documentaries about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, cyclist Lance Armstrong, and proto-hippy Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

What was your view of Eliot Spitzer before you started making Client 9, both before and after the sex scandal? I thought he was fulfilling an important function. He was one of the few people standing up to Wall Street. He didn’t seem like a very warm and fuzzy character, but from afar anyway he seemed at least a fairly compelling one in terms of his willingness and ability to stand up to Wall Street. In the wake of the sex scandal, I was just astounded. I thought here was a guy who was on his way possibly to being President of the United States - the first Jewish President - and he threw it all away? For this? And this was the “Sheriff of Wall Street”. So I was pretty gobsmacked and on that basis I dug in to figure out what had happened.

I don’t know how much time you spent making Client 9 and talking to Spitzer, but after the film did your perspective on him change? It did. Whenever you spend a good bit of time with somebody, and I interviewed him five times and each time for quite a long period of time, inevitably you get more comfortable with people, you learn more about them. He is not as distant and as imperious a person as you would recognise. Yet at the same time I inevitably also got a peek at certain fundamental flaws. He is a guy who is not surprisingly somewhat out of touch with his own internal life. As he himself says, he doesn’t do introspection. And I think he also has a talent for compartmentalisation, which is also a kind of dangerous talent, as we discover. So I learned things about him that are both good and bad. But on the whole I came away feeling sympathetic toward him. He’s a human being and I think sometimes with public figures we forget about that. And we have this desperate need - particularly in the US, I think, but maybe it’s a universal need - to believe that there are good people and there are bad people and if a good person does something bad then maybe they become a bad person. I think people in law enforcement are much more accepting of the idea that in all of us lurks a much more split personality and in the right circumstances all of us can do stuff that we might not be so proud of. So it’s never so simple.

How did you persuade Spitzer to talk to you in the first place? I persuaded him to talk I think for three reasons. My argument was, “If you’re going to have a future, you’re going to have to reckon with your past.” That was number one. I think another thing that helped convince him was the fact I was going to do the film anyway. And lastly, that I was going to do not just the scandal but I was going to do the rise and fall story. So we were going to spend a good bit of time talking about some of the successes in his career. So that it wouldn’t just be a kind of cheap shot.

When you make a film like Client 9 or Enron, do you need at the beginning to know you’re going to have at least a certain number of ducks in a row? Or do you go into it and if you don’t get the interviews that’s fine, you can work around it? Not fine, but you have to go into it, I think, reckoning with the idea that you may not get anybody to talk. It seems like that with the start of every film I do, and at the beginning it always seems like nobody wants to talk. With Taxi to the Dark Side, the film for which I won an Academy Award, nobody wanted to talk and a lot of the material I wanted to show was secret or top secret and nobody was going to give it to me. I was terrified. The same thing with Enron. In a slightly different context. I think you go forward with the faith that you can tell a good story and a determination to keep digging. Because that’s one of the things that often gets people to talk. If you say, “If you tell me your story, then I’ll make the movie”, they have a certain power over you that I think puts you at a disadvantage. I think in some way, shape or form you’re better off just saying to everybody “I’m doing this whether you like it or not. I hope you cooperate but I’m doing it anyway.”

After Enron, you might not have seemed the most obvious person for some of the financial bigwigs in Client 9 to talk to, but they do talk. I think they talk at great length. I think one of the reasons was I had a helper in the room and that was Eliot Spitzer: they all hated him so much that they were delighted to be able to rain abuse on him and I was perfectly happy to let them do so at great length. Also, I had gone in and had an interview with one titan, this guy John Whitehead, the very mild-mannered former chairman of Goldman Sachs, and he had enjoyed the experience quite a lot and he spread the word among other titans, and so they agreed to talk. Very often that’s a good way of proceeding. You let other people introduce you if you have a good relationship with them. The key thing was the fact they hated Spitzer so much. They really wanted to get that off their chests. They wanted a forum to be able to lay that out.

Were you uncomfortable in any way providing them with that forum, with further ammunition? Not really. When you’re telling a story, part of what you’re going to do is not hold a brief for anybody in particular but try to get a lot of people to talk and to talk in ways that they feel represents them. In a way I was delighted they were as forthright and as honest as they were. I didn’t have any problem with that. And indeed [billionaire businessman and former director of the New York Stock Exchange] Ken Langone was delighted with the film by all account.

They’re real characters, some of those guys. Tom Wolfe couldn’t have invented them. They are. It’s a blast watching Ken Langone on camera. He’s having so much fun.

With Enron, coming from a book, you knew large portions of what you were going into, but with Client 9, did elements of it come to surprise you? Did it move in directions you didn’t expect? It sure did. I was working with my compadre from Enron, Peter Elkind, who had co-authored the Enron book. But even with Enron we discovered stuff that the book hadn’t covered, like the audio tapes of the Enron traders. But in this film in particular, I will give you one example: I thought the key character in the escort world was Ashley Dupre [whom a wiretap caught Spitzer arranging to meet], but it turns out she was rather a bit player, but there was a woman he’d spent a great deal of time with that nobody knew about. And I found her. I persuaded her to talk, even though I had to use a rather unusual device to give voice to her words [ie an actress playing her on camera]. But nevertheless that offered a completely new perspective on the story, both in terms of her relationship with Spitzer but also the light she was able to shed on the very unorthodox federal investigation.

Cecile Suwal, the 23-year-old CEO of escort agency Emperors Club VIP, seems like a very silly young woman. She’s fantastic, though. As a film-maker, what a character! That’s the thing about this film that I enjoyed. The characters are just so wild and larger than life. As a storyteller, I thought I was blessed. There’s a wonderful moment where she says: “When you’re sending a girl on a trip to Chicago for $30,000 overnight, it doesn’t necessarily feel like you’re running ‘prostitution’. It feels different. And so that’s where I think we got a little bit lost as far as the whole legality of the situation.” Because the sums of money were so large, it was just some kind of high-end dating service! I think that’s what they had convinced themselves they were doing. They even had contracts with the women where the women were explicitly told not to reveal anything about anything but meeting points because they thought they would get away with this because they were just introducing women to men. But, of course, everybody knew what they were supposed to be doing.

You can’t have been unaware of the parallels between that and both the political and financial worlds you were looking at in the film: the self-deception and public deception. That’s absolutely right. That’s a very important point. It’s that kind of wilful self-deception that’s so important in both prostitution and in the financial industry.

Even in all his contrition and shouldering of the blame, there’s still something unlikably sanctimonious about Spitzer. He’s awfully grating for “a good guy”. He is arrogant and he is full of himself. I caught him in a brief period where he was a little bit more vulnerable, but yes, at the beginning of the film in particular, he speaks of himself almost entirely in the third person and comes up with rather grand metaphors to analyse his conduct and his story. Icarus and so forth and so on. By the end of the film, he is talking a little bit more in the first person and is a little bit more contrite and I do believe it’s real contrition. But his character’s not going to change that much. He’s an arrogant guy. This [sex scandal and its consequences] may have shaped his character to some degree but I still think people don’t change overnight.

Do you think, talking to you at length like he did, he came to see himself more clearly? I don’t know. You’d have to ask him that. But there was a very amusing moment after a very long and difficult interview, where I was trying to probe into some of his personal behaviour, we finished and I called the end of the interview, and there was a pause, and he looked at me, and he said, “Okay, same time next week.”

Like you were his shrink. Exactly.

What do you think the future holds for him? It’s hard to know. I think he’s testing the waters to see whether or not the people of New York might accept him as mayor. He got rid of his initial co-host on CNN and his show there seems to be doing better. He’s a guy who’s deeply frustrated because he really wants to make an impact on social policy and he screwed it up for himself. So he’s trying to work out a way back and he’s not a patient man.

Are those same enemies that were so ready to talk to you still out there to get him if he does attempt a comeback? They are definitely still out there and no sooner did people announce that he might be exploring a run for mayor than [former madam] Kristin Davis, who’s shown in the film, that big bossomy blonde woman who’s very much a creature of [right-wing lobbyist and Republican strategist] Roger Stone, announced that if Spitzer ran for mayor she also would run for mayor.

For Freakonomics, there were six directors - how did the segments get divvied up? We just asked. The directors got their pick.

And you went for sumo. I did. I grew up partly in Japan. The chapter in Freakonomics actually looks at sumo and also teachers, but I excised the teachers. I was perfectly happy to spend my entire episode on sumo.

Tell us about the sumo world you look at. It’s corrupt. I’m interested in corruption and the process of corruption and the sumo world gave me an opportunity to look at how purity can be a mask for corruption. In other words, you have an organisation like sumo that seems to be the essence of the Japanese spirit. But because it is that essence it’s almost like an invitation to be corrupt. But when you have an organisation like that, how do you determine corruption? It was kind of a grand metaphor. Because in a sumo wrestling match it is almost impossible to tell if a match is fixed. You have two huge men beating each other up in a sandpit. If someone slips, was that a fall? Was it forced? It’s impossible to tell, really. So you have this wonderful detective work that was done by Steven Levitt and it’s very persuasive. And that for me was also a pretty good metaphor for the journalistic or law enforcement work that needs to be done to root out corruption. It gets back to what I was saying before: you can’t think of people as good people or bad people. You have to assume that sometimes perfectly nice people, perfectly good people, can and will be corrupt and you have to be prepared to accept that and to have the tools to look at it. Because it really does help combat corruption for people to look at that stuff. And you see it in the financial industry – that was another thing that interested me, which is why I put that analogy in the film – for [Ponzi scheme fraudster] Bernie Madoff and to some extent for other great titans, nobody was looking for corruption there, because there was an assumption that these people were above reproach. Well, there’s that old expression: trust but verify.

You say you’re interested in corruption. In Client 9, you look back to the early life of Spitzer to get a sense of how he became the character he is. What in your life has compelled you towards corruption as a subject and to make the kind of films you do? It’s hard for me to know. I’ve been asked that question before. My father was a journalist, my stepfather was a kind-of crusading human rights minister who became rather famous in the 60s and went on trial for conspiracy for presiding over the burning of draft cards. I think both those men, and to some extent also my mother, had an innate distrust of authority, so I guess what interests me is abuses of authority and I’ve become over time more interested in the perps than the victims. Of course, I care what happens to the victims, but in terms of the drama or the stories I tell I find [the perps] more interesting and ultimately more helpful in terms of preventing abuses in the future. Because if you understand why criminals do what they do then you have a better shot at stopping the crime in the future.

An Esquire journalist described you as having “the eye and air of a jaundiced reporter”. Would you take that as a compliment? I guess so. You have to hope that you don’t become so jaundiced that you don’t lose a sense of wonder. You always want to be able to be amazed by things. But over time you start to see patterns and that does make you a bit jaundiced. It’s why, in a way, I think it’s good to try to stretch, to experience other things. I’m doing a number of films now on sports and music and I find that very electrifying because you wear your heart on your sleeve a little bit more and you engage in some of the best that human beings have to offer rather than the worst. And also I’m looking more and more for heroes. All the films that I do I’m trying to look for people who try to do the right thing. There’s a wonderful woman in the Spitzer film – Spitzer’s a kind of anti-hero – that woman Noreen Harrington who exposed the mutual fund industry. There was a wonderful naivety about her because she just assumed everybody was working for the betterment of mankind and it turns out the very people she was working for were doing the very opposite. But she was determined then to expose them.

Documentaries are duking it out on the big screen now with fiction feature films. Do you have to pinch yourself sometimes that what you are doing is at the forefront of film culture and not just buried away on PBS? I’m just delighted about that. While documentaries often don’t make the big grosses, I think that in terms of storytelling they are some of the most adventurous and exciting storytelling going on in film now period. I started out as a fiction film editor, and I love fiction films, but I think by adopting a number of fiction film techniques, and by breaking out of the strict straitjacket of the old TV documentary rulebook, documentaries now have become explosive and vibrant and funny and anarchic. They are really a joy to watch. In that way, they are great movies, every bit as much as fiction films are. It recalls when I was going to college, when me and my mates would every night go to a different movie. Sometimes it would be a non-fiction film, sometimes it would be a fiction film. We didn’t draw these sharp distinctions. We just thought, “Wow, that was a good movie.”

Who were some of the film-makers that got you interested in cinema and influenced you, even if they weren’t documentary makers themselves? It’s hard to know. I remember one. There was a book published recently called The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on their Epiphanies in the Dark. I was one of the people there and the film that really turned me on and made me want to become a film-maker was an odd little film called The Exterminating Angel by a Spanish film-maker named Luis Bunuel. It just floored me. It was so inventive in terms of its narrative and its tone. And also very dark and funny, but very critical of the attitudes of the upper classes, in this case I believe it was Mexico, but in general. It was such a wonderfully freeing film for me. I thought, “Wow, you can have so much fun with film. You can tell a story that’s at once very funny, very dark, and it has a larger thematic perspective.” At the same time, I was watching films like Gimme Shelter by the Maysles brothers. And as a kid, I grew up just loving films like Lawrence of Arabia. So it’s pretty eclectic. To me, that’s a kind of key to my head as a film-maker: being able to embrace all sorts of disparate influences in ways you don’t always expect. There’s a scene in Taxi to the Dark Side, I don’t think anybody in the else would know it, but to me it was my homage to Sergio Leone.

Do you have a journalistic background as well as your film-making one? That was my dad’s background. I’ve written stuff as a freelance journalist, but I’ve never had proper training. I never worked as a staffer on any publication. But I did do investigative pieces on my own. And a fair amount of writing for various newspapers and magazines. I’m kind of a mixed bag: part journalist, part film-maker.

For an economics dunderhead like me, even with films like Enron and Client 9 I’m reeling at the complex financial shenanigans going on and trying to work them out. Are you a quick study for those kind of things or does it come hard for you to work them out, too? It comes hard for me. If I can finally figure it out, and usually it takes me quite a long time, then I hope that my audience can figure it out, too. Usually, though, the key is not focusing so much on the numbers, it’s really paying more attention to the people. Because at the end of the day it’s not about the numbers – the numbers you can read about – it’s about the human behaviour. So that’s what I focus on. But I do take it very seriously this task of trying to understand what happened. At the beginning of Enron, there’s a Tom Waits song, and he’s sort of saying aloud, “What’s he building in there? We have a right to know”, and that’s the theme for the whole movie, “What’s going on in here?” I figure if I can understand this stuff and express it then anybody can understand it. I’m not a super econ whiz.

You mentioned having started out in fiction film-making. Can you see yourself ever directing a fiction feature film? Yes, in fact, I’m developing one right now and I’m very excited about it. I can’t talk about it because I don’t want to jinx it. It focuses on some of the themes I’m interested in but it does so within a context of a thriller. It’s a true story.

Are you nervous about the prospect? You’ll be working with actors now, rather than real people. I’m not that nervous about that. I had fun in Client 9. Remember, while she’s playing a character who is in an interview situation, nevertheless [the actress I used] was not mimicking anybody. I couldn’t share with her the voice of the real person. I very much enjoyed that experience working with that actress to come up with a performance. And having edited and also produced fiction films, I’m not that nervous about it. I think the most important thing is to know what you want. And if you know what you want then you can get people to help you get there, whether they be actors, or whether they be cinematographers or editors. But figuring out what you want to say and to some extent how you want to say it, that’s [the thing]. And being open to the suggestions of others. Which, I think, is a great thing about documentary. There’s a kind of openness that I think gives certain documentarians an advantage. You see some of the documentarians who are now making fiction films – whether it be Scott Hicks or Paul Greengrass and others – and I think it gives them a leg up.

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks was just sitting there for someone like you. I’m deep into the story and I’m digging around. It’s a pretty fascinating story. It’s a very broad story and I think what I’m wrestling with now is exactly which aspect to take on. But I’m very excited about it.

Assange certainly has the Spitzer anti-hero factor. With extra bits on top. Definitely. Lots of extras bits.

CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER, SkyCity Theatre, Auckland, April 13; Paramount, Wellington, April 18 and 30; Rialto Cinemas, Dunedin, May 13 and 14. FREAKONOMICS, SkyCity Theatre, Auckland, April 15; Paramount, Wellington, April 23, 27 and 29; Rialto Cinemas, Dunedin, May 14 and 15. Details at the World Cinema Showcase website.
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