Alex Gibney – How to Make a Great Documentary – Empire

“On the face of it, the fall of Eliot Spitzer was just another sex scandal”, says director Alex Gibney at the start of his new film Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. The son of a prestigious New York Times reporter, Gibney confesses to having “journalistic baggage,” and each of his films – which include Taxi To The Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room – are stitched together with the rigour of good reportage. But he’s governed by a simple idea: “If you make films that are as entertaining as possible, you can say almost anything you want.”

Whether it’s the American military, the behemoths of corporate fraud, New York politics or Wikileaks (his next project), Gibney never bends his knee. Instead, he strips his subjects down to their constituent parts, getting both the central and the peripheral players in the room with him; ensuring there’s always more than one truth told.

Client 9 follows this mould. A sultry and slick movie that revels in the myths of America’s largest city, it follows the metronomic rise and disgraced fall of Spitzer, the former Governor of New York and self-proclaimed “Sheriff of Wall Street” who’s dramatic fall, after accusations of involvement in a prostitution ring, seemed to precipitate the financial crash. In relation to Spitzer, Gibney talks to Empire about the essential elements that constitute his movies.

How To Make A Great Documentary

Find the movers and shakers in the story
For the Oscar-winning Taxi the the Dark Side (2007), which traces the murder of an Afghanistan civilian in Bagram air base, Gibney found and interviewed the boy’s family in deepest Afghanistan before cross-cutting with interviews from the military interrogators who, under orders from on high, beat him to death.

In Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, he didn’t just talked to the commentariat but to the company’s executives, accountants and the traders that took 24 days to go from $65 billion assets to bankruptcy.

In Client 9, he finds ‘Angelica,’ one of the call girls Spitzer began to request when working as Governor. What her recollections reveal aren’t just salacious – she shows Spitzer to be as human, as frail and susceptible as the rest of us. Her recollections of the ‘Sheriff of Wall Street’ act as a corrective for Spitzer’s own mea culpa interviews with Gibney.

“Often important men – great men – tend to see themselves, whenever something happens, in grander terms,” Gibney says of Spitzer. “When the news broke, he was already referring to himself as Icarus. He does it again in the film. So Eliot Spitzer was defining himself as part of a Greek tragedy. He had already moved on and defined the scandal outside of himself. He hasn’t defined it from the inside out.

“But hearing what Angelica has to say, and talking to the people who ran the call girl company, meant that he wasn’t allowed that space to craft his own narrative. It provided a comparator, and what we end with is something very different.”
Use editing to achieve balance
“I get worried I’m getting played all the time,” Gibney says of his interviews with Assange, Spitzer, Enron Executives or American Military Interrogators, who will each bring their own agenda to the interviews. “That’s what the editing room is for.”

“With Taxi To The Dark Side, we had a cut of that film where I felt we’d gone way too far in terms of showing the soldiers as victims because, after all, these soldiers had collectively murdered this poor kid. And we went back in and put back some detail that was pretty damning in terms of how brutal they were, even after they knew that he was likely innocent. That was an important corrective. That was an important way of saying ‘you are not going to be treated as victims.’

“After the interviews with Spitzer we went back through and looked at some of his answers and thought we might have been played by him, so part of what we did was go through and get a bit tougher with some of the editorial choices.

“There’s a scene with his call girl recalling a conversation they had and laughing, and then we’d cut from that to a picture of Spitzer in black tie taking his wife out at night. That was a way of saying, ‘Let’s lot forget here, there was an element of high-hypocrisy going on.'”

How To Make A Great Documentary

Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Aim for objectivity
Gaining that elusive sense of balance remains paramount: “It is true there is no such thing as objectivity, but is it important to try to be fair? Of course,” he says. “It’s a pursuit, an aspiration, and nobody ever gets it right. But there’s a certain credit for trying to get it right.

“The law and order system is a morality play; it’s not really an attempt for the truth. That’s what good documentary film making or good journalism are for. It’s an attempt to search for the truth even while you know that nobody ever gets it perfect.”

Gibney is often accused of being a liberal polemicist, but he denies the charge: “I’ve found myself bristling because I’ve read over and over again Gibney’s thesis is that Spitzer was set up. That’s not my thesis. To me this film is more of an exploration. It raises a lot more questions than it does answers. But it’s not my thesis. If I had gone out to prove that he had been set up then I can tell you now, as one who understands polemics, I could have done a lot more convincing job.”
Recognise what a documentary can and cannot do
While the culture of documentaries has remained largely unchanged on television, Gibney’s career has coincided with the emergence of the feature documentary at the cinema. But, as his audience have become more informed, the doc as an idea in itself has become much more protean: “There’s a supposition that docs are supposed to do a certain thing, which is to act as proof of something or to act as an explainer device,” Gibney says. “But sometimes they provoke but they don’t fully explain.

“The audience are so much more aware these days. And that’s good, frankly. Let a million critics bloom. They can figure out whether someone has told a lie or been figuratively inaccurate, and that’s a good thing. I think audiences are a little bit more ahead than critics in terms of accepting the different vibe of the documentary: if it’s engaging, they’re into it without necessarily feeling that it has to serve some singular purpose.

“Now there are some docs that do do that, they’re very much calls to action. Inside Job, for example. At the end of that film the director is like ‘hang these fuckers.’ And that’s satisfying for viewers.

“But this was the year of the ultimate pseudo-documentary. Every so often that comes back around. Exit Through the Gift Shop, Catfish, I’m Still Here, is all that real or is it all just bullshit? I find that interesting, but I find it a dead end at times. That’s not a new idea, it’s been around a long time, and you can get to a point where you can say ‘I suppose it’s all fiction in some way,’ but, ultimately you have to ask yourself, ‘Did someone get stabbed or not get stabbed?'”

How To Make A Great Documentary

A scene from Gibney’s 2007 Oscar-winning documentary film, Taxi To The Dark Side

Let the camera do what only it can do
“There are a lot of people that look straight at the camera and lie in this film. But it’s not my style to self-aggrandise myself and pull them up on it. Because, within the context of juxtaposition, you can pretty much tell they’re lying from the way they look, and that’s what film does so well.

“It’s not about asking ‘Is this the truth or is it a lie?’ There’s something more mysterious than that, because sometimes people are good at lying because they’ve convinced themselves they are not lying. If you look at the answers on a transcript, as I did, you would weep and think ‘Oh god, there’s nothing going on here.’ But in fact there’s a lot going on, and you can see it.

“Spitzer was more than happy to talk about the political economy, and on this subject he is so voluble, so articulate. But when I ask Spitzer, ‘So why did you use hookers?’ he seizes up. When he’s talking about this stuff, he’s nervous, he’s halting, he’s inarticulate. Spitzer chooses his words carefully. He frames his answers carefully, but there’s a humanism about film; you can see what’s going on behind the mask.

“You can see it in his eyes, you can see it in his discomfort, you can see it in the way he winces sometimes, in the halting way he talks in comparison to the way he talks about the halcyon days of his crusading efforts as the Attorney General. I wanted to embrace those contradictions.”

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