2-17: "The Documentarian" - Alex Gibney

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"The Documentarian"

From the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, which tells the story of an Afghanistan taxi driver who was tortured and killed at Bagram Air Force Base in 2002. To the Emmy Award-winning Going Clear which looks closely at the world of Scientology. To We Steal Secrets - the story of Wiki leaks. As Alex Gibney describes it, he’s drawn to stories that reveal abuses of power.

He’s been called the most important documentarian of our time by Esquire Magazine. 

I assumed, as I sat down with Alex, that this was a man of strong beliefs, determined to tell stories that right what he saw as wrongs.

But his story and his view of the world is much more complex than that.

So this episode is called, “The Documentarian”.


Three Takeaways

  • Find the story

  • Accept the reality of risk

  • Look at every side before you decide


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-17: "The Documentarian" - Alex Gibney

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless’.

Creativity is an awe-inspiring force. In the right hands, it can be world-changing.

On the day I recorded this episode, the truth of this thought was brought home to me not once, but twice.

In the evening, Chris and I went to see Elton John in concert at MSG. 71 years old. Half a century of hit songs. Whether you like his music or not, and I do, he is a force of nature. That night, he moved 20,000 people to laugh and cry and sing together. His Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour lasts until December of 2020. Most of the nights are sold out.

As of today, Elton John’s AIDS foundation has raised over $400 million and massively advanced both our understanding and treatment of this pandemic. 

AIDS and HIV used to be a death sentence. My wife’s best friend - Bill Rizzo - was killed by AIDS.  Today, more than 36 million people are living with AIDS. A million will die. But 35 million will not and every year the percentage of people who survive continues to go up.

On the day of the concert came a story that a second person has been cured of AIDS. It’s too soon to tell if this means AIDS will become widely curable. But as I watched images of Elton John’s work with AIDS victims come up on the screen, and listened to him sing ‘Your Song’,  the power of creativity to help change the world seemed pretty obvious to me. 

I said that was the second time on that day that the same thought had shown up.

The first time was when I walked into the offices of Jigsaw Pictures to meet Alex Gibney. Waiting in reception, I looked at the wall full of posters for his documentaries. 

From the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, which tells the story of an Afghanistan taxi driver who was tortured and killed at Bagram Air Force Base in 2002. To the Emmy Award-winning Going Clear which looks closely at the world of Scientology. To We Steal Secrets - the story of Wiki leaks. As Alex describes it, he’s drawn to stories that reveal abuses of power.

He’s been called the most important documentarian of our time by Esquire Magazine. 

One of the posters hanging on the was is for his film Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God - the story of four deaf men who as boys were abused by a Catholic priest - Lawrence Murphy at St. John School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. The film investigates the abuse, and the cover-up, which spread from Milwaukee all the way to the Vatican.

The film premiered in September 2012. 

On February 28th, 2013, Pope Benedict 16th resigned - the first Pope to do so in 600 years. No one has ever admitted a straight line connection and you can draw your own conclusions, but as stories of Catholic priest abuse continue to show up in our news feed and finally we start to see some of these men being named and removed from their positions of power, it seems obvious to me of the cornerstone that the film provides in the movement to expose the damage and destruction imposed on so many lives over so many years.

I assumed, as I sat down with Alex, that this was a man of strong beliefs, determined to tell stories that right what he saw as wrongs.

But his story and his view of the world is much more complex than that.

So this episode is called, “The Documentarian”.

“I had parents who divorced at a very early age. I think I had a lot of anger from that. But both because my mother who's a very volatile person, could be sometimes very cruel, and sometimes extraordinarily loving, I think I learned to see how people could be more than one thing. They could be both good and bad.”

I thought hard about calling this episode ‘The Devil’s Advocate’. In the end, I decided against it because it was open to misinterpretation.  As you’ll hear, Alex looks at multiple points of view before he crafts the story he wants to tell. In his words, "I always have a point view. The trick is showing how hard it is to come to that point of view." 

Leadership is a lot about vision and knowing where you’re headed. It’s about taking people on that journey and convincing them of the importance of the quest.

But before you do that - and especially as you’re in the process of doing that - if you want to be a great leader, you have to fight like crazy to keep doing one thing. 

Search for the other side of the story. Challenge your own assumptions about where you’re going and the evidence you’re using to convince yourself.

The other side of the story gives you a mirror. Into what matters to you.

Only when you know that, can you bring about change. 

Here’s Alex Gibney.

Charles:

Alex, welcome to Fearless. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Alex Gibney:

Delighted.

Charles:

Let me start with this question. What's your relationship with fear?

Alex Gibney:

That's a good question. On the one hand, I feel like I have a high tolerance for fear. But I also feel that fear has been a motivator for me over the years. So it's definitely someone who's always lurking in the corner of the room. But not somebody that forces me to change my life.

Charles:

What's your first memory of something being creative? Where do you look back to your childhood? When did creativity first show up as a thing for you?

Alex Gibney:

That's also a hard question to answer. I think that in some ways, the earliest part of creativity for me, was writing. I was a terrible visual artist, embarrassingly bad, which is ironic, since I'm now a filmmaker. But both my parents were writers. And so, I think early on, whether in emulation or not, I focused a lot of energy in that area. And probably my early creative forays were in writing.

Charles:

What kind of writing?

Alex Gibney:

Well, I took rather unconventional approaches to various assignments. I remember much actually to the chagrin of my teachers, it was not well received, I would say. How the blue jays left our yard. That was the assignment, which was supposed to be, I imagine, a cute assignment about how birds decided to disperse. In my hands, it became a story about a Jewish family that wanted to emigrate to Israel, and they weren't going to leave our yard until somebody paid for them to get back. And it was a very elaborate story. My teacher was not amused. And felt that I had done a grievous harm.

And I remember also, I had to write a story about getting from one part of a building to another part of a building. It was an assignment that was designed to train you in descriptive writing. And to get from one place to another in these particular buildings meant going through a lot of double doors. And so I wrote the piece, and said, "And then I dropped double dead in the principal's office." And then the comment on the paper was, "How could you ruin such a good paper with such a bad ending?" I thought, "Dude. Come on. Chill out." But that was not ... So my attempts at creativity were not well received in the rather rigid environment I happened to find myself in.

Charles:

But you were always drawn to tell the story, to find a story, in every situation.

Alex Gibney:

Yeah, I was always drawn to both reading stories and telling stories. And I think that that was something that was a motivator for me. And as I got more and more into film making, I understood how to make up for my weaknesses by hiring people who could do things that I couldn't. But at the same time, what I always seemed to have was an ability to tell a pretty good story.

Charles:

How did you get into filmmaking?

Alex Gibney:

I got the bug in college. And I started to see films, and it was such as exciting moment. This would have been the mid 70's, mid to late 70's. And this was a time when it was not too long after the French New Wave, there was the bad, young kids of Hollywood, Martin Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma, and those people. And then there was a wild, new group of films that were being made by documentarians, the so-called cinema verite, a direct cinema varit- documentarians like Ricky Leacock, and D.A. Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers. And I remember seeing two films in particular in college, one was Gimme Shelter by the Maysles brothers, which just knocked me out. It was a verite film. It was half performance film, half fly on the wall observational film, but it was cut and put together like a murder mystery. The one person who doesn't get enough credit is Charlotte Zwerin, who was the editor on that film.

The other film I saw that really knocked my socks off was a film by Luis Bunuel, a letter from him is on my office wall. He did a film called Exterminating Angel. And it's all about the thin veneer of civility that barely restrains our animal impulses. And that becomes apparent in this film, in which a very tony group of bourgeoisie decides to have a dinner party. And mysteriously, the servants all start to disappear, and as ... The rich people are very abusive to their servants. But as the evening progresses, all the servants have now completely disappeared, and for some reason, all the attendees of the dinner party can't leave the room. But they don't know why.

And as things progress, it gets worse and worse and worse. Attempted murder, fucking in the closet, screaming, butchery, chaos ensues until finally, mysteriously, they can leave. And then they have to confront the sort of savagery that they've acted with. So this veneer of civilization. But it's done in a way that was very dark but also very funny.

Charles:

So the thin veneer of civility sounds like it could be the title of your biography. I mean, it's a bit-

Alex Gibney:

Yeah, right.

Charles:

... it sounds like a lens that you look at the world through. What has drawn you to the kind of stories that you like telling?

Alex Gibney:

Well, I seem to be drawn to abuses of power. Or stories about abuses of power. That seems to turn my crank in terms of the outraged leader on my brain. But I think there's also another aspect to it that I find fascinating, which is ... and over the last, particularly five years, but maybe more than that, I realized I've become a kind of obsessed with this idea of noble cause corruption. How people who sometimes have a noble cause will become corrupt in pursuit of that cause, until it corrupts them absolutely. And I think that ... I had parents who divorced at a very early age. I think I had a lot of anger from that. But both because my mother who's a very volatile person, could be sometimes very cruel, and sometimes extraordinarily loving, I think I learned to see how people could be more than one thing. They could be both good and bad.

Likewise, I think in seeing the relationship between my mother and father, I could see that the love that they showered on me, and the cruelty they practiced on each other. And in later days, I didn't spend that much time with my father, but in looking back at correspondence about his life, I see some of the crueler aspects of what it is that he did. And so it's understanding this kind of complicated, I don't even want to say dual nature, but this complicated nature that we all have.

And I think we have a tendency even though I'm stung by outrage, and want to say what the Catholic church is doing in terms of covering up pedophile priests is outrageous and we should be angry, I also kind of want to understand that from the inside out, in a way that doesn't become too easy. Because it becomes a kind of a ... We're all so prone to seeing things in black and white, which lets us all off the hook, and allows us to believe in a world of bad apples instead of rotten barrels. And I'm a big believer in the rotten barrel. If you have a rotten barrel, all of the apples are going to get rotten.

Charles:

Are you looking for certain kinds of stories? How do you decide which stories you are going to focus on these days?

Alex Gibney:

Look, sometimes they come to me, sometimes they're brought to me, and sometimes I pursue them. It usually has to have a combination of psychological, and sociological, and moral conflict for me to be interested. But also it has to have characters who are kind of dynamic enough to make, and or situations that are dynamic enough to make it worthwhile telling in a film. A lot of people come to me with issue films. "Why don't you do a film on this issue or that issue?" And that might make a good film if you can find a good story. But again, back to this whole idea of the story, but it might make a terrible film, and it might make a better magazine article or PowerPoint presentation, or political campaign.

Because I don't really see my films as political films per se, in terms of being by and large, in terms of being vested in the democratic party or the republican party. There are more moral issue films, I think. And if there's something that I see that gets at the core of a kind of moral dilemma or problem, that's where I generally seem to go. Though, I should say, and this is something I learned in process, you need to have balance in your life. And when I was doing a film called Taxi to the Dark Side, which was all about the U.S. policy of torture in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it was a very dark time, and it began to affect my psyche, in a way that was quite damaging.

And at the same time, for reasons that were not necessarily within my control, I found myself in the cutting room, simultaneously with a film called Gonzo, about Hunter S. Thompson, which had its own dark side, but nevertheless was full of humor. And that proved to be a real tonic, a real balance for me. So I've tried over time to take on films that are about sports, or about music, or other activities that give you some hope.

Charles:

So you find you actually have to create your own portfolio, essentially, just-

Alex Gibney:

I do.

Charles:

... from an emotional standpoint as much as anything else.

Alex Gibney:

Yes, I do. I do.

Charles:

And as a story shows up, have you started to recognize that you're looking for kind of a feeling yourself in how this story speaks to you? Is there an emotional component to it for you?

Alex Gibney:

I think the story has to be complicated and engaging enough for me to be willing and able to spend a significant amount of time on it.

Charles:

So you have to figure it out.

Alex Gibney:

Yeah. These are stories I often have to figure out in process. If it's obvious on the face of it, then what's the point? Then you're just painting by the numbers.

Charles:

And are you trying to ... When you engage with a story, are you thinking about the outcome you wanted to provide? Are you thinking about the impact that you want the audience to feel?

Alex Gibney:

Well, that's how I started. Very much in that vein. Like, here's the story, I think I know how to tell it, this is how we tell it, these are the characters, and we have the following interviews. It seems like it's going to go according to this plan. Let's execute the plan. That made for some really shitty films, because if you are not willing to explore, and if you're not willing to take diverting paths when you're blocked in one way or another, or to open yourself up to a sense of discovery, then you're going to make films that feel kind of routinized and uninteresting. So over time I learned that you have a plan. But that's your initial map that somebody suggested might work. It's like being an explorer, and somebody says, "Don't worry, there's a new world over there, someplace." But you have to kind of make your way there, and that could take you someplace entirely different.

Charles:

Did you ever get somewhere down the path and realize the story isn't worth telling?

Alex Gibney:

That hasn't happened to me so far.

Charles:

So you're always prepared to find there's another angle to this, somewhere.

Alex Gibney:

Yeah.

Charles:

There's a thing here, somewhere, that I'm going to get to.

Alex Gibney:

Yes, generally speaking, that is what happens.

Charles:

Are there stories that you haven't told yet that you want to tell?

Alex Gibney:

Yeah. I'm sure there are a lot of them. I just haven't thought of them yet. There is a story to be told, I think, about reckoning with my relationship with my parents and my stepfather. As everyone must do with their parents, and not because I'm special, just because I think that I've become able to look honestly at their lives, and my relationship to them in a way that I didn't think was really possible. I kind of miss them not being here, because there are a lot of questions I would have liked to have asked them. But I think I didn't really even learn to ask the right questions until they died. So that process of going back, and trying to rediscover, would be I think very interesting.

But there's a lot of other stories, I'm sure I'll be fascinated in. That's just ... You live in a world where there's a lot of injustice, there's a lot of abuse, and so I'll always be interested in those stories, I think. But I'm becoming increasingly interested in human psychology.

Charles:

Perfect segue, actually. And some of the stories that you get involved with are obviously controversial. Mea Maxima Culpa was an extraordinary film that seemed to have had a pretty direct impact on the Catholic church. Certainly from my perspective, it seemed like a pretty straight line between that film and the sudden resignation of the Pope. Does fear play a role in that for you? Do you get involved in certain things and feel, "Wow, there's risk to this. I'm nervous about this."

Alex Gibney:

I feel like I'm pretty calculating about risk. Nobody wants to be foolhardy in terms of taking risks that are going to get you killed. And I remember thinking about that when I went by myself without really any organization or backup, to Afghanistan. But I think I did so in a way that was sensible. I think that if you understand that there is a power in saying things openly that gives you a certain kind of protection, that you should be willing to take the brick baths that may follow, knowing that you can both live with yourself and be confident in what you've done in terms of trying to make a difference and also know that ... And that's what really helps to extinguish the fear. Fuck it. This has to be done. This story has to be told. And then in a more calculating way, I think you learn that films like that give you a platform. And that gives you a certain amount of power as well, even though not as much power as the institutions that I have crossed swords with.

Charles:

Do you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night and worrying about that stuff?

Alex Gibney:

No, the only thing I wake up in the middle of the night or … used to wake up in the middle of the night and worry about it. And this seems odd to me, but there was a long time when I was scuffling in my career. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and wonder how the hell am I going to ever send my kids to college? Am I ever going to get a job? How is it going to work out tomorrow? What are the phone calls I have to make in order to be able to put food on the table?

My wife will tell you that she was worried a lot about that too. Weirdly, taking on the Catholic church didn't seem like such a big deal compared to that. What I remember of fear is standing on the sidelines of my son or my daughter's little league game waiting for the phone to ring so that I might be able to get a gig so that I can pay next month's rent. That's the fear that I remember. I was born in privilege. My parents were both relatively well off, and I'm sure if I needed a loan I could have gotten one from them.

That experience really did attune me to the kind of fear and desperation that people have when they've got nothing.

Charles:

I'm really struck by this. When I interviewed Mark Thompson, he talked about the instinct that journalists have, reporters have, to run towards the gunfire. You clearly have that. It seems to me you have that. Maybe beyond that you're actually looking for the gunfire. You're actually trying to find the places of conflict through the lenses you describe that tell interesting stories. Where do you think that instinct comes from or that willingness? Because taking on the Catholic church, taking on Scientology, to your point, these are large, powerful institutions. Most of us, I think don't have the wherewithal to say I'm going to put my head deep into that and rip the bandaid off and expose it to the rest of the world. Where do you think that comes from for you?

Alex Gibney:

Both my parents I think were pretty forceful and also fearless in their own ways. My mother had to make her way. My mother had a bout with mental illness. Then when she was divorced from my dad, she had to make her own way in the world, make a career, and figure out a way of doing things. But she did it in a way that was quite unconventional and powerful. To give you an example, which is not a big broad example, but it's a funny example. When she had a boa constrictor as a pet, she often had to host, she was director of health education at Children's Hospital in Boston. She often had to host as a matter of course people who were boring. There was one night, she had to bring back a group of men, she was rare in terms of a female administrator at the time. A group of men who were absolutely crashing bores back to the house. She was trying to figure out how to end the evening.

She decided to creep up to my room, took the boa constrictor out of its cage, wrapped it around her neck and came down. Now, the boa likes to be around a human being's neck. It's not going to crush you. It just likes to hang there. It likes the warmth and everything else. What the boa will do is stick its neck out and its head and angle for vision right in front of you. She just walked in like nothing had happened, and whenever the boa's head got in her line of vision while she was talking to somebody, she’d just stick her hand and wave it out of the way. Those people disappeared in about five minutes.

I gave her a lot of credit. My dad was a classic example. He was a journalist. It's said that a career path to success is to suck up and kick down. My dad was a classic example of somebody who sucked down and kicked up. He was routinely fired from a number of jobs at Time, Life, and Newsweek. Finally, was able to keep a job for a long period of time at Encyclopedia Britannica.

I think they were both forceful, and in their own way not conventional and willing to go along just for the sake of going along, and I think that gave me two pretty good examples of how to push forward.

Charles:

You clearly have a point of view. I read somewhere, tell me whether this was accurately quoted, that you said "films can't be objective." Was that true?

Alex Gibney:

I think that's true. I think we all have a point of view, and pretending that we don't I think is phony and bullshit. Though I think what I usually follow that up with is to say, I follow the lights of somebody I admire named Marcel Ophuls, who did a film called The Sorrow and the Pity. He used to say, "I always have a point view. The trick is showing how hard it is to come to that point of view."

Charles:

It's evidence-based in other words.

Alex Gibney:

Yeah, it's evidence-based, but I think you also need to practice a kind of cognitive empathy. Put yourself in the seat of somebody else to see how it might feel from that perspective. Which is a practice that I've learned better over time. Yes, it has to be evidence-based, but you have to permit a certain amount of perspective shifting. Or else I don't think you get it right. Things are too simple.

Charles:

Are you still able to do that even in the toughest films you're making where the stories seem to be so, from my perspective, black and white?

Alex Gibney:

It's black and white if you think pedophile priest, good or bad? Thumbs up or thumbs down? That's not very complicated. But in terms of how things like that happen and investigating the complicated behavior of how it is that somebody's a deaf survivor who's been abused by a deaf priest would then go back and allow themselves to work for the same deaf ... sorry, he was a speaking priest, for the same priest, who was an expert signer, who had abused him. Getting into that understanding of human behavior is difficult.

Even in that film, my interview with a guy named Rembert Weakland, who was a very controversial figure in the church. He knew my stepfather who was sort of a crusading Protestant minister. He was drummed out of his position in a sex scandal. He was a complicated figure, and I was attacked by a survivors group for being too sympathetic to him. There is certainly rage in that film. I felt in the reading of my narration that I was even-handed. Anne Thompson, my friend who is a critic said, "No, you sound angry throughout." There was reason to be angry.

What I'm saying is, you try to never forget the humanity of the characters about whom you're speaking.

Charles:

What made you decide you wanted to build a business, because obviously you could have done this without [crosstalk].

Alex Gibney:

I faced that conundrum really about five, six years ago. It was a choice, a very conscious choice I had to make, which was to just keep making movies as a director, and make them often enough so that I could afford an assistant and a part-time bookkeeper. That was my business model. Keep the assistant and bookkeeper working model. Very low EBITA. Zero, usually.

Or, build a business in which you use your fleeting fame to engineer other projects that don't necessarily have that much to do with you, and to be able to build a larger infrastructure to tell more stories. And also bring along a new generation of filmmakers that's all about the future. You think about what kind of legacy you want to leave in this place, that seemed a much more powerful legacy to leave.

In addition, when you make difficult films that challenge people, sometimes you can find yourself in a position where if you don't get hired for this next film you're in a boatload of trouble. Then you either have to make compromises or take jobs that you don't want. Or the next thing you know you're working for the people you should be investigating. I never wanted to be in that position, so I felt it also gave me a certain amount of power to be able to say the kind of things I wanted to say.

And thinking about a business, it's always been an uneasy relationship, because I never wanted to go the grant route. Early on I saw the political danger of that. There was a film I did with my dad, as it happened, called the Pacific Century. There was a lot of grant money involved, but it came with very disquieting political compromises that were demanded. Either by academics who insist that you say it their way or they denounce you; or by people who work for political administrations that didn't want you putting in stuff that would compromise their policies.

I learned then through a film called The Trials of Henry Kissinger, which nobody in this country would fund but the BBC would, that it had a very profitable and long life in theaters. It did in part because people were hungry for something about Kissinger, but also because it was entertaining enough. It made me realize if you can make a film that's entertaining, you can say just about anything you want. That was a powerful notion. As critical as I am of capitalism, I am a big fan of the idea that making a product that appeals to people can be a powerful mechanism.

Charles:

Are you conscious of entertaining?

Alex Gibney:

Yeah. Good storytelling I think is entertaining. I think that's part of what a good storyteller is to entertain. But when I say entertain it has to be organic, but I think all the great storytellers were entertainers in some way, shape, or form.

Charles:

I think that's very true. You talked about your legacy. How would you describe that? What would you like your legacy to be at this point, both in terms of a filmmaker and a company builder.

Alex Gibney:

I'd like it to be that he was willing to gore sacred cows, to stand up to the powerful. The old saw, the comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But also to give people who otherwise wouldn't have a shot, a shot at doing something that would end up eclipsing my own reputation. That seems to me is the greatest thing you can do. That's the ultimate example of paying it forward. To invest in people who are better than you and thereby make a really powerful contribution.

Charles:

As you build this business, what have you learned about the characteristics of those people? Who are you looking for?

Alex Gibney:

You look for people who are self-motivated. I don't really like to manage by coming up with a set of rules and say, "This is how we're going to operate." Inevitably I have help in terms of accounting rules and legal rules and human resource guidelines. When you achieve a certain size you have to put those things in place. I tend to look for people who are self-motivated and who know when to ask for help but only after they've tried to solve problems themselves. The one thing that makes me ... The person I look for is the person who doesn't curate problems, but sees a problem, figures out a solution, then comes to you and says, "This is what I think we should do. What do you think?" That's the kind person I look for because that person's taking responsibility.

Charles:

How do you balance the call of the artist, which you clearly are, with the call of the leader?

Alex Gibney:

That is the biggest and hardest challenge because, really they're in conflict. They're in conflict because when you're making a film you should have tunnel vision. But when you're a leader, or when you're a manager of many projects, you need to have peripheral vision, and both be able to make the decisions that helped engineer how things will go. You have to be focused on a lot of different directions all at the same time. The only way to make that work is to try to be disciplined and let the team around you know that there are times when you won't be available to be a manager or a leader because you have to hyper focus on your project for a period of time.

That is the biggest problem. Probably I'll get to a point where I hope ... Let me put that a different way. I would hope I'd get to a point where the company no longer needs me much, except for the occasional bit of advice, and I would go back in my dotage while I wheel around on a walker and drool spittle on my t-shirt to make films the way I want to make them. Maybe with an iPhone and an iPad, and the company would more or less run by itself.

But in this transitional period it's very difficult.

Charles:

Are you consciously building a business that allows you that kind of freedom ultimately? Is that a specific goal?

Alex Gibney:

That's a goal. The goal is for Jigsaw Productions not to be the Alex Gibney company, for Jigsaw Productions to be a home for creativity but that has enough business rigor to be able to be a comfortable home and haven. It was not lost on me that in some of my biggest battles, notable the Church of Scientology, I had hugely powerful allies, notably HBO in that regard, and a litigation department that was fearsome and dedicated to telling the truth. I hope that I can build a company that has that reputation for both fiscal discipline, journalistic rigor, and fearlessness, but with a sense of how to manage those risks so that they're not dumb risks. So that that offers a kind of home for people who are looking to push the envelope.

Charles:

And how do you communicate that, which is really artfully designed internally here? Is that a message, a specific message that you -

Alex Gibney:

Yeah. As some of the key executives here will tell you, I have an appetite for risk, particularly editorial risk, and sometimes litigation risk that other people may not have. But I do so within a context of day-to-day stability. So that you can withstand that and know what kind of risks you're taking. I would hope to that over time that we would get involved in films that would take unpopular stances. Just because it's important to say certain things. I think and I hope that we imbue that philosophy. I think the tension is always, when you have a company you set up systems. And making films is artistic endeavor that sometimes chaffs against rigid systems. The challenge, which is an ongoing challenge, is to try to be as flexible as possible while still obtaining a certain amount of rigor.

Charles:

To your point, the challenge of running a creative business is this endless tension between creativity and commerce. And to your point, the other element that you add, by virtue of who you are and what you do, is this element of risk and this appetite for risk in a more pronounced way. Do you look for certain kinds of people who are drawn to, or at least unafraid of, that kind of dynamic in a business? Because most people walk into a situation like that and kind of start to shut down. Do you find you're looking for different kinds of characters?

Alex Gibney:

I think you have to look for different kinds of characters, or I should say be accepting of different kinds of characters. There's some directors who have zero capability when it comes to managing a budget or being responsible, even, about a budget. And sometimes you like that in a director. Sometimes I find I'm too easy to make compromises, artistically, because I see things too easily from the producer's perspective. It can be very valuable to have a director who doesn't give a shit about that because they push you in a direction that may be far more interesting, artistically.

That said, over time I know that you can get a lot of artistic freedom by persuading financiers that you're not going to waste their money. So I think, in terms of looking for people, you're always ... It's the ability try to create a situation that's flexible enough so that you're not being rigid about the kind of person that you're looking for. In terms of an administrator, you need administrator that is focused on good systems, but is willing to be flexible.

Charles:

To that point, you wear a lot of different hats, right? Director, producer, company owner, storyteller, obvious sometimes.

Alex Gibney:

Right, right. Yeah, writer.

Charles:

Writer, exactly. Are you conscious, salesman, are you conscious of the role that you're playing in the given moment?

Alex Gibney:

Yeah, I am. Like, the one thing you said "salesman," last. The one thing I ... I'm a pretty shy guy who has been forced into playing a more public role. And I never ever thought of myself as a salesman. But I realize, over time, when you practice things you get good at them. And I think I'm pretty good at being able to know when I can sell a story. And then, when I get into a room, how to sell it in a way that's compelling.

But I would not say that ... I would say that was the opposite of my innate skill. It was something that I had to develop over time.

Charles:

Which of those roles are you most drawn to?

Alex Gibney:

Of all those various roles? I mean, I think the role that I like to play most easily, and it's been really fun to do it on Dirty Money, is to be a kind of editor. Now, I was trained as a feature film editor. I'm talking about a ... Literally putting pieces of celluloid together on an upright Moviola. But an editor, in the broadest sense, is not only somebody who's putting shots together, but somebody who, in the documentary world, is putting a story together. And understanding what the weaknesses and strengths of a story are.

And so in story conferences, I feel like I'm pretty good at zeroing in at what the strengths and the weaknesses of a story are. And so, the role I can play in terms of managing a bunch of different projects is to look at stories and assess, pretty quickly, what I think is good, and what I think is bad, and how it might be fixed.

Charles:

Do you think film is the best medium for storytelling? What drew you to film?

Alex Gibney:

I don't think it's a ... I think that's the wrong question to ask. I think when you're a filmmaker, you commit to that medium, and then look for the stories that best suit that medium.

Charles:

What drew you to film as the medium?

Alex Gibney:

Like I said, I think I got the bug. I got a certain excitement from watching films that exploded my father's desire, that I follow in the family business. Which is to be an ink-stained wretch in some journalistic organization. I still like writing, I'm still a huge fan of journalists and investigative journalism. A lot of what we do follows that mold.

But the power of images, and the ability, at their best, to be able to communicate a kind of ineffable power and ambiguity that simply can't be described in words. And if it could be, why would you make a film about it?

Charles:

Now, how is technology changing filmmaking? And the kinds of stories that you can tell and want to tell?

Alex Gibney:

So, I'll answer that question. But there's one thing I wanted to say, which relates to a question that you had asked a little bit before. Which is, in terms of the business model, I would say that there's something about this business model, which also has a certain rigor, but is not necessarily ... It's a tension that I think advanced ... 21st century capitalism really hasn't taken hold of. Which is, this company, looked at with a cold economic eye, could be making a much better profit margin. If we just cheated the product more. Right?

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alex Gibney:

Instead of trying to do your best, go for the bronze. And that way you have higher margins and bigger profits. I find that a detestable idea. I think making a profit is important because it allows you a certain amount of protection when times get rough. But the idea that you would put making a profit above making a good movie just seems wrong. And you see that in so many businesses, where the pressure is to make more and more outsize profits, year after year, to drive the stock price up more and more. You can see it in the help call lines, where it becomes progressively harder to reach a human being. And the help call lines are designed not to help you, but to frustrate you so that you hang up and you allow them to charge you that $15 fee that you shouldn't have had to pay. Because it's a profit mechanism, right?

And the product gets tinnier and weaker, it's all ... And that's supposed to be good business. I think that's terrible business. Fuck that! Anyway, back to your question.

Charles:

So, just finish that point though. So you have, it sounds like, you have, essentially, a standard for the way a film is supposed to feel and behave at the end of the process. That it requires a certain amount of investment.

Alex Gibney:

Yeah, and a lot of time. It's like barbecue. You can't do good barbecue in five minutes. That pig has got to be roasted over low coals for a number of hours. And so, it's hard making the films that we make. They're complicated, they're not simple stories. It's not ... We're looking for some that would help keep the lights on without as much effort. But look at what Blair Foster did on Clinton Affair. And Blair is an alumnae of the Jigsaw system. She came on board as a co-producer on Taxi To The Dark Side, and now is a very powerful director.

That's a hugely complicated story that she managed to tell without any narration, and with a very powerful, emotional heart and a very smart head. But it took a lot of work. It's not easy.

Charles:

How often do you get to the end and feel like, "We got it. We got the way that I wanted telling."

Alex Gibney:

We usually feel ... I mean, if you talk about fear, it's maybe not fear as much as anxiety. But the anxiety doesn't disappear until you get to a place where you feel like, "Whoa, okay, this is cooking now." Because you don't ever want to be in a position where you say, "Let's settle. It's good enough."

Charles:

Do you ever do that?

Alex Gibney:

No, I don't think so. Now, people may disagree. They may think that film sucks, but it's not for want of trying. And by the way, I wouldn't say that any film is "perfect." That's the other thing. I've run into directors, and had them in the shop, for whom perfect was the enemy of the good. Meaning that you may never get it perfect, but it's going to be good. And maybe you do a better job the next time around, that's when you make more than one film. There's no "perfect."

But settling is just a way of saying that you're going to go for the bronze.

Charles:

How many of your films do you look back on and think that-

Alex Gibney:

You may get the bronze, or you may not even get on the podium.

Charles:

But that's somebody else's judgment.

Alex Gibney:

But not because you meant to.

Charles:

Right. How many of your films do you look back and say, "Those are good films."?

Alex Gibney:

I think the feature docs that I've done, there's a good eight of them that are good films, I think. And I look back and think, "Yes, that was a good movie and it holds up." Sometimes they hold up better over time. Sometimes worse.

Charles:

So just quickly, has technology changed the kinds of stories that you can tell, or want to tell?

Alex Gibney:

Look, I think it just made it easier. Editing now is so much easier, and the ability to radically change the structure of the story in minutes, it's fantastic. And also the cameras. While I love film, I love the idea of silver halide crystals and I love grain, what you're able to do now in the digital universe, and how you're able to maintain that consistency over many projections ... You know, I used to be a projectionist. And after two runs through the projector, the print looked like shit.

So it's enabled you to tell them very cheaply at times, but also, now, to do them with a kind of stylistic ambition and rigor that I never thought possible. This last film I did, The Inventor, we re-created her machine with 3D animation. From scratch. That's a documentary. Same thing we did in Zero Days with being able to morph the face of an actor in a way that you could literally manipulate the morphs in the cutting room. In a way that served the story, but was a very complex piece of technology. That's becoming hugely advantageous to storytelling.

Charles:

So have you had to expand the way you think about telling your story as a result?

Alex Gibney:

Yeah, you definitely do. And I think that the biggest challenge, particularly as you get older, is to try to maintain that sense of flexibility. Not only to maintain curiosity, but to maintain flexibility. Because it's, and I see it as I look back, I fall into ruts, but you push yourself in ways to do things that you haven't done before. That's the exciting part.

Charles:

I could imagine that.

Alex Gibney:

I'd like to make a film now ... You know, Soderbergh has been experimenting a lot with very flexible forms of production. Maybe next documentary out will just be an iPhone and a MacBook. That would be fun.

Charles:

How do you lead?

Alex Gibney:

I lead by example. And that may be a good thing or a bad thing. But I lead by example. I take a lot of responsibility and measured risk. And I'm a self-motivator. So I think people see that, and I hope ... I'm not a big person to say, "You should do this," or, "You should do that." It's more like, "Watch me work."

Charles:

What are you afraid of today?

Alex Gibney:

I guess, I would say there's three things. Obviously, we're in the process of destroying the planet, and we've created a level of incommuniquality that is hugely destabilizing. But the biggest problem at the moment, I think ... Not the biggest, but a huge problem at the moment, which we haven't really reckoned with, is the way that the biggest flaws of the human brain are being exacerbated by technology run amok. And I'm referring now to Facebook and Google, things which in some ways are wonderful connectors and networkers.

But which are amplifying irrational and tribal behaviors in ways that are truly destabilizing because we're not even aware of the fact that we're prisoners of our own beliefs. And unless we get that right and understand, have a sense of perspective about our own infallibility, we're in a lot of trouble.

Charles:

Yeah, well said. I wrap every episode with three themes that I've heard, that I think contribute to your ability to honor creativity in yourself in others, so let me throw those at you and you can tell me what you think.

First, obviously, we talked about it a lot, is your ability to find the story in a situation and to tell that story in a way that draws people to it and has them feel something at the end of it.

Second, I think, is your willingness to undertake risk in the pursuit of the outcome that matters to you. And not all leaders are blessed with that appetite and the ability to look at that in the way that you do, I think pretty objectively.

And then I think third, one of the themes that I've heard consistently is your appreciation for the psychological dynamics. A lot of leaders, bizarrely I think, kind of overlook that. And it seems to me pretty clear that you are highly sensitive to ... Even when looking at a story, and being able to look at both sides of the story. The psychological elements of a situation.

Alex Gibney:

Or many sides of the situation.

Charles:

Or many sides, exactly. How do those three resonate with you?

Alex Gibney:

Those feel pretty good. Those feel pretty good.

Charles:

I really appreciate you taking the time today, I've really enjoyed this conversation, absolutely enthralling. Alex, thank you very much indeed.

Alex Gibney:

Thank you.