Alex Gibney LunchJune 13, 2015
Meeting Alex Gibney for High Tea is almost too civilised. This is the fearless documentary maker who gave us a devastating portrait of a rogue multinational – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Since that ground-breaking film of 2005 Gibney has directed more than twenty feature-length documentaries and worked on many smaller projects. He is often referred to as the world’s most important living maker of non-fiction films.
Gibney is in Australia as a guest of the Sydney Film Festival, which is showing three new documentaries: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief; Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, and Steve Jobs: The Man and the Machine.
It is the Scientology film that’s causing all the fuss. The Church of Scientology has set up a website accusing Gibney of being a shameless propagandist. On that site the director and everyone he interviewed is given a mauling. This is not a Church that believes in turning the other cheek.
When he turns up, Gibney looks like neither a hero nor a villain. Small, trim, completely bald, he has an ageless, anonymous appearance. Maybe it’s the narrow glasses, but he gives the impression of a keen intelligence.
Because of Gibney’s busy schedule we are meeting for High Tea at Abode, the bistro attached to the Parkroyal Hotel at Darling Harbour. It’s one of those places that at first looks over-designed – fretwork silhouettes of cockatoos in trees; glass cabinets with almost nothing in them; curved plywood-style light fittings that seem like Bali’s answer to Russian Constructivism. The saving grace is that everything is white, grey or black; but mostly white. It’s a neutral space, regardless of the décor.
When the tea stand arrives, laden with three levels of sweet and savoury tidbits, Gibney barely gives it a glance. There are three kinds of petite sandwich, four different “Savoury Bites”, and no fewer than six “Sweet Bites”. Most of which are destined to remain untouched by human hands.
What kind of tea would we like? “Just water,” says the Scourge of Scientology. I can already see we won’t be arm-wrestling for the last macaroon.
Is it possible to make four films a year on the most ambitious topics, and still retain some vestige of normal life?
“It’s hard,” Gibney admits. “My wife keeps me honest. She reminds me there are times when I’ve got to shut down. But this period of intense productivity has happened when my kids have gotten a little bit older. I’m actually a grandfather now.”
He recognises that he doesn’t fit the grandfatherly stereotype. It’s hard to imagine Gibney with his feet up on the porch, enjoying a well-earned retirement. The turbo-charged escalation of his filmmaking career only got underway with the Enron documentary when he was already 55 years old. The catalyst was his work as series producer on the TV series, The Blues, which featured wellknown directors such as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders. It gave Gibney a sense of the almost unlimited possibilities of the documentary format. Everything he is doing today is making up for lost time.
His secret is that he always has three or four projects on the go simultaneously. Like an artist whose studio may be lined with half-completed canvases he goes from one film to another, working with trusted, highly skilled editors.
“Sometimes when you move back and forth between cutting rooms – and this happened to me at first by accident – you can see things with a kind of structural rigor that you otherwise wouldn’t have because you’re so lost in one story. Late in the process I have to be full-on in the cutting room. That’s when you’re narrowing it down, coming closer to locking in a picture, and every image has to be just right.”
After eight minutes I tentatively reach for a sandwich. I think it was Earl grey poached chicken with herb aioli, but I hardly dared look. Gibney makes no attempt to join me.
I could argue that a good sandwich, like a film, has to be just right, but I don’t want to take the conversation down that path.
To make the kind of films Gibney makes, you may not have to be an ascetic, but you certainly have to be tough.
He doesn’t have a bodyguard, and since he doesn’t seem to eat he’ll never need a food taster, but he is enduring the attacks of the Scientologists with perfect equanimity. “They don’t believe that any criticism of Scientology is ever warranted,” he says.
“Their online attack page, Freedommag.org, is not for us – it’s preaching to the choir. That’s why they can give it such an Orwellian title. The Scientologists pride themselves, from a doctrinal standpoint, in being able to convince people of anything. When they tell their members not to look at the web they’re trying to wall them into that prison of belief. John Travolta, for instance, has just denounced the film. He said it’s terrible, then admitted: ‘I haven’t watched it and I don’t intend to.’ Point taken.”
Gibney says he got valuable practise in dealing with online attacks from the fans of Julian Assange in the wake of We Steal Secrets – the movie that suggested the Wikileaks founder might not be a martyr to the truth, but a victim of his own egocentric behaviour.
“They come after you hard, with a lot of vitriol,” he says.
“Assange would complain: ‘This is about personality, not about the issues,’ but the attacks from Assange and his followers were always about you, the individual.”
Gibney comes from a family of radical free-thinkers. He argues that his films are not intended as propaganda for specific causes, but as exercises in exploring and questioning values. He has no time for “lame arguments” about objectivity, quoting a well-rehearsed line from filmmaker, Werner Herzog: “Objective truth is the phone book, but it doesn’t make for very interesting reading.” He recognises that all editing is necessarily selective, and suggests documentarians should be judged by standards of “fairness” rather than any mythical objectivity.
By this stage I’ve snuffled a small piece of chocolate coated sponge, which must be “ABODE’s opera slice”. Gibney continues to resist temptation.
“I’m motivated by stuff that stirs me,” he continues. “I’m interested in power and how it’s abused, although I tend to be more drawn to the perpetrators than the victims. As a dramatist – even though I’m working in non-fiction – I’m not particularly keen on cardboard villains. I’m interested in the grey rather than the black or the white.”
Gibney is not kidding about being a dramatist. The subjects of his films are as grand and complex as Shakespearean characters. Whether it be Steve Jobs, Julian Assange, James Brown or Lance Armstrong, we are dealing with a figure who has accomplished great feats, but may be ruthless, self-obsessed, narcissistic and sometimes very close to being a sociopath. “It’s what allows them to be successful to some extent,” says Gibney “so we can’t be naïve about that.”
“Lance was a cheater and a liar,” Gibney declares, “but you have to reckon with the fact that this guy raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer. Generally speaking, very successful athletes are not nice people. Michael Jordan is not a nice guy.”
“There is a tendency in our 24-7 news cycle to rush to a kind of thumbs up, thumbs down, version of people. You can celebrate accomplishments without having to believe that person is perfect. But for Apple, if you criticise Steve Jobs you’re a pariah.”
Gibney believes the the story of Steve Jobs has encouraged a belief, particularly in business circles, that in order to do great things you have to be a bastard. He draws a comparison with the ideology of Enron – the Ayn Randian view of the world. “When Enron collapsed no-one said: ‘Oh, this kind of ruthless ideology is dead.’ They let it pass when Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay went down, but resuscitated the same ideas when they appeared to work for Steve Jobs. It’s comforting for people to think they don’t have to behave in a humane way.”
“in the Jobs film I’m reflecting on the idea that businesses make choices. Businesses aren’t helpless. Jobs was absolutely fanatical about not being told there were limits when it came to the bevelling of a screen, but suddenly when it came to the treatment of Chinese workers: ‘We’re helpless. There’s nothing we can do.’ The telling point is that the Chinese activist, Ma Jun, was able to speak to all the companies he had singled out over their activities in China – except Apple. He only met with them after Jobs had resigned.”
“When Jobs died I was struck by the way millions of people around the world were overcome with grief. In a way I think we were weeping for the loss of future products. He was our guide, he held our hand as we got closer and closer to these machines.”
To my amazement Gibney reaches out and plucks a morsel off the tea stand. He obviously got carried away by the excitement of the Steve Jobs discussion.
“There is a sensibility in Silicone Valley today,” he continues, “that it’s a good thing not to care about anybody else. By being as selfish as possible you become a disruptor – and that encourages innovation and all these other things that are discouraged by the welfare state. It’s a really cruel vision of the world.”
This leads to a discussion of American politics and the popular appeal of the Tea Party. The message, says Gibney, is: “‘We’re angry as hell, so we’re going to denude you of all the resources you’re taking from us. So no taxes. Any tax is a bad tax. Taxing is theft.’ It becomes an oddly powerful mantra for the disaffected who believe in self-reliance and hate to be thought of as welfare cases. You don’t need government help. You don’t need government housing. You don’t need government reaching into your pocket.”
“Everyone talks about ‘Big Government’, but what about Big Business?” he asks. “It can be every bit as bureaucratic and fundamentally stupid as big government.” Many businessmen would probably agree.
After a mere 56 minutes Gibney decides to go wild and have a cappuccino. I order a flat white, which leads to a discussion of coffee terminology. Is he willing to make another raid on the tea tray? “No, no, I’m good,” he replies. “I got in some time in the hotel gym this morning.” I resist the thought that time in the gym might stimulate an appetite, not act as a substitute. I’ve learned something about how lean and disciplined one must be in order to make great documentaries.
Alex Gibney was in Sydney as a guest of the Sydney Film Festival
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 13th June, 2015.