At the BFI London Film Festival, DocGeeks got the opportunity to sit down with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, who was in London to promote his latest documentary film The Armstrong Lie. Find out what his key is to create success after success in documentary filmmaking.
Offering an intimate portrait of a sportsman who has captivated audiences both during his multiple wins and multiple losses, The Armstrong Lie is a worthy contender for the festival’s documentary award. Initially setting out to make a film about Armstrong’s comeback, Gibney had to leave the doc for what it was in 2009 after the cyclist’s controversial loss and subsequent lawsuit. But nothing had prepared the filmmaker for what was about to happen a few years later, when Armstrong picked up the phone and said he was willing to own up to his mistakes. Would the general public finally get to hear the truth about the seven-time Tour de France winner?
After reading article upon article full of ‘expert opinions’ and ‘facts’ it is interesting to hear the director’s own take on his work, but unfortunately Gibney is a little reluctant to cloud our minds with his personal views. “I think it is okay for people to feel different things at different moments in the film. I’m reluctant to say it means exactly this or that.
“In a way I think the weakest part of this film is also its strength. At the end of the day we just don’t know if Armstrong is telling us the truth and that is what the film is effectively about, that doubt. So what makes the film is, in effect, its weakness. It’s a meditation on what it means to have doubts, and to lie.”
It is implied in the film that the issue around Armstrong isn’t doping but power. Is this indeed what he meant to portray in the film? “Yes I don’t think it would have been nearly as interesting to make a film about doping. The reality is that Lance wasn’t the only one who doped; there were many others. Now, I still don’t think there is a level playing field as Lance had other advantages. That is mainly why I think it is more about power. Lance had his sponsors, the big names, he was making money for so many people along the way that he was cut breaks here, there and everywhere the way that other people didn’t. And it allowed him to make a lot of money and abuse his power in hiding the truth.”
It isn’t the first time Gibney is scoring high with a film at the BFI London Film Festival, back in 2012 Gibney won the Grierson Award for a fierce exposé of child abuse within the Catholic church, entitled Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. The truth was laid bare in that film with a rawness that knew no boundaries – and was long overdue.
Though the two stories could not be more different, it is clear that an immense amount of trust was needed to produce both films. The fact that Armstrong opened up on camera to a mere two people; Oprah Winfrey and Gibney, is pretty impressive evidence of this. So how, do we ask, does a filmmaker like himself built up this type of trust between director and subject?
“It doesn’t always happen, Julian Assange didn’t want to speak to me [the main subject of his previous documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks]. I think it is about making people feel that you will treat their testimony with respect, that you will listen to them and present what they say in a way that is not dishonest. It is getting people in your chair that very first time, persuading people that you can be trusted. Once they get in that chair everybody wants to tell their story.”
However, Armstrong seems to behave differently, more calculated perhaps, as Gibney explains: “I think Lance is holding back and I don’t know why. Part of it may be legal – he is facing a lot of lawsuits, some of which could cost him $100m. But it might also be that once you have lied for such a long time it is hard to admit all of the lies all at once. It takes time, for example, for Floyd [Landis, who was also caught with doping] it took a number of years before he could be honest enough to open up and tell the world what he had done.”
Does Gibney feel confident though that he left relations in such a way that he could pick the story up again when it continues – and would he even want to?
“I always like following a story if there is a reason for it, I have gone back to a number of people over the years, sometimes on camera, sometimes off camera. With Lance, I was the one who told him that it would be called The Armstrong Lie and I felt I could be honest about this. That is one of the things you need to think about. If you make a film about someone, you need to have the feeling you can look them straight in the eye and defend what it is that you have said about them on camera.”
Finally, just as the busy press ladies from the festival try to usher us away, the Academy Award-winning director (he received one in 2008 for his film Taxi to the Dark Side) gives us his three tips for documentary success.
“Firstly, know how to raise money. Secondly, if you have a story, think about telling it to someone in five minutes in such a way that they feel utterly compelled by the story. And thirdly, make sure you embrace the contradictions of everyday life. Don’t be afraid of things that seem contradictory in people or situations because that ends up being the most rich and interesting in a documentary – nothing is simple, you need a counter voice.”