Today’s documentary world seems to be living through the Age of Gibney: Having directed 20 nonfiction projects over the last eight years, with one Oscar under his belt and two films in contention, Alex Gibney is the hardest working man in socially progressive show business.
How? Why? And where?
Way out west, it turns out — where Manhattan meets the Hudson, and the hurricane of last year left fewer changes than two decades of gentrification. When Alex Gibney came here 15 years ago, it was the home of ball-bearing factories, transvestite hookers and an assortment of dubious characters. Today? Well, the ball bearings are certainly gone.
Instead, here’s a beehive of film production offices which Gibney oversees like the pope. In fact, in his office, with its panoramic view of the river, there’s a hilarious mock-up of a recent pontiff, in white and gold, with Gibney’s beatific face peering out from under the miter. His hand is outstretched in blessing. The wedding ring is a nice touch.
To call Jigsaw the Vatican of documentaries would be an overstatement. To say there are 18 projects under way at any one time might just be an understatement. Gibney is renowned as the most prolific doc maker at work today – and there are, as he’s the first to admit, a lot of people making that happen.
Still, it’s not just productivity but prescient subject matter that marks Gibney’s work as a director. His Lance Armstrong portrait “The Armstrong Lie” opens Friday; “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” was released in July. Both are among a competitive pack of 2013 Oscar contenders.
Last year, Gibney directed “Park Avenue: Money Power & the American Dream,” which created a stink when it was revealed that WNET offered to preview the film for one of its subjects – billionaire right-wing puppetmaster David Koch. Also in 2012, Gibney contributed to the anti-fracking film “Dear Governor Cuomo” and directed one of his angriest and most angering films, “Mea Maxima Culpa,” about priestly pedophilia. In 2011, he indulged his inner sports nut with “The Last Gladiator,” about hockey goons, and “Catching Hell,” about the famous case of fan interference at a Cubs game.
The same year saw “Magic Trip,” his reconstruction of the Merry Pranksters 1966 bus tour with Ken Kesey. In 2010, it was “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer”; a section of the omnibus “Freakonomics”; “My Trip to Al Qaeda” and “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” Plus he’s producing.
Also, BTW, he won the Oscar in 2007 for “Taxi to the Dark Side,” joined the Academy and now reps the Doc branch on the Board of Governors.
Obviously, it’s not just output that distinguishes Gibney and Jigsaw, it’s timeliness. The films seem to come out at the right time, on the right subjects. Which is explained not by luck or ESP, but persistence.
“I’ve been on the Armstrong story since 2008,” said Gibney, who spent 21 days following the cyclist’s 2009 attempt to win – yet again — the Tour de France. “But we had to put it on the shelf for a couple of years. And meanwhile, I’m still keeping in touch with people. That’s the hard part — in a way, it’s the hardest thing trying to keep in touch with people. You’re hoping they’re going to talk, so you have to keep talking to them. And it’s hard to do that when you’re on a completely different story. Imagine doing ‘WikiLeaks’ and you’re trying to keep those people talking, but you’re also on the phone with the Armstrong people from time to time, keeping them in play.”
The Armstrong film was done — mixed, music rights cleared, with narration by Matt Damon (who’d been involved in an Armstrong dramatic feature with producer Frank Marshall, so there was what Gibney called an “organic” connection). Then the doping allegations heated up, along with a grand jury investigation. “You couldn’t just put some update cards at the end of the film,” Gibney said. “So we sat on it for a year.”
He’d had battles over the drug aspect of the Lance story with his fellow producers, Marshall and Matthew Tolmach. “Sony Pictures had put up the money to do the original film,” Gibney said. “Tolmach was an executive there; he’s a cyclist. And Marshall had been developing the fiction project. When the stuff all started coming out, I said, ‘Maybe we can get Armstrong to play ball’ and Sony Classics said ‘We’ll put up the money for that.’”
The original “Armstrong” wasn’t going to be about the “Lie,” obviously. Gibney had wanted to do a straight-up sports story, a comeback story. “I like Lance,” said cinematographer Maryse Alberti, who with editor Andy Grieve had popped into Gibney’s office, admiring his pope picture. “He was full of energy, he was a fighter. I wanted him to win,” she said of Armstrong’s failed comeback in ‘09.
“So did I,” said Gibney, who made no secret of his fondness for his subject. “I’ve made films about priests who rape children, government officials who think torture is a good idea, and corporate guys who wanted to burn down California for fun,” he said, referring to “Mea Maxima Culpa,” “Taxi” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” “Lance doesn’t seem that bad.”
But the revelations did change the movie and illustrated how Gibney gets as much done as he does.
“It’s tough keeping all those stories in your head simultaneously,” he said, “and the only way it works is if you have people working on different projects exclusively. Armstrong was the hardest one because we had to put it aside, because there was no money to keep someone on it full time, someone who would have their head only in that story.
“With ‘WikiLeaks’ and even the Vatican film,” he continued, “I had people working with no connection to each other. They were only on those subjects and their job was to keep updating and reaching out to people – there are some people only I can reach out to, but their job was just to focus on those stories. So I can go to them without fear that I’m gonna fuck up, because no one’s been paying attention.”
At some point in the life of Jigsaw, the director said, he had to make a decision. “Get smaller — go back to my house and do one feature doc at a time — or get bigger and see if you can develop a company that has a more predictable cash flow so you can hire people more permanently and take the pressure off and not worry about contracts and budgets and all that. And also create something bigger where I might produce more for other people.”
Hence Jigsaw’s recent partnership with Content Media. “They have a distribution mechanism, which doesn’t necessarily have to be used, but can be,” Gibney said, “and they can provide, sometimes, production financing in exchange for rights, which may be useful in terms of negotiations, and give me clout. And it allows us to hire people to make sure the trains run on time” – like Stacey Offman, who recently joined as VP of production and development.
“So suddenly it’s making sense. I mean, you don’t want to do a story on the Vatican and get your facts wrong.” You’d go to hell. “Or worse,” said Gibney, who probably plans to make movies in the afterlife.