Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney is known for going after big fish such as the Catholic Church (“Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God”), Enron (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) and the United States Military (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), but when he was tapped to make a film on Lance Armstong, it wasn’t supposed to be like the exposés he’s known for. At the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this fall, he sat down with Thompson on Hollywood’s Anne Thompson to talk about the personal journey that “The Armstrong Lie” took him on. Below are the highlights. (Sony Pictures Classics opens "The Armstrong Lie" in select theaters this Friday.)
The film he was supposed to make and the story that followed it
“It started out as an inspirational comeback story when Lance Armstrong decided to come back to cycling in 2008 after being in retirement. Folks at Sony, Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach, wanted to see if I’d be interested in doing a documentary that would follow him during this comeback year. I’d certainly heard the rumblings and rumors about doping in the past, but I was interested in this comeback story and I thought I’d go along for the ride. I completed that film in late 2010, we were done. And then this story of Lance Armstrong took a wild turn as former teammates began to come forward, and there was suddenly a grand jury federal investigation and possible criminal indictments. So we actually just sat on the film, we had a film that was narrated by Matt Damon who was originally tapped to star in a Lance Armstrong biopic. We put the film aside and waited ‘til the smoke cleared and then I got a call from Lance Armstrong and he said all this is true, I’ve been lying to you and I apologize. We started to talk about him sitting down again and trying to make it right. So that film became a new film and I had to put myself in the middle of the film in order to explain what had happened. To go back into the film that I had shot, I realized that I’d shot something pretty interesting which was really the anatomy of a lie.”
His relationship with Armstrong and why he put himself in the film
“On a day to day basis, I like Lance. But over time one of the things I’ve learned is that liking somebody is not the same thing as approving of what they do. I was definitely drawn into Lance’s orbit and I became a fan as I acknowledge in the film. I liked him and I liked going along for the ride. Over time, particularly when the secret was revealed, I could reckon that I could like the guy and at the same time be wildly pissed off that I had become part of an elaborate PR board and be pissed off that he had looked me in the face and lied to me. One of the reasons I decided to put myself in the film was to explore that process that almost every fan goes through, particularly people who saw Lance in this very inspirational way and then were deeply disappointed.”
When asked Armstrong’s reaction to the film...
“I told Lance that he couldn’t see the film until the public had seen it. I didn’t want anybody to think that Lance had any influence over the final shape of the film but he’s likely to see it this week. I did call him to say that it’s being called ‘The Armstrong Lie’, he wasn't happy about it.”
Former Armstrong teammate Jonathan Vaughters was also present for the interview and had a unique perspective on the documentary’s evolution.
“I’d watched a number of his (Gibney’s) movies before. I thought to myself, I wonder if he’s going to be deceived all the way through, he wasn’t deceived by these other people so I wonder if Lance is going to be able to use that charm and get it out the other side with the documentary remaining mainly positive. What I noticed in the final version of the film is that a lot of the clips you got in 2009 that at that point in time through your lens and 99% of the public’s lens would have been seen as a very honest moment with Lance but when you go back and look at it now you see what those of us who are in the cycling industry saw, and that was a very deceptive person.”