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January 6, 2010 8:13 AM
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Sundance '10 | Alex Gibney Talks Scandal with Doc Competition Film "CASINO JACK"

A scene from Alex Gibney's Sundance US Documentary Competition film, "CASINO JACK & The United States of Money." Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Oscar-winner Alex Gibney ("Taxi to the Darkside") returns to Sundance with his latest film, "CASINO JACK & The United States of Money," a world premiere screening in the festival's U.S. Documentary Competition. The film is a portrait of disgraced Washington super lobbyist Jack Abramoff beginning with his early years as a "gung-ho" member of the GOP political machine to his final reckoning as a disgraced, imprisoned pariah--confirms the adage that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. A tale of international intrigue with Indian casinos, Russian spies, Chinese sweatshops, and a mob-style killing in Miami, this is the story of the way money corrupts our political process. [Description provided by the festival.]

"CASINO JACK & The United States of Money"
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director/writer: Alex Gibney
Executive Producer: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Ben Goldhirsch, Mark Cuban, Todd Wagner, Bill Banowsky
Producer: Alex Gibney, Alison Ellwood, Zena Barakat
Associate Producer: Sam Black
Editor: Alison Ellwood
Music Supervisor: John McCullough
Coproducer: Alexandra Johnes
120 min., Magnolia Pictures

Gibney on becoming a filmmaker...

Alex Gibney here... To explain how I was lured to filmmaking I quote a scene from "Casablanca:"

Captain Renault: "What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?"
Rick: "My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters."
Captain Renault: "The waters? What waters? We're in the desert."
Rick: "I was misinformed."

I was lured to filmmaking by the prospect of money. I was misinformed.

Gibney on Abramoff and the making of the film...

I read about Jack Abramoff in the Washington Post. It was an astounding story of a man who turned Washington upside down. Jack Abramoff was an extraordinary character - a charismatic salesman, a zealot, a starry eyed idealist who was also a corrupt schemer, a flim flam man who gave much of his astronomical lobbying fees to charities and a Jewish school, a movie producer with a wild imagination, a lobbyist who reinvented himself as a kind of international secret agent. As Sue Schmidt of the Washington Post told me, "he was Walter Mitty on steroids." Yet, as unique as Jack Abramoff was, he was also emblematic of the systemic corruption in Washington, DC. Jack was not a bad apple; he was an outrageous example of how rotten was the barrel.

"CASINO JACK & The United States of Money" director Alex Gibney. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

I wanted to try to capture that secret agent quality of Jack which meant going to all sorts of places - from Miami to the Marianas, from El Paso to Washington, DC. We wanted a look that morphed and evolved like the movie festival of Jack's mind. Sometimes a Western, sometimes a thriller, sometimes a slapstick comedy. So the film has a number of different looks. It's playful and dark. It's a comedy; but the joke is on us.

As in the last few films I have made, when I started it looked like there would be no footage to show and no one would want to talk to us. Even the Congress refused to let us shoot there. We want to make a film about government, we said. "Oh no," said Nancy Pelosi's office, "you cannot shoot in the nation's capitol."

That is a privilege reserved for well-heeled news conglomerates with high-paying corporate lobbyists such as General Electric, News Corporation, Disney, etc. And try telling Congressional representatives or Senators that you would like to talk about the Abramoff scandal. It's like bringing a flashlight into a dark New York City bathroom - there's a sudden, desperate skittering sound followed by a deafening silence.

I hope that [Sundance audiences] will appreciate the humor, tough reporting and storytelling of the film. This is a testament to the genius of my collaborator on "Enron" and "Gonzo," Alison Ellwood. I also hope they are stirred by the message: the flood of money into our political system is drowning our democratic principles.

Gibney on films that inspired the creation of "Casino" and his future projects...

"Casino," by Martin Scorsese; "Red Scorpion," produced by Jack Abramoff; "South Pacific" and the "Godfather."

[Going forward, there is] a film about Lance Armstrong for Sony Pictures; a film about the rise and fall of Eliot Spitzer - how this one turns out will surprise many people; "The Magic Bus," about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters; and two fiction projects that I don't want to talk about too much or they may disappear. There's some other stuff too. I just keep pedaling.


[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

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