Following his acclaimed documentaries “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” and “Sinatra,” Alex Gibney will achieve a rare non-fiction hat trick this September when Magnolia Pictures releases “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.” A critical exploration of the iconic Apple CEO and co-founder, Gibney’s latest project incorporates interviews with some of Jobs’ closest partners and an extremely relatable hook — why was the man so inexplicably mourned after his death? — to create a portrait that is equally scathing and praising. For this reason, one can only hope Danny Boyle’s upcoming biographical drama, “Steve Jobs,” starring Michael Fassbender in the title role, examines the subject with the same remarkable and censorious lens as Gibney.
After an early screening of the documentary last week, Gibney joined select press to reminisce on the making of the film and the legendary man himself. “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” opens in theaters and on VOD and iTunes Friday, September 4. Check out the highlights from the discussion below:
Investigating Jobs requires two narrative story arcs.
“There’s two strains in this film. One is a meditation on the devices that were created, and the other is a meditation on Steve Jobs. It took a long time to try and meld those two strains…It’s definitely not something I had in mind at the beginning. In many ways, for me anyways, the film was a little bit of a different process in that it was quite impressionistic and exploratory. I didn’t exactly know what I was going to find or what conclusions I was going to come to when I started. I was just interested in the idea of why so many people wept when he died. And that led me to ask questions about him and why I still use an iPhone.”
The reason why Jobs was a better leader at Pixar than Apple may surprise you.
While the documentary explores nearly all of Jobs’ accomplishments, his time at Pixar probably gets the least investigation. “I decided not to do the Pixar stuff. I mean the film was already long enough,” Gibney explained. “But I think the reason I didn’t was because, in some ways, it was a big success with Jobs, but it was never at the heart of Jobs in terms about what he cared most about. He bought Pixar and made more money out of Pixar than he did with Apple, and in a funny way he was probably a better manager at Pixar than he was at Apple because he left all these creative people alone at Pixar. It didn’t seem central to his mission and his values. At the end of the day, while we had a section about it at one point, we decided to leave it out.”
The film owes its existence to “Citizen Kane.”
“The motivation for it came out of his death,” the filmmaker said when asked whether or not he would’ve made the movie had Jobs still been alive. “I wouldn’t have had the reaction to play off of. It was weird. When I was trying to think of a structure for this, I thought, ‘Well, if I steal from the best, the best might be ‘Citizen Kane.” The ‘Citizen Kane’ structure is he dies and what’s the Rosebud? But the investigation is not a kind of straightforward biopic — it’s one in which you meet certain people and you find their story, and that leads you to the next person and you find their story. Some are peripheral, some are central, and you don’t tell everything about that person but only the aspects of that person’s story that comes out of the people you meet along the way. That seemed like a smart way of going. It’s hard for me to think about whether I would make a movie if he was still alive.”
On whether or not people would’ve cooperated if Jobs were still alive.
“Barely anyone cooperated with me when he wasn’t alive! My very first call was to Laurene Jobs and, while initially I thought she was going to engage, eventually she decided not to, and then she promptly started calling everyone she could think of and telling them not to cooperate with this film. We went straight into the front door with Apple, and Apple’s response was amusing. They said, ‘I’m sorry, we do not have the resources to cooperate with this film.’ It was hard enough to get people to cooperate, even at this stage.”
On the parallels between Jobs and Scientology.
“I see a parallel with Scientology in terms of the cultish aspect, and how Apple deals with its own image and how it deals with Jobs. [Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services] Eddie Cue famously tweeted out of SXSW something angrily about the film, even though I’m not even sure Eddie Cue actually saw the film at SXSW. So there’s definitely a cult of Apple that doesn’t want to hear anything bad, particularly about Steve Jobs.”
Jobs has some James Brown in him.
“The other film that I reflected on that I had done recently that seemed to have a lot of harmony was a film I did about James Brown, oddly enough,” Gibney continued. “I see a lot of parallels between Steve Jobs and James Brown. The parallels to me are that they were both awesome performers — they were brilliant in terms of understanding how important the band was to their success. In other words, Steve Jobs always surrounded himself with really talented people, but he was also ruthless, hugely ambitious and took full credit, personally, for the work that so many others did, and yet they palpably changed American culture.”
Jobs loved Bob Dylan because of his rage.
As the documentary makes very clear, Jobs was an unabashed Bob Dylan freak, even scoring an early girlfriend by handing her modified lyrics to a Dylan song before even getting to know her. “Dylan was a great poet of rage, particularly rage at former girlfriends and wives. When you really want to tune it up, and you’re really pissed off at someone, you can put on any ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ or ‘Idiot Wind,’ and I think Jobs probably responded to that,” Gibney said. “He had a big, large amount of rage inside him.”
On whether Jobs had to be an asshole in order to achieve success.
“I personally don’t think it was necessary,” Gibney responded. “The people at Enron were assholes too, but no one lionized that as a strategy in the wake of Enron’s demise. I think people learn to excuse you and to enable you and to allow you to do that stuff when you are successful, and they obviously didn’t allow it so much when he wasn’t, and that’s how he got booted out the first time. I reckoned that he learned some lessons by being bounced, but I also think that he learned some darker lessons that he used to his advantage. When he came back, he made sure he had the most pliant board possible so that he had power — power that was virtually unchecked.”
The true genius of Jobs was showmanship.
“I think you can see that the innovation wasn’t always innovation. The iPod was just a music player, it wasn’t like Steve Jobs sat alone in his study and said, ‘It will be the iPhone.’ So i think a lot of his stuff was impressionistic and organic, but what was genius about Steve Jobs was the showmanship — wrapping it in secrecy, keeping it tightly held and then announcing it in this big show as if they had just gotten the fire from Prometheus. I think that was his genius.”