Gibney now has two films that explore the myriad ways that the internet can wreak havoc, with 2013’s “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” and the Oscar-shortlisted “Zero Days,” which stemmed from the U.S. and Israeli Stuxnet operation that destroyed 1000 nuclear centrifuges. Initially, producer Marc Shmuger, who brought him both projects, “knew more about it than I did,” said Gibney. “He had access to people telling him interesting things about the Stuxnet operation. It seemed like an event that deserved a deeper dive.”
Gibney dug deeper and found out how scary the world of cyberwarfare could be. And as the election took its twisty turns, revealing the Russia hacks, more of us caught up with a new reality that had only been imagined in science-fiction. The Matrix is here.
“What is jaw-dropping,” Gibney said, “is that you see the world that we describe in ‘Zero Days,’ something that was going to come to pass in the future, is very much a story in the present tense, as all sorts of cyber weapons are being deployed by all sorts of countries, and nobody is acknowledging that it’s happening. Suddenly, the specter of cyber-espionage and cyber-war and conflict is being raised because everybody can see the consequences in front of them. It’s not abstract anymore. I did feel gratified that the film did say where we’re going and, lo and behold, this is where we are.”
Attacks on the DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta “clearly came from Russia,” he added. “It was a question for Obama of whether he should retaliate, should it be secret or open? These cyber-weapons and our inability to talk about them honestly and openly until now have created an unstable media where news people are talking about fake news, with crisscrossing weapons all over the world and implants. The Chinese, Russians, and Iranians all have implants. Now we’re talking about an election that may have been hacked.”
For “Zero Days” Gibney relied on his many intelligence sources, although some were close-lipped. Luckily, ex-CIA chief Michael Hayden had a book to promote. “He’s normally one of the world’s great advocates of secrecy,” said Gibney, who also consulted The New York Times writer David Sanger (“Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power“).
Participant Media/Magnolia Pictures
Gibney reported his complex global detective thriller ahead of the curve. “It was a huge challenge,” he said, “a weird situation that had clearly happened, but nobody was willing to admit it. It was a covert operation, but once the operation was blown, with so many larger consequences, it was a bit like President Truman saying after the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ‘What bombs?’ It was frustrating that I couldn’t get people to talk to the issue. A number of people did want to talk about it and say things with a wink and a nod, so you do get to the bottom of things.”
The filmmaker protected his sources by using top-of-the-line graphics from VFX house Framestore and Scatter to create an anonymous NSA cyber-character played by actress Joanne Tucker, who read real dialogue stitched together from multiple interviews.
Cyberwarfare, says Gibney, has moved out of the espionage, spying side via software to malware that attacks physical infrastructure. “Every nation admits they’re spying,” he said. “It starts out as a spying mechanism. Once inside, you have the opportunity to attack. The espionage leads to the weaponry that can manipulate a machine, cross the barrier from the cyber world to the physical world. Suddenly, it could not only take control of a machine — blowing up centrifuges in an Iranian nuclear plant — but send a signal message to engineers that all is well, like ‘Oceans 11.'”
It all sounds like fiction, and Gibney does believe it could make for powerful fiction; he’s developing a “Zero Days” miniseries, working with Universal’s Carnival subsidiary (“Downton Abbey”) with a screenplay by “The Americans” writer and executive producer Stephen Schiff. However, for now the reality offers plenty on its own.
Russia used malware to shut down the Ukrainian power grid, said Gibney. “These weapons are getting ever more powerful and capable of doing more damage.”
At the heart of this cyber-detective thriller are the Philip Marlowes of the cyber world at Symantec. “Their job is to protect us all from malware,” Gibney said. “They broke down this code. They could explain it and put together the breadcrumb clues, and we visualized it. We worked hard to make it as accurate as possible.”
Gibney continues to track this evolving story. “Whether there will be another film add-on to what I have depends on where the story goes,” he said. “It has gotten more interesting to follow the Russian path to try and understand just how many implants are operational throughout the world, and how unstable that makes us all. The cyber science-fiction scenario is here.”
Showtime acquired “Zero Days” out of Berlin, and new senior VP Documentaries Vinnie Malhotra, pushed up the airdate ahead of the election after the hacking controversy broke. (It also got a theatrical release via Magnolia Pictures.)
“I love Alex’s passion, spirit, and suspicion,” said Malhotra, who had worked with Gibney on “Death Row Stories” at CNN. “Since ‘Taxi to the Dark Side,’ he’s always the tip of the spear in the world of documentary and investigative filmmaking. He was not looking at the ground war but the cyber war, the dark area of warfare nobody understands. When the rest of us woke up to the Russian hacking story, Alex and his team had been probing and investigating it for a few years.”
Next up: Gibney is developing another doc series with Malhotra. “It seizes on another contemporary story of great importance,” he said, “as the American public has a growing lack of trust in the 24-hour news cycle.” As chief of Jigsaw Prods., Gibney is bringing Marina Zenovich’s “Water & Power: A California Heist” to Sundance, along with Matt Heinemann’s “City of Ghosts.”