Alex Gibney is driving from his home in New Jersey to Philadelphia Stadium for Neon’s drive-in premiere of “Totally Under Control,” his hard-hitting exposé about how President Donald Trump and his administration’s response to COVID-19 cost the lives of over 210,000 Americans. Eight months ago, this movie wasn’t even a notion; now it’s one of three non-fiction projects from the Oscar-winning documentarian (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) on multiple platforms this fall. “Totally Under Control” is available On Demand October 13 and hits Hulu October 20.
The pandemic has done little to slow down Gibney and his prolific Jigsaw Prods. His HBO documentary “Crazy, Not Insane” was supposed to debut at SXSW; instead, his intimate profile of forensic psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis who diagnosed high-profile killers with multiple personality disorders debuted at Venice and will finally reach HBO in November.
Gibney also completed “Agents of Chaos,” his two-part, four-hour documentary series about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that revealed running for president was Trump’s backup plan to closing Moscow Trump Tower. Gibney collaborated with his “Wikileaks” and “Zero Days” cyber expert Javier Botero on the series, along with famed 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (“The Insider”). It premiered on HBO September 23.
Gibney likes to explore horrifying corporate and government corruption; he first tackled Trump with Netflix series “Dirty Money,” which investigated his business acumen. (He has none, Gibney concluded.) “I’m the documentary Wes Craven,” said Gibney, who relies on exercise and meditation to stay sane.
“Totally Under Control” began when Gibney pitched Neon CEO Tom Quinn on documenting the ongoing COVID crisis. Quinn, who released Gibney’s breakout documentary at Magnolia Films (“Enron: The Smartest Man in the Room”), liked the idea, as well as rushing it for release ahead of the November election.
Keep in mind that in addition to his other 2020 docs, Gibney was also working on a deep dive into the American opioid crisis; was in post-production on Rick Rowley’s “Kingdom of Silence” (October 2, Showtime) about the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and was the executive producer of Matt Heineman’s vérité documentary about New York hospitals fighting coronavirus, which has Heineman furiously editing to meet the Sundance 2021 deadline.
“I had no business doing it,” Gibney said. “I had no time or space left. But it seemed important, I felt compelled. I wanted to do it on a timeline to get it out before the election, another crazy decision. That said, I knew I couldn’t do it by myself.”
Gibney reached out to two women to come on as his co-directors, “Crazy, Not Insane” producer Ophelia Harutyunyan and New York Times’ “The Weekly” producer-director Suzanne Hillinger. “It seemed like a good idea,” he said.
The trio pushed forward, knowing that they had to lock picture in August and do post-production in September to meet the theatrical October 9 release date. “We started the editors two weeks after we started,” said Gibney, who set them to work trolling archives. “We had logistical problems managing the data and getting it to our coeditors, who were working remotely.”
It took three, then four, experienced editors working overtime to meet the deadline. They finished the movie October 1. At 2 AM on October 2, Quinn called Gibney, telling him that Trump had tested positive. (They noted this with a card at the end.)
While Gibney has developed deep sources in Washington, D.C., they weren’t inside the White House or the public health establishment. “It did take hard work,” he said. “The whistleblowers Rick Bright and Max Kennedy helped us to get inside, along with New York Times White House reporter Michael Shear.”
While the team rigged up, masked and gowned, to film on location at labs and hospitals, the filmmakers didn’t do in-person interviews. Instead, they delivered COVID-cam packages — complete with tray, computer, and DSLR mic — to their subjects’ houses. “Everything had to be done remotely,” said Gibney. “They would pick up the tray and go into their house and turn it on and connect to the internet.”
Once they were set up, DP Ben Bloodwell could adjust the focus and the stop, or suggest a slightly different location. He also set up Interrotrons with lights and sound at local Airbnbs in which the interviewee would enter the space and sit down in front of the camera, which was surrounded by a plastic shower-curtain barrier between the subject and the camera operator. “Over the barrel of the lens was an eye-direct with the image of whichever one of us was conducting the interview,” said Gibney. “We got high marks from doctors and public health officials.”
Accustomed to tackling tough, upsetting subjects, even Gibney was shocked by what he learned. “We discovered things that we didn’t expect to discover,” he said. “Also, it was both inspiring and more upsetting that we start the movie one month before COVID hits, where you see people without masks walking around doing their daily business. You see how how this disaster could have been prevented and wasn’t.”
Even with its stresses, making “Totally Under Control” was “hugely therapeutic,” said Gibney. “A couple of days I thought my head would explode, but I felt I had some control over something you had no control over. It gave us all a sense of purpose that helped us to avoid an otherwise brutal reliving and gnashing of teeth: ‘This is what happened; it was highly preventable.’ And to hold this administration to account. They intentionally slow-walked testing.”
When Gibney realized that Trump’s avoidance of testing led to a month-long delay that cost countless lives, “I was angry,” he said. “I still am. This is one that has a real body count. The other one [“Agents of Chaos”] was corruption, it was perfidy, it was how he got elected. With this one, 210,000 people are dead and almost all of that could have been prevented.”
By the people who enabled Trump?
“100 percent,” said Gibney. “It was hard to watch [U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex] Azar and [CDC director Robert] Redfield and others complicit in the corruption of science. The whole government had been corrupted. That’s the underlying theme here. These people don’t believe in government. Donald Trump is a human wrecking ball who was sent by the people to tear it all down, and that’s what he’s done: torn down the reputation of the CDC, which was regarded as the gold standard…The federal government was the ultimate piggy bank for private enterprise to make money in the middle of a pandemic. It’s shocking.”
The movie compares America’s fight against the pandemic with South Korea, which discovered the pandemic at the same starting point. “The film is centered around learning and not learning,” said Gibney. “Korea learned lessons and changed things as a result. And we did just the opposite.”
Next up: Finishing Heineman’s movie; going back to exploring the psychology of the Sacklers, who made billions off manufacturing Oxycontin; and pursuing a dramatic series with the “Crazy, Not Insane” narrator who brought him the story: Laura Dern.