Winter 2010

Alex Gibney
The Real Story

Alex Gibney has made engaging, award-winning documentaries about challenging subjects like the fall of Enron and the war on terror. His advice: keep it simple.

Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Alex Gibney
POINT OF VIEW: Gibney uses reenactments and visually manipulated
footage to evoke feelings and emotionally involve his audience.

"I don't think there's any question," Alex Gibney interjects almost reflexively, before one can finish asking if the awards his documentaries have won helped them find an audience. "The year that Taxi to the Dark Side won [the Oscar] there was no doubt it helped immensely, but it's good to keep things in perspective. I keep the Oscar in my downstairs bathroom, so everybody can hold it up to the mirror; it's not in some trophy case. The music starts if their speech is longer than 30 seconds," he jokes.

Although Gibney has experienced commercial success in a way very few documentary film-makers ever do, he doesn't take it for granted. His credits include directing the features Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. He has also produced and written Eugene Jarecki's The Trials of Henry Kissinger, and executive produced Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight. While his timely subjects frequently appeal to niche audiences, his movies have managed to break out by making highly technical or esoteric information cinematic.

For example, Enron, about the corporate hubris, corruption and collapse of the energy trading giant, required Gibney to take his audience into the intricate structure and accounting practices of the unique company. "When I told my editor we were going to do a section on mark-to-market accounting, she almost wept," Gibney laughs. Similarly with Taxi to the Dark Side, about an Afghan taxi driver, Dilawar, who was tortured and killed in American custody in Bagram, obscure elements of American interrogation policy had to be traced from academic analysis of government legal opinions, to real-world Pentagon dictates, to U.S. prisoner policy in Afghanistan, and finally to Iraq and Abu Ghraib.

From his experience working as a producer on the 2003 PBS series The Blues, Gibney learned to approach documentary more in the expressionistic style of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog rather than that of cinéma vérité devotees like the Maysles brothers. "What was such a revelation for me," Gibney says of that series which enlisted directors like Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders, "was to see all these fiction filmmakers in the documentary medium, bringing an attitude and aesthetic rigor to the process. They were still honoring the way real life works but also putting a lot of their hop on the ball, their own personality to it."

Gibney's own hop has taken a variety of forms in his films, utilizing elements such as reenactments and visually manipulated footage that are designed to evoke feelings and emotionally involve his audience. He's also used metaphorical images or song lyrics to comment directly on the story he's telling. For instance, Gibney composed the interviews for Enron with reflective surfaces in the foreground of wide shots. "Not to be too French about it all," Gibney says, "but it presented the question of whether Enron is fake or real? Is it the beautiful reflection or is there some substance there? [The reflections] were meant to be a visceral presentation of that and conveyed an impression over time. I think visual style should reflect the subject matter, which seems a little bit odd for a documentary form, but I think it's important."

For Taxi to the Dark Side, since footage of secret Defense Department meetings or life inside military prisons is virtually impossible to find, much of the information was going to come from interviews. "The question was how to shoot those interviews," Gibney recalls. "For people at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan—guards, prisoners or military intelligence—we painted a back-drop and brought it with us everywhere we went, from Ohio to England, and shot them against it. It was brown but we left the light off of it so it almost goes black. So instead of having pure limbo there's a little bit of texture there. That felt sort of like a prison but we also lit everybody in a half-and-half way, so one eye was completely in shadow. We shot this way because there's a kind of moral ambiguity about all these characters but also because it seemed prison-like. The other important thing about it was that, although the story was so complicated, every time the viewer saw somebody shot like that, you would feel, Bagram. It helped to simplify the story."

Alex Gibney
ON THE CASE: Gibney shooting Gonzo: The Life and Work of
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, says his documentaries are like
nonfiction books. (Credit: Magnolia Pictures)

The techniques employed by Gibney give him the freedom to delve into the highly technical tales of corruption, but the stylistic tools never seem to trump substance. Storytelling is still king and he is very cognizant of keeping hold of his audience. "[With Enron], I think we crafted the narrative so that it draws viewers in, even as you're getting into very complicated territory," Gibney explains. "Creating a sense of mystery allows the viewer to start investigating, and once the viewer is investigating, then everything is working. Enron started off with the suicide [of one of its executives], and that was a good call. The death of one person is far more poignant or haunting than the collapse of a company or endless newspaper headlines. It haunts that film and allowed us time to get into some of this other stuff."

What Gibney learned is to make complicated stories fundamentally simple. "You can be a lot more complicated so long as you don't fuck up the simple story. In Taxi to the Dark Side it's who killed Dilawar? That's pretty simple."

Gibney has been criticized, at times, for doing things like reenacting the Enron executive's suicide, but he doesn't see documentaries as an elongated 60 Minutes piece. "I think of them more like nonfiction books," he says. "They have a great sense of journalistic inquiry but they're carefully considered aesthetic achievements, which mix both the personal with the breadth of the kind of story you're telling. When you read a good nonfiction book it should read like a thriller; the author has a voice that you appreciate. The trick is, rather than laying out, 'This happened and then this happened and then this happened,' at some point you have to say, 'We've gathered our material, done our research, dug out the story, now how do we tell it?'"

Since starting out as an editor on fiction films, which he found unsatisfying, and then jumping head-on into documentaries, Gibney has worked through some of the greatest technological changes nonfiction films have seen since Albert Maysles adapted his camera to go mobile in 1961. "Technology creates a certain kind of laziness but also encourages a new kind of inventiveness," says Gibney. For one thing, he loves the ability and affordability of posting cuts on FTP sites. "The computer has been really generous in allowing all sorts of possibilities. Sometimes I'll go out and just shoot stuff, sketch it out, and say, 'Does this work?' We'll slap it in and see if it does. If it doesn't, we'll try something else. When I was starting out, hanging film on hooks in a big bin, the idea of going out with a 16 mm or 35 mm camera, forget it. It was just too expensive."

As he has embraced the process as much as the technology, Gibney has learned that films, and especially documentaries, are living things that one guides but doesn't control. "I think that was a revelation for me to understand that there's a part of the process that inevitably transforms a film from what you thought it was going to be to what it is," he muses. "You have to embrace what it is or it's at the film's peril. There comes a time in the cutting room where you think, 'Oh my God, we're never going to get there. We'll never solve this problem.' That used to cause me almost paralyzing anxiety. Over time I got used to the idea that it's okay not to know. You will know, you just don't know now."

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