Roundtable: 6 Documentarians on Lance Armstrong's Lies and Alec Baldwin's Secret Talent
Alex Gibney ("The Armstrong Lie"), Errol Morris ("The Unknown Known"), Morgan Neville ("20 Feet From Stardom"), Teller ("Tim's Vermeer"), James Toback ("Seduced and Abandoned") and Lucy Walker ("The Crash Reel") tell the truth about telling the truth in THR's first documentarian roundtable.
Morgan, you've done a lot of music documentaries. Why did you decide to focus on backup singers in 20 Feet From Stardom?
Morgan Neville: When you make a documentary, you shoot a movie and then you write a script. And that was very much the case here. My producer Gil Friesen came to me and said: "Backup singers. I think there's something interesting about them." And I tried to do research but I couldn't because nothing had been done. So we went out and spent three months interviewing 50 backup singers. Very quickly I realized there was this incredible world and these incredible artists who completely upset every misconception I had about them. From then on it came together pretty quickly. The horrible irony is that this was Gil's baby and he died just weeks before we premiered at Sundance. So he never got to see the film come out, but he believed in it more than anybody.
Jim, I know you and Alec Baldwin went to Cannes in search of a film. What did you think you were going to find?
James Toback: The idea was, we were going to do a movie together no matter what. We just didn't know what it would be. We finally fixed on what we called tentatively Last Tango in Tikrit, but in case we didn't get the money for Last Tango in Tikrit -- which we were going to Cannes to do -- I at least wanted to know we would be able to make a movie about the quest to make it. Secretly, I was more interested in the idea of doing an unscripted, documentary-like film about the joys of actually making a movie and the horrors of trying to get the money. As Orson Welles says in the quote that sets up the movie, "I look back on my life as a filmmaker and it's 95 percent running around trying to get money and 5 percent actually making them. It's no way to live."
Lucy Walker: 98 percent. That's his quote.
Toback: Is it 98? Oh my God. We need to correct that.
Lucy, The Crash Reel looks at the rivalry between two snowboarders, Kevin Pearce, who had a near-fatal accident just before the 2010 Winter Games, and Shaun White. Why was this an attractive subject to you?
Walker: I like watching extreme sports because my eyeballs are kind of sucked out of my head at these extraordinary acrobatic feats that these young people are doing. At the same time, I have this urge to jump in and tie those kids down before they get hurt because the stakes are life and death. When I met Kevin, it was his first excursion after the accident. And my first thought was, "Olympic hopeful crashes." It's a sad two-note story. It took me a little while to see the potential for a bigger story. And it was when I started to observe that Kevin was desperate to get back on a snowboard, despite his doctors telling him that if he hit his head again he would die. And I thought, "My God, is it possible that we're going to have some kind of Rocky-type comeback? Or, more likely, is he going to crash and die?" Or is he going to dig deep and transform in some way we can't anticipate yet? I had no idea where it was going, but I knew it would be interesting.
Alex, what's it like when you start out expecting to make one sort of film and then have it change midway through? You certainly had that experience with your Lance Armstrong movie.
Alex Gibney: Well, it was a five-year process. I started out to make a comeback story. And it went from Breaking Away to Breaking Bad. So I had to follow that curve. In a way, it became a peculiar process of actually reinvestigating my own first film, which hadn't been finished, and going back in and looking at it in a completely new way. And for the other film I did that came out this year [We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks], nobody would talk to me. With that one, I started out thinking I was going to make a film about Julian Assange. And Assange wouldn't talk to me. But that ended up driving me to investigate Bradley Manning -- now Chelsea Manning -- who had been the forgotten figure in all of this. But the challenge was, How do you present her if she's in prison? We elected to actually use her chats, her printed chats, which I had never done before, which was terrifying. And then I had Lance Armstrong, who talked a lot, but you couldn't believe anything that he said.
Toback: Were you ever suspicious about him from the beginning?
Gibney: Yeah. I mean, the interesting thing about the Armstrong lie is that it was a lie that was hiding in plain sight. Even from the start of the comeback story, you know, you could look at the allegations, starting in 1999, and there were very credible allegations that he had doped, which were covered up by the UCI [the Switzerland-based International Cycling Union]. But one of the interesting things that happened, which I then reflected on in the film, was that as part of following him -- I was embedded in the Armstrong Army -- I became convinced that in 2009 he was clean. But it was interesting, the psychological process I had to go through.