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.
There's an interesting common denominator in all your films this year. Whether you're talking to politicians or musicians, performers or sports figures, you're dealing with people who put on public faces. Is it your job to come in and strip some of that away? How much are you prosecutors when you're making a film?
Gibney: One of the interesting things about Errol's film was that he presents Rumsfeld as the one who's trying to present a face for himself. He presents himself in such a forceful way as someone who has no regret.
Walker: And I have a brain-injured person in my film who has cognitive dissonance. He's living in this reality where he's fine and he can get back on a snowboard and get back to the top of the Olympics podium. In reality, he's got a severe traumatic brain injury. And there's an interesting responsibility when you have relationships with these conflicting personae. We have the power over how people appear. We can make them say things they don't say. And there's this huge responsibility with that.
Toback: I was stunned at how easy it was to get these iconic figures, Scorsese, Coppola, Bertolucci, Polanski, Ryan Gosling, to trust that I was going to make them look … not good, but look like who they are, which was my goal as those portraits are fundamental to the film. Alec Baldwin is great at that stuff. He's the most nonprosecutorial, subtle, almost sneaky interviewer alive. He lets people relax and draws them out. These are public figures and [I think they like the idea] of taking a vacation from the public face. I wouldn't be surprised if that's one of the reasons Rumsfeld [agreed to be interviewed by Errol].
Neville: Trust is a key currency because with trust you get intimacy. For me, it was all about establishing this intimacy with these musicians and these women who, for the most part, didn't want to go on camera. You think most people want to go on camera, but these singers have made their own bargain with themselves about what their relationship was going to be with fame. And it was really about telling them they could trust me with their stories.
You've got some great people like Darlene Love front and center. But you say there also were singers who ultimately wouldn't sit with you?
Neville: Yeah, but even singers who did sit with me didn't always want to in the beginning. And Darlene was one of those. They just felt so burned by the industry -- and that I was somebody else who was going to exploit them.
There's a famous quote from Janet Malcolm, who says that all journalists are basically confidence men who gain their subject's confidence and then betray their trust. Do you ever feel that as documentary filmmakers?
Walker: It's actually surprisingly easy to make people look ridiculous, to egg them on, to make them do extraordinary things. And you have this tremendous responsibility. I don't think it's that hard to push people, and it's our job to use that force wisely.
Teller: When we did the Bullshit! series for Showtime, we always liked to brag it was highly biased and very fair. (Laughter.) At times we had situations like you guys described; once we had nuts who believed in extraterrestrials. We wanted to let them get their case out there. And we wanted to let them look as foolish as they wanted to be. But there was one with really bad teeth. And we couldn't use him because his bad teeth prejudiced the viewer against him. And what we wanted was for him to be able to deliver his case, and the home viewer to go, "That guy's crazy." (Laughter.)
Gibney: You have to imagine showing the film not to some random audience, but to the subject himself or herself. And you've got to be able to defend it, to look them in the eye and say, "I feel like this was truthful in some larger sense." In another film I made, I made murderers too sympathetic in the cutting room because I had great sympathy for them. They were young men. They were put in a very difficult position. I sometimes show rough cuts to people and based on what people said, they felt, "Oh gosh, these guys were victims." I thought, "Well, there's a real victim; that's the person who was killed."º And if that's what people are coming away with then something must be missing.