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.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Maybe it's time to stop calling the films they make "documentaries" -- that word sounds so dull, educational, earnest, "a hangover from the old days when documentaries were supposed to teach simple lessons," says Alex Gibney. An Oscar winner for 2007's Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney, 60, worked overtime this year, directing both We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and The Armstrong Lie, which began as a chronicle of Lance Armstrong's comeback attempt at the 2009 Tour de France and turned into something darker when the athlete finally admitted to doping. And when Gibney joined five of his fellow documentary filmmakers for THR's first Documentarian Roundtable, if there was one point of consensus, it was that their films should be called simply "films."
After all, they offer up a lot more human drama than most cookie-cutter studio movies. The Crash Reel, directed by Lucy Walker (who declined to give her age), follows snowboarder Kevin Pearce as he fights a traumatic brain injury; 20 Feet From Stardom, from Morgan Neville, 46, pays tribute to the unsung backup singers behind superstars from David Bowie to Mick Jagger; and Tim's Vermeer, directed by Teller, 65 (the silent half of the Penn & Teller magic act), follows an obsessive inventor as he sets out to prove a theory about the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. Also joining in the conversation were James Toback, 60, whose Seduced and Abandoned, a valentine to the art and commerce of movies, recounts a 2012 visit to Cannes he and Alec Baldwin took in an attempt to raise financing for a movie, and Errol Morris -- an Oscar winner for 2003's The Fog of War -- who turned his camera on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for The Unknown Known.
During their spirited conversation, they discussed the sense of responsibility they feel when approaching real-life subjects; Gibney rejected the 60 Minutes model that interviews have to be prosecutorial exercises leading to "gotcha" moments; and the slyly provocative Morris explained why Bruno, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, should have been a best picture winner.
Feature filmmakers work from a script, so they know in which direction they're headed. But with documentaries, it has to be much more unpredictable. Errol, how did you manage to convince Donald Rumsfeld to allow you to film him?
Errol Morris: I wrote him a letter. He invited me to Washington. I met with him in his office. We spent four hours together. Much to my surprise, probably to many people's surprise, he agreed to talk to me.
Morris: You probably should ask him. People ask this question as though I had some privileged access to his mind. He probably did it for many, many reasons.
Teller: Did he know your work?
Morris: He told me that he had seen The Fog of War, my film about a former secretary of defense like himself, Robert McNamara. And he told me he hated the movie.
Teller, your film is about a man, Tim Jenison, who spent almost 10 years exploring a theory about how the Dutch artist Vermeer painted his pictures using a device that combines a system of mirrors and a camera obscura. When did you become involved and know that there was a film there?
Teller: Penn [Jillette] learned about Tim's project over dinner in Las Vegas. I saw Tim's device and I thought it was plausible. So I got involved very early on, but I still didn't know until about the last year what the film was going to be. He might have failed. And at one point I actually said to him, "Tim, are you going to succeed?" And he said, "But of course -- if I don't succeed there won't be a movie, right?" I said, "Oh, there will be a movie."