Q&A: Alex Gibney on the fall of Eliot Spitzer

Filmmaker reveals where he thinks the real scandal lies

Opening to the tune of "New York, New York" as sung by Cat Power, Alex Gibney's latest documentary, "Client 9: The Rise and fall of Eliot Spitzer," from Magnolia and A&E Indie Films, looks at the Eliot Spitzer scandal, which forced the New York governor to resign from office in 2008. What the filmmaker unearths is more than just a tale of hypocrisy and sex -- he also suggests that a shadowy Wall Street cabal of financial and political figures conspired to bring Spitzer down. Gibney talked with THR about how he got Spitzer to talk, his foray into the world of high-class call girls and where he believes the real scandal lies.

The Hollywood Reporter: When the story broke, did you immediately see it as the subject of a documentary?

Alex Gibney:
Right after it happened, my jaw was on the floor like everybody else's. I was approached by two of the guys who helped put money into 'Taxi to the Dark Side,' and they said we should do a movie about this. I wasn't sure at first, but then I thought it over, and everybody was talking about it. So I thought, "OK, I'll do it." Then, I enlisted in my quest a guy called Peter Elkind, who was a co-author of the Enron book ["The Smartest Guys in the Room"]. He had known Eliot, written articles about him and known him at Princeton. I thought maybe together working we might get Eliot to talk.

THR: Did you also have an immediate take on the material?

Gibney: It was hard to immediately see the film. There was a spectacular event. The sheriff of Wall Street, Dudley Do-Right, suddenly does wrong. And it was right before the great economic collapse, so you couldn't help but see something weird in that. But what did it all mean? It was kind of fun from that perspective because I just went into it trying to tell the story, without thinking of the larger themes yet. What I liked about making the movie -- it's kind of like a mystery thriller. And everything you think you know, you really don't know.

THR: Was Spitzer's cooperation crucial?

Gibney: I think you have to go in thinking, "I'll do it no matter what." But it would have been a radically different movie. I went through that process with "Casino Jack." I spent a year trying to get [Jack] Abramoff to talk. I like the movie, but I think it would have been a lot better if he talked.

THR: So how did you approach Spitzer?

Gibney: He initially agreed to talk to Peter for the book. And then was very cautious about whether or not he would speak for the film. We met with him a number of times, and he finally agreed; 'OK, I'll do it.' Ultimately, he sat down four times. Our deal with him was -- if we came across something that isn't known, we'd run it by him for his comments. Which I think was fair enough.

THR: What kind of an interview subject was he?

Gibney: The interviews were hard to do. Parts were really easy because he loves to talk about the economic crisis and all that stuff. But talking about his personal behavior, that was hard. We got back from the interviews and transcribed them, and I thought, "Oh, shit, we've got nothing." But in fact when you look at them, you see quite a bit. And then I went back a final time, and he gave a little bit more. But what's interesting about him is that what you see is a man wrestling with trying to understand why he did what he did. But that's not his forte. In those interviews, he's in a zone where he's not at his best. Here's a guy with tremendous intellect, but he says himself he doesn't do much introspection.

THR: Has he seen the finished film?

Gibney: After [the] Tribeca [Film Festival, where the movie screened as a work in progress], I felt he should see it, so we arranged a screening for him. He thought the film was fair, and then he said, "I'd like you to change the ending." He's made that quip [elsewhere as well]. He knew people were going to be digging at this scab, and I think that was his motivation for participating. Rather than answer endless questions on a superficial level, let's cooperate with these two folks and then move on.

THR: You didn't succeed in getting Ashley Dupre, the escort who was at the center of all the media attention around the case.

Gibney: I tried desperately to get Ashley Dupre to talk because I thought she was the one, but she wasn't the one at all. Maybe if we had offered her money, but I don't pay people for interviews. I had an unbelievably long negotiation because she had managers, agents, a PR person. We had kind of worked out the parameters of a deal where she would agree to talk for an extended period of time, but because there was some legal jeopardy for her, we'd allow her, if she said anything she really regretted, within 24 hours she could take it back. But at the end of the day, her lawyers said, "We'd really like editorial control." And we said no. That was not going to happen. And then it turned out, she wasn't so important.

THR: Instead, you found another escort, who you identify in the film as Angelina, who had even more to do with Spitzer.

Gibney: I got to CeCe, the madam, and after having learned a lot about the enterprise, I got my hands on some interesting stuff that allowed me to find the identity of some of the escorts. In terms of Angelina -- which wasn't her name at the club but was what she picked out for this exercise -- I found people who knew her that also knew me, so I asked them to set up a meeting. She was pretty cool, I must say, but in that business, you're used to risks and a certain amount of danger. She agreed to talk as long as I not reveal her identity and her voice. Initially, I thought I'd use an electronic filter, but then I decided that was wrong. She was very affecting. Compared to all the lies other people told me, she was a truth-teller. Now, by using that standard trope [of disguising her identity], it inevitably turns them into a kind of mob-like figure -- forbidding and weird. And so I transcribed the interview, cut it down and hired an actress to perform it. To me, that gets more at who she was than doing it the other way.

THR: How about the forces lined up against Spitzer. How did you convince them to participate?

Gibney:
The first phone call when the project was announced was from [former AIG chairman] Hank Greenberg, who wanted to talk. They all wanted to rain hell down on Spitzer. Ironically, it took a long time to get him to talk because his lawyers kept saying no. But the hard part was getting Spitzer to talk. The easy part was getting his enemies.

THR: At the end of the day, do you think Spitzer should have resigned?

Gibney: I thought about that a lot. Look, I think what Clinton did was much worse. Sex in the oval office with your intern while you're conducting the country's business? No. But I think Clinton, who was an inveterate charmer, had a lot of political friends and allies and somehow with the most egregious lying, he weathered the storm. Spitzer -- while he didn't think much of the hypocrisy while he was doing what he was doing -- after the fact suddenly thought, "Can I really stay as governor having done what I did?" He had also created a lot of enemies, even in his own party.

THR: At the time there was also the threat of a federal indictment.

Gibney: I believe that that was just bullshit. I believe that was another tool in the toolbox to force Spitzer to resign. That was always the goal of the investigation: to humiliate him publicly without any warning and then to have these charges, which were phony charges, hanging over his head. Interestingly enough, they didn't drop the idea of filing charges until after the fall elections. How political is that?

THR: Your film is coming out just as Spitzer starts his new show on CNN. How do you think that will play?

Gibney: I have no clue. Our film is opening in theaters Nov. 5, but we are releasing it on Ultra-VOD on Oct. 1. And I believe his first show goes up Oct. 4. So now there's a whole new meta-chapter. Now he's a TV personality, and that's starting the same time our film comes out. I think CNN's view is not unlike Eliot's: There's going to be a lot of questions asked; this film raises some, but it also answers some. It puts what he did in a certain kind of context.
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