In 2017, director Marina Zenovich had just finished the HBO doc Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind when she received an unexpected call from ESPN’s Libby Geist, who wanted to gauge the filmmaker’s interest in disgraced pro cyclist Lance Armstrong. “Libby was like, ‘I think he’s willing to tell his story.’ So, I went and I met him, and I was intrigued,” Zenovich recalls. After that brief meeting, she signed on and spent the next 18 months shooting interviews for the project, unraveling the man behind the heroic rise — to one of the world’s most recognized and decorated athletes — and epic crash in 2013, when he admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs.
The result is the documentary LANCE, which made its world premiere at the Marc Theatre in Sundance on Jan. 27, drawing such notables in the audience as Huma Abedin and former pro cyclist Jonathan Vaughters, who is featured in the film. ESPN is expected to debut the doc — a riveting battle of the wills between Armstrong and Zenovich — in the fall. The director behind Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic and the Emmy-winning Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in Park City to discuss her latest complicated protagonist and how she’s at work on a new film about former California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Why Lance? Where does he fit in the Marina Zenovich canon of complicated men?
I knew that Robin Williams was friends with him, so there was some overlap there. Robin Williams’ manager was telling me [Williams] was at this Livestrong event after Lance had been stripped of his titles and how it was this weird event, everybody there was walking around like zombies. And there were these intriguing things that I was just curious about. It became this 18-month ride of following him and trying to get him to open up. I went toe to toe with him, which I kind of pride myself on and certainly is something I really love to do. It was incredibly liberating to feel like I could say anything to him and sometimes he was taken aback.
How would you describe the dynamic between the two of you?
It was a game. Even though Lance was telling me that he was going to be honest with me, I was in some ways the new opponent for him to win over. I knew on some level that he was trying to manipulate me, but I’m trying to manipulate him at the same time. By the last shoot, I didn’t want it to be over. My DP kept saying, “OK, it’s over.” I’m like, “I don’t want it to be over.” Because it was so challenging, and I just love that. I became a character without [the audience] seeing me because I’m pushing him. I knew that people would want me to ask the hard questions.
In the film, you are warned that he will try to shape the narrative. Do you think he ultimately succeeded?
It may be a tie [laughs]. I think in his heart of hearts, he wanted [the film] to be shaped differently, even though what was presented to him was very straightforward. And he knew that I had an open heart and wanted to hear him. But I also had to speak the truth, and I don’t know if he expected that. He was going to let me speak to his therapist, and she didn’t want to go on camera, but he let her talk to me. And it was fascinating to me because I’m a very compassionate person, and I try to understand people and give them the benefit of the doubt. It was great to have her help me understand where he was, and I was trying to work within that in my own understanding of him. I think that he trusted me. Having said that, I think it’s still hard for him to see the truth. I think this film can be something that could help him process. I think he thinks he’s processed, but I don’t know if he’s processed enough. And I think it’s a lot to process. But he was really courageous. You’ve got to give him credit for trying.
What kind of feedback have you received from him on the film?
Well, he liked certain parts, and he didn’t like other parts. That’s okay. I didn’t expect him to like the whole thing. The first part is very much a rise. And then the fall. But you can’t have the fall unless you know the rise, and you need to know the origin story. It’s this balance of the human being who has a life and kids and a partner. But there’s the flip side, the people who feel that he really screwed them over and bullied them. It’s another one of those that I had to be really careful. He’s so polarizing. But those are the best kinds.
What moment in the film do you think is most revealing of Lance’s true character?
The moment when he says, “I lost it all in 48 hours. Yup. Wouldn’t change a thing. I work for myself now.”
Do you think he really believes that, that he wouldn’t change a thing?
I believe him when he says “I wouldn’t change a thing because what happened got me to where I am today.” So, I do believe him. I don’t know if others do. Am I a sucker? I don’t think so. I feel like he’s gone through a lot to get to the other side. What’s interesting is if you take away [the downfall], you still have a retired athlete, right? Which is a story in itself. It’s like what is the next phase of his life? It’s further complicated by what happened. But he’s only 48 years old. I feel like I was kind of a therapist in some ways to him. And he hated it, but he liked it. My last interview with him, he was just like, “You think I hate this, but I kinda like it.” And everybody in the editing room thought that last interview, I really nailed it.
What are you working on now?
A film about former Gov. Jerry Brown. I wanted to make a film about him forever. My dad was in the legislature and served under him and his dad, and so I knew him as a kid. I just always found him to be an incredibly curious, spiritual intellectual who wasn’t a politician and became one. So it’s grappling with idealism and what it is to be a politician and how can we inspire young people through his story. Not everyone agrees with what he did, but he’s just really compelling.
Name a person you would most like to tackle?
At a certain point, I was going to make a movie about [Nicolas] Sarkozy, but that didn’t happen. I’m kind of fascinated by Boris Johnson. Pedro Almodovar would be really interesting too.