Alex Gibney on "Fever of Rage" That Motivated the COVID-19 Doc 'Totally Under Control'

Alex Gibney attends the Los Angeles special screening of "Why We Hate" - Getty-H 2019
Rachel Luna/Getty Images

The Oscar- and Emmy-winning documentarian reflects in THR's 'Awards Chatter' podcast about being a late bloomer, how he manages to be so prolific and what he learned while making his latest doc, a portrait of Trump's bungled response to COVID-19.

"I was running a fever of rage over how badly the [COVID-19] response was being handled by the federal government," says the Oscar- and Emmy-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney on The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast as we discuss what inspired his latest documentary, Totally Under Control, which he directed with his Jigsaw Productions colleagues Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger.

The trio began work on the film last spring with the goal of determining if the deadly mistakes of President Donald Trump and his administration had been avoidable, and then sharing their findings with the world before the Nov. 3 presidential election. Says Gibney, "It felt like if that was true, and we're in an election year, then this is important information for voters to have."

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You can listen to the episode here. The article continues below.

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Gibney, 67, was born in New York and raised across New England, the son of an academic and the stepson of an activist. He went off to Yale University initially to study Japanese, his father's area of expertise, but soon "caught the bug" of film and filmmaking through campus screenings of documentary productions like Gimme Shelter and narrative productions like The Exterminating Angel. After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA Film School, which he "absolutely loved," but dropped out when he landed a job working at the Samuel Goldwyn Co. cutting trailers, re-editing films made by others and eventually serving as a film editor in his own right.

For years thereafter, he moved around the industry cobbling together a living while hoping to one day have the chance to direct films of his own. "Slowly but surely," he recalls, he began getting the opportunity to make docs for television. And then he landed a job as a producer on a Martin Scorsese-EP'd docuseries called The Blues (2003), on which he worked closely with the likes of Wim Wenders and other prominent directors. "That was a game-changer for me because I got to see up-close how fiction film directors treated documentary," he explains. "They had great respect for real-life, but at the same time they had a stylistic vision of how they wanted to be the authors of those films. And that changed everything for me."

Two years later, at the age of 52, Gibney became a noted director in his own right with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), an edgy doc that landed him his first Oscar nomination. Over the years since, he has been as prolific and lauded as any doc filmmaker, along the way picking up an Oscar for 2007's Taxi to the Dark Side, an Emmy for 2015' Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Peabody awards for Taxi, Going Clear, 2012's Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, 2014's Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown and 2016's Zero Days. And in 2013, the International Documentary Association presented him with its career achievement award.

Totally Under Control features all of the ingredients of Gibney's best work: revealing interviews (including a jaw-dropped with one twentysomething Max Kennedy, who worked for Jared Kushner trying to procure PPE during the early days of the pandemic); stylish visuals (including many captured using a 'COVID-cam' invented to allow the filmmakers to interview people remotely); dark humor; and, ultimately, exposure of people who — through some combination of corruption, hypocrisy, ignorance, self-deception and abuse of power — have wronged others and cannot be allowed to get away with it.

Gibney's ultimate conclusion about Trump, who was diagnosed with COVID himself a day after the film was in the can (a fact acknowledged with a post-credits card)? He was aware of how dangerous COVID was and is, but turned a blind eye to try to preserve his own prospects in the 2020 election. "It was just purely for self-motivated political advantage," says Gibney. "He thought, 'Maybe the virus won't be that bad, the economy will still be great." But, Gibney emphasizes, "He knew, and that's the damning part of this. It's not incompetence; it's willful denial."

Totally Under Control, which was made with Neon, dropped on Apple TV+, iTunes, Amazon, FandangoNow, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu and other on-demand digital services on Oct. 13, and has been available since Oct. 20 on Hulu.