Oscar-Winning Filmmaker Alex Gibney Talks New Roger Ailes, FBI Docs and Taking on Scientology
Gibney also opens up about the negative reactions he's gotten from some of his subjects ("nasty 'you're going to hell' letters") and the secret to making a successful documentary.
Alex Gibney couldn't give away his first documentary feature. The Trials of Henry Kissinger, a brutal indictment of the former secretary of state culled from Christopher Hitchens' controversial tome (directed by Eugene Jarecki with a screenplay by Gibney), had no distributor in the U.S. But after a buzzy run at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in 2002 ("People were hawking tickets," recalls Gibney), a small distributor took it. "It played at [New York's] Film Forum four or five months. It made me realize, wow, if you can make something entertaining enough, then it can be seen by a lot of people."
Gibney's films are as entertaining as their subjects are consequential: sex abuse in the Catholic Church (Mea Maxima Culpa); CIA black sites (2006's Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side); corporate chicanery (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and corruption (Dirty Money; Netflix is close to ordering more); cyberwarfare (Zero Days). He's built a mini-empire in lower Manhattan, Jigsaw Productions, with about a dozen permanent employees and up to 100 more there on any given day. He's developing a doc about Roger Ailes, the late founder of Fox News, for A+E's film division, and one on the FBI inspired by Tim Weiner's book Enemies for Showtime.
It was his sale of a 50 percent stake in Jigsaw to U.K.-based Content Media (now Kew Media) in 2012 that allowed Gibney to establish a veritable doc empire. Before that deal, "it was just me, an assistant and a part-time bookkeeper," he says. "Then I had to make a decision: Do I keep doing that or do I build a company? But building a company then meant it's not just me anymore. The idea wasn't to build it like in a strict, hierarchical, top-down manner where all the films reflect my personal vision. Just the opposite."
That meant supporting the work of other documentary filmmakers: Alexis Bloom, who co-directed HBO's Bright Lights, about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, is directing the Ailes documentary, and there were several directors on Dirty Money, including Erin Lee Carr and Fisher Stevens.
Gibney, 64, got his start in the editing department at the Samuel Goldwyn Co.; he directed a few TV documentaries and dabbled in journalism. His "nadir" came in his late 20s when he wrote a piece about an all-night pet ER for a publication sponsored by a dog food company. "The idea that one would actually do that for money seems almost absurd now," he says.
Lately, the married dad of three grown children (one of his sons works at Jigsaw) has segued to scripted. He's in discussions with Hulu for a second season of The Looming Tower; "It was designed as a limited series, but we're pondering." And he's securing financing for his first narrative feature: The Action, about anti-war activists who exposed J. Edgar Hoover's campaign of spying and blackmail. "When you're working in scripted, you're dealing with a huge machine," he says. "It's like the difference between being part of a small guerilla force that's meant to go into Abbottabad in the middle of the night and shock and awe."
The streaming services don't distribute metrics. Is it difficult not to have that yardstick?
It is challenging. But you know what? They have ways of letting you know when something you've made has been successful. They call you up and they say, "I can't tell you how, but I can tell you it's been really successful." So apparently Dirty Money was hugely successful, not only domestically but internationally and in ways I think that Netflix didn't expect, which was that people binged it.
Has the Ailes story shifted or expanded in the wake of Weinstein and the #MeToo avalanche?
What's interesting about that story is that that becomes part of the DNA of the place he created. So vitriol and abuse suddenly become part of a kind of weird recombinant DNA embodied in this guy who invented Fox News.
There's been a lot of dissection of Trump's role as a catalyst for the #MeToo reckoning because his apparent misogyny did not keep him from getting elected. Is there a definitive Trump documentary? What might it look like?
I don't know about the definitive Trump documentary. He is such a shape-shifter. This thing we're doing for Showtime, it's that tension between the president and the person who works for him, the FBI director. And you can see that throughout history. Dirty Money was very specifically and intentionally [focused on Trump's businesses]. The weird trap with Trump is, sometimes you can cover him too much because he is sort of demanding that you do. And sometimes the best antidote is to avert your eyes. (Laughs.) Or not to avert your eyes but to really focus on what's happening. Because he is taking a wrecking ball to the American government, a wrecking ball, with the complicity of the GOP Congress. This is Reagan on some kind of super steroid; we're going to just destroy government and all that's going to be left is an army and big business. That's it. Everything else will be gone.
When one Googles your name and Going Clear, the first thing that comes up is …
The Scientology hate sites, yup.
Vilifying perceived enemies is a common tactic for them. What do you think has been the fallout for Scientology of your 2015 documentary Going Clear?
Scientology is shrinking massively, daily. And weirdly, that may result in it being a better business, but it's not at all an influential religion anymore. A number of heroic journalists had taken on Scientology over the years, but the combined one-two punch of Going Clear, the book [by Lawrence Wright], and then Going Clear, the doc, allowed a lot of people to come forward that had left the church but remained silent. Then it reverberated inside the church, and more people left. So it had a pretty big impact. But if you have a church that has billions of dollars and enormous real estate holdings, which are tax exempt, and you have fewer and fewer adherents to cater to, it turns out to be a pretty good business. So as a business I suspect it will survive. And the IRS has been notably cowardly about going after them.
Have you seen the Leah Remini show?
Yeah, I've seen it. Leah's good, and she continues to chronicle it. I think there is a weird fascination with cults, and part of that is, "Oh, look at those weird people, aren't they odd?" But what I've tried to do in Going Clear, and what I think Larry had done in his book, is to say, there but for the grace of God go I. When you are at the mercy of a cult, sometimes you go further than you might want to. But the idea that we get trapped in a belief system and can't get out, that is more of a universal thing.
When you watch documentaries, do you ever think, "Oh, I wish I had done that"?
It's hard to think "Do I wish I had done that?" but I do come away from some docs thinking, "Wow, that was great." And it is inspiring. I can remember going to the Toronto Film Festival one year and back-to-back I saw Stories We Tell and The Gatekeepers and I was gobsmacked by both of them. I thought they were so great for very different reasons. And you kind of want to get out of your comfort zone, too. Talk about the prison of belief. I think we all keep plowing the same ground in some weird way, which is good because sometimes you can go deeper. But sometimes you get in a rut too. And seeing great docs like that gets you out of your rut.
How influential was The Jinx in terms of what you can do with a documentary?
If you think about it, it starts off with body parts and a murder mystery, so already you're interested. But it spins it out over a long period of time. What made it hugely influential was its serialized mystery. It helped usher in a new form.
What do you most need to make a successful documentary? Access?
No, I don't think so. I've had that argument with people. [WikiLeaks documentary] We Steal Secrets, which may not have been as watched [when it premiered] because so many people were so invested in seeing Julian Assange as a hero — there are not so many people invested in that anymore — was about Julian, but we couldn't get access to him. We found ways around it and then we discovered in the process Chelsea Manning [who became a focal point of the film]. So the access thing can be good, but it can also be a trap. Because there have been great access films and terrible access films where you've got access, but mostly it's following people getting in and out of limousines. And it feels like access, but it's fake access.
Newsrooms have endured painful cuts. Do you think documentaries have expanded to fill that void?
It seems like they have. I hope we solve this Facebook-Google problem, and then maybe print gets its financial legs back. But docs are not so much like news. They're like the long magazine articles and/or nonfiction books where you can feel the voice of the author. And they have taken an important place in the public sphere, which is great. Every once in a while, they take off and they enter the national conversation in an unexpected way. It doesn't always happen. With a few of my docs it's happened; Enron was definitely one. I call them taxi driver docs. If the taxi drivers are talking about them, or Uber drivers now that taxis are disappearing, then you know it's kind of a hit.
You've done a lot of films that have been very unflattering to powerful people and institutions. Have you ever felt personally unsafe?
Not really. It can be uncomfortable. I remember being trolled after the WikiLeaks [film] by the left, which I didn't really expect. And it took a while to process that. It actually helped me prepare for Scientology. Julian's followers and the Scientologists were weirdly similar in that way and also in the way that they would rapaciously lie. So I was ready. But sometimes it gets a little bit disquieting. I got a lot of nasty "you're going to hell" letters in the wake of Mea Maxima Culpa. But if you're going to go there, you've got to be ready for the territory. And I think the wisest advice I got was from a former Scientologist who said, "They're going to try to get into your head. Know that they're doing it and don't let them get there." It's not easy to do but if you externalize it, you realize it's coming, it's part of the job. It's like if you're going to be in an emergency room, you're going to expect some blood.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.