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This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Lance Armstrong is not mad at Alex Gibney. No, not even though Gibney’s 2013 documentary, which was supposed to be about Armstrong’s triumphant emergence from retirement to compete in the Tour de France, turned out to be an exposé on doping called The Armstrong Lie.
“I remember vividly when he reached out to me to tell me he had selected the title,” Armstrong says. “I said, ‘OK, it doesn’t make me feel great,’ but I don’t blame him. I did lie. What the f— are you going to say?” He still thinks Gibney portrayed him as more untruthful than he actually was, but he admires the filmmaker’s brains as well as his willingness to tackle subject matter such as that of Gibney’s new film. “This Scientology thing — that just takes a huge set to take on,” Armstrong says. “But he has the courage to do it.”
Gibney’s film, based on Lawrence Wright‘s 2013 best-seller Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, is set to become one of the most-talked-about documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival. The exhaustively researched (and lawyered) exploration of the controversial church and its ties to Hollywood is set for a Jan. 25 premiere at the MARC Theater and will air March 16 on HBO after an awards-qualifying theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles.
Going Clear is the latest film to emerge from what has become Gibney’s amazingly prolific factory of awards-magnet documentaries. (Having written about Scientology over the years, I should state that I am a talking head in the film.) It features vintage footage of enigmatic church founder L. Ron Hubbard as he builds his empire as well as rare sequences shot inside Scientology gatherings, some of which include the church’s biggest star, Tom Cruise.
“I think what viewers will get from this is a visceral sense of what it’s like to be inside the church,” says Gibney. Hint: a lot of upbeat oratory from church head David Miscavige, often followed by rapturous applause. The film brings to life much of the material covered in Wright’s book — one former church member alleges on camera that Miscavige privately heaped ridicule on aspects of Cruise’s personal life — but there is also material that was not in the book and is being kept secret until the premiere.
Featuring interviews with several fallen-away high-level church officials, the film paints a damning portrait of the involvement of Scientology’s highest-profile members, Cruise and John Travolta, which continues despite numerous allegations against the church that claim forced labor and other abuse under Miscavige’s leadership. At one point, Wright ponders what might curb Miscavige’s power. The IRS could strip Scientology of its nonprofit status, he muses, or “some of these celebrity megaphones could turn against the church. And Tom Cruise should be leading that chorus.”
Representatives for Cruise and Travolta declined to comment on the film (which they obviously haven’t seen). On Jan. 16, the Church of Scientology took out full-page ads denouncing the film in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, featuring a large photo of Gibney. A headline, alluding to a notorious article on campus rape that did not stand up to scrutiny, asks, “Is Alex Gibney’s Upcoming HBO ‘Documentary’ a Rolling Stone/UVA Redux?” The text that follows alleges that the movie relies on discredited sources. “The ad speaks for itself,” says Scientology spokeswoman Karen Pouw in an email to THR, adding that Gibney and HBO have not provided the church with the allegations in the film, so it could respond. (Gibney says he approached church members and officials and was either rebuffed or asked to comply with what he calls “unreasonable conditions.”) While the church supports free speech, Pouw adds, “Free speech is not a free pass to broadcast or publish false information.”
Gibney (right) with Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal and Wright at the 2010 premiere of My Trip to Al-Qaeda
Certainly the film includes extensive interviews with former longtime church members, including Crash director Paul Haggis, Miscavige lieutenant Mike Rinder and Spanky Taylor, who says she worked in the church’s Los Angeles Celebrity Centre and was Travolta’s liaison until she fell out of favor with Scientology officials and was forced into a prison-like setting that wouldn’t meet Geneva Convention standards. Taylor recounts her dramatic 1978 escape with her baby — a story that she revealed for the first time in Wright’s book — in her first and likely only on-camera interview. Though she spoke to THR, she says she will not talk to the media in connection with the film.
“I was certainly courted by NBC and a lot of people to be a spokesperson for Larry’s book,” she says. “But I have not been part of the church for decades. And I have a healthy respect for what they’re capable of doing to their critics.” Still, she felt that Wright, who had done Pulitzer-winning work, offered the best opportunity to tell her story if she was ever going to tell it. And Gibney, with an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, his 2007 film about torture and the war on terror, also seemed like the right choice. “He sent me a great body of his work,” Taylor says, including his Emmy-winning 2012 film, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, which explored pedophilia in the Catholic Church. “I was very impressed. I thought he was unbiased and honest and forthright.”
At 61, Gibney, a soft-spoken, married father of three grown kids, says he is not opposed to telling uplifting tales, but he does seem to repel them. Torture, pedophilia, financial malfeasance (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and a prostitution scandal (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) contributed to his being recognized in 2013 with a career achievement award by the International Documentary Association. He attempts to make each of his films a cinematic experience rather than a straight-ahead narration. He’s got a number of music documentaries under his belt (among them Finding Fela! and Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown), but Gibney is best known for his unerring instinct for flawed, delusional characters like the subject of Client 9. “Spitzer and his aides would always talk about how powerful people had it in for him and he had to be super-careful,” Gibney says. “And then he’d call 22-year-old Ceci [Suwal] about an escort. Lance Armstrong — everybody in the world is gunning for him so [he thinks], ‘I’m going to come out of retirement and challenge everybody all over again.’ ”
When Gibney agreed to make the Armstrong film, he was hoping it would be an inspirational story for a change — but as the truth about the cyclist’s doping became undeniable, the director tossed a completed version and started over. Armstrong acknowledges that he was aware of Gibney’s reputation for thorough reporting going in. “That was always the word, that this guy will get to the truth,” he says. So why allow Gibney to film him? “At that point in my life, I felt totally invincible,” he says, then adds, “Let’s not try to go back to try to figure out what the f— Lance Armstrong was thinking.”
Wright met Gibney in 2006 when the author was doing a one-man show called My Trip to Al-Qaeda, which Gibney turned into a film. (Wright won the Pulitzer for his 2006 book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.) “I felt an immediate kinship with him because he’s a very aggressive reporter, and I love people like that,” Wright says. “I find him to be a great collaborator. We rarely disagree trying to decide what’s the story to tell. He does so much work, it’s a miracle what he’s accomplished, but it’s because he knows what story is.”
Wright sent Gibney the galleys of his Scientology book before it was published. Given his experience on his film about the Catholic Church, Gibney was intrigued. He had observed himself, a lapsed Catholic, bristling when he accompanied his wife to her Protestant church and the congregation recited a longer version of the Lord’s prayer than the one used in Catholic services. “Even though I didn’t believe, I was adamant about not saying this Protestant version,” he says. “It’s that terrifying certainty: ‘I am this, not that. This is right and the other version is wrong.’ ” With Scientology, he says, “I wanted to get deeper into what [Wright] calls the prison of belief.”
HBO came aboard with much of the financing (the total cost was in the low six-figures). Sheila Nevins, the channel’s president of documentary films, recently joked to THR that the network had “probably 160 lawyers” vet the material. Those involved with the film are wondering what, if anything, Scientology might do in response, whether via lawyers or protestors at the Park City premiere. In years past, the church was known for extreme litigiousness and hardball tactics. “Their reputation precedes them,” Gibney says. “They scare everybody.”
So far there have been legal threat letters, but Wright notes that he had those for his book and an article in The New Yorker that came before it. He also says he’s heard that a private investigator has been asking questions about him, and recently a reporter from a Scientology magazine turned up at a gig of his Austin-based band, WhoDo. (Wright plays keyboard and sings.) “I’m a little afraid they’re going to publish a picture of me in a country western outfit,” he jokes.
Even as the Scientology film taxis down the runway, Gibney is at work on a multiplicity of other projects, including a Frank Sinatra film for HBO and an online TV version of The New Yorker for Amazon. He appears to have cracked the toughest of nuts: how to crank out quality documentaries without falling into a time-sucking morass of financing and licensing troubles.
Gibney developed his multitasking skills by accident when, while confronted with delays in making his 2008 film Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, he started working on Taxi to the Dark Side: “Just by happenstance I had two films in the cutting room at the same time, and I actually found it engaging and useful.”
He handles almost all the interviewing and directing himself and has a producer on each project to keep the films on track. Working on one film at a time would lead to frustration, as investigative movies take time to tease out. “You never know when somebody’s going to talk,” he says. “We get breaks pretty late in the game, usually. If we had rushed films out, they never would have been movies, they would have been reports.” On Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney didn’t get the brutally revealing audiotapes of the company’s energy traders talking among themselves until the recordings surfaced in court proceedings at the last minute. “Everybody remembers the electricity traders laughing about taking down the grid,” he says.
Cruise, speaking at a Scientology event in 2004, is a topic of discussion in Going Clear
Gibney has practical reasons for working on many projects at once, but he admits he also needs the action. As a staunchly sleep-resistant infant, he got the childhood nickname Tiger. And when his own son was diagnosed with mild attention deficit disorder in high school, Gibney says, “I realized that I probably had something like that, too.” He tried the medication Concerta but stopped when it made him feel “hyperfocused.” (“Sometimes it’s nice to hear birds sing,” he says.)
Born in New York City, Gibney was raised outside Boston. His Catholic journalist father and atheist mother, who was head of health education for Boston Children’s Hospital, divorced when he was 3. (Gibney was nonetheless raised as a Catholic.) He lives in Summit, N.J., with his wife of more than 30 years, Anne DeBevoise, and is the father of three children, ages 29, 26 and 19.
After graduating from Yale with a focus on Japanese literature, Gibney went to UCLA film school but left before he finished, getting a job with the Samuel Goldwyn Co. “I did a little bit of everything,” he says. “I recut a Paul Verhoeven movie. I recut [Bill Forsyth‘s 1981 film] Gregory’s Girl. That’s not a source of pride, but I did insist we telex them to tell them the changes we were making.”
For years, success eluded him. “It was just brutal,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in the wilderness, doing occasional writing gigs and God knows what all.” In 1992, he produced and wrote a PBS program about the rise of modern Asia that won an Emmy and other awards. “I was just waiting for the phone to ring,” he says. “It was a long wait. I learned: If you’re an independent, you always have to have one or two things going. The timing doesn’t work out the way you want. Something falls through or the estate that you thought had the rights to material doesn’t, so you work on more than one project.”
The game-changer for Gibney came when he was hired to work on the eight-part Martin Scorsese-produced series The Blues, which launched on HBO in 2003. “It taught me — wow — you can do docs and do them with the mind-set of a feature film director,” he says. When Mark Cuban was attempting to launch the HDNet channel in the early 2000s, Gibney pitched him the idea for the Enron movie. Gibney was instructed to submit a proposal that was less than a page long. He got a yes. “What I’ve always liked about Mark is it’s never the Hollywood answer: ‘I love this project,’ meaning there’s no way in hell I’m going to do this. ‘It’s so smart,’ meaning I don’t see any commercial potential,” Gibney says. The film “was financially successful, critically successful, and it was nominated for an Oscar. Suddenly there was a model.”
Three years ago, Gibney made another significant move. Rather than “retreating to my house and making an occasional film,” Gibney sold half his company, Jigsaw, to Content Media, a company run by longtime friend John Schmidt, a veteran of Miramax and co-founder of October Films. Schmidt brought capital and the opportunity to expand in several directions, even potentially including scripted programming. “It’s about trying to stay true to the Alex Gibney mission and being able to spread his wings a bit more,” Schmidt says. Gibney’s core staff is small (about eight employees), and he hires teams to work on each of his projects, so at times there are as many as 60 people in his New York offices.
Over at HBO, Nevins is watching a bit anxiously — and not because she’s taking on Scientology. She’s sold on Gibney’s skills as a documentarian, of course, having picked up Taxi to the Dark Side after Discovery decided it was too controversial to air and suffered through an onslaught from Catholics offended by Mea Maxima Culpa. “I’m always amazed by how respectful and yet gentle his questioning is,” she says. “And informed.”
But she worries as Gibney grows a company and builds a library. “Documentary filmmakers in the main are not entrepreneurial,” she says. “It’s as if they’re supposed to live in a garret for the rest of their lives. Can you have it all? I don’t think you can. I think you have to paint one picture at a time.” As Nevins speaks, her ambivalence is audible. Gibney has earned the right to try it his way, she allows. “I’m a selfish tyrant,” she says. “I like owning people. But I have not seen him sell any project short — yet.”
Gibney says the deal with Content Media has freed him by providing infrastructure so he doesn’t have to worry so much about matters like accounting. Though “everybody’s worried” that he’ll be stretched too thin, he says, “Each one of these films, to me, is handmade. There shouldn’t be concern.”
His latest handmade project, he acknowledges, is likely to bring as much blowback or more than he’s experienced on any of the others. But he feels that the message of this film applies well beyond Scientology or any one organization. “You can see how abusive institutions get when they have a lot of power and money and when they become guided by a small group of people at the top, perhaps even one person,” he says. And then there’s a theme that resonates across any number of religions: “It’s really hard-wired into all of us, the psychology of wanting to find certainty in faith that allows you to do the most reprehensible things because you believe the ends justify the means.”
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