SXSW: Searching for Apple Founder's "Rosebud" in 'Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine'

Courtesy of SXSW

A new documentary from prolific director Alex Gibney seeks to find out what made the tech genius tick.

With Scientology issuing its final word on the matter — maybe — in its ongoing PR counteroffensive against his film Going Clear, director Alex Gibney now turns his attention toward his latest project, Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine. Like Clear, it's a topic that elicits a fiery fidelity among its zealous adherents. What was it about the charismatic Apple founder that, according to one upcoming biography, inspired future successor Tim Cook to go so far as to offer Jobs part of his liver? As a company founded on a platform of populist idealism prepares to roll out a line of $10,000 solid-gold smartwatches, Gibney set out on what he calls a "Rosebud-like investigation" into the inner life of Apple's conflicted creator. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Gibney ahead of the film's Saturday-afternoon premiere at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

What surprised you about Steve Jobs in making your film?

What’s interesting to me about him — and surprised is the right word — is that he was such a mixture of light and dark. I got onto this because I was curious. When he died, there was this huge outpouring of grief from people who didn’t know him at all but just used his products. I found that fascinating, to answer the question of, "Why?" It was a Rosebud-like investigation. What was it that caused us all to have that much grief? And I think I answered my own question, which is that his story ends up being our story. It’s our relationship with the computer. And nobody was better than he was at helping us cultivate that relationship.

What about that famously mercurial temperament? Did he do any lasting damage to those on the receiving end of it?

I think, in a way, he did. Not everybody, but there are some people — and one of them is in the film, who is clearly both deeply inspired by him and also broken by him. It cost him his marriage, it cost him his kids. Because people worked very, very hard [for him]. It could be quite a ruthless environment. He could be extraordinarily charming and inspirational and utterly brutal, and you never knew which one was going to show up.

I think there’s this great sense of — what’s that phrase they’re so fond of using in Silicon Valley? — "disruption." The idea is that, as an entrepreneur, you do what Uber does: You end the way things were. That's a good thing, but in many ways, it’s also painful. It doesn’t need to be as painful as it is.

Did Jobs change much over the course of his life?

I think he was always the same person, but he had a lot more power. It's fascinating tracking him from the kid in the garage to the man astride the world’s most valuable corporation. One thing that did change him — and it’s a pragmatic change — is when he lost Apple [in 1985], he did learn to reflect upon his own failings. And when he came back, he was determined to do it right. I think he did a much better job of getting it right. He never lost that mercurial mix of charm and devastating ego.

How did that play into the way he confronted his cancer diagnosis?

For his own health, he didn’t go about it the right way. But as an entrepreneur, he liked to maintain control. Having an operation was losing a certain amount of control. And the fact that he hid it from people was also very telling. He didn’t feel that he needed to obey the laws of physics or the laws of man.

Would you call him a conflicted person?

Part of what I was trying to get at in the movie wasn’t so much to talk about technology but to talk about values. Because I think he tried very hard to pitch Apple always as the band of rebels, the upstarts, the counterculture company, the company that was going to empower people to fulfill their potential. I think that was deeply felt that there was almost a certain political virtue. And yet, by the end, I think you see that Apple actually was a company that — particularly under Jobs — was pretty ruthless in the way it dealt with its workers, with the environment, with local laws. Both are representative of who Steve was. Even as he was the top of the biggest company, he always felt that he was the head of a startup. To some extent, it’s a tale of Silicon Valley, which likes to think of itself as a group of startups who happen to have a little money — but they’re quite powerful and have enormous resources. Looking at Steve was a way of looking at some of that.

Did you read Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs in researching the film? Or did you want to forge your own path?

I did read Walter’s book, but a film has to find focus. Walter’s book is a kind of a great reference work, but I found it absent of a certain fundamental theme. I had to go in and find something that made sense to me. I read a lot of books about Apple and Jobs. One was very interesting — a book of drawings accompanied by a narrative called The Zen of Steve Jobs. I spent a lot of time looking at Zen and Steve and his relationship to Japan, which I don’t think he ever fully articulated. He spent a lot of time in Japan. He had a spiritual advisor who was a Zen monk, this guy named Kobun Chino.

Kobun is in the film — we found a lovely piece of footage where Kobun, who is now dead, talks about his first few encounters with Steve. It was very interesting. Jobs talked to a lot of people early on about being a monk. He was very unmonklike at the end — he liked hotel suites more than monasteries — but there was still something that kept drawing him back to Japan. He was maybe looking for a peace or a monastery that he wasn’t able to find yet.

In other news, how are things going being in the Church of Scientology's crosshairs?

It’s ongoing. They’ve produced a documentary about me. It’s online along with a documentary they produced about Lawrence Wright and all the other people in the film.

Are they threatening to sue?

We get a lot of cards and letters talking about this and that. They’re certainly coming on very strong. I don’t know if you saw the full-page ad in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. It’s an avalanche. My pets are on lockdown.