Alex Gibney is one of the most exciting documentary filmmakers who has made a string of fascinating and compelling movies over the years.
He is back in the director’s chair with his new project The Armstrong Lie: a movie that looks at this sporting star from his success right though to the doping scandal that shook the world of cycling.
We caught up with Gibney at the BFI London Film Festival to chat about the film and the issues he faced when he was forced to take the movie in a different direction.
- When you first started making this film Armstrong was an icon of global sport, but dogged by accusations of doping: accusations that he always denied. Half way through filming, he admitted to the rumours that he always denied. So what movie did you set out to make? How did that change as we discovered the truth?
I started off making a film about a man with extraordinary will; it was that will to win that was both inspiring and yet had a darker side. Jack Armstrong and the Daniel Day Lewis character in There Will Be Blood, he had a slogan ‘win, lose, live die’.
To people who are trying to transcend their limits and admire athletic accomplishments it is inspiring, on the other hand, it is scary to equate losing with dying. That is what interested me.
With the revelations of the doping being almost unassailably true - I had started to change the film before he went on Oprah - came an understanding that I had been a part of something that I hadn’t fully appreciated: I had been part of a promotional campaign.
I think it forced me to make a film about the construction of that promotional campaign and to place myself at the heart of that story because it had worked on me.
- After working on this film, you probably have more knowledge then most of what kind of man Lance Armstrong is. What kind of character is he?
Everyone dislikes him because they are disappointed. I still think that it is unfair… in the wake of this, there is a tendency to think of everyone in terms of white hats and black hats: Lance was all-good, now he is all-bad. I think that there are many shades of grey here.
One thing that I think people would like to believe, now that they are disappointed, it that Lance was never a very good athlete to begin with: I don’t think that is true as I think he was a good athlete and still is. He was a tremendous athlete with a tremendous will to win.
Lance is a very simple and uncomplicated character: simple in one sense as he has always been motivated by anger. His father left him when he was very young and he grew up poor and so, in his view, there were not many choices except to figure out a way to win or you are screwed. In that sense, he was always a fighter and you can see everything within that context.
The elaborate nature of the story telling and his lie makes him a very complicated figure: that is also, what make it difficult to understand him today. At what point do we know he is telling us the truth? Or is he just telling us another story? That makes him interesting.
- How stunned were you when everything that he had ever denied turned out to be true?
I was stunned. I certainly suspected that he had doped, in fact I spoke to people who told me flat out that he had. I think it was more the idea that I had been involved in a promotional campaign.
He had convinced me in 2009 that he definitely had not doped and he was racing totally clean: I am not sure that I believe that now.
- I imagine when these revelations came to light it was a moment of crisis as you wondered what you were going to do with your documentary? What was the process of making the switch so quickly to make a different movie?
Whenever I come on to a story sometimes part of the story reveals itself in ways that are not expected: I think that is the glory of documentary. Rather than getting upset at that, you have to be willing to be flexible and to embrace it.
Once that was revealed it gave me not choice but to re-examine what I have already done and re-invent it. Now it was a different world and this film was not going to make sense in this new world.
- You have this open mind and can embrace the truth and that is what makes you such a successful documentary filmmaker: however inconvenient that may be for you?
I had a professor once who said ‘embrace the contradictions’ I think it is important to embrace the possibility that things will change, that you will learn things that you didn’t know before and that what you were absolutely certain about may turn out to be a lie.
If you can accept that possibility then it can take you to interesting places and you don’t end up being so rigid that you miss what is going on in front of your face.
- Can you talk a bit about the editing process? You had footage that you shot for the ‘first film’ and you have things that were filmed after the doping revelations, so how difficult a process was it having to weave all of that together?
It was complicated. The only way to make it work was to put myself at the heart of the film: if I was narrating it or if I was a character then I could reflect on it and make quick pivots from 2009 to 1999 to Lance Armstrong’s childhood.
I could embrace a very complicated structure if I put myself at the heart of it, as there would be one person who would act as a guide: a little bit like Cloud Atlas taking us through all of these different places. That was the key to the editing.
Then we had this treasure trove of material from 2009, and I felt very determined to save that material as I thought it was precious.
There was a temptation to throw it out and start fresh, but something had happened along the way that was important and that no one else had and I felt it was important to embrace it.
- You have made movies about some fascinating topics over the years, so how do you choose the topics of your films?
I don’t know, sometimes they are chosen for me: WikiLeaks was a movie that I was offered. I guess I am lucky: I say that in this sense as there is a saying ‘luck is where opportunity meets the prepared mind’.
If I see a story, I am offered a story or I want to go out and pursue a story that seems to be interesting to me then I get lucky.
Tagged in BFI London Film Festival