Alex Gibney is no stranger to controversy. In fact he is drawn to it. As a documentary filmmaker, his films have taken on Eliot Spitzer (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer), Enron (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), Jack Abramoff (Casino Jack and the United States of Money), the Catholic church (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God), and the U.S. government in his Oscar-winning film Taxi to the Dark Side about torture in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo.
In recent years, documentary filmmaking has become an increasingly compelling medium for those challenging power. While documentary makers have become particularly attracted to issues dealing with politics and social justice, Gibney stands apart in his ability to get the people at the center of those controversies to come to the table and be part of the film. Gibney’s new film, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, now in theaters, is no exception. The film profiles the rise and fall of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and provides an intimate portrait of Pvt. Bradley Manning, the man who gave WikiLeaks the video of the U.S. military’s Apache airstrike on civilians in Baghdad and more than 250,000 classified diplomatic cables.
We spoke to Gibney about the process of making We Steal Secrets, and he laid out his approach to gaining access to the key players in the middle of a major story, and how you can work without that access to create a balanced and accurate film.
Gibney approaches those he wants involved in his film first with the moral argument suggesting that people need to understand the issue at hand. He further suggests that the public doesn’t understand the subject’s side of the story, and the film can help them understand. Gibney frankly acknowledges that he almost always feels more positively about someone after talking to them in person. “It becomes much harder to slam someone with whom you have some kind of personal exchange. I think it’s mutually advantageous,” Gibney says. Despite the fact that Gibney’s films directly confront those at the heart of a controversy—something prospective interviewees are often well aware of—he is able to get people to agree to future projects because, above all else, his understanding with subjects is, “Tell me the truth, and I will treat your testimony fairly.” For some subjects, the process of wrestling with these issues on camera can be cathartic. Gibney recalls that Eliot Spitzer quipped after one day of shooting, “Same time next week?” suggesting that in playing the role of filmmaker, Gibney was also playing the role of shrink.
Gibney was hopeful Julian Assange would agree to be interviewed for the film. He even had Jemima Khan—who had put up the bond for Assange when he was arrested—in his corner as an executive producer. After months of pursuit, Gibney was summoned to meet with Assange who demanded to be paid $1 million for an interview, which Gibney refused. Assange then offered to do the interview if Gibney would report back to Assange on what other interviewees were saying. “What an odd request from the avatar of the world of transparency and truth-seeking,” Gibney recalled thinking at the time, “He wanted me to behave like the CIA.” Gibney held firm to his code of ethics and declined both offers, so Assange refused to be interviewed for the film.
In the end Gibney was able to secure some candid footage and interviews with Assange shot by an Australian documentary filmmaker named Mark Davis from the earlier days of WikiLeaks, which Gibney feels may have actually been more valuable because it came from a time when Assange was less guarded. Gibney did talk to all of the WikiLeaks cofounders, as well as the women who have accused Assange of rape, journalists, friends, and commanding officers of Manning, and many others who had positive and negative things to say about both Assange and Manning (government officials did not allow Gibney to interview Manning).
But securing an interviewee or a group of interviewees isn’t enough. For Gibney this comes down to the difference between a topic and a story. “The topic is: I got fired yesterday,” he says, “The story is: I got fired yesterday and today I’m plotting my revenge.” While having great interviews may help support a topic, it doesn’t give you a great story. You need to dig and dig for things like archival video and documentary evidence that can reinforce the arcs of individual subjects and connect them to the broader story. When he was making Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney didn’t have access to top Enron executives Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, so he relied heavily on archival videos, which included numerous, almost unbelievable confessions when viewed from the vantage point of hindsight. Similarly, one such piece of footage in We Steal Secrets features Assange in one of his first public appearances for WikiLeaks. Assange interrupts his cofounder’s speech when he hears something he doesn’t agree with. This foreshadows Assange’s desire to control his own image and every aspect of WikiLeaks. These are character flaws that unspool throughout the film, countervailing whatever "good" Assange is doing or trying to do (Assage would later release an edited "transcript" of Gibney’s film).
At the beginning of the process, Gibney thought the film would focus on Assange, but We Steal Secrets focuses more on Manning. The more Gibney and his team learned about Manning, the more interesting he became to them. Gibney stresses that you can never let an interviewee’s perspective come to dominate the film, simply because you can get access to them. “In Taxi to the Dark Side, I became very sympathetic to the guards and interrogators who led and in some cases literally murdered the taxi cab driver,” Gibney recalls, “But in the cutting room, I realized that I had become too sympathetic and was unconsciously leaving out details of the brutality of what they had done.” This realization came about in part after Gibney showed a cut of the film to outsiders, who helped put it in perspective. He then added key details back into the film. The lesson Gibney draws from this is that even when you think you know the story, and you think you’ve talked to everyone, in his words, “You have to keep checking, cross-checking, and doubting yourself.” That principle may be the reason why interview subjects keep sitting down in front of Gibney’s camera time and time again.