Wednesday 21 February 2018

Paul Kimmage: How does a lie hide in plain sight?

Oscar winner Alex Gibney explains to Paul Kimmage how his feelgood cycling film turned into a tale of corruption

Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong
Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney (centre) with Lance Armstrong during the making of the film that became ‘The Armstrong Lie’
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

'Anyone with half a brain could have seen Lance Armstrong was doping.' - Jon Stewart, 'The Armstrong Lie'

Four years ago, in July 2009, I spent a week at the Tour de France watching a rider who wouldn't talk to me, writing a story that wouldn't get published and sowing a seed that would get me sacked.

The Wednesday morning at Cap D'Agde stands out. According to my notes, it was 11.25 when the Astana team bus rolled into the starting compound and 20 minutes later when Lance Armstrong emerged.

He steps from the bus flanked by an officer from La Garde Republicaine and places two bidons on his bike. The crowd is 14-deep on the barriers. The cry is 'Lance! Lance!' The pit is a swarm of starfuckers and sycophants. You can spot them a mile away with their Livestrong wristbands and Mellow Johnny's caps. The cry is Lance! Lance!

I muscle into a space on the barriers beside Frankie Andreu and wait for Lance to come. Lance always comes to Frankie before the stage. Lance likes to turn the knife. A team-accredited camerawoman is pointing a lens at him.

"Who's she?" I ask.

"I don't know," he says. "She might be with Alex Gibney on that movie about Lance."

"Who's Alex Gibney?" I reply.

It's a wet Wednesday afternoon at The Mayfair hotel in London and he's telling me about a project he has been studying for ESPN – the World Cup game between Ireland and Italy at Giants Stadium in 1994. It seems a bit lightweight for an Alex Gibney film. This, after all, is a man recently described by Esquire as "the most important documentarian of our time". And then you're informed that he's spent the last three days in Belfast.

"Why Belfast?"

"Well, at the same time (as the game) a bunch of loyalist terrorists waded into a small bar in Loughinisland."

Gibney doesn't do run-of-the-mill. In 2006, his ground-breaking work on corruption at Enron was nominated for an Oscar. In 2008, he won the award with Taxi to the Dark Side – a brilliant exposé on the torture of prisoners by American military personnel in Afghanistan, Iraq and Cuba. His latest works Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks have also been highly praised. But it's The Armstrong Lie, his soon-to-be-released portrait of Lance Armstrong that brings me to London.

PK: Alex, you were once asked how you got into documentary-making and you replied that it was because "the lines for investment banker and corporate lawyer were too long".

AG: (Laughs) Yeah, I took the short queue.

PK: Okay, give me a proper answer.

AG: Well, I was interested in journalism but in the '70s, when I was going to school or going to college, there was something alive in the air that had to do with cinema – whether that was the fiction side with people like (Francis Ford) Coppola and (Martin) Scorsese or the documentarians . . . the Maysles brothers . . . Marcel Ophis . . . (DA) Pennebaker with his Dylan doc. It was an exciting time, and that's what interested me. I went to UCLA film school after college and got a job with the Samuel Goldwyn Company and the next thing I knew I was cutting exploitation trailers (low-budget films with little artistic merit). I did a trailer for Shockwaves about mutant Nazis who rise up from the bottom of the ocean floor. I was being offered bad pictures so I split and I decided to hang out a shingle (set up) as a documentarian.

PK: Right.

AG: I didn't really do it the proper way, which is to apprentice yourself to somebody, so there were a lot of very lean years of scuffling and trying to raise money before I finally clawed my way up. I got my big break, in a way, when I produced a series of films on the blues – Martin Scorsese was the executive producer – with some great directors: Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Mike Figgis, Wim Venders, Antoine Fuqua, Dick Pearce. They all had very independent visions of how to do a documentary, so it was not documentary by the old NBC or BBC rulebook.

PK: Did you work with all of those guys?

AG: I was the producer of the series and so my job was to corral the cats and to give them resources to do what they did, but it taught me a lot watching those guys work. So, armed with that knowledge, I wrote and produced a film called The Trials of Henry Kissinger and then I got a big break; I pitched a film on Enron which somebody financed and I was off and running . . .

PK: The Enron film (The Smartest Guys in the Room) was nominated for an Oscar.

AG: Right.

PK: And then you make this absolutely extraordinary film about torture.

AG: Taxi to the Dark Side.

PK: Taxi to the Dark Side, and Discovery Channel buy the rights but announce in February 2008, after you have won the Oscar . . .

AG: No, it was before.

PK: Sorry, before you have won the Oscar, that they don't like the content and won't broadcast it. And you are interviewed about this and say "Well, it turns out that the Discovery Channel isn't so interested in discovery . . . Discovery turns out to be a see-no-evil/hear-no-evil channel."

AG: (He laughs.) My old quotes are coming back to haunt me.

PK: And there is, of course, a delicious irony in this.

AG: Yes, the see-no-evil/hear-no-evil channel.

PK: Who also sponsored a cycling team whose boss was?

AG: Would that be Lance Armstrong?

PK: It would indeed.


And what was surprising – and depressing – was that four months after the Oscars, the movie had only grossed $280,000?

AG: Right.

PK: How much had it cost to make?

AG: Over a million, so yeah it didn't gross very much but it was a dark film and I don't think any of us did that one for the box-office grosses. It's one that I think stood the test of time and has had an influence in different ways.

PK: So it's later that summer, in August 2008, when Lance Armstrong announces his return to professional cycling. What did you know about him?

AG: Almost nothing. Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach (two Hollywood producers) had been developing a feature film script – Matt Damon was going to star as Armstrong – but they didn't like the script, or they couldn't get it right, and they felt, 'Well, he's coming back so let's do it (as a documentary),' so I said that I was interested. I was interested for a number of reasons but I remember when I first went down to meet Armstrong, I told him, forthrightly, that I knew he rode a bicycle and was good at it, and that was about it.

PK: Was that at his home?

AG: Yeah.

PK: Had you an interest in sports?

AG: I was a sports freak but the Tour de France, or cycling, was not something I knew that much about at the time.

PK: What was it about Armstrong that interested you?

AG: I was interested in his will, and I told them – Matt and Frank – that I was interested in that, both for the purest reasons and for the dark side of that will, that is to say that he might be a person that would do anything to win.

AG: You've just said you didn't know anything about him. What did you know about this 'dark side?'

PK: Look, you'd have to be blind not to know about the allegations of doping and I discussed that with Frank and Matt. I said, 'I'm going to have to be able to deal with this'. Now the brief, or the goal, of the film was not to do a film about Armstrong and doping, it was to do a film about his comeback. The original title was 'The Road Back' and the road back was . . . its literal meaning was a comeback story but it had a double meaning, the road back to the past – that is to say, 'How does this comeback take us into the past?' There's a famous line from F Scott Fitzgerald at the very end of the (Great Gatsby): So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. And that seemed to me to be an interesting way into the story.

PK: Does that mean you weren't going to investigate his doping past? Or would it just be an element?

AG: It would be an element, it just wasn't going to be a film only about whether or not Lance Armstrong had doped. And in the context of today that seems hard to understand, but in the context of 2008 there had been a lot of allegations about doping but Armstrong was heralded and assumed by many, many people not to have doped. And he could point to the fact that he had never tested positive.

PK: Right, but you're Alex Gibney, and you're a man who knows that there are many, many people who also think that the armed forces in Afghanistan are doing everything by the book. So it's a bit different for you.

AG: (Laughs) Yeah, I mean look, if you wanted to pick somebody to do the classic promo job, I wouldn't have been the first person on your rolodex. But I think, looking back – and we're probably getting ahead of the story – I was intended to be the cinematic equivalent of Don Catlin (the American anti-doping scientist). Do you remember he was going to hire Don Catlin to test him every day so that he would prove to everybody (that he was clean)?

(In October, 2008, Armstrong announced with great fanfare, that he was going to subject himself to a strict and transparent anti-doping programme policed by Catlin. Five months later, the project was abandoned.)

PK: Yes.

AG: But of course that didn't end up happening. But it was like: 'I'm coming back. In years past I was secretive but now I'm wide open'.

PK: And here's Alex Gibney to prove it?

AG: Yeah, now it wasn't Lance's job to pick the filmmaker – that was Frank and Matt.

PK: Who were fans?

AG: No doubt, they were fans. And Frank, I think, was a true believer – that's to say, I think he believed that Lance never doped.

PK: And were you aware, at that time, of the danger in this for you?

AG: Before I agreed to do it, I asked them: 'Can I deal with this? Can I deal with doping in the context of a story about the comeback?' And they said 'Yes'. The other question was 'Did Lance Armstrong have editorial control?' And the answer was 'No'. According to the contract, the only right that he had was the right to be given the opportunity to rebut any accusations of doping. And I frankly felt that was fair.

PK: What about your state of mind at that time? You say (in the film's press release): "I was tired of digging through the foul entrails of corruption. I was in the mood for a feelgood story."

AG: I was.

PK: Explain.

AG: I wanted to follow an athlete along the path of a sport, rather than digging into corruption. I wanted to follow a sport and see where it led. I was going in as a naïf – well, not a naïf but not knowing that much – but it occurred to me that this might be Lance Armstrong's redemption story, that is to say, he's been dogged by accusations of doping over his career, so he's going to come back at the age of 38 and race clean. And he's going to prove to everybody that it didn't matter, in some odd way, if he had doped or not in the past, because he's still an awesome cyclist and is going to beat everybody no matter what. And that was interesting to me.

PK: But of course it mattered. You don't think it mattered?

AG: No, no, I'm putting myself in his frame of mind. This is Lance Armstrong. I'm thinking that this is what Lance Armstrong is thinking.

PK: What were your first impressions of him?

AG: At that first meeting he was reserved; he had a certain charisma but I wouldn't call him warm. I spent about an hour there – he showed me his art collection and we talked a little bit about what it was that I was doing, and I decided to be very honest with him. I had been reading (about him) and watching prior to going down there, but there is only so much you can jam into a few weeks, so I made a decision that I wasn't going to pretend I knew a lot about cycling.

PK: You also started riding?

AG: Yeah, I went out and bought a Trek bike and a heart monitor. I'm not going to pretend that I was in any way, shape, or form, really cycling but you just want to have some understanding or some vague idea of what's going on. It's like any sport – unless you pick up a bat and try to hit a ball that's coming at you at 90 miles-an-hour you don't know what it's like.

PK: What about your research on doping?

AG: I read David Walsh's book.

PK: From Lance to Landis?

AG: Yeah.

PK: And what did you make of it? Because a lot of people said they were staggered by the USADA report but that book was published five years before USADA and it was all there, chapter and verse.

AG: Right, and I agree with that, and this is what I try to explain to people about the film – most everything that you needed to know about Lance's doping was already known. And not only known, but published. The USADA report had a level of granular detail, and some first-person testimony that Walsh didn't get, but there was a tremendous amount of detail in Walsh's book. I think the really interesting thing with the story, and in a way what the film is about, is the anatomy of a lie. How does a lie hide in plain sight? There was so much evidence staring everybody in the face and yet so many people wanted to believe the beautiful lie, rather than the ugly truth.

PK: And as you say at the end of the film, you include yourself in this.

AG: Right.

PK: Because again, one of the first pieces of footage that you shoot is a meeting between Armstrong, (Bill) Stapleton (Armstrong's agent) and (Johan) Bruyneel (the team director) in September 2008, discussing the possibility that the Tour de France organisers may not allow Armstrong to compete because of the story in L'Equipe (In 2005, the French sports daily published a major report 'Le Mensonge Armstrong' claiming that six of Armstrong's frozen samples from the '99 Tour – his first win – had been retrospectively tested and were positive for EPO.)

AG: Which is an amazing piece of footage.

PK: I agree – an amazing piece of footage. And what is really amazing about it – or at least to me – is that Alex Gibney is sitting there, with his camera, listening to this. So why isn't he thinking – because it's as obvious as the nose on my face – 'These guys are in cahoots here. This absolutely stinks!' Is that unfair?

AG: Emmm, maybe not, so why can I not just see it? Well, if you examine it in granular detail, what Johan keeps saying, over and over again, is that he was never busted. He doesn't say he never doped, he says he was never busted, so that's the amazing thing about that conversation. But the original cut was nuanced. It had to be careful. And it was really the story of a comeback year. It was one of those cuts where, depending on what your point of view was coming into the film, you would get something different coming out of the film.

PK: I was going to ask about the two cuts later but I'll ask you now: Clint Eastwood did something fantastic with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, when he told the same story from two different perspectives and put them side by side. Would it be fantastic to see The Road Back and The Armstrong Lie side by side?

AG: I think it would be, and we're talking about it now but it's a rights problem.

PK: What's the problem?

AG: Because the Tour de France (organisers) exacts a pretty heavy levy on, not only the footage that you might licence from the past, but any time you photograph the race. But we're trying to work it out. I do think it would be fascinating to show them. I'm okay with that.

PK: I was going to ask that.

AG: No, I'm okay with that. . . Look, obviously I didn't feel that I could release it (The Road Back) once all of this detail became known, but it wasn't utterly naïve. There were some odd things that happened in the course of following his 2009 year that ended up being very valuable later on. And some of them, like the interview with Ferrari (Armstrong's doctor, Michele Ferrari) were in the original cut. And I shot the interview with Simeoni (the former Italian rider, Filippo Simeoni, who was bullied by Armstrong in 2004) and the interview with Walsh in 2009.

PK: Was the press conference from the Tour of California in the original cut?

AG: Yeah it sure was, and it was there because, you know, you had to see it. And like I said, my original interest in him was that 'will' – the will to win – which both was, you know, Jack Armstrong and Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood.

PK: That's a good comparison.

AG: That showed his cruelty, but I have to be honest to you now, I mean, if I were to pick a fight with Lance Armstrong, I wouldn't necessarily use the cancer metaphor, or the cancer card, because I think Lance was licking his chops. It was like 'Let me take a swing at this guy, he has used the cancer card and I'm going to take that club and beat him back with it'. And you could see in that cut his cruelty, and the way that he acted like a bully.

PK: I didn't ask him about cancer.

AG: No you didn't. You didn't ask him anything about cancer, you said . . .

PK: What is it about these dopers you admire so much?

AG: Right, but he raised something that you had written in your original article which said 'the cancer was back'. And he used that as a club.

PK: And he used it often.

AG: Often.

PK: That was his shield.

AG: There was no doubt, and it was an effective shield. I've done a film about the Catholic Church and I'm interested in this whole issue of noble cause corruption. He used cancer as a shield incredibly effectively but I don't think – as some of his critics do – that it was phony. That is to say, the cancer stuff was for real.

PK: Yeah, and again that's obvious from the film.

AG: Right, but it allowed him to feel as if he had a sense of righteousness about his lie, so he could lie big. And he could involve all cancer survivors in that lie by saying, 'How dare you say that I, as a cancer survivor, would ever use performance-enhancing drugs'. He felt he had a licence to do that because he actually did care about cancer survivors, and he did give money to them. So he created this beautiful lie and when it's uncovered, suddenly Mister Perfect becomes Mister Awful and everything he has done is terrible, and it's just not my view of humanity. Because again, dealing with a far more horrific story, the story of clerical sex abuse, you see the enormous good that the church does, and you can't pretend that that isn't good, but it doesn't excuse the clerical abuse. You know what I'm saying?

PK: Yes, I do.

AG: Anyway, that's a long-winded way of explaining why that (press conference) scene was there. There were a couple of scenes that were in both cuts and that scene to me was a great one. And I was able to get both Lance and Hincapie to comment on that scene.

PK: Yes you did, and it was interesting, because I always knew Armstrong knew I was there.

AG: Oh, not only did he know, he was sharpening his knife. He was waiting for you and he was ready.

PK: But again, as Alex Gibney, you're there and you witness this journalist getting a kicking. Do you not ask, 'Who is this guy? Where has he come from? How did that happen? How did that feel?'

AG: I think in the original film the experience was about being inside the Armstrong bubble, so I think that was the reason. And I did end up doing it with Walsh; I showed a bit of the sparring with Walsh particularly in the newer cut.

PK: You said Armstrong was distant with you initially but by the end of the film it's quite obvious that . . .

AG: Yeah, we developed a relationship. I have to be honest, I haven't talked to him lately and he may not talk to me now if he sees the film, I don't know what he'll think of the film, but along the way I had a good rapport with him, and on a day-to-day basis I liked him.

PK: When did you finish the final cut of The Road Back?

AG: Oh, end of 2010.

PK: When was it due to be released?

AG: I can't remember the exact sequence of events. When Floyd (Landis) came out at the Tour of California (in May 2010), we were talking about having to make some alterations but it didn't derail the project. Then Tyler came out and gave all that granular detail. So you had Floyd, now Tyler and a federal investigation so it was like okay, stop the presses.

PK: How did you feel about that?

AG: To be honest with you, I had very mixed feelings because I'd come to like the film that I had made. It was a cycling film, that's what it was about, and I was now going to have to five that up and make something closer to . . . I dunno, let's just say corruption, and that was more familiar territory for me. And I knew how to tell that story. But it disappointed me in some way that I was not going to be able to show the cycling film.

PK: Why would that disappoint you? Surely it was a relief?

AG: I'm saying I had mixed feelings – it was a bit of a relief but it was also somewhat disappointing. But I also knew that there was no way I could release that film because events had moved beyond . . .

PK: And what if had been released? What if people had seen The Road Back and thought: 'What a hero. We love this guy.' And then a month later, the USADA report is released and now those same people are in shock: 'What the fuck! He's actually a doper! A cheat! A fraud! Hey Alex Gibney, what have you just sold us here?'

AG: Yeah, well, there was that, and that's why we didn't release it. It was not a 'promo' job – there was quite a bit about how brutal he was with people and the allegations of doping – but in the light of events, it was not a film that could be credible. As Lance once told me – because we had a conversation prior to Oprah when he was pondering how to come forward and I said, not nudging him: 'Why don't you just keep doing what you always do and fight?' He said, 'Well, the lie is no longer believable'. So there had come a moment when the lie was no longer believable.

PK: When did you have that conversation?

AG: That would have been December 2012 or maybe November – I have it in my notes.

PK: You didn't say, 'Give the interview to me and we'll put it in the film?'

AG: I did ask him, and there was some discussion that we would put it in the film, and that's how it would be released, but he didn't do that.

PK: Why did he go to Oprah?

AG: I think he panicked. He released something on Twitter which said, 'I'm getting ready to tell all,' or something like that, but the response was horrifically negative. So I think he thought, and he was right, he was losing his constituency. So he had to do something, and he had to do it quick, and it had to be big, and Oprah was a neighbour of his in Hawaii. I think he thought he'd get everybody back (onside) but it didn't work out that way.

PK: So you've made the film now and, as you say, it's essentially the anatomy of a lie.

AG: That is what I think it is about, right.

PK: Where would you rate it in your canon of work?

AG: I don't do that.

PK: You don't?

AG: No, it's like, 'How do you rate your children?' But I'm proud of it, and you know what? I'm proud of it in a sense because I realised that in order to make the film I would have to put myself in it, and show my own complicity in what would have been, or could have been, a kind of hagiography.

PK: Yes, you make that point at the end.

AG: And that's also a very odd moment for me. In my films, I almost never come out and say what I think but I felt, in this film, I had to come out and say what I think because I also wanted the beautiful lie, more than the ugly truth. I didn't want to do another dark film, I wanted to believe. Sometimes champions have a kind of cruelty in them that gives them an advantage and sometimes we love it, even though we shouldn't because it's not pretty. So I had to put myself in the film to say, 'Yeah, I was part of the problem but not necessarily the solution'.

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