Director's Notebook: Alex Gibney on Finding the Truth in 'The Armstrong Lie'

Director's Notebook: Alex Gibney on Finding the Truth in 'The Armstrong Lie'

Feb 12, 2014

In this monthly column we spotlight new Blu-ray/DVD releases by interviewing directors about the scenes that stood out most for them while making their movies. This month, we talk to Alex Gibney about his latest documentary, The Armstrong Lie (out February 11).


Oscar-winner Alex Gibney has made a career in shedding light on the questionable figures in our society. Whether it is the guys who ran Enron or master lobbyist Jack Abramoff or the polarizing Julian Assange, we turn to Gibney for brutal truths about what makes them tick and the acts that led to their astounding downfalls. But he met his match in Lance Armstrong.

The Armstrong Lie was supposed to be a different kind of Gibney movie—one of redemption. As the seven-time Tour de France winner was returning to the event in 2009 shrouded in doping allegations that he emphatically denied, Gibney was riding shotgun chronicling his against-all-odds journey. Though the filmmaker may have noticed some holes in the cycling legend’s story, he admits he was too caught up in the ride to stand back and examine. However, that all changed when Armstrong told Gibney he did in fact dope.    

This revelation (told to him while he was deep in postproduction on the film) would force Gibney to rework his film, but first he had to get Armstrong to admit to his wrongdoing on camera. As he explains here, the Armstrong interview with Oprah Winfrey that is shown in the film opened the floodgates, and in fact, might have been quite different if Gibney and his team had their way.

 

 

“…there was a brief period where we were going to be Oprah.”

 

"He called me and called my producers and he told me the rumors were true and that he had doped. And there was a brief period where we were going to be Oprah. He was going to come clean on our documentary and for obvious reasons we thought that would be the right call, but also we felt he owed it to us. At the end of the day he decided to go on Oprah and I think the reason why was that he felt his popularity was disappearing quickly and he wanted something that would get on air quickly. I’m not sure if I got a completely clear rationale, but I know that damage control was part of the thinking, that there needed to be some rapid response to his declining popularity.

"We said we need to be there and they agreed with that and it was something we had to work out with Oprah’s people, but everyone agreed that we could film a little bit in and around the moment, which was certainly interesting. While I didn’t have my camera in there for the whole time I was also in the green room listening to the Oprah interview in real time and there were a lot of advisors, particularly Lance’s advisors in that room listening to what was going on. So that was fascinating. And we asked for an interview immediately after Oprah, and Lance to his credit said OK. So when he went back to his house we got a call about an hour or so later saying, “Come on up,” and we did and shot a short interview, which is in the film, it starts the film and ends the film. And it was at that point where we began to negotiate for a much longer interview but that took some time. But he said he would sit down and talk at greater length. That he owed me that. Now it looked for a while that it wasn’t going to happen because the Oprah thing didn’t go well. It did not have the impact that he had anticipated. In fact, it went badly and I think he was shocked by how badly it went.

"I don’t think he would have done [the Oprah interview] it if he didn’t feel that [it would help his image]. Remember, this is a guy who had been in charge of his narrative for a long time and was very good at burnishing his own image. He was a master screenwriter of his own movie and the audience generally liked what he wrote so I think he thought this time he would do the 'no-holds-barred' interview, I say that in quotation marks, with Oprah and he would come out of it on the other side and people would say, 'Look he’s come clean, we get it now.' But it didn’t work out that way."  (Gibney would finally talk to Armstrong a few months later.)

 

“…When you prepare people you are going to tell all… and then you’re not they get kind of angry.”

 

"I began thinking about the questions I needed to ask him, but also the questions I needed to ask other people. I spent a great deal of time on the issue of the hospital room [in 1996 while speaking to his cancer doctors, Armstrong allegedly admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs] because I found his answers in the Oprah interview to be oddly unsatisfying. You would have thought he would have prepared for that moment, but he was curiously unprepared for that moment. He just said, 'I’m not going to take that on,' and wouldn’t say anything one way or another. I think people found that astounding because when you prepare people you are going to tell all and you’re going to be ruthlessly honest, and then you’re not, they get kind of angry.

"So that part made me interested. Also, I think that the format of the Oprah interview was not always conducive to a more textured understanding of what had happened, so I tried in the longer interview of asking questions that would try to get into both motivations and a little grandeur detail about what happened.

 

“This one was a doozy.”

 

"The first decision we had to make in the cutting room was whether to preserve anything from the original film, and we ultimately decided that it was actually a very good idea to do that for a number of reasons. One was this was going to be about the anatomy of a lie, we had a tremendous amount of material of Lance kind of in motion promoting that lie, but also part of the lie is the whole process of rooting for athletes, and I went on that journey, so we decided my journey was more important to the story.

"That is to say, how I got caught up. And inevitably when you get caught up following an athlete, very often your critical faculties are left at the door. And that aspect was important to show even if it showed me in not an entirely positive light. Yet, the other thing I thought was missing from this doping debate was the sport itself, and not only the culture of doping but what a fantastic sport it is, so all of these things made us convinced that we needed to include the 2009 story. Then the question was how do you do that with a new forensic investigation into what had happened? So for that we had to dig deep in terms of unofficial archives like home movies that we got from people but also testimony from others, particularly people who had been in the first film in some way.

"People were now willing to be more forthcoming, so there was a whole level of detail, it was kind of like we had been down this one road and everything that we needed to see was hiding in plain sight, now we’re going to go back and reinvestigate it and see what was really going on. That I think was the biggest decision for us and I think it was the right one.

"You go down the road for certain stories and you think you’ve got it or you think you’re going to tell it a certain way and then somebody comes forward or someone refuses to come forward or frankly events change things. Sometimes you’re dealing with stories that are in the past but there’s a present day dimension and things change, a trail happens, new evidence, so you have to be prepared to be flexible and to embrace that, but this one was a doozy. It never changed so completely, I used to joke that it was going from Breaking Away to Breaking Bad, so this was the most extreme version, but never the less I’d been prepared from doing films in the past that things can change.

 

“He says he hasn’t seen the film.”

"There are still questions he wouldn’t answer. He wouldn’t answer the question about when did he first dope, he gave me a vague answer, he wouldn’t answer it entirely. Yet there were other areas where he was quite forthcoming, and usually those answers were the ones that don’t necessarily cause us to have sympathy for him. I would ask him if he thought people would come after him if he came back in 2009, and he said, 'Of course.' He also said, 'I was pretty sure I would never get caught,' things like that. So it was a mix that was both interesting and frustrating at the same time.

"He says he hasn’t seen the film. I don’t know if I [believe him]. He says he hasn’t seen it and he doesn’t plan to. He’s been watching the press conferences and I urged him and his lawyer to see the film because the film is the word not what people say in press conferences." 

 

 

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