Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney has taken on the Catholic Church, Julian Assange and al-Qaeda in a prolific career of investigative filmmaking. But he nearly found himself taken in by the charismatic and complicated biking champion Lance Armstrong, who invited Gibney to film his triumphal return to racing in 2009. Gibney shot an entire film about the return only to learn that Armstrong had lied to him, and the world, about doping. So the filmmaker went back to the drawing board, recutting the film to reflect the truth – and ending up with a very different film, “The Armstrong Lie,” which opens this weekend. WaxWord spoke to Gibney earlier this fall.
Sharon Waxman: What most interested me about this was about halfway through the movie I realized “Oh, this is Alex’s act of penance for the movie he thought he was making.”
Alex Gibney: That’s right.
So what happened? Did you start to make a certain movie and then you just stopped…and then you started again?
Yes. It was almost like archeology, going back and looking at what we had shot before and realizing that with the knowledge of what we had in the present, what we shot in the past contained sometimes meaning that we hadn’t appreciated. We also were determined to see this big story that everyone had been focusing on within the lens of what I had observed in 2009.
So instead of starting from scratch we realized that we had something that nobody else had — which was to be up close and person with Lance Armstrong over a period of time when he was coming back. I think it was part of a larger plan…to convince everybody that it didn’t really matter if he had doped, if you were suspicious that he had.
He was coming back to convince everyone that it didn’t matter.
In part. I think part of the reason he was coming back was a pure athlete’s reason — in other words, a lot of these guys have a hard time leaving. You go to parties and it’s all nice being a celebrity, but where is the adrenaline rush? So he wanted back in for that but I think it was also a way, as he said, of answering questions about the past. And the original title was called “The Road Back.”
How did you get started on the project?
Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach had long planned to do a feature film about Lance Armstrong. They were developing scripts and at one time they were thinking Matt Damon would play Lance Armstrong. For one reason or another they couldn’t get the script that they wanted…
It would be like a modern day “Breaking Away.”
But this time they had something much bigger. I mean, “Breaking Away” was sort of a sweet, bicycling movie. This time they had this guy who had come back from near death and he had written this book, “It’s Not About the Bike”…and about the tremendous spirit — the Armstrong myth. So they had that book and they were going to do a film about it and then they couldn’t get the script right so at a certain point, when Lance told them that he was coming back, they said, “why don’t we shoot that and make a documentary” and then they reached out to me.
So you’re not a bicycling nut. You’re more like the dark, underbelly guy.
I didn’t know anything about bicycling. In fact, when I first met Lance I said, “Look, I know you ride a bicycle, I know you’re good at it. That’s about all I know.” Now if I had been honest, I would have said I also heard all the rumors about doping.
The assignment was not dig into everything you can about Lance Armstrong. The film was to be a bouncy, light — a simple sports story, a comeback story and you follow him along the comeback trail. And along the way, you dip into the past because part of it is a redemption story.
So here’s my question. You really are cynics’ cynic. That’s why you are appropriately skeptical and which is part of the reason why I love your movies. So when you came in you just, it was like, “Well I’m just going to choose to believe him…”?
It wasn’t like I was going to choose to believe him about the past. But there had been allegations about the past, never proven, no positive tests, and so that would be part of the story, the questions. The big issue was he said he was coming back and everyone would take a hard look at him in 2009 and he would do it clean. Right?
And so I’m along for that ride. Is he doing it clean? And if he is doing it clean that is an interesting story, because is that in some way, redemptive for him? And also remember too that, just in terms of the context of the doping, there was a lot of smoke but no provable fire. So you couldn’t come out and say, “Lance Armstrong definitely doped.”
A lot of people tried to say that and sometimes he sued them, sometimes he would just keep saying over and over again, “I never tested positive. Show me the proof.” He kept saying, “Show me the proof.” And nobody could show it. So I had this mystery in the past and I had this comeback story. The comeback story seemed exciting on its face. An old guy, 38 years old, coming back and showing the young kids he could still do it. And that way he puts the past to bed.
We finished the film. We mixed it. Matt Damon narrated. And then the allegations started.
At some point we realized that the mythic story was no longer believable as people began to come forward with more and more tales. Lo and behold a federal investigation starts. So not only are former teammates coming forward to say that he doped, but the federal government is saying, “We’ve empaneled a grand jury and we’re looking at putting you in prison.” Well, that meant we really needed to back off. It wasn’t like I dropped it. I would keep in touch with people but it was a very different kind of a story. It was interesting, too, because when I was on the first film the good news was, access to Lance Armstrong. The bad news was I was on the inside of the bubble. For those who are outside, they assumed that I was a patsy, that I was part of the promo job. They wouldn’t talk to me. So I began to ponder how was I going to get access to those people? And I slowly did, even as the story played out. Late 2012…
So the movie was just sitting on the shelf?
Just sitting on the shelf. I’m doing other projects, as you know. But I’m talking to people and thinking about it. Then late 2012, after the USADA [United States Anti-Doping Agency] report came out, I went back in. And this time, I actually investigated not only all the doping allegations, but I investigated my own film. I investigated myself, I had to look back at my own role. I knew to make sense of the whole story I had to become a key character in the drama because I had seen things and heard things that I could remark on where the camera wasn’t there. I began to see my own footage in a completely different light.
Lance would say things to me and they sounded perfectly reasonable. But I can tell now, having spent enough time around Lance, what is promo Lance, press conference Lance. So I began to look for signs, for the tells, like when he is telling me something close to the truth and when he is lying.
What’s the tell?
A lot of times he goes to the nose.
When he lies.
Either just after or just before. Not all the time, but it’s often the case.
I found it remarkable how frequently he’ll just look straight in the eye of the camera and lie.
He was great at it. He just looks at you and he had a power. This is a story about power, so when you’re talking about power, he also had the power of his story — which was very powerful to a lot of people. The idea of this guy coming back from near death and not only being healthy again but actually being physically better than before he was sick.
I think you get caught in a lie and part of the problem is Lance doubled down on the lie. He didn’t do the kind of, shuffle along, say softly, “Look, I never tested positive,” which actually would have been the truth.
You say early on in the film that you felt that he owed you an explanation, which he certainly did.
He called me up maybe four weeks before Oprah and he said, “Look, as you’ve been reading about the doping, I have to be honest, it’s true. I apologize, I lied to you.” And we began to talk about how he might make it right by sitting back down one more time. He went on Oprah first, he got impatient. But nevertheless he made good on his promise. We ultimately did sit down. Twice. And at the same time I was talking to a whole lot of other people.
The people who didn’t talk to you before because they thought you were a patsy?
Did you feel stupid? I’m sorry — that was too harsh.
No, but I felt like I was an unwitting part of something. I had become part of a kind of myth making machine. Like I said, it wasn’t like I had fallen off the turnip truck, it wasn’t like I didn’t have suspicions and even in the first film, doping was a subject in it.
He had established a lie that was so big because he didn’t just say “Look I didn’t test positive,” he said, “How dare you say that I, as a cancer survivor, would ever take performance enhancing drugs.” And so he makes complicit all cancer survivors across the world. Once you tell it, then you’ve got to keep telling it. You’ve got to tell it bigger and bigger and bigger. And then he had a technique which was, “Don’t keep repeating it all the time, just go after the people who try to tell the truth.”
And that became, of course, the other big sin in this story. He abused his power, he had this enormous power to enforce this lie, and he abused that power by going after people who were trying to tell the truth.