Filmmaker Alex Gibney has made a career out of probing American politics with entertaining and investigative documentaries. And with three films out in 2010 alone, the man is unrelenting. In 2007, he won the Academy Award for Taxi to the Dark Side, an examination of the Bush administrations policies on torture and in his new film, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Gibney gets down in the nitty gritty, exposing the darker, seedier underbelly of Washington politics.
What prompted you to investigate the Spitzer scandal? Why out of all the myriad political sex scandals did that jump out at you the most?
It seemed to be the most contradictory. Dudley Do-right doing wrong. The “Sherriff of Wall Street” going down on a prostitution scandal. Pretty contradictory. My political science professor once said “embrace the contradiction,” so i embraced. I think also, after it happened, there was about a week when I was talking to my wife and friends and everybody was talking about it. It raised all sorts of issues. Not only political issues. Like, what about the timing? Wall Street is melting down, the sheriff goes down. Also, what’s better or worse? If you’re going to be unfaithful should you see a prostitute so there’s no emotional commitment? Should prostitution be legal? Is any infidelity bad? Should we even care what politicians do? All those questions started coming up and it seemed like it touched a nerve. And anytime you touch a nerve it’s usually worth making a film about.
I had a similar experience when I first heard about it. I was very curious about it. But it seems to have fallen out of the public’s memory because he’s got his own show now.
Boy, that certainly surprised me. Back even when we first showed the work in progress screening at the Tribeca Film Festival I had no idea it was gonna be Parker/ Spitzer in the fall. Who knew?
Did that complicate what you had set out to make?
Well, by then I had made the story. I think in the very last shot of the film, you can see Eliot Spitzer walking down the street now an anonymous person who is slightly recognized by a few people. He’s clearly interested in the adulation still. He’s clearly interested in being recognized. And Parker/ Spitzer just follows on that theme. He wants to have a say. He wants to be in the public eye. He needs it. So he is.
Was it difficult to get him to appear in the film? Was there a lot of coaxing?
There was some coaxing, but you know, he was persuaded because we were going to do the book. Peter Elkind wrote the book. We were going to do it anyway. So I think he wanted his say.
He seems a little reticent. You can see that he’s emotional. That’s palpable. But he’s still a politician so he chooses his words very carefully. Was it difficult to get him to drop that public face?
Yeah, it was. You can see in the film there’s actually two Spitzers which is interesting in terms of his character and what happened. He was the ultimate compartmentalizer. And he’s Chatty Kathy when it comes to the political economy. But when it comes to talking about himself and what he did he is choosing his words carefully. But he’s also hemming and hawing. He’s having a hard time. Sometimes he’s stammering and stumbling. And over time, the other interesting thing I found was that he was having a hard time using the first person pronoun. Just toward the very end he started to do that more. To actually own up to what he’d done. And to try to reckon with it in some way. So, I think it was a process for him. He says himself that he doesn’t do introspection, which may be kind of a cop out, but I think that what you see in the film- and this is why film can be valuable and interesting- it’s not always what he says but the pauses between and the difficulty he has answering. That says a lot. You know, he sat there for that. And rather than distribute pre-packaged sound bites he was trying to grapple. So you see some of that anguish.
You mention just now that there are actually two personalities. And that “Jekyll and Hyde theme comes up in the film, and I see it even in the title design. Do you think that’s a symptom of being a politician? Or is that more specific to Spitzer himself?
It is part of being a politician. I mean, we seem to be insisting on facades for politicians that are faker and faker and faker. Everyone has to observe these false fronts. And now when you talk to a politician you’re not talking to a person anymore! You’re talking to some talking point. Everything has become mediated. So to some extent, it is that way. But I think in Eliot Spitzer’s case it was an extreme example of that. There’s a guy who has a very highly developed super ego. And it’s all about what is right and what is wrong. He had a deep yearning, obviously, to be a little more naughty. When there is that wide gulf between image and reality, it causes problems.
Do you have a strategy or method that you’ve found useful for getting beyond that public face with your subjects? I’ve found that when you turn a camera on, people change. How do you get passed that?
I don’t know that you ever do. I think you hope to keep asking questions until you get in a line of conversation. Part of the problem is the routine of, “Here is the question. Now please give me your answer. Now we will move on to question two.” That encourages a kind of soundbite vibe. Usually conversations can be a little bit more interesting. Often I ask people to describe things. It’s one thing when you say, “What do you think” or “how do you feel?” But it’s sometimes more interesting when you ask them to describe things, describe what happened. Then the way they describe things tends to be interesting.
Do you ever feel like you need to ask leading questions to fit with your story or does it come naturally when, like you said, you allow them to describe things? Do end up getting what you want?
You don’t always get what you want but sometimes you get what you need.
Thanks, Mick Jagger.
The idea is to keep asking questions. I think the dumb questions are the best questions. A long time ago I learned a lesson where I was interviewing a guy named Frank Lorenzo who was formerly head of an airline, now defunct, called Eastern Airlines. He was known as somewhat of a union buster. We were doing this documentary about him for Frontline. So I had a correspondent. And the correspondent was a very smart guy. And his questions were very smart and very articulate. And as a result the interviewer responded very well. But it was like this act that was going on. And the two actors were performing very well, but it wasn’t real. Then I rolled in like Columbo and asked the dumb questions. And sometimes you ask the dumb questions becauase those are the questions you really want answers to. And you’re not afraid to ask them.
What’s your next topic? What’s really grabbing your attention right now?
I’m just finishing up on a couple of films. One on Lance Armstrong and one on Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.
I look forward to them. Thanks Alex!