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Opinion

Column: Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney on ‘Going Clear,’ Steve Jobs and the stories behind the stories

Alex Gibney

Documentary film director Alex Gibney at his Manhattan headquarters on July 21.

(Los Angeles Times)

The late journalist Christopher Hitchens would probably use more forceful language to describe the prize that bears his name; it honors “free expression and inquiry” and “civil, passionate” debate. Hitchens was a rare public intellectual who could, and did, offend both the left and the right. And the first Hitchens Prize, from the Dennis and Victoria Ross Foundation, goes to Hitchens’ friend, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. He’ll accept the award in New York next month, for a career’s worth of documentaries such as “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and two of his most recent films, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” and “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” — films about a sometimes morally flexible world that Hitchens scourged and Gibney limns.

You and Christopher Hitchens worked together on the film “The Trials of Henry Kissinger.” What does this award mean to you?

It’s twofold. One, it’s personal. I loved Christopher; he was utterly fearless and inspiring, particularly toward the end of his life when he was writing in ways that were honest and funny about the disease that was consuming him. That’s the ultimate act of fearlessness. And he said what he thought was right, even if it offended people who would normally be thought of as his allies. I put together the tribute film to him when he died.

The award honors a “willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence.” Have there been consequences?

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There are certain risks to going after or telling stories about abuses of power, because the powerful tend not to look very kindly on that. That can get you into trouble, and I can think of instances where projects which might have come my way didn’t because I may have offended people. But to me, that’s rather small beer; that’s just career stuff. There are other people who literally risk their lives.

Your father was journalist Frank Gibney and your stepfather was William Sloane Coffin, a formidable figure in the civil rights and antiwar movements. You got a double dose of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

There are certain risks to going after or telling stories about abuses of power, because the powerful tend not to look very kindly on that.

If you’re supposed to suck up and kick down, my dad kicked up and sucked down, so he got fired from a lot of journalistic institutions. But he taught me the power of pursuing the truth where you see it. My stepfather was a very courageous guy who almost went to jail because of his prosecution for conspiracy with Dr. [Benjamin] Spock. He stood up for what he believed in, and was very outspoken, but was always willing to engage people who disagreed with him, and I really respected him for that.

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You have the journalist’s trait of letting the facts lead, even if they lead in unexpected directions. That happened with “We Steal Secrets,” about WikiLeaks, and with your Lance Armstrong documentary, after he confessed to taking performance-enhancing drugs.

In both cases I started out making very different films and the process of discovery led me to very different places. Now, I allow for it. Now, I assume I may discover something other than what I thought. And that I find to be very healthy.

Recent fiction films are based on real people you’ve made documentaries about, such as Steve Jobs and Hunter S. Thompson. Does that affect your filmmaking? Does it affect audiences?

Sometimes there’s a good reason to make a documentary because the people are so fascinating that it’s hard to imagine somebody embodying them more fully than they can. Will Smith is a great actor, but I think Muhammad Ali is a better Muhammad Ali. Likewise, Steve Jobs was a great Steve Jobs because it’s a role he wrote for himself and he was born to play it.

And the new Steve Jobs movie?

I’ve read the script; I haven’t seen the film. Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle, both of whom I respect, have come up with a drama they feel represents some essential characteristics of who Jobs was. There’s definitely room for both. As people understand how dramatic documentaries can be, I would hope more people are going to realize there’s drama in them that is every bit as exciting, if not more so, than the fiction. I’m not one who says documentaries are better than fiction; they’re both works of art. We’ve begun to explore that in ways I don’t think we were willing to do 10 years ago — one of the reasons documentaries have gotten better. And there’s a hunger for stuff that the 24/7 news cycle doesn’t get to. There’s a reason to come in after the crisis and understand what really happened.

Is the public appetite for documentaries changing?

It’s much more accepting. “Going Clear” was, I believe, seen by 8 million people on HBO. That’s a pretty big audience [and] it outdid a lot of the fiction stuff. In the past 10 or 15 years, documentaries have become much more interesting. I can remember discussions 15 years ago where people said don’t use the word “documentary,” people will never watch. Now I think people hear the word “documentary” and get excited.

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You have released something like 18 films in five years; how do you do that?

People only see them when they come out and assume they’re rolling off some assembly line. It’s not like that. Each takes a long time, and sometimes I will set one aside for a few months and pick it back up again. They almost all take one and a half to two and a half years to make.

If time and money were no consideration, what docs would you like to make?

A film about my stepfather — that’s one I haven’t managed. And I’ve always wanted to make one about Miles Davis.

A great deal of your work is about the dark side of human nature. Is it dispiriting to take all that baggage home?

Sometimes it is; that’s how I first got into cutting more than one film at a time. When I was doing “Taxi to the Dark Side,” looking at images of torture every day had a powerful effect on my psyche and the psyche of my editor, Sloane Klevin. [The film, about an Afghan taxi driver beaten to death in prison by American soldiers, won an Oscar and a Peabody award.] As it happened, the film about Hunter S. Thompson was lagging, so I ended up cutting both at the same time. I’d walk from cutting room to cutting room. There was a dark aspect to Hunter as well, but there were also a lot more laughs. Without that, I probably would have gone crazy.

Are you concerned that your films preach to the choir, to people who already endorse what they’re seeing, and not reaching others — conservatives, for example, may not go to see “Casino Jack” [about corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff]?

I am concerned about that, though a lot of conservatives did see “Casino Jack,” and “Taxi to the Dark Side” ended up being required viewing at the Army JAG school. I may not always succeed, but I try to create a space where people with different viewpoints can engage.

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In fact-based fiction films, filmmakers can simply put words in characters’ mouths. Documentarians run into obstacles — you couldn’t tape Abramoff in prison, and you didn’t get to interview Julian Assange on camera. How do you get around these problems?

Sometimes those obstacles offer opportunities in ways you didn’t think about. When I started “We Steal Secrets,” I was thinking I was making a pure David and Goliath film about Julian Assange and the U.S. government. When Julian declined to play ball with me [asking for $1 million in exchange for an interview], I discovered a huge part of the story staring me in the face that everybody seemingly was ignoring: Chelsea Manning [who went to prison for disclosing classified information to WikiLeaks]. Half that film is about Manning. That ended up being a powerful opportunity that came out of an obstruction or a challenge.

In “Casino Jack,” we see disgraced GOP congressional leader Tom DeLay showing up as a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.”

You can’t make that stuff up!

Is that the documentarian’s motto?

Yes!

patt.morrison@latimes.com

Twitter: @pattmlatimes

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