Alex Gibney on The Freedom of Documentary Filmmaking & ‘Citizen K’ | Close Up


(upbeat music) – I started out actually as a fiction film editor. And I got quite frustrated actually, because the industry at that time was extremely rules oriented, even though I was a big
admirer of the new Hollywood, you know, Scorsese and
Coppola and all that. But it was extremely rules oriented, even in the cutting room,
it was very rules oriented. And also, you ended up working
on a lot of bad movies. And as an editor, you were
fixing all sorts of mistakes. And I thought, well screw this, you know? And I actually went and shot a doc with a U-matic Portapak they called it. Where you really had to be, you know? – Iron Man (chuckles) – Yeah, you really had to be strong to lift that thing around. But suddenly there was a freedom in that, and there were rules. You had to make up your own rules in order to be able to
get people to watch, but also you could follow
stories as they came up, and I found that much more invigorating. And I didn’t have the man
looking over my shoulder saying this is what you should do, this is what you have to do, this is what the rules are. I actually depend on an editor who has a different head than mine. And very often that is
really useful, particularly for interview material,
because I’m in the room. I feel a different vibe with the person than what is on film. Likewise, with material
I get out on the field, you know, I’m suffused
with what it feels like to capture the material. And then I bring it back, it’s like well that wasn’t so good, or that was awesome! And you don’t really know, so having that other pair of eyes is I find really useful. And particularly in terms of structure, ’cause getting back to structure. I’m thinking. You said 11 days, so I’m thinking, oh, for a structure like that. – [Man] Yeah, years. – I don’t know if you wanna
put that on your editor. I would have felt bad
giving it to somebody else. – Because, you know, we
were looking for something that was much more unruly,
and yet giving a sense of, you know, both treating
this person’s life. We had an antagonist, Vladimir Putin. We were telling the history of Russia since post Soviet Era
– You were. – [Alex] But also, we
never wanted it to be now we’ll begin at the beginning, and now we’ll end at the end. We always wanted the present and the past to exist simultaneously.
– Right, right that’s right. – [Alex] So finding a way to mix all of those elements structurally, that’s the first and hardest part. And that’s a kind of back and forth that I enjoy with the editor, where the editor shows, the editor in this case was Mike Palmer. Mikey would show me
something, I would respond, and then we’d look again. I’d go back and look at something else, so it’s that back and
forth, I find really useful. (upbeat music) – You have a body of work that I would think would scare
potential collaborators away. Has that ever been the case?
– That’s true. – [Alex] Sometimes, but sometimes people find peculiar things. I mean, weirdly the subject of my film, Mikhail Khodorkovsky saw “Enron”. Now, It happened that he knew Ken Lay as a business contemporary, because he was in the oil business in Russia in the 90’s. And so, he sort of enjoyed it. It was kind of brash, but I think also he had been persuaded by people around him that,
you know, I was good. And I think he was ready to be honest in a way, so I don’t think it
particularly scared him. He’s also, speaking of macho,
he’s kind of a macho guy. But we had to sit down for a number of
conversations ahead of time, so that he could
understand where I was at, and more than anything, how seriously I was gonna take the enterprise. And I think he was convinced I would, so we went forward. – How did you communicate that to him? – Mostly by listening,
and also by being honest. You know, when I didn’t know something, I didn’t pretend that I knew it. I said I don’t know, but I’m here, I’m ready to learn. ‘Cause this was a high bar for me, I mean, I’m not a Russia expert in
any way, shape, or form. I got interested in the subject in a way after our 2016 election, but I am a student of
power and abuses of power, and certainly see patterns like that. So I think by being straight with him, that was the way I ultimately
gained a measure of trust, and I think that trust maintains itself even after the film has come out, which the first half of it
is very critical of him. The second half, you know, looks at him in a very different light as somebody who became a dissident. So, but I think he okay with that. Mikhail is not Oprah. (group laughs). He’s not naturally sort of giving, and he’s very stiff initially, but we shot an interview over nine days, four days before I went to Russia and five days after I came back. And that was really important
and instructive too, because having come back to
actually give him information about how people saw him in Russia, ’cause he’s not allowed to go there, was really interesting. So we ended up getting into a deeper, and deeper, and deeper
discussion over time, and I think that’s
inevitably what happens. I think most of us want to tell our story. The key thing is being
convinced that the person to whom your telling it,
you know, is trustworthy, is gonna be able to, you know, be willing to be generous. (upbeat music)

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