Long before the documentary became the hot film category, Alex Gibney directed one after another about a parade of flawed, scandalous people who go down in flames and disgrace. From Gotham governor Eliot Spitzer to the architects of the Enron scandal, to Lance Armstrong, Julian Assange to the recently indicted Donald Trump confidante Roger Stone, Gibney has covered them all. His docu brand is booming: his Netflix series Dirty Money, he reveals, just got renewed for a second season. Latest addition to his rogues gallery: Theranos’ architect Elizabeth Holmes, whose simple blood testing system made her a favorite of venture capitalists and briefly one of the world’s richest women, until the whole thing came crumbling down and left her facing prison. The result: The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley, a new film for HBO that he unveiled this weekend at Sundance. Here he tells great stories about these hypocrites and describes the connective tissue between his scandal scarred subjects, and disgraced figures like Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves.
ALEX GIBNEY: So, I just woke up to see Roger Stone got indicted. He was part of my film Client 9.
DEADLINE: The film about disgraced New York State Governor Elliot Spitzer, a crusader against illegal prostitution who in his off hours frequented prostitutes…
DEADLINE: How did Stone factor into your movie?
GIBNEY: Well, he had been…hired. We don’t know exactly by whom, to pull dirty tricks against Spitzer. And he was the one who claimed to have heard from some escort, and the juicy lie he peddled was the whole black socks thing with Spitzer. It was one of Roger’s great coups. Roger was really good at telling lies that were so entertaining that they got picked up by everybody and in the Spitzer case, I mean we have him on tape threatening Spitzer’s father and then Roger claiming that it was somebody who impersonated him.
DEADLINE: So he was the one that spread the image of Spitzer wearing his black socks during sexual encounters.
GIBNEY: It wasn’t true at all. I know because I talked to the escorts, but it was just a great image, you know, a fact too good to check. It seemed to fit and his job is to make Spitzer a subject of ridicule, so he leaks something and then the press just runs with it.
DEADLINE: We are here because of your documentary on Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, but it’s remarkable the precipitous falls that happen even to people depicted in these films as voices on the side of right. I saw a trailer for your Netflix show Dirty Money, and there is New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman speaking authoritatively about a scandal subject, this before he got swept up in the #MeToo nets like so many others and was forced to resign.
GIBNEY: Oh God, yes. The truth, and this goes a little bit to the subject of the current film is…it’s hard to accept, but you know people are complicated and sometimes extreme good is balanced by extreme bad in the same person. And there’s a theory that psychologists propounded that we’re hardwired for moral mediocrity. It doesn’t mean we have to be that way. It just means that we have in us a kind of predilection for thinking, oh I’ve done all this good stuff, I’m entitled to do some bad.
DEADLINE: Good deeds excuse bad ones?
GIBNEY: Sometimes it can be unconscious. We always think it’s so ironic when an anti-gay crusader gets caught in a toilet stall with a member of their own sex, and we think well, how could they be so hypocritical? Well, it’s part of the package where they either feel a need, first of all. And then they feel shame over it, so that allows them to become this sort of dyed in the wool anti-gay crusader, right, even while they’re continuing to, seek out…
DEADLINE: I’ve been writing about your provocative documentaries since I got to Deadline, and back then, it seemed like it was hard for guys like you to get funding, and to make a living. Now, you are prolific making films, and you’ve got this well reviewed Netflix series Dirty Money. Is it true it’s being re-upped for another season?
GIBNEY: Yes it is.
DEADLINE: I’ve never seen documentaries in such high demand, and succeeding theatrically. What happened? It looks like suddenly this is a nice living for a filmmaker.
GIBNEY: It is. My wife will tell you that back in the days when I was scuffling, somebody would help arrange a job interview for me. And they would usually advise me, whatever you do, don’t mention the word documentary when you get into the job interview. Documentaries were considered…I won’t even say spinach because I like spinach…lima beans. They’re good for you but they may not taste that good. But now, the docs got really better, and reality TV helped educate people that stories with real people could be entertaining. We live in such a crazy world and there are now real storytellers in documentaries and it’s just hard to match real life. I mean, who would be better at playing Julian Assange than Julian Assange?
DEADLINE: Well they tried a narrative version with Benedict Cumberbatch and it didn’t work. He was such an elusive character, a crusader for truth and at the same time a narcissist.
GIBNEY: People are complex. Back then, maybe a couple of the docs I made people would talk about. I call it the taxicab effect. If your cab driver is talking about your movie, then it’s good. That happened with Enron, but not a lot of the others, but now it happens. A lot. Dirty Money, we just started the second season. We’ll do another six episodes. We’ve got some jaw dropping stories. Friends of ours were raving about the series, not realizing I was involved.
DEADLINE: Speaking of that, what’s happened with the threat of incarceration for you and the two Irish journalists from No Stone Unturned, the story about the murder of six men in a pub in Northern Ireland in 1994? The film that was withdrawn from the Tribeca Film Festival because that law enforcement seemed more upset that you showed leaked documents that laid out the possible culprits, than actually solving the crime?
GIBNEY: Nobody’s yet been charged, but they’re still considering charging all of us.
DEADLINE: But not the suspects you identified?
GIBNEY: No, the police seem so far more interested in going after, seemingly, the journalists or filmmakers who exposed the likely killers than they are trying to pursue justice for the killing itself. It’s kind of a jaw-dropper. There’s been zero progress that we’re aware of, even though we laid it out pretty methodically in the film. Zero.
DEADLINE: You take on a lot controversial subjects. Including Scientology. I’ve moderated Deadline panels for Leah Remini and her TV series during Emmy season. It’s a strong show, and I admire her passion. And if you look me up on Facebook, you will see images of me with the KKK in the backdrop, painting me as anti-religion. Or with Harvey Weinstein, from a film festival panel I moderated with him years ago. People claiming to be lawyers would call other journalists and my coworkers, fishing for financial problems or any other dirt. This won’t stop me from moderating her panel again if she asks me to and I try not to pay attention to it. What was it like for you, after Going Clear? Beyond facing arrest in Northern Ireland, what residue from a docu was most troubling for you?
GIBNEY: Well, I do my best to try to filter it out though it’s hard sometimes. The Scientologists are the most aggressive. If you Google me now, the first thing that comes up is a paid Scientology ad that’ll take you right to these sort of hate documentaries about me. They do these mini-documentaries about me…Who is Alex Gibney? They’ll go after my dad. They go after me. When I did the WikiLeaks film, the Julian [Assange] trolls came at me very hard. The Catholic Church didn’t seem quite so active on social media, but I got a lot of email traffic. They leaked my email, and soon it was flooded with angry letters. You’re going to hell! It comes with the territory but it is still upsetting. Mike Rinder, who does that series with Leah, he said something very wise to me. Which is, look, they’re not going to kneecap you in a garage. What they’re trying to do is get inside your head, so just don’t let them inside of your head. Easier said than done. But they’ve behaved a lot more aggressively toward some of the people who were in the film. I’ve had a couple of people pop up in dark parking lots, sort of confront me, and people who sit in the audience and stare at me as if I’m going to melt or something.
But by and large it was the people who were in the film who were followed. One actor, who was on location, they would show up and just let him know that they knew where he lived, that kind of stuff. They try to destabilize you, but when you have a woman who’s walking by herself alone and being stalked or followed by menacing characters, yeah that’s scary.
DEADLINE: So you’ve re-teamed with Lawrence Wright to do one about the Saudis and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. How’s that going?
GIBNEY: Early days.
DEADLINE: Great subject matter. And some connective tissue to the Northern Ireland journalists…
GIBNEY: It’s kind of astounding. The Saudi relationship with the United States is just one of those toxic relationships and I think for years it was just a given. ‘Oh, the Saudis are our allies and we’re in lock step with them.’
DEADLINE: That is what they said when 14 out of the 19 hijackers on 9/11…
GIBNEY: Were Saudi. We’re looking for stories and that’s not one I’m directing, but yeah, it’s a provocative subject and we are running down some good stories. But it’s early to talk about.
DEADLINE: Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos is your latest subject, and the result is showing here at Sundance. She seems like a perfect subject for an Alex Gibney film. Was her downfall a simple case of hubris?
GIBNEY: She’s a classic character of what happens when you believe that the end justifies the means. I think she felt that she had a noble cause, low-priced transparent blood testing with not a lot of invasive needles. She so convinced herself of the rectitude of the mission that she willfully blinded herself to how bad her product was. And once they went live, it became dangerous because the tests were not accurate and that was really the unforgiveable part. We spend some time in the film talking about how she knew the machine was bad, but she was able to tell people just the opposite and to lie with a kind of force and effectiveness that’s kind of jaw-dropping.
GIBNEY: It’s complicated, psychologically. I think she felt that it was okay to fake it till you make it. Apple got things wrong and they would just keep pushing forward and they would fix the bugs and then you had the iPhone. Well, this was not an iPhone. You’re dealing with people’s lives. She so convinced herself that the mission was worth doing that if there are a few problems, which is how she conceptualized them, then that was going to be okay.
DEADLINE: She’s on the covers of Forbes and Fortune, and venture capitalists jump in and suddenly Theranos has a billion dollar valuation. Did that pressure prompt her to carry on a lie?
GIBNEY: No, I don’t think she was like Madoff in that sense. I think she built this company based on not very much evidence. A lot of people invested a lot of money in her without seeing much in the way of evidence, either inside the machine or peer-reviewed testing, or financial statements because they never made money. They said they were making a billion dollars a year, but they weren’t making anything close to that. As the operation got bigger, she needed more money. The revenue wasn’t coming in. She needs to go out and raise more money. You can’t convince people to give you more money by saying, we’ve got a whole lot of problems. But she was putting lives at risk.
DEADLINE: Who paid the price?
GIBNEY: Luckily nobody that we know of died as a result of a bad Theranos blood test, but there were a lot of people who were terrified, who got sick, who went running to their doctors and had to go to emergency rooms. We talked to one doctor who said that they suddenly had all these patients coming to them with seemingly elevated levels of this or that, really terrified. That’s the greatness of what [whistleblowers] Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz and then the spade work that John Carreyrou did. They exposed Theranos for what it was before any really big damage was done. Except to investors and that’s she’s probably going to go to prison.
DEADLINE: Does she fall, like a lot of your subjects into the tradition of the covered wagon snake oil salesman?
GIBNEY: I don’t think so. Elizabeth really did believe that she was doing good and so because she believed that she was doing good, she just felt that she needed the time and the wherewithal to get to that Promised Land. But the Promised Land was an imaginary place that became further and further removed from reality. That’s what happened to the folks at Enron, too.
DEADLINE: And the financial collapse of 2008, when bankers whistled past the graveyard when they had to know these investments built on subprime mortgages would collapse…
GIBNEY: This is the other thing we hit on with Theranos; the willingness of investors to bet on a wing and a prayer. People in business like to pretend that the economy is some rigorously scientific place, a series of equations balancing risk and reward, when it’s a lot of tugging at the gut. The financial crisis, things were great so long as people kept buying and believing that prices were always going to go up. Then one day people didn’t have that confidence anymore. The market collapsed and everybody’s left holding the bag. People like the idea of risk, and people like Elizabeth end up preying on people’s hopes and dreams. In a way, that’s what a snake oil salesman is. The only reason I think Elizabeth is a little bit different is the snake oil salesman goes out every day like Bernie Madoff, knowing there’s nothing beneficial in the snake oil, knowing it’s not going to help anybody. He thinks he can fool enough people to make enough money so it can move forward. I think Elizabeth was like, well, we may be putting a few people at risk — though I think she willfully blinded herself to that part of it – but she said, the machine may have a few bugs, but we’ll work out those bugs. In the meantime, we have this glorious dream and we’re going to get to the Promised Land. Now, it was interesting in some of the discussion we had after the movie here. People think we’re letting Elizabeth off the hook by suggesting that she had motives that were goodhearted. I don’t think that’s letting her off the hook. I think, actually, the most dangerous perps are the ones who are true believers because they’ll do anything.
DEADLINE: Doesn’t she share traits with most of the scoundrels who’ve been your documentary subjects? Didn’t Elliot Spitzer think he was on the whole doing good?
GIBNEY: On the whole, he was doing good.
DEADLINE: Or the attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who jumped into the implosion of The Weinstein Company, riding on a white horse?
GIBNEY: He was working for women’s rights.
DEADLINE: He insinuated himself as a sale was closing that would have kept TWC out of bankruptcy, kept the employees in place and set money aside for Harvey Weinstein’s alleged victims. The deal cratered, and then comes another Ronan Farrow expose that the AG is hitting and degrading women. He ends up caught in the #MeToo nets as Weinstein. TWC goes into bankruptcy and obligations to victims are washed clean during that process.
GIBNEY: You can’t believe it, but this is what I’m talking about, this crazy balance with people like this. I say balance, not as a good thing. I’m just saying, he had a compulsion and his compulsion was to beat women. And how does he deal with that compulsion? How does he rationalize that in his mind? He starts in a public way to be a crusader for women’s rights. It’s like, okay, I just ate a bag of chips, but I’m going to run 20 miles today and it will all be find. I’m not conflating beating women with eating chips, by the way. That’s why, when you look at people who are crusaders for or against something, sometimes it won’t be surprising to learn they actually do the exact same thing. Spitzer would be the classic example.
DEADLINE: Adding Weinstein, who’s the subject of another Sundance documentary, and Les Moonves here. Are all of these people sociopaths?
GIBNEY: I’m not going to be able to diagnose them. I think we need to get to a place where we hold people to account for their actions rather than try to make broad conclusions about their character, because then we won’t excuse people for the bad stuff that they do. But also, we can admit that some people can do really, really bad stuff and they can do good stuff at the same time. We used to have this argument all the time. I did a documentary about James Brown. James Brown is an incredible artist, but you know he used to hit women with a closed fist. Some of that is in the film. Does that mean Cold Sweat is not a good song? So, maybe that’s the best of James Brown, but that doesn’t mean we excuse what he does to women. No, he’s got to be prosecuted for that, right? That’s the place we need to get to because we’re always surprised at this strange mix. You have a holier than thou character like Schneiderman, and then he goes down for beating women. And it’s like, how can that be? I guess what I’m suggesting is that he’s an extreme case of what a lot of us grapple with, how to balance our worst instincts with the better angels of our nature.
DEADLINE: Do these people deserve to come back?
GIBNEY: It depends. You have to ask the question like this: if you’re convicted of a crime, should you ever be able to work again? Should you ever be able to get out of prison? Do you serve your time and then you come back, and you try to make a life? If you do something, you’re caught, and you’re punished, then as a society, we have to accept that there’s got to be a way back.
DEADLINE: But there is no conviction, or even arrests or prosecution, in most of these incidents. It has been trial by media, though I can’t think of many who were exposed and banished who didn’t seem to deserve it.
GIBNEY: And let’s also be honest and say they were getting away with murder for years, right? That’s something that happened, we’re living in a time, now, where there’s so much anger and outrage over how this stuff could happen, how the victims were not listened to, and how this stuff was shoved under the carpet. There’s a lot of righteous anger and I don’t blame people for feeling angry. That part of the #MeToo movement is hugely important. We should feel angry and we need to feel angry because those guys got away with murder.
DEADLINE: We watched this play out with John Lasseter, the Pixar executive pushed out by Disney who resurfaced as head of Skydance’s animation division. The guy was never charged but articles depicted a drunk uncle-like guy who was pawing beautiful women who had to endure it because he was the most successful executive in animation since Walt Disney himself. Disney is a very moral corporation and got rid of him the way it did Roseanne and Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn, latter two for offensive tweets. No evidence these last two did anything but utter indefensible words but…
GIBNEY: That’s where I have a real issue, the words part. Coming from the standpoint of a filmmaker or a journalist, you want even offensive speech to be protected because if it’s not, then morals change and the next thing you know, what was regarded as righteous is now regarded as offensive. And unpopular views can suddenly be criminalized. We don’t want to live in that society. Speech is different from actions and we’ve got to be careful about that stuff. But going back to my uber theory about corporations taking this zero tolerance policy. What we have to be careful about is we don’t want corporations enabling predators. On the other hand, we don’t want corporations flushing people out of the system just because they’re protecting and burnishing their own image, in ways which may be horribly unfair to people who may say something off the top of their head. What Moonves did was horrible. What Harvey did was horrible. And they were protected for a long time by a system that basically said, look, if you’re making money for us, we’re going to look the other way.
Veering back to the Theranos story, I think Elizabeth grows out of a Silicon Valley culture that not only embraces fake it till you make it, but embraces a kind of libertarian idea that if you’re making money, you’re doing the Lord’s work. She got a lot of boosters for her company because she was providing the miracle that every pure free market capitalist would like to believe in: if you let the market work its magic, everything’s going to be beautiful.
Well, that may be so for sneakers, but I’m not sure it’s so for healthcare. You know and that’s where you get somebody like Martin Shkreli.
DEADLINE: The sneering pharma brat seen in your Netflix series Dirty Money…
GIBNEY: He learns how to make money by jacking pharma prices sky high so that people could die because they can’t afford these drugs. The hope for Theranos was that she was going to reform the healthcare system by making shitloads of money. That’s a kind of fantasy that I think can be terribly disruptive, which is unfortunately very much of what I would call a Silicon Valley fantasy.
DEADLINE: She answered detractors by likening herself to another of your documentary subjects, Steve Jobs, who for a while wandered the wilderness in exile from Apple before proving and realizing his vision.
GIBNEY: She took a certain lesson from Steve Jobs, which was, look how he made mistakes. There were bugs in the iPhone, and he kept going and ultimately, he was a success. What she leaves out of the Steve Jobs story is that while Steve Jobs was a cheater and a liar along the way, he learned that he needed to surround himself with people who were both hugely talented but were strong enough to look him in the eye and say, no, Steve. Like Elizabeth, Steve was a great storyteller, but he was not the engineering or programming visionary. People over time believe it came from Steve’s head. But what Steve Jobs learned by screwing up so big was that he had to surround himself with people who were really, really good and who would tell him no. That’s what Elizabeth didn’t do. Inside Theranos, if you said no, if you said, this is not working, they got rid of you. Early on, we had nothing with Theranos in part because David Boies, similar to what happened with Harvey Weinstein, David Boies had so terrorized people.
DEADLINE: In what way?
GIBNEY: If they were critical, Boies would take the position that they were…
GIBNEY: Yeah. They were afraid that either he would accuse them of leaking company secrets, trade secrets, or unfairly criticizing the company. People there were afraid of getting sued by David Boies and wouldn’t talk to us. That’s where a powerful lawyer like David Boies can claim that he’s representing the interests of his clients, but what he’s really doing is suppressing the truth. Back to your word, suppressive. He was suppressing the truth.
DEADLINE: How did you find the crack in the armor?
GIBNEY: We finally we got a few people talking and John Carreyrou, who wrote the great book about this, came on board. He was hugely helpful. And then we got somebody from the inside who gave us all this footage. At Theranos, they were making films about themselves. In fact, Errol Morris was the director they’d hired.
DEADLINE: The docu director of The Thin Blue Line and Fog Of War?
GIBNEY: Yes. He’s in the film.
DEADLINE: How does he feel now?
GIBNEY: I have not been able to get him to talk about it and I tried. He doesn’t want to talk about it. But we have footage from inside the company of him directing Elizabeth Holmes and doing, essentially, promotional films for Theranos. She wanted to hire a great storyteller to tell her story because she imagined it would be like if you had a camera in the garage with Woz and Jobs. Because that’s what she imagined. So we have this jaw-dropping footage of her COO and boyfriend, Sunny Balwani, leading the company in a cheer of ‘fu*k you,’ to the other lab companies because they finally got approval from the FDA on a single test. It is a remarkable moment, like to have the corporate cheer be fu*k you. And we got all these incredible interviews with Elizabeth that they shot themselves, either Errol or others, where she lays out her vision as she would like it to be seen. So we were really able to get this material of how Theranos wanted to present itself. Looked at in the light of day, it looks different than they imagined it would look. We had it rigorously scrutinized by lawyers and were able to show through fair use.
DEADLINE: No movie without that?
GIBNEY: Up till that point we had taken some interesting pathways. Spent a lot of time with a couple of journalists who were fooled by her and that was really interesting and the moral heart of the film. There was Roger Parloff, who wrote the Fortune magazine cover.
DEADLINE: That’s got to be really hard to admit on camera, how he swallowed the bait.
GIBNEY: It was and that’s one of the most poignant things at the end of the film. Roger reckoning with that day when he woke up to John Carreyrou’s article in the Wall Street Journal and realized that he had put this woman on the cover of Fortune. He had made her famous. He had allowed it, basically lifted her up and he had done so because he believed her lies.
DEADLINE: I could say the same thing about Harvey Weinstein, sort of. I used to do an annual interview with him on the state of the indie film business, here at Sundance and covered his company closely. I didn’t know about this other stuff he is now best known for. I imagine those who closely covered Les Moonves from a business standpoint probably feel the same way.
GIBNEY: That’s why you have to be careful. Trust but verify. The nicest guy may have a peculiar itch that he needs to scratch, that doesn’t appear at all when you’re hanging out with him or just having lunch, or whatever. As journalists, we all get interested and are emotionally drawn to our sources, but you have to be careful. You have to have that distance.
DEADLINE: Ever make a film on a subject where you look back now with regret because they weren’t who you thought?
GIBNEY: Almost. I did a film about it called The Armstrong Lie. While I pretty much concluded that Lance had doped in the past, I believed that while I was covering him, he wasn’t doping, and I came to a very different view.
DEADLINE: So the film becomes about you being taken in by Lance Armstrong before he was stripped of his Tour De France titles?
GIBNEY: I came to a point where I had allowed myself to become a fan, without asking the tough questions. And I almost released a film that I think would not have looked good. I was able to pull it back because suddenly there was this big announcement, and Lance came forward, to me also. And said, look, I did dope.
DEADLINE: This could have wrecked your reputation. What did you say to him? And is he a sociopath liar?
GIBNEY: I think that Lance is also one of those people. That’s why I called the film The Armstrong Lie because I’m not sure. There are a lot of people in cycling who doped and when Lance was competing against them, his view was, look, I either dope or I lose and I’m going to choose to win. Lance is another storyteller. He told a story that was so compelling to cancer survival, and they didn’t want to believe that he doped. So he could stand there on the podium and say how dare you say that I, as a cancer survivor, would ever use performance enhancing drugs? And he might get down off that podium, go to the bus and do a bag of blood. But I think that when he’s up on the podium, he believes what he’s saying. Even though after he steps down from the podium, he objectively knows that what he said was a lie. That gets back to the end justifies the means stuff. He was part of a great cause, which is to help people with cancer, and he did reach out to people. He didn’t advertise it, but he would call people who had cancer. He would talk them through it. He was great at that. And he raised a lot of money. So I dope a little bit. I’m giving people a good story that they want to believe in. What’s the big deal? Now, he may not have sat down and rationalized it or written it out on a piece of paper that way, but psychologically in his mind, I think that’s how he was able to rationalize it.
DEADLINE: You describe that Fortune writer expressing regret about Theranos. How did you feel?
GIBNEY: It’s one of those moments where I had an opportunity to make it right. I had to go back and dig in and admit that I wasn’t as skeptical as I should have been.
DEADLINE: You drank the Kool-Aid.
GIBNEY: I drank the Kool-Aid, yeah.
DEADLINE: It is refreshing that even at this point in your career, you can admit you were wrong. These people you make films about don’t seem to have that trait.
GIBNEY: I’d be out of business if they did. I mean, what would I do with myself?