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EXCLUSIVE: Behind the Scenes with Alex Gibney at His Jigsaw Productions

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood November 6, 2013 at 2:13PM

It’s not just productivity but prescient subject matter that marks Alex Gibney’s work as a director. His Lance Armstrong portrait “The Armstrong Lie” opens Friday; “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” was released in July. Last year, Gibney directed “Park Avenue: Money Power & the American Dream,” which created a stink when it was revealed that WNET offered to preview the film for one of its subjects – billionaire right-wing puppetmaster David Koch.
Inside Alex Gibney's Jigsaw Productions
Inside Alex Gibney's Jigsaw Productions

“I’ve been on the Armstrong story since 2008,” said Gibney, who spent 21 days following the cyclist’s 2009 attempt to win – yet again -- the Tour de France. “But we had to put it on the shelf for a couple of years. And meanwhile, I’m still keeping in touch with people. That’s the hard part -- in a way, it’s the hardest thing trying to keep in touch with people. You’re hoping they’re going to talk, so you have to keep talking to them. And it’s hard to do that when you’re on a completely different story. Imagine doing ‘WikiLeaks’ and you’re trying to keep those people talking, but you’re also on the phone with the Armstrong people from time to time, keeping them in play.”

The Armstrong film was done -- mixed, music rights cleared, with narration by Matt Damon (who’d been involved in an Armstrong dramatic feature with producer Frank Marshall, so there was what Gibney called an “organic” connection). Then the doping allegations heated up, along with a grand jury investigation. “You couldn’t just put some update cards at the end of the film,” Gibney said. “So we sat on it for a year.”

"The Armstrong Lie"
"The Armstrong Lie"

He’d had battles over the drug aspect of the Lance story with his fellow producers, Marshall and Matthew Tolmach. “Sony Pictures had put up the money to do the original film,” Gibney said. “Tolmach was an executive there; he’s a cyclist. And Marshall had been developing the fiction project. When the stuff all started coming out, I said, ‘Maybe we can get Armstrong to play ball’ and Sony Classics said ‘We’ll put up the money for that.’”

The original “Armstrong” wasn’t going to be about the “Lie,” obviously. Gibney had wanted to do a straight-up sports story, a comeback story. “I like Lance,” said cinematographer Maryse Alberti, who with editor Andy Grieve had popped into Gibney’s office, admiring his pope picture. “He was full of energy, he was a fighter. I wanted him to win,” she said of Armstrong’s failed comeback in ‘09.

“So did I,” said Gibney, who made no secret of his fondness for his subject.  “I’ve made films about priests who rape children, government officials who think torture is a good idea, and corporate guys who wanted to burn down California for fun,” he said, referring to “Mea Maxima Culpa,” “Taxi” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” “Lance doesn’t seem that bad.”

But the revelations did change the movie and illustrated how Gibney gets as much done as he does.

“It’s tough keeping all those stories in your head simultaneously,” he said, “and the only way it works is if you have people working on different projects exclusively. Armstrong was the hardest one because we had to put it aside, because there was no money to keep someone on it full time, someone who would have their head only in that story.

“With 'WikiLeaks' and even the Vatican film,” he continued, “I had people working with no connection to each other. They were only on those subjects and their job was to keep updating and reaching out to people – there are some people only I can reach out to, but their job was just to focus on those stories. So I can go to them without fear that I’m gonna fuck up, because no one’s been paying attention.”

At some point in the life of Jigsaw, the director said, he had to make a decision. “Get smaller -- go back to my house and do one feature doc at a time -- or get bigger and see if you can develop a company that has a more predictable cash flow so you can hire people more permanently and take the pressure off and not worry about contracts and budgets and all that. And also create something bigger where I might produce more for other people.”

Hence Jigsaw’s recent partnership with Content Media. “They have a distribution mechanism, which doesn’t necessarily have to be used, but can be,” Gibney said, “and they can provide, sometimes, production financing in exchange for rights, which may be useful in terms of negotiations, and give me clout. And it allows us to hire people to make sure the trains run on time" – like Stacey Offman, who recently joined as VP of production and development.

“So suddenly it’s making sense. I mean, you don’t want to do a story on the Vatican and get your facts wrong.” You’d go to hell. “Or worse,” said Gibney, who probably plans to make movies in the afterlife.

Our interview with Gibney on "The Armstrong Lie" out of Toronto is here; Gibney's reaction to Chelsea Manning's (formerly Bradley Manning) conviction is here.

This article is related to: Alex Gibney, Alex Gibney, The Armstrong Lie, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Sony Pictures Classics, Sony Pictures Classic, Sony/Screen Gems/Sony Pictures Classics, Documentary, Documentaries, Awards, Awards, Oscars, Awards Season Roundup, Awards Season Roundup

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.