July 14th, 2015

The Mill in NY and Chelsea Pictures hosted "A Conversation with Alex Gibney", the award winning filmmaker behind a host of thought-provoking documentaries. From starting off as an editor to selecting film subjects and breaking the rules of documentary filmmaking, Part 1 of this blog brings together many of the great insights and behind-the-scenes stories that he shared during the event. 

The audience also had the opportunity to pick Gibney’s brain with a Q&A at the end of the session, revealing more storytelling advice for aspiring filmmakers.

Q: How do you approach your projects when you don’t have a full sense of the narrative or how it will go?

A: Start out with a rough idea of the structure and how the story will work in an overarching way but always be ready for surprises and adjust. Starting with a structure in mind focuses you so you don’t go too far left field and burn yourself (or the editors and producers) out.

The one thing I’ve learned over time is that it’s a hugely helpful to have a starting point, but if you aren’t attentive to material that may be powerful but doesn’t fit into that structure and adjust, then you’re making a huge mistake. At the end of the day, you’re making a film not an article and you have to go with the most powerful material. 

Q: How do you get people to open up and share the information?

A: You have to have insight, direction and some sense of what you’d like to get out of the interview. That being said, I think every good interview should be freeform and an exploration. It’s like jazz, you want to lay down a few basic chords but you have to be really willing to compromise.

More importantly, establish a mechanism by which to have a conversation with the subject which allows them to tell their version of events rather than interrogate them. It may be designed to make you look good but it doesn’t put them in the best light. You get in a zone where you are kind of exploring each other. My job is to ask dumb questions that will make the other person comfortable. In the case of Elliot Spitzer (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, 2010), I went back and interviewed him five times and it was because my editor realized I wasn’t quite getting what I needed.

You have go into it very well prepared. You know the minefields you’re likely to encounter and you know if they’re bullshitting you, and you’re prepared for that moment. You have to have a gentle way to redirect so that you always have the narrative in mind to get what you need out of it, while at the same time being willing to explore and give them the freedom to move forward.

One of the things I learned early on is that you are “supposed” to go into the interview and tell them, “Now remember I wont be heard on the screen so please try to incorporate my question into your answer.” That’s a rule I always disobey now because it’s horrible. I shoot with two cameras so it’s easier to cut. There’s a lot more freedom and you have that ease of conversation that is much more important than getting the person to answer in that way.

It’s a combination of being prepared and allowing the conversation to flow.

Q: How do you build empathy and make the subject relax?

A: It depends. Sometimes in a situation with a public figure, like the interview with former NSA and CIA director Michael Haden for We Steal Secrets, we didn’t have a lot of time so I just sit with him and try to engage. [As a testament to Gibney’s ability to extract great content from interview, the film’s title - “We Steal Secrets” - is actually pulled from the interview with Michael Haden.]

With some people, the trickiest part is getting them into the chair, and in that regard, you have to build a certain amount of trust. Sometimes that takes building a type of relationship but I would say not too much. If you become too intimate with somebody, then they don’t feel like that have to tell you some things because they’ve already told you. They need to trust you enough, either because of your past work or because of past conversations you’ve had, so that they’re willing to sit down and give themselves up in a way that they might not do otherwise.

Maybe my hardest job to convince somebody to talk was disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff (Casino Jack and the United States of Money, 2010). Ultimately he didn’t appear in the film because a judge intervened but I visited him in prison. I knew he was super religious and a movement conservative. I went to him and said, “Ok I’m a lapsed Catholic and I’m certainly not a movement conservative, so you may be asking why should you talk to me?” I said, “Well I think a lot of people have portrayed you as a bad apple and I think you have a lot to say about how rotten is the barrel. Maybe we could have that conversation.” He said he’d be willing to have that conversation.

Sometimes giving someone a reason to talk is important.

Take a look at more of Gibney’s directing projects on and keep up with him (and many of the fascinating subjects he’s covered) on Twitter @alexgibneyfilm.