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Creative Conversations

Alex Gibney: "Sometimes You Find Secret Passageways"

Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney explains how to approach uncooperative subjects and why you should embrace narrative liberties.

Truth and consequences: “I’ve become interested in abuses of power and how that works,” says documentarian Alex Gibney of his investigative films.

[Photo: Zach Gross]

In past year alone, director Alex Gibney has shaken Scientology with Going Clear, unpacked the myth of Steve Jobs with The Man in the Machine, and explored global food culture for the Netflix series Cooked. His new film, Zero Days, takes on cyberwarfare, looking at the U.S.-led Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear program in 2010.

With so many new outlets available to documentarians, nonfiction films have never felt more relevant—or prevalent. Why do audiences have such an appetite for them now?

Documentaries have gotten better. They’re much more formally inventive. They’re engaged in stories that are really compelling. And they’ve borrowed some techniques from fiction filmmaking in terms of story. [Viewers] have also become a lot more adventurous. The world has become far more interconnected and globalized, and people are more curious and have a much more eclectic palate.

Reality Check: Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine unpacked the myths surrounding the Apple cofounder.Photo: courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

When did you first notice that shift?

I made a film [in 2002] with Eugene Jarecki called The Trials of Henry Kissinger. At the time, the TV universe was rigid. The thinking of the day was that each cable channel had to be immediately identified by its style. You click through the History Channel, A&E, or whatever, and you’d instantly recognize the mandate of that channel. It had nothing to do with individual voices; it had to do with corporate branding. Within that context, our film couldn’t even be considered. [So] we got a small distributor to pick it up for theatrical release. It did well around the country, and then suddenly the TV channels agreed to put it on.

Now [cable channels have] become much more interested in individual voices. You’re seeing big corporations distributing stuff that allows for individual expression—that’s impressive.

Zero Days looks at how the highly sophisticated malware Stuxnet, which was secretly developed by the U.S. and Israel to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, eventually spread worldwide to personal computers. Why did this interest you?

Most of what we dealt with in Zero Days were cyber­weapons wielded by nation-states that have enormous resources—which is what it takes to do the kind of coding involved and the kind of espionage work to get these weapons into the networks you want to penetrate. But the scary part is that code is malleable once it’s out and alive in the world. And that was the great danger of Stuxnet: This code got released to everybody. That’s like giving everybody the blueprint to atomic weapons. Now, you still need the fissile material in the case of atomic weapons. And [for cyberweapons] you still need to adapt the code and engage in some kind of espionage. But the code is available to bad, non-state actors. And that should be a huge concern.

Do you ever worry that you’re doing harm by shining a light on a government project like Stuxnet?

I do think about that. I think you have to take it seriously because you don’t want to expose plans that, once leaked, allow people to be at risk. But sometimes [secrecy is] inappropriate. It’s the secrecy that puts us at risk—I think that’s the most important thing to reckon with. So not knowing what the capability of these weapons are puts us all at risk. And not knowing what the government is doing in our name puts us all at risk.

Your films often explore the dark side of power, from Enron to Scientology to the U.S. government in Zero Days. What have you learned about human behavior from making these films?

They give you some idea of how difficult it is for people to adjust their thinking in the face of reality. What’s interesting about Zero Days is that the code at the heart of it is fascinating and brilliant, but the thinking about the use for the code is so deeply flawed. Nobody was really thinking about how or why it should be used and what were the ramifications of using it. Nobody asked the fundamental questions that should’ve been asked. It’s hard for people to change. That’s one of the things [I discovered] about Scientology: To admit that you’re part of an organization that’s corrupt and brutal and cruel means you have to question your decision to have joined in the first place—and to unwind all that.

How do you get around all the roadblocks thrown up at you when you’re working on an investigative piece?

One of the things I learned early on—I think it was probably on Taxi to the Dark Side [about the CIA’s use of torture], but it went right on through to [We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks]—is that sometimes when you get blocked, the road around the block ends up being more interesting than things might have been if the doors in front of you opened up. Sometimes you find secret passageways. You find work-arounds.

With Zero Days, you had the issue of access: People just weren’t willing to speak to you on camera. How did you resolve that?

When you make a fiction film, you’re very tied to the script and have a massive crew, so it’s much harder to improvise. With documentary, particularly in the cutting room, you have tremendous freedom. In Zero Days, nobody was talking, but at the end of the day, the code could talk—so why not let the code talk? The people who wanted to talk inside the NSA were too afraid [to speak on camera], so we found a way that allows them to talk [by creating a digital rendering]. I’m a big believer in form following content. You try to find some essential truth and then figure out the best way of getting there.

Public eye: For Zero Days, he created a digital rendering of an NSA source.

Do you ever get criticized for taking these kinds of narrative liberties?

I get that from time to time. People say, I just want to see the facts. And I say, well, I’ll send an email. If you’re going to tell a story in visual terms, it should be exciting. And I don’t think anybody should have to apologize for that.

If the real world is already so dramatic, why have you signed on to direct your first feature-length fiction film, The Action, about anti–Vietnam War activists?

I’m more interested in documentaries because you’re dealing with real people. I’m a huge admirer of Michael Mann, but his Ali film pales in comparison to [the documentary] When We Were Kings because When We Were Kings has Muhammad Ali. Will Smith is a good actor, but he’s not Muhammad Ali. But you do have to ask yourself when you’re making a documentary film, What can I show? And sometimes you don’t have something to show, and in that context you turn to fiction.

Speaking of having something to show audiences, you sometimes insert yourself into your films through voice-overs and images. Why is that?

I’ve done that kind of reluctantly. There are other people who put themselves much more in their [documentaries] like Michael Moore, or I think of one of my favorite films [Ross McElwee’s 1986 travelogue] Sherman’s March, where it’s really first-person cinema. I started doing it a little bit more because I felt it was more honest—so that the narration, if there is one, is not the voice of God. It’s the voice of Alex, which is a long way from God.

Alex Gibney details how cyberterrorists might have access to the worst computer virus ever created and it's our fault

A version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of Fast Company magazine.

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