Interview: Alex Gibney, director of ‘The Armstrong Lie’

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Matt Micucci talks to Alex Gibney about his documentary, The Armstrong Lie, and how it changed when, mid-way through shooting, the title hero was convicted of doping.
 

Can you tell us a little about the story?

The film is called The Armstrong Lie and it’s the story about Lance Armstrong, the cyclist. But it’s really about the anatomy of a lie. I followed him during his comeback tour in 2009 and almost completed a film about a guy coming back and showing that he could still win, but then everything came undone. I went back to watch the footage that I had shot to almost re-discover it in light of what we now know. It became an interesting process and I included myself as the character of the film.

 

Do you remember the specific moment when you found out you would have to change the whole film?

You know it didn’t happen all at once, like a lightning bolt where everything changed. There had been allegations about doping in the past but when in 2010 the first one of his former teammates Floyd Landis came forward and started naming names – that had never been done. And then Tyler Hamilton went on 60 Minutes and suddenly the US government was pursuing criminal charges, and all that detail made me realise that there was something a lot bigger going on. We’d better back off and wait for things to play out before we went back in. I think there was always a hope that we would be able to go back in at some point.

 

How did you convince Lance Armstrong to contribute directly and be interviewed in the new documentary?

I did get a call from him before his big interview with Oprah. We had spent a lot of time together and I think he was already trying to figure out how he was going to come forward. His story had become too unbelievable. So he called me up, told me that he had doped and he apologised for me for lying. I began to reckon with him and he told me it would have been nice for him to have sat down with me, since he had lied straight to my face, and tell me what really happened. So he said that he would do that. I was there for the Oprah interview, I shot my interview with him after Oprah and sat down with him again for about three hours this May.

 

Has he seen the film?

He hasn’t seen the film. I gave him the opportunity to. He sent his representatives to see it, so I don’t know what he thinks. The last time I talked to him was when I told him that the film was going to be called The Armstrong Lie

 

Was it difficult to get this film made?

Interestingly enough this film was pre-financed, it was Sony that actually came to me. So once Lance announced his comeback in 2008 and asked me if he wanted me to direct it I said yeah. The hard part was getting to go back in once we had finished the first film.

 

Was there any friction along the way?

You know, during the shooting of the first film we actually had screaming fights about how much of the doping stuff we would include because we always intended to include some of it. There had been incredible allegations and he just deflected all of them. One of my producers, Frank Marshall, was a real true believer. He believed that Lance Armstrong had never doped. So we always had a lot of arguments during the first film.

 

Looking at your whole body of work even before The Armstrong Lie, you certainly come across as the ultimate investigative reporter who is not afraid to change the structure of a film, or intended structure of a film, in order to expose the truth – no matter how uncomfortable. How do you live this mission of yours?

I end up doing a lot of films but it’s not because I do them quickly. Usually, I do a number of them at the same time, sometimes because you have to stop. Truth gathering does not go on an orderly schedule and it’s tough to persuade people to talk, particularly when it comes to talking about difficult subjects. The challenge in a lot of cases is to know that you’re not finished and you shouldn’t be finished because you haven’t quite gotten where you need to be. You keep pushing it until you get somebody to talk and tell you about something that happened, and that becomes a challenge.

 

You say the truth doesn’t come in an orderly manner. So how do you shape your films and how do you make the pace in them so exciting?

I usually have a kind of a rough sense, going in, of a rough structure that the piece will have. That having been said, overtime I have become more comfortable with throwing all that stuff out and starting over, and this would be a classic example. This required a completely different structure and actually the structure of this film is quite complicated because it involved going back and forth from the present to 2009 to 1999 and shifting perspective from a more distant one to a first person one. To get all that right was pretty complicated.

 

Click here for Sarah Griffin’s review of the film.

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