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Deconstructing the Lance Armstrong story
As Cyclingnews headed towards Austin airport after interviewing Lance Armstrong, we received a text message. ‘Alex Gibney is at the airport, you should talk to him'.
The Academy Award-winning film director had been in town to promote his new film ‘The Armstrong Lie’, a documentary deconstruction of Lance Armstrong's comeback to cycling in 2009 and his subsequent fall from grace.
The chance of a one-on-one interview with Gibney, whose work includes 'Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room' and 'We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks', is not one to pass up on. However, as we had to explain (sic apologise profusely), Cyclingnews had not seen the film yet due to the fact that no invite had been issued for a premiere nor had the documentary been released to the general public. Despite this, Gibney, rather graciously, sat down with us to talk about the subject of his latest project.
Daniel Benson: What was Lance Armstrong like to ‘work with’ if that’s the correct term?
Alex Gibney: It’s been a five year process. I had a lot of access. Some of it was great and some of it turned out to be not so truthful. So it was a mixed bag. On a day-to-day level I like him.
DB: But the mixed bag still has a sense of truth in it?
AG: Of course it does. As he himself admitted to me, he lied to me. He lied to me sometimes straight to my face.
DB: Did you know he was lying to your face at the time?
AG: Not always, no. There were times I knew he was lying to me though.
DB: Did you confront him?
AG: It depended. Sometimes, for example, on matters relating to doping the definitive answer to his lie was not met until 2011 or 2012. In terms of smaller matters, you go back, you re-direct, you ask a couple of times and you get the same answer. My view was that I’d wait in the editing room and then do the best job I could to set the answer in the context. So for example I’m riding in a car with him and Johan [Bruyneel] when they chatted about how they would make Frankie Andreu the one guy who would interview them on camera during the Tour de France. And Lance was chuckling, he found this hilarious. Johan didn’t find it hilarious and was advising him not to do it.
Later I asked them if there was anything mischievous about wanting to make Frankie be the only one to interview Lance, ‘absolutely not’ was the response I got in that politician style voice. I asked him again… the same answer. I put that answer, into that context in the movie.
DB: As a film maker, as someone trying to tell a story do you find it hard when you know or you get the feeling that someone is lying to you, and about how to confront that, or whether or not you even do confront that?
AG: You ultimately have to confront that. The question is how. And the question is whether or not you confront it in the moment of whether or not you confront it in the context of the larger film. And that’s just an answer that just depends because sometimes you’ll ask someone something and you’ll ask them a couple of times and the answer will be the same. You’ll nod, you’ll say ‘I’ve asked you the question, you’ve answered it' and then you make a determination on how you juxtapose that answer and what your determination is on what the truth is.
And sometimes you’ll let the viewer decide and sometimes you go further than that depending on what you know or what you find out. But I was always pretty straight forward with Lance about what I was doing. There was never any hidden agenda.
DB: What did he want the film to be called both from the outset and then down the line?
AG: I have no idea, I don’t think I ever asked him that. Did you ask him?
DB: He told me that he was fairly happy with the title you gave it but that was different to what I’d seen in an interview clip in which you said he wasn’t happy.
AG: I didn’t say he was happy. I think that I said he accepted it.
DB: But that was the last time you talked to him.
AG: It was. I think it wasn’t even a conversation, it was an email exchange. I can look up the email but I think it went along the lines of ‘I don’t know whether I should be more annoyed over the title or the fact that you still can’t spell the word peloton'. Which was true, I think in the email I misspelled the word peloton. So fair enough but I think I said in other interviews that he also accepted it. I don’t think he was happy about it. I don’t think he was like ‘great, I love that title’ but I think he accepted it.
DB: You address this in the film but do you think he’s still lying?
AG: Sometimes. It’s hard to know. There are some things you can’t pin down. It’s hard to trust him completely now because the record is not good. I suppose the big question is 2009. He’s adamant about it, and you’d have to see the film, where that way I can reference how I handled some of the issues. But let’s just say there are still areas where I don’t think he’s being entirely candid and there are some areas where I’m not sure I believe it. Let me put it that way.
DB: What don’t you believe him on?
AG: I don’t believe 2009 anymore. I used to but I don’t believe it any more.
DB: Is that because you wanted to believe it or because you genuinely believed it?
AG: I genuinely believed it. Again, and in the film, I tried to portray why it was that I tried to allow myself to believe it. It’s part of the process, part of being inside the bubble and part of rooting for him to succeed and have his redemption moment.
DB: What makes Armstrong a good story teller, whether it be truth or lie?
AG: He understands. He’s a good story teller when it relates to his own story, and that’s the myth he’s a very talented curator of. I think he understands what people want and by and large he understood that people wanted the beautiful lie more than they wanted the ugly truth. And somehow he innately understood that people wanted a big lie and not a little one and the bigger the lie the more appealing it became.
I think it’s his forcefulness, he’s very forceful, and I think he understands the power of emotion and how to stir it. He was very good at that and the force he had in terms of understanding his own story as the cancer survivor, sometimes he used that moral power to attack his enemies and to feel confident about telling a lie that encompass so many people other than himself. What was his famous speech in 05? He didn’t say thank you, he said 'I'm sorry for those of you who don't believe in miracles. I'm sorry for you who can't dream big'. Well, that’s a telling comment. So I think he understood the power of miracles, the power of myth. A lot of people responded to that.
DB: You were on the inside. Was he the driving force, was he the ring leader or part of the mechanism for a number of parties to effectively make millions of dollars?
AG: I think he was part of the mechanism. He was the star but like a star in a Hollywood movie there were plenty of producers who were making money and helping to produce the story. He was not alone and he was not the one who… he understood the power of his story and I think a lot of other people understood how to make money off that. He was the writer, the director but he wasn’t the producer. There were plenty of producers and you can’t make a big movie without powerful producers.
DB: Tell me about the process of working in that environment?
AG: I was at times perceived as being in the Lance tank, making the promo film for Lance. A lot of people didn’t talk to me. Even someone on my team, who I later found out from Jonathan Vaughters, someone on my crew was warning others that I couldn’t be trusted.
DB: Would you have done anything differently if you’d known the truth from the start? I guess you wouldn’t have had the access to begin with.
AG: Correct. But I talked to a number of people, David Walsh, Frankie, Ferrari, Simeoni, but even then there was a limit to how far you could go.
DB: How do you feel about Armstrong now?
AG: It’s peculiar. I actually enjoyed a lot of the conversations that we had. I don’t mean the conversations we had on camera, which were not always candid but I enjoyed some of the conversations and on a day-to-day basis I like him. I think he has lost perspective, I don’t think he quite understands the power of the story off the bike and why people are angry at him and he’s focused too much on his athletic accomplishments. That’s my view.
DB: I can understand that but do you think it’s because he has lost perspective or he chooses not to focus on the true perspective?
AG: I don’t know. What’s the difference?
DB: Well one is ignoring, one is being unaware.
AG: I think he’s aware. I just think that Lance is caught between two courts now. He’s caught between the court of public opinion and the court of law and there’s no way to reconcile those two positions. Now Lance feels that he’s in a fight, in a battle, and so the broader perspective that he had around the time of the Oprah interview has been lost. Whether he doesn’t think it’s important or he’s decided that he’s not going to focus on it because he’s being pragmatic in another area, I don’t know the answer to that question.
DB: It’s never that simple to suggest there’s good guys and bad guys in the sport though, based off what you saw though.
AG: It wasn’t a level playing field when it came to Lance but if you’re talking about grey, was there a lot of grey in the story, yes, and I think the film gets into that. There’s a lot of grey when it comes to the sponsors. Did they ask the tough questions? No. Did the UCI? No.
DB: Did we as journalists?
AG: No. A lot didn’t. And a lot were very happy with the beautiful lie and then pounced very quickly onto Armstrong as the sole malefactor and I don’t think he was. He had more power than a lot of people and I think in a peculiar way rough justice was met because he abused that power. It’s not a perfect crime or a perfect punishment in terms of how the story worked out. But it was rough justice. Was there a lot of grey, sure. Anyone who thinks that Lance Armstrong was the only bad guy is crazy.