Alex Gibney is in Edinburgh at the moment, accompanying his latest documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks, and he was kind enough to fit Flickfeast into his busy schedule when approached for an interview. Feeling ever so slightly nervous – this was, after all, the man who had given audiences such fantastic fare as Taxi To The Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God – I went along with my questions and recorder ready. Thankfully, the interview seemed to go well. Alex was a great interviewee, and in true WikiLeaks style, I have now handed it over to Flickfeast, to be published for all to see.
Flickfeast: First of all, thank you for bringing this documentary to the screen. I caught the Sunday screening, it was fantastic. Your history as a well-known documentary filmmaker is highly regarded. I have a friend who I know would have wanted to be in my position, talking to you, this evening. What took you in that direction? What started you off and took you there?
Alex Gibney: It’s hard to know. I was always a huge movie buff, but when I was in college people didn’t make the kind of distinctions that they sometimes make between documentaries and movies. You know, they were all movies. Some were non-fiction, some were fiction. My father and mother, actually, were both journalists. They wanted me to go and be a writer, but I was much more interested in filmmaking so I ended up, after a brief career as a feature film editor, kind of hanging off my own shingle as a documentary person. And those were a lot of lean years, but over time I managed to get a project or two up and running and I won some awards, and then my whole career changed when I produced a whole series of films for executive producer Martin Scorsese about the blues and what was interesting about those films was that each director had a radically different vision of what their film would be like in the formal terms. They always respected the subject, the documnetary subject, but as authors they were tremendously invested in seeing it their way, in a way that was visually provocative and also represented their own personal issues. So I thought, “wow, that’s really inspiring” and on that basis I went and started, I made a film with Eugene Jarecki called The Trials Of Henry Kissinger and then Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room. That was the one that kinda started me off, so it was a long trip through the wilderness for many years, I did some TV stuff as well, but I was finally able to hit it somehow with Enron.
FF: A question that I’m sure you’ve been asked many times, what drew you to THIS story?
AG: It was an assignment, to be honest with you. I accepted it immediately. There had been a lot about this subject done on the news, and it was on the heels of the State Department cables that I got a call from Mark Shmuger, who had been the co-chairman at Universal and was now an independent producer, who asked me, if he could raise the money, would I do the film, and I said yes, absolutely. So I did. And they were able to give me resources to be able to follow the story all over the world and that was that. I’d been following the story independently, but I was busy on other projects, but when this opportunity came up I couldn’t pass it up.
FF: Was it Universal helping to get the BIG names appearing onscreen. There are many people I expected to see, but some that I was very surprised by.
AG: No. That was me, and my team. Universal was very kind, Mark Shmuger was very helpful as a producer in terms of giving input on cuts, but Universal actually gave me final cut and for a long time pretty much left me alone to do what it was that I would do until I showed them an early cut. In fact, I told Universal that I thought it was very important that they give me final cut so that subjects didn’t feel that they were going to be subject to that kind of editorial influence from an outside source. So all the people who appeared, appeared due to the efforts of myself or my team.
FF: Dealing with a person rather than a conglomerate?
AG: Right. I mean, I could say that it would get released, that it was going to get visibility. And some people don’t care about that stuff, Michael Hayden is not that interested to know whether it’s Universal or not.
FF: The whole look of the movie – the animation, the style – how did you work with the people involved in that to get it all as you wanted it?
AG: That was really interesting, because we worked with a company called Framestore, and Framestore was fantastic. And one of the things that was so great about Framestore was that I didn’t want to work with a company that would come in after the fact and just put graphics ON the movie. I wanted, because I knew this was going to be all about the internet, I wanted that to be an organic part of the story-making process. That we would experiment as we were going, to try and find a look, particularly when so much of the material is printed material like all those chats. And Framestore was great, they also did the special effects for Harry Potter and a number of other big films, but they were very willing to come on board in that kind of collaborative way. It was so important to find a visual style that we would evolve together. So it was very organic, the process.
FF: Which, as you say, with all of the chats and the data, the design was so important. Was that all planned from the beginning? Was that always part of it?
AG: Yes. We didn’t know exactly the form it was going to take, but that was one of the things we were going to explore with Framestore, together. And you know it’s always tricky with graphics companies, very often you get stuff that looks stunning but may not be right for the story. And for me it was always about finding a way to be true to the characters and the issues of the story. And also, we wanted to make sure that this was a film that would speak to, and appeal to, people who didn’t know anything about WikiLeaks and when so much of it was about the internet we wanted to be able to create a visual world that would allow people in to that subject area.
FF: The other main decision I wanted to ask you about, there comes a point in the documentary when you decide to approach the personal accusations that have been levelled at Julian Assange. Did you always know that you would have to face that head on or did that come up because of the point made in the documentary that Assange had made the decision to keep himself intertwined with WikiLeaks?
AG: That was it. That was my decision, that was the nub of my decision to investigate that issue more fully. Because if Assange had dealt with this strictly as a personal matter, I’m not sure if I would have dealt with it much at all. But it was Assange’s decision to make his own personal misbehaviour a part of the transparency agenda. It seemed to me to be very much a part of the character arc of the film, which was an individual who once he encountered the fame of this role as the grand master leaker . . . how it corrupted him. And I think he ended up, instead of speaking truth to power he ended up speaking lies to power. And the Swedish story, it seemed to me, was an essential lie, and the reason it was a lie was not because of the particulars of the story, but because of how he presented it- as part and parcel of the transparency agenda, as if it was a concocted tale to undermine his politics – and I could find no evidence of that.
FF: You have Assange there, but the other MAIN (arguably, the most important) character in the story is Bradley Manning. How did you look at making sure you approached his story in the right way, giving it the right treatment that it needed?
AG: Well, I think we reckoned a lot with how to treat Manning, and it seemed to me that the best way to treat him was through his own words. What better way to let him express himself than through his own words? And some of the chats had been released – these chats between Bradley Manning and Adrian Lamo, the “grey hat hacker” had been released – through Wired magazine. In the course of making the film, another batch of the chats were also released so we had a much fuller picture of what Manning was thinking. And we excerpted them. There was a lot of sensitivity to the issue from our perspective because he was talking not only about the process of leaking but also the process of a kind of emotional distress that he was going through about being gay at a time of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and also deciding whether or not to become a woman. We embraced, or ended up treating that, both his political motivations and his personal anguish in some detail because he did. He clearly thought a lot about these issues at this time and for us to eliminate one or the other seemed wrong. Also, there’s a mystery at the heart of the Bradley Manning story which is this: WikiLeaks presented an anonymous electronic drop box, where he could just dump this information and nobody could know who he was or what he had done . . . . whi is it, then, that having done that – having leaked to this anonymous drop box – does Bradley Manning reach out and need to tell somebody, not only what he’s done but about his own personal crises. And he reaches out not just to anybody, but to another hacker who also is publicly bisexual. So these issues were very important in terms of understanding the broader story about why it was that Bradley Manning was outed, and when I say outed I don’t mean sexually, I mean outed as the guy who made these leaks.
FF: It’s almost a perfect storm of events at the moment, in light of this story and the recent events with Edward Snowden. Do you think that there’s any way governments will be able to start patching things up again or do you think there has to be a turn of the tide for “whistleblowers”, people who deliver the leaks?
AG: I think what the government has to recognise is the fact that there are too many secrets. That’s why we’re seeing these leaks. If you’re surrounded by water and there’s a lot of pressure building up on the hull, it’s not surprising if the ship springs a few leaks. So that, I think, is what the government has to recognise. Unfortunately, the governments don’t appear to be doing that. Let’s put China and the US aside for a second, though it’s clear that there’s a lot of political back and forth now between these superpowers trying to accuse each other of being worse than the other, but let’s take the US, or even the UK also, that’s come out very strongly in some of these recent leaks. For democracies, there are just way too many secrets, and these governments are being embarrassed, but instead of admitting that this is a problem they’re attacking the messenger. They’re trying to ignore the message and attack the messenger, and the messenger in this case is the leaker and sometimes the journalist. So that’s what’s happening, and I suspect it will continue to happen until the US, and possibly the UK, governments address the symptom of the problem, which is the fact that there are too many secrets. Particularly in regard to the laws having to do with regulating the secrets. THOSE laws are being kept secret.
FF: And recently in the UK some laws just get rewritten, quite worryingly. This may sound silly but was the paranoia ever infectious? Did you ever worry that making this might show you as being on their side, might get you watched, paired up by association?
AG: Yes. Paranoia IS infectious. But it’s interesting, I tweeted something today, which was a quote by Birgitta Jonsdottir, who is in the film – the Icelandic parliamentarian. She said in a New York Times piece today that “paranoia will kill us all” and I think at some point that was a very profound statement. Because if you buy into the paranoia, and always in the back of my mind are the words of Hunter S. Thompson who said just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean I don’t have enemies, but if you buy into the paranoia then you become like the people who are trying to make you paranoid. At some point you have to let it go. And even as you recognise that the government may be listening or watching you, you have to pay close attention to your own motives and your own actions to make sure that what you’re doing is right and proper. And while you still may get upended, you’ve got a better shot, I think. I think the great mistake that Julian Assange made is . . . he made a decision along the way that in the world of spies he was going to become a spy too, and instead of speaking truth to power he was going to speak lies to power. And I think that ultimately became his undoing.
FF: To use the motto: to thine own self be true.
FF: How did you deal with the fact that you wouldn’t be able to meet or personally interview Assange, despite him having the major part in the proceedings?
AG: Luckily for me, he was interviewed by everybody else on the planet so there was no shortage of him being on the record. I wasn’t interested in getting soundbite from him, that wasn’t interesting to me, I was only interested in a very detailed, extended interview. Which was not something that he was interested in, because then he couldn’t control the message, which I found interesting, or ironic, from a transparency expert. But also, I solved the problem in one important way too, the Julian Assange that existed before his enormous fame was somebody that you can no longer get at by talking to Julian Assange. He’s no longer willing to reckon with that period of his life or that part of his character. Luckily, there was an Australian filmmaker named Mark Davis who had followed him around during that period, and just when the Afghan warlogs were breaking, and I was able to license that footage, and also to interview Mark Davis. He’s very sympathetic to Julian, which I felt was very important to include. So that shows a part of Julian’s character that I think is terribly important to remember. Because there’s an idealistic core to this guy that none of us should forget.
FF: It’s now maybe too far behind a wall now, even if you were to get to him.
AG: Yeah, even for him. That’s right. So I’m not sure that even the interview I wanted to do . . . . . I ‘m not sure that he would be willing to let down that wall.
FF: The last question I wanted to ask you was about the reception to the film from people. I found out the other day that WikiLeaks has an annotated version of the script on there, have you had any other feedback?
AG: I’ve got a lot of critical feedback, particularly from devoted followers of WikiLeaks. And when I say critical, I get a lot of Twitter traffic that says “fuck you, you’re a shithead”, “fuck you”, blah blah blah.
FF: Some people dream of that Twitter traffic.
AG: Right. But the annotated transcript was very interesting to me. I loved that moment in a particular way because it seemed like a real life extension of the film itself. It was released, and it was released by Assange as kind of a masterstroke. It was like: “I am the puppeteer and I know all.” And, of course, we are WikiLeaks and we have reached inside the filmmakers domain and we have obtained this secret document. First of all, it was missing fully one quarter of the film, all of Bradley Manning’s words. If you look at the annotated transcript, why is that so? Well, we know now that the transcript came from an audio tape recording of the screening. As you know from having seen the film, all of Bradley Manning’s words are printed onscreen but they’re not spoken, so an audio tape, or an audio recording, wouldn’t pick that up. So here’s the fantastic and almight and all powerful WikiLeaks, reminds me sort of like The Wizard Of Oz, practicing scientific journalism, only trafficking in evidence, and they bungled it. They left out one quarter of the film. In fact, they wrote Bradley Manning out of the story, which I also found a kind of cruel poetry. So there was a kind of deeply ironic poetry to the annotated transcript that I found interesting. It’s also based, if you look at the annotations, many of them are based entirely on opinions of Julian Assange.
FF: Yeah, even on my brief skim through it I could gather that.
AG: And so-called revelations like “please be advised that the quote We Steal Secrets is not from WikiLeaks, it’s from Michael Hayden.” Well, if you read any interview with me I promptly say that right off the bat so it shouldn’t be a revelation that needs to be in the annotated transcript. It’s part of the irony of the title, like Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room was never intended to be a title that indicated that Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling were people I found to be truly intelligent. Right? Look, whenever you make a film you get criticism, and that’s right and just. It’s part of the public dialogue, but what I found interesting about the reaction of the devoted followers is that it seems to be motivated more by blind faith. The need to believe in a perfect hero, rather than to fully engage with facts. This is not scientific journalism.
FF: You’ve got the ideal and then you’ve got, well, man. Two very different sides there.
AG: Right. Exactly.
And that was that. Alex headed off for the rest of his very busy schedule while I took a number of different cabs home, just in case I was being followed, typed everything up and sent it to the editor after some devious encryption programming was applied to it. Or maybe that was just my imagination working overtime while I attempted my best speed typing.
We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks is showing at EIFF 2013 and also goes on general release here in the UK 12th July.