Director interview: "The Armstrong Lie"

Director interview:

Credit: Photo by Maryse Alberti, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Director interview: "The Armstrong Lie"


by C.J. Geoffroy, special to KVUE

Posted on November 7, 2013 at 7:26 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 7 at 7:29 PM

AUSTIN -- Alex Gibney could have very easily called his Lance Armstrong documentary "Bicycle to the Dark Side" as an homage to his 2008 Oscar win for Best Documentary Feature, "Taxi to the Dark Side."

In 2008, he began work on a documentary that would chronicle Lance Armstrong's comeback into the world of competitive cycling with the 2009 Tour De France being the crowning achievement in what would have been among the greatest comeback stories in the history of sports.  As most people know...the ending to this story is quite dark and depressing. 

Allegations of doping had always been there, but never proven. It wasn't until January of 2013, when Lance sat down with Oprah Winfrey, that the doping stories were confirmation. I was able to sit down with Gibney, the Oscar-winning Director of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," to discuss the release of his upcoming film, "The Armstrong Lie."

He expressed to me that "In a way, it's a little bit like the Enron story. People knew that Enron collapsed, but you have to understand really how it happened and this is a film about how it happened." In my opinion, it is so much more than that. It's a study of human behavior, deceit, broken promises, despair and winning at all costs.  

CJ- You said in an August 2010 interview with "The Progressive," in reference to "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room," that "they had sort of an agenda and they felt that they were pure hearted warriors. But that idea leads quickly to corruption because the end justified the means."  Then a little bit later you went on to say "I'm always interested in the path of corruption because ultimately it's about deception."  With your track record, could you have envisioned this film going any other way?

Alex Gibney- (Laughing) It's almost like I'm cursed. I am cursed to go down that path. My wife keeps saying "Why don't you do a film about warm and fuzzy animals?" And I say, "I don't want to, they might die. It might be bad for them." You know, I started out this film, while I had license to investigate this story, I was interested in it as a pure sports story. A comeback story. Will he win?

CJ- In 2011 you had all but completed the editing on "The Road Back" (original title of The Armstrong Lie). Based on what you had there, what you've been able to go back and record and put together now, what do you feel is more interesting from a sports fan standpoint?  What is more interesting for cinema?

AG- You're almost asking two different questions. I think, from a sports perspective, probably the first film was more interesting. The first film looked more deeply at the sport itself and what it takes to win that event. Where we follow him throughout the year and what it takes him to prepare for and win that Tour De France event. He didn't win, but you know, what it takes. The film that ultimately is released, "The Armstrong Lie," which contains some of that footage, is a more important film.  It's about much more.  It's about bigger issues. More fundamental human and moral issues that relate to sports, but are also bigger. 

CJ- One thing that you had him do was stare right at the camera.

AG- Right.

CJ-  I found it interesting because watching him lie directly in to the camera. 

AG- I do feel that what the film is, is an anatomy of a lie and part of it is looking at that lie in real time. You know, as you say, particularly in 2009, all the sit down interviews...I would hang out with him from time to time in his hotel room or round the bus and he would say stuff. But, those sit down interviews were conducted directly to camera. We have a device, it's a mechanism that sits over the lens and I sit at a 90 degree angle.  Lance sees me in the mirror, but to the viewer he's looking straight into the barrel of a lens.  It's a very interesting phenomena. But that means the viewer is getting to know exactly what so many people saw from Lance Armstrong, which is him looking you straight in the eye and lying to you.

CJ- Do you feel that he's as forthcoming as he could have possibly been with you?

AG- No, he's still not completely forthcoming. And, also, in the second interview, that I did with him post Oprah, he had his lawyer in the room so there was a certain amount of prepping that had gone on, or certain amount of editing in his mind that happened.  You know, every once in a while in the editing room we would look at what would happen when he thought the camera was off, we didn't use it because it wasn't fair, but you know he lightens up just a little bit. He's not on message as much.  But I do think there are moments in the long interview we did in 2013 where you see something closer to the real Lance. But that becomes the issue: which is the real Lance and when does the truth telling end and the lying begin. It sometimes becomes very difficult to know and at points Lance may not know. 

CJ- He actually says in your film, about an hour and twenty minutes in, (in regards to the endorsements and sponsors that he'd lose, he'd also lose) "the faith of all of the cancer survivors around the world. So everything I do off of the bike would go away, too. And don't think for a second that I don't understand that." Did he just not care?

AG- It's amazing. I mean, he's in...that's in a deposition that is part of a court case, but he's so aggressive when he says that. (Imitating Lance) "How dare you question me? I know what would happen to me if this lie's ever discovered. It would just be terrible so it's impossible that I could be lying ."  He uses kind of a righteous anger to back up his deception and I think the people that are the best liars are the ones that have a kind of, a sense of righteousness behind what it is that they do.  A sense of the end justifies the means because if you don't have that it doesn't appear so strong, but he had that extraordinary ability to look you in the eye and say 'No Way.'  In fact, he liked to say that a lot. 'No Way.'

CJ-  What has he said to you about the film? Has he seen it yet?

AG- You know, we offered him the chance to see it and he sent his advisors and said no...some people close to him are saying that he's never going to see the film. I think he will see the film.  The last contact I had with Lance was when I emailed him and told him that the film was going to be called "The Armstrong Lie." He was pissed off, but he accepted it and he wrote back a note saying I don't know whether I should be more angry about the fact that it's called "The Armstrong Lie" or the fact that you still can't spell the word 'peloton.' Vintage Lance I thought, and he was right...I had misspelled the word peloton in my email to him. 

CJ- At one point he said, and I believe it was in 2009, near the end of the race, when he realized that he wouldn't win the Tour De France, "Sorry I [messed] up your documentary" to which you replied "nothing can [mess] up my documentary." I believe you because I thought it was really, really well done. 

AG- (laughing) Well, I didn't exactly know what I was saying at that time, but as it turned out, no he couldn't [mess] up my documentary. Either by not winning in 2009, or by admitting to doping in 2013. Either way, documentary, I mean, I think that's one of the great things about documentary is that you have to find a way to create a story, just like a good fiction film, that has a compelling narrative to it, but at the same time the stories are playing out in real time and they're unpredictable and you can't control them like you can a scripted feature. So, you have to be willing to roll with it, and that's what we did, and it was lucky that the original film wasn't released because it would have seemed naive, but I think it was lucky in another sense.There's a sports saying which is,"luck is where opportunity meets the prepared mind" so the mind was prepared, and we had an opportunity to tell a different kind of a story once doping became clear.  It's very hard to catch people.  The athletes are usually far ahead of the tester.  Because you know, at the end of the day, it wasn't the testing that caught Lance, It was the testimony.