Alex Gibney opens up about how the Lance Armstrong cheating scandal changed the course of his planned 'comeback' film, and about his own reputation as a 'biographer of bad men'.
13 Mar 2014 - 12:18 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:31 AM

When you hear him speak, Alex Gibney, now 60, sounds like he knows the difference between a hero and a crook. Yet even this Yale-educated documentary filmmaker, who had received a 2006 Oscar nomination for his examination of some of the most spectacular corporate fraudsters in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and who won in 2008 for his in-depth look at US torture practices in Taxi to the Dark Side, was seduced and ultimately fooled by Lance Armstrong when he went to make a documentary about the cyclist’s 2009 comeback, The Road Back.

Initially Sony Pictures had wanted to make a feature film based on Armstrong’s 2000 memoir, 'It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life', starring Matt Damon and with Gary Ross as the possible writer-director. But when Armstrong announced his return to the Tour de France in 2009 Gibney was hired to direct The Road Back instead. Working with a US$3.9 million budget, huge by documentary standards, Gibney was able to film with 10 cameras at certain stages of the race and even captured Armstrong’s feud with Spanish rider Alberto Contador, who went on to win. The American came a distant third, not a great ending for a Hollywood movie.

Alex Gibney.

When investigations into Armstrong’s doping in the race came to light, the film was put on hold. In October 2012 the US Anti-Doping Agency released a lengthy report, concluding that Armstrong's racing team “ran the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”

The report included sworn testimony from 11 of Armstrong’s teammates, and given that Gibney had embedded himself in Armstrong’s world, he would be able to make good use of some of the old footage for a less flattering, far more interesting film, The Armstrong Lie. His interview with team doctor Michele Ferrari is priceless. Ultimately Gibney would enter territory where he felt far more comfortable, only for the first time this so-called “Biographer of Bad Men” (Esquire, 2010) had become personally involved and would position himself as part of the action. 

“I’m drawn by interesting stories and very often I’m drawn to stories where there’s a mystery hiding in plain sight,” Gibney says. “You think you know what happened but what actually happened is very different than the public perception. Sport has always interested me because I think it’s about surpassing limits and it’s about will. I was interested in Armstrong because of his will to win at any cost and over time the story changed into something that was more about the abuse of power.” 

Q: Were you surprised that Armstrong spoke to you the second time around?

He knew I was going to continue and that I was going to be talking to his critics, so he wanted to have some influence on the story. Also he knew I had footage of him lying to people so maybe this was an opportunity to tell the truth and also to make it up to me a bit. We had something of a relationship so this was an opportunity for him to say, “You deserve another round”.

Q: Is he a pathological liar?

I think he became very good at it and over time it gave him a thrill. You can see whenever he goes to his nose he’s either about to tell a lie or has just told a lie. 

Q: Why did he take performing enhancing drugs?

I think it was practical to him. As he saw it he had two choices: don’t take drugs and lose, or take drugs and maybe win. He came into an environment where most of the top riders were using some kind of drug so there was no other way to compete.

Q: You have said that Americans still believe in Superman and they liked Superman until the kryptonite was introduced.

The analogy with Superman was appropriate as Armstrong cheated death by overcoming metastasised testicular cancer and went on to win the Tour de France seven times. He gave millions of cancer survivors around the world hope, hope that they could not only come back from this disease but that they would be even better than before they had the disease. The great tragedy of Armstrong was that he used that respect and affection that people had for him as a shield to protect himself against accusations of doping. So when the lie was exposed people found the idea that he used the cancer to protect the lie very offensive.

Q: Do you have respect for him as a sportsman?

I have more respect for him as a sportsman than as a person. He’s a great athlete and was the best of a dirty era. I don’t think there’s any question about that, but he also attacked other people mercilessly. That cruelty he had on the bike always spilled over. He was a competitor and didn’t understand what he was doing or he was unwilling to examine it.

Q: How did you get Michele Ferrari to be so candid? (The US Anti-Doping Agency has since issued Ferrari with a lifetime sports ban for numerous anti-doping violations.)

I was very surprised that I was given access to him and actually it happened in a really funny way. Armstrong’s entourage was very combative and very arrogant and even in 2009 they were on top of the world. I asked one of Armstrong’s people, “Why can’t I talk to Michele Ferrari?” And they replied, “Who said you can’t? The next thing I found myself talking to him. Having read about him I thought he was going to be this dark satanic figure, this Doctor Frankenstein, and I was very surprised to see how charming he was. I spent the afternoon with him, we had Prosecco, and he was very interesting. I think Ferrari is very cynical about the world of doping. He just thinks there are all these arbitrary rules. Like one year they’ll come up with this rule where you can’t take EPO (a hormone that increases the red blood cell count) but then you can sleep in an altitude tent.

What people missed about Ferrari and one of the things I really tried to show in the film was that his only real interest is as a scientist. He looks at the human body like a machine and how you can make the machine go faster and last longer. He’s not just a pharmacist who gives out drugs. He has a training program and he analyses the biomechanics of the human body. He figures out how much food you’re supposed to eat every day so he became a fascinating character to me. It’s also interesting that people play roles that you think of as bad guy roles, and when you meet them they’re rather charming individuals.

Q: There seems to be a common theme in the films you’ve made about Enron, the Catholic Church (2012’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God) and most recently Julian Assange. (We Steal Secrets : The Story of WikiLeaks was far better than the Hollywood version, The Fifth Estate, and criminally was little seen here).

In the films I do about power structures I’m more interested in the perpetrators than the victims. Of course I’m concerned about the victims and their role and even in a film like Taxi to the Dark Side, while the taxi driver at the heart of that film was the victim, nevertheless I was interested in the guards and interrogators who had actually murdered him because it’s only by understanding the criminals that you can understand the crimes and you can figure out how to stop them in the future.

The Lance Armstrong story started out as a kind of inspirational sports story but it ended up being about an abuse of power and the way a public figure can lie not only to the media but also to all of us—and his lies were delivered with such force. But it’s going behind the lie that’s interesting and that’s similar to Enron, a company which was pitched at one time as the salvation for capitalism; it was going to be the new kind of capitalism. (Gibney’s 2005 film has an eerie foreboding of the GFC.) Julian Assange was supposed to be about a new future that would deliver a new kind of transparency. So I’m interested in discovering what’s ticking behind the façade.

Q: Did you show Armstrong sharing a podium with Bill Clinton because they are both famous liars?

I was very interested in the shot and yes they’re both liars. Though Clinton was rather successful in keeping his job. Three days after he lied to the American public, “I did not have sex with that woman,” everybody thought he was going to be thrown out of office. But it never happened. I think it never happened not only because he’s a very good liar, but mostly because he’s so charming and he’s such a seducer. Even of late he’s been revered when there’s been evidence of corruption in the Clinton Global Initiative. People love to have their photograph taken with him because there’s an essential charm about the man.

Armstrong is friends with Clinton and I think he sees in Clinton a possible path for his way back to the affections of the public. The problem is that Armstrong is charismatic, but largely he was feared and not liked. Until he reckons with the damage he’s caused he’s going to have a hard road back.