Alex Gibney has made some of the most politically charged documentaries of our time and even won an Oscar for his trouble. He's produced films on Enron, the death of the electric car, the Iraq War and Henry Kissinger. And now, in his directorial follow-up to "Taxi to the Dark Side," he's tackling one of journalism's most impactful personalities: Hunter S. Thompson.
Your Oscar-winning film "Taxi to the Dark Side" was about the torture practices of the United States and specifically an Afghan taxi driver who was killed in U.S. custody. How do you think the Iraq and Afghan Wars have changed the face of documentary film and vice versa?
I don't think the wars have changed the face of documentary film. But I do think that documentaries are grappling with the impact and meaning of the wars in ways that are provocative and important. I don't care that the box office "grosses" aren't that high. These films are having an impact - like depth charges in the American psyche. Slowly but surely, they are beginning to grapple with what has been done in our name in imaginative unpredictable ways.
You had some problems with distribution of "Taxi to the Dark Side" both with THINKFilm during the theatrical release and the Discovery Channel which purchased the television rights. Why do you think these organizations took on such a controversial subject only to bury it?
Good question. Truth is there's a different answer for each distributor. I think the execs [at THINKFilm] embraced the artistry of the film and did a reasonable job of promoting it up to the moment it won an Oscar. But they were unable to capitalize on the win because the parent company - Capitol - was starving THINK of capital. And THINK didn't let us know about its shaky finances - either when we signed on...or when we won the Oscar. That was fraudulent. Further, I don't believe THINK understood just how to work with the military ("Taxi" is now being taught at the Army JAG school) or NGO groups like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch to get the word out. But our demand for arbitration is not based on THINK's faulty judgment. On behalf of everyone who worked so hard on the film, we are taking action because Think, having built a campaign around winning awards, couldn't even afford to keep the Website up after we won the Oscar! The company couldn't manufacture prints because it hadn't paid the lab, etc. We wanted to get the word out about the film post Oscar but THINK bungled that unique opportunity because it didn't have sufficient capital to fulfill its contractual obligations.
Discovery ran away from it even after it paid handsomely to acquire the rights. Some execs there told me it was just a case of new execs coming in and wanting a different program "mix." Others said the film was not going to be run this year because it was too controversial - particularly while the company was going through a public offering. (Discovery Investigation says it will show it in a year or so.) Whatever the reason (and we had problems with the MPAA too - tough to do films about official torture policy) HBO stepped in and bought the TV rights and will show the film in September in the midst of the presidential campaign.
Why did you choose Hunter S. Thompson as the subject of your new film?
It seemed to me that it would be useful to look at a journalist who didn't play by the "rules" of so-called "objective journalism" at a time when people in power were manipulating the "rules" in ways that often sacrificed the truth. Look at Judith Miller or Jeff Gannon - a sometime male prostitute given a press credential by the white house so he could ask softball questions in press conferences. When people in power start hiring prostitutes to "play" journalists who pretend to "report" the news, when the look of TV news is as fantastical and airbrushed as a Playboy centerfold, it may be useful to look at a guy who fought back in unpredictable ways. We may need to look to a journalist who could ingest massive amounts of hallucinogens in order to be able to get on the same mental plane as public officials in the Bush Administration who tacitly sanctioned the use of "I Love You" (the Barney song) as a song to torture prisoners in the War on Terror.
The title you chose for this film comes out of Thompson's unique brand of journalism that sometimes favored style over accuracy. Where is the line between art and journalism? Is that relationship malleable? Do both have the capacity to affect change in an area as ephemeral as media?
Werner Herzog talks about the difference between an accountant's truth and a poetic truth. Thompson played around and told "tall tales" in the tradition of Mark Twain but he also did some great reporting. As Frank Mankiewicz said about Hunter's reporting, "it was the least factual and most accurate account" of the 1972 campaign. Not everyone should be like Hunter - but it pays to have a Hunter or a Colbert around - someone who's openly playing a fictional character in order to get at the truth of the matter. Or - let's hear it from Hunter - a few words from his "elegy" for Richard Nixon that may strike a contemporary chord for people:
"Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism -- which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place...
"If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning."
That's a refreshing break from some of the stodgy sycophantic knee-pad work that was done at the time Nixon died.
Do you think that journalists who strive for objectivity are fighting a pointless battle? Even if impossible is it a necessary one?
I think that the search for objectivity is pointless. Didn't we learn that from Einstein? The search for "balance" in every story is also misguided. Sometimes the truth is unbalanced. Part of presenting the truth is acknowledging inevitable bias. Old videotape machines used to have a skew adjustment. Filmmakers and viewers should both have their own mental skew adjusters. Then they can see what's really going on.
That having been said, the search for fairness is important. A babel of cheap opinion is just as dangerous as phony balance. I always take my cue from Marcel Ophuls ("Sorrow and the Pity") who said something like this: "I always have a point of view; the trick is showing how hard it was to come to that point of view."
Thompson wanted Fear and Loathing to be an unedited record of life but he ended up editing it five times before publication. Do you think Gonzo journalism in its purest form can ever really exist? Is blogging bringing us close to it or just making everyone more self- obsessively fractured?
Gonzo journalism is a walking contradiction - partly truth, mostly fiction. Blogging is a tremendous new development but it can't exist in isolation. Some journalistic work has to be built to last. We don't want to live in a world of blogging bloviators talking to small isolated groups who share their point of view. And what's going to happen to investigative journalism when papers can no longer afford to hire journalists to work for months on a single story?
I also worry that fair-minded reporting (different than reporting based on an arbitrary or phony balance) may be drowned out by the partisan screeching on TV News. Particularly in his prime, Hunter was very careful about the words he used. But, as evidenced by the phony "debate" over Wesley Clark's comments about John McCain - where what Clark actually said was lost as TV commentators may not have even seen his remarks screamed "gotcha!" - one of Hunter's unintended legacies may be that people think that uninformed invective is an acceptable form of political discourse. Did Hunter beget Ann Coulter? She may be his illegitimate child.
Is there anyone you wanted to speak to about Thompson that either refused to be interviewed or passed away before the film was made that you regret not being able to interview?
I wish I could have interviewed Nixon about Thompson.
If Thompson ran for sheriff of your town today as he did in Colorado in 1970 on the platform of "all deputies shall take Mescaline," would you vote for him?
Did he say that? I thought he promised not to take mescaline while on duty. That seems fair: take mescaline to get in the right frame of mind but refrain from ingesting the drug while patrolling the streets looking for people who had the temerity to sell drugs for money. Was that a flashback?
What was the most surprising thing you discovered about your subject during this process?
How hard he could work and how much he produced.
What upcoming projects are you working on?
I am working on a film about the Jack Abramoff scandal. It's not about a bad apple; it's about a rotten barrel.