In the years since Alex Gibney won an Independent Spirit for Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room in 2005 (which he followed with an Oscar for Taxi To The Dark Side, in 2007), he’s directed an average of about three documentaries a year. And that’s not even including his producing credits, of which he had seven in 2018 and 11 in 2017. It’s an astounding output for any filmmaker, let alone a documentarian, working in a medium where directors frequently spend years on one project. After all, when you’re depicting reality, it’s not as if you can just shoot faster. Partly through being so prolific (though it also helps that his movies are, you know, pretty good), Gibney has seemingly become America’s premiere documentarian. This week he takes on Elizabeth Holmes and her fraudulent blood testing tech company, Theranos, in The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley.
Much as with the competing Fyre Festival documentaries earlier this year, The Inventor has competition from The Dropout, a podcast series that received a 20/20 special on ABC this past Friday. Luckily, the Elizabeth Holmes saga, first exposed in a series of Wall Street Journal reports by John Carreyrou (later expanded into a book, Bad Blood), is one that many of us can’t get enough of, and there are plenty of angles to explore. What does the Theranos story tell us about the tech industry? What does it tell us about how the economy works (or doesn’t)? What does it tell us about regulation in the medical field?
For Gibney, his interest was general, but also with a particular interest in how the fraud worked, what did Holmes prey on as a fraudster, and how did everyone get fooled. His focus was on “the psychology of fraud,” as Gibney calls it, and it’s a subject Gibney should know well, having made documentaries about both fraudulent companies (Enron) and about charismatic fraudsters (The Armstrong Lie).
The Inventor premieres tonight on HBO. I spoke with Gibney by phone last week.
Do you know what number documentary this is for you?
Do you sleep? Is there a part of the year that you take off from these?
Well, if you look at my resume, you’ll see a kind of a dark period for a long time and then magically, I got the opportunity to make documentaries, once Enron had been a success, and I made up for lost time.
What were you doing during your dark period?
I was hustling, trying to convince people that they should give me money, but very few people were obliging.
Was this always the career path for you?
My dad had in mind that I would follow the family business, which was journalism — he was a long-time journalist for Time, Life, and Newsweek — and that I would be a print journalist. He offered to get me interviews with Time and Newsweek and so forth, but in college I got the movie bug. You know, it was the time of Scorsese and Coppola and there was a film society where you could watch a great documentary like that Maysles Brother’s film, the name I can’t remember now… oh, Gimme Shelter. So I got the movie-making bug and after college I went to UCLA film school and I got a job for the Samuel Goldwin company. You know, cutting trailers and then, ultimately, re-cutting foreign films and then finally editing movie movies. But along the way, I got frustrated. To be an editor is tough because you’re only as good as what the director shoots. And, I got a tingle to maybe do docs because docs, you didn’t have to raise so much money. And weirdly, while you have no control over non-fiction events, you have a lot more control over the filmmaking process. But, it took me years to make it work, ’cause I didn’t apprentice myself to anybody. I just kind of hung out at a shingle and said, “I’m gonna do it.” I said I was gonna do it, but it took years and years and years to make it happen.
So, in terms of this project, it seems like the public can’t get enough of this story about Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes. Did you go into this project expecting that there would be competing projects?
No. Though, I did go into the story already knowing that there was going to be a movie made. Because, even before John’s [Carreyrou] book [Bad Blood] had come out, Adam McKay, whom I know slightly, had optioned the book and announced that Jennifer Lawrence was gonna play the Elizabeth Holmes role. So, already, there was a certain kind of cinematic interest in this.
Did you go into it with an angle?
Well, for me, the angle was not just it. I mean, I know John was gonna be writing his book and ultimately, while we were making the movie, the book came out. But, for me, what was interesting about this story, which was a huge fraud if you think about a nine billion dollar company and suddenly falling to a valuation of less than zero. But, at the same time, it didn’t reach the kind of level of depravity or misfeasance that Enron did or some of the films I’ve done about the Catholic church or Scientology. Luckily, because, you know, the fraud was discovered before anybody really got hurt. So, for me, the film was about the psychology of fraud. How does it work? How is it that somebody can deceive others and maybe deceive themselves in order to better deceive others? Those were the interesting questions for me in the film.