Why ‘Lance’ Will Be Your New ESPN Sports Documentary Fix

Honestly, I didn’t really think I wanted to watch a documentary about Lance Armstrong. But, now that we live in a world with no sports and The Last Dance was over I did find myself at least more open to the thought of watching a Lance Armstrong documentary. And then I watched it and, yes, apparently I really did want to watch a documentary about Lance Armstrong because I was riveted. In Lance, Armstrong is at times charming, and at other times a raging asshole. Which creates a portrait that is insanely complicated and takes the viewer on quite an emotional ride in how we feel about this guy. Yeah, he was doping. But literally everyone was. But the way he threw people under the bus is unforgivable. But, then again, he did amazing work for cancer patients who, as we see in the film, explain how much good Armstrong really did for them.

In Marina Zenovich’s past films – which feature subjects like Roman Polanski, Richard Pryor, and Robin Williams – she had to create a film by talking to other people who were around them. This time, for te first time, she has the subject at hand ready and waiting. And it’s fascinating. And, yes, Armstrong has his version of events practiced enough that they feel like talking points at times, but Zenovich’s persistence with her questions breaks through that, often resulting in the two openly sparring over questions like, “What’s the worst thing you’ve done?”

Ahead, Zenovich takes us through what it’s like to get into Lance Armstrong’s head. And tells about the debate she had with her team about keeping in a scene in which Armstrong, talking about his darkest moments, in one of those “how can it get worse for him” moments, then on camera accidentally slices off a part of his finger with a potato peeler. Yes, the scene made the film.

First of all, I didn’t know I wanted to watch a three-hour documentary about Lance Armstrong. But I certainly did want that.

Oh, I love that.

As opposed to some of your prior films on Roman Polanski, Robin Williams, and Richard Pryor, this time you had the subject of the film willing and ready to talk.

Well, it’s funny you say that because it is really kind of like the first time. I’m always chasing people. Or they’re no longer around. So I think maybe that’s what spoke to me so much was having the ability to ask him. And he was very clear with me, “Ask me anything. Anything you want.” And I’m just like a kid in the candy store, surrounded by cinnamon bears, you know? I’m so excited because I get to be blunt, and I get to cuss, and I get to put him on the spot. It’s like, it’s a documentarian’s dream. And I guess you’re making me realize it, because I haven’t had that opportunity before. I do it with other people, but you always have to be somewhat careful. And with Lance, I was able to just kind of go for it. So it was a lot of fun for me.

There are scenes in the movie of people warning you Lance Armstrong would try to manipulate the narrative. Were you actually concerned about that? That he could somehow do that?

I wasn’t worried because I had final cut. So it’s like, that’s what it comes down to. But, I mean, he has a strong personality, but so do I. So I think both of us appreciated kind of going toe-to-toe. So I didn’t think he was going to try to manipulate, but having read books and having been told by people – and then having talked to people who were really burned by him – you can’t help but be a little wary. That’s kind of the push-pull of it. Because the thing is, he’s incredibly charming, and incredibly likable, and a lot of fun, and very funny, and incredibly light on his feet. And you get kind of caught up in his bubbling charisma. And so I could have that experience in the field, but then I’d come back to the editing room and be with people who hadn’t had that experience. Like my editor, like my co-producer, and assistant editor, who would call it as it was. Because part of my job is to play along and get sucked in, but be genuine and get what I want from him, but push him further. I mean, it’s an elaborate thinking match. But I appreciate what you said — I didn’t know that I wanted to watch something about Lance Armstrong.” I love that. It’s so compelling, isn’t it?

It is compelling because I had so many emotions I was not expecting. Because there are times where I felt he did get a little railroaded. Everyone was doping. And then there’s the time when he insinuated someone is a “whore” to get out of trouble, which is pretty unforgivable.

Well, we just kind of wanted to show his truth – but everyone else’s, too, like from Bobby Julich and Jonathan Vaughters when they meet him as a teenager, and Lance is a bit of a dick. But yet, what’s so fascinating about that is you’ve come up with people, and then that’s who you’re kind of stuck with. And I think I try to do this in all my movies: make people decide for themselves how they feel, and let them go on the journey that you’ve gone through as the filmmaker where you are going back and forth. Like, how can you make peace with this guy? He bullied people, but yet did so much for cancer. It’s complicated.

That was a remarkable part of your film. When you show cancer survivors who are saying he changed everything for them. And that’s what I meant. You think you made up your mind he’s a dick and then it’s like, well, okay, it’s hard to deny he did a lot of good there. Do you think if he would have been a nicer person in general throughout his championships that maybe he wouldn’t have faced the repercussions that he did?

Totally. But I don’t think he could have been the champion if he wasn’t that person that he was.

A lot of us have Michael Jordan on our minds right now because of The Last Dance. Watching your film felt like watching another ultra-competitive guy who could be tough on people – only it would be if Michael Jordan had his titles stripped away and had nothing to show for it. But in your film Armstrong swears he’s happy it turned out this way, though I’m not sure I buy that…

I believe it for his personal life. I don’t know if I believe it for his professional life, but I think that he really needed to kind of come clean to have a healthy life with his children and his fiance. But I think it’s been really hard for him, but I think he spent a lot of time in therapy with his family and by himself. You’ll appreciate this: he was willing to let me interview his therapist.

Oh wow.

Which I thought I’d won the lottery

Did that happen?

And she ended up not wanting to be interviewed, but he let me talk to her. And it was really, I just kind of imagined myself somewhat of a bit of a therapist myself. I felt like our sessions were like therapy sessions. And Lance told me the last day that I interviewed him. He was like, “You think I don’t like this, but I really like it.” And I think probably because he spent a lot of time in the last six, seven years, going through a lot of stuff. And it’s not like you go into therapy and it happens overnight. I mean, it takes fucking years, right? However he’s viewed, however people see him, I kind of give him credit for trying to process all of this and trying to come to terms with who he is and what he’s done and live his life. Has he completely come to terms with all of that? I think it’s in process.

What do you think his expectations were of doing this? Does he want to get back in people’s good graces? Because, like you said, he is this charming guy. And people love forgiving people once they admit to mistakes. Do you think that’s in his head? Why he’d agree to do this?

Maybe. I mean, when it’s describe in the film how he lost all his sponsorship, all that stuff, and then when Live Strong walked away from him? And it’s just, to think how low he went, and how he’s tried little by little. I remember when we were editing and we were looking for photos from, I called it the dark period – between everything happening and him going on Oprah to now – and there were a couple of years there where he didn’t really do anything. And it’s just kind of like, what do you do with yourself? How do you come back, even for yourself? And I think little by little he’s been doing that. I don’t know if he agreed to do this because he thought it would help. I don’t know. I mean, we never had that conversation. But I feel like he wants to come back. He’s doing his podcast. It’s very popular. But I was just very interested in the struggle of this man who did some good things, did some bad things, and let him try to come to terms with all of it.

There’s a crazy part in this where he’s talking about the lowest points of his life, then he starts peeling a potato and cuts part of his finger off and he’s bleeding profusely. I’m sure you felt bad that he did that, but at the same time you had to be like, well, this is going to make an interesting part of the documentary.

Well, it’s funny because we had debates about that scene. And some people in the office thought it should be cut. And I was like, “Are you kidding me? People want to see Lance Armstrong bleed! They want him to bleed!” Right?

I suspect that’s true.

And I mean, it spoke to so much. It spoke to him not knowing how to use that thing and pretending like he did. I mean, the guy was an athlete from the beginning. He didn’t know how to do any of that shit. It was all done for him by his mother, or by his coaches, or whatever. So, just to me, it spoke to so much. So we kept it in.

‘Lance’ debuts this Sunday night at 9pm EST on ESPN. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.