Director Alex Gibney on Catching Hell
Few documentary filmmakers’ careers are as fascinating to follow as that of Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), and that’s not just because of the consistent quality of his films, but because of the astonishing rate at which he produces them. In the midst of three other projects — an untitled Wikileaks documentary in pre-production; The Road Back, about Lance Armstrong, in post-production; and the newly completed Magic Bus, about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters — Gibney was at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival with his sports documentary Catching Hell, which will premiere on ESPN as part of its 30 for 30 series.
Catching Hell explores the terrifying phenomenon of fan scapegoating as it manifested itself in the 2003 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins. After diehard Cubs fan, Steve Bartman, diverted a foul ball from outfielder Moisés Alou’s grasp, he became the object of hatred for a stadium of Cubs supporters and, eventually, the greater Chicago area. The reaction was so severe, and exacerbated, no doubt, by the media’s exhaustive coverage, that Bartman eventually had to go off the grid.
The film investigates the play through every means available: the six-plus cameras shooting the broadcast, the radio feed, a fan’s footage, reenactments, and the recollections of those present at the time. Alex Gibney compensates for Bartman’s absence by foregrounding himself in the film. An avid Red Sox fan, Gibney connects the story to a similar incident that occurred in the 1986 World Series, when Red Sox first baseman, Bill Buckner, committed a fielding error that tarnished his otherwise sterling career.
Filmmaker sat down with Alex Gibney in the middle of the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss Catching Hell, his other projects, and his filmmaking methodology.
FILMMAKER: How has your festival experience been so far?
GIBNEY: (laughs) To be honest, I’m working on a couple of movies so it’s been kind of tough to get out. I wish I could go to a festival at a point, and just hang out and go see movies. That would be fun.
FILMMAKER: You have three movies in the works: The Magic Bus, The Road Back, and the Wikileaks doc. How do you juggle all these projects simultaneously?
GIBNEY: Well, some of these things tend to gestate for a long period of time. It’s not like I’m just rolling them all out. I think I started the Lance Armstrong film in early 2009. And the [Ken] Kesey film has been in the works for 5 years. Sometimes–and maybe it’s a trap I put myself in–with these projects, it’s worth waiting for this or that. As a practical matter, when you’re waiting, it’s nice to have something else you can do so that you’re not watching the money flying out the door. But sometimes it gets a little crazy.
FILMMAKER: Can you talk about your regular collaborators?
GIBNEY: Yeah. Alison Ellwood has worked on a lot of films of mine. She cut Catching Hell. Maryse Alberti shoots a lot for me. Sloane Klevin cut Taxi to The Dark Side and also Freakonomics. Plummy Tucker cut Client 9. There’s a group of rotating staff/researchers/producers who come through the office regularly. It’s a good crew.
FILMMAKER: Throughout your work, you display an obvious interest in themes of corruption, greed and self-deception. Client 9 and Catching Hell train their critique on corruption in the media. Both offer searing depictions of how the media can create and destroy people. What keeps you coming back to these themes?
GIBNEY: Well, I think of corruption as sort of a leitmotif. I don’t think of it as the story. In some ways it’s perfectly understandable. Look, we are the 24/7 news party people. And there’s so much pressure now to “get it out,” and to get it out fast. Draw conclusions. One of the great things about blogs is they have empowered [people] and allowed them to use considered opinion, sometimes journalism, to get at subjects and stories that we otherwise wouldn’t be getting at. The downside is it’s a lot of people trafficking in instant opinion. And that instant opinion sometimes is based on stuff that turns out to be wrong. You know, you go on the clip file, and if one clip is wrong, and everything is based on that, then you’re done. The classic example is the “black socks” in [the] Elliot Spitzer story. [Spitzer’s sex scandal was further sensationalized by an allegation that his sexual affairs were carried out in black socks.] As it turns out, the blacks socks were something that was cleverly planted by a political operative in the media because he knew how the media works. The media loves it because it’s so funny, but it just happens to be false. It’s the same thing with Bartman in a way. Here, I have the media people actually reflecting on their own role, which I kind of like. Because on the one hand you can say, yes, they did rain down hell on Steve Bartman. On the other hand, it’s also true that they were doing their jobs. Did he have an impact on the game? Yeah, he did. So, as one guy said, “I wasn’t proud of doing my job. But I felt I had to do it.”
FILMMAKER: All of your films have a strong journalistic impulse. Do you consider yourself an investigative journalist?
GIBNEY: I’m not pretentious enough to consider myself a great investigative journalist, but I do see my films as detective stories. And within that context I’m motivated to find out who, what, when, and why. It’s like a giant game of Clue. With a story like Catching Hell, it becomes a critical part of the story. Hitchcock once said that he wanted to do a film all in one room. He did it in Life Boat, which was on a boat! This was a film that was all about one play. When my sister-in-law heard that she was about to get into a movie where it was all going to be one play, she was tearing her hair out. But I think the search for all that forensic detail is what makes it interesting. Who was sitting around him? How did the “Ass-hole!” chant develop? How did they determine that Bartman was the guy? Was he the guy? What happened to him? It all comes down to that one play. And digging for forensic detail, and spending a lot of time on one small event — rather than parading through grand generalizations and taking the temperature of grand world events — was somehow more satisfying on this film.
FILMMAKER: Catching Hell is built on a huge constraint: Bartman went off the grid. So, to compensate for his absence you placed yourself into the film, which isn’t your customary method. What was it like for you to be on the other side of the lens?
GIBNEY:It was uncomfortable. We’ve toyed with it before. I remember when the first charges came out against Kenneth Lay and Jeff Skilling, I was there, and I was reading them, and we were talking to people outside the courtroom. It was awful. (Laughs) So I just took it out. But I’ve started to narrate the stuff. And in this instance it seemed okay — in part because it was kind of a detective story, and also because my peculiar way into the Bartman story was through Bill Buckner. It also served a double purpose: by going on that radio show we reached a lot of people who might have been able to tell us, “Hey, I know somebody who sat next to Steve Bartman,” or, “I know somebody with great footage you might be interested in.” So for all those reasons I agreed to go with it. It’s a little uncomfortable, but I think it worked out okay.
FILMMAKER: Do you think going forward you’ll appear in more of your films?
GIBNEY: Maybe. I take a hard look at all these films, and each one is different. I’m a big believer in the idea that form follows function. If it’s right for the story, then it makes sense. Like the recreations in Catching Hell — I shot them a certain way because they made sense for this story. They’re kind of like a dream. A sort of out-of-body experience. It is a weird feeling when you’re looking up and this ball is somehow coming to you, and you’re having to judge the parabola of the ball and its mysterious flight, and hoping that somehow mysteriously it’s going to land up in your hands. To capture that kind of dreamlike vibe was sort of the idea, but it wouldn’t have been right for another movie.
FILMMAKER: All of your movies do have a strong, narrative component.
GIBNEY: I believe in that, man. I think the thing that was most liberating–Errol Morris was part of it–was that, particularly in the last ten or 15 years, a lot of doc filmmakers have inherited the skills of narrative filmmakers. And I think that’s a good thing. The best nonfiction books read like thrillers.
FILMMAKER: So why documentary and not fiction?
GIBNEY: Sometimes you can’t make this shit up! One of the reasons I decided to do the Bartman film was seeing that footage of him being pursued down that causeway. I thought, “Wow man, they are trying to kill this guy! Why are they going after this meek fan? Where does that come from?” But it’s real. And it’s part of making it real. And it has more power because it is real. It’s like the audiotapes of the Enron traders. In a fiction film script, I’m not sure you would’ve believed that sort of gleeful malice. But when you know it’s real it’s terrifying.
FILMMAKER: Though Catching Hell is heaped in sports footage, it is clearly about so much more than baseball. How was that received among your collaborators at ESPN?
GIBNEY: They like that, to be honest. I came to this just because I knew they were doing the 30 for 30 project. They approached me, and I was definitely into it because I am a sports freak. I thought, “It will be fun to do a sports film. I don’t have get all heavy on everybody about politics.” But I think that ESPN is always looking for these stories that are about sports, but are also about something deeply human. It’s not for just the pure sports freak. I think at their essence, that’s what great sports stories are all about. You can take somebody who doesn’t know anything about boxing and show them When We were Kings, and they’re going to have a wild ride.
FILMMAKER: Can you talk about any of your future projects?
GIBNEY: I can talk a little bit about the Wikileaks documentary. We’re digging deep now in the reporting and evidence-gathering. So in a way I can’t talk about it too much, except to say that it seems to be a story that’s really fascinating for a lot of people, in part because nobody can quite figure out what they think about it all. And that’s very interesting to me.
FILMMAKER: Is your access to Julian Assange going to be a problem?
GIBNEY: Let’s leave Assange aside for the moment; the Steve Bartman character in Wikileaks is Bradley Manning. He’s the ultimate access problem. And I don’t have any problem saying this: This is horrendous, what’s been done to Bradley Manning.
FILMMAKER: He’s imprisoned as we speak.
GIBNEY: Yeah, he’s on his way to Leavenworth now. But the idea that he was stripped naked, paraded naked before the guards, that he underwent, by all accounts, a very vigorous campaign of sleep deprivation. These are soft torture techniques that the Soviets and the Chinese developed, and the CIA became very interesting in pursuing, that we used on a lot of enemies in the global war on terror. So how is it that we’re okay with that suddenly? That now it’s all right to take an American citizen and practice that kind of soft torture on him? And how long has it been since he’s been in that condition, and charges have been brought but he hasn’t been tried? Is this the Gulag?
FILMMAKER: Please excuse the grandiose analogy, but in the world of documentary filmmaking right now you’re something of a Bradley Manning character, with your eye trained on these sensitive topics that cut to the core of our principles. What is like to be in that position? Is it something you just naturally gravitate towards?
GIBNEY: I guess so. (Laughs) In that way I would say I’m not a political filmmaker, in the sense that I don’t make films so that candidate X will win election Y, or that issue B will be adopted by a vote. I tend to make films about abuses of power, and also to some extent, moral issues, issues of our personal corruption. That stuff interests me — how and why we do stuff that we wouldn’t be proud of, and how only by focusing on it can we think about how to prevent it from happening again. But to be honest, the kick for me is doing the detective work. One of my prize possessions is a letter from Luis Buñuel, who was my hero when I was growing up. I wrote him a letter saying I wanted to do a documentary about him, and he said no. He wasn’t interested. (Laughs) But I did send him an essay I wrote about The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and he sent me a note. He said, “I loved it. It’s like Sherlock Holmes. And that’s not pejorative.” So I’m okay with being Sherlock Holmes.