“Trump Was Always Going to Be in Our Film”: Brian Knappenberger on Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press
An iconic figure of brute force, wholesome values and exaggerated patriotism, the red-and-yellow bandana-wearing Hulk Hogan was a pop culture phenomenon throughout the’80s professional wrestling boom. The face of the World Wrestling Federation under Vince McMahon, Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) was a childhood hero for many children of a certain age, bodyslamming giants and providing leg-drops to bad guys who threatened to disrupt the concept of a wholesome America.
Things have changed. Hogan left the company several times over rampant steroid abuse scandals and larger paydays for other promotions, but he always returned for one final run to pay back his fans. That option went off the table in 2016 when Gawker Media, the former journalism conglomerate specializing in breaking sensational stories, released a condensed version of a black-and-white sex tape featuring Hogan engaging in intercourse with his best friend’s wife. Hogan’s actions (and the racist remarks he said on those tapes later exposed by The National Enquirer) led to him filing a lawsuit against Gawker that resulted in a $140 million payout, shutting down Gawker completely. Then a billionaire with an axe to grind was revealed as the person personally funding Hogan’s lawsuit, and things really got confusing.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Brian Knappenberger’s Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press is a film as much about damaging lawsuits as it about those who file them in an attempt to silence their enemy: the media. In addition to the Gawker case, the film “follows the money,” shedding light on previous (and current) attempts by multi-billionaires to purchase the very institutions that stand to criticize them.
As Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press premieres on Netflix, I spoke with Knappenberger about that memorable Hulk Hogan trial, how a celebrity’s public persona can be classified as a performance, and how Donald Trump’s surprising rise to power changed the trajectory of this film.
Filmmaker: What led you to tell a story about the challenges and imposing forces journalists are confronted with? Did the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker trial kick the production into high gear?
Knappenberger: I was tapping into something that was clearly on the rise last year, and when we started, we were trying to get a handle on what it was. I was interested in the Hulk Hogan versus Gawker trial by itself and thought it was really captivating. I wasn’t quite making a film about it yet, but we were watching closely and thinking about how we might film something about it. It was significant — the first time a sex tape case like this had ever gone to trial — and it was tabloidy and salacious, as all of the accusations were flying around.
It was also pretty clear that, big-picture wise, there were First Amendment versus privacy issues at stake. It’s not an easy case. It’s on the fringes of acceptability and I was attracted to it because it was tough and because I had some sympathy for Hogan.
What really locked it in for me was the $140 million verdict and the requirement for Gawker to pay quite a bit of it right away, which was basically their death sentence. The revelation that the billionaire Peter Thiel was involved in the result was when it became a very different story. With all of this taking place during the bizarre election cycle in which Trump’s rise seemed to be fueled in part by his hatred of the media, [you could feel] that energy in the courtroom. Similarly, with news of Sheldon Adelson’s purchasing of the Las Vegas Review-Journal a bit earlier, it felt like something else was happening here.
Filmmaker: The film mentions that Hogan was the pawn and Gawker the patsy in this battle between the super wealthy (Peter Thiel) and the media (Gawker). The general public however, craved the absurdity of a story involving a pop culture celebrity caught in an uncomfortable situation. Do you feel that releasing the edited sex tape was something that should’ve been off-limits? David Carr describes Gawker as being like “mean girls in a playground” in one clip, and I was wondering if you thought releasing that tape was ethical? You mentioned that you had sympathy for Hogan…
Knappenberger: Gawker certainly pushed the boundaries, intentionally so. Some people loved Gawker and some people hated Gawker, and some of the people who hated it the most were those who read it every single day. And yes, some of those who were the most vicious targets of a Gawker takedown were also some of their biggest critics. They’re clearly pushing the boundaries. David Carr does call them the mean girls in the playground, but Carr was also a big fan of Gawker. You’re asking me personally if it was an ethical decision to release the tape. It’s not something I would do, and people have made the case that I could’ve had a pretty good argument for fair use by featuring the sex tape in the actual film itself. The entire film is kind of about the case for fair use and yet I didn’t include the sex tape and I probably wouldn’t have. What does that by itself say? What the Gawker case really asks is if they have the right to exist at all. It’s not this up-or-down, right-or wrong thing, i.e. if they did something wrong, they got what they deserved, which you heard a lot of [post-trial]. In this broad landscape of media, should something like Gawker be allowed to exist? And I think, in a country that privileges the First Amendment and privileges a broad range of expression (including hate speech), the answer is yes, they should be allowed to exist.
Filmmaker: It also brings up this concept of puffery — the idea that if you’re a celebrity, then you are in effect performing in public at all times and shouldn’t be held accountable for your words. The concept is used comically in your film when we hear Hogan admit in court that he exaggerated his penis size in public interviews (the real Terry Bollea’s penis size is much less adequate), but I thought back to the infamous Trump “grab her by the pussy” tape recorded on the bus with Billy Bush. Was Trump performing as “a character” then? When making your film, what did you learn about this idea of puffery and celebrity performance versus celebrity privacy?
Knappenberger: I think that part is so interesting and, in some ways, such unique territory for American media. Hogan talked about his sex life — and this incident — on Howard Stern and other places, and so of course it came down to the salacious detail about the size of his penis. He used that instance to later make this point in court that there’s a separation between the character of Hulk Hogan and the private individual known as Terry Bollea. Where do you draw that line? What’s an invasion of Hogan/Bollea’s privacy and what isn’t, especially if he’s [discussing] those incidents in public?
The Hulk Hogan case is captivating, but it gets really bizarre when you think about Trump. Trump said some unbelievably misogynistic things and his surrogates, the people he would send to speak with the press, would say “Oh, he just said that as a character on a reality television show.” Well, where does that leave us then? That means [the real] Donald Trump doesn’t say these things? And then you have this bizarre situation with Billy Bush. He experienced some pretty significant repercussions from that incident. As far as I know, he was immediately fired from Access Hollywood and hasn’t been able to find a job since. All he did was choose not to protest Trump’s words. I’m not saying that what Bush did was okay, but Trump is the one who said those things and he experienced no repercussions. He’s now the president of the United States. Is this celebrity culture kind of eating itself and encroaching and eroding the notion of truth in some way?
Filmmaker: And I didn’t fully make the professional wrestling connection until watching your film. Donald Trump has participated in many WWE events as a “character” and now Vince McMahon’s wife, Linda McMahon, is our current Administrator of the Small Business Administration. It’s amazing to see how wrestling has influenced our current political system, a spectator sport with sensationalized characters and larger-than-life feuds.
Knappenberger: And it may even feed a little bit into Trump’s combative nature on Twitter, how he always needs to have an enemy of some sort.
Filmmaker: It has to be “us versus them.”
Knappenberger: And for some reason he’s fighting with Hillary as if the election is still going on.
Filmmaker: That the election was rigged —
Knappenberger: I mean, it’s really mindblowing.
Filmmaker: You feature Trump briefly in the beginning of the film and then pretty significantly over the last third. Were you ever mindful of how much footage of Trump to include? I know the film premiered at Sundance this past winter, but there are significant media clips in the film that took place after your premiere January screenings.
Knappenberger: It was tricky, because we did have to realize that we’d have to find a stopping point.
Filmmaker: But every day the news continues to provide such good material.
Knappenberger: (laughs) The news is making our point for us. From the very beginning, Trump was always going to be in our film. You could see the parallels between what was happening in the courtroom of the Hogan/Gawker case and the presidential election. The really dramatic moment for me was the day after the election. We went into our offices to do a screening and people are wiping tears from their eyes and shaken up from the election result. I watched the film and thought, “This is a radically different film from the one I thought I was making 24 hours ago.” The film before then was a cautionary tale wondering what would happen if this guy, with his open up libel laws rhetoric, became the president. And then suddenly it went from cautionary to “oh shit.”
Filmmaker: Now it serves as a how-to-react in a society where that is the new reality.
Knappenberger: The film felt like it now had a different tone and I had never experienced that so dramatically as a filmmaker before.
Filmmaker: Speaking of changes, wasn’t Hulk Hogan’s name originally in the film’s title?
Knappenberger: It was briefly, yeah, but it was never meant to be the final title. It was our working title for a long time and that’s what we went to Sundance with: Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and Trials of the Free Press.
Filmmaker: Field of Vision was involved in some capacity, and their mission seems like a really good fit. How did they come aboard?
Knappenberger: Field of Vision’s team are really good friends of mine and I think they do really great work. I’ve known them for years, and as I started making this film, I let them know what I was up to. They were pretty curious and as I got closer to completion, I started showing them what we were doing. They helped get us across the finish line in the big roll-up to Sundance.
Filmmaker: As a filmmaker, are you always thinking of ways to dramatize the proceedings in a visual sense? When I think of the Hogan/Gawker trial in Florida, I’m reminded of those drab, overcast establishing shots you show us outside of the courtroom. When putting the story together, are you thinking of ways to open it up visually?
Knappenberger: Totally. As a filmmaker, you look for stories that are compelling and interesting by themselves, but also stories that exist in a broader significance or relevance. It has to be, by itself, a good yarn, but it also has to reach for something that’s bigger or else it’s probably not enough to hold my interest.
Filmmaker: Holding our interest is significant. With the recent nail-biting senate confirmation hearings and James Comey and Jeff Sessions testimonies, what do you think about the theatrically involved in that kind of public interrogation? What does it say about our cringeworthy interest in watching people on trial?
Knappenberger: Well, there’s an inherent drama in a trial. It was kind of amazing that news stations had a twenty-four countdown leading to the Comey hearing —
Filmmaker: And the Jeff Sessions one a day or two later.
Knappenberger: Yeah, and everybody’s paying attention. Everyone genuinely wants to know about this unfolding story. When you find those kinds of characters and that kind of drama that exist in a world where you feel there’s something bigger at stake, well, that’s why people are interested in Comey. It wouldn’t be interesting unless the presidency was at stake. There’s a real Game of Thrones aspect to it.
Filmmaker: Peter Thiel is a person whose presence keeps popping up throughout the film, first via the Gawker trial and then when documenting Trump’s rise to the Presidency. Did you view him as a narrative through line? As the story progresses, we see where his money lies in different ways.
Knappenberger: It was one of those things that unfolded in such a bizarre way. Every time this story took a turn, it chose the more bizarre and shocking path. It kept getting more and more significant. When the revelation [regarding Thiel’s funding of Hogan’s legal case against Gawker] came out, that’s when I really knew I was making a film. Apparently all of this happened before Thiel had ever met Trump. Trump was asked in a press conference about this Hulk Hogan/Gawker case and he said, regarding Thiel, “Oh, I love the guy!” He said something like that, but apparently Trump and Thiel hadn’t met at that point. So of course that was before Thiel gave the Trump campaign $1,250,000, before Thiel spoke at the RNC and before Thiel became a part of Trump’s transition team. I’m not sure if he was a formal part of the team, but clearly he was a consultant.
Filmmaker: Well, once Trump is elected President, they’re sitting side-by-side in a meeting, as your film shows.
Knappenberger: I couldn’t have directed that any better as a filmmaker, my two antagonists ascending to Trump Tower and hugging each other. I never could have seen that coming.
Filmmaker: Did you then look for other stories, such as Sheldon Adelson’s purchasing of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, to see where there were other recent stories of big money having the power to corrupt?
Knappenberger: The Las Vegas Review-Journal purchase happened a little bit before the Gawker trial got really heated. It was at the beginning of 2016 and I had always loved that story. I had been following it in real time, and there was this real sense of, “Something crazy is happening and we don’t know what it is but we’re gonna try to figure it out.” I included that segment for its use of secrecy, this wielding of big money behind-the-scenes to control the message or to silence critics. We looked at a bunch of other stories too. I filmed a little bit of a similar case involving Mother Jones being sued by an Idaho billionaire, a case which Mother Jones raised a bunch of money for and actually won. It was a dramatic period of uncertainty for them, and I think I’m going to make a short film about that.
Filmmaker: And as you show the media forming together against these more wealthy entities who are attempting to control what they say, did you ever worry how far down the rabbit hole you could go? Fox News, of course, has its own particular slant, and CNN is owned by Ted Turner, etc. Did you ever have to stop yourself from getting too pessimistic when considering who are still running these companies as opposed to who is threatening to? Perhaps I’m being a cynic here.
Knappenberger: The rabbit hole is there if you want to go down it. [laughs] It exists and it’s your choice whether you choose the red pill or the blue pill. There’s no doubt that big money has bought newspapers before, and even the concept of litigation finances is not new. However, the secretive aspect of what Peter Thiel tried to pull off by funding Hogan’s case is new and a dark and frightening innovation on his part. It documented a series of tools that could be used against any news organization.
The secretive aspect of Sheldon Adelson’s purchase seemed very underhanded to me. Most of the time when big money, wealthy individuals buy papers, they buy it because it’s a source of civic pride and you know who they are. Jeff Bezos is a really good example of this. He’s a new media person, a new internet billionaire, and he bought The Washington Post. The Washington Post has done great reporting under him and by all accounts his stewardship is a pretty traditional stewardship with a hands-off approach. There are obviously amazing reporters there and the editor-in-chief is amazing, but even in that case, you have to look at it as, “Well, how’s their coverage going to be when Amazon buys Whole Foods?” You know what I mean? You have to question that and watch them. But even so, that’s miles away from the 17th richest person in the world, Sheldon Adelson, buying a paper in secret. That’s a very different thing.
Filmmaker: Were there any potential interviewees you couldn’t obtain for the finished film? You feature the Gawker team, a First Amendment lawyer and Hogan’s litigation lawyer David Houston.
Knappenberger: Well, we couldn’t get Hogan’s personal lawyer Charles J. Harder in the film. Peter Thiel obviously isn’t in the film, but we tried very, very hard. Thiel unfortunately hasn’t talked much about his involvement in the Hogan case at all. He was briefly interviewed for The New York Times and he wrote a New York Times Op-Ed about his views on privacy. He appeared at the National Press Club [as shown in the film] and that’s where we filmed him. That’s as close as we ever got.
That was a bizarre scenario. We were at the National Press Club and there were a lot of reporters there. We were told to write our questions on these cards that they would then collect, but the thing is, they never gave the cards to the interviewer. They never got to those questions. Luckily, I noticed on the website the night before that you could submit questions, and so I submitted the six questions I had, and the one they got to is the one you see in the film. They sort of took the edges off my question, but it was the one I sent them the night before. That’s as close as I got to Thiel.
Filmmaker: Not having his personal take adds a different aspect though. We wonder why he took aim at Gawker (was it because he was outed as a gay man on their website?), and so you begin to contemplate his reasons too.
Knappenberger: That’s true. I would’ve put him in the film and I would’ve taken his position seriously. I wish he would’ve been involved and I think we would be better off if we knew exactly where he was coming from. I think even in interviews like that, that could be slightly antagonistic or adversarial, tend to benefit the person being interviewed. If you hear from somebody, you’re naturally more inclined to sympathize with them. It’s just a human trait and so I always think it’s better to do the interview than to let media clips [and sound bytes] represent you. As fair as I can I be to represent your views, you’re going to be more sympathetic if you make your own case.