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Going behind the scenes of filmmaking with Alex Gibney

Chris Hayes speaks with Oscar award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney about his storied career, creative process and how production has evolved.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney has more than 100 credits as a producer, director and writer. Throughout his storied career, he’s been the driving force behind titles like “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Dirty Money,” a Netflix docuseries about corruption. Most recently, he ventured outside of the visual realm to direct "Meltdown," a new series on Audible, about how we ended up with this version of America. The prolific director joined to talk about that, his creative process, why it’s so important to give young filmmakers a chance, how production has evolved and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Alex Gibney: How are you gonna know who the next great filmmaker is unless you give them a chance? And you give them a chance on something that may be quirky or odd but seems to be particularly compelling. And maybe set a lower budget level. And then suddenly it's a fantastic film. And you think, "Wow, this is a new filmmaker with a great vision. Let's support that person." (MUSIC)

Hello, and welcome to Why Is This Happening with me, your host, Chris Hayes. You know, we don't have great audience data about the folks that listen to Why Is This Happening, although sometimes I run into, you know, in the park, on the street, in different places, I get emails from you.

I always love hearing from you guys. I don't know your ages, really. So if you will just indulge me for a moment in a little middle-age reverie about how it used to be in the old days. In the old days, if you wanted to watch documentary, this was a very specialized product that you could not readily access. (LAUGH)

I always loved documentaries. But, you know, most movie theaters wouldn't be playing them, like large cineplexes. You had to find, like, the art-house cinema. In New York, when I was growing up, it was the Angelika, which was down on Houston Street. Great place, there was a movie theater in Providence, Rhode Island I would go to.

And you would go and see documentaries, if that was what you were into. It was a very sort of specialized art form. And it was a little hard to acquire. And then, obviously, the era of the VCR and the VHS tape came. But even, like, you know, a lot of video stores didn't really stock a ton of them.

And it was sort of hard to get your hands on them. And then, like, the streaming revolution happened. And suddenly, and it's one of the things I actually love about the streaming revolution, is that across all different forms, particularly both, you know, television and podcast, there's suddenly, like, it's just complete golden age of this form of storytelling, of documentary storytelling.

It can be told in, you know, limited series, it can be told in one, two-and-a-half-hour sort of film, it could be told in serialized podcasts. But basically, you know, narrative, like, dramatic, narrative of true stories has become one of the most sort of exciting genres of storytelling, I think, enabled in some ways by this technological change.

And it's, I have to say, like, as a consumer, it's a huge part of what I consume and listen to and really like. And for me, it's been just absolutely perfect (LAUGH) because no longer do you have to, like, schlep to an art-house cinema or trying to sort of track down your friend's tape of some title that you heard of. (MUSIC)

And so I wanted to talk about this era of storytelling with someone who's, you know, one of the, I think, sort of singular figures in this explosion of sort of narrative non-fiction storytelling. Alex Gibney is an award-winning filmmaker.

He's done a million things, we're gonna talk about that. The newest project, which I've been listening to and really enjoying, is a new eight-part audio series on Audible called Meltdown, narrated by the journalist David Sirota, who I've known forever, about how he ended up in this version of America. You know, citizens angry enough to storm the U.S. Capitol and particularly the aftermath of the great recession and the kind of, like, social trauma that produced. Alex Gibney, great to have you on the program. (MUSIC)

Alex Gibney: Hey Chris, great to be here.

Chris Hayes: So let me start with this. How did you first start consuming documentaries?

Alex Gibney: Well, my consuming of documentaries goes way back to when I was in college and every night there would be a film society film in different parts of the college. And sometimes they'd be docs, and sometimes they would be fiction films. And they were treated more or less the same.

Then the era of cable television kinda changed all that. And things got very bad for documentaries for a long time. And as my wife will tell you, you know, I wasn't even supposed to say the word "documentary" when I went on a job interview, lest, you know, somebody kicked me out the door.

Chris Hayes: Wait, why? Wait, explain why.

Alex Gibney: Well, because documentary was considered spinach. It was considered something that--

Chris Hayes: Totally, yeah.

Alex Gibney: --you endured. Not something that you enjoyed. And in part, that was because of the way documentaries were made, which came, in many ways, came out of the old news division tradition, purposefully dry. Not always, but often.

And, you know, the ones I saw in college were things like Gimme Shelter by the Maysles brothers, who were, or Barbara Kopple's, you know, films. You know, they were more dramatic, but it was hard to get those to break through. Weirdly, I think cable kind of reached a kind of a dead end because cable insisted on branding itself.

So it was the "channel clicking" era, before we got to too many channels to click through. And the idea was that every channel had a brand. And so as soon as you landed on a channel, you could see the brand because of what it looked like. And that just destroyed documentaries because everything was just branded content.

Well, what peculiar thing happened then, and that is that enterprising independent cinemas, like the kind that you went to, started showing docs. And people started showing up for them. And docs started changing. They became a little bit more dramatic and interesting and forceful and daring and dangerous.

And sometimes you could say things that you couldn't say on cable television. I remember in a way I kinda got my start on a film called The Trials of Henry Kissinger, which was a very critical look at Henry Kissinger. No cable channel or even PBS would allow me to do the doc.

But I joined forces with a guy named Eugene Jarecki, and we made it with money from the BBC. But it ended up, you know, sort of selling out. At this human rights film festival, people were paying, like, five times ticket value in order to be able to get in. And then it started a run by a small feature-film company, a feature-film distributor, who played it to film forums, something like five months.

And then lo and behold, once it became entertainment, TV in this country could show it. And there were big billboards, you know, announcing it, saying, "Henry Kissinger's a war criminal" in Times Square. But that was part of the revolution, that then the streamers took over. Because you weren't selling audiences to, you know, on behalf of advertisers. The whole idea was you were creating an environment where people were going for the films. And then the films had to get better.

Chris Hayes: Let's just stop there for a second, 'cause I think that's something that I think about a lot. I'm working on a project that's related to this, which is the difference between a product made to be consumed by the consumer, where the consumer is the person you're trying to reach. You're selling the product to them, and a product there, you're just trying to attract eyeballs to sell the audience to advertisers.

Alex Gibney: Yeah, so the audience is the product.

Chris Hayes: The audience is the product. The advertiser is the consumer. And that's the way, and then, you know, cable, like, so my program works both ways, in the sense that people subscribe to it. So in that way, it's, you know, half the revenue for these cable companies comes from subscription fees, and half of it comes from advertising.

So there's a little bit of split. But you're saying that because you are making this thing that people wanted to see and pay money to see, that gave it a kind of cache and force in the industry it wouldn't have had otherwise. And force them to deal with material that maybe advertisers would shy away from, otherwise.

Alex Gibney: Correct. But audiences were hungry for.

Chris Hayes: Right, yeah.

Alex Gibney: You know? Suddenly, "Whoa, somebody's allowing us to see something that's critical of Henry Kissinger? Great. We gotta go. We gotta go see that." Right? And also, you would do it in a way that the form of the documentary had to be sufficiently compelling that people would want to, you know, spend a couple of hours on a Tuesday or a Friday night to go and sit there in the theater.

And then, you know, ultimately, that translated into the subscription services, where you subscribed to these services, first thing was HBO and Showtime, and then ultimately, the streamers. Because they were giving you stuff that you couldn't otherwise get. And it was stuff that you really wanted to see. That's why you were paying the money.

Chris Hayes: So where are you from and where'd you go to school and how'd you learn how to do this?

Alex Gibney: (LAUGH) Well, I took a kind of funny route. I mean, I went to a Tony college. I went to Yale. You know, I studied Japanese literature at Yale. My father was a rather renowned Japanologist. But I decided I did not wanna go into the family business, which was print journalism.

So I went to film school at UCLA. And out of film school, I became an editor, actually a fiction-film editor. I started doing exploitation trailers and then fiction films. But I took a left turn in a number of ways, because I got frustrated.

As an editor, you're only as good as the film that you're given to edit. And so I wanted to make my own films. But the development process in fiction was punitively long and dicey. So I started to make docs. And I hung out a shingle, which was a very (LAUGH) long and difficult period where I didn't get much work.

But slowly but surely I began to get some traction. And then I really, things really took off for me. And you can look up my, you know, bio, and see there was a long period of time where I didn't make much of anything, except for a few jazz documentaries.

And then I produced a series of docs called The Blues for Martin Scorsese, who's the executive producer. And what that taught me was it was a number of rather famous feature filmmakers, like Marty and Clint Eastwood and Wim Wenders and Mike Figgis and Antoine Fuqua, who did films about the blues as docs, but they gave them a certain style. And also had kind of a personal authorship to them. And that was really intriguing to me.

Chris Hayes: Right. They weren't done in the sort of neutral grammar of the documentary, which is a very over-determined set of tropes.

Alex Gibney: Right. That's right. There was a very rigid set of rules that you were supposed to obey. And they were, you know, sort of longstanding journalistic rules that came out of, yeah, news documentaries. And they could often be very visually dull, you know, the cinéma vérité crowd, Ricky Leacock and the Maysles and others.

But mostly on television, it was news documentaries until the author documentary, which started out much more as a European thing, though there were some great American examples, but ultimately developed more and more currency. So suddenly, I thought, "Wow, you could be true to real life and experience and portray the contradictions and complexity and dramas of everyday life, but do so in a way that was both personal and also had a certain visual style that was compelling in its own right." That it wasn't just recording something.

Chris Hayes: Right. And so, I mean, I saw Smartest Guys in the Room. I remember seeing that, going to one of the places in Chicago that showed these and loving that. Really love that movie. What was your big sort of debut? Like--

Alex Gibney: That was it. I mean, you know--

Chris Hayes: That was it, right? That's what I thought.

Alex Gibney: The Trials of Henry Kissinger I wrote and produced, and Eugene Jarecki directed it. But it wasn't till Mark Cuban took a flyer on me, you know, I had proposed a doc about Enron. And he said, "How much?" Unfortunately I said much too low a number. (LAUGH) And he said, "Great." Let's do it.

Chris Hayes: Whoops--

Alex Gibney: And so I did it for a channel called HDNet Films which was then, HD was a big thing then. This is back in 2005. And then it was picked up by Magnolia, which was also in the Cuban constellation. And boom, we had a hit. It was one of those things where I talk about them as taxi-driver films, where you're literally in a taxi and the cabby will be, back in the days where there were many more taxis, would literally start talking you about, "Oh man, you see this Enron film?"

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Alex Gibney: And that movie kind of took off that way.

Chris Hayes: How do you map out how you tell a story in this format? Like, when you're saying, "Okay, I wanna do a movie about Enron," what's the process to break that up into something that can be a visual story? And particularly one that's gonna be visually enticing?

Alex Gibney: Well, there's the narrative thrust and then there's the visual style. And the narrative thrust, in many ways, was provided to me by the book, called The Smartest Guys in the Room, written by Peter Elkind and Bethany McLean. But that was too big a book to make a two-hour movie about.

You had to pick certain elements. And what would those elements be? And to some extent, it's what do you have as visual material, and what characters? Characters are terribly important in a doc. So what characters are you gonna follow? And I ended up both from a series of pragmatic choices, like some people wouldn't talk to me, some people would, some people I had tape recordings of, some people I didn't, to come up with sort of the cast of characters.

And then you have to figure out how the narrative's gonna work. The visual language, and you know, and part of that was coming across things, magnificent things like the audio tapes of the Enron traders taking down California. That was not a very big part of Bethany and Peter's book. But it became a huge part of the Enron movie.

Chris Hayes: There's a point and, just for folks who have not seen the movie, and they really should, there's a point in which these are during these sort of rolling brownouts in California. California's deregulated. It's sort of energy deregulation, Enron is now a big player in this, like, very complicated, sort of spot market for energy.

And you've got these energy traders who are, like, actively basically taking out capacity because it will jack up the price, and joking about it. I think, like, there was, like, a "Grandma's gonna be really sweatin'," kind of line? Like--

Alex Gibney: Yeah, "Grandma Milly." But it was worse than that. I mean, they were literally talking to each other and saying, "Hey man, why don't you shut off for a while? That'll drive the price up and we'll all be better off for it." You know, they were literally shutting power down in order to drive prices up.

And we had tape recordings that were, you know, you could hear this. And the reason we had the recording is because it was all about trading and you have to record trades in the moment. And there was a big bankruptcy proceeding and we got the lawyers from the bankruptcy to give us these audio tapes, which were gold.

Chris Hayes: Did you know when you heard those recordings?

Alex Gibney: Yes, we did. And we even discovered recordings of some of the characters that we had been talking to, you know, who were Enron traders. So it was jaw dropping to literally, and we listened to hours and hours of them, to hear them and to realize this kind of naked, quid pro quo was going on, where if you shut down, the price is gonna go up by this much, and we'll all benefit.

You know, it was really jaw dropping. And just as interesting, you know, many of the people who did that, we looked into them in terms of their backgrounds, and they weren't always Snidely Whiplash characters. That was another interesting thing.

You know, in their communities, they would give to charity. But the culture of a trader was to be a rapacious cutthroat. And that's what Enron was promoting, was this idea that the most brutal kind of capitalism will lead to a world of great efficiency and (LAUGH) benefit for everybody. And it didn't work out that way.

Chris Hayes: So the footage there is key. I mean, in terms of, like, Enron's a good example. I mean, A) it was a big, sort of, breakout hit for you. But it's not a movie. You know, some documentaries are, "Well, we get a permission ahead of time to follow X around." You know, that's my friend Elyse Steinberg, who with her partner, did the great Wiener documentary. You know, that, which is I think a phenomenal piece of work.

Alex Gibney: Agreed.

Chris Hayes: But it is the product of thousands of hours of footage, and then you decide, how are you gonna go through this footage and tell the story? And that's got its own challenges, which we can talk about. But in the case of Enron, it's a bootstrapper kind of thing, visually. 'Cause you don't have some trove. You're not sitting on some huge amount of footage that you're then gonna wiggle through. So you've gotta build visually whatever you're gonna tell the story about.

Alex Gibney: We did. It was much more of a confection in that way. I mean, we were kind of making up the language as we went along. You know, I give credit to two people on that film in particular. One was the cinematographer, Maryse Alberti. And Maryse, who is just a genius, discovered things sometimes intuitively and sometimes by intention.

You know, particularly the idea of reflections, where we shot every interview with a reflected surface in the foreground so that there's always this tension of what is real and what is illusion. And then, you know, Alison Ellwood, who, the editor, who came up with this idea, a kind of a metaphorical archive.

'Cause we had to, poor Alison, I gave her the assignment of trying to make a sequence out of mark-to-market accounting. And that was kind of a cruel assignment. And she almost wept. But she found a great way to do it. And we found this skit that the Enron folks themselves had done.

And mocking that very idea. And we somehow managed to make that concept understandable even while doing so in a dramatic way. But you're right, it was, it involved a very complex and multifaceted visual language, which included, you know, the dramatization of a suicide, for example.

That's the beauty of the documentary or the new documentary is, like, the new journalists, you know, like Tom Wolfe and Maylor (PH) and others, you were using fiction elements to create a non-fiction narrative in a way that was potent. And so there was a level of formal innovation on Enron that I think people, including ourselves, 'cause we were kind of discovering it by accident, to some extent, found invigorating.

Chris Hayes: Well, and I have to say that now, with the proliferation of documentary enterprises out there, that there's this, you know, sometimes there'll be animated sequences, sections that, you know, couldn't otherwise be sort of visually rendered.

They'll be, (LAUGH) I think, I mean, this is sort of a, this has almost become a cliché, but it's just very funny to me how, like, the drone has become an incredible tool, right? Like, (LAUGH) you can have this incredible, you know, at a fraction of the cost of what it would have cost in the old days with a crane.

Alex Gibney: Well, and on Enron, I had to use a helicopter.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, (LAUGH) exactly--

Alex Gibney: I mean, and so we--

Chris Hayes: That's how long ago it was.

Alex Gibney: --hired a helicopter--

Chris Hayes: Yeah, exactly.

Alex Gibney: And today, you know, it would have cost me, you know, a fraction of that with a drone.

Chris Hayes: Sure. And so it is interesting to see how, you know, how those sort of visual components get filled in. But then I think there's also this question always about, "Well, what are the journalist standards here?" Or, "What are the standards," right?

I mean, and this, you know, I think that's an interesting metaphor, sort of "new journalism," and this sort of new documentary and this idea that, like, you could have an animated sequence, you can have a reenactment of a suicide, you can, there's all these things that there's no one telling you you can't do.

But then there is a question, a certain point, like, you know, people will have documentaries and it will turn out that the order of two key events has flipped, right, for narrative purposes. Or someone said a thing, but they didn't say it in the context in which they're saying it in the documentary.

And, you know, sometimes there'll be scrutiny over that. And I always just wonder, like, "Well, what's the standard that you're, like, what's the standard? What's the framework that you're applying to yourself, to your own work, in thinking about fidelity to the story or the truth?"

Alex Gibney: Well, I think you have to think about telling an essential truth. And that you're not fooling people when you are telling your story by twisting or distorting the facts. That said, you can create an emotional impression of something that may be the filmmaker's view of how it may have gone down, which I think is perfectly approach, without saying that, you know, misstating the number of dollars that Enron cost the average shareholder, something like that.

So I think there are aspects that you have to be very careful about journalistically. The other standard I often apply, particular on films where there are characters, (LAUGH) who let's just say I'm portraying with a critical eye, you know, I try to imagine myself screening the film for them with me, with them sitting on the chair right next to me, so that I can look and I can defend every frame to them and say, "This is why I think this is fair." And so I think you go through a process like that. And, you know, a film I did about the sex scandals surrounding Eliot Spitzer--

Chris Hayes: I was just gonna say, (LAUGH) I literally was just gonna bring up Spitzer, because that is such an intensely intimate film, because you're just talking to him (LAUGH) the whole time.

Alex Gibney: Well, I'm talking to him, but I also talk to the woman with whom he had a number of assignations all over the country, who was not Ashley Dupré, it was somebody else. And I ended up talking to her, but she didn't, you know, she had a very distinctive accent.

And didn't want to appear on camera. So I transcribed the interview and then I cut it down. And then I had an actress play her. And the first time we go to that interview, I don't say, "This is an actress," because that film is very much about things aren't what they seem.

But, you know, some minutes later, we dial back around and reveal that in fact, this is an actress playing the words of somebody who really did speak to us. So we revealed the deception even as we engage in it. So those were part of the rules that we're making up.

And some people criticized me. It's like, "How can you do that? That's terrible." But I felt it was very much in line with what we were trying to do in the film, this idea that things aren't what they seem. And that we also reveal to the audience at some point that this, and rather than try to hide it and pretend that the actress was in fact the real person.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, it's funny. That line, I think, is an interesting one. 'Cause, but can you defend this to the people that you have in it I think is one that I often have used in journalism. And obviously, I go very hard at people on my show and public figures.

But it's like, can I defend this if they were standing right here? Like, could I say the same thing? It's like, "Yeah." And that's not true for certain, you know, if you're manipulating things or you're taking things intentionally out of context or you're taking a cheap shot. I think that's a good, it is a good rule to apply.

Alex Gibney: I agree. And, because you'll find that depending on the film, and I ran into this also on a film I did called Zero Days, which was about the Stuxnet, a cyber attack on Iran's nuclear plant in Natanz. And we got a number of people from the NSA to talk to us.

But if the government could identify who those people were, they might go to prison. So, you know, we faced a problem of source protection, but also presentation. Now in a newspaper, you would say, "So-and-so, and it's not their real name, you know, declined to give their name for, you know, the following reasons."

And people accept those conventions. In a film, which has a limited time area, you can't really do that. So we actually created with an actress a kind of modified, purposefully synthesized character that seems to be a jumble of pixels and scan lines. And the script was an amalgam of three people.

So you couldn't quite tell who was speaking. So it satisfied source protection, but also the conventions of this film, which was a lot about unnecessary secrecy and how policies get distorted because we're never told what's really going on.

And people can then operate in the black. And so decisions that should be, they're taken in our name, are never, you know, scrutinized by us. So for all those reasons, it made sense in that context. But I had to give it a lot of thought as to why it was a legitimate tool to use. And of course, even in that one, we do reveal the tool, you know, at the end.

Chris Hayes: Yes, and I mean, I think that part of it too is sort of key to sort of, that idea, am I tricking them or not, as a thing to ask yourself. You have an incredible body of work, and I'm not gonna make you go through all of them. But I did want to just talk about Taxi to the Dark Side, 'cause I think it's such a phenomenal film and a really important one. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Just tell me how you came to that project, what it was a about, for people that have not seen the movie.

Alex Gibney: Sure. I mean, I came to that project because somebody I was on a panel with, talking about Enron as it happened, said, "Would you like to make a film about (LAUGH) torture?" And the simple answer was, "No, I wouldn't like to make a film about torture."

But it felt like something I needed to do and had to do. And as it turned out, my dad, well, not as it turned out, but my dad was a naval interrogator in World War II who ultimately found a place in the film, 'cause I talked to him on his death bed about it.

But it was about the Bush administration's policy of torture. And the key thing on that film was trying to figure out what story would hold that. And I read an article by a very good journalist named Tim Golden in The New York Times about the murder of a young Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar.

And that story, as it turned out, as I dug into it more and more and more, was really resonate. Because it was a very poignant, personal story, about a true innocent, who was literally murdered by his captors at Bagram Air Force Base. But the way the story spun out, there senior connections from that story to Abu Ghraib, to Guantanamo, and ultimately, to Washington D.C. itself.

So it was a way, it was kind of a murder mystery. Dilawar, I didn't have access to Dilawar, he was dead. Though I did find his autopsy photographs close to the end of the project. But it was a way of illustrating through this one person's story and through a kind of narrative convention, i.e. the murder mystery, exactly how this system, this policy of torture was working.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, it's a very profound film and a very upsetting one. And it's really well told. Do you think about having a kind of political project? I mean, obviously you have political commitments. I don't think of your films as particularly polemical or propagandistic, but they do have a specific political vision. And I'm curious how you think about that.

Alex Gibney: Yeah, it's an interesting question. I mean, in some ways, I try not to think of my films as political, in the sense like, "This is gonna really be good for the Dems this year."

Chris Hayes: (LAUGH) Yes.

Alex Gibney: Because that seems to me to be the path to making a bad film. You know, I try to think of my films more as kind of moral inquiries, in a way. Though sometimes I deal with crime, and certainly I sometimes deal with politics. And very recently, you know, I made a film called Totally Under Control, which was intended to be part of the political debate.

It was intended to come out just before the election of 2020 as a referendum on Trump's handling of the COVID crisis. But generally speaking, I try to think of my films as, you know, think of them more as kind of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable and that kind of classic, journalistic tradition.

But, you know, I think it's fair to say that, you know, particularly from the standpoint of a political economy, I come from a place on the left, as it would be broadly defined. But, you know, I try also very hard in my films to investigate and explore the contradictions.

'Cause the one thing I've discovered, if there's one truism I've discovered in making these films is that once you decide that the end justifies the means, that's the first step on the path to corruption. And I never wanna define myself cutting corners on the truth in order to satisfy some political agenda.

Chris Hayes: Have you worked in audio before?

Alex Gibney: We have a little bit. I mean, you know, I have a company and my company does a bunch of things. And a few years ago, we started to try to get into this podcast area. There was one I was a part of called Lies We Tell. It was all about the process of deception and lying. We worked a very talented guy named Dan Taberski who did a wonderful podcast called The Line about Eddie Gallagher and the SEALs.

Chris Hayes: We had him on actually to talk about it.

Alex Gibney: Yeah, well, that's an extraordinary piece of work.

Chris Hayes: It's a great piece of work.

Alex Gibney: And--

Chris Hayes: I agree, I agree.

Alex Gibney: And so we're kind of learning. But I really liked the form because it allows for a kind of discursive kind of storytelling that's very human in its detail and shares a lot I think with the new documentary.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, and it's intimate too. I mean, the--

Alex Gibney: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: --thing I'm struck with about this moment is in the attention markets, which maybe we can talk a little bit of, because it's a current obsession of mine. But you could do things attentionally in audio that are harder to do in, I think, TV certainly.

Essentially listeners will go with you and have, you have more leash. You have more, I don't know, depth, commitment. I don't know if it's because people listen while they're on a walk and they're walking their dog, and so they're not in a space where they're just so intensely distractible that you have to kind of keep grabbing them by the lapels.

I mean, this is the reason I like doing this and having these conversations. And to me, it's a very different formal enterprise than the enterprise of nightly cable news, which really is, you talk about channel switching. I mean, that's really--

Alex Gibney: Grab 'em by the throat and don't let 'em go. Right.

Chris Hayes: And, I mean, it really is. I mean, it's--

Alex Gibney: Right, right.

Chris Hayes: Every minute, don't you dare. I mean, don't you dare turn that dial. (LAUGH) Don't, I mean, I always, it's such a cliché, "Don't touch that dial," and no one has a dial anymore. But, "Don't touch that dial," it's like, you are just trying to keep that audience attention in every second.

That's what my work is. That's my craft, right? That's my cabinetry. That's what I have to do every night, along with, you know, being a journalist and telling truthful stories. And there's something about audio, I think fascinatingly. I am curious if you feel this way, or what your thoughts on it are, that's just doing something to us, particularly in our smartphone-addled brains, that does give us a little space away from constant distractibility.

Alex Gibney: Well, I think it's like having, settling in for a glass of wine with a friend and having a long conversation. You know, you're not there to quickly exchange some information and move on. You know? The wine inside good, maybe there's some nice hors d'oeuvres and you can hang out for a little bit and talk.

And listening to the stories that people are telling in that moment, in that way, becomes very intriguing. You know, in Meltdown, this podcast that I did with David, you know, it's really interesting. It's a podcast about the post, you know, 2008 apocalypse, what we did and didn't do to recover.

And it starts with a character of Neil Barofsky. But it doesn't start with him, you know, trying to figure out what to do with the financial crisis. It starts with him in Colombia with his life on the line at risk (LAUGH) from being assassinated.

And if you're thinking, "Well what does this have to do with anything?" But you're intrigued. Colombia, is he gonna be killed? How is that gonna work out?" And then you dial it back and realize, "Oh, he learned something there that he was later gonna apply to the story that we were supposed to be tuning in to listen to."

So it's a wonderful bit of misdirection, which turns out not to be misdirection at all. It's coming to the point, but in a very circuitous way. And it's that circuitous journey, which turns out to be very enjoyable. You've taken a walk in the park while you're having a conversation.

Chris Hayes: It's so funny you said that, because that was gonna be my next question, was precisely on that narrative choice, in that first episode. Because it's a great story, it's a great introduction of the character, but it's the kind of thing that I can see being cut in other formats, or in other, you know, if you were trying to squeeze down to two hours or something, you know, it's one of those things you can see left on the cutting-room floor.

'Cause, like, it's this incredible story where basically, for people who haven't heard the podcast, and they should listen, it's Meltdown on Audible, this guy Neil Barofsky, who became the special investigator for TARP, was formerly a federal prosecutor who's working with DEA down in Colombia going after the FARC, which was the, you know, Marxist rebels who sort of quickly became basically drug runners and kind of tyrants.

Alex Gibney: From FARC to TARP.

Chris Hayes: Yes, from FARC to TARP. And--

Alex Gibney: Right.

Chris Hayes: --but he tells this amazing story about what it was like to try to go after the FARC and informant he had. And it's a perfect example of that. Like, discursive and fascinating, but, and I do think, like, it's also interesting to be in this world, and maybe this is, like, too shop-talky for the listeners, but whatever, where you know, it used to be there was a premium on concision.

And concision is good and important. I mean, you don't want big, you know, flabby narrative, right? (LAUGH) You want, but the space has really expanded. I mean, you're, like, when you think about the O.J.: Made In America series, the Edelman series, you know, that thing is whatever it is, eight, nine hours, and it works at eight, nine hours.

And it wouldn't have been the same thing at two hours. But two hours would've been the only packaging you could've fit it in 20 years ago, you know? Like, it is interesting to me, and this is true in podcasts, where you've got, you've now got this space and this time that wasn't there before to sort of create something different formally.

Alex Gibney: Yeah, it's a little bit like the streaming system too. And it can be abused. I mean, one thing you don't want is redundancy.

Chris Hayes: Or stretching.

Alex Gibney: Or stretching, saying the same thing over and over and over again. Or, "Here's a story that's not that interesting, but whatever." But following a longer narrative has a value. I mean, you know, you get that in the great non-fiction books, you know? They're telling you a great story.

And in order to understand the breadth of the story, sometimes you have to take time out. And you double back to a moment in the past. And you may spend 20 or 30 pages in that moment in the past and then jump back to the present. And suddenly you realize, "Oh, I get it. This is how we got to this moment in time."

And so it ends up being powerful. And, 'cause these moments, which are very personal moments, I mean, we all love stories. And rather than having to jam down messages down, you know, down people's throats all the time, saying, "Here's the takeaway," you know, you're telling them a story. And stories tend to be longer.

Chris Hayes: How do you think about attention? How do you think about the audience's attention and how you think about it, how you are a custodian of it, how you direct it, how you care for it, how you keep it?

Alex Gibney: I mean, I think about it all the time. And, you know, I'll never forget, one of my great heroes, this filmmaker named Luis Buñuel, he's a Spanish surrealist. And he did Andalusian Dog, which many (NOISE) of us have seen, but also The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and other things. Anyway, weirdly, he loved audience previews. And (LAUGH) so much so, you know, most directors--

Chris Hayes: That's fascinating. Yeah.

Alex Gibney: Most directors hated them. But Buñuel, the surrealist, loved audience previews. He wanted to see the scorecards and what did they think. So much so that he ended up buying a couple of seats from a local theater. And he installed them in a room, which is where he would write with his long-time writing partner, Jean-Claude Carrière.

And that was a way of always thinking about the audience. They'd see those two empty seats there and thinking, Carrière told me one time that he, you know, he had this very post, post, post-modern idea where everything was falling in on itself, very complicated. And had pitched it to Buñuel.

And Buñuel got out of his chair, held out his arm to one of the seats in front of them and said, "Come, come Josephine, this movie is not for us." And that was their way of saying, like, "You're getting too complicated. Think about the audience."

Chris Hayes: It's funny that that's Buñuel, because I think people think of him as, you know, extremely avant-garde (LAUGH) and, like--

Alex Gibney: Well, he is avant-garde. But he's very engaging.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Alex Gibney: His movies are hilariously funny. They're bizarre. But they're always engaging--

Chris Hayes: Right. But he is thinking about the audience.

Alex Gibney: He is. He is thinking about the audience. Which I did. And I think you have to. You know, if you're telling a long story, you have to be thinking, like, "Is this story that we're telling really delivering?" And you go over that over and over and over again, and that's why I love, you know, on the docs that I do, you know, you show them to people.

And you show them to people who are friends and you show them to people and you ask their friends to bring their friends and you make sure that they write down notes that are anonymized so that you get the bad news. 'Cause you wanna know, if somebody's falling asleep in a section, you know, you don't wanna be that precious person that's forcing people, you know, to endure your film.

Now, sometimes you may disagree with the notes. But then you at least have a barometer of where you're headed. Because I think it's terribly important to think about the (UNINTEL). That's why I never apologize for films if they're about a serious subject and they happen to be entertaining. I think it's vitally important to be entertaining. I think, by the way, Meltdown is hugely entertaining. And it's--

Chris Hayes: It is, it is.

Alex Gibney: It's entertaining because of the characters that David and team discovered, you know, to really put a human face on what would otherwise be, you know, a bewildering set of economic power points.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, I wanna talk about Meltdown specifically, but just one more thing on this. I mean, it's interesting, this process, the iterative process of, you know, notes, of previews, of showing self, of getting that feedback. I mean, obviously, as a writer, you do this, right?

So, you know, I share drafts. I mean, my wife, Kate, who's, like, the world's most brilliant editor, you know, even if she weren't my wife, I just (LAUGH) lucked out. It was, like, the best set of eyes you could ever put on any piece of written text.

You know, she's always the first reader. But there's other readers too. I send it to friends if I'm working on something. I just wrote an essay that I, you know, workshopped around. You know, that's part of the creative process for anything. But it's interesting, like, are there things when you're going through that process with an early cut of a film that are really surprising to you, are there big changes that those can, that can induce or inaugurate?

Alex Gibney: Massive. Particularly structural changes. I mean, I kind of feel like once I have the structure, I can figure out the aesthetics of how to deliver the story. But the structure of the story is absolutely critical. And I've taken films apart and put them back together again based on notes that we were getting.

Chris Hayes: Late? Late? Like, late in the process?

Alex Gibney: Late. Yeah. Particularly if you're doing an investigative film, even on Enron, you know? We didn't get an interview with somebody close to the executive suite until very late in the process when we got an interview with this woman, Amanda Martin, who very well knew Jeff Skilling, who very well knew Ken Lay.

And so she gave me that sense of what it was like to be in the board room with them. But integrating her very late in the process meant completely restructuring the film. It had to. So sometimes the only thing that's been a benefit to me over the years, I used to get very anxious about that.

But the only thing I've learned over the years is you-- there will come a time where you'll have to pull the film apart and put it back together again. And you don't know why yet, you don't know how yet. But it will come. And so long as you ride it out and experiment and keep working it, you will get to that place where the story suddenly is able to flow in a narrative that an audience can follow.

Chris Hayes: So you're saying, when you said you used to get very anxious about it, it's that you now anticipate the crisis point in the creative process--

Alex Gibney: I do.

Chris Hayes: --ahead of time. And so when it comes, it doesn't feel, 'cause there's that, like, you know, I think there's a plummeting in the stomach quality you get in a stuck creative process, or that you can get from notes. Where you're like, "Oh, you know what, this whole thing sucks. It's just not worth it. It's just a waste. It's terrible."

Alex Gibney: Well, and you'll always have those feelings. I mean, you can't control those. But what you can reckon with is that you will get those feelings, but not to be overwhelmed by them. That sometimes time will show you the way. And also, sometimes you take a kind of different tack.

If by hammering at the same thing over and over you're not getting anywhere, what if you took a side journey? And, you know, we were having a great deal of difficulty, for example, on a film I did about Elizabeth Holmes called, the Theranos one, called The Inventor.

And because David Boies had so many people terrified about speaking up because of the NDAs they'd all signed, you know, we were having a terrible time getting people to talk. Well, while we were having that terrible time, we began to explore the idea of Edison, which was what she called her device, her machine.

And then we began to explore the idea of Edison himself. And oh, and by the way, Edison made these films. He made a lot of films. And could that be part of a visual language that we might want to employ? And by the way, did that have something to do with the whole idea of this notion of are all entrepreneurs, like Edison and Elizabeth Holmes, though one delivered and one didn't, is there an element of trickery involved in all of them? In other words, that level of boasting or you could call it PR, you're lying to people--

Chris Hayes: Yeah, fake it until you make it. Right--

Alex Gibney: Fake it until you make it. And so Edison, we discovered, was the original fake it till you make it guy. And that ended up being a very powerful idea. Meanwhile, as we were integrating Edison and having a wonderful time with these early Edison films that he had made, which were now lovingly restored by the National Archives, suddenly we start to be able to penetrate, thanks to great help from John Carreyrou, the close circle of people who are now starting to be willing to talk to us.

Chris Hayes: I really enjoyed that movie by the way. I mean, what I loved, the footage, there is some great footage in there that is internal company footage, I mean, with her, like, Sunny, the sort of--

Alex Gibney: In the bouncy palace and--

Chris Hayes: Yes, all that stuff is really great stuff.

Alex Gibney: Well, and some of which came from another filmmaker, Errol Morris, who happened to have been employed by Theranos.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Alex Gibney: And so--

Chris Hayes: Right, there's the stuff where she's looking in the classic Errol Morris cam. Right, direct shot--

Alex Gibney: Yes, yes. That was all shot by Errol.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Alex Gibney: And he also shot some of the vérité footage. And, you know, I found somebody inside Theranos who had a hard drive with all that footage on it. And it was owned by Theranos, not Errol.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Alex Gibney: I tried to get Errol to talk to me, but he wouldn't talk to me. So, you know, we ultimately decided we had to use it because that image making, which she was engaging in, was very much part of what she was doing--

Chris Hayes: Yes, oh God, yeah. Yes. So the thesis of Meltdown was that we got our inability to truly repair what broke in the great recession is what has produced this broader breaking of American society and politics. Take me through that general idea.

Alex Gibney: I think the idea of this, you had this economic crisis, which of course happened on Bush's watch. But then how does the Obama administration, which comes in in 2009, deal with this crisis? And they're trying to save the wreckage of the financial system, but they're also trying to make a promise with Americans.

You know, these people rigged the system for their benefit. Now they want all of us to pay the cost. And we're gonna make you a promise that they're gonna pay the price, not you. Well, that was a promise that was broken, you know? Because ultimately, too many of the policies ended up bailing out and, you know, allowing for bonuses for bad behavior even while average homeowners were finding themselves either with homes that now were completely underwater or they were literally being thrown out of their homes and foreclosed upon, in ways that were beneficial to the banks.

So it was a sense of a broken promise, I think, that led to the disillusionment that in part helped create the momentum for a Trump who would come in and be the human wrecking ball. "See, I told you, government can't deliver for you, the little people, so let's tear it all down."

Chris Hayes: Yeah, and I think one of the things that comes through in Meltdown, which I think to me, my feeling always is, and I think we actually did a better job on this ironically enough during COVID in the fiscal policy at least, which is, I didn't really have a problem with the bank bailouts because I think, in some ways, they were necessary.

But the idea that, like, everyone needs to get bailed. Like, that was what was so egregious, right? It's like, we kind of probably needed, I mean, depending on how, you could, this can be litigated to the ends of the earth. But some sort of rescue was gonna have to happen, or something cataclysmic would happen. But we could have just done a lot more rescuing of just individual homeowners than we did. And that's really the sort of, the tear, for me.

Alex Gibney: There was no justice. I mean, it's one thing to say, and you didn't want a system where the whole financial system came crashing down and we were in a moment of total chaos. And you can sympathize with those who were trying to break the headlong, you know, rush of the train down the hill without breaks.

Chris Hayes: Oh yeah. I mean, it could have actually, I mean, it really could have been way, way worse. Like, it actually could have--

Alex Gibney: Yeah. But I think the problem though comes when suddenly there's all this sanctimonious palaver about respecting the sanctity of contracts at the higher level. But the moral hazard is all on the lower level. You're like, "These deadbeats can't pay their mortgages. And we can't allow that. And if they can't pay their mortgages and they took out too big a mortgage, even though, you know, they were sold a phony mortgage with absolutely fallacious terms, you know, by intent, because people were trying to just prime the pump of this junk," suddenly they're the villains.

And so why should there be any bailout for them? It was not equal justice. That was the problem. And people didn't understand why the bankers, or the folks at AIG, even in the special products division, that basically caused the financial crisis, you know, why they're getting bonuses and I, as a homeowner, who lost everything, am getting screwed and I'm not getting any help, which was promised to me by our government.

And one of the things that I think David does well is to show the divergence between the promises made to everyday people and what they delivered to everyday people, which is not nearly as much as what they delivered to the people who were the insiders, which represents a kind of fundamental conflict for the Democratic Party I think because Democratic Party is supposed to be more for the people. Government is supposed to work for the people. But if you're having to keep your promises to your wealthy funders, those promises may actually be at odds with the promises that you're supposed to be making to everyday Americans.

Chris Hayes: You know, it strikes me listening to you, you have a remarkable facility and recall of a whole lot of, I mean, you work on a lot of projects, and you seem to be pretty dialed in on all of them.

Alex Gibney: I hope so. I mean, there are days where I can't remember my name. But today maybe I'm on a lucky streak.

Chris Hayes: How big an enterprise, how do you have, like, how many people are there making the work you're doing? Because you're doing a lot of work right now.

Alex Gibney: Yeah, I mean, you know, we try to run the company more like a studio than a factory. So, you know, we have a very small core staff, maybe 13 or 14 people. But, you know, there can be 200 people working on various projects. But they're more like pods, you know, doing their own thing.

And we have varying degrees of complicity or involvement, depending on what, whether it's slight overseeing or literally running, helping them run the production or just, you know, helping them get financing. It depends. But one of the things, I got lucky with some films that, you know, really did capture a lot of attention. And as a result, I was able to put together enough resources to make a lot of other films happen. And that was a commitment I made to them.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, am I right that it seems like it's generally a good time in the space that you're in, that there's more happening there now than there used to be? Or not?

Alex Gibney: There is. People are getting paid too, which is important. And so that they don't have to do commercials. That's the way, when I was coming up, you used to have to do it, because you didn't get paid enough for a documentary to make a living. So if you made a good one, you'd go and do a bunch of commercials.

Chris Hayes: And that would pay the bills?

Alex Gibney: Yeah, that's how Errol Morris did it.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Alex Gibney: That would pay the bills. You know, now I make enough documentaries so I don't have to do commercials. And the budgets are higher. But even at the low end of the scale, you know, people are getting them seen. I think the danger in this moment, and my friend Raoul Peck reminded us at a luncheon recently of that danger, is that you get to a place where particularly the gatekeepers think that they can routinize the process.

Chris Hayes: Yes, yes--

Alex Gibney: And make it more formulaic and deliver on algorithms rather than, you know, deeply human stories. And once the risk goes out, once you, you know, 'cause I do films and I know that some of my films are gonna be seen by a lot of people. And I know that some aren't gonna be seen by that many. But I think it's important to do both, because they're interesting stories to tell.

Chris Hayes: Well, and also because people don't know. That's the other thing. Like no algorithm is a substitute for human judgment.

Alex Gibney: Correct, correct--

Chris Hayes: And, you know, I've read a bunch of stories now about Squid Games and how it just took everyone there by surprise that it's (LAUGH) become the, and, you know, this happens in publishing all the time. People, you know, there's books that are huge and highly anticipated and they don't take off, you have tons marketing behind them.

And then there will be these books every year that just blow up and, you know, the people whose job it is to pick the winners and losers are to know what, you know, is and isn't gonna work, you know, some of 'em are very good at their job, some of them aren't. But it's a little like drafting NFL quarterbacks, you know? (LAUGH) It doesn't, there's no, like, hard and fast rule--

Alex Gibney: Nobody knew who Tom Brady was gonna be--

Chris Hayes: No, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And I think that, you know, I think as a person who's trying to create stuff, I think that that could be (LAUGH) very frustrating.

Alex Gibney: Well, and honestly, also for the gatekeepers out there, you know, I would say this. It's like, how are you gonna know who the next great filmmaker is unless you give them a chance? And you give them a chance on something that may be quirky or odd, but seems to be particularly compelling.

And maybe it's at a lower budget level. And then suddenly it's a fantastic film. And you think, "Wow, this is a new filmmaker with a great vision. Let's support that person." You know, 'cause that used to be, and still is at some places, the idea that you don't formulize the process, if that's a word.

Chris Hayes: People. Yes--

Alex Gibney: But you invest in talented creators. You invest in people. And let them do their thing. (MUSIC) And they'll tell good stories.

Chris Hayes: Alex Gibney is an award-winning filmmaker, and I would even say a legendary documentary filmmaker, director of that new eight-part audio series Meltdown about how we sort of ended up in this vision of America. Alex, that was such a great pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Alex Gibney: Chris, thank you so much. A delight.

Chris Hayes: Once again, my great thanks to Alex Gibney. You can check out Meltdown on Audible if you wanna give that a listen. You can tweet us with the hashtag #withpod, email

"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" Team and features music by Edie Cooper. You can see more of our work including links to things we mentioned here by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to