No longer TFF 2010's Untitled Eliot Spitzer Film, Alex Gibney dives deep into the money, power, politics, and sex that fueled New York's gilded era in this fascinating doc.
What gives political sex scandals their queasy, car-crash intrigue is what they say about our society. And in America, from Andrew Jackson's Petticoat Affair (a sex scandal with no sex), to the case of John Edwards, his videographer, his cancer-stricken wife, and a failed campaign, sex scandals are usually very much of a time, era, and place, reflecting our most craven instincts back to ourselves in a fun house mirror.
In the case of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, his downfall—the "sheriff of Wall Street"-turned-Client 9 from The Emperor's Club; sleeping with prostitutes like Ashley Dupré while leaving his black socks on; resigning the minute the story broke—was swift and particularly ironic, cutting short a charmed and once-promising political career. It's the "cut short" part that drives Alex Gibney's new documentary on the scandal, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. The film premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival as an "untitled" working print; it was one of Gibney's many contributions to this particular round of the Festival, including a segment in Freakonomics and his other documentary, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, detailing Lawrence Wright's experiences in the Middle East.
Gibney, the award-winning documentarian behind Taxi To the Dark Side (Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature; Best Documentary Feature, Tribeca Film Festival 2007) and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, among others, crafts Spitzer's story as a grand New York tragedy. With the drive of a Great American Novel, he explores the sex, money, politics and power that run New York City—and creates a compelling argument that Spitzer's hubris, and the Wall Street titans whom he wronged, were instrumental in his plummet. The result is absolutely fascinating and brings to light new facts; the one that will get the most press, likely, is that Dupré, the escort identified by TheNew York Times, was just a one-night stand—Gibney's interviews with "Angelina," Spitzer's main girl, humanize the ever-mysterious Spitzer, along with extensive interviews with the likes of Spitzer himself, Wall Street leaders from Ken Langone to Hank Greenberg, and politicians like Joe Bruno. Taken together, it's a compelling portrait of New York City's gilded age, and the hubris and ego that brought it down.
Tribeca had the pleasure of talking with Gibney—who, for 30 Rock fans, is tantalizingly close to his own EGOT, since he's won an Emmy, Grammy, and an Oscar—recently at Magnolia's offices.
Tribeca: What started you with this film?
Alex Gibney: When the scandal broke, I was called. It just seemed so intriguing for all sorts of reasons, but I couldn't say exactly at the time what it was. I just thought the story was a great story and that we should investigate it, so that's what I did.
Tribeca: It's more complex than your average sex scandal. What sort of journalism were you doing for that? In particular, how'd you find out that Spitzer's main girl was an escort named "Angelina?"
Alex Gibney: That was just digging. Ashley Dupre wouldn't talk to us, and sometimes that turns out to be a benefit.
Tribeca: And maybe even a sign that they might not have much to say.
Alex Gibney: Maybe. As it turns out, that's probably closer to the fact—Angelina was key, in all sorts of ways, to the story. When Ashley wouldn't talk, it kind of forced me into another direction. Because I assumed that Ashley was at the center of the story. She wouldn't talk, we went looking for other people, and we found this other person. She turned out to be very important, along with CeCe [Cecil "Cece" Suwal, The Emperor's Club's twentysomething madam].
Tribeca: How did you make the choice to hire an actress to "play" Angelina?
Alex Gibney: We experimented a little bit. Angelina didn't want her identity [revealed] or her voice to be real. We experimented in the cutting room: black screen, electronically modified voice. It was terrible, because it turned her into something she wasn't, some kind of a monster, or a weird figure from the witness protection program that was all about crime, and really—with the exception of her not wanting to reveal her identity—she was very open, very much a truth teller, rather charming and smart, so I thought, well, why can't we find a way to represent that more truthfully? And actually, by transcribing that and having an actress do it, so long as we revealed that, seemed a much better way to go.
Tribeca: Were you coaching her?
Alex Gibney: Nobody could hear Angelina's voice because it was distinctive, but I knew the way the conversation went, so I was able to give the actress guidelines, in term of when she laughed, when she didn't, what stuff made her angry, what stuff she was talking about in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice.
Tribeca: When you reveal it in the movie, it switches your head around a little bit.
Alex Gibney: And that's intentional. Look, the whole movie is structured around a series of these kind of doublebacks where you think you know something, and it turns out something's very different. You meet this strange black guy with a cowboy hat and you think he's the philosopher king of the movie—no, it turns out he's the booker, and oh, he knew Ashley. There's a series of these doublebacks and we put Angelina at the center up front, you get to know her, believe her, she's a voice you trust, and then Oh my God, she's she, but she's not she, she's an actress, and it's just another way of completing that kind of narrative structure.
[SAFE reading resumes.]
Tribeca: So, did you go into this just seeing it as a Greek tragedy, and then, as you worked, realize that it was also a Tom Wolfe novel?
Alex Gibney: It was a Greek tragedy and a Tom Wolfe novel. It's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test on Wall Street, Bonfire of the Vanities and Oedipus. That's why, ultimately, the story became the story. There are a lot of issues raised with this film, and they're not all having to do with politics: some of them have to with sexual politics; some of them have to do with what you think of fidelity, infidelity; some of them have to do with these classic human struggles like a Greek tragedy, a man with hubris undone by his fatal flaw, and yet, beset by fate and his enemies. There's a lot there, and I felt if we find a way to sell the story, we'd touch on these things.
Tribeca: And Spitzer's fascinating, and brilliant, and yet in some ways you don't get an idea of how he is as a person, in the way he presents himself, at all. The anecdote about his father foreclosing on his house when they played Monopoly, when he was six, is somewhat telling—
Alex Gibney: It is telling. It's one of those details. We move past his childhood very quickly, but you get the sense of a father who's tough, who wants to push his son and push him hard, for his own good. But in some way, shape or form, I think that contributed to a sort of emotional immaturity, which is going to become an issue later on.
Tribeca: You were deep into filming before you could get Spitzer for interviews, correct?
Alex Gibney: We always hoped, but we weren't sure, so we had to keep going on. Once he sat down, it was great. It got harder and harder—we proceeded in chronological order. He was very happy to talk about the attorney general period, it got harder and harder, the closer we got to the scandal, we had to go back to that a number of times. There were five interview sessions, all done in the same room, the same couch, with the same time, but we had to go back a number of times.
Tribeca: Would he just close off when you broached the topic?
Alex Gibney: He knew it was coming, and he knew there had to be an answer—you can tell from the film, I would then have to prod and he would be joking. It's a little like the talk show host who says, "So. You're in a movie now?" and then [the interviewee] says, "Yes?"
Tribeca: There have been sex scandals since the dawn of time, and yet it doesn't lead to politicians resigning. How exactly did this sex scandal derail Spitzer?
Alex Gibney: Spitzer had to make his own call, and I think we present in the film, the fact that there were very few people who were willing to support him. His problem was his image—he was the ultimate sheriff, of high moral fiber and rectitude, and suddenly, it turns out, he wasn't that at all. The façade was shattered. Oddly enough, people tend to weather sex scandals when it's expected, but not when they're insistently virtuous. So Bill Clinton stays in office.
Now there are people who've argued Spitzer should've tried to stay, and given what's happened since then, maybe he should've. But it's hard to know whether he would've succeeded. The federal investigation was not yet over, they had not yet announced whether they would pursue charges against him. And they did not say that until two days after the election, which had a suspiciously political cast to it. Even people in his own party weren't rushing to support him. You had a lot of pragmatic problems, then he knew the kind of ugliness that was going to ensue for his family. And I think he was disappointed in himself. So for all those reasons, he couldn't go forward. Other people—and I list them in the film—were embroiled in sex scandals and they hadn't left office, and are still elected.
Tribeca: And then, hilariously, Paterson takes office and lists all his failings: he's done coke, he's cheated on his wife, etc.
Alex Gibney: Right. I guess it's okay; people feel better about it, if you said it up front.
Tribeca: Did the perspective of the movie change when you knew Spitzer's voice would be in there?
Alex Gibney: Well, yeah—prior to that, I had shot a long section with Karen Finley, who did a play on politics, sex, and power, and I was relying very heavily on it, using the Spitzer story as a metaphor between men and women and all that. Every time you get something—same with Angelina—that's one of the hard things about making films like this: the deeper you dig, the more you have.
Tribeca: Do you think that documentary has to have more of a point of view or do you think it needs to be more of "facts. Here they are." Does the human factor give it more of a slant?
Alex Gibney: Look, I make movies. And they're nonfiction movies, and it has to have a sense of life, the same sense of life you get in a fiction film, but it's nonfiction. And if you don't get that, it's crazy, it's not just a list of facts. That would be pretty dull.
Tribeca: You had a million films at the Tribeca Film Festival this year [Freakonomics, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, and Client 9, then as "Untitled Eliot Spitzer Film"]. We're planning on renaming TFF after you. How was that experience?
Alex Gibney: That was a weird experience. I told the Freakonomics people, don't submit it, dudes—but they really wanted it to be there. Just one of those things. But Larry Wright—we had submitted [My Trip to Al-Qaeda] long before. The Eliot film, we were getting close enough to submit it, and it was feeling right at that moment of time, and it was New York.
Tribeca: Were there any changes from TFF to now?
Alex Gibney: We cut about ten minutes out, and actually added stuff. We added an interview with Hank Greenberg, I went back and talked to Eliot one more time. I think, visually, the film got a lot more assured, too. The pacing. The opening sequence was a bit more rigorously done. And the back half-hour of the film was very rigorously structured.
Tribeca: It was very moodily shot as a film.
Alex Gibney: We worked very hard on that. There was an original cut with more archival footage. We made a conscious decision to take a lot of that out, and wanted the texture of the film to be mostly shot by us and less found images. Because we wanted the vibe, a kind of romantic mystery thriller.
Tribeca: I was at a reading upstate with William Kennedy, who's been muckraking in Albany and chronicling it for years, and even he said that this round in Albany is the "worst ever." What do you think?
Alex Gibney: It's so utterly dysfunctional. It's part of the bigger problem, too, with the way that money plays such an outsize role. And nobody seems that concerned. There may have to be a bigger structural change. In some fundamental way, [since] Ronald Reagan, back in 1980 said, "Government's not the solution, it's the problem," Republicans, but also, to a great extent Democrats, have been trying to prove him right. They've been making it worse and worse as if to say, "Oh yeah, you're right. And we're going to prove it to you."