Documentarian Alex Gibney, who’s done films on Enron and Eliot Spitzer, and won the 2007 Academy Award for his investigation into U.S. government-sanctioned torture in Afghanistan with Taxi to The Dark Side, knows a lot about liars. But he didn’t think that was going to come into play when he began his latest documentary, on Lance Armstrong’s unsuccessful 2009 comeback at the Tour de France, where he ended up placing third. Obviously, that all changed; after the doping revelations and Armstrong’s confession, Gibney overhauled the film, and it premiered this week at the Toronto Film Festival, its title changed from The Road Back to The Armstrong Lie.
Gibney had completed The Road Back just before Armstrong’s former teammate, Floyd Landis, gave an interview accusing Armstrong of doping, prompting the investigation by the USADA that brought about Armstrong’s downfall. Armstrong actually called Gibney in December 2012 to confess three or four weeks before he appeared on Oprah’s show, and granted Gibney two more interviews after the filmmaker insisted that Armstrong owed him. The reedited and retitled film fascinatingly cuts between what we now know and footage Gibney gathered in 2009, including a rare interview with Armstrong’s former trainer, Italian physician Michele Ferrari, who in 2012 received a lifetime ban from sports for anti-doping charges. What information in the film is new is hard to distinguish, given the scope and depth of deception, and Gibney seems less interested in uncovering fresh revelations than parsing why Armstrong would come back to the sport when he knew the questions it would raise, why he let the lie get so big, and whether he’s still lying now. For those who have been following the story closely, as I have, it’s a film best viewed through Gibney’s disappointment, anger, and embarrassment in realizing Armstrong had not only lied to him directly, but had made him part of the machine perpetuating his myth. Here, our comprehensive, largely unedited conversation with Gibney at the festival about his experiences, epiphanies, frustrations, and revelations with Armstrong.
What was your motivation to do a movie on Armstrong in the first place?
I just thought it would be fun to do a sports doc, to be honest with you. It seemed like a great opportunity to follow a pro athlete for a year on a comeback tour — you know, an old man coming back. But the deal was that I was always going to be able to look at [the allegations] — even I, who didn’t know anything about the sport, was aware of the controversy about doping. So that was always going to be a question. But it was going to be about the past: Was this going to be real? Was he going to be doing it clean? And if so, was that his way of proving to himself that it didn’t matter that he had probably doped in the past?
How did you talk him into doing it and get that access?
It grew organically out of a kind of Hollywood deal, because [producers] Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach were interested in doing a movie movie — a fiction film — based on [Armstrong’s 2001 autobiography] It’s Not About the Bike. They could never get the script right, but because of that they’d be in touch with Lance and knew him, and when they thought he would come back they said, “Well, why don’t we do this as a documentary?”
Were you involved with the fictional film?
No, but at that point they said, “Well, we need a director.” I won the Academy Award, so I was on the list; I went in and met with them and they liked the pitch, so off we went.
What was the pitch?
The pitch was will. I was interested in his will. And I said, even then, I thought there was an impressive side to him and also a dark side.
So was he cordial? Nice? I interviewed him once and he was totally friendly and on for fifteen minutes and then refused to acknowledge my existence for four hours.
No, when I first met him he was a little distant, but I was pretty candid with him. I was like, “I know you ride a bike, and I know you’re pretty good at it, but that’s pretty much all I know about your sport.” And he sort of laughed. He was a little bit distant, but this I think was part of the overall plan. He’s coming back, he’s doing a movie — so everybody look, and see if you can see. Look in the closets, under the rug, I’m coming back, and I’m coming back clean. So I was part of the program.
Were you aware of it?
I was aware of it, but I don’t think I fully grasped until everything came out just how much I was part of a program, a PR program. I just didn’t see it in its totality, because I didn’t see the enormity of the lie.
You mention in the movie about finding out that established cycling journalists thought of you as a joke, that you were there to do a puff piece.
It was hard for me because what was weird was, look, I’d done some investigative films before that took on the Bush Administration for torture, and after Enron. What was frustrating to me was that as part of my job I would go to the critics and see what they had to say, but they didn’t even want to talk to me, because they would assume that I was part of the promo team because I had so much access, I was so much on the inside. I think Frank Marshall was also seen very much as an insider. So it was tough.
You started working on this in 2009. And then what transpired? You shot the footage …
We shot the footage, we put it together — we had a film, a completed film, narrated by Matt Damon. Who had been the guy who was originally tapped to play Lance. So, I thought, That’s organic. We had it and it was basically done, and then Floyd [Landis gave an interview accusing him of doping], Tyler [Hamilton, another former Armstrong teammate, did the same], federal investigation. It was like, “We can’t release this film. This film is, like, yesterday’s papers.” And it wasn’t — I wouldn’t call it like a puff piece, but it was a kind of “Root for Lance!” film, even though there was a lot about his past. It was originally called The Road Back, and that was supposed to have two meanings: the comeback and also the road back, i.e., the comeback leads you back into the past. Because I always felt that one of his motivations in coming back was that it didn’t matter whether he doped or not [previously], because now he was winning clean.
But it didn’t work out, even athletically for him, because he didn’t win.
No, it didn’t. That’s where ultimately what we shot in 2009 became a really interesting microcosm and reflection, and my own experience in that, of the larger story with Lance. Because he assumed all along that he was going to win. You saw him on-camera, he said, “If you want a prediction” — which he’d never done before — “I’m going to win the Tour.” He was pretty confident. I’d followed him all year, and he had kind of sucked. He wasn’t that good. And I know that not just from me, but I would listen to Johan [Bruyneel, Armstrong’s longtime team director, or coach]. Johan said, “You know what? He’s not that good.” So I didn’t know what to think. And then when he doesn’t win — that moment where [he says], “I fucked up your documentary,” because the expectation was, I’m along for the ride, Lance is going to deliver what he always delivers.
Why do you think that they let you interview Michele Ferrari, his doctor and trainer?
I think partially it was arrogance. Partially it was the way I put it to them. I was like, “How come nobody’s going to let me talk to Michele Ferrari?” And they were like, “Who’s not going to let you talk to Michele Ferrari?” And I think part of it was, “Yeah, sure, let him talk to Ferrari.” It was like the ultimate arrogance. I think Michele also, oddly enough, felt, in 2009, that he hadn’t been given significant credit for Lance’s success. Maybe he’d feel differently now, but at the time that was kind of his vibe.
Is Michele still training people now?
I don’t know. If he is, it’s got to be sub rosa.
Because Ferrari at least sounds like he knew a lot about the science of the body and how to optimize performance besides just doping.
I think people like [Sunday Times writer David Walsh, who crusaded to expose Armstrong] are unfair to him. It’s not like he didn’t prescribe, oversee and administer drugs — he did. But I think that he had a much more complete program. He was a super smart guy, but he was deeply cynical about the process. To him, it was just a game. You know, they come up with these arbitrary rules, whatever. Now we’re going to just prove how fast the human machine can go.
So you finished the original film in 2010?
Yep, about halfway through 2010.
And then all this stuff comes out. How much of it did you have to scrap and redo?
Well we had to do away with the first film … there’s a ton that’s not in [the new one]. You know, Lance breaking his collarbone, more of the Giro d’Italia , most every stage of the Tour de France. We had a ton … the Tour of Australia, the Tour of California. We had a lot. So, there was a lot we had to scrap. It was 52 pick-up, to be honest with you. But the one thing we did do was retain the importance of 2009. I also wanted to retain the sporting aspect of that year for all sorts of reasons. Both for the larger themes and also because I thought the one thing I learned was what a fucking awesome sport it was.
Were you angry when the news started coming out? What was your reaction?
I was angry, but for a slightly different reason than Frank Marshall might have been angry. Frank, I think, was a true believer. Frank believed that he hadn’t doped. I can’t say that I didn’t think that he [hadn’t] — the logic of it seemed improbable. Like, all those guys on the podium, and Lance is the only guy who didn’t dope? It just didn’t make sense. [Ed note: The film notes that in all the years Armstrong won, every guy who appeared on the podium with him, with the exception of one, was suspended from cycling for doping.] But I had no proof. But I was angry that I felt that I’d been part of a PR campaign. That made me angry…and the fact that he’d looked me in the eye and lied to me any number of times.
So what was your mission afterwards?
The mission afterwards was to say, “You owe it to me to make it right. And I’m going to do everything I can do to tell the full story, about the anatomy of the lie.” It wasn’t so much like, “I’m going to get him now,” because he’d already been got. It was more to get a fuller understanding of what happened, and what my role in it had been.
What was his reaction to that? Was it easy to get those final interviews?
It wasn’t easy, for technical reasons. I mean, I got an interview right after Oprah, three hours after, but getting that second interview was hard, because Oprah had backfired and then the Department of Justice [came after him]. So he was in huge legal jeopardy, and his lawyers really didn’t want him to talk. So it was hard convincing his lawyers to let him talk.
Did stuff he said to Oprah cause more legal problems?
Yeah, it did. It certainly did. Because now he was on the record saying he had doped. Up until that point he was on the record saying that he hadn’t. There was all this testimony saying that he had, but there was no positive test. There was no empirical evidence, just testimony. So even though it looked terrible and his story was no longer believable, nevertheless from a legal perspective he was in a much better position pre-Oprah than post-Oprah.
Do you like him?
On a day-to-day basis, I do like him. But that’s been a peculiar process yet. He hasn’t seen the film yet — or maybe he’s going to see it today or tomorrow — he’s going to see it very soon.
He’s definitely not here in Toronto, right?
Yeah, but we’ll show it to him now. After it’s a public document, we’ll show it to him. I don’t know what he’s going to think once he sees it, but from the moment he called me up, which was about three or four weeks pre-Oprah, to say that he apologized, he said he did dope, and we started talking about him coming clean, it was a strange relationship. Because we would have these conversations where I would tell him what I thought about what he had done, and it was quite honest. So it was a more peculiar relationship, whereas before it was like, “I’m here to ask the questions, I’ve done my job, and now I go back and do what I do.” There was a kind of Kabuki curtain that was removed and now I could say, “Here’s what I think you did right, and here’s what I think you did way wrong.” And we’d have rather honest conversations about it.
And now, what’s the relationship?
I mean, we’ll see, once he sees the film. I called him up and told him, or, I contacted him and told him it was going to be called The Armstrong Lie. And he didn’t like it, but he accepted it. I was forthright with him about what we’ve been doing, and that’s been weird. He wants control of the narrative. So, how is it I maintain a level of trust so that he’s willing to talk to me, but also set boundaries so he knows I’m not working for Lance Armstrong?
How did you do that?
By being honest, and saying, “This is what I think, and this is where I think you fucked up.” And he would say, “Well, what about this, and that? How could I do anything else but lie?” And I would ask him, as I did also on camera: “Why in the world did you think that you had to make the lies so big? Why did you have to involve the whole cancer community? Why did you have to use the power of your story to go after people who were trying to tell the truth?” Those are the bigger questions. You know, in the film he said he was embarrassed by it. He said he just didn’t see it then — “I just didn’t see it then, but I see it now.” I think frankly, a lot of people have looked at Livestrong to see, you know, was there something crooked with Livestrong, was Livestrong a front for his doping? Like I said in the film, I don’t see it quite that way. But I do think that psychologically for Lance, his cancer work allowed him to give his lies a lot of force. Because he could feel kind of righteous anger as he’s vilifying people publicly. Even though, of course, he’s telling a lie. You see him attack Walsh or you see him attack [Paul Kimmage of the Sunday Times] publicly. I think he felt he had the right to do that. So that whole Livestrong thing I think gave force to the lie. I think that’s why a lot of people are pissed off. Really pissed off.
Because he used cancer?
Yeah, because he used cancer … You don’t do that — use cancer as a shield for doping.
And as a shield for ruining some people’s lives. He nearly bankrupted the masseuse for the U.S. Postal Service team who contributed to a book exposing the doping by suing her.
Right, and for going after people: “Here’s my story, and my story is so powerful that I’m now going to go after you.” And Lance’s rationalization for that is, “Look, I’m a fighter. And I just kept fighting off the bike in addition to on the bike.” And I do buy that to some extent, but I think that’s become sort of an easy rationalization for him … and that’s one of the themes of this story. This is a man who would win at all costs: win, lose, win, die. So if you think of losing as dying — well, that’s pretty radical. Right?
Do you still have some anger toward Armstrong?
I wouldn’t say I have anger. To me the film is my stake in it, so I feel like I’ve gone through my process. [laughs]
He’s facing damages of over $100 million from sponsorships, etc. Did you talk to him about how he feels about all of the financial shit he’s about to …
Well, obviously, you can see it in his expression: I think he feels somewhat victimized. I think people have a hard time seeing him as a victim, but he feels that he’s being unfairly singled out and persecuted. And particularly the Department of Justice lawsuit. Of course, the problem writ large for Lance now is the reckoning and redemption everyone looks to see if he’s capable of, which he’s put on hold as long as he’s fighting the fight. Because instinctively, that’s where he wants to go. He is a fighter, and in some ways he’s incredibly complicated and elaborate, but in some ways he’s terribly simple, which is this binary you win or you lose.
I think the Oprah interview was incredibly disturbing for a lot of people in the way it exposed him. I still can’t get over the part where he says he told Betsy Andreu, his former teammate’s wife, who publicly criticized him, “Listen, I called you ‘crazy,’ I called you ‘a bitch,’ I called you all those things, but I never called you ‘fat.’”
He said that in front of Oprah, of course, but here’s something we were going to include in the film, we just didn’t have time. If you hear Betsy tell that story, when Lance said that to her, she laughed. She found it hysterically funny, because that’ s the kind of rough sardonic humor she appreciates. And Lance knows that. But Lance relating that story to the world was the most incredibly awkward and embarrassing thing ever, as if that was somehow a comment he was proud of. Now, Lance was never going to be a marquee star at the comedy show. That’s just not who he is. But I think his lack of perspective about that kind of banter on the inside with somebody who might get that humor, and how that plays on a larger public, was totally missed on that.
It’s so bad!
It was like a lead balloon, man. Everybody was just like, “I can’t believe he just said that.”
As someone who knows the story fairly well because I’ve been following it for years, I was trying to pick out the parts that were new information.
Some of the stuff about the Vrijman Report [a report commissioned by the UCI that stated Armstrong didn’t dope in 1999] is new. You know, the idea that Lance might have paid for the Vrijman report, and at the very least his lawyer had tremendous influence over it, so that it was part of his elaborate cover-up. The idea that Lance admits that they had convos with [Hein Verbruggen, UCI president from 1991–2005] over that corticosteroid test in 1999 [a drug test Armstrong failed].
And Lance’s vibe. People ask me a lot, “What’s new here?” To me, I think what’s new — or, not so much what’s new, but what’s interesting about this film — is that it gives a level of emotional detail to how the lie was constructed and how it was protected, and how Lance saw it from the inside out. One of the things that film can do that print can’t is that you can see people’s faces. And you begin to try to judge where the deception begins — and where is the deception and where is the honesty. How does that work? And to see where the real person breaks through and the artificial Kabuki actor is taking central stage. And a lot of that I think is very present here, because Lance — he played different people. Every once in a while you see the real Lance, and it’s not always a pretty picture to see the real Lance.
You show his kids running around when he’s having blood drawn at home for a surprise doping inspection. We get to see how he’s seeing it from the inside.
It’s a really interesting scene there, because it plays on a lot of different levels, and a lot of them are sympathetic to Lance, and a lot of them are not so sympathetic. Should you be having your kids there while blood is being drawn? But at the same time you see that easy banter with his kids, and that pretty little scene where they bicycle away, and the kids are on their training wheels like, “Bye, bye, Mr. Cameraman!” And Lance Armstrong is riding off on his bicycle with his kids … it’s a lovely scene, but it’s both dark and light all at the same time.
And where do you think you got one up on Oprah? What did you get from your final interview that you think Lance didn’t give to her?
I think you see less Kabuki in my interview. And I think you see something closer to the real Lance. And there’s some interesting answers, like when Lance says, “I intended … ” He says, “In 2009, I came back and I intended to ride clean.” And I asked him, “Did you think it was going to raise questions, you coming back in 2009?”And he said, “Of course.” And smiles. And then there’s the answer about [the 2000 Tour], that gives you a really good sense of how Lance saw doping. “Yeah, we just did one bag [of transfused blood].” You know, encapsulated there is how Lance sees all that, and that didn’t really come across on Oprah, I thought.