Alex Gibney is an American documentary film director and producer. In 2010, Esquire magazine said Gibney "is becoming the most important documentarian of our time". His works as director include We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer; Casino Jack and the United States of Money; and Taxi to the Dark Side, focusing on an innocent taxi driver in Afghanistan who was tortured and killed at Bagram Air Force Base in 2002.
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Hi Reddit, I’m Alex Gibney, I wrote and directed "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine," which is now playing in theaters and available on Demand and iTunes. Earlier this year, my film "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief" premiered on HBO. It will be playing in theaters starting Sept. 25 and out on DVD and Blu-Ray starting Oct. 6 and on VOD platforms on Oct. 30. You may also know me for my Oscar winning film "Taxi to the Dark Side," Oscar-nominated "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," and triple Emmy-winning "Mea Maxima Culpa." Okay, now that I've satisfied my PR responsibilities, Ask Me Anything. I’ll be answering your questions for the next hour.
Twitter: @alexgibneyfilm, @jigsawprods
Have any Scientologists done anything in retribution for Going Clear to you personally? I thought it was a great documentary by the way.
They have tried to make my life uncomfortable through online harassment and occasional in-person confrontations. But it's what they are doing to the subjects of the film that is really terrible. Those who appeared have reported harassment by PIs, economic and physical threats and lots of on-line vilification.
Congrats on GOING CLEAR and MAN IN THE MACHINE - you are a rare voice in American life who is willing to take down sacred cows. I really appreciate your courage and audacity. For GOING CLEAR did you speak with BBC reporter John Sweeney about his experiences being hounded and intimidated by the Church of Scientology? Did you or your producers face any intimidation like that?
I have corresponded with John. I didn't face that kind of in-person intimidation. But then, I focused on dissenters from the church and only reached out to the church late in the process. After the church learned about the project, I faced lots of legal intimidation and threats, and delegations of unidentified people were sent to NY to confront me. And lots of online vilification. But the people who have really suffered are the witnesses in the film.
At the end of Going Clear, Lawrence Wright suggests that one way for that the Church of Scientology can be reformed is by the IRS revising its tax-exempt status. Do you know of any efforts under way to make this happen? What would it take?
Pressure the congresspeople on the relevant committees. The IRS is embarrassed, I know that. But they need to be embarrassed even more. The fact the we subsidize the human rights abuses of Scientology is sick joke.
Thank you for your wonderful movies. Do you continue to follow Scientology related news? Would you ever consider a sequel to "Going Clear"?
Yes, I would like to do a sequel. We have a lot of material.
Hi Mr. Gibney. Longtime fan.
In response to your article about Jon Stewart letting Tom Cruise off the hook (link), I was wondering if you had received any feedback from journalists/tv personalities about going there in future interviews? Will there be a time when you think the church will let its bigger names off the leash to respond to those types of important questions that need answering?
No feedback. Sadly, I think that most TV "journalists" - if you can call hosts or anchors that - want the access more than the truth. Access pays the bills; truth rarely does.
What are some of your favorite films?
"out of the past"; "Once Upon a Time in the West"; "Night and Fog": "Gimme Shelter"; "Lawrence of Arabia"; "Waltz With Bashir"; "The Gatekeepers"; "Notorious"; "Goodfellas"; "Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie" "Seven Samurai" and many many more.
Do you see Scientology continuing to have tax exempt status, or do you think the "religion" is on the way out?
I fear that the IRS doesn't have the courage to take on Scientology. I think they should lose their exemption because they are really a money-making organization disguised as a religion and because the church has an appalling human rights record. Why should we subsidize that? I wrote a piece about this in the LA Times.
I agree with you 100%. I want to sincerely thank you both for answering my question, and for bringing the enormous problems of Scientology much further into the public light. Keep fighting the good fight.
Thank you for doing this AMA Mr. Gibney. I'm looking forward to “Sinatra: All or Nothing At All”.
My question is about Going Clear. At the end of the film, you display a list of high ranking Scientologists who refused to be interviewed or never responded to your interview requests. Among those is Tom Cruise and Captain David Miscavige. What would you like to have asked these men, if you had been given the opportunity?
I would have asked them both about specific aspects of the story. For example, I would have asked Cruise detailed questions about the Nazanin Boniadi episode. I also would have asked him how it is that he can defend the allegations of human rights abuses that have been confirmed by so many. Re: Miscavige, I would have asked him detailed questions about the battle against the IRS and also about the hole and the Cruise wiretap and so much much more. I find it instructive that Miscavige won't permit anyone to ask him questions.
Do you get any hate mail for your film "Going Clear"? I loved it
Lots of hate mail from members of the church.
What's number 3??
How much do you bench? How much did Steve Jobs bench?
Me: 500 lbs. Steve: 5 pounds.
What do you make of Pope Francis and his tenure as Pontiff? Shockingly, MEA MAXIMA CULPA gave me more respect for Pope Benedict, and I lost alot of respect for Pope John Paul II.
I am truly impressed by Pope Francis. I love his principled stands on the growing disparity between rich and poor and the destruction of our environment. He has changed things more than I ever thought possible and acted as a moral force for change for everyone. I find it appalling that prominent wealthy Catholics suggest that he should not involve himself in economic issues. If a Pope can't talk about morality and economic justice, he shouldn't be Pope.
Isn't that pretty much true of all organized religions?
Depends. I don't have any problem with subsidizing anti-poverty programs. But I think the exemption should be based on that - which in theory it is supposed to be - rather than on belief in a deity.
Congrats on your success! Would you consider a follow-up movie to Going Clear that focuses more on Scientology's fair game and intelligence ops? They have quite the sordid history and I am sure there would be plenty of "anonymous" donors of verifiable information.
Such could look at it from the historical days of the GO, up to OSA being formed in 84 right up to their attack on anyone who dares speak ill toward their leader (not Hubbard, but Miscavige).
Could also include their infiltration of Anonymous, their infiltration of former members; Fishman, etc etc. Their plausible deniability scheme of hiring law firms to distance themselves when the op is blown (something that's been being done for a while). And other such fascinating things. Would be a blockbuster and would really help to illustrate just how sinister this organization is.
There is much more to be done on Scientology.
If you could choose one person who you look up to, who would that person be?
Martin Luther King.
How did you get your start in filmmaking and production?
I went to graduate school in film. Then I got a job as a pa for the Samuel goldwyn Company, moved to making trailers, then re-cuts of movies by Paul Verhoeven and Bill Forsythe, then to editing films. But I dropped out because I wasn't getting great gigs. I decided to hang out a shingle to make docs. That was a brutal period. I wish I had mentored under someone. But I finally got back in the game by learning how to raise money for tv docs. My big break came as a producer on the Scorsese doc series, "The Blues." I watched genius filmmakers at work tackling docs in creative ways. Then I worte and produced "The Trials of Henry Kissinger," and finally got my big break on "Enron."
Big fan of your work. How much did winning the Oscar for "Taxi to the Dark Side" change your ability to pitch your own ideas for projects / have them green-lit?
Is there anything major you'd change in how you've gone about your career?
And if you were to collaborate with Reddit on making some sort of documentary - what's an immediate idea that jumps out at you? (I'm heading up our new video department here!)
Yes, winning the Oscar certainly helped. And "Enron" made money which also helped. I wish I had apprenticed myself to someone. I had to figure everything out on my own. That took a long time and was brutal financially.
I would be interested in a doing a documentary about either Ferguson or Baltimore and looking at the incidents from every possible angle.
Big fan of your work. We often screened your documentaries in my non-fiction cinema class in college.
I recently produced a short documentary that was featured on a few major film news sites and we constantly looked at your docs for inspiration during the edit process. I don't think it would have been as successful without keeping your work in mind. Thank you for that.
1) Cliche, i know, but what advice would you have to young documentary filmmakers?
2) Every documentary filmmaker has their own thoughts on maintaining truth throughout the edit process so i'm wondering what your thoughts are on creative use of editing and how documentaries can skirt the line between remaining true to the subject but also telling a compelling story? Is the filmmaker bound by morality to present the truth as uninterrupted as possible or is the story and theme of a story most relevant to the documentarian?
Thanks for doing this AMA!
1) Follow Herzog's advice about living life a bit before observing it and pay attention to story. With a simple, well-told story, so much complexity can be shown. 2) I think the filmmaker has an obligation to tell the truth as he/she sees it. But I find the best filmmakers give voice to people who disagree with them. hero of mine, Marcel Ophuls, once said something like, "My films have a point of view. But my films also show how hard it is to come to that point of view."
Did you see that TMZ reported over the weekend that the scientology’s leader’s life was threatened? What are your thoughts?
Didn't see it. was watching too much tennis. Will look.
Did you see the film "While We're Young," about documentary filmmakers? Were there any parts of the movie that especially resonated with you?
What were you most surprised to learn about Steve Jobs?
Three things. 1) I was fascinated to find out about his interest in zen. What CEO has a monk as a spiritual advisor? 2) I was surprised to learn how much the teams at Apple took care of invention of the actual products. Steve was more of a storyteller.
How do you respond to critics like Matt Prigge, who recently wrote a review of your latest film on Steve Jobs in Metro, characterizing your work as an assembly line of "simplistic" documentaries?
I don't need to respond. I found his remarks to be "simplistic." Also, I pointed out a rather lazy factual inaccuracy.
Why should any religion have tax exemption? Don’t you think this should be taken away for all of them?
I don't think it should be about the religion; it should be about whether there is a legitimate charitable activity. IRS doesn't define what a religion is but IRS is also clearly too cavalier about whether "churches" contribute something beyond enriching individuals or making money. But the wise man on this is JOhn Oliver. See his piece on starting a religion.
what do you find is the most difficult aspect of making a film? what roadblocks did you run into when making Man in the Machine and Going Clear?
The hardest part is finding the story. The biggest roadblock to me in making both films was the unwillingness of so many to engage. Neither organization really wants their stories told by anyone but themselves. Miscavige and Cruise refused to talk and Scientology refused to send any written materials we asked for. Laurene Jobs prevented people from talking and Apple said it didn't have the "resources" to help me. What are they all afraid of? If both organizations are so great, why don't they open their doors and answer all questions?
What are your thoughts on the whereabouts of Michele Miscavige? I have only watched Going Clear once so I apologize if it was covered and I missed it.
Do you mean Shelley?
Hello, Who would be your dream actor to work with? Also, great job on Sinatra: All or Nothing at All
thanks. I really like Oscar Isaac. Think he's a great talent. Cate Blanchett is a genius. And I think we will be hearing more from Rose Leslie.
Who is your hero?
There are many.
I've seen Going Clear six times( a bit obsessive haha) thanks for such a great film! What got you interested in the topic in the first place?
I was taken by LArry WRight's idea of the "prison of belief." that made the film about more than just Scientology. It's about all of us - how belief can take us to terrible places.
Critics of We Steal Secrets, Man in the Machine, and Going Clear, among some of your other films, have noted that you tend to tell a “one-sided” story of your subjects, often leaving out key factual information, or failing to investigate issues that don’t support your own point of view – your thesis. What is your role director of such documentaries? Do you feel what you’re doing is journalism by definition? Or is it advocacy?
I don't think it's advocacy at all. I do have a point of view but I also show and respect views I don't agree with. I found it interesting that the criticism by Wikileaks, Apple, and Scientology were very similar: they want idolatry and when they don't get it they vilify. My films show many sides of the folks portrayed.
Alex, hi. Thanks for doing this AMA.
I rewatch Gonzo maybe a dozen times a year. It’s really well done and you did a superb job. You hit important milestones in his life and with the varied interviews and insights from friends, loved ones and acquaintances it makes the film flow beautifully.
I can’t escape the notion “Learn to enjoy losing.” There’s such a sadness attributed to Hunter and it comes through pretty strongly in the film.
Since you and many others spent a lot of time researching him and watching, reading and taking in his material, I guess my question/s would be, is there anything important that you came across that you didn’t get to feature in the film? Anything that you personally felt about Hunter that isn’t included in “the extras” or “deleted scenes?” And what are your personal feelings about Hunter’s productivity? Do you think it was a constant fuel of hope, anger and sadness?
Hunter was a man full of contradictions. Best to embrace them. Someday the recordings of the first funeral will be released. They were fascinating.