Oscar Winner Alex Gibney Talks Learning to Lean In, Paul Simon and How to Reengage With Viewers

In a keynote conversation Tuesday at Copenhagen’s leading international documentary festival CPH:DOX, Academy Award winning filmmaker and producer Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) talked honestly about the winding road of making it in the documentary world, the creative process, and the lessons of life, partly learned from singer-songwriter Paul Simon.

The inspirational talk at the baroque Kunsthal Charlottenborg exhibition space, with moderator Thom Powers, Toronto Film Festival programmer, was a prelude to the festival’s screening of Gibney’s two-part doc “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon,” which debuted on MGM+ March 17.

“What I learned from Paul was that when he wrote ‘The Sound of Silence,’ he sat alone and words came to him; creativity started to flow, and just like Bob Dylan with ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ [the song] suddenly fit and he felt like a conduit.”

Gibney said letting free associations take over, having an unguarded curiosity and generosity were some of the wise lessons that the 83 year-old Simon passed on to him, although he himself had long mastered the art of documentary filmmaking, where the film emerges only in the cutting room, sometimes moving away from the original idea.

In the case of “In Reckless Dreams,” Gibney said the final two-part doc was a far cry from the initial panoramic look of Simon’s career, suggested by the iconic American singer/songwriter after he’d watched Gibney’s 2015 miniseries “Sinatra – All or Nothing at All.”

“Although I’m a big fan of Paul, as a filmmaker, doing that kind of biopic wasn’t much of a turn on,” admitted Gibney. “It’s not until I went to watch him create his latest album ‘Seven Psalms,’ and found an interesting way of exploring his creative process, that I saw the [final] film, about time and mortality. For me, understanding how to stylistically put it all together was a breakthrough,” he acknowledged.

The complex relationship of Simon with his musical partner Art Garfunkel – who declined being interviewed for the documentary – and their split was another dramaturgical aspect which the doc creator was keen to explore.

“They still talk about the split, which is perhaps unresolved in some way. I found this very interesting,” said Gibney, for whom it “all goes down to relationships,” including with one’s parents. “I remember some idle comment from Paul’s mom who said: you have a good voice, but Arty has a fine voice! Then his dad who was a jazz musician told him rock’n’roll was dumb. This stuck in his craw and motivated him.”

Getting the editorial control on “Restless Dreams” and understanding from the outset the “dance” that usually unfolds between a protagonist and a docu filmmaker was quintessential to Gibney, who recalled a bad experience with the infamous U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong on “The Armstrong Lie.” “He wasn’t always honest with me and I was part of his story,” says the director, who felt duped. “Ultimately, you want to please the audience, not the character.”

Reflecting on his own career, Gibney said success came to him only later in life, when he was in his early 50s. “After years in the wilderness of doc filmmaking, I wasn’t making money at all, and I recall my wife who told me: ‘You need a job, but please don’t say you’re interested in documentary filmmaking!’ I eventually made ‘Enron, the Smartest Guys in the Room’ (2005) and started to make money.”

Still, getting the politically charged “Taxi to the Dark Side” to the silver screen a few years later was challenging, although the movie ended up picking up an Oscar in 2008. “The other day I was recollecting how lucky I was to win an Academy Award. But man, getting there was a long and heavy road!,” explained Gibney. “The movie was rejected by Sundance, then we had problems with the MPA who didn’t accept the trailer and with Discovery Channel who also had issues about it. Everybody said a film about torture [by the U.S. military] won’t work.”

“But then,” continues Gibney, “when Sundance rejected us, we went back and saw a key structural flaw that we had to fix. Each failure eventually taught us something special.” 

For the senior doc specialist, mistakes and adversity are to be valued, at every step of the way, as challenges to one’s mortality. This was true for Simon who suffered recently from a near-total hearing loss in his left ear, and managed to bounce back, according to Gibney.

“There is a song in his album ‘Seven Psalms’ in which Paul says about death – I’m not ready. During filming, I was singing along with him saying, ‘I’m not ready.’ But it’s been potent to see him reflect on this, and yet being determined to move forward. He found in adversity a kind of window into a different sound… You learn to lean in,” stated Gibney, who produced “In Restless Dreams” through his outfit Jigsaw Productions, alongside Closer Media and Anonymous Content.

Asked to comment on the overall state of documentary filmmaking and his own approach to getting his projects off the ground, Gibney said: “There is no one size fits all. Sometimes you go to a streamer – Netflix loved ‘Dirty Money’ and gave money for two seasons – but for more difficult films, combining equity with grant funding can be a good approach. And in Europe, state funding with pre-sales does work. Yet for every film, it’s like running a political battle where each vote counts. You have to think who might be interested to support [the film] and why.”

“Getting the pics to an audience is yet another battle, which requires innovation and new distribution models,” said Gibney, who believes in reinvigorating the relationship between the creator and the viewer.

“A few years ago, we talked about the golden age of documentaries and in some way, this was true. There was a level of creativity and innovation in the filmmaking form, which is still there today. But films have a tough time getting seen today, for reasons linked to micro-economics or the industry itself, which bridges art and commerce. Today, it feels like it’s about the channels, rather than channelling the creativity.”

The director cites new distribution models such as the U.S. platform Substack, which allows writers and creators to publish their work and raise coin via subscriptions from passionate readers. “Indie films – fiction or non-fiction – are in trouble. As filmmakers, we need to find new avenues to engage with the audience,” said Gibney, who also mentioned in his talk that he is finishing a new film about David Chase, creator of “The Sopranos.”

Next up is an Elon Musk portrait, produced by Jigsaw Productions with Closer Media and Anonymous Content.

The second part of “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon” will be available for streaming on MGM+ March 24.

The doc is screening this week in CPH:DOX’s Sound & Vision strand. The festival runs until March 24.


Leave a Comment