The Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker discusses his latest movie about disgraced lobbyist Jack Abbramoff
Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker, Alex Gibney, is no stranger to making films about controversial and political subjects. In 2005 he released, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which earned the director an Academy Award nomination. He followed that up with Taxi to the Darkside, about an innocent taxi driver in Afghanistan who was tortured and killed at Bagram Air Force Base in 2002, which finally earned the director the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 2007. The filmmaker is also no stranger to making films about famous or infamous people like music legend Jimi Hendrix, literary legend Hunter S. Thompson, or the film which he is currently in post-production on about disgraced New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. Now the director is releasing his latest film which is both about politics and an infamous celebrity, disgraced lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff. The film, Casino Jack and the United States of Money opening on May 7th, focuses on the career of the Washington D.C. lobbyist, former movie producer and con man, who was involved in a massive corruption scandal that led to the conviction of himself, two White House officials, Rep. Bob Ney, and nine other lobbyists and congressional staffers. We recently had an opportunity to speak with Alex Gibney and the talented filmmaker discussed his new film, how power and money corrupt Washington and everything that you need to know about Jack! Here is what he had to say:
To begin with, can you tell us about you reaction to Jack Abramoff and the scandal when you first heard about it, and how that inspired you to make this film?
Alex Gibney: Well, of course I heard about Jack, he was all over the news and it was this big lobbying scandal. I wasn't really sure, I didn't know enough about what lobbyists really did. My way in was kind of a round up article in the Washington Post in which they showed Jack and all of his schemes and scams as kind of, what Sue Schmidt called "A Walter Mitty on steroids." This sort of secret agent who has cast himself in his own spy thriller, that's what got me into this story and made me want to do it. From a thematic perspective, I was interested in following the same thread that I picked up on with the Enron story, which was about the role of money in politics.
Most people just know Abramoff from the now legendary pictures that were taken of him on the day he was arrested, wearing a dark trench coat and fedora, looking like Tony Soprano, so now that you've made the film, can you tell us who the real Jack is?
Alex Gibney: He is larger than life and I think part of that comes from the fact that he was a movie producer and a movie buff. I mean he and some of his friends will tell you that those famous images of him in the black trench coat and the black fedora, that that was him not being observant. But I don't personally buy that because I think that Jack as a movie producer knows enough about wardrobe and about costume design to know that when he dressed up that day that was how he was going to present himself, as kind of a gangster. I think that was Jack's sort of self-pity but he was also intuitively or maybe consciously doing it, I don't know? Maybe he was dressing up as a gangster to say, "Okay, if you want to cast me in this role than here I am and I'm going to dress the part." So in that way Jack is very theatrical. He is a guy who combines very hardcore ideological beliefs with a kind of fantastic and really engaging imagination. He is a myth-weaver, he's a storyteller and in a way that's what lobbyists do. They tell stories, try to manipulate what is public opinion and in some ways it's part spy and part studio executive.
Can you talk about the scandal and explain to us exactly what happened, who the players were and how high up in our government the corruption went?
Alex Gibney: Basically what a lobbyist does, in technical terms is he positions the federal government for favorable treatment by congress. The way sometimes you get that favorable treatment is by greasing the palms of Senators with silver. Jack had a knack for finding clients that both had a lot of money, not much connection or contacts in Washington and who represented some kind of loophole so that he could really charge extraordinarily high fees. Some of these clients, notably, a big part of his business was Native American tribes, Indian tribes that own casinos. So they generated tremendous amounts of cash but particularly when the Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress they felt that they had no political clout. Jack was able to market his access to former majority leader Tom DeLay magnificently so that he could make people believe that he was at the center of power and if they wanted to get to the center they'd have to pay him because he would be there guide. That's how his business worked.
Some of the stuff we got that I thought was most special, and it goes by without us remarking enough about it, but you know, Congressman and Senators began marketing Jack. The idea that you can get Senators and Congressmen to be your marketing staff, to push your ability to connect with them and to have influence in Washington. I mean to your clients what could be better than that? You actually have Dana Rohrabacher, a sitting Congressman, in the Marianas ... this far off territory of the United States that had hired Jack as a lobbyist basically to lobby for maintaining these rules that were popping up, almost a slavery society. We found when we went out there this dusty archive in the corner of some forgotten building on the island with this great footage of Dana Rohrabacher basically telling the people in the Marianas, "Look if you were to come and talk with me as representatives I wouldn't give you the time of day but hire this guy Jack Abramoff and then you are in like Flynn." So he becomes like, Jack's marketing staff. Of course they are going to pay money to Jack now because a Congressman says that unless you do you are not going to get to talk to him. How good is that? I'm joking, of course but just think about that.
That was the scam with DeLay too. The idea is that DeLay allowed Jack to market his access to DeLay and that is how Jack got his big bucks. If you wanted access to DeLay you had to go through Jack. I have a guy in the Marianas saying just that. He said that DeLay's people said to them, "Look if you want to get in with DeLay don't come in the front door. Go in the back door, see Jack Abramoff and he'll take you in but you have to pay him."
You had access to Delay in the film as well so what was he like to talk to?
Alex Gibney: He was very measured. Look I don't want to oversell the access to DeLay. He was on a book tour and he was talking so that is how we got him. But never the less I found him honest or at least candid?
Is it clear now that some time has passed exactly how far up in the Bush administration this scandal went?
Alex Gibney: Oh, I think it's pretty definite. One of the things that is clear is that Bush says that he didn't even know him. I mean what a joke! We have Bob Ney saying in the film that that is a joke. Also we have footage of one of these big fundraisers and Jack was one of Bush's biggest fund raisers. Jack was the guy who supplied the money in the 2000 South Carolina primary, where Bush finally beat McCain when McCain seemed like he was coming off his big victory win in New Hampshire. Jack was the guy who supplied the money that stopped John McCain dead in his tracks. So Bush knew very well who Jack Abramoff was. That's about as high as you get, the President Of The United States.
Can you talk about how power and money corrupt politics in Washington?
Alex Gibney: Well that shouldn't be surprising to us. You know, money only has one objective and that is to make more money. In some ways that's what's written into the very purpose of corporations, you are supposed to maximize shareholder values. That is your responsibility so it shouldn't be a surprise to us that money tries to find ways to make more money. That is what corporations are designed to do. What should be surprising to us though is that we've allowed our system to morph into one of legalized bribery, were you can basically pay off Congressman and Senators to do what you want. That doesn't say much about a representative democracy, it's only representative now of money. That's why I call it Casino Jack and the United States of Money.
Abramoff will be released from prison at the end of the year, what do you think life is going to be like for him once he is out? Since he can't go back to Washington, how do you think he will survive now that he no longer has that kind of power and political clout?
Alex Gibney: Well, he actually gets out to a half way house in June but that's a good question. Some people think that he may go back to Hollywood? I think he's interested in writing a book, telling his side of the story. He would always want to form opinion that way. I'd encourage him to go out on the road. I'm certainly not a close advisor to Jack Abramoff but I told him, "Take my film out and criticize it. Ridicule it if you want." But I tell everybody I meet that I would pay lots of money to see Jack Abramoff talk about how political corruption works in Washington. Who knows better than he does? Or maybe he'll go back to Hollywood?
There is also a theatrical film in the works coming out later this year featuring Oscar winner Kevin Spacey as Abramoff and the film has a very similar title to your movie, so could you talk about that and if you felt any urgency to get your film finished first when you heard that their project was in production?
Alex Gibney:George Hickenlooper's movie, which was called Casino Jack and I think they are thinking of a new title now will be released in the fall, I think in October. We started long before and along the way I did learn of it. I was surprised, particularly when they took our title. I've actually seen the film but we had no contact with each other, other than a dust up over the title issue.
Do you think it's possible that in time the two films could work as good companion pieces for each other?
Alex Gibney: I don't know? I think audiences will have to judge that for them selves. I will only say this, Kevin Spacey's performance in the film is magnificent but he is no Jack Abramoff! I think the real McCoy is better and much more interesting.
Finally, you're currently finishing up a documentary on disgraced New York Governor Eliot Spitzer that previewed this year at the Tribeca Film Festival so what can you tell us about that film?
Alex Gibney: I showed it as a work in progress at Tribeca, it's mostly done. We're very close to finishing it. You can go online and see some of the reactions. The reactions have been pretty positive and I'm really pumped up about it. I think that it is unlike any film I've ever done in that it does not come to any simple conclusion but the story is quite provocative. We were trying to sell the film at Tribeca and a lot of distributors are interested. I expect that will happen soon then I can finish the film probably in a few weeks and then we'll see when they want to take it out.