Alex Gibney's film on the abusive treatment of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners, Taxi to the Dark Side, won the Oscar for best documentary feature of 2007. His earlier film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, was also nominated for an Oscar. He was in town over the weekend for the Maryland Film Festival showing his new film, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. We caught up with him.
How do you manage to go from Enron to Guantanamo to Hunter Thompson? Is there a thread there that connects all of those?
I don't know that there's a thread. I can't say I chart any clear path. Fact is, I was cutting Gonzo at the same time I was cutting Taxi to the Dark Side, in adjoining cutting rooms. It saved my bacon, to be able to go from Taxi over to get a few laughs from Hunter. Even though some would say that Hunter is not everybody's light relief. But still, for me, it was. There's something about Hunter that always engaged me.
How do you decide on your next film or your next subject?
Sometimes it comes from me, sometimes it comes from somebody else.
Hunter had just committed suicide, and there were things about the way he always tackled stories in a really unconventional way. It seemed to me at that time (2005), that people in power were using the traditional rules of the press against them, and so Hunter was a guy who never followed the rules.
So wouldn't it be interesting to take a look at Hunter the writer? There's a lot about the wild and crazy Hunter in the film, but there's a lot more about Hunter the writer.
I think Hunter was a lot of people, a lot of different kinds of people. What you see is, he was also a really serious writer. He had this wildly outsized comic persona that he developed over the years.
What was that old Kris Kristofferson song? 'He's a walking contradiction/Partly truth and partly fiction?' That was Hunter also, but we never would have cared about him if he hadn't been a great writer. This is a guy who spent a tremendous amount of time using his typewriter.
So, has there been a transition from documentary filmmaker to Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker?
Well, it happens in a flash. It was a great moment. I don't know that it's changed my life, but it brought some needed focus to the film, which is a tough one for people to see. Now I think people are starting to seek it out. That was great.
But I just keep plugging.
What's the next project?
I'm working on a film called Casino Jack, all about the [Jack] Abramoff scandal.
Does each success make it more difficult to come up with the next film, or to do a good job on the next one?
No. I'm an excessive nut job. I think the key thing is finding a story that you want to do. People get hung up, I think even Hunter got hung up, with 'How can you repeat this or that?' I think you just keep going forward, and try to tell interesting stories, and let everything take care of itself.
My wife will tell you it hasn't stopped me from working hard.
I'm sick. I have to find a way to take a vacation, that's what I need to do, figure out how to stop.