It's not 'just the facts, Ma'am,' " says Alex Gibney, channeling TV's Dragne t's Jack Webb.
The writer-director-producer, who won the best documentary Oscar this year for Taxi to the Darkside and is currently promoting Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, abhors the notion that a filmmaker can capture reality simply by pointing his camera at it. That's why this disciplined and prolific artist (he also executive-produced Charles Ferguson's Oscar-nominated No End in Sight) connects with the unpredictable, go-for-broke reporter Hunter Thompson, who soared beyond the New Journalism into his own hallucinogenic swirl of fantasy, self-exposure and increasingly addled observations.
"What reading Hunter does is free you up," says Gibney from his New York office. "You realize you can use all sorts of tools to convey the power of a story. Hunter invented a new style to suggest ways of understanding events beyond their literal interpretations."
Gibney strove to make "a movie, not a report" out of Taxi to the Darkside, an expose of American interrogation techniques in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Iraq, centering on the death of an innocent Afghan taxi driver while he was in American custody. Deploying percussive Indonesian gamelan music, Gibney suggested an atmosphere that could (and did) make interrogators go wild. He also gave Taxi a musical structure. Images of abuse became motifs that took on different meanings each time you saw them. Without losing their appalling potency, they became symbols of Middle Eastern tragedy and American complacency and shame. Gibney viewed Taxi as "a Raymond Chandler mystery, a nightmarish Big Sleep" - and, as Edmund Wilson wrote, what's crucial to a Chandler thriller is not the solving of a puzzle but the working out of a "malaise."
Similarly, in Gonzo, Gibney exploits every possible source, from home movies to broadcast TV and feature films, to create an audiovisual collage. The family's estate gave him access to materials never before seen or heard, such as Thompson's cache of audiotapes recording his travels from Las Vegas to Zaire.
The result illuminates the man like those old 3-D portraits that changed expression when you turned them. Gibney, who has great taste in music (he produced the all-star blues film Lightning in a Bottle - and the compilation album), chooses songs that resonate with Thompson's life and work, including New Orleans blues-man James Booker's "Gonzo" and "Gonzo's Blue Dream" - the true sources for the name of Thompson's brand of journalism.
But even the passages Gibney quotes from Thompson's prose are rare and choice. "Trouble can come at you from any direction these days, like being chased through a crowded parking lot by a pack of vicious stray dogs, knowing they want to kill you, but not knowing why." It sounds like Thompson in his paranoid prime, but it appeared on Thompson's ESPN blog in December 2002.
Gibney confesses, "I believe in what Jean-Luc Godard said: 'Just because I have to shoot a scene in a room doesn't mean I can't look out the window.' " Gibney doesn't just look out the window; sometimes he leaps out it.
Overlapping schedules forced Gibney to create Taxi and Gonzo side by side. Going back and forth between them made him thankful for Thompson's angry, convulsive brand of comedy. And working on Taxi inspired him, in Gonzo, to delve "deeper into the dark side of Hunter than I would have otherwise."
When the producers of Gonzo approached Gibney, the contrast between Thompson's boldness and the tameness of contemporary journalism snagged his interest.
"What seemed interesting to me was that, before the war in Iraq and partially during the war, members of the Bush administration snookered some editors and reporters. The Bush people insisted that they hold to the pristine rule of journalism, which tries to present all points of view but sometimes ends in a phony balance.
"At the same time, they were perverting that rule, leaking material to Judith Miller that was patently false, or, in the case of Jeff Gannon, credentialing someone to go to the White House press room and ask softball questions. In a context like this, you need someone like Hunter to do in print what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do on the air: To come right out and say this or that is a lie, and here's why."
And to have as much fun doing it as Stewart or Colbert. "Reading Hunter takes you right back to college, those years when you want to be on the edge. So many Americans live a mostly routinized existence. That's why Americans love outlaws. Hunter went on the edge for us. He had a good time, even when he played with fire. He loved blowing things up." Himself included: He requested his ashes be shot from a cannon. (And they were.)
Gibney himself has set off an explosion in the independent-film world by filing for arbitration against THINKFilm, the distributor of Taxi to the Darkside. He contends the company officers knew they were too strapped to exploit his Oscar win, though they based their whole promotional campaign on that strategy.
"Right up to the Oscars, they did a good job," Gibney said last week. "But even when they signed us they were [in a deep financial hole]. It's not easy for a film as dark as Taxi to draw audiences. The whole commercial goal for a film like that is to win an Oscar, because the Oscar seems to give people permission to see it. But THINKFilm had no money, so even the Web site went down."
Gibney's acceptance speech shook the Oscars out of their doldrums when he urged the country to move from the dark side toward the light. He agrees there was something glazed about the evening.
"I had my nirvana moment deep within the Kodak Theatre. When all these women in their lowcut gowns are handing you martinis, you can think you're in some kind of heaven. But when I went into the press room, there was silence. It was like - who cares about an indictment of the Bush administration and America's torture and interrogation policies? Where's the best actor?"
Gibney designed T axi to stir public debate and possibly effect policy. He will get a chance to reach a wider audience when it unspools on HBO this fall. In the meantime, Gibney treasures a letter from a member of the Motion Picture Academy.
"He said my speech was so inspiring that he wanted to go out and see the film - but it wasn't playing anywhere in Los Angeles. So he admitted, with an apology, that his son showed him how to download the film illegally from the Internet. He enclosed a $20 bill, because that's what he and his wife would have paid to see it in Los Angeles. And that letter, for me, said it all."