20 questions with Director Alex Gibney

Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney decided to take on the story of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s (D) demise because it fit one of his primary professional interests: examining the abuse of power. The result is “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” which opened at the E Street Cinema on Friday. 

In an interview with The Hill, Gibney says that, in making “Client 9,” he learned that American politics is the ultimate “bloodsport.”

Why did you decide to do the film?

There just seemed to be something so intriguing about this character, this sheriff of Wall Street who was brought down in a prostitution scandal. And, also, the timing seemed so curious. Just as the markets were melting down, so was the sheriff of Wall Street.

How did you convince Eliot Spitzer that it was in his best interest to participate in your film?

We were going to do the film anyway, and we made the pitch to him — that in order for him to go forward, he was going to have to reckon with the past. 

How would you describe his demeanor during the interviews? Was he nervous?

I think it depended on the subject. I think that on stuff relating to the political economy, and even the political battles in Albany, he was pretty forthcoming, very articulate, and able to contextualize incredibly complicated subjects that showcased the drama without losing any of the essential meaning.

But when it came to reckoning with his own personal behavior, he had a great deal of difficulty doing that. I don’t know if you’d say he was nervous, but he was not easygoing. It was difficult for both of us.

Did you try to interview Silda Wall Spitzer, his wife?

I did. I sent her a note. I approached her directly, but she declined. 

Have you heard from him since the movie’s come out?

Yes. He thought the movie was fair. He joked that he wished the ending were different, but “that was partly my issue.”

Was anybody reluctant to be a part of the film?

I think Eliot Spitzer was reluctant initially. I wouldn’t say anybody else was really reluctant. [Former AIG Chairman and CEO] Hank Greenberg didn’t agree to speak until after the movie was screened as a work in progress at the Tribeca Film Festival.

What was it like working with people from the Emperor’s Club escort service to participate in the movie?

It was hard, but ultimately very fruitful. One person who I tried to have very hard to speak and who did not speak to me … was Ashley Dupre. And in a way that turned out a blessing in disguise. It let me to find Cecil Suwal — she was the manager of the club. 

I learned a lot from her … But I also … dug deeper and found Angelina, who was the person who Spitzer saw a number of times. A lot of people thought that about Ashley Dupre, but she was kind of a pinch-hitter. 

You decided to have an actress play Angelina. Can you talk about the thought process behind this decision?

I felt it was actually more true to the reality than it would’ve been to put her behind a white light and behind a shadow. That would’ve turned her into some sort of witness in a witness protection program or a mobster. I didn’t want that.

The one thing that impressed me about her is that we vigorously checked her testimony, and it nearly always stood up. She was a truth-teller, relatively speaking, and I wanted to honor that. And the way she looked in person, she dressed very un-hookerish.

What did you learn about American politics and politicians in making this film?

What bloodsport it is. It’s really rough. It’s rougher than I thought. And I already thought it was pretty rough. And it’s very hard to try to change the way things work. You come and try to change things, and the system isn’t much interested in that change.

The movie seems to suggest that opponents of Spitzer deliberately leaked his involvement with the Emperor’s Club. What do you believe?

I think it’s possible, and so that’s why I included it. There are too many odd circumstantial details to ignore. 

What was the most difficult part of making this film?

Figuring out how to structure it. It’s a very wide-ranging story. So figuring out a way to at once contain the story and celebrate the disparate elements of the story. That’s the one thing that attracted me to it — in the telling of the story, you get a lot of different issues. 

As a co-host of a new CNN show, Spitzer’s now back in the public eye. How do you think that affects the movie’s release, if it affects it at all? Was the release timed strategically?

There was certainly no strategic play. The work in progress premiered in Tribeca well before the [CNN] show was announced. 

I think the show makes it clear that he is indeed a national figure, and “Client 9” benefits from that to some extent. There’s a benefit, but I wouldn’t exaggerate it.

Who did you have in mind as your audience when making the film?

That’s always a tough question. As many people as possible. I also reckoned with the idea that there were a lot of Spitzer’s enemies who would want to see this film because it shows in detail his great embarrassment. But I think a lot supporters would want to see it as well. And frankly the Spitzer story is just a wild story that a lot of people can approach.

How’d you get interested in politics?

I really don’t know. My father was a journalist. My stepfather was a very politically engaged minister in the late ’60s early ’70s, and I think maybe all of that rubbed off on me.

You’ve also done documentaries about Enron employees and convicted ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. How do you choose your subjects?

Sometimes they choose me. In this case, this one was offered to me by people I’ve worked with before who said they could raise the money.

 When I get offered a film, usually I have to find something within it that appeals to me to see whether it is something I can do. And in this one, I did. It’s a story about mystery, and I love mysteries, but it’s also about the political economy, which I think is an underappreciated concept.

This was just a great tale. I’m interested in power, and the abuse of power, and this story had that in spades.

What other national political figures pique your interest these days?

The Koch brothers, very interesting to me. John Boehner, very interesting to me. If there was a way to do it, pharmaceutical firms — the whole notion of how we regulate them or don’t.

There’s a consistent thread: I’m interested in the abuse of power.

To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Kris Kitto at (202)628-8539 or e-mail him at kkitto@thehill.com.