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Influencers Transcript: Alex Gibney, May 16, 2019

ANDY SERWER: Some people break the rules to get to the top. Alex Gibney has made his name exposing them. A renowned filmmaker, gives latest is "The Inventor, Out For Blood In Silicon Valley," which tells the story of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.

His big break didn't come until he was 52 years old, in 2005, with an Oscar-nominated documentary on the fall of Enron. He won an Academy Award a couple of years later, and hasn't looked back. Gibney is here to talk about how he kept faith in his work over the decades, and why corruption is a defining story of our times.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer where I want to welcome our guest Alex Gibney, the Academy Award and Oscar award winning documentary filmmaker, whose newest HBO film is "The Inventor, Out For Blood in Silicon Valley," which is about Elizabeth Holmes the now disgraced former CEO of Theranos. Alex, great to see you.

ALEX GIBNEY: Andy, great to be here.

ANDY SERWER: So tell us about how you decided to make this film about Elizabeth Holmes.

ALEX GIBNEY: Interestingly, it was suggested to me by two fairly powerful executives, Richard Kepler at HBO, and Graydon Carter, both of whom had been big admirers of Elizabeth Holmes. And I think Richard initially wanted to do a kind of follow doc to show her greatness. But then the worm turned, and not too long after, the "Wall Street Journal" pieces came out. Richard said why don't you take it on? I said, it sounds like a good story.

ANDY SERWER: So she's obviously a fascinating character. What do you think it is about her that resonates so much with us?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, that's a really good question. I mean, I think we're fascinated by fraud. And I think we're also fascinated by fraud when it comes in a package that seems to be so noble and compelling. And Elizabeth was that. I mean, she presented herself as this very young dropout, 20 years old, she starts her company.

And she's brilliant, and she makes something of herself. And now she's a billionaire, and she's the next Steve Jobs. All that seems so compelling. But the idea that that was all somehow a fraud I think is fascinating to people. And the question is, did she know she was perpetuating a fraud, or was there something more mysterious going on?

ANDY SERWER: I mean, that's kind of a central question. And people debated that when I was leaving the screening. In other words, did she believe her own lies, or was she knowingly telling, not telling the truth? What do you think?

ALEX GIBNEY: I think she is afflicted with what the police call noble cause corruption, meaning simply put, it's like the end justifies the means. She had a mission, and she thought it was a noble mission, this blood testing device that was going to democratize blood testing. And I think she also had a vision of herself, and what role she was going to play.

She was so invested in that that she thought along the way, if things go wrong, it's OK if I fudge here, fudge there. Because after all, my mission is so important. But over time, the distance between the mission and reality grew, and grew, and grew, until it was outright fraud. So I think it's one of those things where if you believe you're lying for a good cause, you can do it very effectively.

ANDY SERWER: I mean, some people have said, for instance, maybe this is taking things farther than I should, but hear me out, that President Trump tells lies. Doesn't know he's lying, my father was born in Germany. Is there a similarity there?

ALEX GIBNEY: I think there is a similarity, though I think Trump is really off the scale, because you know, he-- it's almost hard to call what he does lies, because he'll say whatever is beneficial to him at that moment, and I don't think he really cares whether it's a lie or it's truth.

I think Elizabeth Holmes, if you really confronted her and said, is this machine working, you know, if you got her someplace away in a private place, she would probably say no, it's really not. But in public, she would maintain it was. And she'd probably concoct elaborate rationalizations in her mind about how it was working, even though she damn well knew it wasn't.

ANDY SERWER: You compared it to Thomas Edison in the film. How's that?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, we called Thomas Edison, this is not original to me. There was a guy named Randall Stross who wrote a wonderful book called "The wizard of Menlo Park." But he was the original fake it till you make it guy. Now he was different than Elizabeth Holmes in that he ultimately did make it. He was an inventor who got it right.

But a lot of what he invented, meaning made up, was his own place in the world, his own sense of celebrity. And you know, the all powerful nature of that. And along the way, when he was having trouble with the incandescent light bulb, he didn't let anybody in on that. He faked demonstrations.

He bought journalists off with stock in his company. You know, he lied. And in that, he was not so dissimilar from other famous people in Silicon Valley like Steve Jobs, who was a notorious liar, but also a great storyteller. So she is in that tradition, and that's what makes Elizabeth Holmes interesting.

She's not sui generis, she's part of a tradition of fake it till you make it, which to some extent, is celebrated in Silicon Valley. But not so much when it comes to medical devices that can actually affect the health of people.

ANDY SERWER: And ultimately, you do have to make it.

ALEX GIBNEY: Yes, you do.

ANDY SERWER: There's that part of the equation as well.

ALEX GIBNEY: It actually has to work.

ANDY SERWER: You had some incredible footage of Elizabeth Holmes in the film. How did you get that? Was that your own, or did you find that somewhere?

ALEX GIBNEY: So we went to her right off the bat, and my producer sat down with her for five hours off the record. But you know, she never agreed to talk. She kept saying when we're back on top, then you can come visit us. Well, she never got back on top.

So we were faced with a problem, which was how do you show the fraud from the inside out? And it was difficult for a long time. But then we got a break. Very late in the game we got somebody who had been at Theranos, who leaked us over 100 hours of footage from inside the company.

So that's how we got a lot of that footage. The other thing that was an impediment to us was that many people were unwilling to talk to us because they were so terrified of Theranos' lawyer, David Boies, who achieved a lot of notoriety in his rather ruthless defense of Harvey Weinstein.

ANDY SERWER: Right. How did you overcome that?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well over time, you know, as the company got weaker, people got braver. And also, you know, like as you know very well, over time you convince people to trust you. And that's ultimate we did. The other person who was very helpful to us was John Carreyrou.

John Carreyrou, the "Wall Street Journal" reporter who really broke the fraud story, had developed a tremendous loyalty with some of his sources. And once he came on board, and saw what we were doing, and appreciated it, he gave a nod to some of that folks to talk to us.

ANDY SERWER: There are a number of other film projects, Alex, about Elizabeth Holmes. Is that, as a filmmaker, is that a good thing, a bad thing? How do you look at all these?

ALEX GIBNEY: It's a little bit of both. I mean, look it's fair game. Anybody can go after a story, as you know. But in some cases, people piggyback off of stuff you do, and it can't help it irk you. That said, I think all the attention was ultimately good, because it created this kind of cultural moment of interest in Elizabeth Holmes, and this story, which I do find fascinating.

And I'm not sure I entirely understand. There is a thing now, you can go on Twitter hashtag Theranos Thursdays, and people dress up like Elizabeth Holmes.

ANDY SERWER: Get out of here, really?

ALEX GIBNEY: Yeah, check it out.

ANDY SERWER: I mean, she is some sort of cultural icon, or a negative cultural icon. I mean, there is a Hollywood film. I think maybe even two of them.

ALEX GIBNEY: Well no, Hollywood--

ANDY SERWER: There's a one with Jennifer Lawrence.

ALEX GIBNEY: A whole new series, which was just announced, and then there's the Adam McKay film, starring Jennifer Lawrence. Which there's a script, I guess, has either been completed, or is about to be completed by Valerie Taylor. So that seems to be moving forward. And then there was a podcast, and I guess the Hulu series is based on that.

ANDY SERWER: And Elizabeth Holmes is out there she has a boyfriend. Someone remarked that maybe the boyfriend doesn't get HBO.

[LAUGHTER]

Are you aware of that?

ALEX GIBNEY: I am, I mean, I don't-- I know only what I've read. But yes, she's got a boyfriend. She traded the much older boyfriend, Sunny Balwani, who was her COO, for the much younger boyfriend, who was apparently involved in a smart car startup.

ANDY SERWER: Of course. What do you think is going to happen to her?

ALEX GIBNEY: I think ultimately she'll be indicted. I mean, sorry. She has been indicted. I think ultimately she'll be convicted, is what I meant to say.

ANDY SERWER: And where does that stand?

ALEX GIBNEY: So we're waiting for a trial date is where it stands at the moment. And both she and Sunny Balwani have been indicted by the federal government. And if convicted, they could each see about 20 years in jail.

ANDY SERWER: So news organizations, maybe even like this one, Yahoo Finance, and where I worked previously, at "Fortune" magazine sometimes lionize these CEOs in Silicon Valley. Do you think that this new sort of thinking from say, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are throwing cold water on the notion of the superstar CEO?

ALEX GIBNEY: I hope so. Honestly, I think the whole idea of the superstar CEO has gotten way too much attention. And you can see it on the pay scales, too. It's just so outsized. Nobody deserves that kind of disparity of income. Nobody is that good, in my view.

And furthermore, what you often see, and I say this you know on the heels of an indictment of Martin Winterkorn, the former CEO of Volkswagen, when corruption, or scandal, or fraud comes a calling, suddenly the CEO is like, I didn't know anything about it. And you think, well, what are you getting all that money for, then?

ANDY SERWER: No shortage of possible subjects for you. Speaking of that, so how do you decide what to make films about?

ALEX GIBNEY: That's a good question, and it's usually a combination of projects that are brought to me, and ones that I find. But the ones that interest me are not just ones that are about important themes, but ones which are great stories. I mean, if you're in the storytelling business, and that's the business I'm in, you look for great stories. And Elizabeth homes and Theranos was a great story.

ANDY SERWER: What do you think your body of work says about you, Alex? I mean, look at you. Enron, Wikileaks, Scientology, Lance Armstrong. What does that say?

ALEX GIBNEY: I mean, I'm interested in fraud and abuses of power. And also, fortunately for me, there's no shortage of sociopathic narcissists who are at the center of these stories. So you know, I think that I really am interested in fraud and abuses of power, because it's such a betrayal of trust.

And that idea of trust is important, particularly in business, because it has more to do with how business works than we think. We like to think that, you know, business is about a very sort of rational equation of risk and reward. But really, it's about belief.

You know, as I say in the film I think credit is derived the Latin word credo, which means I believe. So it's really, you know, business is about trust. And if you betray someone's trust, what could be worse than that?

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, I mean you have done a lot of business stories like Enron, Elizabeth Holmes, and Steve Jobs. So you mentioned Steve Jobs. What was it about him, in particular? I mean he's very complicated, in that he was someone who did not always tell the truth, but wildly successful, and obviously had a huge impact on our lives and society.

ALEX GIBNEY: So I think the most interesting thing about Steve Jobs, and something he shares with Elizabeth Holmes, is that he was a storyteller. That, I think, was his great talent. He could tell the story of Apple in a way that was compelling for people. 1,000 songs in your pocket. You know, that was really his. Because he wasn't an inventor, I mean, in the mechanical sense of the word.

He was an inventor and in the way he kind of made up stories that people liked to consume. But I think the other valuable thing about Steve Jobs, and what he got right, and what Elizabeth Holmes got wrong, is he learned from mistakes ultimately. And Apple 2.0, the Apple that that gave us the iPhone, and the iPad, and all of that, really came out of a number of terrible mistakes.

You know, him getting tossed out of Apple initially. The next debacle, and then he surrounded himself with a core group of people who are not afraid to tell him no to his face. And he was, by that point, able to take criticism, and to correct mistakes that he had made.

So I think Steve Jobs learned over time that he wasn't perfect, and he wasn't all powerful. And that he needed to surround himself with a core group of people who really knew what they were doing. He would take care of telling the story.

ANDY SERWER: And Enron, where he worked with Bethany McLean, and Peter Elkind, "The Smartest Guys In The Room." That was kind of a watershed moment for you, because it sort of took you to the next level in your career.

ALEX GIBNEY: It did.

ANDY SERWER: And Jeff Skilling just let out of jail recently. What are your thoughts there?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well look, Jeff Skilling got a long sentence, 24 years. Now ultimately, it was reduced somewhat on appeal. But that's a big sentence. So Skilling paid a pretty heavy price, and it was a big fraud. So, justifiably so. So it was one of those rare cases where a key executive is actually punished.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, no one from the financial crisis of 2008-2009 thrown in jail.

ALEX GIBNEY: Correct.

ANDY SERWER: Surprise you?

ALEX GIBNEY: Yeah, shocks me. And I think it's outrageous because we know how much bad stuff went on, and at what cost? I mean, we throw kids in jail for stealing TV sets, and they can go down for 5, 10 years. And people who lose billions, or maybe trillions of value, somehow they're above the law? It seems crazy to me.

ANDY SERWER: Did Madoff ever attract you?

ALEX GIBNEY: Madoff actually didn't attract me, and here's why. I'm interested in these people that are afflicted as I say with this noble cause corruption, which makes them more like us. That is to say, they make a kind of gamble, they have a vision of what they want to accomplish. But they let their vision corrupt them, right? And Madoff, I thought, was always running a scam.

ANDY SERWER: Right, just a crook.

ALEX GIBNEY: Just a crook. So that didn't interest me as much as these characters. Because I think even Skilling, you know, Skilling in a way, was a true believer in the Enron mission. But where he took it into fraud was, it's like he couldn't stand the idea that Enron would fail.

So he kept coming up, or allowing for these special purpose entities that would hide all the debt, and imagine that some way, somehow in the future, you know, it would be the bottom of the ninth, and they'd be down by 500 runs, but they could still come back and win the game.

ANDY SERWER: All right. Let's get into your head a little bit, Alex. I mean, you're an--

ALEX GIBNEY: Dangerous.

ANDY SERWER: Right. You're an anti-authoritariant, it seems. And yet you grew up very much within the establishment. Went to prep school, went to Yale, your parents were establishment people, in a sense.

ALEX GIBNEY: Since my dad was a journalist, which makes him not quite establishment.

ANDY SERWER: Right. So where did all this come from?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, I think, you know, my mom was a very much of a fear free spirit. My dad was a journalist at "Time," "Life," "Newsweek." But he had a very bad career plan, which was most people to advance, suck up and kicked down.

My dad kicked down, sorry. Most people, when they're planning a career, suck up and kick down. My dad sucked down and kicked up, which got him fired from a lot of very important journalistic organizations. So he was, in his own way, had problems with authority. And my stepfather was William Sloane Coffin, Junior, was very much of a civil rights activist, ant-Vietnam War activist.

Anti-nuclear activist, and somebody who looked at flaws in the world and tried to correct them, tried to make the world a better place. So I think from those folks, I got a sense of you know, looking at abuses of power. And if I could, trying to make the world a better place.

ANDY SERWER: And working within the system, generally speaking.

ALEX GIBNEY: Generally speaking.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah. Interesting. So Wikileaks, what is your reaction to the news of Ecuador retracting Julian Assange's asylum, and the US indictment?

ALEX GIBNEY: OK. So in a way, that is very complicated for me. You know, I made a film about Assange. It's not surprising, really, that he got thrown out of the Ecuadorian embassy. Because he was-- he was maybe the worst possible guest. And when you start attacking your host, and also using the Ecuadorian embassy to launch attacks on other countries, it becomes a problem.

So it's not surprising he got tossed. I am concerned about the US indictment because well, it's on the surface, focused on hacking. It's the conspiracy that underlies that indictment has a lot to do with journalism as it's normally practiced.

So I think an extradition in this context poses some real risks for free speech. If it were up to me, and I were king of the world, he would be extradited to Sweden to face those rape charges that he avoided by going into the Ecuadorian embassy. That's the issue that kind of gets lost in the talk about Julian Assange.

ANDY SERWER: Did the Wikileaks people attack your film?

ALEX GIBNEY: They did, they sure did. They issued a long-- I can't remember what it's called now. But a hugely long document. Initially, they neglected to put a lot of important information in there, because they only had an audiotape, not the videotape. And didn't include all the chats of Chelsea Manning, which left out most of the film.

ANDY SERWER: So are Wikileaks and Julian Assange, good guys, bad guys?

ALEX GIBNEY: It's complicated. And I'm kind of in the business of not doing that thumbs up, thumbs down, good guy, bad guy routine. I think some of what Julian Assange originally did, in terms of publishing classified documents, which had important public value, and also that video that he posted, called collateral murder. Those were hugely important.

Now mind you, he did a lot of that in ways that put people at risk. He didn't properly redact, and that would become a problem over time. But also, a lot of his bad personal behavior, he tried to hide by masking himself in the man, or wrapping himself in the mantle of free speech and transparency.

Like, the sexual problems in Sweden, for example. And then later on, would use a platform like Wikileaks as a means for settling private scores, add animus toward Hillary Clinton. So I think he's a terrible avatar for the transparency movement. But what he initially did, in terms of a transnational publishing platform for documents, was terribly important.

ANDY SERWER: So documentaries, Alex, seem to be much more important these days. I mean, there's your work, Michael Moore, Errol Morris, all of you guys have been working for decades, by the way. But now you've all sort of come to the fore. Why is that?

ALEX GIBNEY: Good question I think, in part, weirdly I think some of it has to do with reality television. Over time, people got used to the idea that you could watch people who weren't actors, and be engaged. But I also think that documentary storytelling got a lot better in the last 15 years. And Errol Morris would be a you a key character who helped advance the form, with his movie "Thin Blue Line."

You know, documentary storytelling has gotten much better. And documentary stories, being real stories, can sometimes be stranger, and more entertaining, and engaging, than fiction.

ANDY SERWER: And these are opinionated works for the most part.

ALEX GIBNEY: Yes, they're authored works. I like to think of movies is like nonfiction books. You can hear the voice of the author.

ANDY SERWER: And you narrate yours.

ALEX GIBNEY: I do. I narrate mine, and I try to do so in kind of a first person way, not overly intrusive. But it's not the voice of God, like those old NBC white papers. It's the voice of Alex, which is somewhat lesser.

ANDY SERWER: Or not David McCullough.

ALEX GIBNEY: Right, correct.

ANDY SERWER: Which is that, I mean, what Ken Burns is doing, these are different from what Ken was doing.

ALEX GIBNEY: That's right. I mean, I think Ken's vision of how he presents the world is a kind of, you know, they're authored. But the presentation feels like this is the master narrative.

ANDY SERWER: Right, right. So much content out there today. I mean, you hear a lot about peak content. We want to talk to you about HBO and Netflix, too, a little bit. What is your take on this right now?

ALEX GIBNEY: I mean, at the moment, for a documentary producer-director, it's great. Because suddenly, instead of that world where you had to seek the lowest common denominator, because you were seeking advertisers, you were renting viewers to advertisers, now people are purchasing content. They're going to channels or streaming services to buy content. So you're selling that content directly, which is a much better model than renting viewers to advertisers.

ANDY SERWER: You mentioned Richard Plepler, and he was actually-- the news that he was leaving HBO actually broke the night of your premiere.

ALEX GIBNEY: I broke it.

ANDY SERWER: And you broke it. And I was there, and everyone was shocked, and he wasn't there. Are you concerned about him leaving, and other executives leaving, in terms of the direction of HBO?

ALEX GIBNEY: Look, Richard was a great executive and presided over tremendous outburst of creativity at HBO. So of course, when somebody like that leaves, you are concerned. As for the future, you know, it's hard to say. AT&T has made it known it wants to be on more platforms, and so forth and so on. You know, my only concern is will the executives at the top, at HBO, and Netflix, or anywhere, care more about the quality of the content than the proverbial bottom line?

ANDY SERWER: Is Netflix a good thing?

ALEX GIBNEY: I think Netflix has been a good thing. There are problems with Netflix, too. But you know, Netflix-- one of the interesting things about Netflix, provided it doesn't go too far, is that they perceived audiences not as a mass audience, but as communities of interest.

And so they could make money by focus, you know, focusing on a smaller number of eyeballs. But that those people would look at those things faithfully, like food programming. Or let's say, you know, we have a series called "Dirty Money," on Netflix. And it's all about corporate crime.

Well people, you know, that's exploded for Netflix. Because it turns out they're are-- with the power of massive, you know, international, multinational global corporations, people are very concerned as to what they're doing.

ANDY SERWER: Speaking of big companies, what is your take on Facebook, and Google, and Twitter, the social media platforms, and their impact on society.

ALEX GIBNEY: So, I'm hugely concerned. I think Facebook in particular, but also Twitter. You know, they exacerbate vitriol in a way that Fox News, you know, could only dream of. And Fox News is really awful at that. I mean, they're good at it, but I mean in a really awful way, in terms of monetizing vitriol.

And it seems to me that what a lot of the model now of Facebook and Twitter is all about, is communities of vitriol. I mean that's really scary for me. I think the other thing that is really concerning is what Facebook and Google, by aggregating all of this advertising revenue, have done to eviscerate journalism.

That is really concerning. And also, they're taking our personal data. Well, at what point do we get compensated for all the personal data that Google and Facebook are selling, right?

ANDY SERWER: Right. What about President Trump's war on the media and fake news. How does that impact what you do?

ALEX GIBNEY: It puts a bit of steel up my spine and makes me feel that what I do is really important. You know, fascist leaders, and I use that term advisedly tend to want to create a narrative that all news is false, except for the news that they proclaim. And I think Trump is in that tradition. He's trying to discredit all forms of news so that the only thing that people will listen to is the stuff that comes from his bully pulpit.

ANDY SERWER: You are branching out into scripted series, other kinds of works. Your company is growing. What are you up to? What's on the drawing board, and how do you decide where to move the company?

ALEX GIBNEY: I mean, look. One of the things about my company that's been really interesting and fantastic for me is that we become a vehicle for a lot of very talented young people who are getting to make movies, and doing it their way. Not our way, we don't have a house style.

So being a kind of incubator for talent has been a tremendous thing for me. It's great to see people much smarter, more talented than I kind of take off. But I think, you know, in this world where there are a tremendous number of valuable stories that are real life, nonfiction stories, there's the documentary form.

There's maybe short form we're getting interested in, podcasts, and also scripted. But mostly from our standpoint, nonfiction stories. Like "The Looming Tower" was one we produced, based on the non-fiction book by Lawrence Wright.

ANDY SERWER: But you did an episode of "Billions."

ALEX GIBNEY: I did I directed an episode of "Billions." That was kind of a warm up for me. It was fun doing "Billions." Those actors are just a dream to work with.

ANDY SERWER: You have a scripted series or film in the works with HBO?

ALEX GIBNEY: We are developing one with HBO, and also another one with another company. So we're out there. And things seem to be working.

ANDY SERWER: And you're seeding younger people to work as part of your company, is that how it works?

ALEX GIBNEY: Very much so. I mean, but like I say in a way that lets them kind of follow their path rather than say, than create a house style.

ANDY SERWER: As I mentioned, your career is sort of taken many decades to sort of get this level of traction.

ALEX GIBNEY: My wife would agree, it's like what took you so long?

ANDY SERWER: What is it that kept you going?

ALEX GIBNEY: Fear. And I kind of ramped it up once I had kids. I suddenly looked around and I thought, wow. I'm really going to have to put some food on the table. But I believed that if I worked hard enough, I could get someplace good.

And then I got a break, what is-- what is that, that old sports aphorism, luck is where opportunity meets the prepared mind? So I had an opportunity, and that was the Enron film, actually. And I delivered on it.

ANDY SERWER: And finally, Alex, this program is about influencers. So my question to you is, how do you intend to use, or are you using your influence on the world at this point?

ALEX GIBNEY: We've done a lot of work on rooting out stories of fraud and malfeasance. I'm trying to turn in a direction of celebrating people who are doing good. And that, I guess, would be my focus in the future. I mean, even in a story like Theranos, I like to tell people well, Elizabeth Holmes is the main character. There are a lot of subsidiary characters in that film who were hugely admirable.

The whistleblowers, Phyllis Gardner from Stanford, who saw through the fraud early, and is an exemplary figure. So we're now focusing a little bit more on stories that celebrate people doing good. That said, we haven't given up our day job, in terms of going after people who do bad.

ANDY SERWER: Don't give up that day job. Alex Gibney, award-winning filmmaker, thank you so much for coming by.

ALEX GIBNEY: Thanks Andy.

ANDY SERWER: You've been watching "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you next time.