In his riveting new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, director Alex Gibney (the prolific Oscar winner behind Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer) tells two stories: the thriller-like ascendency of the organization and the troubling questions it asks about government transparency, and the crumbling of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, which plays like something out of Greek tragedy — the transformation of an admirable idealist to a paranoid propagandist, injecting his own legal woes into the lofty aims of his organization, and conflating them. Gibney was unable to procure an interview with Assange; “Julian wanted money,” Gibney explains in the film, though Assange was willing to exchange his interview for information on the other people Gibney was talking to. (UPDATE: The organization has disputed this claim. Mr. Gibney notes that they’re working from an “incomplete and inaccurate transcript based on non-final version.”) The filmmaker refused, and We Steal Secrets has been under fire from Wikileaks supporters since it was unveiled at Sundance last January. I asked Gibney about that backlash, the importance of the story, and related troubling matters of transparency in the Obama administration.
Flavorwire: When and how did you first become aware of Assange and Wikileaks, and when did you decide you wanted to make this film?
Gibney: I first became aware of him through the collateral murder thing when it was posted on the website before the Afghan and Iraq war logs, and I took note of it as a kind of cool new publishing mechanism for this kind of material. I thought, “Wow, that’s interesting.” I read the piece by Raffi Khatchadourian in The New Yorker and then it really exploded, obviously, when the Afghan and Iraq war logs broke, and then the state department cables. It was after that that [producer] Marc Shmuger called me and said, “Would you be interested?” Frankly, I was busy doing some other things. I was just following it as a civilian because I was interested in it and I couldn’t resist. I said, “Yeah, sure. If you can raise the money, I will do it.” Then he went to Universal and we got the money, and off we went.
I really admire the fairness of the film — it champions what Wikileaks is about, while being deservedly critical of Assange himself, or at least the recent iteration of him. How closely does the evolution of the narrative within the film mirror how your own feelings evolved about the story?
I think it did evolve and it did change, and frankly, while we were following the story, the story changed. When we came onto it, Assange was still living in the Norfolk mansion, not yet in self-imposed exile in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, so a lot of things were yet to happen. Based on Raffi’s piece in The New Yorker and my first meeting with Assange, I liked him a lot, and I thought it was a pretty simple David and Goliath story. At the same time, it was kind of peculiar because when I came into the story, in media terms, he was becoming a kind of Goliath, he meaning Assange. He was surrounded with a number of lawyers and agents and press people that I had to wade through. It was like trying to talk to a movie star, and so that I think also was tough. I wish I’d met him when he was in Iceland.
Walk me through your communications with Assange during the production — and if you’ve had any since.
One of my executive producers, Jemima Khan, put up some of the bail money for Assange, and so that helped to plug me into his group. And so from the very start, I approached him and told him I wanted to talk to him. I think I may have put him off in the sense that most people [who] were coming to him wanted to make some kind of a deal, like, “Give me access and I’ll go raise the money to make a film about you,” and then Julian would put conditions on the access. I came to him and told him that I was making the film whether he participated or not. I didn’t put it in a crude way — I just said, “I’m doing the film now, I hope you’ll participate.”
I don’t think he liked that very much. He likes to have control. He likes to feel like he’s the puppet master, so nevertheless, I hung on and kept trying over the course of time. You know, he did agree — I have a number of emails saying, “Yeah, sure, we agree to the interview, let’s do it,” and then later on, he decided not to agree. I kept going, so I kept making the film even as I kept trying to get him to talk and [it] was very late in the game when we were close to finishing that I tried one last time and he said, “Well, let’s talk about it.” So I flew over from New York to England and went and visited him at this Norfolk estate that is owned by Vaughan Smith and we had this six-hour conversation where we explored whether or not he would do the interview.
I walked through it, but he wanted certain guarantees, like he wanted to know if he could see cuts. I said, “Look, I don’t do that. That’s not how it works. I don’t work for you.” And then he responded huffily, “Well, I don’t work for you either.” I said, “Yeah, I know, I get it!” I think he wanted a spin doctor. He wanted to be able to say or believe that he could control the message and the messenger. And while I told him that I really wanted his unvarnished views about these issues and really wanted him to dig into detail into the story… ultimately, editorial control rested with me. End of story.
Have you heard anything from him or anyone that’s still in the organization since?
Only indirectly. I mean, when Oliver Stone went to visit Julian Assange, [Stone] tweeted some negative things about the film —
Which he hadn’t seen, right?
Correct. [Here’s a fun quote from Oliver Stone on a critic of his film JFK: “He hasn’t even seen the movie, but he says my theories are half-baked?”]
Did you at all anticipate the kind of push-back you’re going to get from Wikileaks supporters and people like Stone?
Yeah, I did. I think a lot of people want to believe that Julian is a perfect hero. Well, none of us are perfect, and he’s not a perfect hero either. He did some great things, and I do understand that people seem to want that kind of perfect hero. But I didn’t understand why I should be put in a position of… if I’m an admirer of what Wikileaks had done in many ways, why I should then be an admirer of, say, what Julian Assange did in Sweden or how he conflated that with his transparency agenda? Why should I be put in that position?
Where do you think that comes from? Is any criticism inherently “wrong”?
Yes. It’s not a self-critical organization and any criticism is treated as traitorous, and in that way, I found that oddly like a politician or frankly, in many ways, the US government.