ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room


Filmmaker Q&A

Alex Gibney stands in front of a truck that reads “Shred-it”

Alex Gibney shares one of the themes that attracts him to filmmaking.

I am interested in self-deception: how human beings find ways to deceive themselves that they are, in the words of Jeff Skilling, on the “side of the angels,” when, in fact, they are working for the man with the pitchfork and the pointy tail.

Director Alex Gibney discusses music, adapting the book that inspired the film and some of the surprises and challenges that came with breaking the first (and second) rule of filmmaking.

What led you to make this film?

I read the book: The Smartest Guys in the Room by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. It convinced me that the story was not about numbers; it was about people. I knew that the Enron story contained powerful themes. But for it to be a movie, it had to contain powerful human stories as well.

How do you approach translating a story like ENRON from page to screen?

Initially, I stayed very close to the book and wrote a treatment based on it. I also talked extensively with Peter and Bethany. Then I went out into the field and started shooting. Inevitably, I learned things in the shooting that I didn’t expect so the treatment began to change. I discovered things that Peter and Bethany didn’t have access to—like the actual audiotapes of the Enron traders. As a result of those tapes (we collected close to 100 hours of them) I was motivated to make the California section for the film much larger proportionately than it was in Peter and Bethany’s book. At some point, the film assumes its own character; it must go its own way. But I would always refer back to the book for background or insight into key characters.

The film’s soundtrack communicates a lot about the characters and the unfolding drama. Did you have music in mind from the beginning, or how did that come together?

I had music in mind from the beginning. It was supposed to be a kind of toe-tapping Greek chorus, commenting on the action. It was also a way of putting a bit of myself in the movie. The music often stood for me, and my point of view.

For example, I picked Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” for the song the executive might have heard on the radio just before committing suicide. It’s the kind of song that one might hear in the early morning hours. More important, it’s all about how the rich and powerful crush the weak—but it’s sung in a beautifully haunting voice.

Sometimes, it also stood for the point of view of certain characters. For example, the music in the California section could have been very sad, considering the human and financial cost of Enron’s predatory behavior. But Alison (producer/editor) and I felt it would be better for the music to have an up-tempo, angry and slightly sarcastic feel—like frat boy music—so that it puts you in the video-game mindset of the traders. (Oingo Boingo’s “Capitalism” works perfectly for this.)

I listened to all sorts of songs when I started. I wanted a theme song for each one of the key characters.

The musicians were very kind. Tom Waits and his wife/collaborator Kathleen Brennan also suggested a song that we ended up using in the credit sequence: “God’s Away on Business.”

What were some of the greatest challenges you faced in making this film?

I broke Rule #1 of the filmmaker’s handbook: never make a film about accounting. I also broke Rule #2: never make a film if no one wants to talk to you on camera. That was the biggest challenge. Because of all the legal cases (civil and criminal), no one’s lawyers wanted their clients to talk to me. Yet, in the end, I was able to get some to talk.

Did anyone you interviewed surprise you with what they said?

Colin Whitehead, the Enron trader. He was very candid about his own behavior.

Did your opinion of any people or events in the Enron scandal change at all as a result of making the film?

I became somewhat sympathetic about some aspects of some of the people from Enron—even some of the higher-ups. I don’t think they started out running a scam; they fell into it, incrementally.

Sometimes great scenes have to hit the cutting room floor. What material was the most difficult to edit out of ENRON?

The stuff about the bankers. To me the bankers were the most reprehensible actors in this story. Yet they have been punished the least. You can read the internal e-mails from our most prestigious banks and see them saying in effect: “We know the deals we’re doing with Enron are dirty, but we’re going to do them anyway because the money is so good.” Yet no one really connects Citicorp, Merrill Lynch, CS-First Boston and many other banks with Enron.

Have you had any feedback from people featured in ENRON about the affect the scandal had on their lives, or their feelings about the film?

Yes. Most felt it was very accurate and have thanked me for it. Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay didn’t like it. Outside the courtroom, Skilling approached me and said, “Congratulations.” I don’t believe he was being sincere.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

I hope it makes people mad. I hope it encourages people to follow the Enron corporate slogan: “Ask Why.” One of the reasons that Enron succeeded is that no one (or very few) asked “why.” Always think about the California blackouts. At the time, some people suggested that it was a corporate conspiracy and they were laughed out of press conferences for being nut-jobs. In fact they were absolutely correct. Last, I hope it gets people to question the notion that the laws of the so-called “free market” are not immutable natural laws, like biological urges. Classical economic theory only works when everyone has the same number of marbles and when people have no access to political or market power. But in the real world, there’s a reason people call the system of business the “political economy.”

Over what period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude?

The film took a year, start to finish.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

I have no idea. Maybe I should have my head examined.

Are you working on a new project? If so, can you tell us about it?

I just finished a film called Taxi to the Dark Side, a documentary murder mystery that reveals the origins of America’s embrace of a policy of cruelty and systematic violations of the rule of law. I’m talking about the word that dare not be spoken: torture. But I am told that many of the images in my film would be considered “offensive” by the FCC and could not be shown on public television. How convenient for this administration: the very offensiveness of what they have done allows them to censor it “in the public interest.” It will be shown around the world. It should be on PBS.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

It’s where ENRON should be. Wouldn’t it be nice if, some day, public television could get the long-term funding it needs, insulated from political interference, so that it could live up to the original ideals of its mandate: providing an alternative to the market and doing creative, daring, innovative programming that doesn’t have to be a fund-raising tool. Hats off to Independent Lens, P.O.V. and FRONTLINE for soldiering on. But someone needs to reinvent and protect the system or it will die.

What are your three favorite films?

Once Upon a Time in the West, Out of the Past and Night and Fog. These are favorites, not a best list.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?

If I had talent, I’d be a professional tennis player, a musician or a political cartoonist. Unfortunately, I didn’t luck out, so it’s back to the cutting room…

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Work hard and embrace the contradictions around you.

Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?

Luis Bunuel, Marcel Ophuls, Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris.

If you could have one motto, what would it be?

“So we beat on boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

If it’s a motto, I would say: be curious, always ask why and embrace the contradictions of life, no matter how “politically incorrect.”

What sparks your creativity?

Financial desperation.

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