The Making of “The Armstrong Lie”

What drives Lance Armstrong? Director Alex Gibney, along with producers Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach, offers an answer, and reexamines their role in promoting his story.

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Left to right: Lance Armstrong, Director Alex Gibney and Director of Photography Maryse Alberti     Photo: Elizabeth Kreutz/Sony Pictures

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As Daniel Coyle, co-author of The Secret Race, has pointed out, Lance Armstrong’s story is not new. It’s an archetypal tragedy fueled by greed and hubris.

The Armstrong Lie, the new documentary by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side) isn’t entirely new either. The narrator (Gibney himself), originally enlisted to document Armstrong’s comeback in 2009, wound up making a film about the man’s dramatic rise and fall. Gibney came to understand that Armstrong's invitation into his inner circle was a calculated move. Who better to bolster the power of his story, to help weave a more elaborate cloak over the truth, than a director with a reputation for exposing abuses of power?

The film's two producers, Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach, already called Armstrong a friend. But just as the team finished its original comeback documentary, The Road Back, a string of admissions followed by a 202-page USADA report hit the news. The filmmakers shelved their first movie. They needed just one thing to happen in order to make a new film: Armstrong to play along.

You shelved your first movie, The Road Back, after Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, and others made allegations against Lance. But then Armstrong contacted you. Talk about that moment.
FRANK MARSHALL: He asked Matt and I to come down to Austin during the Livestrong Fundraiser, Ride for the Roses, last October.

MATT TOLMACH: It was surreal. The USADA report had come out and people were bailing from the Lance train. Frank and I had long ago drunken the Kool Aid, so we were somewhere in the middle. I was a little skeptical; Frank was wanting very much to believe that there was no substance to this.

And we were in Austin. Lance said, “Come into my office, I want to talk about doping, and I want to come forward, and I want to maybe say something in the movie.” And he came clean.

We were gobsmacked. This came from the mouth of a guy who had been so vehemently denying it for so long. It was just an insane moment in life, to be in the same room with this guy as he comes clean. It was a lot to process. As filmmakers, we were incredibly excited because it meant a whole new life and angle for our movie. But as people who knew him for a long time? It was a stunning and shocking moment.

Did you ask many questions?
MARSHALL: I mostly listened because it was such a stunning revelation. We asked him if he would be prepared to talk to Alex again because there was no movie unless we had a new interview with him. He agreed, and then Matt and I got on a plane the next morning so we could meet with Alex. Then we met with Sony Classics. A new movie evolved.

Did you set up any guiding principles?
GIBNEY:
At this point, what you have to understand is that the first film was primarily a comeback film. The Road Back contained within it the idea of the road into the past, a kind of reckoning with past accusations or allegations of doping. Slowly, those failed accusations and allegations became very real.

It became a different kind of investigation, not into whether it happened, but how it happened, and how the lie obscured the reality of what had happened. And so a different kind of move had to be made.

We had on film the anatomy of a lie. It was like that moment in Blow Up when David Hemmings suddenly realizes he has something in the lens of his camera that he didn’t understand. And so now we’re going back and doing a different kind of an investigation, moving back and forth in time. Although I was kind of reluctant to put myself in the movie, we all agreed to make my own story part of the story—to really convey the emotional depth of what it's like to believe and then to have a lie revealed.

Alex, what was the biggest challenge in terms of putting yourself in the story?
GIBNEY: Well, I think the biggest challenge was being honest. I had become a fan. I had to really reckon with my own role in the story, as having been, in effect, part of the cover up.

Why do you think Armstrong gave you full access to document the comeback in the first place?
GIBNEY: I think it was hubris. I think it was a sense that he had this act wired, that he had done it before, and he was going to do it again. Everybody could watch, and they could look under the bed, and wherever they wanted, and they could talk to whomever they wanted, but he had this down. It didn’t matter if they gave us access, because we wouldn’t be able to see anything.

In the film I ask him: “Weren’t you concerned that people were going to raise questions about doping when you came back in 2009?” And he said without missing a beat, “Of course.” Not, “Yes.” So, there was an expectation that he could give us lots of access and it wouldn’t make any difference.

TOLMACH: Lance did let Alex do this. There’s part of me thinks it was 99 percent hubris. At the same time, there’s something kind of nuts about doing that with someone like Alex who emerges with the truth. Maybe he knew subconsciously that couldn’t hold on to this thing anymore, I don’t know. I’m always amazed that he did let Alex in.

Were there moments when you felt that Armstrong was trying to control your story?
GIBNEY: He is a storyteller, at least when it comes to his own story and his own myth. It’s as if he wrote the script for himself in the morning and then lived it in the afternoon.

There was one day where he lost very badly to rival Alberto Contador. We were hanging out in his hotel room filming him. And he looked me in the eye and he said, “I’m sorry. I fucked up your documentary.” I think there was an aspect of bluster to it, but I think there was something very true about it. It was as if he had written the screenplay, but it hadn’t come out the way he wanted. He had a narrative for himself that he believed in, and a lot of others believed in.

That was the thing, he had created a story that was so big, and so fantastical, and he even called it a miracle at one point. On the 2005 podium, he said, “I’m sorry for those of you who don’t believe in miracles.” When you have a guy who’s scripting miracles, he’s going to try pretty hard to control that story.

TOLMACH: There’s an amazing moment in the movie that also speaks to how strange it all was. The moment I showed up at the Tour that year, he'd had a bad day. I went up to him and said, “Hey dude, how’s it going?” He gave me a hug, and he whispered to me, “What’s going to happen with the documentary if I don’t win?” He was so acutely aware that we were telling a story about him. And so he was trying to be the storyteller and the main character. 

GIBNEY: This guy had come to realize that the enormity of his story was so powerful, so financially and emotionally beneficial—both to him and to many others. I think he felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to keep delivering that lie, over and over again. 

Where did his ability to craft a story come from?
TOLMACH: 
I think that’s what’s the movie about. He was this angry, fatherless kid who came out on a tear, and then suffered an enormous blow [cancer] and came back to the sport in spectacular fashion. And there’s a whole sequence about the power of that revelation to him and everybody else. That’s where it all began. And I think the movie kind of examines why he was so ripe for playing the lead in this story about the creation of a myth.

GIBNEY: Just like he learned to do everything on the bike, he learned how to be a great storyteller because he understood that he was at the center of an extraordinarily powerful story. He learned on the job. I don’t think it was innate. I think as Matt says, it was nature, not nurture.

What’s the ultimate motivation driving that?
GIBNEY: I think it just evolved. I think at some point, he understood that the story was enormously profitable, and not just for him. It was profitable for the sponsors, and the sport. And frankly, it was also very powerful to millions of cancer survivors all over the world. We say in the film, it’s not a story about doping, it’s a story about power. 

Did power motivate him more than money?
GIBNEY: I’m not sure. I think he sees the world in very binary terms. You either win—and if you win, you win all out. Or you lose. That’s it. Win or lose. End of story.

Why were there no interviews with his mom, or his ex-wife, or anyone from his family?
GIBNEY: I tried to keep it to the team, to keep it professional. It really became an investigation about his professional life, and not his personal life.

There's a moment in the film when Armstrong, Bruyneel, and Stapleton are talking about the possibility of Armstrong not being invited to compete in the 2009 Tour. What did you think about that moment after you learned that Lance had been doping?
GIBNEY: That’s just an unbelievable scene in retrospect, but at the time it was just part of the constant bravado and clamor about doping accusations. You know: How dare they? Which was a constant refrain. But they all knew he was doping. Johann doesn’t say, “He didn’t dope.” He says, “He wasn’t busted. He wasn’t busted.”

GIBNEY: And so it has a whole different subtext.

Can you summarize your relationship to Armstrong? How much did you correspond before the making of this movie?
MARSHALL: I met Lance before the Sydney Olympics in 2000 through his agent Bill Stapleton; we were both on the Olympic committee. Bill came to me when Lance wrote his book, after the Olympics, and said, “We think this could be a movie." 

TOLMACH: And we spent a lot of time with him. We went to every Tour. We rode with him. Lance and I would go out and just hammer the hills, and Frank would be in the car behind us taking pictures. We spent a lot of time with him developing a narrative, so we knew him very well.

Matt and Frank,  how important was it to have Gibney as the director? 
MARSHALL: We selected him to do the first version of this film because as a producer, I like to go with the best. He’s a fantastic documentarian, he’s won an Academy Award, he’s done great documentaries, and he's also a big sports fan. But when we met with him, he admitted he didn’t know anything about cycling, which was actually great because we wanted the film to reach a broader audience.

He was also really fascinated by Lance’s will. Really, he was interested in why Lance was making a comeback. I was interested in that too, and so it made sense to have him as our guy. 

TOLMACH: I think the most important thing to understand is that Frank and I were insiders in the world of Lance. Even in the previous version of the movie we really wanted to get under the skin of this guy and try to understand him. We needed someone who approached his subjects more forensically and analytically then we would. Alex is the best in the world in that.

Alex’s first cut of the movie was brilliant, and was quite biting in its own way. But once everything became clear a year ago, the journalist in him just lit up. He can find sources that no one else can find and weave a narrative that breaks through a very complicated story. It all ended up being really perfect casting.

Was there ever a moment when you butted heads with Alex?
TOLMACH: Absolutely. There was one evening when we were in the cutting room in Columbia Pictures and we were, in the most productive way, having a very heated debate about some of the stuff Alex was putting in about doping.

MARSHALL: It was about balance.

TOLMACH: At that point we tended to be the counterbalance to anything that had to do with doping. Long before all of this stuff came out, Alex was hot on the trail on all kinds of noise and allegations that were already out there. He had already interviewed Frankie Andreu and Michele Ferrari and people who nobody was talking to back then. 

MARSHALL: We thought, in some instances, the allegations were not relevant to the story we were telling—the incredible story that happened on the mountain in the battle between Contador and Lance. We wanted to err on the side of the exciting race, and also have sort of the smoke that was swirling around. Again, it was about balance.

What was the lesson in making this movie?
TOLMACH: I found the process to be so eye opening, and oddly, the idea that the truth is a ever-moving target is actually a gift when you’re making a documentary. You’re given a story that is ever changing. When you make a documentary, you’re very nimble, you’re not locked into a strip, you can roll with events as they happen. It certainly forced me to take a broader view of things, things that you believe in and things that you are not necessarily willing to question because it might be uncomfortable to go against the grain. I think Alex showed us the importance of always looking for the whole truth, and keeping our eyes wide open at all times and not getting lost in the narrative. It's been an amazing ride.

MARSHALL: I agree. Unfortunately, the desire to win at all costs has been woven into our culture. I look at things a little more carefully. I’m glad we hung in there to discover the real truth. I mean, Lance was a hero to me. I’m a bit more cynical now. I was probably naïve, probably too idealistic. But winning at all costs is not a good ethic to have; it causes a lot of damage.

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