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May 20, 2020

The Filmmaker Who Cracked Open Lance Armstrong

Armstrong is still wrestling with the same big questions about cheating, forgiveness, and recovery. (Photo: ESPN/DLP Media Group)
Armstrong is still wrestling with the same big questions about cheating, forgiveness, and recovery.

The first question most people have when they hear about Lance, the new documentary series about the world’s most infamous cyclist, is: Why now? Back in 2013, we watched Armstrong give his first doping confessions to Oprah. That same year, Oscar-winning director Alex Gigney released The Armstrong Lie, a documentary that had the cyclist offering lengthy admissions of guilt and claims of sincere remorse. Since then, there’s been a number of tell-all books by seemingly anyone who had the slightest connection to the story. Armstrong himself has launched multiple apology tours. So what’s the point of reexamining the saga yet again? According to Lance director Marina Zenovich, the answer is that Armstrong—and the rest of us—are still wrestling with the same big questions about cheating, forgiveness, and recovery. And the answers keep changing. Zenovich, a veteran filmmaker who’s crafted portraits of Roman Polanski and Robin Williams, manages to get Armstrong to open up in a way we’ve never seen before. In this episode, Outside editor Christopher Keyes asks her how she pulled it off and why she was so drawn to the project. 


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Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast. 

Michael Roberts (Host): I don't know about you, but I really miss professional sports right now. I miss the entertainment. And the distraction. 

Thankfully, during this pause in actual competition, fans are being treated to a new wave of documentaries about some of the biggest figures in sports history. “The Last Dance,” a 10-epsiode series on ESPN looking back at the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty of the 1990s, garnered record ratings during its run from mid-April though this past weekend.  It was also  pretty much the only thing of substance that sports personalities have been talking about. Now, in its wake, comes LANCE, a two-part documentary on the rise and fall of the world’s most infamous bike racer. It premieres on ESPN this coming Sunday, May 24. 

In the run up to the first episode, the chatter about the series can be summarized as: Why now?

It’s a fair question. Back in 2013, we got to watch Lance Armstorng give his first doping confessions to Oprah. That same year, Oscar-winning director Alex Gigney released The Armstrong Lie, a full-length documentary that had Armstrong offering lengthy admissions of guilt and claims of sincere remorse. Since then, there’s been a steady parade of tell-all books by seemingly anyone who had the slightest connection to the story. Armstrong himself has launched multiple apology tours. So why would anyone want to reexamine the saga again? 

According to the director of the series, Marina Zenovich, the answer is that Lance—and the rest of us—are still wrestling with the same big questions. And the answers keep changing. Especially the ones that Armstong gives. Is the guy really sorry? Is he sorry enough that we should again reevaluate him as an athlete and as a human being?

Zenovich is a big deal in the documentary world, having churned out portraits of other complicated men, including Roman Polanski and Robin Williams. In LANCE, she interrogates Armstrong in a way that we’ve never seen before. If you’ve caught the trailer, you get a taste of her style–and how Armstong, who’s notoriously difficult to interview, reacts. 

(audio clip from LANCE)

Marina Zenovich: What is the worst thing that you did?

Lance Armstrong: What is the worst thing I did? Everybody in the world needs to get asked this question: what is the worst thing you’ve ever done?

(end of clip)

Roberts: Outside editor Chris Keyes, who has interviewed Armstrong himself a couple of times over the years, recently reviewed both episodes of LANCE, then spoke with Zenovich. What he was most interested in asking her is why she decided to take on this film? And how did she manage to get Lance—and so many other big figures in the world of cycling—to really open up?

Here’s Chris.

Chris Keyes: So I want to start at the beginning and I'm curious, what was ESPN pitch to you and they recruited you for this project? 

Marina Zenovich: Oh gosh. I had made a film for ESPN in 2016 about the Duke lacrosse scandal called Fantastic Lies

Keyes: Yes, I know of it cause it's my alma mater. 

Zenovich: Oh, okay. So we had been looking for something to do together and I got a call from Libby Geist saying, would you ever be interested in making a film about Lance Armstrong? And I thought, well, why? Just because there had been films done before. It was one of those, I wasn't really -- when someone asks you about doing a film, it's almost like it hits you like a ton of bricks because like you don't want to say no, you want to give it a shot, but it's like a commitment of your life and you have to really be into something. So we talked about it. She had heard Lance on the Joe Rogan show and she's like, just listen to the podcast and see if you think there's something there. And I did and I started doing my research and I thought, why not? 

I'll go meet with him and see what kind of vibe I get. And I didn't know what I was getting into, but I liked him when I met him. I was intrigued. Why don't we say that? So I thought, why not? But what intrigued me was that Lance told me that I could ask him whatever I wanted. Nothing was off limits. And as someone who has been doing this for a long time, that was really enticing. 

Keyes: And when you say no limits in terms of what you could ask him, it also seems like there was no limits on who else you could talk to -- is that right? 

Zenovich: Yeah, I mean there were a few people I would've liked to get, but we survived without them. But he let me into his world. I interviewed his fiance and a couple of his older kids. I was interested in Lance, but I was also interested in this world that is the cycling world and the cycling world in the United States and then within Europe. And so it just kept getting kind of wider in scope. It could have been longer. 

Keyes: And when you get to some of the characters that come in, did you have to work hard to convince them that this wasn't going to be a white washing? I assume that they had some real speculation on what this was going to be. 

Zenovich: Oh, everybody did. It's hard as a documentary filmmaker to come into a world that you know a little bit about and to try to prove yourself. You're kind of trying to get people to open up. You're trying to bring a level of humanity without sounding cheesy, but it's just kind of like you're trying to get everyone to speak their truth and it's not easy because people think you have an agenda or you're working in conjunction with someone. It's always a battle, but that's one of the fun parts. Trying to get people to talk. 

Keyes: When people raise these concerns, I'm sure that you had some of that concern yourself. I mean, talking specifically about Lance's motivations with that, he had to endure a lot of your tough questioning -- why did he want to put himself through that? 

Zenovich: I think on some level, Lance -- and he told me as much -- that he liked our sessions. I think he liked that I was willing to go toe to toe with him. He liked that I was probing him and trying to get answers out of him. I don't know if he liked what I put together in the end. I think he likes parts of it. But I think for someone who went through such a fall and has gone through a lot of therapy himself, with his fiance, with family therapy -- I mean I can talk about that and it just sounds kind of cheap. But the thing is when you go into therapy, what do you do? You're trying to get to your core issues about like what you've done and why, and you have to take a look at yourself. And it's not easy. It's not easy. 

And I think on some level, whether he wanted to or not, he was game. I mean, Lance is game -- some of the things I said to him, he just kinda looked at me like, did you just ask me that? And for me, as someone who's been doing this for years, it was incredibly freeing to feel like I can ask him whatever I want. I mean he wanted me to interview his therapist who I ended up speaking with a lot to really try -- she didn't want to go on camera in the end -- but to try to understand him. I mean he is incredibly complicated and I think through everything that happened, trying to figure out who he is, what he did, how to live, how to be at peace with himself. 

Keyes: And I imagine too that one of the challenges for you is there were four to five sit down interviews, you were spending time with his family... 

Zenovich: It was like an eight.

Carver: You get to a point where if you have this concern going in that he's going to try to steer the story at all, it must get difficult to be objective when you're spending that time and having that level of intimacy with him. Was it difficult when you kind of finished the project and had all the tape, in figuring out how to tell this story with him in the back of your mind?

Zenovich: It wasn't cause I'm kind of a pro. So I knew what he was trying to do and I knew what I was trying to do. Cause to me I'm pretty blunt. Right. And I think Lance appreciated that cause I think he's like that. But basically I said somewhere: he was trying to manipulate me, but I was trying to manipulate him at the same time. And it's kind of like interviewing someone at that level who is saying they're going to tell you everything -- but of course they're holding their cards back. I mean this isn't just Lance Armstrong, this happens with a lot of powerful people who have gone through things or hiding things. It's an elaborate fencing match where I'm constantly pushing him and he's giving me a little bit of what he wants, but I'm pushing harder. 

So I get back to the editing room, I'm not thinking: Oh, how can I please Lance? I'm thinking like, how am I going to make a kick ass film with someone who has the balls to kind of show as much of himself as he's willing to at this moment? And he's allowing me to push him and push him and push him as much as I physically could. So it's a dance and it's a fine line where I'm trying to show him in a way that he's never been seen before. And I think I did a pretty good job. I think I had no idea -- I mean, I knew -- but I had no idea how divisive he is and how it's just something that really... a couple of things struck me. It was fascinating to travel with him and see that people, I'm not talking about his inner circle, but people who we ran into, it's not like people are yelling at him -- can I cuss on this? (laughs)

It's not like people are yelling, Hey asshole! People are like, Lance, Lance, can I get your photo? How much of that is him? How much of that is our fascination with fame? How much of that is -- it's like person by person. But what was fascinating to me was how much people liked him when I was with him. I wasn't with him when all those people were yelling at him at that bar that the movie starts with. I mean, when I heard that story I was like, Oh my God, that's it. Like this is what this guy incites in people. But I have to say coming in as an outsider, it's like he didn't do anything to me. So I'm trying to tell the story as fairly as I can with every tool that I have to tell the story. 

Keyes: Yeah. Well I think you're fair to call yourself a pro on that respect. I just had so much admiration for the way you interviewed him. I've interviewed him a couple of times and I know -- every journalists that I've talked to -- he is a very tough interview and he has, as you've confronted many times throughout the filming, this kind of cold stare when he doesn't like what you've asked him and there several times in the film where you just sit with his really uncomfortable silence. Was that something that you kind of learned to do with them over time or that's something that you just had this built in skill going into this project? 

Zenovich:Oh, that's an old trick. Are you kidding me? The silence. Are you kidding me? (laughs)

Keyes: I know it's an old trick but I've never been able to sit with that silence. I guess that says a lot about me. 

Zenovich: People are surprised when you actually listen and people are surprised when you have the courage to just not talk and silence makes people uncomfortable and it's like people are always trying to fill the silence and those are moments to me where Lance and I were kind of just staring each other down. This is just someone who gives you a limited amount of time, has his way and doesn't want to go there. But if you find a way to kind of secretly in your own mind through charm and staring him down, get him to go there, then I felt that he was willing to go there. I mean I'd love to tell the story about how I did this interview with him. So I sat down with him eight times in different places. At first he would give me a limited amount of time and he would look at his watch and it was just like, Oh my God. 

It was this interview in an Airbnb in Austin and it was the big day that I was going to ask him about cancer. It was a big day for me because it's kind of like, how do you get someone to talk about something they've talked about a zillion times? How do you get them to kind of connect emotionally to something? Cause a lot of times people, if they've talked about it a zillion times, it's like they can't -- it's not fresh. And so I was prepping myself as you do, thinking in my head, Oh my God, okay, I'm going to bring up cancer. And I started to -- and he's like, okay, you've got 10 minutes left. And I was just like, are you fucking kidding me? I was just about to ask you about the most difficult thing in your life and you're giving me 10 minutes. 

So I'm like, pivot, Oh my God, what am I going to talk about? What am I gonna talk about? Okay. Why did you go to Germany to see Jan Ullrich? And I had no idea how he was going to respond. And that to me is like the beauty of interviewing because if someone is caught off guard, which is you're trying to get them to do that, not in a manipulative way, but it's like everybody's trying to control, you know? And he ended up kind of surprising himself and breaking down about, and that to me was like a very telling moment. It's just something that I would teach in how to interview people in the sense that you never know when you're going to get what you need and you just have to keep going. 

Carver: Well even when that appears in the film, I think the entire audience and myself included is sort of taken aback because on the surface it doesn't seem like a hard hitting question. And then all of a sudden he really loses it. I don't want to spoil that scene cause it's like four minutes that are just incredible. And I imagine that when you got that you said, okay, I've got maybe my ending here. 

Zenovich: I don't think like that, but I have to say it was such an amazing moment. And then the interview ended and I think that he was surprised himself and it was like, I said to him, what are you doing now? And my crew was starving because they hadn't had lunch. And he's like, I'm about to go out on a boat. And I was like, what? Oh my God, can we come with you? And he's like, yeah. So we went out on the boat -- that's the boat scene. And it was a great moment where he turned on the tunes and what was playing but the Eagles. And because the interview had been so tough, normally I would just say cut the music, but I was like, I needed to be on a boat listening to the Eagles after that interview. (laughs) 

Roberts: We'll be right back.

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Keyes:  I want to talk about a couple other choices in the film specifically. You had mentioned, becoming fascinated with this specific world of bike racing and you interviewed essentially all of Lance's teammates. I know there are a few left out, but the big ones, Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie and Jonathan Vaughters, and there's a great sequence in here where every time you sat down with your interview with them, you start with when did you first take performance enhancing drugs? And you kind of knocked them back on their feet. Maybe that's an old trick, but it runs counter to what you're usually told to do with an interview like get a rapport going and get them comfortable here. You just come right out of the gate with this difficult question. What was the strategy there? What were you hoping to accomplish going that route? 

Zenovich: Well, you kind of have to announce, look, I'm not from this world, but like, I'm going to go there with you so are you in this or not? And I found each person kind of open in their own way. Nut you just kind of, without being obnoxious, you kind of let people know like, look, this is serious. Like, let's get to the bottom of this. 

Keyes: And were you surprised at their candor or is this an issue that even after all these years is very difficult for them to each talk about? 

Zenovich: I don't think it's hard for them to talk about. I also want to say that it was important to me to interview people who hadn't doped. And so I searched out those people and it was interesting to hear those stories as well. To me, the sad thing is that a lot of these cyclists who doped were kind of pushed aside. Tyler Hamilton talks a lot about that in his book and I think he does a talk to young kids. It was really fascinating to see how prevalent it was and how they kind of went into it not thinking they had to do it, but that they did. But I'm not saying that everyone did it, but a lot of people were doing it. I mean Christophe Bassons, a whole movie could be made about him. He's a fascinating character who says in the film, I wasn't going to ride in the Tour de France because one knows that you couldn't ride in it if you weren't doping. And I wasn't going to dope. So again, as an outsider, it was fascinating to kind of see how prevalent performance enhancing drugs were. 

Keyes: Related to the doping thing, and I think it’s one of the things that people struggle with so much looking back on this era is sort of how to think about those tours cause as Lance pointed out and a lot of people, not just Lance, have pointed out, like if you strip him of the Tour, you go down the podium one by one, they were all confessed dopers. And I found it interesting too because I couldn't help but at least compare, at least think about it a little bit to this documentary on Michael Jordan that proceeds the debut of this which is looking back on his career. And a lot of the storytelling really deals with key strategic moments in games that demonstrate what an incredible athlete he was. 

And in this doc, you catalog kind of all of the victories, but you don't really spend much time talking about him in those individual races and some of those key moments. And I again wonder -- was that because you kind of recognize that really taking him seriously and taking his feats seriously just leave you open to this idea of like, well, none of it mattered cause he was doping? 

Zenovich: Oh God, not at all. I'd say that it's because I'm a female filmmaker who is really interested in what makes him tick. Remember The Last Dance is how many hours? Ours is three and a half. 

Keyes: I'm not comparing them, I'm just saying in terms of quality. But I do think a lot about them both as competitors and how their stories were told and I recognize they're completely different characters. But it just struck me that that was a big difference there in retelling these two kind of giants of athleticism.

Zenovich: I mean I think films are always an extension of the person who makes them. And for me, this is like a psychological portrait. Could I have done more with moments of him as an athlete? It's kind of like a different film to me. 

Keyes: Do you have any opinion on that? I mean, looking back now that you've dug so deeply into this world about how we should think about his victories looking back. 

Zenovich:I don't really think it's for me to say, but I will agree with you that it's pretty interesting to see if you take the titles from him, who is under him? And if they're kind of in the same boat as him, it's a bit of a head scratcher. But I think people would say, well, we didn't have a problem with the doping. It's more the way he behaved. So I was really trying to get him to kind of face up to kind of his ugly behavior. I don't know if I succeeded, but I tried and it's always kind of how willing is someone to go there? And it's not pleasant. 

Keyes: Well, it's also interesting how he answered some of your questions and wrestles with this stuff and wrestles with his how much remorse he has and specifically again, talking about the doping itself. You spend a lot of time with the family and some time with Luke, his son who plays football, Division 1 football at Rice. We get to see a lot of time with them together. And at one point you ask Lance, what would you do if your son came to you and was interested in trying PEDs? And let's just say, his answer was not a definitive no, never. Were you shocked by that? 

Zenovich: A little bit. I have to say you're reminding me -- my research and what people at different cyclists told me was that a lot of the PED use was even with recreational cyclists, like older recreational cyclists, which to me is just kind of like, huh? 

Keyes: I know right. (laughs) Well, if nothing else, I thought what that moment was so interesting because you can imagine if we think the worst of Lance and think that he went into this project just hoping to respin his story, that would have been an answer that any PR professional on his team would have asked him to think about differently because it's essentially saying that he doesn't feel badly about doping and hasn't really reconsidered the calculus involved. And so to me it was like that was, that was evidence that we're getting the real Lance. 

Zenovich: I think after his kind of fall on what he went through, I don't think he really sweats much of anything because I think he fell so far and I think it took a lot out of him and he's rebuilding himself. At least that's what it appears that he's doing. So it's kind of like, I don't think he really cares if he's going to piss anyone off. So that's to me, like he was speaking his truth. So, and that was, that's refreshing. 

Keyes: I think what so many people have been skeptical about are some of the apologies he's made to specific adversaries in the past. And when you talk about speaking his truth, Floyd Landis, who was the key government witness in this whistleblower case that at one point threatened his entire fortune and they eventually settled for $5 million, but there's love lost there. He's not interested in making peace with Floyd at this point. And I think he says essentially like, I'm glad I'm not Floyd walking around a piece of shit all day. 

Zenovich: Yeah, that surprised me. 

Keyes: (laughs) That did surprise you. Okay. 

Zenovich: Well, I mean, I really have to say, I don't know why he agreed to this. I don't know how he will view it in five years, but I want to say that it really captures him at a moment in time. And I could see him, I could see him changing as time went on. I met him at the beginning of 2018 and then I flew to DC when he was having a mediation with Floyd. And then I met him at various times through the months and I could see him changing, and initially I could see it, but when I came back to the editing room, like people couldn't see it. It was too subtle. But we would have these like intense tête-à-têtes and I could see him changing. So he would surprise me when that bitterness or anger would come up. But it does, it's like he was still processing. I don't know if he would say that now, I guess is what I'm trying to say. Not defending him. Just, it was a moment in time. I really wanted to be there when he had to write that check or wire that money, which I'm sure was very hard for him. But that didn't happen. But it's like, he was pissed. 

Keyes: And did you get the same sense from Floyd feeling that way about Lance? 

Zenovich: Oh no, no. Floyd is very chill, kind of has made peace with all of it. Floyd’s story to me is incredible. Growing up as a mennonite, and coming into this world and just trying to be who he was in this world and not being happy with the way he was treated. And it was like, what was fascinating to me is, like the secret that everyone knew that of course it was gonna come out at some point. The fact that people thought that it couldn't come out.. And so, the way we constructed Floyd’s story in the film, I mean it's just he's like a ticking time bomb and he couldn't keep it in anymore. 

Keyes: And we talked a little bit about that sort of penultimate scene when you ask about Ullrich and again, I don't want to spoil that cause it's just people just need to watch it for themselves, but there is sort of one thread that emerges there and throughout the doc that is kind of the fact that all of this era's superstars, and even in a lesser light teammates, were doping and some of them, many of those who have confessed have kind of been welcomed back to some degree or another into the fold. And yet Lance is still by and large an outcast. Do you feel that's fair or do you kind of buy his reasoning that he should be treated the same way? 

Zenovich: Well, I don't know if he's the only one who's an outcast. It's like my understanding is that there are a few who are, and they're not treated the same because of the doping. And I think that's really unfair. I would think of Tyler Hamilton. I think with Lance, people are gonna say it's not the doping pal. It's how you treated everyone. And, that's valid. But he started his podcast. He has a lot of fans. He still has his haters. But I mean, what are you going to do? The guy's not even 50 years old. 

Keyes: Well, that's one of the things that's so fascinating to me about this, I'm sure to you, there have been -- I mean, this was a monumental fall from grace. He went to the highest of the highest and the lowest of the lows. And it's hard to find many corollaries in history, but there are some, and you think about a Tiger Woods or even a Richard Nixon to some degree they worked their way back into some semblance of a public life. Like what is it about him that some people are ready and willing, but to a large degree, it's just very divisive. He's so toxic to others and I wrestle with why that is. Why his case -- it seems like in so many others, people want to see the celebrity fall and then they want the arc to continue and them to be embraced. And that's not a play here. 

Zenovich: Yeah. I think it's because he lied for so long and he really crossed a line with a lot of people. I liked that he explains in the film that it's like you start, you tell one lie, I can't remember how many lies it turns into -- but it's definitely a good advertisement for not lying. We're going to call it 10,000 lies at one point. But I think you have your vocal people who still have a problem with him. So the combination of him really having lied and bullied, lying and bullying others, and then those people not feeling that he gave them what they needed, that he didn't make amends with them. It's all personality and it's all how bad you've been burned and how much you're willing to let something go and there's a lot of bad blood and people don't feel that he's given enough of himself. But when you're in his world, how much does he have to give? Do you know what I'm saying? It's like we could talk about this for hours. He didn't do it to me, so I'm not an expert on it. I'm just someone documenting it. 

Keyes: You intimated before that Lance has seen the doc -- did you guys have a conversation about it? Do you know what he felt about it? 

Zenovich: I think he liked parts of it, but didn't like other parts. I think he probably liked part one. Part two's pretty hardcore which I didn't really understand because he knew that I was going to go into it, but maybe it was hard to see that even all these years later. But there's the truth. And then there's his version of his truth and other people's versions. And I think that if he loved the entire film, then I would have failed. I am thankful to him that he was willing to let us into his life and I feel like he was quite honest and open with me and I wasn't going to do anything but tell the story that I was asked to tell. 

Keyes: Yeah. Well, if nothing else, I'm guessing that you won't be hanging out on his boat much in the near future. 

Zenovich: Well, that's too bad. It's so fun. 

Keyes: Well, Marina, thank you so much for your time and like I said, I've just really enjoyed the doc and I hope that as many people watch it as possible. It's really great stuff. 

Zenovich: Oh, good. Thank you so much. 

Roberts: That was Outside editor Chris Keyes, speaking with Marina Zenovich, the director of Lance. The two part documentary premieres this Sunday, May 24 on ESPN. You can read Chris’s review of the series now at outsideonline.com

This episode was produced and edited by me, Michael Roberts, with music by Robbie Carver.

This episode was brought to you by Visit Florida, one of the country’s great adventure destinations. To learn more about all the activities to be had in the sunshine state,  both on and off the water,  go to VisitFlorida.com/Outside

We’ll be back next week.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.