On a late afternoon in mid-March in New York City, I had the pleasure to sit down with filmmakers Alison Klayman and Marie Therese Guirgis to discuss their powerful and must-see documentary The Brink. Their mutual respect for each other and their passion about their film made for an inspiring interview.
ABOUT THE BRINK
The Brink follows Steve Bannon through the 2018 mid-term elections in the United States, shedding light on his efforts to mobilize and unify far-right parties in order to win seats in the May 2019 European Parliamentary elections. To maintain his power and influence, the former Goldman Sachs banker and media investor reinvents himself — as he has many times before — this time as the self-appointed leader of a global populist movement. Keen manipulator of the press and gifted self-promoter, Bannon continues to draw headlines and protests wherever he goes, feeding the powerful myth on which his survival relies.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
ALISON KLAYMAN– Director/Producer
Alison Klayman's directorial debut, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, about the Chinese artist and activist premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival where it was awarded a US Documentary Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance. The film was released theatrically around the globe and shortlisted for the Academy Award. Her other films include The 100 Years Show (theatrical run at Film Forum) about Cuban-American artist Carmen Herrera, the Netflix Original, Take Your Pills (SXSW 2018), and the upcoming short, Flower Punk, about Japanese artist Azuma Makoto. She also executive produced the award-winning documentaries Hooligan Sparrow and On Her Shoulders.
MARIE THERESE GUIRGIS– Producer
Film producer and executive Guirgis has worked in both fiction and documentary film. Recent documentary credits include On Her Shoulders by Alexandria Bombach, and Author: The J.T.Leroy Story by Jeff Feuerzeig. Guirgis produced the fiction films Keep The Lights On by Ira Sachs and The Loneliest Planet by Julia Loktev. Guirgis launched and ran the documentary division of RatPac Entertainment, where she oversaw the development and production of numerous feature documentaries and documentary series. Prior to moving into production, Guirgis worked in arthouse film distribution, releasing films by renowned directors such as Jacques Audiard, Steve James, Paolo Sorrentino, Claire Denis, and Jafar Panahi, among many others.
The Brink is an important contribution not only to documentary film, but also to the discussion of the current international political moment and movements. Klayman began filming in October 2017, one month after she first met Bannon in Washington, D.C., and was embedded with him for one year, through the midterm elections.
We began our discussion talking about their collaboration process.
GUIRGIS: In many ways the idea for the film is very personal. I was close to Steve Bannon at one point, and I had strong feelings about the direction he had gone in. I hadn't been in touch with him when he joined with Trump. It was painful for me. It was personal. One of my motivations was the travel ban; it felt like a personal betrayal.
It was hard for me to trust someone with a subject so personal to me. As soon as Alison started filming, I knew it had to be her film, her vision, and her experience of Bannon. I trusted Alison; I trusted her as a filmmaker and person, and I knew she would respect the subject matter. Alison had final cut on the film.
We had a lot of logistical and practical hardships; it felt like the act of making the film was like a feminist act of resistance.
KLAYMAN: We had to trust each other a lot.
KOUGUELL: Alison, you were a one-person crew.
GIURGIS: It took Alison guts and courage making the film for a year.
KLAYMAN: Marie Therese came to local shoots, to see Steve fairly regularly when there were bigger asks.
GIURGIS: The film couldn't have been made if Alison wasn't alone. Alison had to develop a relationship with Bannon. She needed to learn about him through her own interactions.
KLAYMAN: I hundred percent knew that. Marie Therese deserves credit, she was brave and smart not to pull my strings. From my perspective, to let me, as a director, figure that out; the investigation of the story and who Bannon is. All the places she gave me space were the right things to do. That was lucky for me.
GUIRGIS: We did talk about the fact that we wanted the film to be fair, it’s easy to make a film about polemics.
KLAYMAN: We did not want this film to be a tool of persuasion; to make something fair is harder to dismiss. We both entered the film without our own worldview; it’s not about going in to a film to have that confirmation. I wanted something to be revealed to me, but I didn't have my worldview shook by this, I didn’t think Bannon was offering anything particularly seductive to me. I went in never underestimating him.
GIURGIS: I was obsessed by the notion of fairness. We are living in a moment of junk media and easy media. The fact is, most people are not one-dimensional: What if they do evil stuff and can be charming? I didn't want Bannon to say that there was a cheap trick or manipulation in this film. One of the critics said that he hung himself while members of his team said that it is him.
KOUGUELL: Has Bannon seen the film?
GIURGIS: We showed it to him before Sundance. He was quiet about it.
KLAYMAN: It’s not the movie he would make or expected, I feel sure about that.
When Weiwei saw the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry that I directed about him, his respect and appreciation for the film grew as it was taken in by audiences.
GIURGIS: Bannon knew we didn’t share his beliefs and that the film was going to be critical. Transparency was important to me. He probably expected it to be critical.
KLAYMAN: The least important audience member is Bannon, and that was something that I had to come to realize because he’s such a good manipulator and talks about it; it’s a thing you have to face. I felt that responsibility to ensure I wasn't his tool. The film wasn’t about making it to piss him off. It’s a distillation of my time with him. I tried to push for balance, looking for the banal moments as much as the bigger (geopolitical) moments. The film is bigger than just him.
KOUGUELL: Indeed. The film offers unprecedented insights into Bannon’s connections to many world leaders, as well as his savvy knowledge and implementation of media manipulation.
KLAYMAN: There was a level of responsibility—I asked myself what is the value of this movie and why does it need to exist?
KOUGUELL: Overall, you had unprecedented access to Bannon and other government and political leaders outside the United States.
KLAYMAN: There were a lot of times I wanted to be in the room that I was denied. I think any documentary is not full access. I think the movie does show privileged moments.
KLAYMAN: I came into the edit with the most intention that I ever had and with my two editors and brilliant assistant editor; it helped us work smart, not just fast but smart. Once the midterm elections happened. It was impossible for one editor to do.
KOUGUELL: Did you work from an outline?
KLAYMAN: We had lot of transcripts, which were very helpful, and outlines, and a list of themes. I’m about key moments. It became more about notes on the cut and with verité, too. It’s calling out your great moments. We came up with title cards, which was not always the intention, but we could do more with certain cards.
KOUGUELL: You chose a vérité approach to the film.
KLAYMAN: From the other movies I had made, I knew that it's hard to find the real meat in the story if you're keeping the subject at arm's length. I thought it would play to my strengths for vérité filmmaking—being embedded for a year, being observational, not knowing what I would encounter.
When you're a fly on the wall, making a vérité movie, it's not your place to interject, but I got outraged a lot. There was a lot of biting my tongue!
The Brink opens March 29.
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