The story behind Enron’s collapse is at once sickeningly familiar and weirdly confusing. The basic end results are enough to make any reasonable person angry – the nation’s 7th largest company collapses, taking with it the pensions and dreams of its employees while a handful of executives walk away with a billion dollars. On their way to collapse the Enron executives oversaw a company that lied, cheated and forced the entire state of California into blackouts – all for profit and whimsy.
But the mechanics of that company and its collapse can be confusing, so it’s nice to have Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room to guide us through it. Gibney’s documentary is out on DVD today (buy it through CHUD!) and last week I had the chance to get on the phone with him and talk about the movie, the current trial of Enron execs, and the state of the documentary world.
Q: Your film has some really great music in it. What was the impetus behind the music selection in the film?
Gibney: Why did I choose which particular songs?
Q: Why you included so many songs, and how you chose the songs themselves.
Gibney: If you look back over the stuff I’ve done, I usually put a lot of music in the films I do. Even The Trials of Henry Kissinger had a lot of interesting songs in it. I think it’s a way of reflecting the vibe of pop culture, which very much effects us all. For me in the Enron film it was a way of injecting myself – it was a sort of a toe-tapping Greek chorus. I love music and have done a bunch of music docs, and this is a way of exerting myself.
The key thing, in terms of figuring out which songs to put in, I started listening to tons and tons of music. In some ways it was my way in to some of the characters. I would listen to a song and wonder is that an Andy Fastow song, is that a Jeff Skilling song, is that a Ken Lay song. Each one of them ultimately had their own songs. I was interested in listening to songs about greed and also songs that had a certain kind of tone. Black humor is important to this film because to me black humor is comedy with an undercurrent of moral outrage. That’s why there’s a lot of Tom Waits songs. Tom Waits has a really great idea about music – he believes that if you have a dark lyric, you should have a bouncy, jaunty melody. That’s very similar to the Billy Holiday song at the beginning of the film, well not at the very beginning, I think it’s the second song. God Bless the Child, which has this beautiful melody and Billy Holiday’s extraordinary voice, and the lyrics couldn’t be more dark in the sense that the rich and powerful will always crush the meek.
Q: Just this past week the judge in the Enron case ruled that he wouldn’t let the jury hear the tapes of the traders. That’s one of the highlights of the film, listening to these guys be such cold hearted assholes about what they’re doing to California. Do you think it’s fair to exclude that from the trial?
Gibney: That’s a good question, and as a matter of fact when you called I was pulling up that story on the internet. I haven’t had time to study the ruling, so… what does it say?
Q: I’m looking at the Washington Post here and it says, ‘the danger of unfair prejudice substantially outweighs any evidentiary value the tape might have.’
Gibney: I didn’t see the prosecution’s argument as to what evidentiary value the tapes had. Obviously they don’t reflect well on Enron or Enron’s culture or Enron’s winner take all culture, but whether or not they relate directly to the charges made against Skilling and Lay is hard to say. I thought it might be a stretch to get the tapes in the trial, but I think they’re fundamental to understanding the kind of greedy, winner take all, immoral culture that Skilling in particular but also Ken Lay were responsible for creating at Enron.
Q: After watching the movie a second time on DVD I realized that while you’re not quite sympathetic, you’re not pillorying these guys as much as you could. Do you think these are bad guys, or are they guys who are weak and who have given in to their worst impulses?
Gibney: I think it’s the latter, and that’s why there are moments when I tried to see them in a somewhat sympathetic light. I’m glad you picked up on that. If they’re monsters the story doesn’t really have any relevance to us. It only has relevance to us to the extent that we see people lured by temptation going badly, badly wrong. That’s interesting and that’s something important for all of us to think about because then we can figure out how to keep this kind of thing from happening again.
That’s why I put in the Milgrom experiment too. It would have been easy with the traders themselves to say ‘These are just bad guys,’ in the words of the US government after Abu Ghraib, a few bad apples. Well, in the case of Abu Ghraib and in the case of California traders, that’s not the case. They were good guys – off the job many of them were pillars of their community. But within the context of Enron’s culture, with what the authority figures were telling them, they thought it was OK to rape and pillage California for profit and fun.
Q: On the commentary there are a couple of times were you talk about things you couldn’t include in the film because it would be too long. In the days of DVD you can do that – you can have a longer cut for the home audience. Did you consider doing that?
Gibney: We talked about it a lot and ultimately decided not to go back and create a director’s cut. I think the film works pretty well as it is. There were some financials considerations too. With a film like this, when you put new stuff in or include stuff you hadn’t included at an earlier time, it involves a lot of third-party rights which you have to get from archives. But I’m comfortable with putting [on the DVD] deleted scenes.
Q: You made the short list for the Oscars – do you think you have a shot against these penguins?
Gibney: Those penguins, man. Dirty little animals I should say. That part of the story just hasn’t been covered properly.
But I don’t know. I hope so. We have to see if we’re nominated first. If we’re up against the penguins we’ll see if people find out the true story of these dirty little animals.
Q: This year it’s like the penguins versus everyone else, and everybody assumes they’ll make the final cut. I think it’s an interesting look at where documentaries are today. The penguins are the safe, old fashioned feeling choice. But there are a lot of other great documentaries happening, and people are seeing them – the world isn’t aware of just the penguin film.
Gibney: I agree. I think it’s extraordinary. I think there are a couple of reasons for it. Documentaries have left the building on most TV, particularly network TV. They’re gone now. People don’t do them, so there’s a lot of content that people are hungry for. The press, until very recently, had laid down by the side of the road as if they were tired of speaking truth to power. A lot of interesting documentaries have been raising questions.
Not all the interesting documentaries this year are political documentaries, but I think they share one thing in common which is a renewed ability to tell a dramatic story. Documentarians, myself included, are paying a lot more attention now to issues of narrative and character. People respond to that, and they go to the movies now and sometimes they see a non-fiction film and sometimes they see a film with actors – and sometimes the documentaries are fresher. They don’t seem quite as canned as some fiction films.
I think, ironically, the other reason people are going to theaters to see them is that reality TV has proved to people that stories without actors can be dramatic, even though I’m not always a big fan of reality TV.
Q: Do you see a danger that documentaries might end up catering to the audience? That the idea that you can actually make a couple of dollars on a documentary might start to shift the way people make them?
Gibney: I think that’s already starting to happen. Look, that’s a danger in fiction films too. When people think they’ve got the magic formula – ‘OK, there’s a contest, so let’s make a documentary about that contest because there’s always a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s always a winner in a contest.’ You know, Spellbound, even Murderball – I loved both those films – I’m just saying that financiers are looking at that model and trying to duplicate that. I think there’s a real danger in that. But it’s a danger in fiction films, too.
Q: Alex, thank you very much for taking time to talk. It’s a great film and I have to tell you – I’m a dumb guy when it comes to finances and that stuff, but I felt like I understood the whole scandal much more after seeing the movie.
Gibney: I felt the same way. I thought that if I could make myself understand it, maybe other people could too!