Alison Klayman made her name as a film-maker with 2012’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a close study of the revered Chinese artist which followed him across the course of several years, leading up to his eventual arrest in Beijing in 2011.
Now, in 2019, she’s made a return to overtly political subject matter, swapping out an actual political refugee, fighting censorship from his government, with ex-Breitbart chief Steve Bannon: a proud advocate of propaganda, shamelessly concocting narratives of ‘Establishment’ persecution that don’t quite match up to the jet-setting freedom his wealth and fame entails.
Klayman set out to capture the unsettling mixture of banality and danger that a figure such as Bannon – with his high-level connections and manipulative understanding of media – represents. We got the chance to talk with the director, discussing her overall approach to the film and the uncertainty that comes from filming someone so hungry for attention.
Tom Duggins: How did the project get off the ground? Did you approach Steve Bannon to make it?
Alison Klayman: The project originated because my producer – Marie-Therese Guirguis – knew Bannon from an earlier point in his life, when he put together a group of investors and bought an art house film distribution company where she happened to be working. He was her boss for three years and they had a pretty good working relationship, but they lost touch when the company folded. Then, he got into the Tea Party and Breitbart and really moved farther right in his politics and activities.
When he was suddenly in the news in August 2016 after joining the Trump campaign, she was horrified and reached out to him: basically, sending him angry letters saying she was really disappointed and he shouldn’t be doing what he was doing. Of course, that didn’t change his actions at all, but that began a correspondence, because he wrote back. Then, once Trump won and Bannon found himself in the White House, Marie-Therese had the idea to do a film that might expose what Bannon was really like.
I think the one-dimensional portrayals of him in the media were doing a disservice to the public, because it wasn’t getting right where his power came from and that was effectively giving him more power. She had a hunch he would say yes to a film if she appealed to his ego – he said no quite a few times, but eventually he said yes and that’s when I got a call.
TD: So, if his being portrayed in a one-dimensional way actually obscured where his power comes from, where does his power come from really?
AK: I think that a lot of his power comes from his ability to be a salesman and to sell moneyed interests and the press on his brilliance as a strategist. He’s part of these things, like Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica, but fundamentally what he’s doing now… it’s not like he’s the Grim Reaper, or that he’s a philosopher or scholar of far-right politics. I think he’s actually much more down to earth. He has some personal charm, but it’s actually more in the vein of a consultant and salesman, rather than him having some grand vision of how politics should work. I think he really got lucky and was milking this idea of his being a kingmaker.
TD: He comes across almost like a quiz show host, at points. If that makes sense. He’s got this patter when he’s on stage, it’s cheesy but it gets people on board, and he has these catchphrases as well – ‘A rose between two thorns’ – he says that countless times in the film. Is that part of his constructed persona?
AK: I think the lines he goes to are very much of his demographic, of a certain age and type, as if every time you’re in a photo with a woman you have to make that joke, and you think that it plays well. To make jokes, when he’s on stage, like ‘That’s my ex-wife’ and ‘Thanks Mom!’ – I think that kind of thing goes a long way. When people see him as being, like he says in the film – like Jabba the Hutt or this drunk – when you see someone as a monster, if you oppose their political agenda and their agenda of hate, as I do, I think there’s something safe in thinking that they’re just completely monstrous and unappealing. That makes them very singular and apart from the world, and I think seeing him and how he interacts in company that includes the former president of Goldman Sachs and female Jewish Republican candidates, it’s kind of jarring, to see him as a real person, but the movie for me was a look at the banality of evil and it felt more transgressive to show him being charming. I think the difference is he’s trying to be charming and you don’t have to be charmed.
TD: What was your relationship with him? Did you like him in any way?
AK: The first adjective that came to mind, at the beginning – and I held it throughout – was formidable. I tried to come in with no expectations of what he would be like personally, but I did come in with a strong sense of my values and what I think is right and wrong, and to use my judgement of what is true and false. It wasn’t really a matter of liking him, because my sense of purpose was so strong the whole time.
The way I regarded him, my daily mantra was: ‘Let him underestimate me, never underestimate him.’ I felt like I was there to observe. He treated me, for the most part, with respect, but the whole point of the film was to observe him in action and as closely as I could. For me, as a film-maker, I never wanted to separate what he was doing from the consequences of his rhetoric and his actions. To be honest, that was always on my mind. Even if, in the moment, he was being perfectly polite and respectable, I was never really able to separate him from…as he says in the movie, separating yourself from the moral horror of it all. I worked really hard to keep that at the centre of things, but to also be open to what he showed me.
He could have manipulated my feelings if he wanted to, but I was very much on high alert for manipulation and I was surprised that he never even tried to pretend he wasn’t in support of these incredibly cruel and xenophobic immigration policies. What surprised me was how thin all of the ideology and all the policy conversations were. There was a moment, in 2017, when Democrats were reeling from their loss and people were giving a lot of credit to Bannon and his strategy, thinking there was something to be offered there to the nation and their voters. So, I was ready to hear what they had to say and there wasn’t much at all. Like you said, quiz show host banter and one or two points hitting home. I just don’t believe that a wall is going to solve the real problems America has.
TD: It’s obvious that he’s enjoying the camera being there a lot of the time. Is that part of the thinness of his ideology – is it all just about him being the centre of attention? And if so, as a documentarian, how do you respond to that, giving him the attention he craves?
AK: I think that you can’t separate what he’s doing from his desire for attention and his desire to be important. I don’t think that it’s a singular motivator, but his desire for wealth, power and attention is mixed in at every stage.
I centered that in my work, that understanding, every day. I was there to capture everything. He may enjoy that I’m filming, but in the end, I have the ultimate creative control, I get to make a ninety minute film out of hundreds of hours of footage. I was very interested to see what the story was that he wanted to tell and then decide what the story was that I was telling. In the end, I think the film is about recognising that he’s telling a story, and recognising the challenges of covering someone like that. I think that there are irresponsible ways of doing it and I think that’s one of the important questions right now for news media.
I had the luxury of this being a long term project, but I think that’s why I was able to get a certain quality out of him and get him, at times, to be quite comfortable and relaxed in front of camera. I think, in the film, you get a good range of him being sometimes a bit more performative, and at other times, a bit more real. I think that comes from just being around someone a long time.
Honestly, it felt like his primary constituency was the press. He was constantly texting with them and had multiple journalists from every major outlet, going on the record and off the record, trying to create events and narratives and getting them to cover it, and it was happening left and right. I really thought the film was about what it’s like to cover someone like him. I really think it can be a mistake to let someone like him dominate the news cycle and treat the things he says as newsworthy and relevant. I think this film allows him to reveal himself and reveal that problem.
TD: How free was your access to him? In the film, we see you getting thrown out of meetings occasionally. Were there times when he changed his mind about you filming him or not filming him?
AK: It was a daily fight to get in the room and stay in the room. Not even to speak of what it took to be kept abreast of a very last minute, disorganised schedule that included expensive international travel. In London, where I captured some of the most important scenes, that was the first time I stayed in the same hotel as him, at Brown’s, which was very expensive but it paid off. I don’t know if I would have gotten my way into those meetings if I wasn’t also a guest of the hotel, and wasn’t able to find out about things and push my way in. The other people he was meeting with had to agree, which was obviously out of my control, and sometimes also his. Very often, with reporters, he wouldn’t let me stay if he was going off the record or if it was a high profile reporter. I tried very hard to film his interviews with Michael Wolff and he wouldn’t let me in.
So, there was plenty that I wasn’t able to see and I wanted to show that in the film as well, because I wanted to show the audience that there were limits to my access and show that I understand that there are limits to my access. Especially in an observational, verité style film, you’re limited to a certain range of cinematic and story-telling devices. We tried really hard to try and just watch him, but also give the audience the sense that they’re observing him, rather than it being a direct platform for him to communicate what he’s doing. I think some films advocate for an issue or try to deliver their message to you, but for us in the edit, the guiding principle was: how to tell the story without empowering him and making it his unfiltered narrative.
TD: Something funny about Steve Bannon is that, despite his political salesmanship and his carefully crafted persona, at times, he also seems to completely lack any self-awareness. There’s a great moment in the film when Paul Lewis from The Guardian basically rolls his eyes at the camera in response to one of his remarks.
AK: Yes! When people ask, that’s normally my response to the question: what surprised you the most? Honestly, the way that he sometimes seems like he’s very self-aware, self-deprecating. He can make jokes and work a room, that requires self-awareness and social skills. Then there’s these other moments where he just totally reveals himself in ways that I genuinely don’t think that he saw. That’s what made him a good subject and made it possible to craft a film where he exposes himself.
TD: Even when he’s trying to be self-deprecating, it’s often self-aggrandising as well. There’s that moment where he jokes that, when people find out that he drinks kombucha, its share price will drop 50%.
AK: I agree. I hope that the experience of watching it feels quite effortless and direct, but we spent a lot of time choosing how many times to include him making jokes like that. I think the film has quite a lot of humour in it. It’s quite a chilling watch, but there are also moments for laughter. The responsibility of what it means to make a film about someone who expressly tries to convert people and co-opt the mainstream media, and thinks so little of people that he can influence them by sticking to those very basic messages… the editing process was very important. You know, do we let him make this kombucha joke, and how many times, and when?
TD: What was the guiding editorial process then? What was the line that you took, say for the kombucha jokes and all the rest of it?
AK: I think Veep was an inspiration for me when shooting in the field, and I told the editors that as well. I think the Sean scene in Venice, for example, when he gets promoted, or to be more precise, is asked to oversee Raheem’s activities in The Movement. In my head, in the moment of filming it, I thought: ‘I want this to play like a scene from Veep, it’s so funny.’ I even tried to shoot it that way. I described it as like Veep, but you’re not laughing by the end. The point isn’t to laugh, it’s to reveal their hypocrisies and underlying agendas.
In the edit, I think transparency was a guiding principle. We were careful how we used his VO. When we tried hearing him describe what he was doing cut to footage, a typical device in documentary, it felt wrong because it felt like we were just delivering what he was saying. I wasn’t sure it would be clear to the audience whether or not we were just accepting what he was saying. So, in this film you always see who he’s talking to when he speaks, we don’t rely on him to narrate his objectives, because he’s not a reliable narrator.
TD: Do you worry at all that hardcore Steve Bannon supporters would take that as further evidence of a media-led conspiracy to suppress what he has to say? Does that play on your mind?
AK: My biggest fear was that his supporters would co-opt the film, because it’s so fair, and that they would see it as a ‘rah rah’ portrayal. I think also the transparency was necessary because, in this time of fake news and low faith in the media, it had to be clear that this was not the result of deceptive editing in any way. Obviously there are choices and editing that happens, but I wanted to show that this really was what he said. There’s a lot of cuts where you see the question, the answer, the next question and the next answer. Where we could do that, wherever possible, that was one of our principles, because I felt that he should be able to reveal himself without me having to manipulate or change the meaning of something he was saying or doing. But I did fear that, because his supporters think he’s so right, that the movie could become further evidence, for them, of how right he is. I was incredibly worried about that.
But, now, I can thankfully say that hasn’t happened. Also, as for the idea of hardcore Bannon supporters, I’m not sure they exist, to be perfectly honest. It’s not the same as making a movie against Trump. You see how much people like Steve in the film, when he’s touring around, but I don’t think there’s an army of people who are going to stand up for Steve’s honour and valour. I think the consensus, from people who know him, is that it’s a pretty good depiction of him. So, again, the movie was made by someone who does not agree with him, but my hope was that it would be a revealing and damning portrayal that was done very fairly.
The Brink is out in UK cinemas now.