How Citizen K Director Alex Gibney Gets the Toughest Interview Subjects to Open Up

Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney, director of the new documentary Citizen K, believes most people want to tell their stories.

“The ‘trick,’ if you will, would be to get them to believe that they can trust you to tell it,” says Gibney, whose docs include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Going Clear, and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.

Citizen K, Gibney’s second film this year, is about Russian oligarch-turned-anti-Putin activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It is yet another example of how his interviewing approach can render an intimate portrait of an enigmatic figure. As the film digs into Khodorkovsky’s wrongful imprisonment by Russian authorities, his facial expressions become Citizen K‘s most potent special effects, says Gibney.

The director’s narratives are about current events, but his strategies for developing, shooting, and assembling his projects remain timeless. His emphasis is on being honest and direct, without being needlessly confrontational. He talked with MovieMaker about how the 2016 election led him to confront Russia’s role in the world, his secrets to building rapport with his subjects, and how he knows when a film is almost finished.

Alex Gibney Citizen K
Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Citizen K, the new film by Alex Gibney

Max Weinstein, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In the opening moments of Citizen K, you say, “To hear Vladimir Putin tell it, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a villain in a real-life gangster movie.” It’s interesting that you mention gangster films, since a documentary moviemaker’s job is to cast heroes and villains just as much as a moviemaker would for a fiction feature. Talk about your approach to casting when working in non-fiction. What do you need to see in a doc subject in order to feel like a story is worth pursuing?

Alex Gibney (AG): Conflict. I’m interested in characters who have contradictions. I like heroes and villains, too, but I’m not that interested in films that have white hats and black hats. That doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s a moral universe—I do. But I’m more interested in the gray. There’s a line in the film: “Pools of gray separated the black and white.” In a way, that’s what bad movies and political propagandists do. They turn complicated stories into simple black-and-white morality tales that have a certain political utility. 

I should add that I’m also interested in gangster movies. To me, the best gangster movies are the ones where the villains are charismatic. Gangster films or sometimes in Westerns—there’s a little bit of Western in this movie, too—explore social issues.

MM: Khodorkovsky’s contradictions are at the heart of this film. In one scene, he calls himself “Not an ideal person, but a person of ideals.” He builds himself up to become this oil tycoon…

AG: But he came from nothing!

MM: Why are people with flaws and contradictions so important when presenting your point of view to the audience as a documentary moviemaker?

AG: Because then things aren’t so simple and lead you toward bigger social issues. Maybe more profoundly: If they’re wearing pure black hats or pure white hats, then their characters are, like superheroes, distant from us. The more grey—the more like us—they are, we become more invested in the story. 

MM: We’ve seen more recent investigations into Putin’s role and Russia’s role on the world stage. Werner Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev shows a leader who’s the polar opposite of Putin, and the Frontline documentary Putin’s Revenge taps into narrative threads similar to Citizen K’s. As this film was coming together, how were you processing, as a storyteller, how you would weigh in on Russia in a way nobody else has? 

AG: It’s interesting you say that because I didn’t really know how I was going to weigh in, and I thought that was the point. In other words, I was motivated to do this story because of what happened in 2016. 

MM: So, the 2016 election and all of its ensuing events forced your hand.

AG: Prior to then, there was no incentive for me to look at Russia. Suddenly, Russia interferes in the U.S. election, but I realized that I don’t know that much—and I don’t think most Americans know that much—about how post-Soviet Russia really works. And wouldn’t it be interesting to know just how power works in Russia? Is Putin all-powerful? Is he a creature of a system that’s more chaotic? What do we think about how capitalism or moneymaking works with politicians in Russia? How does that whole system play out? I talked to all these Russia hands, and they were all like, “Whoa, it’s been a long time in the wilderness for us. We’ve invested a lot of time and money and energy in terms of figuring out how Russia works and nobody cared until 2016. Suddenly everyone’s knocking on our door.

It led me to the story of Khodorkovsky, and what was so great about that story was that, in one man, it tells the story of post-Soviet Russia. You see the chaos of the 1990s and the consolidation of power by Putin in the 2000s, and then that leads you to what things are like today, all within the context of some characters that were in the middle of that power structure. I didn’t start the film out thinking, “I want to make this point.” It was more a film of discovery: “What’s going on?”

MM: Walk me through your process of interviewing so that Khodorkovsky can become a vehicle through which you tell this larger story in Citizen K. What are the little moments that you’re seizing on to to build trust with your interview subject?

AG: One of the key things was time: Would Khodorkovsky agree to sit for the amount of time I thought might be necessary? Ultimately he did. He sat for a total of nine pretty full days—five before I went to Russia, four after. 

Having that much time is useful because you can cover a lot of ground but also return to areas. Sometimes a person will say something or maybe they’ll be evasive, and you realize, “Are they being evasive because they aren’t interested? Or is it because they don’t want to talk about it?” Then you come back and maybe you explore it again. 

Over time, you also build a relationship. That is helpful in terms of getting people to be honest—not only in terms of what happened, but also how they felt about it.

Alex Gibney Citizen K

MM: Would you say that each film is entirely different when it comes to being in the moment with an interview subject? Is each new subject wholly unpredictable, or are there certain tricks that, as a moviemaker, you’ve developed over time and rely on to connect with a subject in any situation?

AG: I hate to use the word “tricks,” because it means that I’m trying to get one over on the subject, as if that’s the only way to get something out of them. I’m a big believer in the idea that most people want to tell their stories. The “trick,” if you will, would be to get them to believe that they can trust you to tell it—that if they’re going to tell their story then you’re really going be a good listener. That’s the key. 

While I have been confrontational at times in my interviews, it’s generally not the way I go about it. I want to hear them tell their story from their perspective. Now, in the making of a film, I may discover that they’re not following things properly: They intentionally deceive me, or maybe they’re deceiving themselves. That’s all part of the process. But in the moment, my job is to be a good listener, ask direct and simple questions, and let them create the complexity. 

MM: When you become aware that a subject might be deceiving you, do you allow yourself to react to that and address it directly? Or is it something you make a mental note of and come back to later to work it out in the edit? 

AG: It’s more the latter. Sometimes, if you’re too confrontational in an interview, you’re taking the attention away from the subject and putting it on yourself. That said, you also don’t want to be a patsy for someone to spin propaganda or raw fiction. So, sometimes I’ll raise an eyebrow or ask a question like, “Really? That’s not the way I heard it.” But I’m rarely confrontational as a way of saying, “Here, I have this, and what you’re saying is a lie.” Sometimes I’ll bring up a record of what people have said in the past, but I try to engage with people in a very conversational way rather than with a series of numbered questions—though I have a sheet of papers with me constantly shuffling around and I do a lot of research before these interviews. 

I also always have somebody sit with me, because when you’re talking to somebody, sometimes you get lost in that conversation, you over-trust, and you perceive something wrongly. It’s always nice to have someone else. That’s what an editor is for, ultimately: to tell you what you really got on film. Sometimes I’ll even ask the other person in the room questions like, “What did I miss?,” or, “Why don’t you take a crack at that?”

MM: In what ways did your editor bring a fresh pair of eyes and ears when you made Citizen K?

AG: Michael Palmer, who cut this film, noticed something about Khodorkovsky and made a kind of visual trope out of it, which is that he does a kind of half-smile, half-shrug. Sometimes that can be like, “I don’t give a f—,” sometimes it can be like, “That’s the way things go, so it goes,” and sometimes it’s like, “I don’t know what the hell is going on.” It’s something that Michael went back to over and over again, a visual tic. That ended up being both a tell for us and a way of visually expressing his nature. He’s hard to figure sometimes and there’s a lot of mystery in him still.

MM: I imagine that that visual tic helps create a rhythm in the editing as well. Those “looks” Khodorkovsky gives in Citizen K come through as sort of periods at the end of a sentence. Including them is a way of breaking scenes up and setting their pace.

AG: It is a lot about rhythm, as you say, and sometimes it’s about what he doesn’t say and what you see on his face. That’s what’s great about filming an interview rather than just recording it. One of those examples is not actually in an interview that I shot, but an interview that was conducted by Ksenia Sobchak—the woman who ultimately runs for office in Russia—right after Khodorkovsky gets out of prison. There’s a moment in that interview that’s very telling, where she says, “Are you still angry at the people who put you in prison?” And you see that he sucks in this deep breath, his eyes roll up inside his head, and it’s like he’s trying to control a deep reservoir of anger. And he says, “I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have some feelings about the matter”…

MM: He says, “It would be a sin against the truth…”

AG: That’s right! It’s even more powerful than that: “It would be a sin against the truth to say that I didn’t have some feelings about that.” Then he says, “But I’m trying hard to work on myself and go forward.” Well, that’s a really interesting moment, but it could come off like cheap philosophizing unless you saw that moment where his eyes go back in his head. That’s a moment that he can’t even really control, and this is a guy who’s all about control. Little moments like that add up in a film. 

MM: You make a lot of movies, but you’ve also said that you’ll sometimes set a work-in-progress aside for months at a time before coming back to it. What does a project need in order for you to feel like you have the kind of momentum to not set it aside? How do you know when material is in a position to be finished?

AG: The “finishing” part is really not the hard part, because once you have the story structure and nail that, then getting to the finish line is when I spend more time in the cutting room and when everything starts falling into itself. When you listen to the film, the film has a voice and it starts talking to you. It’s finding that voice that’s the hard part. 

Sometimes “finding the voice” means that there’s a voice missing inside the film—that we need to talk to somebody and they won’t talk to us, or there’s this element of the story that’s not there and we need to find it. Or sometimes you’ll have a structure that’s so unruly that it doesn’t seem to have any sense of narrative momentum, so you really have to find that structure. With Citizen K, we found a structural flaw at the very end of the film that we fixed and suddenly everything clicked into place. That’s when you can begin to take certain design elements, composition, and everything else so that the story folds in on itself aesthetically and everything starts moving in the same direction.

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MM: So what you’re saying is that when things are not quite ready to be “finished,” that problem has to do with the form and the assembly of the film itself. 

AG: Sometimes it’s a mystery, like you literally need to talk to somebody you haven’t talked to yet and you’re waiting for that person. But otherwise, it’s really more about the form. Having an unruly number of characters in a story that’s hard to understand and finding some way to give shape to it is the hard part. Sometimes the best way to find that shape is to put it aside, walk away, and come back to it. It’s very hard to do that from a budgetary standpoint, but if I could, I would structure the schedule of every film so that we would have picture lock day, and then we’d all walk away from the movie for two months. Then we’d look at the picture lock and most times come back and say, “Oh my f—— God! It’s so obvious what’s wrong and now we’re gonna fix it.” 

Alex Gibney’s Citizen K opened in Los Angeles’ Laemmle Royal Theatre on Friday and will have an expanded release in early 2020.

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