Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney directs Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Photo: Magnolia Pictures

He may not have taken home an Oscar, but Alex Gibney has certainly scored one for the accountants! His Academy Award-nominated doc, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, takes audiences inside the biggest scandal to ever hit corporate America.

As the first completed project of Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban’s HDNet Films, whose mission is to produce a series of low-budget digital or HD films to release simultaneously into the theatrical and cable television markets, The Smartest Guys in the Room made its premiere at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

Following the film’s release on DVD courtesy of Magnolia Home Entertainment and on the eve of the release of his Herbie Hancock: Possibilities, Gibney speaks with MM about turning words into film, the legal realities of shooting a doc of this magnitude and how the Enron case is boosting revenue.

Jennifer Wood (MM): It’s really amazing how your film contained a wealth of business data and information but maintained a completely entertaining feel throughout. Was this something you were conscious of while planning out the film and making it?

Alex Gibney (AG): Yes. I broke rule #1A of the Filmmaking Handbook: Never make a film about accounting. Having done so, I was desperately concerned about making the film as entertaining as possible. I wanted people to say: Not since Ghostbusters has there been more entertaining material about accounting. (Remember the Rick Moranis character.)

MM: How did you manage to balance these things?

AG: The key was to understand that, despite the quips above, this was not really a story about numbers; it was a story about people—about delusions of grandeur, greed and the struggle between good and evil.

MM: This is definitely a project that I am sure many documentarians were clamoring to get their hands on. How were you able to secure the rights to The Smartest Guys in the Room?

AG: Fact is: no one wanted the rights. No one thought it would make a good film. Everyone thought is was too complicated.

MM: Adapting a documentary from a book is not something that is often done. What was this process like for you?

AG: I’ve done it before: The Fifties² by David Halberstam and The Trial of Henry Kissinger, by Christopher Hitchens. The key is to take the essence of the book and then be able to be free to follow the stories that work for the film. Also, for Enron I wanted access to Peter and Bethany, the authors; they had spent two years on the story. Even better, they understood the numbers and the drama of the characters. But I also had to feel my way through it myself; I involved them early and late. But in the middle period I had to be on my own. Some things that were critical to the film they didn’t have access to, like the audiotapes of the West Coast traders.

MM: Where there any people and/or anecdotes that really struck you in the book that you weren’t able to include in the film version because of logistical issues, legal matters, etc.?

AG: It wasn’t logistical. Many things I didn’t include because a film is constrained by time. I knew I had to pare down the list of characters. There were a few key executives that I almost persuaded to talk. If they had, the story might have changed a bit. But I was delighted with the way the story ended up. I thought we got “inside” Enron, which was what I wanted.

MM: Speaking of which: How much did it help the legal side of things with this film to already have a published book as your basis? Did it help avoid a lot of the legal hoops and red tape that other nonfiction moviemakers may have to go through?

AG: It did help somewhat. Inevitably, if we wanted to claim certain things it helped that the book had already claimed them and that no one had sued. At the same time, we had other legal issues that were unique to filmmaking: There are many videotapes in the film that were not cleared; they were used under the doctrine of fair use.

MM: Speaking of which: The Enron case is just starting. Have you already seen an effect of the trial on the DVD release?

AG: The trial has had an effect on the DVD and the film has had an effect on the trial.

MM: Do you plan to do any sort of follow-up to the film? An Enron Part 2?

AG: Perhaps. Depends on how the trial turns out. I am following it closely.

MM: What’s up next for you?

AG: A doc on Hunter Thompson; a doc on the dark side of American foreign policy and a fiction film.