“Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” is a documentary about the New York state attorney general who took on Wall Street, was elected governor, and then, in one of the most spectacularly scandalous falls of the last decade, resigned following charges that he was a customer known as “Client 9” of a high-end escort service that provided expensive prostitutes for wealthy men. Alex Gibney, who has made powerful documentaries about falls from grace: Enron, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and post 9/11 torture by the US military, spoke to me about this film. (“Client 9” is now available at xfinity On Demand)
Why did Spitzer agree to do the film?
He wanted “final argument.” he wanted the ability to have his say in a film that was going to be all about him. He knew [co-producer and business journalist] Peter Elkind from before and he knew we were going to do a rigorous and factual job. So, better to have his story told than not. We made a powerful argument that he was going to have to reckon with his past and that cooperating with us would be a way of dealing with it and then maybe he could move on.
You made an unusual decision for a documentary in having an actress play the role of one of the key players — and not be revealed as an actress until the end of the film. Can you talk a little about that?
She didn’t want her identity exposed, for obvious reasons. There’s a standard way to do that in documentaries — put the person in shadows and mechanically alter their voice. We experimented with that. It was terrible. It turned her into a cliche like a mobster, a monster, like she was in the witness protection program. It created an aura of criminality about everything she did, a cheap stereotype. So I thought, as long as we disclose it, let’s transcribe the audiotapes and then cut them down and that’ll be the script that an actress performs. It will be true to what she said, and more truthful by presenting her as a human being. I found her not just truthful but very affecting, not like the stereotype of prostitutes that we think of, smart and funny and tough. For all those reasons it seemed like the more truthful thing to do. At the end of the day, each film sets its own rules. Our obligation is to let the viewer know what those rules are and that can be accomplished any number of ways.
How do you decide what your rules will be in a given film?
I was very influenced by [the Errol Morris documentary] “The Thin Blue Line.” I heard a wonderful radio interview with Errol Morris where he said, “The only version of the truth I didn’t show was the version I thought happened.” I thought that was a very interesting rule and so I made it my mission from then on to come up with rules that I thought made sense from my standpoint and in terms of the overall presentation of the story. With “Angelina,” we show her two or maybe three times before we disclose that she’s an actress.”
I wanted her to be shocking and I wanted you to be saying, “Oh, my God, we’re really getting inside here” and to experience her as a person without thinking about the device. And then I reveal it but by then hopefully you’ve developed an affect with her as a person. And then you roll with it even though you know it’s an actress.
The movie digs in by having a whole bunch of false starts. It’s a movie all about about things that you think you know and you don’t know know. When you first see that guy in the cowboy hat at the beginning, you think “Why are they putting this painter up front?” And then you learn that he was the booker and he knew Ashley. And then you think that Ashley is at the center of the story and it turns out that she’s not. Nothing in this film is quite what it seems initially.
Why did Spitzer foe and business big shot Ken Langone agree to be in the film?
I think he wanted to be in the film because John Whitehead told him that I was a good listener and he enjoyed talking to us. I found it very refreshing talking to him. There were no handlers, just Ken Langone telling me what he thought. People talk when they’re emotionally invested in talking. As you can see in the film, he is invested in talking. All you have to do is say the name “Elliot Spitzer” and smoke comes out of his ears. He literally foams at the mouth. He is the essence of the “winner take all society.”
Do you think that Spitzer underestimated not just the power and fury of his opponents but his own ability to take on the very different job of being governor?
Spitzer was not comfortable with the culture of the legislature which was one of the great bogs of corruption, a system of greasing. He had a commitment to the power of argument to carry the day and was much more high-handed. I have sympathy for that idea in principle. But Spitzer had a great deal of difficulty in letting other people take credit for his ideas. That would have been smart. Weird rules, double-dealing, entrenched favors and interests. It’s so sclerotic; it’s terrifying.
What would you say that this film is about?
Unlike the film I did just before this, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” where you could come out of that and say, “Take the money out of politics or we’re done,” this one is harder to summarize. It asks some fundamental questions about human nature and how we judge our public officials. Do we judge them as vehicles through whom we live vicariously or by what they do as public officials? Are we being blinded by scandal in a way that prevents us from seeing stuff that really affects us as individuals?
Celebrate Rock Hudson’s birthday this week with the movie that really made him a star, a remake of a Robert Taylor movie based on a popular book by Lloyd C. Douglas, who often included religious themes in his stories. (Both movies are included in the Criterion edition.)
Hudson plays a careless playboy whose boating accident deprives a beloved doctor of lifesaving equipment. The doctor dies. His widow (Jane Wyman) discovers that he had been quietly helping dozens of people, requiring only two things: that they never tell anyone and that they never pay him back. He asked them to pass the aid along to others instead. That was his “magnificent obsession.”
No one was better with melodrama than Douglas Sirk. In his first American film, he amped up the luscious technicolor but it was still not as purple as the emotions, especially after the playboy has another catastrophic encounter with the widow before finally finding a magnificent obsession of his own.
Marc Erlbaum wants to make films that touch people’s souls. He is the man behind Nationlight Productions, a film and television production company focused on creating inspiring, meaningful content for mainstream audiences of all backgrounds and affiliations. He was nice enough to take some time to answer my questions about his company and his films.
How did this project get started?
I’m a film-maker. I had made a couple of small films that I wrote and directed and about a year and a half ago I formed this company, Nationlight Productions, with an explicit mandate to make more positive and uplifting films. That was what I was doing already with my projects but I thought the time was right to create a more structured company focused on that mission. So we went out and raised money from some philanthropists who were interested in affecting the world through positive mass media. We made this film “Cafe,” an ensemble drama that we shot here in Philadelphia, that tracks intersecting stories of the patrons and workers in a little cafe, all of whom are dealing with life challenges. It’s infused with spirituality, but most of my work is about putting that in a subtle way.
One of the characters is a guy who’s always sitting in the cafe on his laptop and a young girl appears on his computer screen one day and informs him that he and everyone else in the cafe are avatars in a virtual world she has created. And of course he doesn’t believe her at first. But then things start to happen exactly as she says it will. Ultimately, it becomes a conversation with the Creator, an allegory. She wants him to do something and he asks her why she doesn’t make him and she explains she has built free will into the program. There’s nothing explicitly religious or spiritual but ultimately it is a meditation on a conversation with God.
What is your background? Have you studied theology?
I am a religious Hassidic Jew myself. I was not born that way but got into it in college and became very committed. But our goal, as someone who grew up very mainstream and very secular, my goal is not to preach to the choir but to create content that is going to appeal to people who are more like those I grew up with and instill some thematics without being heavy-handed or didactic.
Why do mainstream films stay away from spiritual themes?
Appealing to people’s baser natures is an easy way to make a buck. It’s easier to seduce people than it is to challenge them. What’s happening in recent years is that people are saying, “We’re not as ignorant as you think we are. If you do challenge us and provide us with messages of hope and redemption, that will appeal to us more than all the thrillers and genre stuff you’ve been feeding us.”
What films inspire you?
The films that don’t preach but that have inspiring themes without being heavy-handed, like “The Matrix,” which has a real message that this reality we’re living in is only superficial and there’s something much deeper. A similar thematic was developed in “The Truman Show.” And others, obvious but just as powerful, “Freedom Writers,” “Pay it Forward,” “The Blind Side.” That’s a great example of a mainstream film with positive values at its core.
What makes your company different?
We are unabashed in our mission. When I started writing, I wrote something with a clear moral framework. I was put in touch with a producer who demoralized me and told me that any art with an agenda is not art at all. I studied literature and I certainly have experienced that intellectual elitism. But we do have a mission and we are not afraid to say that. Great art has the ability to inspire. The images people expose themselves to will affect their outlook and their conduct. If we can participate in that, don’t we have a responsibility to do that in a positive way?
Michael Medved’s book Hollywood vs. America: The Explosive Bestseller that Shows How-and Why-the Entertainment Industry Has Broken Faith With Its Audience inspired me early on. He says if you’re telling me that visual images don’t affect people’s action, the advertising industry should return all those billions of dollars. “The Passion of the Christ” really proved that there is a huge audience that really wants these films. There was a story in the Wall Street Journal: “They’ve seen the light and it is green.” So Hollywood is following the money trail.
Anybody who has strong beliefs or opinions will have to face people who don’t agree with them. You can either go through your life backing off or taking a stand. Even before I was religious I was always raised to take a stand. My personal and religious beliefs are that you don’t try to force anyone but if you act with kindness, the majority of people will respond with kindness.
What is the status of your films?
“Cafe,” with Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jamie Kennedy, won the Crystal Heart award at the Heartland Film Festival. “Everything Must Go” stars Will Ferrell as a guy who loses his job and his wife and hits rock bottom before he can pick himself up and start over again. It co-stars Rebecca Hall and Michael Pena. That will be released this spring.
How can people stay in touch with what you’re doing?
We’re really focused on building up a community of people who are interested in our mission and our content. So we’ve launched a community page for Nationlight on Facebook. We want people to come on and say “We want more positive fare.” It’s really a call to action. The more people we have on this community, the more we’ll be able to do.”
The holiday movie season kicks off this week with one of the biggest movies of the year, the second-to-last in the Harry Potter series. Here are some of the movies I am most looking forward to for the rest of this year:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (November 19) He who most not be named has hidden pieces of his soul in seven different places that must be found so he can be vanquished for good. Harry, Ron, and Hermione leave their beloved Hogwarts for a treacherous and terrifying journey as the final battle looms.
Burlesque (November 24) Cher is the old-timer who coaches would-be performer Christina Aguilera in this big-talent, skimpy-costumes diva-thon, also starring Kristen Bell, Stanley Tucci, and Alan Cumming.
Love and Other Drugs (November 24) Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal reunite (they were an unhappy couple in “Brokeback Mountain”) in this very sexy love story set in the midst of the boom in pharmaceutical marketing during the early years of anxiety and ED medication. Director Edward Zwick (“thirtysomething,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Blood Diamond”) expertly blends comedy, romance, sex, and healthcare into one of the most moving films of the year.
Tangled Just one last fairy tale princess had not yet had the full-on Disney treatment, so now Rapunzel gets her turn. Mandy Moore provides the voice of the princess in the tower who believes that the evil witch who kidnapped her is her mother and “Chuck’s” Zachary Levi is the swashbuckling thief who discovers her when he is trying to find a place to hide. With Pixar’s John Lasseter in charge and a tuneful score from Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast”) this will be a treat for the whole family.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (December 10) The third in the C.S. Lewis series finds Lucy and Edmund Pevensie returning to Narnia through an enchanted painting. Prince Caspian, now king, takes them on a boat called the Dawn Trader to find the seven lords his evil uncle banished from Narnia years before.
The King’s Speech (December 10, limited release) Colin Firth is a lock for a second Best Actor nomination in a row in this true story of King George VI (father of the current Queen Elizabeth) who needed help with his speech impediment when his brother resigned and he unexpectedly became the country’s leader just as WWII was beginning. Geoffrey Rush plays the highly unorthodox speech therapist and Helena Bonham Carter is utterly charming as the Queen.
How Do You Know (December 17) James L. Brooks, the man behind “Terms of Endearment,” “Broadcast News,” and “As Good as it Gets” knows how to make us care about characters with big flaws who struggle to find love. Reese Witherspoon plays a former athlete torn between a baseball player (Owen Wilson) and a disgraced executive (Paul Rudd), co-starring Brooks’ lucky charm, Jack Nicholson.
Tron: Legacy (December 17) This fanboy favorite is the sequel to the 1982 cult classic starring Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner as men who became characters in a racing computer game. The original was ahead of its time but the sequel (in 3D, of course) looks as though that time is finally here, with eye candy galore as the son of Bridges’ character (Garrett Hedlund) enters the game through an old arcade machine and finds his father. Bridges and Boxleitner return and are joined by Olivia Wilde and Michael Sheen and a lot of special effects that really look very special.
Gulliver’s Travels (December 22) Jack Black plays Gulliver, whose journey takes him to a land where the people are all about six inches tall in this film based on the Jonathan Swift classic novel. The cast includes Emily Blunt (“The Devil Wears Prada”) as the princess and Jason Segal.
True Grit (December 22) The Coen brothers are behind this remake of the film that brought John Wayne an Oscar, a western about a little girl who hires a gunman to find the man who killed her father. Matt Damon and “No Country for Old Men” star Josh Brolin join promising newcomer Hallee Steinfeld in what is sure to be a post-post-modern take on the Old West.
Country Strong (in limited release December 22) Gwyneth Paltrow learned to play guitar for this story of a country singer trying for a comeback. Real-life country star (and fine actor) Tim McGraw plays her husband and Leighton Meester plays a beauty-queen and upcoming singer.
Casino Jack (in limited release December 29) Kevin Spacey plays lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was one of the most powerful and connected men in Washington until it turned out he was a crook.
Also coming up and worth noting: Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in “The Tourist,” a thriller about a traveler who becomes caught up in intrigue and adventure when he meets a beautiful woman; “Tiny Furniture,” the acclaimed debut from 24-year-old writer/director/star Lena Dunham based on her own experience of trying to find her way after graduation — and co-starring her own mother and best friend and filmed in her parents’ apartment; “Made in Dagenham,” the true story of the fight for equal pay for women in 1968 England, starring Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson; “Nutcracker in 3D,” the classic ballet filmed in immersive splendor; “Black Swan,” a twisted story about ambition and power set in a ballet company, starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis; “Night Catches Us,” about a former Black Panther returning home in 1976 for his father’s funeral and confronting painful memories, with Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington; “The Company Men,” with Ben Affleck as a downsized executive trying to find a way to move forward, “The Illusionist” is the latest animated film from the people who made the fabulous “Triplets of Belleville;” and “Saturday Night,” a documentary about what goes on behind the scenes at “Saturday Night Live,” directed by “127 Hours” and “Howl” star and all-around polymath James Franco.