The end credits of Casino Jack and the United States of Money, the new Jack Abramoff documentary from Alex Gibney, run, as they must, over a clip of Tom DeLay doing the cha-cha to "Wild Thing" on Dancing with the Stars, the former House Majority Leader's thighs like sausages in polyester casing. The clip ends with the repugnant disgraced public servant pointing aggressively offscreen and mouthing, along with the Troggs, "I love you." Cut to black. The next credit is for Associate Producer Sam Black, with whom I went to high school.
Initially delighted, I was also curious: what, exactly, did Sam do to warrant The Hammer's affections? This led to a larger curiosity: what, in general, goes into making a documentary like Casino Jack, a film—like Gibney's Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, or No End in Sight, which he produced—in which a director, and his coproducers and researchers, seek to present a current topic to the viewer in an accessible and comprehensive manner? Sam Black and I emailed back and forth in advance of Casino Jack's release, this past Friday, to discuss how, exactly, a filmmaker and his collaborators go about giving a recent-history lesson.
The L: I'm curious about the research that goes into the documentary film. Once you guys at Jigsaw Productions decide to take on a particular subject, where do you begin? Primary or secondary sources, or both, and for what purpose?
Sam Black: We begin by talking to the people who first investigated the subject. The distinction between "primary" and "secondary" sources often breaks down quickly, as the investigators themselves become part of the larger story. For instance, Casino Jack does not treat the Washington Post's Sue Schmidt, who broke the Abramoff scandal in 2004, as removed from the central narrative of the film—in fact, her investigation in some ways drives the plot. For each interviewee, the goal is to establish that type of personal connection to the story.
The L: So when you're talking to someone like Sue Schmidt, how far along are you in the process? Are you talking to her on background and then doing the interview we see, or are you still in the process of gathering the story together as you do the on-camera interview?
SB: Both, actually. We reached out to Sue early in the process, and filmed her interview not long afterwards. But the process of gathering the story never really ends, and just because you have interviewed people does not mean that you stop talking to them on background. We were still finding new details even in the last few weeks of editing.
The L: Right, that really is fantastic footage, and wasn't much in circulation. I know your work has been mostly on recent-historical documentaries, but it seems that it must be the case that, the more recent the subject, the more documentation there must be, and the more available all that media must be, if you have the patience to sift. I think we as viewers of documentary films take archival footage for granted, like it's just hanging out in a subject file for filmmakers to check out, but that's surely not the case.
SB: Unfortunately it's not. For the more esoteric stuff, you have to play detective. You read everything you can about an event, scour the footnotes, and call anyone you can find who may have been involved. You develop relationships with friends of friends of your subjects, and follow every lead. And sometimes you luck out.
The L: Are you setting out to frame the story for the viewer, to do your own original reporting, or a combination of the two?
SB: One of the advantages of making this type of documentary is that the process is slow and deliberative. The long schedule affords you the time to track down every bit of minutiae from the story, as well as the time to figure out how to frame those facts in a larger context. In Abramoff's story, it was hard to resist relaying all of the incredible details—the fake think tank run by a lifeguard, the jaw-dropping emails, the ties to the mafia and mysterious Russian oil executives. But I hope that the larger problems inherent in trying to make popular democracy work in a government that is addicted to campaign money come through as well.
The L: In addition to relaying the details and structuring a narrative, do you find you're able to move the story forward at all? The Marianas Islands section of the film is an exemplary demonstration of how lobbying works, and how corruption is endemic even in the practice even as it's seemingly law-abiding. The way Abramoff was able to broker deals between local officials and congressmen was to a certain extent a matter of public record—but only if anyone bothered to look. Do you feel like the interviews you conducted with Marianas Island pols constitute additional revelations in the story, or is the primary value that we in the audience are finally hearing about it?
SB: In the case of the Marianas Islands, it is more the latter. I think only a small group of journalists, activists, and Congress members know that Abramoff, with the help of Former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, protected sweatshop owners in a US territory from American labor laws for many years. Abramoff and DeLay acted in the name of "free market" principles, and their efforts actually provide an example of what completely unregulated markets might look like. I don't want to give it away, but it's more Atlas Slaved than Atlas Shrugged. What is particularly indicative about this episode is that Abramoff did not violate the law. He simply did what he was retained to do, and by Washington's standards, he did it extremely well. In fact, what he did is not so different from what thousands of lobbyists are paid to do today for clients such as Goldman Sachs or Monsanto.
The L: What are you looking for in an interview subject?
SB: We are looking for someone who is close to the story, and is willing to speak openly and candidly. Former Ohio Congressman Bob Ney and his chief of staff Neil Volz, both of whom were convicted of crimes for their dealings with Abramoff, are great examples of that. I think that their candor will give viewers a clearer sense of the mindset that often prevails in Washington when your ability to raise money, more than your capacity for solving problems with legislation, determines your access to power.
The L: It's interesting how the chastised officials, confessing their sins in a public act of penance in the American tradition, end up being candid sources. I understand you guys were able to talk to a quite forthcoming Abramoff, but weren't allowed to use any interviews in the film—do you have plans to follow up with him?
SB: Alex Gibney spoke with Abramoff several times in prison. He first agreed to be interviewed, but eventually declined. We heard that the Department of Justice used sticks and carrots to persuade Jack not to do the interview. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has recently filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the Bureau of Prisons and the DOJ to obtain documents related to this. It will be interesting to see what comes to light. You can read more about it here.
The L: I'm curious about the extent to which your editorial perspective is shaped by the people you talk to. Tom Frank, who's a talking head here, wrote in The Wrecking Crew about lobbying and pay-for-play as a logical extension of Reaganomics mantras of deregulation and anti-government rhetoric, which is a perspective the film explores.
SB: I think that Thomas Frank is an important voice in the film, because he frames Abramoff's story within the deregulatory crusade of the past 40 years. Abramoff embodied the ideology and tactics of the modern conservative movement, and, in many ways, his rise and fall mirrored the trajectory of that movement.
The L: So is that something you felt going in and that's why you sought out his interview, or did you discover this rhetorical thrust through talking to him and others?
SB: Personally, I think it makes sense to view Abramoff's story through that lens, and I am a fan of Frank's writing. Before I started working on Casino Jack, I had done some background research for him on Abramoff's ties to the apartheid South African government (for The Wrecking Crew). So I was aware that he had immersed himself in Jack's world in writing the book, and that he had developed a personal fascination with Abramoff.
The L: And along those lines: how, exactly, does one go about approaching Tom DeLay to see if he'd be interested in discussing the associations which brought about his downfall in a documentary by a prominent liberal filmmaker?
SB: We approached DeLay during his media tour for his book No Retreat, No Surrender. DeLay is very certain about his views on the role of money in politics, and, as you might gather from the title of his book, he is not inclined to back down from expressing them.
The L: So was he worried at all about how he'd be treated in the editing, or was he spoiling for a fight? Or something in between? When you're trying to get both sides of the story to talk, is there a fairly regular set of concerns you encounter?
SB: I can't speak for him. I think that when most people hear that, regardless of their cooperation, a film is being made that tells their story, they are inclined to participate for a variety of reasons. Wouldn't you want your voice represented in The Mark Asch Story?