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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?