Alison Klayman, the award-winning filmmaker behind Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, has returned with her new film The Brink, an observational documentary focusing on controversial political figure Steve Bannon.
I caught up with Alison Klayman to discuss the film, how it came to be, and what challenges she faced.
Steve Bannon couldn’t be a more different figure to Ai Weiwei. I wondered why you chose to work with him, and what your motivation was for the film?
Alison Klayman: A very unique opportunity presented itself because my producer (Marie Therese Guirgis), although she was very much opposed to his current political position, knew him from the early 2000s when he was an investor in the entertainment field and she worked in a company that he bought. So, the access opportunity felt like it was unique in a way that we could do what I think we pulled off, which was to have a somewhat similar intimate access film like I had with Ai Weiwei. As a filmmaker who’s very opposed to a very powerful figure, the fact that I was going to be able to have that kind of access to him was a very intriguing prospect to me.
I agree with you that Ai Weiwei and Steve Bannon don’t belong in the same sentence, aside from the fact that they both have the experience of looking to the side and having me put a microphone on them. I just felt like Bannon seemed like someone who there would be value in following, in seeing how he sells himself, how he sells his message to the press, to have access to see who is really meeting with him and where he’s going with this movement of his; a sort of ‘behind the curtain’ look.
I wasn’t specifically fascinated by Bannon before the opportunity came about, but the chance to go inside the far right of the Republican Party felt really valuable at this moment in time, and I did think that Bannon was a good character that could help make it a potentially interesting film as well.
Yes, I couldn’t help but notice how charismatic he is, perhaps intentionally, but charismatic nonetheless.
Alison Klayman: Yes, and I think that’s important, too, because, without having that look, his public persona would still be as this grim reaper, or as he says Jabba the Hutt. But, he’s not this Dick Cheney type figure. Actually, he comes much closer to more of a grifter. He’s a consultant, an investment banker, and it’s important to see what he really does and who he is.
My intention was not to soften his image but to show you the truth; to show you how he is getting ahead. He is charming the press. He is charming donors. He’s able to communicate on their level.
What does it mean that the former head of Breitbart is also very comfortable with the former President of Goldman Sachs and a Chinese billionaire? I think it’s really important to see all that. I think to say that he is charming does not necessarily mean that you have to be charmed.
What did you hope to achieve with the film? Did you have an outlook going in or was your aim simply to observe and see where it took you?
Alison Klayman: With this film, it was incredibly important to understand what my framework and point-of-view was in making it, because I felt that was key to doing it responsibly. If you make a film like this, it’s all about the how. The how is everything. Just because you have the opportunity doesn’t mean you can just be enamoured with the access in and of itself. While the opportunity was definitely how the project started for me, it was the how that kept me up at night and that was what I thought about every night and every morning.
The whole point of the film was to use this opportunity as a way in which to observe these people’s actions. This is a privileged chance to see how they talk behind closed doors and who they are speaking with.
People have talked about it as a portrait or a character study, but I think that happened incidentally and I think it’s also because of my style. My filmmaking gets really close with people. I wanted to show people who he really is, meaning it ended up being a portrait, but that was never the guiding principle.
It’s not about ‘how much did he love his mother?’ because that’s also not what’s important in his life. If it turned out that the whole reason he did everything was because of something in his childhood, then that should make the film, but in reality, I think the line in which he says ‘what is a personal life?’ is far more telling when it comes to what he is really about.
So, I think going in, letting people judge him by his actions and his words was my intention.
In terms of these ‘behind closed doors’ meetings, I think we all have this image in our heads about how these conversations happen, but it’s rare to actually see it quite like this.
Alison Klayman: I think that’s exactly it and that’s what I was interested it, but it had to only be made from what I got. Ultimately, it’s about having the right framework so that I can then just go in and try to get the evidence. Maybe what you find is underwhelming, maybe it’s chilling in its utter venality, or maybe it’s chilling in how something that feels very extreme is being discussed without even acknowledging the violence and cruelty that’s going to come down the line, but that’s what it actually was. You have to frame it as an interesting film that has narrative drive but it still has to be truthful.
We all have our own personal worldviews and political stances. How difficult was it for you to create a film that you felt was inherently fair?
Alison Klayman: This was a very difficult film to make. Doing it fairly just meant having the same standards that I would abide by for any subject in any film. I felt that would only strengthen the critique, but then it was on me to understand what the critique was; what my position was. I think it had to be made from my point-of-view, but I also think that being fair was especially a requirement here and I think ultimately it strengthens the critique.
To give you a specific example, you’ll see in the film that sometimes we let lines of his play out or exchanges play out without a cut for longer. I think it was part of the style in the film and part of the approach in the edit because I felt that, in this world of propaganda and fake news accusations, I really wanted there to be extra-transparent filmmaking.
I also personally felt ethically uncomfortable with cleaning up his dialogue. I think that’s something very typical in documentaries or even on the news. I felt very uncomfortable doing something like that here, not just out of fairness but also because I didn’t want to help him appear more intelligible because I felt that his level of intelligibility needed to be accurately on display.
So, there was a lot of considerations that lean towards what I would consider to be fair and transparent. That was how we edited the film. I think that was always on our mind.
You spent over a year with Bannon and many other high-profile figures. How was that experience for you, personally? How did you find it?
Alison Klayman: I found it hard to film for long stretches of time. For the first nine months, it was very much a couple of days on and then maybe a week or two off. Over the last few months, as things were wrapping up and also my access got better over time, I was doing much more consistent filming.
I also watched a lot of TV as therapy. I watched Ru Paul’s Drag Race, all of The Good Wife, just anything that made me feel comforted, and I took a lot of baths! It was just the stress of being a one-woman crew combined with what I felt were very difficult things to listen to.
Pretty much everyone treated me with respect, but it was difficult spending every day figuring out what was going on, pushing to get into the rooms and hoping others that were with Bannon would agree to be filmed.
There are a couple of moments in the film in which you engage Bannon in conversation when you perhaps have something you want to add. How hard was it to bite your tongue for such long periods of time?
Alison Klayman: In some sense it wasn’t that hard because to me the film was going to better if things happened in front of the camera, and it wasn’t really designed to be like him arguing with an off-camera voice. I always felt best when I was capturing good things and when it was happening without me having to intervene. As time went on, I realised how thin a lot of his knowledge or positions were, but it doesn’t really come off that way in the beginning and he is also a masterful debater. So, I did feel that part of the game was to be really patient and to watch how he reacts. I watched so many interviews and speeches to really understand that and to find where the holes were that he had not been pushed on, and that’s where I stepped in.
He says in the film that he considers propaganda to be a positive thing. Did you ever feel manipulated or that he was perhaps playing up to the camera? Or was he just completely genuine?
Alison Klayman: I was always on heightened alert, but I honestly think it’s just part of his nature. I think he’s constantly performing. I think that’s why the process of an observational documentary is particularly well-suited for a subject like him because you are watching him assessing who his audience is and calibrating his performance. It’s all a part of understanding who he really is. Frankly, that’s how you can understand who anybody is. We’re all always performing ourselves for different people.
Bannon has bravado and I think he was often performing. I don’t know whether it was for my camera because he was imagining how the footage would be used, or if it was just for me, considering how he sees me both as a filmmaker and also a woman in her mid-30s who he thinks might be smart but also probably underestimates him.
What Bannon was thinking was what I was always trying to assess. There were sometimes meetings that he would want me to film, and I would ask myself why he wanted me to do so. A lot of things that made it into the final cut were things that I almost didn’t get to film, such as his dinner with the far-right leaders. I almost didn’t get to film that and that was him meeting most of those people for the very first time. I filmed it from start to finish.
A lot of what made it into the film are the things that I thought were more genuine or perhaps I’m making a point about how fake they are. For example, him sitting with Chinese billionaire Miles Kwok and having that conversation was very weird and performative. Sometimes, I think that the gaze of the camera is about enhancing your perspective as an audience of critically evaluating what you are seeing, and I think there are some scenes that you can see are real and others when you feel it’s a little weird or fake, or perhaps you don’t believe his answer. I think the film has a wide range of that.
As Nigel Farage said, Bannon likes to be seen. It wasn’t hard to see that he wanted you to film certain things if he felt they were important in that regard.
He also says that he has learned from Donald Trump that any publicity is good publicity. Later, he says he doesn’t think he’ll come across well in the documentary. Considering these comments, I wondered if he had seen the film and, if he had, what he thought of it?
Alison Klayman: So, my producer showed it to him right before it premiered, and as the first reviews started to come in, he cut off all contact with her, so I don’t think he’s happy with how the film has been received by audiences and critics.
I think, when he initially saw it, it was just a strange experience watching a film about himself that wasn’t from his own perspective, but I think he would’ve felt differently if he thought the film could be a useful propaganda tool for him. It was definitely a big fear of ours that he could use it in a way that was not intended, and I was very worried about that. While I think that he is the least important audience member for this film, I was also very afraid of him co-opting it, and I never took that for granted.
Now that we’re six months into the film’s life, I think he has clearly seen that it is not a useful film for him. The way that people have written about him has really taken him down a little. The general narrative is that he exposes himself and that’s not something he likes.
I very intentionally put in those lines about using the mainstream media because it’s all about how we cover these political figures and movements that are trying to be in exposure and manipulate through getting their message out with that mainstream media. I do think that a documentary film is a different kind of project and my goal was to make a film that wasn’t assisting him in that cause and I feel pretty successful.
The Brink will be released in select UK cinemas from 12th July 2019.
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