Documentarian Alex Gibney is no stranger to taking on difficult subjects and courting controversy. In 2008, Gibney won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for Taxi to the Dark Side, a film that exposed the torture practices of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. Despite winning an Academy Award, numerous festival awards, and receiving a 100% score on Rottentomatoes.com, the film never got the release it deserved, having been buried during theatrical distribution and denied showings on television due to its controversial subject matter. In addition, Gibney has taken on corporate greed in America (the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), corruption on Wall Street (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer), and super-lobbying (Casino Jack and the United States of Money). Gibney’s latest film Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God begins with examining Father Lawrence Murphy, who abused more than 200 Deaf children at a Catholic school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin decades ago. As adults, Arthur Budzinski, Terry Kohot, Pat Kuehn, and Gary Smith seek to right the wrongs done to them and countless others.
As the Deaf men and Gibney attempt to hold the Catholic Church accountable, they unwittingly peel back the door on a decades-long cover-up leading directly to the Pope himself. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God premieres Monday, February 4th on HBO. The film was shortlisted for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and nominated for a Writers Guild Award for Best Documentary Screenplay. In celebration, I recently enjoyed a conversation with Gibney about the making of the film. Here’s what Gibney shared with me about his passion for making films about systemic abuse, his attempts to get interviews from the Vatican, and crafting Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.
Jackson Truax:You’ve dealt with a wide range of subjects, but your best-known films all deal with some sort systemic abuse, or an organization that becomes wrapped up in a culture of abuse and on-going cover-up. Where does your interest in these subjects come from, and how did that interest lead to you making Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God?
Alex Gibney: I wish I could tell you where it came from… There are some people, it’s said, who rise high by sucking up and kicking down. I seem to have a bad habit of sucking down and kicking up… My Dad was a journalist. My stepfather was a minister, very interested in civil rights and abuses of power. Maybe it came from them. It does seem to motivate me. And in the case of Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God… I got interested in this story for two reasons. One, because it was clear that by following the paper trail of the Milwaukee tale, it would take you to a criminal conspiracy that went right to the top. That is, to say, the Vatican. And not only the Vatican, but the current Pope. And that seemed to be a story that hadn’t been done and was well worth doing. The other part of the story that I found so important, was the fact that at the heart of this story, were these Deaf men who were determined to have their voices heard. And they were heroes… Not like Gandhi or Martin Luther King. But everyday heroes. People who, despite their anonymity and their disadvantages, managed to have an impact and to make a difference. That was something I wanted to celebrate.
JT:Once you knew you were on the journey of making the film, how did you go about finding people to talk to? What was the process of getting people to agree to be interviewed?
Gibney: It’s always hard… Initially, very few people wanted to talk. I think the survivors came first… A couple of the survivors had spoken before. Two of them hadn’t. And I managed to persuade them to come forward. I think, also terribly important to this story, was the appearance of Archbishop Rembert Weakland. He had been Archbishop in Milwaukee during this tale, and actually could give us personal evidence of communication with Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. That was terribly important. It was very difficult to get him to talk. But we spoke by correspondence for a long period of time. He finally agreed to come on board. And I’m glad he did… My view is, you have to proceed with the films knowing that people will never talk. But you have to operate as if – you can’t ever stop trying. Because, it’s that dialogue that’s so important, getting people involved in the story. One of the reasons I called it “Silence in the House of God,” however, was the fact that no current officials from either the Vatican or the higher-ups in the American church were willing to talk. So, it was silence from them. And that seemed to me worth celebrating in the title.
JT:At the end of the film, it states that the Vatican denied every request for interviews. That’s not really surprising. But one of the things the film looks at is that the Vatican is such a big, seemingly impenetrable organization, it’s hard to figure out how to, for example, serve them with legal papers. How did you figure out whom to approach at the Vatican about potential involvement in the film?
Gibney: We went in the front door. There’s a PR office the Vatican has. And we requested certain key people that were particularly important. One was a man named [Charles J.] Scicluna, formerly of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. One was a guy named William Levada, also, who was, I believe, at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when we were trying to get this done. Both men were critical in terms of understanding the process of holding priests to account. So they were obvious choices. I believe we also wanted [Angelo] Sodano, but we never thought that Former Secretary of State Sodano would talk to us. But I had hopes that Scicluna and Levada might talk. But we were turned down. I also went to Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan, who’s the highest ranking cleric in America, over and over and over again. He had just recently spoken to 60 Minutes. But he refused to speak to us. He had been Archbishop of Milwaukee, and so was a terribly important figure for all sorts of reasons… I wanted people who were fundamentally integral to the story to come on board. Those were the people I went after and tried to get to talk.
JT: Looking at the acclaim you’re received, most notably your Academy Award, as well as your overall reputation and filmography, do you feel those things help or hinder you when trying to get people to talk to you for a movie like this one?
Gibney: It’s a double-edged sword. I think the fact that I have an Academy Award helps. Because it confers on my work a certain honor and respectability. At the same time, the subjects I choose, sometimes there’s a presumption that I have a particular axe to grind. Which is not true, in the sense that every time I sit down with somebody I try to make a pact with them, that I will treat their testimony fairly. Both in terms of…the interview itself. And also, when I get into the cutting room. That, to me, is a point of honor. Nevertheless, I think there’s a view that people, more and more, tend to see the decision about whether or not to be interviewed in the context of some sort of PR apparatus. Everybody’s playing a PR game rather than playing the truth game. I think that’s the hardest thing of all. Obviously, 60 Minutes is a platform for people. They want to reach a lot of people, they can do so in a very short period of time. Yet, in a documentary film, we’re going to probe deeply. Which is not to say that 60 Minutes doesn’t. They do. I have a lot of friends over at 60 Minutes who are great reporters. But in a documentary film, you’re going to spend a good bit of time looking at stuff. And I think the biggest enemy to truth-telling is a kind of PR mindset, which is, “How can I convey my message in as little interference as possible?” It’s like everybody walking around with posterboards on themselves instead of engaging into a dialogue.
JT: I would imagine that through working with Arthur, Terry, Pat, and Gary, you had access to the footage made by abuse survivor Bob Bolger before he died. How long was the entirety of the tape that he made? How did you decide how to most effectively use that footage?
Gibney: I can’t remember how long the entire tape was. We included quite a bit of it. We included almost every second of the confrontation [with Father Murphy] up at the cabin. The other part of the tape was Bob sitting down and talking to the camera and explaining why he was doing what he was doing. We went to Bob’s family to see if we could get a copy of that tape… It’s just a riveting piece of footage. Which created a tremendous amount of discussion in the cutting room. Because we knew it was so precious. We debated long and hard about where it should be. There were times where we thought it should be right up at the front. As a kind of a tease. There were other times when we thought that it should be right at the end. At the end of the day we settled on something where we held it back. But…had it at a place in the story where it made sense in terms of the narrative. Because I think its power comes from knowing how much these guys suffered. How they decided to turn around. How when they didn’t get justice, they decided to go confront Murphy themselves. So it has to be seen in the context of their journey. And I think after a lot of patience, [editor] Sloane Klevin and I found the right place for it.
JT: You’ve said that the big challenge is finding a way to make the docs work as if they’re genre films, with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room as kind of a heist film, and Taxi to the Dark Side as kind of a murder mystery. Was that how you approached crafting Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God? What genre were you channeling, if any?
Gibney: I think it was like a detective story. In this case, there wasn’t a murder. But there were crimes of abuse. And it was following on up the chain. It was a little bit like Chinatown in that sense. It starts with the eyeglasses in the backyard pond. And the next thing you know, you’re at a conspiracy to steal water from the Owens Valley. So that was the impulse. And in a way, there are a lot of structural similarities between this film and Taxi to the Dark Side. You start with a small crime. And you understand some of the key players in that crime. When I say, “small” I don’t mean unimportant. I just mean, not vast. And you follow it up, to those ultimately responsible. The biggest crime here, in a way, is not the abuse of Murphy that he perpetrated on his victims. Which was horrible, a man who abuses two hundred Deaf children. But Murphy was a sick predator. In some fundamental way, the Catholic Church can’t be responsible for his sickness. But what the church is responsible for, is allowing him access to children over such a long period of time. And putting his welfare above the welfare of innocent children. That turns out to be part of a criminal conspiracy that goes to the very top of the Vatican, which is not just about Murphy. It’s about a campaign throughout the church, throughout parishes all over the world, a billion Catholics. A concerted effort to cover up the crimes of priests, and to allow them to have access, and impunity when it comes to abusing children. It really was a shocking and vast criminal conspiracy.
JT: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God walks a really fine line, in which it’s a film about a particular case of abuse and several related cases and figures involved. At the same time, this case really serves as a pulling back of the curtain on the Catholic Church and the systemic abuse and systemic cover-up. How did you balance those two realities, and the need to make a film about this specific case, while at the same time wanting to expose the depth and breadth of this within the church?
Gibney: That was the hardest thing to do in this film, was to find that balance. And I think at the end of the day, there’s that famous quip “If you see a gun on the mantelpiece in Act One, it better go off in Act Two or Act Three.” Meaning that everything in the film had to fold in on itself. So we kept trimming it down until it seemed like all the pieces kept adding to each other. So the grand story would add to the Milwaukee story. And we would find, sometimes unexpectedly, and to great surprise, bits of harmony that would help us. For example, when we were Italy, spending most of our time in Rome…we heard about protests in Verona, where a group of Deaf students were protesting abuse at a school there. So the idea of another Deaf school, where a priest was abusing Deaf children, in Italy now, showing that the patterns kept repeating themselves in a way that kept illuminating our key story. And finding ways to put different characters together. Rembert Weakland, the reason he was such a key interview for us, was because he has a personal contact with Joseph Ratzinger. He meets with him right around the time they’re adjudicating Murphy’s case. So you have a way of connecting all these strands. That’s what the hardest part was. Because, at the end of the day, when you’re in the cutting room, whatever august scenes you’re interested in, they have to take a back seat to the momentum of the story. It’s the story that’s the most important. So we had to find a way to achieve that balance. That was the biggest challenge, I think, in making this film.
JT: You’ve once again used voice-over in a really interesting way. When the Deaf victims are signing, their words are being read by Chris Cooper (Adaptation), Ethan Hawke (Training Day), Jamey Sheridan (TV’s Homeland), and John Slattery (TV’s Mad Men). How did you decide first on using voice-over that way, and then getting those acclaimed actors to help bring the vision to life?
Gibney: The decision was a hard one. Because there was a good argument for not using voice over, to simply use subtitles. And to let the Deaf, in a way, speak for themselves with their hands. But we felt that the problem with that was threefold: One, it wouldn’t be as visceral and as emotionally satisfying. You’d spend too much time looking at the subtitles and not enough time looking at this magnificent display of visual language… Two, watching Terry, Arthur, Gary, and Pat talk in the film, with their hands and their faces. It was so expressive that I wanted people to be able to look at it, not to look at the subtitles. And the third reason, there’s a technical problem. We knew we were going to be cutting away a lot from interviews. Sometimes, you cut away from interview A, to shots of, say St. Johns. And then you stay with shots of St. Johns, while on the audio track, you’re starting interview B. The problem was, there’s no audio for deaf voices. You would have had to come up with something very sophisticated and complicated for the subtitles. So for all those reasons, we felt it was better to do it with voices. In terms of why we got the people we got, we went on a casting expedition. We wanted voices that we felt were right for the parts. We didn’t want them just read. We wanted them performed. We wanted them to inhabit the roles. And they did.
JT: In the entire time that you were doing this research and conducting these interviews, what did you see, or hear, or learn that surprised you the most?
Gibney: Two things. One was, I came in somewhat skeptical that there had been a criminal conspiracy that was so vast. I left the film being utterly convinced. That surprised me, just the depth and the breadth of this criminal conspiracy by the hierarchy. Two, the island for pedophile priests, that surprised me… And the fact that one of the cruelest pedophiles in Ireland is also an Elvis impersonator. One of the things that I learned in this film is that that kind of stuff is not ironic. It’s actually part and parcel of how the predators do what they do. They’re very often charismatic people, gaining access to their victims by being that creative and that engaging. So that was a revelation for me.
JT: If Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God were win the Writers Guild award, or get an Oscar nomination or win, to even be seen widely enough when it premieres on HBO, what’s the impact you hope the film might have, either on those who see it, or American culture or the Catholic Church as a whole?
Gibney: I guess I have three hopes for the film. One, that the example of the Deaf men at the heart of this film inspires the rest of us to that same kind of everyday heroism… Meaning, that we can all make a difference. And these guys did. And that should inspire us all. Second, I think people should draw distinctions between the hierarchy of an institution, like the Catholic Church, and the beliefs that are behind it. These guys are fallible men. Who have committed crimes. This is a crime story. It’s not a story against faith. It’s really about opening our eyes to the fact that people in our most revered institutions do commit crimes. And they need to be attended to. And the third thing, relating directly to the Catholic Church, has to do with making people understand that this was an enormous crime. And it still is an enormous crime. And it won’t be settled until the Catholic Church disgorges its documents, which it has in its archives, relating to clerical sex abuse around the world. And we should all demand that that be done.