Producer Marie Therese Guirgis’ relationship with Steve Bannon dates back to the early 2000s when he bought the company where she worked. He was her boss. That was before he started to get actively involved in his politics and the rest, as they say, is history. But that didn’t stop Guirgis from keeping in touch with him, calling him out on his political beliefs and to her surprise, Bannon would always reply back.
When she approached him about filming a documentary, Bannon said yes. Alison Klayman would spend time filming Bannon, gaining access as he met politicians, and hearing him talk about Trump’s White House and global domination.
I caught up with Guirgis and Klayman to talk about spending time with Bannon to film The Brink
Marie, you’ve had a relationship with Steve Bannon going way back. Tell us a little bit about that and what you told him about your idea for the documentary.
I worked at an arthouse film distribution company many years ago and Bannon put together a small group of people and bought the company that I worked for. He became my immediate boss and I reported to him directly for about two years. After that, he was the chairman for about a year, but he was my boss for three years.
I’d say we had a very positive relationship, although he was extremely difficult, temperamental, and a horrible boss in many ways. There were good aspects to that time and his tenure. We developed a fairly close relationship and I stayed in touch with him for several years after the company closed. I looked at him as a mentor. He had promoted me to running a company as a young woman and had always taken an interest in my career.
I lost touch with him just naturally. I think I started to get very uncomfortable as he started to get more active in the Tea Party and his politics took a sharp turn to the right. I always think that it’s interesting that when I knew him, his politics and what was evident were really the politics of a moderate Republican, which at the time, as a young Liberal, was already crazy to me.
I didn’t talk to him for a number of years and when he joined Trump, it was very upsetting to me and disturbing, given that I was very critical of Trump. I reached out to Bannon to vent and ask, “Why are you doing this? This is horrible.” He answered me which was surprising. I continued to correspond with him, mainly cathartically expressing my disgust and anger about what he was doing. He would always answer and he was always polite. I always kept that in my head that he was always talking to me. He likes me and he respects me on some level and for whatever reason, he was still talking to me. As time went on, the access became more important. I was struggling with how do I use this? What do I do with this? It needs to be more than me sending him an angry email.
I was also looking at him and the depiction of him in the media and how I felt, to some degree that he was manipulating the media. I felt the media wasn’t painting a full picture of him and that he was using the picture that was being created to his benefit.
I knew he enjoyed the way he was being depicted. I woke up and it dawned on me that I could make a documentary. I think I didn’t dare think about it and who’d fund it and who’d want to see it. I reached out and asked him. He said, “No, you’ll destroy me.” I asked him a few more times and he’d say no. Each time, I’d say, “Yes, the film is probably going to be critical. I don’t share your politics and I don’t know any filmmakers that would, but it will be a high-quality film.” I knew my track record and said, “I’ll get it in major festivals. I’ll get a great filmmaker and it’ll be a historic piece of film at the least. Even if it’s critical, it will also be fair. I’m not setting out to make a propaganda movie.” The last time I asked, he wrote back and agreed to it and it came as a bit of surprise.
I think not consciously necessarily, but Alison was always the only person in my mind as collaborator. I’d worked with her before, not to this extent, but I had absorbed her social skills, her guts and all of it that I instinctively knew that not only was she probably the right person, but also the only person who could make the film that I hoped could exist about Bannon.
I asked her, and much to my huge enormous relief and joy, she said yes.
Alison, what was your reaction when Marie says, “I’m doing a Bannon documentary?”
I immediately said yes. The reason was that I recognized it was an opportunity to engage with this moment and the dangers of this moment in a way that I think plays to my skill set as a filmmaker in terms of a vérité longterm observational portrait. There’s a lot more I thought about that I could talk about and the responsibility that I felt and all the challenges throughout the year. Truthfully, when she called I said yes. I told her I needed to meet him because I just didn’t know what he was like personally.
For both of us, we needed to be able to have the right access. I wanted to know if he was going to be interesting enough to see if he could carry a movie. Are we really going to have the access that we need to tell the story? The idea isn’t a psychological portrait of him. What’s really interesting about this access is not to be enamored of the access — it’s to ask the right questions to see what is he going to do this year. Who is he working with. As best as you can in our method, who is supporting him? Who is funding him? All those questions became incredibly urgent. I think what we did do was essentially a deconstruction of him and his tactics and his methods. I think all of that was unspoken in the first call. As we were making it, we had a lot of discussions. I thought this was the kind of movie I could do and I feel like our partnership was very powerful and we went into it to do something for all the right reasons.
The one thing that comes across was he trusted you as a director. Marie had it before from that relationship, but how did you get to that point with him?
Alison: I think that is what I do. I think I do that by really trying as best as I can to observe my subject and make my presence welcome. I think that’s the strategy always. This kind of filmmaking — and you do hear my voice — I can feel my voice in the choices. But the real strategy is how do I get in the room? How do I stay in the room? I try to figure out where to point the camera at and all of that is facilitated by that trust and ease.
I do have to say, our relationship was perceptional. I wasn’t spending a lot of time with him with the camera off to build a rapport. I think it really was the way I engaged with him and showed interest. I wasn’t there in disguise. I didn’t pretend to agree with him about stuff. I also didn’t play up any anti-persona. I think I did challenge him as time went on, but in the beginning, I was quieter.
Marie: I tried to maintain contact with him at all times. I went to very few days of filming, but I always wanted him to know, I wanted him to be reminded of my presence at all times – and it wasn’t manipulated, it was the anchor of trust. I knew he needed to have those reminders. I knew he’d respect her. He’s a snob – a cultural snob and an intellectual snob. I knew he’d find it impressive that she spoke Mandarin and she had made impressive films. She would command his respect. I think he’s more likely to “trust” and engage with them and let his guard down if the person deserves to be in his presence. I knew instinctively that he would forget about her, but also be flattered that someone like Alison would be interested in him.
Alison: I think with his personality, I think that all played into his vanity. I think me asking if I could come implies an interest in the curiosity. I’d like to think he underestimated me. I think on the surface, it would be easy to underestimate one person with a fanny pack and camera. It must be a strange thing to be followed around by me.
I don’t think he imagined the movie as it is.
What is it like when you’re in the room with him and Nigel Farage – I have to ask about that because of Brexit – hearing them talk about world domination.
Alison: Oh my God I have chills just you bringing that up and bringing me back to that moment.
I simply have to, being British. [laughs]
Alison: In that sense, your experience as a viewer is what I’m trying to do, bring you into that feeling that I had. You’re just like “Woahhh.” That conversation was before all the events of that place took place. It’s already offensive to watch that, but let’s try to actualize that as a plan. I would say it was incredibly visceral. Everything I’m doing is mediated through, I have a lot of physical feelings inside my body, but I was trying to get the coverage. It helped because that was a moment in filming when I thought, “this is going to be in the movie.”
How did your opinion of him change after spending that time with him?
Alison: My opinion of him was formed. There wasn’t a point to change. I recognize that I didn’t know him personally. I think my opinion of his politics, strategy and tactics just got worse. Knowing him, I could see that he is a person who could know better. He chooses not to. Whether he’s choosing not to or he has that hate and malice in his heart, in the end, that doesn’t matter. He’s doing it.
This whole stance was me filling that out rather than it changing.
Marie: For me, it was getting to know him again. I hadn’t been close to him for a number of years. I started out struggling because people wanted to know if he was racist and anti-semitic. From my experience of working with him and being around him, those were not traits that I would have ever attributed to him. I started out struggling with that. I took the next time wanting to believe that he was opportunistic and I think that was my own way of protecting my memory.
At the same time, I still don’t know. I also said it doesn’t matter, it’s a sad trajectory that I had to take was having to come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter how he acted a few years ago, and what’s in his heart. It’s about how he’s spending every waking moment of his day, who is he meeting with? who is he helping to promote? I definitely do think he’s more of a true believer than he used to be. I used to joke to him when I knew him and say, “He’s a closet liberal.” He’d always say, “Shhhh.” I’d never make that joke now. I have to say it’s a sad conclusion I had to come to.