Today: April 22, 2024

Director Alex Gibney

The story of Eliot Spitzer is in many ways the story of our times – of a man who wanted to do great things in the world but whose ambitions were destroyed by a sudden, unexpected and perhaps even silly sexual disgrace, leaving everyone around him to question . . . why? CLIENT—9 provides a kaleidoscopic answer as it probes both the psychology of the man and the motivations of the enemies who appear to have wanted his carefully constructed reputation as a moral crusader to be shattered.

Oscar® winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side, and the Oscar nominated documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) talks about the film.

“Spitzer’s story is so fascinating because it raises eternal questions that people will always have to reckon with: about infidelity, marriage, desire, pride, hypocrisy, self-destruction, vengeance and corruption,” says Gibney. “We’ll always have sex scandals in American politics because we live vicariously through the lives of the powerful and the famous, but I think there is also a compelling need to really look at the line between what is a public crime and what is a private matter.”

Like most Americans, Gibney watched with dismay in March of 2008 as Spitzer tumbled from the very heights of New York politics into the most lurid sex headlines of the decade. But when Gibney was approached about making a film on the subject, he says he hesitated initially.

“When the story exploded, I was as shocked as everyone else, and there was such a torrential downpour of media coverage, that it was hard to know what was under the surface or what the angle would be,” Gibney explains. “Everyone was talking about it and of course, everyone wanted to know more about the more salacious details. But it was only when I started researching Spitzer’s story that I began to see that it had so many other facets to it – not just adultery and high-priced, extracurricular sex but political gamesmanship, the possibility of conspiracy, and all set against a volatile time in New York as the financial collapse was looming. Questions about what really happened started reverberating.”

Soon after, Gibney approached journalist Peter Elkind — with whom he previously collaborated on the acclaimed Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room – to see if they might work together on the story. Elkind had known Spitzer while they were both at Princeton and had interviewed him several times for Fortune magazine. Now, as he talked with Gibney about his fledgling film, Elkind began to think that there was a book in the story as well.

“Usually, a book becomes a movie, and that was the case with The Smartest Guys in the Room, which Peter had written with Bethany McLean before I made the film,” says Gibney. “But in this case, we decided I would make a film and he would write a book separately but simultaneously, sharing resources, discoveries and ideas the whole time with each other, but without one determining the final shape of the other.” (Elkind’s book on Spitzer, Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, was published in April 2010 to rave critical reviews.)

Gibney and Elkind forged ahead, but now it was a waiting game because Spitzer was still wary about speaking while legal charges were pending. In the meantime, Gibney began to explore how Spitzer had arrived in this very strange place in the history of American scandals.

Spitzer was born, as they say, with a silver spoon in his mouth, the son of the wealthy, New York real estate tycoon Bernard Spitzer. Raised on high expectations and slim emotional sustenance, he attended the finest schools in the country, first Princeton, and then Harvard Law. His keen political talent and smarts were obvious early on, and in 1998, he won his first major election, becoming the Attorney General of New York, which seemed a harbinger of a major political career in the making.

Driven to make a serious mark, Spitzer immediately began a headline-making crusade against financial corruption, targeting for the first time the privileged men who historically have escaped the focus of law enforcement — white-collar criminals, mutual fund traders, insurance industry executives and securities fraudsters — in a relentless, pitbull style that the state – or the country – had never seen before. He boldly went after some of New York’s biggest banks and companies, including Merrill Lynch, Bank of America and AIG – making serious foes out of some of the toughest, savviest money players on the planet. As if he were ready to engage in a Western shootout, Spitzer soon became known around town as “the Sheriff of Wall Street.”

In 2006, Spitzer’s upward trajectory continued, as he was elected Governor of New York, garnering 69 percent of the vote. With typical brashness, he swept into office promising to make drastic changes and declaring his intentions to bring ethics back to a state government crippled by corruption and special interests.

But it wasn’t long before Spitzer was embroiled in his own controversies. He was criticized for his inability to compromise and for adding to political gridlock with his tough-guy stances; and he came under fire for “Troopergate,” an early scandal in which Spitzer was accused of using police surveillance to track his main Republican rival, NY State Senate Majority leader Joseph Bruno.

Still, no one could have predicted what happened next. On March 10, 2008, The New York Times reported that a Federal wiretap investigation had discovered that Spitzer was paying for the services of prostitutes. In time, it would be revealed that he had paid more than $100,000 for multiple liaisons with escorts of the Emperors Club VIP, starting in early 2006. Two days later, Spitzer announced his resignation from office, effective March 17.

Gibney had several burning questions, none of which were simple to answer: What was it in Spitzer that allowed him to risk so much simply for illicit sex? How did he carry out this secret life? When did he start seeing prostitutes? And why? This was, after all, a man who, as Attorney General, had prosecuted prostitution rings. There were other questions: how do these high-end escort services operate? Why was a federal investigation launched into Spitzer’s use of the Emperors Club VIP when, according to the official guidelines of the Department of Justice, customers are essentially never prosecuted for using call girls? And who, among his many rivals, might have been out to get Spitzer, and on the hunt for his most unseemly personal proclivities?

Gibney knew that many of those questions did not have hard answers, which exhilarated him as a filmmaker. “Making this film was, for me, a leap of faith,” notes Gibney. “I had all these questions but I wasn’t sure where they would lead me and that was an appealing aspect. There was a mystery to it and I decided I would just follow the story and see where it took me. This also led to the film’s structure, which starts out by showing what most people think happened, and then begins to show what really happened.”

Visually, the film was also a departure for Gibney. Befitting the high drama of the Spitzer tale, he designed the film with the dark, sleek aesthetic of a sophisticated Manhattan mystery. He worked closely with his long-time cinematographer Maryse Alberti, who also recently shot Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, to create a look different from any documentary Gibney had shot before. “I wanted the film to be a living, breathing portrait of life among New York’s rich and powerful, and for the city itself to feel like a character,” he says. “I also wanted it to have a real sense of mystery.”

The shadowy ambiance found in the halls of power is complemented by the music of composer Peter Nashel. “I’ve wanted to work with Peter for a long time,” says Gibney. “Conceptually, I wanted it to be as though some world-weary piano player had sat down in the faded elegance of a New York bar and played out the story of Eliot Spitzer. Peter created something mysterious, full of intrigue, sad at times, full of haunting, hypnotic melodies that pull you inside the drama – that vibe was very important to the film.”

Adding further to the cinematic atmosphere is a diverse, hand-picked rock, soul and hip-hop soundtrack that adds splashes of wit and emotion in the background, with songs from Feist, Kurtis Blow, Common, Spoon, Tom Waits, Nikka Costa, Sam and Dave, Betty Lavette, Gorillaz, Caetano Veloso and an opening track of Cat Power performing the Sinatra classic “New York, New York. I like that version because there’s a sly undercurrent that cuts into the song’s celebration of ambition,” says Gibney. “It’s Samson’s song, sung by Delilah. It sets the tone.”

When legal charges against Eliot Spitzer were dropped in November 2008, Spitzer agreed to talk with Elkind for the book and with Gibney on film. “People are always asking me why he was willing to do this,” admits Gibney. “And my best answer is ‘you’d have to ask him.’ But my guess would be that he felt there had to be some kind of reckoning and that he hoped we would be fair-minded and honest, even though he had to know that we were going to find out things that would make him very uncomfortable.”

“He was rightfully cautious at first,” Gibney continues. “I sent him all my films and I know he talked to some people to see if he felt I would be forthright and even-handed.” Ultimately, Gibney would interview Spitzer on five separate occasions, and he found the skilled public speaker alternately effusive and completely resistant to opening up, depending on the question. “If the question was about the global economic collapse, I would get a very articulate and well-composed answer, but if the question was about the scandal, it was a different story,” Gibney explains. “He was suddenly, tongue-tied, nervous, evasive. In one session, we had blocked out time to talk about AIG and the scandal. Once we finished talking about AIG, and I started to move on to the escort service, he looked at his watch, and said, ‘ok five more minutes.’ Well, I had to take more time than that.”

Gibney kept returning, again and again, to the topic of why Spitzer sought out illegal sex, and the ex-Governor did begin to talk, albeit stripped of the confidence and assurance with which he talks about politics and economics. Spitzer struggled for words, and Gibney allowed him to do so. “As Spitzer says, he doesn’t do introspection, so I think it was very hard for him,” Gibney observes. “I think in many ways, his behavior was a mystery to himself. A lot of politicians get caught with their pants around their ankles, but Spitzer was different. He was supposed to be the paragon of virtue, the Dudley Do-Right who did no wrong. He wasn’t a well-known charmer like Bill Clinton; he wasn’t even a guy who was known for being even a little flirtatious. So answering my questions meant examining an aspect of his life where he indulged a hidden side of himself. Yet, tough as it was for him to express himself in this area, I think Spitzer at least had a larger understanding that his mistakes needed to be examined.”

Pushing a man to wrestle with his inner demons is never a simple task. “It wasn’t easy for me, either,” Gibney confesses. “It was very uncomfortable to sit there with Spitzer shooting me that glowering look that will give a person pause – and you can hear me in the background asking the questions very quietly. But these were the questions about his secret sex life that needed to be asked. I do think a person’s marriage is their own private business, but Spitzer knew that he had opened himself up to these questions because he had so assiduously cultivated this moral image, because he had committed a crime, at least according to state law, and because he was a former law officer who chose for mysterious reasons to do something illegal.”

The more Gibney talked with Spitzer the more he became intrigued by the man’s deeper motivations, which primal as they may seem, also appeared to have a dark edge, a classic vein of self-destruction. “He’s a fascinating psychological study,” Gibney summarizes. “He knew he had made a lot of enemies on Wall Street and in the Republican ranks of the legislature. He knew these men were very angry with him and that they wanted revenge — and he knew they played hard ball. Yet, even knowing all of that, Spitzer still gave them everything they needed to take him down.”

In the midst of his research for CLIENT—9, Alex Gibney made a major new discovery – a young woman, code-named “Angelina” in the film, who was — unbeknownst to the media or anyone else — Spitzer’s true favorite escort, whom he saw repeatedly. While Ashley Dupre, the would-be pop singer caught with Spitzer at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. on the federal wiretap, basked in the media spotlight as “Spitzer’s Call Girl” (and subsequently became a B celebrity and sex columnist for the New York Post), in truth Gibney found out she had only spent a few hours on one night with him. “Angelina” was Spitzer’s regular choice escort and the woman who knew the most about what really went on behind closed hotel doors.

Once Gibney uncovered Angelina’s true identity, she agreed to talk with him, but she did not want her face or voice to be revealed on film. Interestingly, while she believes that escort services should be legal and that, for her, working in the sex industry was a personal calling, she confessed that there were those in her family who would be less than thrilled to learn about her lucrative side-line. This led Gibney to make a highly unusual decision – he hired an actress to read the real Angelina’s words on screen as part of the documentary.

Explains Gibney: “Initially, I was going to do it the old-fashioned way: putting her in shadow and electronically altering her voice. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that wouldn’t give an authentic sense of who she really is. Angelina is someone who doesn’t look anything like what we usually imagine a hooker looks like. She’s a very pretty young woman who is quite compelling and sympathetic, and, in contrast to the tremendous number of lies I was told during the making of this film, she is a truth-teller. Yet, I knew if we put her in shadow, she would come off as a criminal. We would instantly turn her into a sinister figure – and it was important to me that this not happen.”

So Gibney decided to take a filmmaking risk by interviewing the real Angelina, then having an actress perform her words under his direction. “There is no rule book for these things,” states Gibney. “This choice certainly would not be right in all situations, but it was right for this one. It not only works dramatically for the film, but more importantly, it more effectively reveals a deeper truth. To have done it the other way would have been far more distorting.”

The actress – Wrenn Schmidt – and Angelina never met or even saw each other’s picture, but when Angelina saw a cut of the film she was quite disarmed by the performance. “She said it was like an out of body experience because she was amazed how much it seemed like it was her on the screen,” recalls Gibney. Angelina’s comments not only answer some long-running questions – including whether or not Spitzer wore long black socks during their sessions together – but also provide the film’s most intimate insights into what a relationship between a call girl and a public figure is actually like on the inside.

“I think one of the most interesting things about Angelina is how she talks about the way Spitzer started out wanting to carve out a very separate space for his liaisons with her, a space that wouldn’t emotionally threaten his relationship with his wife. But that ultimately changed with Angelina, because she demanded it. She wanted more of a relationship with him and she got it – and she gave us a perspective you never see in call-girl scandals.”

When Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign in 2008, it seemed that he had only himself to blame. After all, he had admitted to consorting with prostitutes, which is clearly against the law. But over time, new and unsettling questions have been raised as to why Spitzer’s use of prostitutes was investigated in the first place – and whether he was not only a victim of his own mistaken belief that he was somehow above the law, but also of those who wanted him out of his office, and vengeance against him, at any cost.

For Gibney, telling this part of Spitzer’s story was a chance to penetrate how high-stakes games are played in the halls of power. It took him into the luxurious, power-brokering offices of some of the wealthiest men in America where he was able to capture the often nasty and brutal war that Eliot Spitzer had started when he began going after Wall Street five years ago, and perpetuated when he became Governor. “It was quite amazing because we were able to get everybody we wanted to talk to on film,” says the director. “It’s rare that you get to interview not only the subject of your film but all of his greatest enemies – and that was delicious.”

It was also challenging, because Spitzer’s enemies comprise a group of men as renowned for their egos and tough talk as Spitzer is – but Gibney says most of them were quite happy to speak openly. “I gave them a chance to land some roundhouse punches on Spitzer’s reputation and they leapt at the opportunity,” Gibney says. “Having them all was like watching a CEO version of ‘Hollywood Squares’”

Client 9 is out on DVD on 9 May. To buy on DVD, go here.

Marcia Degia - Publisher

Marcia Degia, who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years, is the Publishing Editor of KOL Social Magazine. See website: thekolsocial.com

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