The faded yellow of Hulkamania was just the beginning of a story that led to a tale of a tech mogul, the U.S. president-elect and the future of the press.
The story Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press isn’t just a clarion call to protect the fifth estate, but to independent filmmakers with a daring to confront some of the most powerful men in the world, says Brian Knappenberger, director of the film from Luminant Studios.
“Each page turned (was) weirder than the last one,” Knappenberger told realscreen of the real-life courtroom drama that unfolded across the nation in 2016 after the now-defunct news site Gawker published portions of a sex tape featuring former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan (whose real name is Terry Bollea, pictured).
“The Hulk Hogan sex tape trial with Gawker is, by itself, interesting and a page turner, but the notion that the verdict would be that high ($140 million in damages was awarded), and then that Peter Thiel of all people…would be the one behind it is just staggering,” he said.
Knappenberger’s film originally set out to document tech mogul Peter Thiel, a tech billionnaire who earned his fortune as one of the co-founders of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook.
“He’s always been a real outlier in Silicon Valley,” Knappenberger said, citing Thiel’s libertarian leanings and work in the “surveillance economy” — the practice of extracting user data and selling it to corporate interests — for sparking the initial interest in the subject.
The Hulk Hogan vs Gawker invasion of privacy lawsuit was something unfolding in the background to the film. It was only following the conclusion of the trial that it was revealed Thiel had been bankrolling Bollea’s legal bills, telling the New York Times at the time it was “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done.”
Soon after a connection to incoming President Donald Trump was formed.
“Peter Thiel got on with Trump in a really big way; speaking at the RNC, and giving money to him, and (he) was part of his transition team,” said Knappenberger.
Through the twists and turns of the film’s material, including the case of casino magnet Sheldon Adelson’s controversial endorsement of Trump through his Las Vegas Review-Journal, Knappenberger’s film took on a much broader subject than he initially anticipated, alleging an attack by the wealthy on members of the press that challenged them, a threat, he believes, that could easily be extended to independent film makers.
“A lot of people who are making challenging films don’t understand the forces here,” said Knappenberger. “Independent film makers don’t necessarily have the backing of major news organizations…A lot of independent filmmakers don’t really understand the kind of legal help they need, the kind of insurance they need to get, the protections that they need.”
Knappenberger considers the film to be especially timely, world premiering at the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 24 just days after the inauguration of Trump, a vocal critic of the so-called “main-stream” press.
“(Documentary filmmakers) need to find stories and tell stories of people that can define a new way forward. It’s not just about bashing Trump, it’s about defining an alternative,” says Knappenberger of his focus.
“The big benefit that a long-form documentary filmmaker has is that they can dig deeper, and be more nuanced in their approach. What you want is a truly independent press, and who is more independent than that documentary film maker whose purpose is to go after the truth…In both of those ways, documentary filmmakers play a critical role in what we’re about to face next.”
Knappenberger is planning on taking the doc on the global film festival circuit. Afterwards he’s looking at a theatrical release where he anticipates a strong response from audiences.
“There’s a strong understanding that it’s important to speak truth to power, that it’s important to push back,” he said. “We’re diving into a contentious debate that a lot of people are thinking about, so I think a lot of people are going to be interested in this.”