Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney has carved out a career by tackling stories of high-stakes corruption, unchecked power and untethered greed.
Gibney’s portfolio includes 2013′s The Armstrong Lie, which chronicled the rise and fall of professional bicyclist Lance Armstrong; the Emmy Award-winning Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief, a film that delved into the inner workings of the Church of Scientology; and the Oscar-winning 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, which examined the use of torture by the American military.
In his latest documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, Gibney turns his lens to the high profile case of Elizabeth Holmes and her infamous biotech startup Theranos, which vowed to disrupt health care with inexpensive, accessible finger-prick blood tests.
Gibney describes the 119-minute feature film, which will enjoy its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24 in the Documentary Premieres category, as a unique “huge team effort,” as Theranos was a company “determined to keep people out.”
Modeling herself after Apple entrepreneur Steve Jobs, Holmes was able to secure major investment from such high profile people as Oracle founder Larry Ellison, Walmart founders the Walton family (US$150 million), Rupert Murdoch (US$121 million) and current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (US$100 million).
Theranos stated that its technology could run blood tests with only a single drop of blood, which would detect medical conditions such as cancer and high cholesterol. In 2013, Holmes partnered with American pharmacy chain Walgreens to introduce her blood-testing device to store pharmacies, which helped propel the company to an estimated value of US$10 billion, with Forbes magazine declaring the entrepreneur as the youngest self-made female billionaire.
A few years later, the value of Theranos was less than zero and in June 2018, Holmes and her ex-boyfriend Sunny Balwani, the company’s former president and chief operating officer, were hit with criminal fraud and civil fraud charges. Federal prosecutors allege that the pair had defrauded doctors, patients and investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars.
HBO Films, the production division of the premium cable network HBO, came to Gibney with the idea of delving into the unfolding story of Theranos. The director was eager to come aboard the project as he too was interested in uncovering the inner workings of the Silicon Valley-headquartered tech company.
Gibney tells realscreen he was fascinated with having the opportunity to look at the psychology of fraud. With HBO financing the feature, production on The Inventor broke ground in early 2017 and wrapped this past Fall.
The execution proved challenging. Gibney and his production team at Jigsaw Productions had to approach the project in multiple ways because the Theranos story was “hard to penetrate”.
“If there is one thing I’ve learned over time, it’s that if you keep at it, you get there, but you may get there in a very different way and through a very different path than when you originally started the project,” Gibney notes.
The beginning of production spelled trouble for the production team as Holmes refused to talk to them. According to Gibney, there were also a number of employees who were afraid of being sued if they divulged information.
A major break came for Gibney when acclaimed freelance journalist Roger Parloff and The New Yorker‘s Ken Auletta joined the project. Both men had written prominent features covering Holmes and her then-fledgling biotech company.
Eventually, key Theranos staff showed a willingness to go on the record once the situation started to sour and Gibney was able to gain their trust.
The biggest challenge the director encountered with The Inventor was trying to access archive material. He was able to finally access footage from inside sources who provided video from meetings, commercials, and extended interviews that were done for promotional interviews. Gibney says the video showcases how the company worked from the inside and how it aimed to present itself to the public.
“To get footage from the inside was a great coup, and that is what allowed us to tell the story with the kind of intimacy we wanted to tell it with,” Gibney says.
Producing The Inventor confirmed Gibney’s opinion that the most dangerous idea in the world is believing that the ends justify the means. Even the pursuit of noble ideals can lead to devastating consequences.
(Photo by Drew Kelly. Courtesy of Sundance Institute)
- The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley premieres Jan. 24 at 5:30 p.m. MT at The MARC Theatre in Park City, Utah.