Interview with Todd Wider, Producer of Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Smooth, smart, and with an
unexpected kick, Alex Gibney's new doc CLIENT 9 goes down like an
impeccably mixed cocktail--a Manhattan perhaps? For those who didn't
follow the story when it broke in 2008, the title refers to the abrupt
resignation of New York's governor following revelations that he frequented
an upscale escort agency. Although political sex scandals are not entirely
novel, Eliot Spitzer's downfall was particularly shocking given his
square-jawed, legal crusader image honed during a tenure as the state's
attorney general. In lesser hands than Gibney and company's, then,
one might expect a doc on this topic to represent a prime example of
middlebrow exploitation: ripped-from-the-tabloids content spiced
with glib observations about the corrupting influence of power. And
while Spitzer's own on-camera analogies to Icarus seem a tad self-serving
(they smack of hubris even as he decries his own hubris), and the closing
moments seem to offer an indirect apologia by comparing Spitzer's
indiscretions to those of others, the film's overall tone and approach
is surprising, if not enthralling, at nearly every turn. What's most
astounding about CLIENT 9's patient, connect-the-dots strategy--which
illuminates the personalities and motivations of Spitzer's powerful
enemies in startling ways--is how it makes his tale seem entirely new.
Like an accomplished thriller, the film sheds light on a shadowy world
bit by bit so that, in the end, it plays out like the nothing less than
the greatest episode of LAW AND ORDER ever made.
Yet the idea of marrying the
potentially salacious content to Gibney's sober, restrained sensibility
was not the director's but rather came from Wider Film Projects, the
company headed by brothers Jedd (Photo Left) and Todd Wider (Photo Right). Tackling big subjects
is certainly nothing new for Todd Wider, nor is creating docs that feature
a potent blend of the topical and the personal. He exec produced both
Gibney's Oscar-winner TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE (for which Wider received
an Emmy), and 2007's WHAT WOULD JESUS BUY?, an engaging exploration
of the commercialization of Christmas. Indeed, the films that bear Wider's
mark help make the case for documentaries being one of the more entertaining
U.S. film genres in recent years. With CLIENT 9's release this Friday,
we were glad to catch up with him, learn more about the role of the
documentary form in today's media landscape, and find out what hot-button
topics he'll be tackling next.
Peter Gutiérrez: Let's get
one thing out of the way right away. Why aren't there more interviews
with producers? Is it because they're not glamorous enough or too
busy, or both?
Todd Wider: I don't know,
I like to think of myself as somewhat glamorous. Seriously, producers
are often overlooked by the press but usually are very involved in many
aspects of the filmmaking process and often have interesting and creative
perspectives on things. I am all for more producer interviews.
Gutiérrez: Do you have a style
of producing, or approach to it, that's developing along certain lines,
or do you see yourself as just responding to the needs of each project?
Wider: My brother Jedd and I, with
whom I run Wider Film Projects, have produced 11 documentaries and 2
features. In some situations, we develop the idea and source and hire
the talent to make the film. In others, we have helped secure financing.
We are always creatively involved in each project we do. We are not
passive investors at all. But we support our directors' visions and
try to respond to their needs and desires. At the same time, you have
to keep in mind that you are producing a film that needs to be of interest
to people. Film is certainly an art form, but documentaries in particular
need to be seen. There is no point in making a movie that sits in the
top drawer of your desk, or a little file in your computer. Film is
like painting with expensive paint brushes and paints, and at the end
of the day, you want to make something that engages an audience.
Gutiérrez: So what was it
like working with Alex Gibney again after TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE? Were
the roles, or relationship, different this time out?
Wider: We brought the idea
of CLIENT 9 to Alex Gibney. I actually had to pitch it to him, and he
took a night to think about it. We felt there was much more to this
story than meets the eye at first glance. We were particularly interested
in why there is such a national obsession in the sexual affairs of our
leaders. It just seems silly to be so focused on that given what great
problems we are facing. The next day he called us and said he was in.
We raised the money, together with our EP Mason Sexton, very quickly.
Working with Alex is always a great journey. He is a master storyteller
and very perceptive.
Gutiérrez: One of the strengths
of CLIENT 9 is its New York sensibility and perspective--and its own
awareness of it, right down to the song played over the closing credits.
Did that aspect of the film appeal to or resonate with you personally?
And what sense of the city might non-New Yorkers get from the film?
Wider: One of the things I
love about CLIENT 9 is the great sense of New York that the film captures.
You really get a sense of the city, from the fishmongers downtown to
the mansions uptown. You also get a sense of how beautiful New York
is and how vibrant. We made a real attempt with the film to show how
magnificent New York is. My brother and I both live in New York, and
love this city. But to really understand what happened with Spitzer,
you have to get a taste of New York. New York City is the financial
center of the world, and both the Attorney General and the governor
of the state are really among the most powerful people in the world
because of the positions they hold here.
So Spitzer was extremely powerful--first
as AG, then as governor, and he did not tread lightly. As AG, he targeted
some of the wealthiest and most powerful financial figures in our society,
and Wall Street really did shake from what he was doing. He was onto
AIG years before anyone had any idea that anything was wrong there.
He targeted mutual fund fraud, crazy CEO compensation packages, and
illegal hedge fund practices. He went after misleading stock analysts
who were telling the public to buy while telling insiders to sell. He
went after Wall Street players like he was hunting big game. Many on
the Street felt he was much too aggressive. When he became governor,
he wanted to shake up the political structure of the state and clean
house, steamrolling his way through the morass of backdoor and murky
deal-making. He made many enemies along the way, and few friends. Unfortunately
for Spitzer, the enemies he made were not going to just fade off into
the night, and when he misstepped, due to his own arrogance and poor
judgment, they were ready to pounce. At the same time, Spitzer is a
fascinating and flawed character. He is clearly incredibly bright. Before
Obama, many thought he was on his way to the White House. But, much
like a hero in a Greek tragedy, his own hubris was his undoing. Was
he taken out as a political hit, or did he implode?--that's one of
the mysteries the film explores. The tragedy is the lost promise of
what he might have represented. It's a universal story that should
interest many, and New York makes a unique backdrop for it.
Gutiérrez: Being from the
area, I was actually somewhat familiar with the story, but I learned
a lot from CLIENT 9 that I didn't know from casually following it
in the mass media--for example, that Ashley Dupré was really just
a one-night stand for Spitzer despite usually being portrayed as his
"girl." Is it fair to say that an important role for documentaries
as a genre is to provide a thoughtful corrective to some day-to-day
press coverage, acting almost as a kind of media literacy resource?
Wider: I think so. The press
can often only cover the surface of things. There is so much news being
reported at every minute and only so many reporters. They don't often
have the luxury like we do to delve into one story for two years and
really dig in and unearth new information, and also take the time to
illustrate many different points of view. Another theme that we got
to explore in CLIENT 9 is the question of do you really ever know anybody,
and where does the real truth lie? The film starts with the media account
of the scandal, but then the story unfolds layer after layer. You are
introduced to one character after another that seem to be telling the
truth, but are they really? That's part of the ride of the film, and
we played with that theme creatively in how the film is constructed.
For example, one of the opening characters appears to be a kooky painter
and you wonder why this guy is in the film. As the film unfolds, he
turns out to be the booker for the prostitution house. By the end of
the film, you realize he is really a philosopher and he says some rather
profound things about human nature. At the same time, he plays a key
part in setting up the story. The press accounts of his involvement
would be limited to a sentence or two and he is a footnote, but in the
film he becomes a fascinating and rich character.
Gutiérrez: Something that
baffles me about any well-made documentary is the element of unpredictability
in the production process--it's not like shooting a feature where
some screenwriter has pre-planned things. After all, how do you know
what the research will uncover? At the start of a project do you look
at existing media assets and assess them, thinking, "Yeah, if we can
get this guy on camera, it'll be pretty entertaining"?
Wider: When you start one of these
films, and we have done quite a few of them, you never really know exactly
where you are going to wind up. You have a sense of the direction you
are going, but not the exact location. We had a great sense in the beginning
of CLIENT 9 that the Spitzer story was going to be about much more than
a sex scandal. He was too polarizing a figure. Often when you
make these films, one interview leads to another. There are threads
of the final story in each interview you do--you just have to see the
threads and weave them together. Alex is an unusually gifted storyteller
in that respect.
Gutiérrez: Since you've
described yourself as attracted to topics of "sociopolitical significance,"
I have to ask if there's anything in the news right now that makes
you think, "Wow, that could make a great doc"? Any stories out there
that the public would be shocked to learn about in their full dimensions?
Wider: There are two docs that
we are involved in that are mindblowers. One doc is a very big concept
piece that will be shot all over the world. I can't say more about
it now but you will hear more in the future, I hope. The other doc is
in post-production. It's called SEMPER FI, and is about the largest
case of water contamination in American history, which occurred at the
Camp Lejeune Marine base in North Carolina. We have followed a sergeant
who has been on a mission to find out why his daughter died of leukemia.
It's a stunning story. We are also involved in a feature about the
only American woman who was executed by the Gestapo during World War
2. She was a key member of the German resistance but her story is largely
unknown here. She was incredibly heroic.
Gutiérrez: Great--well, we'll be looking for all of those down the road. Thanks for your time.