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.  

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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.


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