February 8, 2019
Sundance 2019

'The Brink': How to Document a Strongly Disagreeable Political Figure

Steve Bannon takes center stage in Alison Klayman's piercing documentary, 'The Brink.'

To call conservative and propagandist Steve Bannon a divisive figure would be an understatement. The self-proclaimed man who "got Trump elected president," Bannon, after being ousted from the White House, now works from his office on new conservative, right-wing agendas to see to fruition. To get Bannon's endorsement used to mean you, as a political figure, had made it. Now, as Alison Klayman's new film The Brink makes clear, Bannon's influence is tainted.

From pushing for Roy Moore to win an Alabama Senate seat (he campaigns on his behalf but unravels in the process) to trying to unite the European Union (EU) in his far-right populist agenda, Bannon works endlessly, chugging Red Bulls in the process to keep his energy up. Incorporating newspaper headlines (and Trump's tweets) to emphasize the growing power Bannon wields, The Brink also incorporates the voices outside of Bannon's bubble by allowing the world at large to speak for itself. One awkward encounter with press sees Bannon get confrontational about the accusation that he’s sending anti-Semitic dog whistles in his messaging. He's offended by the claim, but, like many important accusations, ultimately brushes it off as a joke.

As The Brink premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, No Film School spoke with Klayman about documenting Bannon, how she gained access to the man, and the complicated process of avoiding the glorification of evil.

"Months into Trump's Presidency, she was like, 'I think I could reach out and get Steve to agree [to take part in a documentary].' And he did. I think he said, 'No,' a few times, and then he said, 'Yes.'"

No Film School: When we last spoke, you were premiering your documentary Take Your Pills at SXSW, a documentary that is very different, stylistically from your newest feature. How was this project presented to you?

Alison Klayman: It's been a long project. When Take Your Pills was at SXSW last year, The Brink was already in progress, even as far back as Sundance last year, when I was at the festival with On Her Shoulders, which I helped to EP. This one has been more secretive.

At the end of summer 2017, my producer Marie Therese Guirgis, who I'd worked with before on The 100 Years Showtold me that she potentially had access to Steven Bannon. He was her boss in the early 2000s, at a company called Wellspring that he and some investors took over, and she reported to him. It was something that was very strange for her, to have someone that she knew become what he has become and to grow to become so notorious, to help a president and an agenda succeed that she so opposed.

Months into Trump's Presidency, she was like, "I think I could reach out and get Steve to agree [to take part in a documentary]." And he did. I think he said, "No," a few times, and then he said, "Yes." She reached out to me, and I feel, luckily, that she thought I had the right skills and chops, and potentially demeanor and fortitude, to do it. For my part, I never hesitated, except to say, "Well, I need to meet him and see what he's actually like." But for me, as well as many filmmakers, I think we're all looking for a way to respond and contribute through our art and it factors into a little bit of journalism as well. For this time that we're in, I think the name of the film, The Brink, is a good way to describe the time we're in right now. Bannon was someone who had been on the pulse of whatever had happened in the 2016 election. And so, from my vantage point back then, I really wanted to see what he was doing next, who worked with him, who supported him, what his tactics were, etc.

NFS: What was it about a verite style of filmmaking that felt right for this project?

Klayman: The idea of a verite project is that you're hoping that, through a person's actions and by observing their life, they will reveal themselves. In this case, I thought it was worthwhile to figure out what Bannon's good at while also revealing the limitations of his world view.

Now that I know Bannon, I categorically can say that sitting down for an interview with him is not going to be illuminating. He's not sitting down in good faith. He is excellent at the combative. He thrives in a combative situation. He will change the topic. He will potentially even distort reality. To me, seeing a world that was bigger than him, was ultimately more interesting to me.

Verite was always on the table, and what was new for me was that I felt for a moment how I've never done a film where there are no talking heads at all, right? Even in Ai Weiwei, which to me feels most similar to my experience [on The Brink], because it's me as a solitary shooter, and about that kind of embedded access, with that film, I did do some sit down interviews with him, and I also had a lot of people interviewed to give context for China, for his life, and for his art. If I were to have talking heads on The Brink, who would I even pick? It would just be such a landmine. I couldn't imagine deciding on who should talk about Steve Bannon, and the hope was that the verite would speak for itself combined with news coverage to help remind people of the story at hand. As someone who follows the news, like a lot of people, you're familiar with the contours of last year.

NFS: Did you always envision the film as building toward the 2018 midterm elections?

Klayman: Yes. That was what I picked. If you're picking someone, especially who's still very, very active, you're not waiting for them to be done. They're not going to "end" just because your movie ends. So for me, the midterms felt like it would be something that could help with the arc, because I really had no idea what the year would bring. Also, as we all saw, it was going to be the first national referendum on the Trump Presidency.

"Why me as a filmmaker? What am I bringing to it? I think my perspective is completely informed by my family background."

NFS: When we first encounter Steve Bannon in your film, he's presented in his office, with the lights off and the curtains down, rambling. He appears alone and isolated. What was your thought process behind how to introduce us to Bannon, visually, to begin the film? 

Klayman: Well, the conversation about "my shit in Auschwitz rocked" at the opening of the film was a story Bannon brought up totally unprompted. We weren't talking about anything that would have led me to believe we would get there. It was just sitting, watching him do stuff, and in the same way that it feels, as a cold open, it's shocking to hear and you don't know where it's going. That was certainly my experience when that came up. There were other times where we had conversations and I was maybe steering us to certain topics, like, "Oh, is what you're doing now like what you did at Goldman Sachs? Are you like a consultant?" Sometimes I could shape the conversation, but this one for me came totally out of left field, and I didn't know anything about the film he was talking about. The fact that he gets into a gleeful tone, is, I think, essentially the banality of evil, right?

His bringing that up, and in relation to the Holocaust, struck a deep chord in me because at that point I'd been filming for nine months when he told me that story, and I'd been thinking a lot about "Why me? Why am I making this film?" Yes, I have this opportunity, but why me as a filmmaker? What am I bringing to it? I think my perspective is completely informed by my family background.

The dedication presented at the end of the film is to my grandparents, my mom's parents, who were Holocaust survivors. Growing up as a Jewish girl, K-12, the Holocaust was probably the most important part of my Jewish identity. I thought it was always something very central to my family's identity. As a kid, I would read Young Adult Holocaust literature and obsess over thinking about being a victim and what would that mean. But the tougher question to answer was always how could the world have become that way? Who were the guards? Who murdered for Hitler? I think as I got older the understanding that they were just people was perhaps the most frightening adult understanding that I could come to. The idea was of being given an opportunity to film with people who I think are leading the country down some very hateful traces and I didn't want to make it a blanket thing. The film isn't saying that these people are Nazis, but how does the world change in that way? The fact that he brought up that story to me, completely unprompted, immediately was something that I had to flag. 

But the reason I thought it was a good cold open (besides the fact that it dramatically touched on what was at the core of my approach) was also due to his storytelling. He is charismatic, and he is a great storyteller, and his eyes light up and he has a good sense of humor about things. I think he was very gleeful about talking about the surprises of what we felt and thinking about the precision engineering [of the Holocaust] and I felt it was such a great way to ease people into...this is your protagonist and this is who we're spending time with.

I was really lucky that that day, and I don't think it had ever happened prior, but then it happened since, at that dining room table where he takes a lot of meetings. Up until then he had always had the lights on, and it was the afternoon, and I came up there. I didn't even set the lighting that way! It was like he was sitting in the dark already. When I framed it, especially when he started talking, I thought it felt very cinematic, even though it was just a man in his house, sitting and talking.

Alison Klayman's 'The Brink.'

NFS: When discussing his right-wing propaganda doc, Trump @War, Bannon namedrops the filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, of Triumph of the Will infamy. In what ways do you see a comparison between the two filmmakers? And do you believe that it's impossible to show evil without glorifying it in some way?

Klayman: That was something that was on my mind every day. By showing something, am I glorifying him? Can you think of a documentary that has close access with an active figure who the filmmaker disagrees with this strongly? It felt challenging (and I didn't think about it at first), but I don't know that any of those films really exist. But I fundamentally believed that, at this moment, the film was necessary and that it could be possible. It was all about getting the access because I felt what I was contending with was a very lightly-sketched, public image of Bannon. I felt that there was a lot to fill in. Again, the biggest thing was to not let it be in his words and seen through his eyes.

You can understand him but, fundamentally, this is the story that I am putting together, not the story that he would put together at this time. It adds another layer. I think that's what's interesting is that he is himself also a filmmaker, but really a propagandist and a self-described propagandist, a proudly-described propagandist. A lot of what you can give him credit for over the last year and a half is regarding messaging and how he talks about politics, talks about problems of the world and how he frames issues, unfortunately, for some people who are in leadership right now, but also as you see, through the living rooms and the photo lines and the fund-raisers that he goes to. When it comes to the donors who support him, there's stuff that he's saying that is resonating, right? But I think for him to be a self-proclaimed propagandist shows you that it is not about truth. He is not searching for a good faith response in an interview.

I think his ideas are all about what works and what sounds good. I watched him give stump speeches over the course of the year and you could see where ideas and a new phrase would come in, and if it landed, he would put it into rotation. I think by following someone like that, by having the access, allows you to really show the hypocrisies. You can invite people to question how deeply the ideology is.

Again, especially when someone is so comfortable with dog-whistling and propaganda-making, I think exposing them is actually, I hope, a service. I think about whenever the film is over and it's a not propaganda film, that it's just a reminder that there are a lot of people who take what he does as truth. And I think that the reason they do is that he is telling them some true things, i.e. that people are having a hard time and that people feel economically squeezed and that the average person is hurting. I think it's also important to show what he's good at, because if you just say, "Oh, he's the devil," or, "He's stupid," then how do you account for all of the support he has? I think it's much better to acknowledge what he's good at. You have to acknowledge that he is a person. Of course, everybody's a person, but then to be able to show the weaknesses at the same time? I think that's what makes it not propaganda. Even though it's highly intentional, and very much an artful distillation of my 13 months of looking at him, it's not just "Here's the truth." It's "Here's my truth and my observation of him."

"It was important to show that a big part of my job, over the whole year, was just trying to get in the room."

NFS: At one point, Bannon asks you, on-camera, to stop filming and leave the room. Were those instances common? And when they occurred, did you have a backup plan about whether or not to include those moments in the film?

Klayman: You're absolutely right that we wanted to make sure to include a couple of those throughout the film to remind the audience and acknowledge (but also understand) that I do not have full access. I had great access, but it wasn't full access. I do think that there were certain things, sometimes, where I could know what the meetings were about, but I wasn't allowed to film them. And then some things I just straight up wasn't allowed to hear the details of.

I think that that's really important to be reminded of, that again, there's that subjectivity and that I had the access that I did. It was important to show that a big part of my job, over the whole year, was just trying to get in the room. I mean, that was my whole job, to figure out where he was going. His organization is, as you see, bare bones, and they do everything at the last minute. It was hard to stay on his schedule, let alone, get into the rooms. But once I was in the room, you just tried not to get asked to leave. But of course, there was a lot that I couldn't film.

NFS:  Did you fear for your safety at certain moments? Bannon is a divisive political figure, and when bomb scares targeting politicians take place late in the film, you ask Bannon's team if any further security has been put into place. 

Klayman: Actually early in the process, just when he left the White House, we came to understand that there were active threats against Bannon and that's how he started to travel with the security guards you see a lot of throughout the film. But I also felt that sometimes the security was just for people who don't like to get harassed. I wasn't always aware of how much of the security was actually for danger purposes versus the fact that it's just uncomfortable for Bannon to be exposed to the public. I know my producer was worried about me at many times because she is smart and lovely, but I think I may just be the kind of person who wants to push and get the story. I figured, "Well, he has security and I'm kind of in the bubble." When I was traveling, I was in that bubble. The security guys were usually very nice to me and never interfered with my work, which was great.

If Bannon said I could film, it was like, "Let me film." I was able to get close. When he was giving talks, I got to go on the stage sometimes, etc. I think that I let myself not worry. That's not the kind of thing that I worried about. But my producer talks about being worried all the time, and I didn't necessarily tell my parents...

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.           

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