The origins of the documentary, The ARMSTRONG Lie, stretch back for well over a decade. They begin with the legendary Hollywood producer, Frank Marshall.
One of the most respected filmmakers working in the industry today, Marshall is best known as the five-time Oscar® nominee behind such films as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Seabiscuit, The Sixth Sense, The Color Purple and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and such recent hits as the Bourne film series. Perhaps less well known is Marshall's interest and involvement in the world of sports.
In addition to his work as a filmmaker, Marshall (who ran cross-country and track as a student at UCLA and was a three-year varsity letterman in soccer) served for over a decade as a vice president and member of the United States Olympic Committee. He was awarded the Olympic Shield in 2005 and, in 2008, was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame for his service to the Olympic movement.
In the early 2000's Marshall was approached by fellow US Olympic Committee member, Bill Stapleton — lawyer and agent to Lance Armstrong — with an eye towards making a feature film based on Armstrong's memoir, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. "Back then I was kind of the go-to Hollywood guy if you had a story," says Marshall. "So they came to me and said, 'What do you think we should do with this?' That's how it all started."
Marshall brought the book to Matt Tolmach, who at that time was co-head of production at Columbia Pictures. He was also, as Marshall knew, an avid cyclist.
"Frank and I knew each other and he knew that I was a serious cyclist myself, kind of a weekend warrior," says Tolmach, who was also well aware of Armstrong's remarkable story. "We were interested and we wanted to develop the movie," says Tolmach, who soon found himself in a meeting with Armstrong's rep, Bill Stapleton. "I went to Frank's office in Santa Monica. I sat down, and there was Bill who looks at me and says, 'So I hear you're a cyclist...Pull up your pant leg.' Of course, I did. And like all dedicated roadies, my legs are shaved. He saw that, smiled, and said 'Alright, let's talk.'
Together, Marshall and Tolmach set about developing a feature film about Armstrong with Matt Damon set for the leading role. Though "one or two scripts," according to Marshall, were developed, the idea of making an Armstrong biopic was ultimately shelved. "Movies about people who are still alive and in the news are complicated," explains Tolmach. "Because Lance was such a household name it's hard to ask an audience to suspend what they know and what they see almost daily and accept someone else playing the part...Because he was still very much in the public eye, it seemed like an awkward proposition." Says Marshall: "We just never got to a place where we were ready to make the movie."
By August, 2008, however, the project would take a new track. The 37-year-old Armstrong, who at this point had been in retirement for three years, had decided to test his mettle that summer in Colorado in a race called The Leadville 100. After training and placing second (finishing just two minutes behind race winner, Dave Wiens), Armstrong now contemplated the ultimate comeback. Having won the Tour de France a record seven times in a row (1999-2005), he would try to win it again in 2009.
It was at this time that Matt Tolmach realized that the movie he would make with Frank Marshall would be a nonfiction film — the real story of a Lance Armstrong comeback. "It was a different story unfolding and it was a documentary," explains Tolmach. "Because it was a story that was happening in real life and real time, the best way to capture it was to go out and film it...I thought if we were to film a year in the life of this man, culminating in the Tour de France, that would be really interesting for people to see. What does that comeback look like? And what does it mean?"
Speaking with Armstrong after the Leadville race, Marshall and Tolmach agreed it was the perfect time to make a documentary about the cyclist. "Our one condition was that he let us follow him and cover the whole year with full access," says Marshall. "He agreed to that. And that's how we got this unprecedented access to his life, his team and the Tour de France," says the producer of what would emerge as the film's remarkable inside view of Armstrong's world (including such controversial figures as Italian physician and Armstrong cycling coach, Michele Ferrari).
Around the same time, Frank Marshall was involved with a passion project of his own, making a documentary for ESPN's 30 for 30 series (celebrating the US sports network's 30th anniversary with thirty sports docs). Marshall's film, Right to Play, told the story of Norwegian speed-skater Johann Olav Koss's philanthropic works. Documentary filmmaker, Alex Gibney, meanwhile, was working on Catching Hell, the story of Chicago Cubs' baseball fans who had blamed their team's misfortunes on a fellow fan who'd interfered with a crucial play.
"We got to know each other on the 30 for 30 track for ESPN," says Marshall of his relationship with Gibney. "If you look at Alex's Spitzer documentary (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) or indeed many of his films, he likes to examine why people tick. And so I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting examine why this guy wants to make a comeback?' I knew we already had an exciting subject. And so Matt and I talked about it. We decided to go with the best, and that's Alex."
"We were also in the Lance tent a little bit and we both knew enough to know that great documentaries need a more objective approach," says Tolmach. "Alex was the master of great journalistic truth telling. And there was a lot about this guy [Armstrong], that was a mystery, but not the mystery that everybody is trying to unravel now. We just wanted to know what drove this guy. And we knew a great documentary would win or lose based on whether or not you could get inside the character."
For his part, director Alex Gibney knew little of Lance Armstrong or the world of competitive cycling. "When I first met Armstrong I told him, 'I know you ride a bike and you're good at what you do, but beyond that I don't know much about your sport.' Gibney did, however, know a thing or two about making documentaries – with an Oscar® nomination in 2006 for his film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and an Oscar® win in 2008 for the hard-hitting, Taxi to the Dark Side.
"I had to learn in a hurry," says the director of his research. "I started reading madly, watching cycling...I also bought a bike and started going out on the road just to get a sense of what it was like." So too, did Gibney begin interviewing veteran journalists who had covered both the sport and Armstrong. "I got into some of the rumors, the accusations...And also just what made the sport so interesting and how you get good at it."
Even then Gibney was aware of the misgivings which had dogged both Armstrong's career and the world of competitive cycling itself. "I'd certainly heard about the allegations and discussed them with Matt Tolmach and Frank Marshall," says the director. "The suspicions were always there, but again, you had to be careful because you could never really prove them."
Instead, Gibney would focus on Armstrong's comeback in the initial iteration of his film under the working title "The Road Back." Joined by his production team, he began filming in late September 2008, following Armstrong through his intensive training and his attempt to win the Tour de France in July 2009 and again in July, 2010.
Together with his crew — including trusted cinematographer Maryse Alberti and soundman, David Hocs — Gibney was given unprecedented access, filming Armstrong in training rides in Austin, Texas, Sonoma, California and Aspen, Colorado; and then in competition in New Mexico, California, Australia, Italy and Spain in the build up to the 2009 Tour.
"We basically had a schedule where we covered his races and training, and then Alex would also interview him at home in Texas and cover his training regimen there," says Marshall. "We then went to the (2009) Tour and shot the entire three weeks of that race. We shot the next year at the Tour as well, when he continued to try and win again...That's where Armstrong placed 23rd and kind of decided he was done."
Typically, Gibney would run three to four cameras simultaneously. "It was critical," says the director of his desire to make the racing footage as exciting as possible. "You don't want it to seem like wallpaper."
Amongst Gibney's innovations were the use of small digital cameras, early prototypes of the now ubiquitous GoPros — one positioned underneath an Armstrong teammates' saddle pointing backwards, the other atop a set of handlebars pointing forward — to create a more immersive experience for the viewer. He also made use of state of the art Phantom digital cameras to film in super slow motion. "It made you feel like you're in the sport," says Gibney. "And the sport is terribly exciting...I really wanted the cycling part to feel like an action movie. You want to feel that speed."
"In the end we were running ten cameras at the Tour," Gibney continues. "The way you do it in the Tour is you jump ahead to a point where you wait for the pack to come by and then you grab a few shots. Then you quickly jump back in the cars, get ahead of it again, station yourself, set up your cameras, and do it again. You want to be in the right place at the right time in addition to coordinating all your other cameras...This was a huge undertaking."
By late 2010 Gibney, between his own and archival footage, had gathered over 200 hours of material — "a Titanic amount of footage". Working with his initial editing team of Tim Squyres (Life of Pi; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Lindy Jankura (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson), he had all but completed the film in 2011 — just as the legend surrounding Armstrong himself had begun to collapse.
"In point of fact we had virtually finished the film," says Gibney. We had done everything. We had mixed it. We had color corrected the film. We had done everything but put on the final credits."
Though Armstrong had dodged repeated doping allegations throughout his career, the credibility of his remarkable story came under more serious fire when in May 2010 former teammate, Floyd Landis, accused the legendary champion cyclist of using performance-enhancing drugs.
"From there, people began coming out of the woodwork," says Matt Tolmach of the events which would subsequently unfold, leading to a Federal investigation (where criminal charges were subsequently dropped) and a US Anti Doping Agency (USADA) investigation which would ultimately lead to Armstrong being stripped of his former titles and end his career.
"When Tyler Hamilton went on 60 Minutes, suddenly it was out in the open, says Gibney of a damaging interview given by Armstrong's former teammate to the popular US news program in May 2011. "We knew the film as constructed would never fly."
"There were several options at that stage," says Marshall. "But it all depended on what would happen next...We were waiting to see what the final results would be of the investigations."
"The conversation we had at that point was that we owed it to the movie to hold on and turn it into something which really reflected what was going on, which is to say for the movie to ask the same questions that the public was asking," says Tolmach. "I don't want to call it a holding pattern because we were doing anything but holding. We were digging in and Alex was doing his investigative work. All of that culminated with the movie that is now The ARMSTRONG Lie."
"I went back and started shooting interviews again in the fall of 2012," says Gibney, who found that many of his subjects were now willing to talk more openly about the events which had transpired. "We'd spent so much time on this story and had so much intimate access with Armstrong that it seemed crazy not to finish it...Of course, the key would be to see whether or not Armstrong himself would make himself available."
In October 2012, producers Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach flew to Austin, Texas to meet with Lance Armstrong to discuss that very possibility. "This was before Oprah," recalls Marshall, citing Armstrong's chilling confession which would take place in January 2013 on the popular US talk show. "That's where he told us the whole story. And that's when Matt and I sat down and called Alex and said, 'Lance is willing to talk...' That's when we decided to go to Sony Classics and say, 'We think we've got a movie now.'"
"I thought we might be the ones to do it first, but Oprah got there ahead of us," says Gibney, who filmed Armstrong on January 14, 2013 in Austen, Texas, just hours after his confession on Oprah. "It's a rather unique interview," says Gibney of their meeting, "because you can sense a kind of wounded quality in Lance and a kind of vulnerability that I don't think would ever come again."
Gibney continued to shoot while re-cutting material from his film's previous iteration, now working with editor Andy Grieve who had worked on his WikiLeaks documentary. For Gibney and Grieve, the biggest challenge now would be finding the film's structure. As Gibney puts it: "How were we going to integrate what we had shot before into a structure that was about Armstrong doping?"
"In a way the Oprah interview gave us a clue," Gibney continues. "There was suddenly a mystery story at the heart of what we had filmed in 2009, which was why did he come back? And not only why did he come back, but what did we see in 2009 that would give us insight into that question and also the question of who Armstrong was...Suddenly we realized we had this special material that gave us a clue to Armstrong and his character."
"The other challenge, of course, was that we were lied to," says Frank Marshall. "And that was very difficult. I was a true believer, so it was a huge disappointment. It was a hard thing for us to go through." Having formed a friendship over 10 years with Armstrong, Marshall now describes their relationship as distant, but cordial. "Lance is an incredibly driven, amazing athlete with a lot of character flaws," says the producer. "But he's a human being. I know his family. I know his kids...He's not a monster. But he is a flawed character." "As people who started this journey making a heroic movie about Lance Armstrong, we've come a long way from there," agrees Tolmach. "It's a tough document in that way. But it's an honest document."
Perhaps most poignantly, Gibney's film finds us all complicit to a degree in Armstrong's outrageous deceit – a personal narrative which in hindsight seems so incredibly implausible, yet a story in which we all wanted to believe in.
"That was the beauty of his story," says Gibney. "That was the power of his story...It's the ultimate apotheosis. He's like the Phoenix rising from the ashes. He gets up out of his hospital bed and then decides to himself, 'I'm going to win the Tour de France.' And low and behold, he does it — seven times...It was a very potent myth that Armstrong inhabited. And a lot of people hung onto that myth, which we now know to have been a lie — that he didn't dope...Because it was the story that so many of us wanted to believe."