Director Marina Zenovich On Interviewing 'Fascinating, Incredibly Intelligent' Lance Armstrong: He 'Let Me Interrogate Him'
First part of Zenovich's two-part documentary on disgraced cyclist debuts on ESPN tonight
When an admitted liar insists he's telling you the truth, what are you to believe?
That's the conundrum director Marina Zenovich faced as she prepared to sit down with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong for her two-part documentary LANCE. Part 1 of the film debuts tonight on ESPN, occupying the time slot of ESPN's just completed megahit series The Last Dance, about Michael Jordan. Part 2 airs next Sunday night, May 31.
"Someone said to me, 'What is it like to interview someone who is known to lie so much?'" Zenovich tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "It's kind of like I went in knowing that but I always try to see the best in people and assume they're going to tell me the truth. So am I a sucker because of that? I don't think so."
If you're looking for fascinating characters to try to understand, Lance Armstrong is a great one.
Armstrong became adept at lying while rising to the top ranks of international cycling. He won the Tour de France so many times people began calling it the Tour de Lance. Suspicious minds insisted no one could win that many Tours without doping, much less someone like Armstrong who had survived stage 4 testicular cancer. But against every allegation of cheating Armstrong pushed back ferociously.
It wasn't until seven years after he won his last Tour de France in 2005 that Armstrong's history of taking performance enhancing drugs was exposed by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour titles, and in 2013 he publicly admitted doping.
"Nobody dopes and is honest,” Armstrong tells Zenovich in the documentary. “You’re not. The only way you can dope and be honest is if nobody ever asks you, which is not realistic. The second somebody asks you, you lie. It might be one lie because you answer it once. Or in my case it might be 10,000 lies because you answer it 10,000 times.”
Zenovich says the Lance Armstrong she encountered was candid. And yet...
"I love how direct he is, but you know he doesn't show all his cards," she acknowledges. "So that's what made it challenging and interesting and fun."
Zenovich amassed many hours of vérité footage documenting Armstrong's life today, more than five years after he almost instantaneously went from being one of the most admired humans on the planet to one of the most reviled. Originally, the director intended the vérité material to drive the film, but in edit she found that didn't work. The final version is, perhaps inevitably, built very much around the eight lengthy interviews Zenovich did with the cyclist. It's not all that compelling to watch Armstrong, now 48, jog in the snow. We want to see him face an interviewer, or even better, an inquisitor.
"To me, Lance was very alpha, incredibly intelligent, quick, nimble, just like a shark but in a good way--he was a perfect interview subject," Zenovich insists. "Personally, he's fun. He's engaged. He's very funny--this is all unrelated to what he did. This is my experience of him because he didn't do anything to me other than let me interrogate him."
Armstrong is very practiced at disclosing what he wants to about his doping activities. The most telling moments in Zenovich's "interrogation" tend to come in stray comments or random anecdotes. For instance, Armstrong describes going to a restaurant not long after his public unmasking, and enduring verbal abuse from patrons who shouted "fuck you" at him. He says he left the restaurant but surreptitiously arranged to pay the tab of his abusers. Noble, perhaps? Armstrong proving he was "the bigger man"? I actually see paying the bill as Lance's way of saying "fuck you" back. Like, "You dicks may feel like you can taunt me but I'm still rich. Stuff it." It's a kind of power move. Sharing the story also has the benefit of making him look like a victim and that he honorably took the moral high road. Advantage, Armstrong!
Armstrong also reveals a simmering hatred for those who crossed him and exposed his doping, including Floyd Landis, the cyclist who won the Tour de France in 2006, the year after Armstrong's last Tour victory, but lost his title after he was exposed for doping. Armstrong seems to go out of his way to disparage Landis, telling the director Floyd is a "piece of shit."
"Is that what you think?" Zenovich inquires. Armstrong replies, "That's what I know." Take that, Floyd!
Armstrong also seems to gloat at having negotiated a settlement to a $100 million lawsuit filed against him by the US Postal Service, his sponsor when he was winning his string of Tour titles. He ended up paying only $5 million to make the suit go away, and the look on his face as he recounts that to Zenovich indicates he feels he came out the victor. Lance, eternal competitor!
As for Armstrong's defense for having doped, Lance says he was only going along with a corrupt system. Everybody did it, he says. And others in the cycling world that Zenovich spoke to agreed the only way to be a competitive rider at that time was to dope. If you didn't, you were a road apple.
"Based on the interviews I did, not just with Lance but like at that crème de la crème level, you had to dope at that time," Zenovich comments before noting, "Lance took it to a new level."
Several other major filmmakers, including Alex Gibney, have made Lance Armstrong documentaries in recent years. Zenovich sees utility in doing a fresh one because, in her view, Armstrong isn't the same man he was.
"It's been a long time since he was stripped of his titles and I think he's processed a lot," Zenovich observes. "I can't speak for him, but I think he's processed a lot, but it still hurts."
LANCE offers an intriguing glimpse at what has driven Armstrong to succeed at all costs from the time he was a teenage triathlete. Some of that motivation clearly came from an abusive stepfather. ("He beat the shit out of me," Armstrong tells Zenovich). The key to Armstrong, possibly, is rage. He talks in LANCE of the necessity "to get your hate on."
And that may be why he still refuses to give any ground to his detractors. Resentment, anger and a measure of self-pity seem to be what propels him forward. It wasn't about about the bike after all.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.