Marie Therese Guirgis is a film producer who has worked in both fiction and documentary film. She recently produced The Brink, by Alison Klayman.
We’d been following and filming Steve Bannon all over the country on and off for six months, but he still hadn’t signed the appearance release that gave us the legal right to use what we’d filmed. Without it, all our footage would be useless. What The Brink director Alison Klayman and I were doing was totally unconventional. Most filmmakers wouldn’t film such a controversial and slippery subject for one day without a signed release, let alone for six months. Most financiers wouldn’t spend a penny on a film like this without it. Our financier, Magnolia Pictures, was going out on a limb by reimbursing us for travel expenses for our shoots.
Each time I pressed Steve to sign the release, he’d reassure me that he’d sign it. He just needed his “people” to look at it. I kept pushing. “Talk to Dan,” he’d say. I’d check in regularly with Dan, his right-hand guy, who’d always say the release was “with legal.” I told Steve that my backers were getting nervous. If he didn’t sign soon my professional reputation would be damaged. “What’s the hold-up?” I asked. “I don’t understand.”
His “partners” (the Mercers, presumably) didn’t want him to participate in our doc, he told me. “They think this is how I always get into trouble.” (They were right.) He was “dealing” with them. “Don’t worry, it’s gonna happen,” he promised. “Trust me.”
No one involved, including Alison, had any reason to believe or trust Bannon. But they trusted me and I was insisting that he’d eventually sign. I found myself in the totally insane position of vouching for Steve Bannon’s character.
I’d known Bannon for many years. He’d become my boss at an arthouse film distribution company 14 years earlier when he bought it with money from a couple who’d made their fortune building casinos on Indian reservations. He was in many ways a nightmare boss, erratic and volatile with an abusive temper and terrible management skills. But he financially supported our work and creative ambition like no previous owner had before. Working for him was a trade-off. I earned his respect early on by standing up to him when no one else would. I knew how to manage him.
When I decided to make a documentary about him, I was confident that as long as he gave me access, I would once again be able to “manage” him.
Four months in, Alison and I decided to stop filming until he signed the release. I told Steve. He told me not to worry.
Days later, in early January, the book Fire and Fury came out. All hell broke loose. Breitbart fired him. The Mercers dropped him. Trump insulted him on Twitter. Steve went silent. I chose to give him space. Anyone who’d suffered such humiliating setbacks would be devastated, I thought. I couldn’t hound him at such a difficult time, I told everyone.
After a month, I reached out to Steve to set a meeting. He and his team were weirdly difficult and slow about setting a time.
In March 2018, I went to see Bannon at his New York hotel. He’d had enough time to lick his wounds. I had the release in my purse. I asked him how he was doing, careful not to look like I felt sorry for him. I didn’t.
“I’m great. I’m doing great. I’m so busy, never been busier. Wait till you hear what I’m working on. I’m doing this thing in China … It’s gonna be huge.”
He went on and on as if his entire world hadn’t recently imploded and as if Trump’s tweet calling him “Sloppy Steve” hadn’t gone viral. It was disconcerting, but better than dealing with a depressed documentary subject, I figured. At least he was still doing things.
He continued to tell me about his atrocious new endeavors. Clutching the release in a manila folder on my lap, I waited to get a word in. I smiled and said things like, “Wow.” I needed his good will, so I refrained, for once, from telling him that he was going straight to hell.
“I gotta show you the Errol Morris movie,” he said with a self-congratulatory smile on his face.
“What Errol Morris movie?” I asked. Is he going to show me Fog of War? What the hell is he talking about. Will he ever shut up?
“American Dharma. It was gonna be called American Carnage, but he changed it to American Dharma. I love it. Don’t you love it?”
“I have no idea what that is, Steve.”
“The movie about me. You gotta see it. You’re gonna love it.”
“A DOCUMENTARY about you? Like, you’re the main subject? By Errol Morris???”
“Yeah, it’s so great. He interviewed me down in Boston. I’ve got two more days of filming to do. You gotta watch this.”
“What??? You’re doing ANOTHER documentary?? Is this a joke??? It’s not fucking funny. This better be a fucking joke.”
“It’s not a joke. I told you about it.” He smiled in a manner I’d describe as “sheepish” if I was talking about someone with a conscience.
“You did not fucking tell me about it!! I would remember something like that!!”
I still thought it was a joke. There was no way he would do that to me. Not even Steve Bannon would do that.
“I told you … I told Dan to tell you. He didn’t tell you?”
I exploded. “YOU’RE DISGUSTING. YOU’RE A FUCKING LIAR. I mean, I knew you were a liar, but this is disgusting even for you. You’re such an asshole. You ARE the fucking devil. First you destroyed my company. Then you destroyed my country. And now you’re trying to destroy my career!!!”
I couldn’t stop. I insulted him over and over. I screamed so loudly that his young nephew/assistant Sean let himself into the hotel suite. “Everything alright?” He’d heard a commotion from the suite next door.
“EVERYTHING’S FINE. YOUR UNCLE IS A FUCKING SONOFABITCH. BUT IT’S FINE.”
Sean left quickly.
I continued screaming. I can’t remember everything I said. My face burned.
He kept trying to laugh it off. “Will you stop? It’s not a big deal. I’m blowing up. Everyone wants me. Two documentaries about me is nothing. There’s room for more than two.”
“I DON’T UNDERSTAND. WHEN THE HELL DID YOU AGREE TO DO THIS OTHER FILM??”
“It just happened. I just shot the first interview last month. Errol was dying to make a film about me. Can you believe it? Ari Emanuel’s company put it together; they came to me. They’re gonna sell it. Everyone says it’s gonna win an Oscar.” Steve laughed, delighted by his own importance. He then cited an alleged budget for the film that was numerous times our own.
I started crying. When I reach peak anger, I cry. Years before, when I worked for Steve, he’d stood inches from my face and screamed at me more than once. I never cried. I would never give him that. But now I was too angry at Steve to be angry at myself for crying.
I couldn’t believe this was happening.
Six months earlier, countless women had come forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein of rape. Weeks later, the #metoo movement was born. Not long after that, #timesup. For months, all anyone had been talking about was men’s abuse of power, gender discrimination, and gender inequality. The whole country was preoccupied with the countless ways men fuck women over.
I’d never been more aware of just how profoundly I’d been professionally robbed. The film business was abuzz with talk of a new day dawning for women. The boys club that had stomped on the throats of women in every corner of the entertainment industry might actually lose its death-grip. For the first time in my 20-year career, I let myself imagine an equal playing field.
Now here I was, standing in an overstuffed suite at the Regency Hotel, being told that powerful and famous men had swept in and “scooped” our film, enabled by the most infamous representative of white male power of all, Steve Bannon.
Errol Morris, one of the most famous and successful documentary filmmakers in the world, was now making a documentary about our subject, months after we’d started ours. He was backed by Endeavor Content, a film financing company owned and run by Ari Emanuel, a mega-agent and one of the most powerful people in Hollywood.
And here we were: Alison, an intrepid one-woman crew, hauling camera equipment all over the country and refusing to take no for an answer and me, chasing Steve Bannon non-stop for logistics, information, and that fucking release as I put the project together from my sofa. We’d willed this film into existence. And all that time we hadn’t paid ourselves a dime and hadn’t known for sure if we’d ever get paid for our work.
I cried. I couldn’t scream and cry at the same time, so I kind of wailed.
“How am I going to tell Alison? How am I going to tell Magnolia? This is a fucking nightmare.”
Steve looked tremendously uncomfortable. For the first time since I’d known him, he was speechless.
I wailed some more. “I left you alone when all that shit happened to you. I was giving you space. I’m such a fucking idiot for treating you like a human being. What did I get? You stabbed me in the back!!”
I’m pretty sure that at some point Steve handed me a box of tissues.
He kept telling me that it didn’t matter, that the other film was entirely different than ours, that two movies about him was nothing because people were obsessed with him.
I told him that I hated him.
“I’ll let Alison film anything she wants! I’ll give you even more access. You can get everything. She can start filming again tomorrow!!”
I’d stopped crying. I hit my hand on the table. “Even if we WANTED to continue making this film, we can’t start filming again tomorrow because we don’t have a fucking signed release!!!”
Steve’s face relaxed. He no longer looked like a deer in the headlights. He knew how to fix this. “I’ll sign it!! I’ll call my lawyer right now and tell him I’m ready to sign. You’ll have it by tomorrow. I swear!”
I knew I had to leave before I made headlines. I cried as I walked down Park Avenue in the freezing light rain.
Alison and I decided pretty quickly that we weren’t going to walk away from our film just because we now had this extremely powerful “competition.” Alison believed that she’d already filmed incredible material that no one else could or would ever get. She wanted to make a film about more than just Steve Bannon. Just as I’d decided that I needed to do something with my access to Steve to try and “stop” him, Alison felt that she was onto something with worldwide implications.
Magnolia asked for a few days to decide whether or not to continue financing the film. Alison quickly edited some select scenes together and shared them with Magnolia. As soon as the Magnolia executives watched the scenes, they called us to say they wanted to keep making the film. They said they were blown away by what Alison had captured and by how she was crafting the material. But they were a little worried about having two Steve Bannon docs in the marketplace, so they asked us to try to find a financing partner to share the risk with them. Fortunately, RYOT Films came on board swiftly and enthusiastically.
Steve didn’t sign the release for another five months, but I never again doubted that he would. I was under no illusion that my tears had touched him on a human level, but I was pretty certain he didn’t want to deal with that shit ever again.
Alison and I were rarely in the same room together during the months that followed. Alison was running around the world following Steve. We talked on the phone all the time, but exclusively about the film. I never got to talk to her about #metoo and #timesup. I never asked her if the irony of being deceived by Steve Bannon and “scooped” by a group of very powerful men had burned her to her core. I never asked her if she’d cried after I’d given her the news that March night.
It wasn’t until the film was finished, until days before we were set do our first interview ahead of our Sundance Film Festival premiere, that Alison and I ever acknowledged to each other that in making this film we’d taken on the apex of white male power.
The Brink isn’t a #metoo movie. It’s not an overtly feminist film. But for me, it’s absolutely both.
Images courtesy of Alison Klayman and Marie Therese Guirgis.