100 hours of leaked footage, a bouncy house, and MC Hammer: How HBO's documentary on disgraced blood-testing company Theranos came together
- In "The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley," director Alex Gibney explores how the blood testing startup Theranos and its CEO Elizabeth Holmes went from tech darlings to shutting down and facing criminal charges.
- Along the way, Gibney got his hands on 100 hours of leaked footage from within the company, and HBO went to court to unseal deposition footage from Theranos's court case with investors.
- The documentary, available Monday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, includes footage from all-hands meetings and company parties, as well as video of Holmes dancing to "U Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer.
Theranos had an unprecedented meteoric rise and subsequent catastrophic collapse - and luckily there were cameras along the way to capture it all.
The blood-testing startup had racked up a $9 billion valuation with its big vision to test for a number of conditions using just a small sample of blood, and its CEO Elizabeth Holmes was featured on the covers of business magazines and included in lists of top executives.
Then in October 2015, questions started being raised about how the company's technology worked, prompted by investigative stories from Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou.
In June 2018, Holmes stepped down as CEO of Theranos, remaining with the company as a founder and chair of the board. She was also charged with wire fraud by the Department of Justice. Later that year in September, Theranos officially shut down.
The saga is the focus of "The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley," a new documentary debuting Monday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
Director and writer Alex Gibney, known for "Going Clear," a documentary on Scientology and his Oscar-nominated work on "Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room," initially came on to the project after former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and now-departing HBO CEO Richard Plepler suggested he look into it. Both had been admirers of Holmes, Gibney said in an interview.
"It bore eerie similarities to other stories I've done in the past," Gibney told Business Insider. He drew similarities to "Enron" as well as "The Armstrong Lie" about cyclist Lance Armstrong.
Early on in the process, the documentary team had a hard time getting people to talk to them. Theranos, while it was active, had a reputation for being litigious as the documentary - and Carreyrou's book "Bad Blood" - explore.
Gibney and his team pursued other ways of telling the story, particularly exploring the psychology of lying. The team went to court to get video footage of two lawsuits filed against the blood-testing company.
While some of that footage made it into the film, late in the process Gibney's team was leaked over 100 hours of footage that Theranos had made for its own use.
Included was video of Holmes walking around the office, footage of her and former Theranos President Sunny Balwani presenting at all-hands meetings, company parties, and shots of Holmes dancing to "U Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer. (MC Hammer was recently spotted attending the San Francisco screening of the documentary).
There's also footage of Theranos commercials, in which concerned family members buy gift cards so their loved ones can get bloodwork done. As a mom hands the grandma the gift card, the grandchild quietly starts crying.
The footage even captured one of Balwani's infamous company activities: leading chants of "F--- you" to people and companies he perceived as enemies.
On the lighter side, it shows Holmes and Balwani jumping in a bouncy house after the FDA approved one of the company's blood tests in July 2015, a few months before The Journal's reporting came out.
Gibney said the decision to feature that footage over the deposition tapes was that it was better to see what Holmes was like while the company was in its heyday.
"It was more interesting to see Elizabeth in the moment," Gibney said.
There's one incident Gibney said he wishes he could have shown in the film, but he couldn't get any footage.
In 2008, two Theranos executives approached Theranos's then-chairman of the board, the venture capitalist Don Lucas, to tell him that the company's revenue projections had been greatly exaggerated, considering the blood-testing device Theranos was building wasn't finished. Lucas convened a board meeting, asking Holmes to wait outside, and the board reached a decision to remove her as CEO.
In "Bad Blood," Carreyrou writes that within the next two hours, Holmes got the board to change its mind. Gibney said he would've loved to get into how Holmes was able to change the minds of the high-powered people she had on her board at the time.