How a filmmaker navigated backstabbing and dishonesty to give an unfiltered look at Steve Bannon

The Brink 2 Magnolia PicturesMagnolia PicturesSteve Bannon in "The Brink."Magnolia Pictures

  • "The Brink" is a documentary that gives an unfiltered look at Steve Bannon after he exits the White House.
  • Director Alison Klayman and producer Marie Therese Guirgis told Business Insider how they got access for a year with the reclusive alt-right figure.
  • Bannon was also making another documentary behind their backs, Errol Morris' "American Dharma," which to Klayman was a "clear cut example of Bannon's own dishonesty."

 

Documentary filmmaker Alison Klayman ("Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry") said she never hesitated when agreeing to spend a year filming Steve Bannon even though she didn't agree with his politics. That's because the movie was never meant to champion the former White House chief strategist and executive chairman of Breitbart News.

"The Brink" (in theaters Friday) is the brainchild of producer Marie Therese Guirgis, and is the rare profile of a social figure not done to strengthen the person's brand, or with carefully negotiated terms. In this instance, access was granted without any terms that Bannon would be shown in a glowing manner. (But that's not to say Bannon didn't have an agenda.)

Guirgis worked closely with Bannon for three years back in the early 2000s when he was a movie producer, and said she felt back then that she had a good working relationship with him.

"In some ways, I thought of him as a mentor," Guirgis told Business Insider recently while sitting alongside Klayman in the Manhattan offices of Magnolia Pictures, the company that helped finance and will release "The Brink." 

But after they worked together, Bannon pivoted and became the poster child for the alt-right, starting with cofounding Breitbart News in 2007.

"Then it was announced he joined the Trump campaign and that came as quite a shock to me," Guirgis said. "I was very upset and disturbed because I'm not a fan of Trump and certainly don't share his policies or politics. And I felt very disappointed and angry at Steve. I had his contact information and I just started writing him and expressing my anger and disgust in him."

Surprisingly, Bannon wrote back to her. This began a correspondence between the two. And gradually Bannon's profile began to rise, from being named White House chief strategist following Trump's win, to his face being on the cover of Time as the "mastermind" behind the Trump presidency. Eventually, the producer in Guirgis kicked in and she saw a movie.

"Because I knew him and worked with him very closely, I knew there was a lot of exaggeration, I felt, of his genius," she said. "He's a very smart man but I think there's a lot of exaggeration of being this philosophical mastermind of the far right."

Marie Therese Guirgis Alison Hlayman The Brink Taylor Jewell APTaylor Jewell/AP(L-R) "The Brink" producer Marie Therese Guirgis and director Alison Klayman.Taylor Jewell/AP

So in April 2017, Guirgis' self-described "hate mail" to Bannon changed to a pitch. She asked if he would be willing to have a filmmaker follow him around and do an unfiltered look at him for a movie. It took three more asks, but around September 2017, Bannon finally agreed. And Guirgis' first choice to direct was Klayman, who is known best for capturing the life of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei in the 2012 doc, "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry."

"In the first 30 seconds meeting him all my questions were answered," Klayman said of her first time meeting Bannon. "It was clear he was going to say a lot of things, he liked to hear himself talk. And the best thing was how up front Marie Therese was with him. He would not get any creative control and he knew where we were coming from politically."

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Klayman spent a year shooting Bannon, from October 2017 to November 2018. The movie captures a fascinating time to look at Bannon, regardless what your politics are. It starts two months after he leaves the White House, and using a verite style, Klayman's camera is a fly on the wall as Bannon goes from speaking at gatherings where people flock to take pictures with him, to Bannon having closed-door meetings with the likes of Blackwater founder Erik Prince and Brexit leader Nigel Farage in the hope of spreading extreme nationalism globally.

Klayman admitted there were definitely meetings she filmed that she felt were not legitimate and were a set up for the movie, which became a challenge when deciding what footage to use and what to throw out during the edit.

"I was around enough to see when I turned the camera off the switch that happened," she said. "If I just used the conversations that he wanted me to film I knew it would be misleading."

And then there was the moment when Klayman and Guirgis were blindsided to find out that Bannon had agreed behind their backs to allow Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris to make a documentary about him.

The movie, "American Dharma" - made in the interview style Morris is know for with movies like "The Fog of War" (his Oscar-winning documentary on Robert McNamara) and "The Unknown Known" (on Donald Rumsfeld) - was done so quickly that it was completed and shown at festivals while Klayman was still shooting "The Brink."

The Brink 3 Magnolia PicturesMagnolia PicturesSteve Bannon in Venice, Italy promoting the other documentary about him, Errol Morris' "American Dharma."Magnolia Pictures

In one of the most fascinating parts of "The Brink," Klayman films Bannon taking meetings inside a Venice, Italy hotel room as Morris' movie on Bannon has its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. (Guirgis said when she got word that Bannon made another movie during the making of "The Brink," she had a talk with Bannon in which she had an "explosive response.")

"This happened exactly at the time of #MeToo, it felt like you had a group of powerful men and here we are these two women with not a lot of money up against this mega production," Guirgis said of "American Dharma."

"Our production wasn't aware of 'The Brink' when we started interviewing Bannon," Morris told Business Insider in a statement. "Certainly the impact he has had on global politics merits careful attention and scrutiny and I would hope would be considered by many journalists, artists, and writers." (Bannon did not respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.)

Despite the news of the Morris doc, Guirgis said Magnolia assured her it would still release "The Brink." In fact, it is the other doc that has had problems getting released. "American Dharma" has not found a distributor and Morris proclaimed on Twitter in February he would self-distribute the movie.

Klayman said learning of the other Bannon doc didn't phase her because she knew what she capturing could stand up against a rival doc. 

"It was like with Ai Weiwei, during my time with him a BBC production would show up for him to do press. Great! This is the story we're trying to tell. Let's widen the frame even more," Klayman said on why she filmed Bannon in Venice. "But it was yet another clear cut example of Bannon's own dishonesty."

 

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