'The Armstrong Lie' is not the movie producer Frank Marshall set out to make. His vision, 13 years ago, was for a Hollywood biopic on Armstrong culminating in a Rocky-esque triumph. Marshall is well-known in Hollywood, producing franchises like 'Indiana Jones,' 'Back to the Future,' and later, the 'Bourne' movies. But he's also a jock. In 1992, he got himself a slot on the U.S. Olympics Committee, where he formed a close relationship with Bill Stapleton, a former Olympic swimmer who was also Lance Armstrong's lawyer, agent, and right hand. In 2000, Stapleton showed Marshall galleys of Armstrong's memoir, 'It's Not About the Bike,' which chronicles Armstrong's road from his 1996 cancer diagnosis to winning the Tour de France three years later. "It's a movie," Marshall told him, and immediately optioned it.
Marshall showed up at Sony with his 'Bourne' star, Matt Damon, who wanted to play Armstrong, and sold the project that day. Hollywood being Hollywood, the film never happened. By 2008, the project seemed all but dead: Armstrong was in full retirement mode, saying he was done with the bike forever, and leading journalists to believe he was mulling a run for Texas governor in 2010. That summer, as he watched Spanish rider Carlos Sastre pokily win the 2008 Tour de France, Armstrong changed his mind about retirement. "I'll kick their asses," he said, and announced that he'd vie for an eighth jersey in 2009.
Marshall's Armstrong movie was back on, but now as a comeback documentary, which Marshall hoped would pave the way to finally making his biopic after Armstrong was truly retired. By then Marshall and Armstrong had formed a bona fide friendship; Marshall was with Armstrong when he won Tours in 2002, 2004, and 2005. Marshall and his partner on the project, Matt Tolmach, decided that Gibney, who had just won his Oscar, should direct. The producers sent him off to Austin to meet their star, who voiced no objections. And they were off.
At that point, Gibney was convinced that despite the evidence of Armstrong's past doping, he was making a special point of riding clean in 2009. "Look, as you get older you root for the old guy who comes out and tries to beat the young guys," Gibney says. "And it seemed like he was doing it clean, right? So I thought, 'This is his redemption story.'"
Immediately, Gibney was stunned by the openness of the Armstrong camp, which had a reputation for being fiercely protective. To his great shock, Stapleton even helped Gibney secure an interview with Armstrong's former doctor, Michele Ferrari, with whom Armstrong had had to cut ties in 2004 when he was convicted in a lawsuit that revealed him to be the most sophisticated doper in the cycling world. "That was a jaw-dropper," says Gibney of landing the elusive Ferrari.
The one big issue that Armstrong and his team had was that Gibney had hired as a technical consultant Kent Gordis. Gordis, a sports TV producer, had co-written a book with three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond, Armstrong's archenemy and one of the first people to publicly suggest Armstrong was doping. "Lance's team tried to get him tossed, but I kind of dug my heels in," says Gibney. "I didn't feel it was appropriate for Lance's peeps to be telling me who I could hire."
Even then, back in 2008, Armstrong's team knew that doping allegations would be addressed in the film. The only thing they requested was that Armstrong be given the opportunity to respond to any charges made in the film, a skill at which he'd become particularly adept.
But nobody, not even his own producers, knew what Gibney would do with the film after the 2009 Tour. Weeks after returning from France – where Armstrong came in third – Gibney was on a plane to Michigan to persuade Betsy Andreu to help on his film. Andreu was married to Frankie Andreu, a 1999 Postal Service teammate. The couple's 2005 testimony about Armstrong's doping, followed by Armstrong's seeming attempts to destroy them, had put the Andreuses at the center of those trying to expose Armstrong. Initially, they were wary of Gibney, assuming that any film Armstrong's buddy Marshall would make would be a puff piece. So Gibney flew Kent Gordis to meet them in Michigan, where he vouched for Gibney as no Armstrong hagiographer.
Had Marshall known who Gibney was interviewing, he would not have been pleased. Even in light of all the damning circumstantial evidence, as late as 2010 Marshall still believed that his friend was not a doper. "I always thought, 'If everybody's getting busted, why isn't Lance?'" says Marshall. So in 2010, when Gibney finally delivered a cut of his film to Marshall and Tolmach, they were shocked and unhappy when they saw how deeply Gibney had delved into the doping. "I thought this was a movie about a comeback," Marshall says, "not about doping." The two producers were soon screaming at their wayward director inside a tight cutting room on the Sony lot.
But then, it was all moot. Just before Gibney finished his cut, Floyd Landis dropped the dime on Armstrong on 'Nightline,' rendering the film all but irrelevant. Following the October 2012 release of the United States Anti-Doping Agency's damning report, Armstrong invited Marshall and Tolmach to his house and finally admitted the truth and said he would soon talk about it publicly. "I felt devastated and betrayed," says Marshall.
In order to salvage the film, Gibney sat down with Armstrong in January of this year, three hours after his Oprah interview. Gibney taped a few more interviews with Armstrong's critics, then started recutting the film, his way, and with the full support of the producers. Armstrong's personal feelings about the film were no longer a concern to Marshall.
Gibney adamantly denies that he signed up for the project secretly hoping he'd be present for Armstrong's unraveling. Marshall isn't so sure. "I know that nothing would have made Alex happier than to have been present for a positive drug test," says Marshall wearily. "I'm telling you, I'm sure Alex was just waiting for this to happen."
When the unraveling did happen, Gibney does admit he celebrated the fact that his movie had just gotten a whole lot more interesting. "Part of me did think that, of course," he says. Gibney concedes that his film delivers a huge beating to Armstrong. "I did wallop him in the end," he says. "And I think that was justified. He also walloped himself. I mean, I think my films try to be sympathetic. But you can be sympathetic and then still render a judgment."
The million-dollar question is why Armstrong ever let Gibney near him in the first place. "It makes me think that some part of him wanted somebody to figure it all out," says Tolmach. "How can you not think that? For someone as controlled as Lance Armstrong, it's too reckless an idea." In May, Gibney sent Armstrong an email breaking the news about what he was calling the film. "I don't know whether to be more angry about the title," Armstrong wrote back, "or the fact that you still can't spell peloton."
Gibney has never viewed Armstrong as a simple villain. "People like to compare him to Bernie Madoff," he says. "I don't think he was like Bernie Madoff. I think he was a fucking awesome athlete. He's athletically talented, works really hard, and has a kind of killer instinct. Sometimes that is what separates the men from the boys. We admire that on the bike. It's not so pretty off the bike."