When Steve Bannon left his position as White House chief strategist less than a week after the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017, he was already a notorious figure in Trump’s inner circle, responsible for bringing a far-right ideology into the highest echelons of American politics. Unconstrained by an official post — though some say he still has a direct line to the White House — he became free to peddle influence as a perceived kingmaker, turning his controversial brand of nationalism into a global movement. Alison Klayman’s The Brink follows Bannon through the 2018 mid-term elections in the United States, shedding light on his efforts to mobilize and unify far-right parties in order to win seats in the May 2019 European Parliamentary elections. To maintain his power and influence, the former Goldman Sachs banker and media investor reinvents himself — as he has many times before — this time as the self-appointed leader of a global populist movement. Keen manipulator of the press and gifted self-promoter, Bannon continues to draw headlines and protests wherever he goes, feeding the powerful myth on which his survival relies.
I loved Alison Klayman’s award-winning 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and it’s hard to imagine two more contrasting subjects than beloved Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei and extreme rightwing strategist Steve Bannon. I was very curious to sit down with director Alison Klayman and producer Marie Therese Guirgis to talk about this riveting and personal look at the man who some say is largely responsible for Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 victory.
Danny Miller: I was absolutely fascinated by this film. Marie Therese, I know you once worked with Steve Bannon when he was in the movie business, but I’m still shocked that he agreed to do the film. On the other hand, with his massive ego, I can imagine that he loved all the attention. Was it a long process to get him to agree to be the subject of this documentary?
Marie Therese Guirgis: Not really. I mean, the reconnection of our relationship took a while, but I certainly didn’t reconnect with him with the idea of asking him to be in a documentary. I did it because I knew him and I was so angry and sad about his role in the Trump campaign and presidency. Later, when the idea for the documentary came up, he said no four times. His very first comment was “No, you’ll destroy me!” since I had just spent months telling him how angry and disgusted I was. But in the end, he agreed to do it.
Was he still in the White House at that point?
Yes. I think it was April when he finally decided he’d participate in the film, and he was there until August.
Wow, do you think the film could have happened in the same way if he was still part of the Trump administration?
Well, normally I would say absolutely not, but now that we know more about the chaos that was happening there back then and how much time Michael Wolff, who wrote Fire and Fury, was able to spend in the White House, I think it might have been possible.
As appalled as I am by his actions, I do find him a much more interesting character than Donald Trump. In many ways he’s worse than Trump because he’s not an idiot and he knows how to make things happen, but I also found his self-awareness kind of refreshing, even his ability to admire an interviewer who had asked him really tough questions instead of vilifying her as Trump would have done. Is that how he felt with you, Alison? Did he respect what you were doing even if knew you didn’t share any of his beliefs?
Alison Klayman: For the most part, I did feel like he respected me, but on the other hand, I don’t think he was thinking about me all that much, which is what I preferred. I don’t think he knew that much about me, to be honest, although he claimed to have watched my film about Ai Weiwei. But throughout the process, I felt like he treated me like a respectable filmmaker.
Marie Therese Guirgis: When I first talked to him, I mentioned a bunch of different directors but said that Alison was the person I’d really like to use. He was like, “Whatever you say, if you think she’s the right person.” So, I don’t think he really vetted her very much but I know that his team looked into her.
Did he set any ground rules for filming at the outset?
No. My whole pitch to him was that he would have zero control. Alison would have total creative control, even I wouldn’t have any say in the final cut.
Alison Klayman: I never would have agreed to make the film if he had any ground rules.
Although he did seemingly order you out of the room a few times.
I feel like my job is to always be pushing to get more access and it was important to me in the film to make sure I showed times where I was told to leave. In truth, that didn’t happen all that often, and it was never very dramatic, you know, like a soldier coming up and knocking my camera down which happens to some filmmakers. He’d always phrase it like, “Did you get everything you need?”
Yeah, he seemed very skilled and friendly in the way he did it, but I always thought in those moments, “Ah, now they’re really going to get into it!” I was especially surprised at all of the meetings you filmed between Bannon and those right-wing leaders from around the world. Did you have to get all of them to sign releases?
Yes. And the fact that they all did was very satisfying to me!
Do you think he presented you in a way that made you more appealing to them?
I think the fact that he was so comfortable with me probably conveyed something. There was never any misrepresentation, like that we were part of Breitbart or something, and no one asked me any questions like some kind of political litmus test. I think in some films you might have more of a relationship with the person you’re filming and put in time with them away from the camera, too, but that didn’t really happen here. And that was partly because of the way I felt about him and his agenda.
Marie Therese Guirgis: But remember, too, that Steve Bannon is not the type of person to just sit around and shoot the shit with someone and talk about what movies he’s seen. He just doesn’t do that.
And yet he does seem very image conscious. There were those few times in the film when he got very angry at someone. I’m guessing those may not be his favorite parts of the film?
Alison Klayman: I actually think is that he was very open, but there were people around him that worked for him were more protective of him — as they should be!
Marie Therese Guirgis: Yeah, they were the ones who were more likely to be obstacles to what we were trying to do. I remember at one point telling Alison to just text Steve directly about things that she wanted because he was usually game.
Some of those meeting were astounding to see, like the meeting with the French National Front people and other groups like that. Again, I can understand his motivation for being in the film but I would assume those people would not want to be filmed by an American documentarian.
Alison Klayman: In a way, Bannon was my biggest champion. He would just say, “Oh, let her film, she’s fine!”
Marie Therese Guirgis: Remember, he has a very big ego. And he also has a self-deprecating humor which differentiates him from Trump in a big way. I think the whole process of making the film appealed to him on some level — that he was traveling with his very own entourage that included a talented filmmaker.
Alison Klayman: Right, I think it made him feel very important.
Did you ever have the sense that he was trying to win you over to his side?
That didn’t feel like the dynamic but I did think he wanted me to like him. And he was aware of getting things that would be “good for the film,” that’s the tactic I’d often take with him.
Marie Therese Guirgis: That was usually a good way to ask him for things, to say it would help the film. I think the fact that he had worked in the movie business made him a more interesting subject because he understood it. My original pitch was that the film was going to be critical of him, he knew I didn’t agree with his views, but that it was going to be prestigious with a quality director. He was very drawn to that.
Are you prepared for any criticism you might get that you’re “humanizing” Steve Bannon? I always think those discussions are odd, as if such people are not, in fact, actual human beings, and you’re hardly giving him a platform here to espouse his views, but I’m sure some people will still worry about him being the subject of a film.
Alison Klayman: I think for the entire year of filming and then the time it took to edit, I went to bed every night thinking about that — thinking about who was going to attack me from that vantage point, and also from a right-wing vantage point! We knew we were entering a minefield but I thought it was worth it for what we could show with the kind of intimate access we had. There’s certainly no scene that exists to be like, “Oh, look, he loves his father,” or anything like that. This is definitely not a humanization project, but of course, with a film like this, you’re going to see certain sides of people that you didn’t know about before.
Do you think there’s any chance the film will get on Trump’s radar?
I don’t know. I wonder if he’ll even watch the trailer. A lot of people have said that it would make sense that he’d see it eventually but I can imagine him fast-forwarding it to see how many times he’s mentioned. I bet it would irritate him that it’s not about him. And yet it’s also interesting that even though this film was made after Bannon left the White House and when Trump was so critical of him, Bannon still goes out of his way to not talk trash about Trump.
He’s smart enough that he probably wants to keep on using Trump as long as he possibly can.
And he needs Trump’s base. But the rhetorical gymnastics he had to use to defend Trump and not expose him as an idiot was kind of amazing to watch.