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'This was my Tiger King': LANCE director Marina Zenovich talks to Cyclist

16 Jun 2020

The filmmaker who persuaded Lance Armstrong, his family, friends and rivals to tell the Texan’s story anew reflects on her time with Lance

Words Graham Willgoss Photography ESPN DLP Media Group, Elizabeth Kreutz, Henny Garfunkel

Cyclist: How did you end up making a documentary about Lance Armstrong?

Marina Zenovich: I’d made a film for ESPN in 2016 about the Duke lacrosse scandal, called Fantastic Lies. It was a tough film to make. But I ran with it, and it was quite successful. A couple of years passed and I got a call from Libby Geist [an executive producer] at ESPN who said: ‘Would you be interested in doing a film about Lance Armstrong?'

My first thought was: ‘Why?’ Because I knew there had been films made before. Alex Gibney is a friend and a mentor, and I remember what he had been through with Lance for his film. But Libby said: ‘Listen to these podcasts, I think he’s dipping his toe out there'. So I did some research and he seemed like he was open.

I flew to Texas and met him. A month later I was filming.

Cyc: Like Alex Gibney with The Armstrong Lie, did you start making one film and end up with something completely different?

MZ: It’s important to understand that filming took place at a moment in Lance’s life when we thought the US Postal case was going to be happening.

So the film was kind of structured around that case, if there was the trial – which there was supposed to be. That was the initial plan. Not that initial plans ever really happen. He ended up settling.

So, for me, that was a particular moment in his life where I felt like after all these lawsuits, everything he’d been through, a new chapter was starting. I say that because I feel like, if I started the film today, he’d be in a different place to what he was then.

I felt like I could see him changing in front of me little by little. I thought that would track in the edit room, but it didn’t really. Just because I was around him a lot, I could see him. He was changing as those lawsuits were fading further into the past.

Cyc: You interviewed Armstrong eight times in total, right?

MZ: Yes. From March 2018 to August 2019.

Marina Zenovich was director of 30 for 30: Lance

Cyc: Did you take a different approach each time to try to get something new?

MZ: The story is so big. I would go with a list of what I wanted to talk about, but it really depended on where he was, what he was doing, if he had exercised, if he was distracted.

So we started to figure out: ‘What’s the best way to get him?’ I think it was the third interview when we filmed Lance exercising beforehand. Then we did this great interview where he gets emotional, and my cinematographer said: ‘I worked on this film about ballerinas, and they always gave better interviews after they exercised.’

So it was like: OK, we’re building in exercise before we film with him.

Cyc: Why did he choose to open up to you?

MZ: You know, that’s been the question of this whole project. To be honest, when I make a film about someone, I don’t ask them why they’re doing it. You don’t ask, because maybe they’ll go: ‘Shit! Why am I doing this? I don’t want to do this!’ I think that a lot of time – a lot of time – for Lance has passed.

In the sense that I’m talking about days and weeks and months turning into years of him, by his own fault, being at this place where he was at rock bottom.

Little by little he was coming back, and getting his life back. And so I think he has moved on through a lot of therapy by himself, with his fiancée, with his family. Maybe he felt ready to tell more than he told six, seven years ago. I mean, when you look at those films compared to now, he’s in a very different place.

I guess the question is: ‘Has he told everything?’ And I think the answer is: ‘No.’ But I think he tells a lot more now than he did then because of where he’s at.

Cyc: There seemed to be a real warmth between the two of you?

MZ: Oh, totally. I mean, Lance is very likeable. And he’s very smart, very funny, he’s light on his feet. I didn’t interview him during the darkest moments of his life, right? I’ve interviewed him on the other side.

So you have to understand that. I don’t know if a lot of people do, but I can think that he’s smart and he’s funny and genuinely like him, and also take into account the things he did. And I can hold those two thoughts in my head. It’s not so black and white for me.

I really liked Lance. I liked talking to him, I liked interrogating him. I liked filming him. And our relationship just kind of grew.

Cyc: His is a nuanced story. Was it difficult to keep that in mind?

MZ: It’s funny, someone wrote to me and said: ‘This is my Tiger King.’ And I said: ‘Tiger King for intellectuals.’ And the guy said: ‘The whole thing worked because of your relationship.’ I think that’s true.

Whatever our relationship was, it was easy in the sense that I don’t know what he expected, but I was open and I was willing to hear him out. But I had to tell the whole story. The whole thing is so fascinating.

Cyc: There is a great line from Lindsay Beck, founder of the Fertile Hope cancer charity, when she talks about Lance’s doping and his effect on the lives of people with cancer: ‘I feel like everyone wants to lump them together and throw it all out.’

MZ: And it’s the truth. When I met her and heard her story, and heard her say: ‘There are a lot of babies born because of Lance Armstrong,’ I was like: ‘Oh my god! That has to be in the film!’

So, you know, there’s that. But the other side of it is that people feel that he really used cancer as a shield. That he made a lot of money off it. There is more digging to do there. But people have to understand that when you make a documentary, not everyone is like: ‘Talk to me!’ I’ll tell you everything!’

No! I reached out to Thom Weisel [who bankrolled US Postal], [former coach] Chris Carmichael, [former Motorola manager, now Team CCC boss] Jim Ochowicz. And I would get these emails: ‘I’m sorry that chapter of my life is behind me.’

Cyc: What you’ve ended up with is almost a story about understanding how people process what was, for many, a traumatic period in their lives.

MZ: I love that! That’s what a lot of this has felt like for me, because it is about how people process. And what was fascinating to see was how different people process differently.

Like Emma O’Reilly – she was able to forgive Lance for the thing that he considers the worst thing he ever did. Whereas Betsy and Frankie [Andreu] were not able to.

Cyc: Because Lance won’t say what happened in the hospital room?

MZ: There’s that, and what he did to Frankie in terms of stopping him from getting jobs. Frankie doesn’t want to talk.

But I love the thing that you’re saying about processing. Because to see Floyd Landis say: ‘I wish him peace,’ and to see Tyler Hamilton go: ‘I hated him for a long time, but I had to let that go,’ is just fascinating.

For Lance, there was a great story that he told on a podcast about someone who worked at Livestrong who met him for coffee and she said to him: ‘We felt complicit.’ And he’d never heard that before.

Had he never heard it because no one ever said it to him? Had he never heard it because he wasn’t ready emotionally to hear it? There’s something in that: all of us are ready to hear ugly truths when we’re ready, right? Or not at all. So you’ve got to give him credit for trying. That’s kind of where I come from with this entire story.

Cyc: Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton stand out in your film as being the most emotionally shell-shocked. Is that fair?

MZ: I think it is, but that was two years ago and they’ve moved on even further. I think what’s hard for these guys, and I can’t speak for them, but the stories are always about Lance.

Lance feels like he got the short end of the stick, but they did as well. This film was going to come out in theatres before the pandemic, and then ESPN moved it up [for television]. But I was hoping we’d have roundtables with the likes of the head of USA Cycling and USADA, and Floyd and Tyler, and maybe Lance – for this generation to talk about what they went through and not feel like pariahs.

I have to say that a lot of these interviews were, like, two years ago. But Floyd is sensitive and thoughtful. That’s what’s so beautiful about the camera: it picks it all up. And Tyler, I think, has made his peace as much as he can, but because of the doping, these guys aren’t celebrated. They’re looked down upon.

Cyc: Jan Ullrich is thought of in a similar way. Lance’s reaction when you ask him about Ullrich really stands out: he says he loves him and breaks down in tears. Did that feel real to you?

MZ: Oh my god! Totally! That was the first interview where he’d exercised and I was getting him all ready to talk about cancer, which I knew he’d talked about a million times.

So it was like: ‘How am I going to get him to tell this story fresh?’ Because that’s what’s really hard. And he was like: ‘You have 10 minutes left.’ And I was like: ‘Oh, for f**k’s sake, I was going to ask you about cancer!’ But I can’t tell that in 10 minutes. He’d just gone to Germany and he’d told me what was happening with Jan. I didn’t expect that reaction. You know, it was really moving.

I felt he was crying about Jan, but I also felt he was crying about what could have happened to him. So it was kind of two-fold.

Cyc: Do you think it was a therapeutic exercise for Lance?

MZ: Totally. And he told me as much. The last interview we had, he said: ‘You think I don’t like these little sessions, but I do.’ And I think it was a great challenge for me.

At the beginning Lance told me: ‘Nothing is off limits, you can ask me anything.’ I was like: ‘Are you kidding me? This is amazing.’ And he wanted me to talk to his therapist. I did end up talking to her. I wanted to interview her, but she ended up thinking it wouldn’t be good for her in the end after she spoke to some lawyers. But I kind of tried to understand him through her.

Cyc: Was there anything you left on the cutting room floor that you wished you had included in hindsight?

MZ: There was a lot that I left out. I interviewed Christophe Bassons, who I think I could make a film about. How he was treated, what he went through. A lot of my European interviews were truncated because it was too much. But they were great stories!

You have to figure out what your film is about. If I was to make a film about the 1998 or 1999 Tour, or if I was to make an entire film about Festina, I could use Christophe more. But this film was about Lance over such a long period of time.

Cyc: How have you found the reception you and your film have received from the cycling community?

MZ: Well, I’ve been curious enough to go on Twitter, which is kind of stupid, because a lot of people have a lot of opinions! These jobs are often anthropological in the sense that you don’t know the world you are thrown into, and it is what you make of it. I had no agenda. And I kind of fell in love with the cycling world. I mean, it’s a great world of really interesting characters.

A lot of people are saying: ‘Why are we focussing on Lance? We should be focussing on young cyclists!’ It’s like: I wish in a way that my film could help these people come together to help young pro cyclists. Just because doping was a part of it, I don’t like that these guys were somehow forgotten.

The film was about Lance, but it’s also about that world at that time.