A rose between thorns

Alison Klayman on Steve Bannon and The Brink

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Alison Klayman at Magnolia Pictures on The Brink: "I hope it can be both, very contemporary and also kind of evergreen."
Alison Klayman at Magnolia Pictures on The Brink: "I hope it can be both, very contemporary and also kind of evergreen." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Highly aware of the camera, Steve Bannon taunts and teases the filmmaker and us in The Brink. For a little longer than a year, Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry on Ai Weiwei, The 100 Years Show on Carmen Herrera) had access to business meetings and lunches all over the world and flew with her subject and his associates on private planes to various speaking engagements. Fall 2017 to fall 2018 was particularly eventful in the news and what unfolds on screen vérité style is a fascinating portrait of a man observed.

The Brink, produced by Marie Therese Guirgis (Alexandria Bombach's On Her Shoulders, Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet), shows the concrete, not to say banal, quotidian business of this controversial figure. Politics do not fade into the background, quite the opposite. With clever editing by Brian Goetz and Marina Katz and aware choices of what to highlight, Klayman lets Bannon reveal himself. While looking at old photographs, he reacts with obvious mixed feelings when it is pointed out to him that he once resembled David Bowie.

Alison Klayman on Steve Bannon: "I just couldn't believe that my subject is laying out my thematic interest, you know, my interest as a filmmaker."
Alison Klayman on Steve Bannon: "I just couldn't believe that my subject is laying out my thematic interest, you know, my interest as a filmmaker."

Subtle juxtapositions often do the trick with a fustian persona, while great care is taken to let us know where and when the interactions we see take place. The Brink had its world première at the Sundance Film Festival.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Was it exactly a year that you were following Bannon?

Alison Klayman: It was over the course of 13 months, basically. And there were some periods where it was more intense, like many weeks out of the month, and then there were other times where it was less. Also as we were negotiating the full release. For me it was kind of nice to have some time on and then time off.

AKT: I can imagine. It must have been so intense.

AK: Yeah. The last couple of months it was a lot more on. You know the time is running out, especially with the midterms coverage.

AKT: That was the cut-off point?

AK: Yeah. Pretty early on we proposed that as an endpoint.

AKT: So it all started October 2017?

AK: I met him September. I started filming October 2017 and ended in November 2018.

AKT: The film is a reminder of how much was crammed into this time span. How much happened. So many news stories that happened in a very short timespan. In a few years it will show what had lasting impact and what could fade in the background. I think the film will age well.

US poster of Alison Klayman's Sundance jury prize winner Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
US poster of Alison Klayman's Sundance jury prize winner Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

AK: That was definitely the goal. For it to be of the moment, but not so of the moment that it was unimportant in a year. I hope it can be both, very contemporary and also kind of evergreen.

AKT: You start the film with his Auschwitz-Birkenau comments. That for me already explained the title. He is right at the brink of saying something completely outrageous and he is playing with you and with us, the spectators. It's a fascinating moment to throw us into what is to come.

AK: I think for the content and also for the choice itself and the way he is telling a story - I mean for me, I think you're absolutely right. He is playing with me. And he is playing with the audience. It's that balance that always exists with him. Or maybe it's more a dichotomy than a balance - of having this impressive and sometimes even charming self-awareness. And also somehow at the same time being completely oblivious to the ways in which he is revealing himself.

When I thought of audience expectations - there are some audience members who are going to think - what? Is he going to say the Holocaust is a good thing? By putting it in front I'm also playing with audience expectations what he is going to do or say.

AKT: I got the sense you were.

AK: But while he doesn't do that, what he does say, I think, is still incredibly problematic. I mean, to say, to marvel at the Birkenau engineering! And they had a beta site test and this is the improved one.

AKT: And he imagines the meetings, including the coffee they drank. And then throughout the film you show his many meetings and the endless cups of coffee.

AK: Totally. And we totally played with that. When he says that, so many things were going through my head when he told me the story. I was always thinking how do I make the film riveting, engaging, action-packed, while it's a lot of just people sitting around having meetings. Maybe not drinking coffee; he's drinking Red Bull, they're having wine and steak dinners.

But I mean, everything about that story spoke to me, I felt, in a way that he couldn't know. He thought he was speaking to me because he knew I'm a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and I'm Jewish. Also probably my face, because I try to keep someone talking by engaging with my face. And it was probably also uncontrollable that my eyebrows went up and I was kind of cold inside. For me, I was like "wow", as he edged towards this banality of evil kind of discussion. I just couldn't believe that my subject is laying out my thematic interest, you know, my interest as a filmmaker.

Alison Klayman's The 100 Years Show on Carmen Herrera
Alison Klayman's The 100 Years Show on Carmen Herrera

That is not something I talked to him about. I didn't say to him "I think you're doing evil things and I want to understand how a person does that. And who that person is, and what their strategies are." That wasn't a discussion we had. So for me, the fact that he was going there was really powerful. I did think pretty quickly that this would be an amazing open.

AKT: There is so much in that sequence. The three companies he mentions all still exist - Mercedes, Krupp, and Hugo Boss.

AK: That's so true.

AKT: Hugo Boss did manufacture Nazi uniforms. So the business side also introduces the clothing strand of your documentary. From "two-shirt Bannon" to the ubiquitous Barbour jackets he wears - how much this is part of his persona, almost like an armour for distraction.

AK: I think it's also important that it's connecting to the business behind everything. One of the things I hope the movie does is try to point to the question of who is funding him and what kinds of financial interests - I mean there's a lot of billionaires in the movie. The question of what are the true interests behind him. That's why it's always "populism" and "economic nationalism." I think they are purposely amorphous terms and I think he is trying to either create them or inject them with his definitions.

AKT: And you show that when the money discussions start, the doors closed on you.

AK: Yeah.

AKT: I have rarely seen so many beautiful hotels, places with history, look so ugly.

AK: That's really true.

AKT: Somehow contaminated and empty, as if "the bad vibe" Bannon mentions about the West Wing descended on the hotel in Venice, for instance. Places look drained of life.

The Brink poster at the IFC Center in New York
The Brink poster at the IFC Center in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AK: It's funny, too, I was told - I can't say I did my own research to back it up, but I didn't see anything that contradicted it either - I was told by his team, it might even be the same hotelier or owner, behind the hotel in Mayfair in London and also in Venice. They were like, "the hotel owner is also a supporter." Not necessarily meaning the rooms were comped by the hotel owner. To me it felt like it was coming out of the cracks everywhere. From the hotel owner to honestly, occasionally he [Steve Bannon] would get stopped in Italy by people on the street. If anyone looked at him sideways, he had security guards to scare them off.

But there was one time he was eating in Rome on the street, which he did very very rarely outside of his hotel, and a man was finishing his meal beside him and he asked the security guard "Can I just say something to him?" Positive, and he was like "Sure, sure, go ahead." And he said "Thank you so much. You're building the foundation for a greater nation. And I thank you." That always really surprised me.

He was kind of limiting his interaction with the general public a lot of the time and I wonder if over the course of this year he got even more disconnected from what the reality really is. Because when you start to fly only on private planes and you make a plan to enter every place through the back - really I don't know if there was always danger. I think he just didn't want to encounter the opposition. At the same time there were spontaneous displays of support that I don't think were planted for me to witness.

AKT: The woman in Dallas!

AK: Wasn't that great?

AKT: That was you with the camera, talking to her, right?

AK: Yeah, and she grabbed my hand and I had taken my headphone out to hear her ask me the question. In the frame is my hand with the headphone and I really needed her to give my hand back so I could focus on her. I was on a monopod, so one hand was on the camera and I couldn't focus and hold the camera. But I could not believe that, personally.

AKT: You ask her if she wants to know who the special guest is, and then her face lights up "Oh I love him, I love him. I'm such a fan." It's a great telling moment. You also show us a lot by repetitions. He says "A rose between thorns" every time a woman and a man want to take a photo with him. Of course, any politician has a certain amount of phrases they like to use and use again. It becomes something else, though when you put it in a film.

Alison Klayman on Steve Bannon: "He is playing with the audience. It's that balance that always exists with him. Or maybe it's more a dichotomy than a balance ..."
Alison Klayman on Steve Bannon: "He is playing with the audience. It's that balance that always exists with him. Or maybe it's more a dichotomy than a balance ..."

AK: One of the big questions we all had and our financier would ask us: how are you going to deal with someone, when you think he is being dishonest - what's the device if you're doing vérité? I was like, I really think that the tools available are going to be things like repetition, juxtaposition, and placement of scenes. Propaganda can use these things as well. Propaganda is also kind of like his film that's layering things on top of each other. When we tried things that were like that in the edit, it never felt right.

AKT: "How would Leni [Riefenstahl] do it?" he asks at one point.

AK: Exactly! And you need the trust of the audience. You need to show your hand, I felt, especially in the first act. Whenever he talks, there's no VO, I cut so you see where he is in the world, who he is talking to. If he is talking to me or to a reporter, I felt it was really important to get settled in the movie and understand you're watching him. We're not saying, let me help deliver his story to you.

The Brink opens in the US on March 29. At the IFC Center in New York, Alison Klayman will participate in Q&As after the following screenings: Friday, March 29 at 7:15pm; Saturday, March 30 at 2:45pm and 5:00pm.

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