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SXSW: Alex Gibney on His Controversial Steve Jobs Documentary

After causing a stir at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year with his Scientology exposé “Going Clear,” director Alex Gibney arrives at SXSW with another documentary — about the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Gibney says the film, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” will be just as controversial. He spent nearly three years on the project, which was financed by CNN Films, and interviewed roughly 50 people who knew Jobs — even if Apple Inc. didn’t participate. In advance of the SXSW premiere on Saturday afternoon, Gibney spoke to Variety about his new film and explained why Ashton Kutcher didn’t succeed in playing the icon in the 2013 biopic.

What brought you to Jobs?
After the Walter Isaacson book and so many other films, I didn’t really want to do a paint-by-the-numbers bio. I was interested in his values, the idea that when he died, there was a huge global outpouring of grief. People were weeping. I wanted to do a thing about Jobs, but I also wanted it to be about us. I set out to do an impressionistic film, structured in a way like “Citizen Kane.” I don’t mean to be pointy-headed.

What were you specifically looking at?
His values. Jobs is a character who is very much influenced by the counterculture, and yet he ended up being the head of a company that’s the most valuable on Earth. The question was, did he retain those counterculture values?

Is the film critical?
There are critical elements that people haven’t seen about Jobs or understood.

Can you give me an example?
I’m reluctant. His character, and some of his corporate practices.

Do we come away from your movie liking Jobs?
You come away with a far more complex interpretation. When I went into it, I thought that Jobs was an inventor. And I don’t really think he was an inventor now. I think he knew how to push people and he was a storyteller, and he became a storyteller for the computer age. But not all the stories that he told were true.

Did Apple participate?
They didn’t give us any help whatsoever. When we reached out to them, they were somewhat hostile.

They have a reputation for being that way.
They are brutal. People love their products, but they can be a ruthless company.

Did making the movie change your relationship with your iPhone?
It’s one of the things I explore. Yes, I do have an iPhone. I reflect on the irony of that, but I do love my iPhone beyond reason.

But do you love your iPhone any less?
I would say I’m no longer madly in love with my iPhone. It’s no longer blind faith.

How is the documentary business doing right now?
I think the form has exploded. Documentary filmmakers in the last 15 years have become such great storytellers. Sometimes you see these movies and you can’t make this s–t up. When it comes to an iconic figure like Steve Jobs, it’s hard to imagine no matter how good the writer, director and actor, someone playing him would better than Steve Jobs himself.

Did you see the Ashton Kutcher movie?
Yes. I was not a fan. I found it silly. I do think that Ashton Kutcher looks like a young Steve Jobs, but beyond that, it wasn’t interesting to me.

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