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‘Totally Under Control’ Director Alex Gibney on How NDAs and Political Posturing Devastated America’s Pandemic Response

Totally Under Control
Courtesy of Neon

Donald Trump’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis brought all the chaos and contradictions of the pandemic into sharp focus. Between his refusal to protect himself and the people surrounding him and the president’s unequal access to superior medical care, many Americans became even more frustrated by the situation than ever before.

Where did America go so wrong? That’s the question that “Totally Under Control,” the new documentary from Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan tries to answer.

The filmmakers worked in secret, using an ingenious combination of pandemic-dictated production methods, surprising many when they revealed a month ago that they had completed a feature documentary that was ready to be released before the election.

From bungling getting the first tests up and running to Jared Kushner’s PPE corps of inexperienced volunteers, including Robert Kennedy’s grandson Max Kennedy Jr., the story of how the 2020 pandemic unfolded is like a train rushing toward an inevitable wreck. Just one day after the documentary wrapped, Trump was diagnosed with COVID, adding a grim coda – and necessitating the addition of an explanation card at the end.

“Totally Under Control” is available Tuesday on VOD and begins streaming on Hulu on Oct. 20.

We asked Gibney and his team about which aspect of the global health catastrophe was the most important for them to focus on and why it was crucial for the movie to be out before the election.

Why did you think it was important to keep it under wraps until it was nearly done?

Gibney: I think one reason was we were hoping to persuade a number of people to come forward and didn’t want there to be a lot of chatter about the film that might dissuade them. While we were reaching out to members of the administration, we didn’t want it to be a kind of public political football.

Were there members of the administration that you thought might agree to be on camera?

Hillinger: We had a big long list. We obviously put in our request into the White House and the White House Coronavirus task force. It was really important to us to get the story from the inside. But obviously, people within the current administration were not able to talk to us. I had several conversations with communications directors from all of those agencies and spoke off the record to a number of people. What we learned a few months into this process was that Michael Caputo, he was put into position at the top of HHS to make sure that the messaging coming out of CDC and HHS matched what the White House wanted.

Career scientists and career politicians, anybody who wanted to keep their job, they were scared to talk to us. I was also told from a lot of sources who had friends and colleagues inside of the CDC, they were concerned that their email was being watched or their phones were being tapped. I think they’ve been put in a political position where they didn’t expect to necessarily be in when they started working at the CDC and they wanted to just be able to do their jobs. There were a lot of people who wanted to talk to us and they were scared to do so for either career reasons or political repercussions.

With more than 20 documentaries in the works on the pandemic, what theme did you want this one to focus on the most?

Gibney: We wanted to tell a story about the federal response. And we were searching for a theme as we were making the film. Ultimately that theme to us is science versus politics, that tension and conflict between the two. The intent of the film was to look at the federal response and to see how the federal government met the challenge or didn’t meet the challenge of how you respond to a global pandemic.

There’s so much ground to cover — did you consider making it into a series?

Gibney: Not this time, because part of what we wanted to do was to have it out quickly, and we felt that a mini-series would have been too vast, too broad and not accomplishable on this timeframe.

What is the significance of having it debut before the election?

Gibney: I hope it’ll be a motivator. This film was made to investigate and hold to account public officials on how they handled the coronavirus, but it was also made for the American public. Really the world public, but in this country, the reason for releasing it before the election was to say, this is a film that will give you an intensely factual account of how the federal government handled this pandemic — vote accordingly.

How were you able to make a film with three directors collaborating in a pandemic situation?

Harutyunyan: We made the film start to finish in quarantine. So we were all actually working online using Zoom, Microsoft teams, this other tool called Collaborate to watch the cuts and rough cuts and put comments on them. We were never obviously able to be in the same room as the editor. They would have to always export the cuts for us to take a look. Alex, Suzanne, and I were in the same room for the first time when we went into a sound mix.

It was a very different and bizarre experience working on a film and not actually having to physically be in the same room. In terms of the interviews, we found two systems that we would offer to subjects based on their comfort level. One of them was the COVID cam that you learn about in the beginning of the film, which was a rig that our cinematographer, Ben Bloodwell put together. It was a DSLR connected to a laptop and the microphone connected to the camera on a tray. We would drop it on their porch, they would just pick it up, put it in their house and then we would remotely completely control the entire filming.

The other option was, you see some behind the scenes shots in the film, where there is a shower curtain hanging. And so that option was we would go to a location, some photographers would go set up everything, do it all by themselves, and then hang the shower curtains, put on a face shield, a mask. And then all the subjects had to do was to come sit down and take off their mask. Then we would use a tool called EyeDirect or a teleprompter where the subject would look into the lens, but they would actually see the image of the interviewer, which would be projected.

We would actually make eye contact via these devices. So we found technology helped us make this a bit more human, even though it was a very bizarre experience.

Why did you want to pull back and show what the filming rig looked like?

Harutyunyan: We thought it was important for the viewers to understand that we made the film in quarantine, that we made the film during a pandemic.

We were also showing how to do this safely, because that was so important to us, that the subjects and that our crew felt safe, that we were not putting anyone’s health at risk.

How did you approach the pacing and how did you decide how much scientific information to show?

Gibney: It was particularly difficult to get the beginning right — it was the most important, but also the most complicated to explain, and that was the whole testing story. Because the testing story is really where everything goes wrong. We wrestled with that for some time.

It seems like during COVID, we haven’t seen as much footage of really ill people as we have seen with some other world disasters. Why is that?

Gibney: I think part of it has to do with HIPAA regulations and part of it has to do with the fear of COVID. It’s very difficult to get access and permission inside hospitals, largely because of HIPAA challenges. But it can also be a way of shielding the government. It’s never a good look for a government to see people in distress, if they can hide that, just the way that the George W. Bush administration used to ban the photographing of flag-draped coffins coming home from the Iraq war.

It’s a way of containing the outrage — to prevent the American people from seeing the real suffering that’s going on.

How did you end up talking to Max Kennedy?

Harutyunyan: We were looking for him because we had read these articles with an anonymous person and we didn’t know his name. And then one of our EPs reached out and said, I actually have a connection to this volunteer, who has, quite some stories to tell, do you want to connect? And when we did, we realized this was the person that we were looking for. He told all the insane stories that unfortunately we were only able to include a percentage of, everything that went down. He was understandably scared to talk in front of the camera. He had signed an NDA.

So he decided to just disregard the NDA for this purpose?

Harutyunyan: He had consulted lawyers who had told him “We don’t think this NDA is legal. Also you were not an employee.” There were so many questions about why they would even have them sign an NDA. His lawyer submitted a request to the White House to release him from his NDA because it is illegal. There’s a whole other story about NDAs and how they can be unconstitutional and kind of illegal in some instances.

Gibney: That’s what the NDAs were used for, to prevent Max Kennedy and other volunteers from talking about how much the taskforce was a complete fake and how their search for getting affordable PPE to protect doctors was completely bungled. It was just a purely a device to prevent political damage, to prevent the American people from seeing how badly the administration was handling the situation.

What was the most shocking thing that you encountered?

Hillinger: For me, I think it was really digging into some of the early exercises that the government does for pandemic preparation — Crimson Contagion. The fact that nobody immediately looked to that and followed what they had discovered, it’s shocking. If they had actually followed those findings, we would not be have had this many lives lost, we would be in a much different position and that I think is incredibly shocking. I don’t understand why our federal government would commission this giant multi-agency exercise and then not use the results to actually respond.

What was your first thought when you heard about Trump’s diagnosis?

Harutyunyan: Well, we were expecting this. It had to happen. I was honestly surprised that it happened this late. He was not wearing a mask, he was not social distancing, he was not listening to any scientific advice. So the only thing that was keeping him from getting the virus was the fact that everyone around him was getting tested to protect him.

Do you think that Biden has any concrete plans ready that could really be put into motion if he gets elected to, to address all these issues?

Gibney: I certainly hope so. There are so many rigorous plans available, and some of them were written by the Obama Biden administration. I would be shocked if he doesn’t have a plan.