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The CDC told Alex Gibney they would speak to him for his film “Totally Under Control” but gave him a list of conditions, one of which was to give the CDC “final cut.” Gibney chuckles and says, “that wasn’t going to happen.”

Gibney is no stranger to pushing the envelope and getting to the bottom of corruption. He’s taken on Wall Street with “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” Scientology with “Going Clear,” and the war in Afghanistan with “Taxi to the Dark Side,” for which he won an Academy Award. Filming a documentary during a pandemic can be extremely difficult. Still, cinematographer Ben Bloodwell came up with the “COVID cam” concept, which consisted of a computer, a DSLR camera, and a microphone. This remotely controlled apparatus allowed Gibney to interview the subjects of this doc with minimum contact.

In an interview for Variety’s “Doc/ Dreams,” presented by National Geographic, the veteran filmmaker talks about how losing a friend to COVID and having another one on a ventilator inspired him to take on the project. “It struck me that the federal response was terrible,” he says. “It was important to do a film about that. And also important, that if one was to do that film, to have the film come out prior to the election so it would be a reckoning of the response and hold the president to account.”

With co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger (brought on for their skill and to help Gibney meet the important deadline of October 13th (several weeks before the national election), the film provides an in-depth look at how the United States government, specifically Donald J. Trump and his administration, handled the response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the early months of the pandemic. The filmmakers conducted about 30 interviews with various government officials and experts, but they requested around 100, including President Trump and his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner. “When it came to the Trump administration, they didn’t ultimately give us any access. They didn’t say ‘No,’ they just ran out the clock.”

Gibney says they also spoke to many people “off the record,” including public health officials and people inside the CDC. “We particularly tried to get people to talk to us at the CDC. They were the ones who told us how dangerous it was for them because the administration was monitoring their phones and emails.

The director’s breakthrough moment was securing interviews with whistleblower Rick Bright, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and Max Kennedy, a former volunteer who tried to secure PPE for first-responders. “It was jaw-dropping seeing how utterly incompetent — almost worse than incompetent —  because incompetent conveys this idea that they just didn’t do a good job. This was a task force that was almost intentionally destroying the very task force that they created. We could have made a whole film about that.”

According to Gibney, “the hardest day from a documentary filming perspective is when we had a cut, that was about two and a half hours long, and it didn’t include the “final act,” and we only had about three or four weeks left.”

When veteran journalist Bob Woodward revealed his Feb. 7 conversations with Trump, exposing that the president knew how deadly the virus was, Gibney knew he had to include it in the film, but the question was where? His experience and cinematic eye allowed him, along with his co-directors, to try versions with the chronological sequence of events, or using it at the end to show how we got there. They found a sweet spot in the middle that adds to the film’s emotional impact.

The New York native takes the responsibility as a filmmaker seriously. “When I make a film like this, it’s very difficult for me to sleep soundly because I take problems to bed with me.” In a cinematic twist of irony, he says the night he locked the picture and scheduled the release of their first trailer (the next morning), was his first night of peaceful sleep in a long time. That same morning Gibney received a call that Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus. The co-filmmakers ultimately decided to acknowledge it as part of the film at the end.

When asked who is tougher, the Trump administration of the Church of Scientology, Gibney jokingly shares, “I got more cards and letters from the Church of Scientology. One is creepier, and one is far more dangerous.”

“This is a crisis that didn’t have to happen. These were deaths that didn’t have to happen. And these deaths were in some ways intentional by virtue of political expediency, and that was really the most terrifying thing of all. So if you’re thinking about what’s dangerous, that’s pretty dangerous. Two hundred thousand plus people die because of political calculation.”

“Totally Under Control” is distributed by Neon and is currently available for streaming on Hulu.