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Full transcript: Documentary filmmaker Brian Knappenberger on Recode Media

His latest film, “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” is now on Netflix.

2015 Writers Guild Awards L.A. Ceremony
Writer Brian Knappenberger accepts the Best Documentary Screenplay award for “The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” at the 2015 Writers Guild Awards.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for WGAw

On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, filmmaker Brian Knappenberger talks about his latest documentary, “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” available now on Netflix. The film follows the trial of Hulk Hogan versus Gawker, while talking about the general war being waged against the press.

You can read some of the highlights from the interview at the link above, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher or SoundCloud.


Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That man laughing is Brian Knappenberger. Did I get your name right on the first try?

Brian Knappenberger: That’s right.

Awesome. Hooray for me. Podcast is over.

Brian is here because he’s got a new movie coming out on Netflix, probably the day that you are listening to this. Brian, the name of this movie has changed a couple of times. What is the current name?

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press.

“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” kind of parallels ... This is the Gawker versus Hulk Hogan documentary movie. It’s a documentary. It’s not fiction — seems pretty dystopian though. Many of you who are listening to this podcast will remember the Hulk Hogan versus Gawker trial, which concluded just about a year ago. It went on and on for a while. Gawker went into bankruptcy. It is now owned by Fusion. Seems crazy. Seems like this happened years ago. And so you made that movie in between, sort of, the end of the trial and now.

Yeah. Basically.

Less than that, right? Because this thing was in Sundance, which was the beginning of this year. So, how quickly did you make this movie?

Yeah, it’s been just under a year. I was really interested in the trial. I thought that Hulk Hogan-Gawker trial was just fascinating.

You’re a professional documentarian. This is what you do.

This is what I do. Yeah. So, I was super fascinated by it. I thought that just by itself it was pretty interesting. It was the first time a sex tape case like this even went to trial.

Actually went to trial.

Yeah. And you know, as salacious, as tabloid-y as that all sounded, it was pretty clear that there were some big-picture things at stake here. I mean, privacy versus First Amendment. So, I was captivated by it. But really the documentary kicked in after this $140 million verdict, which was paired with a requirement for Gawker to put up $50 million right away. That was the death sentence of Gawker.

So, let’s back all the way up, if you weren’t following this for some reason. Again, you probably have some recollection of Hulk Hogan, sex tape, Gawker trial, but the trial was a privacy trial.

That’s right.

Suit brought by Hulk Hogan for a blog post Gawker put up years ago. Most people probably did not read it. Saying “Hulk Hogan sex tape.” You can look at it. That was that. Hogan’s lawyer told them to take it down. They didn’t. Things went on. Gawker gets sued frequently or used to get sued frequently and things would get settled and people would go away. This one did not go away. It actually went to trial. It started, was going to go to trial a couple years ago and finally went to trial last year. And so, you were drawn to this right away. This is an interesting story.

Yeah. Really by itself. It’s not an easy story. I had some sympathy for Hogan’s case, but ...

Because you would not want to have your sex tape put on the internet.

Yeah. Presumably. Yeah, I can see where he’s coming from. I just thought it was something that was really, really compelling. It was just kind of at the boundaries of acceptabilities in speech and all of that. But, really, it became something different after the big verdict and then it was revealed that Peter Thiel was actually funding Hulk Hogan’s case. To me that changed the story significantly.

Right. I mean, had Roger Ailes not been pushed out of Fox News and preceded by all sorts of sexual harassment claims and had Donald Trump not won the election last year, this would’ve been the big story of last year.

Yeah. I think so.

Somehow it seems like in my mind it’s almost been, sort of, memory wiped a bit. I think partly because of the shock of the election and every day a new outrage or question mark about what’s going to happen to the country and, by the way, the press as well. Now we’re June 2017. Do you feel like people need to be reminded about what happened last year?

I do. Yes. And I think because you can never ... One of the things that was clear to me right away is that you couldn’t separate the dynamics of this trial from this larger bizarre election cycle that we were experiencing. I mean, you saw right away in the trial, this kind of hatred of the media. The judge, Pamela Campbell, actually talked to the jurors somewhat inappropriately in a lot of people’s eyes, saying she was concerned about the state of online journalism and all of that.

So in the trial you felt immediately that the media in some ways was on trial. And of course in the background this was the beginning of the Trump phenomenon and even part of his rise is really fueled by a hatred of the media.

The Gawker team had said for a while — and again because this trial was supposed to happen a year earlier — said, “Look. This is going to get tried in Florida, against our wishes. And we’re going to lose. We’re going to lose because it’s going to be the New York, Jewish, Austrian pornographer, website operator is going to lose in a Florida courtroom. But, clearly we’re going to win on an appeal. So, this is a big pain in the ass. It’s very expensive, but we’re going to get through it.”

And I thought they were almost sort of enjoying the spectacle of it up until the run-up of the trial, again preceding ... When they originally thought they were going to have the trial. They were inviting the press and people like myself and they were making the case for why this was fine. And it seemed, if you follow Gawker at all, it seemed like, “All right. This is a story to them. They’re in the middle of the story. But, this is a story for them. And in the end this will be a spectacle, but that’s sort of what they thrive on.”

And then it was surprising at the end when actually, “Oh no. They didn’t survive at all.” They were imploded. I’m telling the entire story for you. The Peter Thiel thing with a sort of pro-wrestling reveal where he pops up at the end, “A ha ha.”

Takes the mask off.

“This is actually me fighting this entire time. It was really not Hulk Hogan.”

Yeah.

And then that’s sort of what kicked the movie off, pretty much.

Yeah. That definitely kicked the movie off, and I think that environment in Florida was significant. This was Hulk Hogan’s hometown. He was in front of jurors, hometown jurors. And you have clips of him and you see him talking about the first time he went up against Andre the Giant. The first time he became champion and all of these kind of legendary stories of wrestling and then suddenly cut to Nick Denton, who’s talking about how he used to ... His great story is how he used to take the train to Budapest to pick up Wired magazine. And you really had a clash here and you felt that in the courtroom. And as I said, I felt this was really echoed in the larger culture in general.

Yeah, I just assumed for a long time that everyone was in on the joke. Gawker was definitely in on the joke, but then Hulk Hogan was in on the joke and this was ... I think the Gawker people figured that eventually they would name some amount of money and make him go away. And they would have regretted doing the story, but that was the part of the deal being Gawker. That you run those stories occasionally. Do you get criticism from people for not coming down harder on Gawker for either publishing the tape or other journalistic misdeeds ... Misdeeds is the wrong word, for other inappropriate posts that they put up?

Yes. I’ve realized pretty early on in this that I could criticize Gawker for an hour and a half and it probably wouldn’t be good enough for some people. Gawker clearly, in some ways they kind of invited that kind of hatred to them. And people are very, very polarized. Some people love Gawker. Read it every day. Some people hate Gawker, but read it every day. And some people hate it, but have never read it. Don’t really understand the tone and the kind of position that they had. I hope in the film you get that. I tried to get that. I tried to portray that role that they play in the press.

Yeah. You reference it and you’ve got Floyd Abrams talking a lot about saying — famous First Amendment lawyer — saying you don’t get to pick your First Amendment defendants. Part of the First Amendment is that it covers unpleasant, outrageous people that you don’t want to defend. That’s the whole point of it. I did get the sense that while the trial was going on, especially from the New York media that if you talked to four people, at least two of them had been bloodied in Gawker at some point or knew someone who had been. And people didn’t want to say it out loud, certainly not in front of anyone, but they would tell you privately. They would say, “I’m not unhappy that these guys are going to get beat up in court. It’s kind of a nice payback.”

And then once they got a death sentence, essentially, with this verdict, then there was a real debate about, “All right. Do they deserve to die?” Even in New York media circles where people should be as pro-Gawker as you possibly could on First Amendment rights, there was still a lot ambivalence about the publication, let alone if you take this discussion over to Silicon Valley where people ... And it’s funny, very thin-skinned people ...

It can still come out. Yeah.

They did very little reporting, frankly, out in Silicon Valley. They did a handful of stories about Peter Thiel and ...

Basically that and the wagon ...

Yeah, and there wasn’t that much, frankly. I mean, certainly not the kind of grief that an average run-of-the-mill C-list celebrity might have gotten from Gawker. But there’s real debate there on that side of the fence about whether or not it was appropriate for them to get too smashed. Practically, how does this work? Do you decide on what date I’m making this movie?

I think I was convinced by the time it was revealed that Peter Thiel was behind the case. I knew I wanted to do something.

So, that’s late May.

Yeah.

2016.

Yeah.

And then, what’s the process? You say ...

We start reaching out to people. We start looking for ...

So, you’ve got your own production company.

Yes.

Do you have to get funding to do this? Or you’ve got enough resources where you can at least start production on something like this without ...

We had enough resources to get started and then we started looking for funding, we got a little bit here and there. It was lean at first for sure, but then we just kind of dove in and started asking people for interviews. Just getting their take on things. Looking for every bit of archival footage we could find. Started trying to understand the story in a deeper way ourselves. And we dug in right then, so then most of the summer that’s what we did.

And you’re reaching out to the principals, you’re reaching out to Nick Detton at that time?

Yes. For sure. And we talked to ... Yeah, we got a lot of people right off the bat. One person that is not in the film is Peter Thiel. We tried very hard to get him in the film.

Join the club.

Yeah, I mean, we probably asked him six or seven times.

We’ve got great footage of Nick Denton sitting next to an empty chair.

Exactly.

That has Peter Thiel’s name on it.

That’s kind of true. We thought about, maybe, including that in the film when Kara interviews Nick Denton.

Yeah. And then is the thought, this is happening. This story is still going on as you’re reporting it. This is something that we can’t put out in two years. We’ve got to rush it through, or is this the normal time frame for you to make a documentary?

Yeah. I’m a little fast by comparison.

Quick worker, yeah?

Maybe to some of my friends who are documentary filmmakers. But, it did feel very urgent. That this story just felt like a real echo to this, what we were seeing in the Trump campaign, and of course, we started this, it was before Peter Thiel gave money to Trump and spoke at the RNC.

So, it’s ramping up this ... The urgency of the story is ramping up as you’re starting the movie because not only is now Peter Thiel a Hulk Hogan backer, but he’s speaking at the Republican National Convention.

Yeah. And these things are just deeply, deeply intertwined. We also covered the Las Vegas Review Journal story, Sheldon Adelson’s secretive purchase of the paper.

Which happened before the Gawker trial.

Just before the Gawker trial.

And you thought these were thematically related. Do you want to remind people what happened in that story?

In that story, the reporters at the Review Journal were all called into a room. Big company meeting.

Biggest paper in Nevada.

Biggest paper in Nevada.

People in Las Vegas people.

And significant paper in the West, an important paper. They were called into this big meeting and they were told that their paper was sold.

It hadn’t been for sale.

And it hadn’t been for sale. That’s right. And they were shocked. As you would be if that was your paper or your company or the company you worked for. And the first thing they asked was, “Well, who?” Of course, “Who bought our paper? Who is our new owner and what are their expectations?” That’s particularly important if you’re a reporter.

Yeah.

And the answer that came back was, “Don’t worry about it. They don’t want you to ... Don’t worry your heads about it. Just do your jobs.”

Exactly what you should not tell a reporter.

That’s the worst thing you could say to a reporter.

Yup.

So, they immediately, after they left the meeting on the way back to their desks they started trying to put this together. And so we followed that story. How they uncovered their new boss, basically. And the stakes are very high because they might lose their jobs.

And the conclusion is, it is Sheldon Adelson, billionaire casino magnate, Republican power broker, who has basically bought the paper in large part to suppress it. To suppress reporting about him and to control the reporting about him and whatever he does in the casino business.

They would say no, but I think that’s a fair assessment. Yeah.

Yeah, I think it’s about as fair as you could get.

Well, there’s reports that, for instance, reporters have been asked to put chunks of text into their text unedited on certain stories. Things like that.

So, then the last component of the movie is Trump.

Mm-hmm.

And you’ve got footage in there going up past the election, right up past the inauguration, right? Because you’ve got Sean Spicer coming in saying, “The thing that you saw with your eyes is not what you saw.”

That’s right.

Black is white. “This is the biggest crowd ever.” So, you were still making this movie up through late January.

Yeah. The most dramatic part of that is we actually managed — in hindsight I sometimes wonder how we pulled this off, but we premiered at the Sundance film festival and we had ...

Which is in late January, right?

Which is late January. It actually started on the same day as the inauguration, so ... But we premiered that next Tuesday and we managed to get some of the inauguration footage into the film before our first screening.

Oh, so is the version I’m seeing what you submitted to Sundance?

No. We changed it since then.

Okay.

We updated it a little bit. We put some new material in there. The alternative facts and stuff came out after that. The thing you mentioned about the inauguration crowds. This is the largest inauguration crowd. Period. Things like that. And then we shifted and changed the ending a little bit to kind of make our point ... Made it more ... We spent some time on the ending, just making it better.

But in the meantime you had shown the film at Sundance, Netflix had bought the film?

Yeah.

Reportedly for two million dollars?

I can’t confirm or deny that.

But you’re nodding and winking and rubbing your head ... You’re not doing any of those things. I want to talk about Netflix and I want to talk about how to make a movie. I want to talk a little bit about Trump, but let’s pause for a second so we can hear a word from one of our fine sponsors.

[ad]

Right here with Brian Knappenberger. Brian, again, remind us of the the name of the film one more time?

“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press.”

And it used to have Hulk Hogan and Gawker in there.

Yeah, our working title was “Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Trials of the Free Press.”

And did the movie change and that’s why the title changed? Or you just thought this was a better title?

No. Just shortening it more than anything.

Okay.

I mean, the only thing we changed since Sundance was we added a couple of things. We realized pretty soon that this could go on for a long time and then we had to find a stopping point, so we sort of found a stopping point and then we just, kind of, shifted the ending a little bit. If you saw it at Sundance you might notice. You might not.

So, one thing I thought about a lot as I watched the movie. It’s a good movie. You guys should all watch it. You all have a Netflix subscription, so it’s free for you. Starting with Las Vegas Review, would the chronology and then going to the Gawker trial and turns out it’s Peter Thiel, setting up a blueprint for how billionaires can control the press. Moving onto Trump. Moving into the stuff Trump is saying pre-inauguration, that he’s telling CNN, “You’re fake news.”

There was a ton of angst leading up to Trump’s inauguration and after the inauguration of what he was going to do to the press. And what was going to happen to the press and how he was going to roll back press protections. He was talking briefly about changing libel laws and they were going to move the press cohort out of the White House, etc. And it seemed like, “Oh my God. They’re going to lock everything down.”

We’re now not that far past that time period, but it seems like there’s a whole different atmosphere concerning the press, which is we’ve got a great press. At least a couple of very, very strong newspapers that — New York Times, Washington Post, Racing Daily — produce amazing scoops about the inner working of the Trump administration. I’ve no doubt that Donald Trump means ill will toward the press when he’s not courting it. But, it seems like actually this ... If you’re worried about the Constitution, if you’re worried about the free press, you might feel a little better in mid to late June than you would’ve a few months ago. Do you share that perception?

I do. I have a little, kind of, ray of hope. I say that very cautiously, though, because I feel like even in the last couple of months we’ve seen the effect, the kind of wave of hostility also with the press. You have the instance like the reporter who was trying to ask a question of Tom Price, the new Health and Human Services Director.

The Guardian reporter who was body slammed.

The Guardian reporter who was body slammed by Greg Gianforte —

Who then said it never happened and then said, “Oh, sorry I shouldn’t do that.”

Right. Who denied that it happened or that it was the reporter’s fault, but actually the reporter was doing exactly what he should be doing.

Yup.

Asking a question about health care to a then congressional and Republican candidate.

That strain of hostility toward the press, as you documented, because you got Nixon. It started with Nixon. Then it sort of featured in Republican politics for decades, certainly accelerated dramatically in the last few years with Trump. To me, the thing that makes me super cynical and depressed about the press isn’t about restriction of the press. It’s that there’s a large chunk of the country supported by lots of different kinds of publications and news outlets that believe in a false reality because that’s what they see and hear. So, all the work the Times and Washington Post and CNN are doing. It’s not even that it’s negated, it doesn’t exist in, I don’t know, a third of the country? Forty percent of the country? They just don’t see it or they say it doesn’t matter.

I agree. And I also think that’s complicated by the fact we’ve lost a lot of press in communities across the United States. It’s one of the reasons I kind of wanted to include the Las Vegas Review Journal story is I think that there’s a time in which there was lots of competing, two or three competing newspapers in every major metropolitan area. Very healthy, competitive press. And I think that’s largely gone now and I think that contributes to that.

Right. So not only did you have competitor press, but in a lot of places you had multiple outlets you could go on. And frankly, it was a little bit bracing to see the, “Oh wow. The Las Vegas paper really had really good reporters up until the time Sheldon Adelson bought it,” because I think in a lot of communities that ... Because of the economics of the internet, these things have been, sort of, powered out. Because a lot of places wouldn’t have had as strong a reporting staff as the Las Vegas paper did to begin with.

Yeah. I’m very worried about that.

Is there any part of you that looks at the movie you made and finished in like January and says, “Huh. I think I would’ve changed something already.”

Not really. I followed the Mother Jones story, for instance, that they were also sued.

Was it a Montana billionaire?

An Idaho billionaire.

Idaho billionaire.

Yeah. Named Frank VanderSloot, so he sued them. They were able to raise money from their subscribers and they won that case, which is great. But I feel like it just gets more and more prescient, to be honest, as the days go by. Although I do have a little bit of a ray of hope in some of this. I do think the Washington Post is clearly doing great work. New York Times is doing great work. Apparently subscriptions and readership is up at both.

Right.

There seems to be even beyond them a kind of remembering of what they’re there for, in a way. I think there’s legitimate criticism of the press. It’s gotten too corporatized, too cozy with power that it’s for too long traded softball stories for access to power and celebrity. And I think if what Trump does is remind everybody why they’re here and what a strong, vibrant press is there for — to question authority, service the truth, speak truth to power, that sort of thing — I think that could be a good thing.

This is your third broadly defined internet culture movie, right?

Yup.

Or at least you’ve done three: Aaron Swartz ...

Yeah, long-form features, yeah.

And one on Anonymous.

That’s right.

Happenstance that you end up there, or is there a particular affinity you have for this stuff?

I’m fascinated with this. I mean, I’m fascinated with technology, particularly how it’s shifting and changing. How we communicate. How our data is being stored. And how that change is affecting I guess you’d call more traditional notions of human rights and civil liberties and all that. So, when those things are cloying and the pressures are the greatest there, I feel like it’s really interesting and relevant stories.

You’re making traditional long-form documentaries.

Yeah.

90-minute-long features about internet culture, which is stereotypically short attention span, nothing matters, it’s a meme today and forget about it tomorrow. Do you think ever maybe 90-minute-long features is not the way to do it? Maybe I should do two-minute-long documentaries or something? Maybe I should be a meme creator?

I’ve thought of that. I’ve done a fair amount of small, short stuff, but I actually think, no. There’s quite a hunger, including in that community, for longer-form serious looks at ...

Because it doesn’t exist anymore.

Because it doesn’t exist and because, I mean, look. I think Anonymous, the rise of Anonymous, that’s an important part of not just hacker culture, that’s a part of human ... That’s a new phenomenon in some ways and so, I think these things deserve a longer-form, serious look at them. I almost feel like too often we say, “Oh, that’s the hacker program or code or geek world.” As though that’s separate from the world we live in.

Yeah, you might have been able to say that a few years ago.

Yeah.

Not when you’ve got President Trump retweeting Jefe the Frog memes. I don’t think he knows what he’s doing. I’m 99 percent sure he doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s retweeting Jefe the frog memes.

Yeah. This is the world we live in.

Right here.

And we have to take it seriously. It’s not some separate world of geeks and hackers. It’s, you look at your ... Chances are first thing in the morning you look at your phone or check the internet. Last thing before bed, same thing.

Want to keep making documentaries? Seems like now is a good time to make documentaries. You’ve got Netflix writing checks, Amazon’s writing checks, I’m sure there are other folks writing checks.

Yes. I love this. I love this form. I think documentaries are great and it’s a time where, as a documentarian, where you can, kind of, move more quickly. You can go deeper into subjects ...

The technology allows you to do that?

Yeah. Technology has allowed ... Cameras are a little easier to get at, editing is a little easier, platforms are a little quicker, so I think and what’s important about documentaries is they’re independent, right? That’s the key element.

You didn’t need anyone’s permission to go and make this movie.

Yeah. You can dive into stories that maybe people don’t think may not be of the sort of traditional corporate media may not ... A story they may not be willing to tell.

Then again, Netflix will write out a check for that. I mean, do you think that this is a period in time, and then at some point Netflix stops writing these checks or they restrain themselves and it’s harder to get this kind of thing made?

Well, I think that what they’ve proven and HBO and others have proven is that there’s a real audience for this. So, I’ve been making documentaries long enough to know that things ebb and flow and that there’s different platforms and stuff. But there’s really, right now it feels like a very strong resurgence of just platforms of interest for this.

It’s great for me, the movie watcher, so ...

Yeah, I mean look. People are hungry for this and I think they’re also hungry for good journalism, and so I think there’s a place for that as we move forward. I feel like that’s going to, kind of, come back.

Cheers to that. I want to end the interview there, but I should ask you. What’s next?

We’re looking into a couple things. Still in this deep, kind of, tech world.

So at your pace it’ll be out in like four months, right?

Well, look at this. Let’s get this out first.

Well, all right. I’ll let you get out the door so you can get back to your work.

By next week I’ll be on that.

Brian, thanks for joining us.

Thank you very much. Thanks a lot for having me. Big fans.


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.