In 2017, Alison Klayman took on a project few others would want to tackle: shadowing Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser and Breitbart CEO, to make a documentary about him. Working with her producer, Marie Therese Guirgis, she spent a year on the road making a vérité documentary about Bannon as he was booted from the White House following the events in Charlottesville in August 2017, but continued to speak to crowds, media, and world leaders, rallying them to his far-right cause.
The resulting film, The Brink, follows Bannon from his White House days to the moments following the 2018 midterm elections, which delivered a sound rebuttal to his agenda. Throughout the film, Klayman has almost unbelievable access to Bannon, and what emerges is a picture of a clever, charming man who is a whirligig of activity but sometimes seems to be blowing a lot of hot air — and dangerous views with lasting repercussions.
The Brink premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opens in select theaters on March 29. It’s a damning vérité portrait of a man who’s both far more important than his detractors hope and far less important than he might like to believe.
I recently spoke with Klayman in New York about surviving the grueling year, what she learned about Bannon and people like him, and how she got in the room for a key meeting with far-right political leaders in London last July. Our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity, follows.
“This guy is gonna say stuff”
How on earth did you even get to make this movie? You have so much access to Bannon that it’s almost unbelievable.
My producer, Marie Therese Guirgis, worked for Bannon. Bannon was her direct boss at [independent film distributor] Wellspring Media. They worked really closely together, and she had a real relationship with him.
She knew him as a person who was maybe a Republican — they didn’t agree, but it was pre-Tea Party. They fell out of touch, and then years go by, and then all of a sudden he’s part of the Trump campaign. She reached out because she had a way to essentially send him hate mail — she speaks to him in a way that is very direct. She speaks the real, direct truth to him. And to her surprise, he would always write back.
It was in the summer of 2017. I think she probably had the idea for a while, but she asked him, “I want to produce a vérité doc. It’ll be high quality. It’ll be prestigious, respected” — the kind of things that she thought would appeal to him. “It’ll be fair, but also, we have to get access. It has to be that kind of a film, and you can’t have any control.”
He said no a bunch of times, and then he said yes, and then she asked me [to direct]. I immediately said yes, but I had been meeting him. I genuinely didn’t even know what he was like at all, except the image in the media. She saw the holes in the portrayal of him, a one-dimensional, cartoonish portrayal as Darth Vader, the evil manipulator, but also the evil genius and the real brain behind the whole operation. I think she felt that ultimately made him more powerful [than he is].
I also understood, as I think many documentary filmmakers probably would, that a full portrait doesn’t just mean that then someone is more cuddly, or that you then like them more. I didn’t know what he was like, because he hadn’t done any TV interviews yet and it was before Fire and Fury came out.
I met him in September of 2017. He walked into the room, and within the first three seconds I was like, Holy crap, this is a good character. This guy is gonna say stuff. It’s not gonna be hard to get him to say stuff. Watching him, he will reveal himself.
But it was very, very hard. Knowing where he’s going and what he’s doing — that’s kind of typical [when making a film], but it’s very difficult with him. His operation is very scattered. They make plans at the last minute, and then they’re flying around the world. Obviously, what’s most interesting about him is watching him interact with other people and who those other people are, so we have to get them to agree to be filmed, too.
Also, he’s very savvy. But I like to think that I am, too. Just because he’s doing something, or allowing me to film something that I think he likes or wants to be in the film, doesn’t mean it will end up in the film. My daily mantra really and truly was to let him be underestimating me, and let me never underestimate him.
Also, getting him to officially sign the final release took forever. We were doing this on hope. It was a real risk in every way.
You could get to the end of the shoot and he’d be like, “No.”
Yeah, exactly. And to raise money for the project, we had a loose agreement [with investors] until we had a written agreement, and we still filmed. Sometimes you’re like, “Wait a minute, what if I’m wasting my time?”
I think it’s striking to see how he seems to underestimate you, this young woman with a camera following him around. Was he stringing you along, do you think? Was he just saying, “Oh, these women, making this film — this isn’t gonna be a big deal.” Did you sense that?
I really don’t know what he personally thought. I don’t underestimate him, but from how I watched him treat other people, I think he is really just a workaholic, but very disorganized, very last minute, very overextended. He is quite vain. Playing into his ego works. So he thinks there could be 10 movies about him, that he is that interesting.
The name of the game wasn’t “let’s think about what the movie’s gonna be” — it was just, “I need to get in the room. That would be great for the film. Let’s film that.” The daily thing was just, “Will you wear my microphone, can I please film as much as possible?” He believes that it’s great to reach a new audience.
My feeling is, my response to that is, Okay, great, so a new audience sees that you are all these things that I think the film shows. Is that really that great? I think he was not thinking about my authorship [of the film]. The truth is, if it was a more polemical kind of film, I think he probably knows how to deal with a more polemical kind of film, too.
I don’t know that he truly knew what vérité films would be.
It’s a struggle with him, in particular, because I feel like he and other figures like him are both very self aware and totally un-self aware.
Sometimes people ask, “What most surprised you?” I always hate those, because — not when it comes to my politics, but when it comes to him — I came in with a totally open mind.
I decided recently that if I have to pick, I think the thing that most surprised me constantly was how he seems like he is so intelligent and self-aware, and yet somehow he also has these incredible blind spots. Again, that goes back to the question: What does he really believe? How much is he really a racist or anti-Semite? I think you just have to go by his choices, his actions, his words, who he spends time with, because I don’t know. How else can you evaluate a person? Those things are revealing. You think sometimes that he’s gonna be self-aware, and he somehow falls short.
Bannon, the self-styled mastermind
He clearly sees himself as a mastermind. But one thing I like about your film in particular is how long you follow him, to the point where you can see his delusions about himself be actually confronted in real time, by reality.
He has built himself as a personality, and he has so much access to journalists at mainstream outlets. I wish that there was a little more responsibility in terms of how he is portrayed [in the media], because it does validate some of his ideas about himself, as if his [ideas] are more valuable in the marketplace than they really are. Thinking that he’s a mastermind starts to legitimize things that I think aren’t legitimate.
There are two kinds of criminal masterminds in superhero films. You have the ones who are actually dangerous, and then you have the ones who are silly, and they come across as silly. It’s strange to see him vacillating between those two modes in the film.
I thought it would be a mistake to make people feel like, Okay, I don’t have to worry about him — and all the white nationalists and the far-right. I used the voices of women [who ran successful Congressional campaigns] at the end. But you can’t end there, because then it seems like, Okay, there’s a winner, and he lost, and that’s not really right.
Not many films follow the villain in real time. There weren’t a lot of things to model after, maybe except for thinking about scripted films.
And one of the challenges in making a movie like this is that people think you’re “humanizing” the subject, which has become shorthand for “making them sympathetic.” I don’t think that’s what’s happening here at all.
When we would talk to our partners during production, I’d say, “It’s not really humanizing; it’s demystifying.” Because of the loadedness of the term “humanizing.”
By the same token, hate to tell you, not to be hyperbolic, but Hitler was a human. Goebbels is a human. Marie Therese has said this, but I thought it was a good point: The people who promote hateful ideas, or even have hate in their heart, they’re not necessarily spewing fire 24 hours a day.
I think it’s important to be able to face that, because if that’s what you think a bad person is, then you might miss some bad people around you, because they’re so nice, or so funny. They’re charming.
I think these are really urgent questions to raise right now. I hope that people see that through the film: I only can raise questions, not answer them.
I’m not equating these two, but in films about criminals or serial killers, they often try to remind you that you might not spot a villain because they are so affable. They are so nice. This happens all the time with all kinds of people who actually are evil, That’s what they do: They disarm people.
Yeah, and that is part of their toolkit. That’s important. It does help you understand how someone gets that far. You start to understand what it is about this guy that’s making him so successful. People assume he has no charm, so maybe he’s really smart.
That’s what surprised me about this film, and continued to surprise me all year: Bannon’s photo lines. It was so far from my worldview to imagine that people would want to take a picture with him — that he’s giving speeches and the vibe is like a comedy club. Through that, he was also creating this in-group vibe. He had in-jokes about “Billy Bush weekend” and “the Jeff Bezos Washington Post.”
That’s why I started to get so annoyed whenever he would smear the left as being about “identity politics.” Dude, I have watched, that is exactly what you are doing. His speeches would turn from speech to comedy set to rally. It’s weird. He’s not playing stadiums like Trump, and you see that, but it continued to surprise me up to the end.
How The Brink is like a Rorschach test
It’s fascinating to watch in the film as the crowds in the hotel ballrooms that come to hear him start to dip off. It’s weirdly gratifying, honestly, if you can’t stand what he is all about. But I couldn’t really fathom the appeal, either.
How do you think people who like Bannon will see the film?
I think it is a fair enough portrayal. I didn’t feel like I could go in and make a movie and say, “I’m making it for both sides.” But people who see the film seem to be drawing very similar conclusions. A lot of people who may be center to left are drawing conclusions about him that I agree with, but I do still recognize that the film is fair enough, and not political enough, that it can easily be a Rorschach test.
We tried to do as much feedback in the short time we had. I don’t know if we had anyone who was a full-on Bannon supporter, but we had people and family members. We tried to not only show it to the same kind of person.
I was describing it to some people as a Rorschach test, too. How a person responds to the person you capture on film tells you a lot about what they want to see in his movement — what kind of courage, or boldness, or maybe vindictiveness they believe exists in his movement.
I’ve not heard anyone who says, “I didn’t like him,” or, “I liked him and now I like him even more.” That person will be out there, I’m sure. But it was, frankly, important to me that the film’s perspective wasn’t so much in the eye of the beholder that a strong percentage of the audience would feel that way.
The film isn’t a tool of persuasion. It’s not supposed to convince people to turn away from him. But it has a strong point of view, and there’s not a lot of room for misinterpretation if we’re coming from remotely the same planet.
I think the whole film turns on that scene in London, where he’s meeting with far-right leaders from many countries. I knew the meeting had happened from news reports. Lots of people had. But I had no idea there was a documentarian in the room to capture it. That also made me realize how much time you spent around him and around people like him — did that affect you personally? It’s pretty scary stuff.
I was scared. I worked really hard to get in the room for that dinner, and then the lunch the next day. It almost didn’t happen. It is one of the scenes that I’m the most proud of. I almost didn’t get it at all. [Bannon] was like, “There’s gonna be a sitting congressman there, [Arizona Republican Congressman Paul Gosar].” We had to get his permission. Rep. Gosar said yes, and I appeared out of nowhere [in the room] and just was like, “Hello everyone!”
A lot of those people had not met Bannon before. It was their first time. I filmed that meeting from start to finish; nobody said, “Okay, now please leave so we can have the real meeting.”
People were speaking really frankly, and saying things I thought were shocking, especially when he talked about “using” the media. It felt so conspiratorial.
I was staying in that same hotel; it was expensive, but probably partly why I think I was able to do it, just hang out in the lobby with my equipment and my fanny packs and not get kicked out, because I was also a guest. I took a leftover half-full bottle of wine from the table and brought it up to my room. I called my husband and was like, “I don’t know what I just filmed. I’m scared. Either I just filmed nothing, or the beginning of the downfall of the EU.”
I’m not saying that the the EU is necessarily something that has to stand — just what they stood for in their desire to dismantle it. I found it terrifying.
Physically it was hard, because I was doing everything myself. Keeping [Bannon’s] schedule is very hard. I had to do a lot of waiting. My days would be really long, because I’d want to be at the ready, and he might not invite me to start filming until four or five o’clock. But then it would be an eight-hour day, and I’d have to download my footage.
He seems like a person who doesn’t sleep.
He doesn’t. When he’s cracking that Red Bull at 11:30 pm, me and his whole team were all like, “Holy fuck! We’re gonna be up forever.” It’s like, “Please stop drinking Red Bull. We all want to go to bed.”
I felt such a mission-driven purpose, which I think was also something that was good for the film. But my producer would text me. She’d be like, “You’re not gonna save the nation with this film.” I was like, “I know that.” But also, that was 100 percent why I could do it. It was not enjoyable, even though people were very nice to me and physically I wasn’t in difficult conditions. We’re flying on private planes and staying in nice hotels and nice cities for the most part. But there is something about hearing him every day. I could finish his sentences. I knew his talking points so, so well.
My answer [to the stress] was I watched a lot of TV. I watched a lot of RuPaul’s Drag Race. We watched all of The Good Wife. Things that just made me feel like me.
I would also try to do a couple days on and then a week or two off until the end. The last three months, it was when it was like, we gotta get it all — it was a lot. My husband was great, my partner Marie Therese was great. I think I put a lot of pressure on myself as if I . . . I don’t know what I thought I was going to get. There’s constantly reporters around, too.
And you don’t know where it’s going to end. You had no idea what was going to happen at the midterms.
No. At the point where a lot of people were feeling pretty confident — I don’t know what your experience was, but to the last second, I was like, “I don’t know.” He was both worried and sometimes confident. He’s trying to project confidence sometimes, but also project concern.
I was sometimes worried that when he was saying things were tough, he was just saying that to get people to go out and vote. I was still like, Does he know something that other people don’t know? What if that happens?
But I didn’t think it would matter for the film one bit. I had a preferred outcome for the nation but not a preferred outcome for the film, which was great.
Also, it’s not like he needed to be powerful and successful for the movie to be good. If he was wholly insignificant, then I think it would be ethically questionable why you should do a movie about him. He had, it seemed, the entire Washington press community in his current texts. I just felt like it’s still worth it. It’s not just about someone who was important last year for a few months and it’s the end.
I don’t underestimate him, but I don’t know what his future holds and I’m not here to say he’s definitely gonna be ...
In or out.
A BBC journalist asked me, “Is he yesterday’s man?” I thought it was such a quote. I don’t know if he’s yesterday’s man. A guy like that just seems like he could come back out of nowhere.
Right, or he could find someone to latch onto who’s even more of an ideologue than Trump.
The real thing that I hope some hardcore investigative reporter will go after is that this is happening because billionaires are funding it. It’s crazy: He’s just railing against the “global elite,” but his agenda is not actually to hurt billionaires. What is the real agenda? Who is he carrying water for, and why?
I was there, but that’s a different kind of investigative work. It’s about more than just appearances, or the fact that he’s a millionaire and he talks about the little guy. Clearly that’s not damning in our country or in our politics anyhow. There are a lot of billionaires in the film too, and millionaires, and he has no trouble raising money, and I feel like if you’re mad at him, you should be mad at the people who make him possible. That’s really what people should be talking about.
The addictive nature of hollow power
He strikes me at times as so addicted to just being in the middle of things that it almost doesn’t matter what those things are. That’s the drive. There’s no coherent ideas behind him other than “I have to be in the center of the universe.” This is a guy who made movies before this, after all. There’s something very specific about that kind of personality.
That’s something that I think can happen if you’re in his orbit, too, and I think that’s another reason for a project like this. You can’t get enamored just of the access, the feeling of being in the mix. That’s how the charm and the jokes work. That’s how he keeps people near him and how he works with journalists. He didn’t say it exactly like this, but he basically said that he’s valuable to them because he’s out there with great networks.
It’s the Trump impulse, but it’s also weirdly reminiscent of Harvey Weinstein and the way he used to treat film journalists — trying to feed them stories when he wanted something, because we both are going to benefit.
Yeah, I think that’s where a documentary can come in and really do something different from journalism. I don’t have the resources of the Guardian, but I have a different creative mission. You can see where the limits are of what I did, but I also I think it made me excited. It got me excited about documentaries, this kind of documentary. It’s so rare. How many other people like Bannon would let this happen?
And guys like him love the attention. I was talking to some people about the Roger Stone documentary recently. He’s the same. He just loves it. He wilts without it.
I just hope that if people can start to see the emptiness behind these figures in the news, then maybe investigative journalists can shine a light on the next strata of people behind them, the people who are not going to let you film them.
They barely let you know who they are.
I think, How about we elect people who are going to change the rules about that? That would be great.
I remember right after AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] won her primary, I asked Bannon about her. We were in London. He was like, “Oh yeah.” I asked if he knew who she was. He was like, “Well, in her acceptance speech, she said that we’re gonna impeach Trump. That’s how you know we’re gonna win.”
I said, “She didn’t say that in her acceptance speech.” I watched her entire acceptance speech on that cellphone video, twice, and I knew for a fact. I recently went back to make sure I was right. And I was. She did not say that. What she said was, “I won because of you,” to her supporters, “and we need to elect a caucus of people like me so I can get stuff done.” That sounds pretty smart to me.
If you know more than Bannon, you can see through him. It’s okay to not know everything. But he purports to know and have a lot more answers than he really does. And right now, there’s so many other people to be excited about who know what they’re talking about, who are talking about some of the same problems that he identifies, and who are rallying people around real solutions.
The Brink opens in theaters on March 29.