When the Enron scandal first broke at the end of 2001, few people could have realized its full extent. Bethany McLean, the Fortune Magazine writer who first broke the story questioning how Enron made its money, was probably less surprised than most. McLean and coauthor Peter Elkind later wrote a book further investigating Enron’s rise and fall, called Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room. Documentary filmmaker Alex Gribney first heard about the book when his sister-in-law gave him a copy; after reading the book, he knew he wanted to make a film about the story. The resulting documentary, also titled Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room, is now on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary. Cinematical recently caught up with Gribney for a phone interview about his film.
Cinematical: What drew you to the idea of making a film about the Enron scandal?
Alex: I did break rule 1-A of the filmmaking guide which is: never make a film about accounting. I’d seen the Enron story from afar and was generally outraged. But it didn’t occur to me to make a film about it until my sister-in-law gave me the book. The portions with some of the key characters were just extraordinary. These people were larger than life in a way that was hard to imagine. The authors of the book wore their outrage on their sleeves. They drew very intricate portraits of the key characters in a way that made them epic characters.
Cinematical: Do you think the key players, Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, knew more than they let on?
Alex: I think Jeff Skilling was smart enough that he knew, late at night, that the future of Enron did not look bright, but he had to make it look like all was right. He began to crack up a little bit. There’s a shot of him later in the film when he responds to a question from Barbara Boxer and he seems a little unhinged. The other thing about Skilling and Lay – there are a lot of differences between them, but the thing is as they’re about to go to trial, they seem themselves as victims. They watched $70 billion evaporate, people’s life savings evaporate, and they see themselves as the victims. At the end after he was indicted, Ken Lay says to the crowd, “Linda and I are down to our last 20 million”.
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