HBO Theranos documentary “The Inventor”: interview with director Alex Gibney on Recode Media podcast

HBO Theranos documentary “The Inventor”: interview with director Alex Gibney on Recode Media podcast

In his new documentary about the fall of Theranos and its media-savvy CEO Elizabeth Holmes, director Alex Gibney had to wrestle with a question of motivation: Why did Holmes keep the charade going for so long?

“I don’t think it was outright greed,” Gibney said on the latest episode of Recode Media. “I don’t think she’s Bernie Madoff. I think she believed in the mission. I also think she believed in the idea of who she was, right? But sometimes, that’s not the good news, it’s actually the bad news, because it’s a variation of the end justifies the means, right?”

He recounted to Recode’s Peter Kafka how Holmes and her deputies intentionally shaped Theranos’ public image to be Apple-esque, even bringing in famed documentarian Errol Morris to film Holmes — just as he had done with her idol, Apple CEO Steve Jobs. But Gibney thinks the altruistic vision of the company’s infamously fictitious blood-testing technology is the real trick that helped Holmes “lie more effectively.”

He cited an experiment conducted by Predictably Irrational author Dan Ariely, in which participants roll a die to determine how much money they make — so, rolling a 6 means $6, for example. And the study asked those participants to self-report what numbers came up.

“It turns out that the people in pursuit of their own gain are incredibly lucky, meaning they cheat,” Gibney said. “And then they put them on the lie detector to say, ‘Well, did you cheat?’ And they say no. And of course the lie detector picks up the lie right away.”

“Then they do a second experiment,” he added. “They say all the money is gonna go to a charity that benefits orphans. And you’d expect that they would cheat less, but in fact they cheat more. And when they put them on the lie detector, the lie detector cannot detect the lie. Why? Because there’s no tension between this notion of, on the one hand, I want more money, but I think it’s wrong.”

Gibney’s documentary, The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley, premieres March 18 on HBO.

You can listen to Recode Media wherever you get your podcasts — including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast.

Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Peter’s conversation with Alex.


Peter Kafka: This is Peter Kafka, I am here with Alex Gibney, one of my favorite documentary filmmakers, one of my favorite people to interview. This is I think the second time I’ve talked to you at South By, second podcast with you.

We’re here today because you’ve got a new HBO documentary, which is great, it’s called The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley. It’s the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, you should go see it, or you should just stream it or watch it on TV at your house. Welcome, Alex.

Alex Gibney: Thanks, Peter.

We were talking before we started taping, and you said you have to do multiple projects at once because sometimes a project gets stopped because something breaks, and that happened here with this documentary. What was the problem for you, making this documentary, it seems almost like a layup. I know you work very hard, but it seems like this is something that you could just sink your teeth in right into immediately, it’s a fraud, it’s the Wall Street Journal, John Carreyrou did amazing reporting, sort of laid it all out it just seems like, red meat for you.

Yeah, but before the book came out, it wasn’t really that way, he had done some pieces in the Journal, and then for the film, nobody was willing to talk, and they weren’t willing to talk because they were all afraid of being sued by David Boies, the famous attorney at Boies Schiller who famously represented Harvey Weinstein, also Hank Greenberg at AIG and others, and also represented Al Gore.

Right, there was a point when David Boies was considered a white knight among people like you and me, he represented Al Gore, he helped break up Microsoft — he didn’t break up Microsoft, but he represented the DOJ against Microsoft.

Ruthlessly skewered Bill Gates in a famous deposition, yeah.

And in this case, he was representing Theranos, he was also an investor and was getting paid in Theranos shares, and that put the fear of God into the people you wanted to talk to.

That’s right, because he had threatened people, and indeed cost people like Tyler Schultz, the grandson of George Schultz, who’s on the board of Theranos, they cost Tyler’s family $500,000 in legal fees, and so everyone wanted to keep their heads down because they were afraid that David Boies was going to come after them. So it was very hard to get people initially to talk on the record.

So let’s back up. I don’t think there’s anyone listening to this podcast who isn’t familiar, broadly, with Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes and the fraud there. But just to put it in context, she said, “I can do this amazing thing with a couple drops of blood, I can do all these really amazing” — they call them blood panels, right? — “I can diagnose 200 different things, amazingly, that it normally takes an enormous amount of work and time and money to do, I can do it quickly. I can for some reason put one of these in every household.” She’s on every magazine cover, the company’s worth $9 billion, and then it all goes away. At what point do you see that and go, “This is a story I’m going to write”?

Well, you know, I was approached about this by two people who had been conned by her: Graydon Carter, former editor of Vanity Fair Magazine, and Richard Plepler, who until recently ran HBO. And they had become so convinced that her story was a magnificent new chapter in Silicon Valley, the young female entrepreneur who drops out and does extraordinary things for the world …

They pitched it to you?

Well, they pitched it to me once, they had been so enamored of her that they thought of doing kind of the promo story, and then they saw it go south with John Carreyrou, so they thought, “Hmm, maybe Alex would be interested in this story.” And indeed I was.

That’s such a great bit of context, because you spend a lot of time with John Carreyrou on the documentary, he’s on camera, as he should be. But you also spend a lot of time with two other journalists who were conned by her: Ken Auletta, esteemed New Yorker writer, and Roger Parloff from Fortune magazine, who, I don’t want to spoil it, but he’s this through-line through the documentary.

That’s right.

And he’s, to this day, just incredibly angry at her, and it seems to be at himself that he was conned.

Indeed, haunted by his own role and his failure to see through her.

And to be clear, both Auletta and Parloff explained that, “We tried to assess some of these claims, we’re not scientists, and then also all the stuff was shrouded literally in a box, you couldn’t see it. But we didn’t just take it on blind faith, we did talk to her.” Auletta’s often playing you tapes of him talking to her, trying to elicit more information.

In which she literally lies to him on tape.

Yeah. Is there a broader takeaway, you think, about the role that the press and other enablers have in making a con like this work?

Yeah, I mean I think it’s too easy to say that it’s the press’s fault, but you can see as part of the story, the kind of poignant and important tale of how vital it is that journalists get it right. And how we’re all suckers for a story that we want to hear, and the story that Elizabeth was telling was a story that we all wanted to hear: We can make health care better, we can make it more transparent, we can make it cheaper, we can make it less invasive. And by the way, this is a company that is headed by a young woman, in male-dominated Silicon Valley, who’s not only a CEO but is an entrepreneur and an inventor.

You want that story to be true, and I think about this a lot, both as someone who makes content and puts on conferences and does podcasts, I’m always trying to overcorrect for the fact that I talk to almost exclusively white guys. We’re always trying to get people who aren’t white guys on camera, on a podcast, she was all over magazine covers, she sort of filled that role. Do you think she was aware of how she was filling that niche?

Absolutely, and I think even in defeat, she was very much aware of playing that role, because when my producer, Jessie Deeter interviewed her off the record early on — you know, we were trying to persuade her to come on board — she said that she was the victim and that the only reason that she went down was because she was a woman and that people came after her and lots of men in Silicon Valley could make mistake after mistake after mistake and they would be forgiven and they would come back, but if you’re a woman, you only get one chance.

How true do you think that argument is?

I don’t buy it in this case. Again, it’s a very … I think the idea of the argument is right, and it’s an argument I want to believe in, in the sense that I do think that we’re tougher on women, and we often give men a pass on things that we shouldn’t, like the idea of being “tough,” and for a woman as an executive that might be “shrill,” right?

But in this case, Elizabeth really crossed an ethical line that should not have been crossed, and that was, she had a blood-testing technology that wasn’t really working very well, but she needed money, she needed to go forward, she needed the support of Walgreens, so she went live and started allowing Theranos devices to be used on real patients. Now you’re talking about life and death because they were testing for things like hepatitis C and syphilis and also for various blood values that cause certain people to go to the emergency room because they were convinced that they were in a whole heap of trouble.

So in this case, if Elizabeth had only been in R&D mode, okay, I accept that argument. But I don’t accept the argument in this case because she was putting real lives at risk.

When the Carreyrou stories broke in the Journal, I remember there were a bunch of Silicon Valley people who just had an immediate reaction of, “This is the press trying to tear down an inventor and entrepreneur, and you guys like negative stories.” It was a reflexive reaction from them, and then eventually they stopped because it was just an outright fraud.

That’s right.

But there has been this ongoing tension between wanting to build up a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, any entrepreneur really, but specifically sort of the tech people, and then eventually they stumble and there’s this narrative that the press delights in that. Do you want to make stories about people who are enormously successful, or is sort of a twisted tale like this just inherently more interesting?

Well, I am drawn to tales about abuse of power and about deception. But, over time, you do enough of those stories and you do really want to do stories about people who are doing good and who really do do good.

In fact, I’m out looking for those stories now because I think it’s important. We’re trying to save the planet, wouldn’t it be great to do stories about people who are really doing good? But I think that we live in a time where corporations have become so powerful relative to the state — and relative to the fourth estate, which is really under assault — that they are able to promote fictions in ways that are really dangerous, and I think in this moment in time, it’s important to rudder against those fictions.

There is at least … we’re seeing it now with Elizabeth Warren and other folks, that we’ve switched in some ways from adulating Silicon Valley to saying, “All these guys are allied against us.” Or at least there’s a class of people who are making that argument. Do you think that she would have been as successful doing her fraud in 2019 as she was five years ago?

No, I think she rode a wave, I think your point is well taken. I mean look, now we have a fraudster in chief as president of the United States, so I think we’re all a little bit more sensitive to the idea of people who rapaciously tell lies.

Or numb to it.

Or numb to it, maybe. But I think that we don’t accept it on faith that when a company tells you that they do good, we don’t necessarily believe that.

One of the other distinctions that the Silicon Valley folks made in sort of the first year or so after she’d been debunked was, “she wasn’t really Silicon Valley.” She dressed like Steve Jobs, she was photographed, and I’m going to ask you about that in a second, but if you look at who invested in her, it’s not Silicon Valley, there were no sort of name-brand VCs, she didn’t have any of the standard biotech VCs. It was rich people like Rupert Murdoch, and then she had a board full of generals and secretary of state Henry Kissinger. “She’s not one of us, don’t blame us.”

Yeah, I accept that to some extent. It is true that a number of savvy tech investors did not invest in Elizabeth Holmes, but she got some early big names like Larry Ellison to come on board and give her street cred.

And the argument there is that someone like Larry Ellison would make a very early bet on someone that looks …

For sure make an early bet, and it doesn’t matter, it’s like going to the track and betting on a 50-1 odd shot.

And sometimes you bet on your friend, sometimes you bet on your kid’s friends.

Yeah, and so what’s a million here or a million there?

Yeah.

But she was cleverly able to use that over time to persuade other people to come on board, but I would say that the Elizabeth Holmes story does fit rather neatly within the context of American capitalism, and that’s one of the reasons I chose to tell the Thomas Edison story as part of the Elizabeth Holmes story, he was the original fake-it-till-you-make-it guy.

Yeah, you point this out that he did do a lot of amazing things, and then he also made up a bunch of stuff.

Well, and luckily for him, or luckily for us, when he said he had invented the incandescent light bulb, it really wasn’t ready for primetime, it was bullshit really, but he would fake tests to convince people that it was ready, he gave journalists stock in his company to keep them writing good stories.

In the Elizabeth Holmes case, it was so important to have journalists write good stories, right? So, he was doing all those things, but at the end of the day, he did make it work and that made him very different from Elizabeth Holmes.

And there’s this nice symmetry, correct? Because she names her machine the Edison?

Yeah. Well, that’s what got us onto that to begin with. That’s why we started to go down that path. Edison. Why did she call it Edison? So, we started to investigate and learn more about Edison. But interestingly, in terms of all the parallels with tech … Her ethic, “Fake it till you make it,” is baked into Silicon Valley. There’s an aspect of Elizabeth Holmes that’s very much mainstream. Move fast, break things. The disruptor. All that stuff. And she imbued herself with a lot of that ethic. A lot of Silicon Valley veteran VC firms did not invest in her. And all that is true.

Rupert Murdoch invested in her to the tune of $125 million without ever looking at an audited financial statement, which I find jaw-dropping. But that also tells you something about investing in capitalism and whether or not these things are really rational or based on emotion.

So she allies herself with Edison and the Edison myth, and then specifically with Steve Jobs.

Oh, yeah. So, there’s a lot …

Over and over, “I want this to be like the i…” I don’t understand why you’d want a blood-testing machine in your home, but that aside, she does the black turtleneck which I didn’t realize until you point out midway through, you’ve got this amazing footage of her doing these Apple-style documentaries and they’re created by Errol Morris.

Right.

Who did a lot of this work for Apple and it’s literally no accident. They wanted to emulate that.

She had hired a guy named Patrick O’Neil who had been at Chiat/Day and had been very much on the Apple account, and Patrick kind of masterminded the look of Theranos, both in terms of outward-facing consumerism but also in terms of how they were going to design their building, how were they going to design the look, how they were going to design the way they talked about the company, to invent the shape and feel of it from top to bottom. And that was very Jobs-ian in its way. Steve Jobs was very rigorous in terms of how Apple was presented, how it was designed, so forth and so on. He was a great storyteller and salesman.

Interesting, though, the one lesson that Elizabeth never learned from Steve Jobs which she should’ve was how much Steve Jobs ultimately — particularly Steve Jobs 2.0, the Steve Jobs who invented the iPod — learned from failure. Out of the failure of NeXT comes the success of Apple 2.0. And also he surrounded himself at that time with people like John Rubinstein and Avie Tevanian who was an early investor in Theranos before he kind of turned against it. And Jony Ive. People who were willing to tell him no. And she only surrounded herself with yes men. And when people began to tell her no, she would either marginalize them or fire them.

The last time I talked to you in this building, you had a Steve Jobs documentary. It’s quite a critical, cutting look at him and there are so many parallels between that movie and that story and this one. They’re very different stories, but still it’s a very critical look at someone.

In this case, that’s a full on fraudster. In the Steve Jobs movie, you’re saying, “This is a man who did amazing things and is deeply flawed and I want to focus on those flaws.” And then one of the things that I’ve just really noticed is how much footage there is of her, your Steve Jobs movie is full of footage of Steve Jobs over his life. You forget how much he was on camera, how much he documented himself. Why do you think she documented herself so copiously? It’s almost like she made the documentary for you. I know she didn’t.

She made the documentary she wanted me to invest in and I used it to a different purpose. But I think for her, it was as if she imagined if only there had been a camera in the garage with Woz and Steve Jobs. So now, this is my garage and we’re gonna film it from start to finish. So, she hires Patrick and she hires Martin Scholer, this great photographer, to photograph her, and she hires Errol Morris to do the documentary. And right on up to the end, I think there was a period where as I understand it, Errol was gonna continue on to do it and kind of pitch that idea to Elizabeth until Elizabeth, I think, saw that was not gonna go well ultimately.

But yeah, she wanted to … She was the writer, director, and producer of her own story. And it was very much a created story, a curated story, right down to the makeup and the wardrobe. Her black turtlenecks, her deep red lipstick, and the heavy mascara around her eyes which never blinked. This was a costume for a drama that she was playing out in real time for people in order to be able to give that emotional valence to the story that is so important to get people to sign up.

And one of the other parallels with the Jobs movie and this one is in the Jobs movie, I think the most telling thing is this deposition.

Yes.

Where he’s in trouble for backdating stock options.

That’s right.

And he’s both super disdainful of the lawyers who are deposing him, he’s incredibly angry that he has to be sat down in this room and answer questions, and he’s also self-pitying. And in this movie, you’ve got this amazing deposition footage as well. How do you think about assembling this sort of stuff when there is so much footage?

Well, there’s an interesting thing I want to say about that, which was that HBO — we and then HBO backing us up — tried very hard to get a lot of the deposition video and we did succeed in terms of getting it. And we used a tiny bit of it in the film, a deposition with George Schulz notably, but also just a little bit of Elizabeth and Sunny Balwani.

Sort of blinking.

Taking the Fifth. Or being sworn in. But ultimately, we decided in the Jobs film, the deposition footage is incredibly revealing of Jobs as I think he often was. It was the mask revealed in a moment. In this case, we decided ultimately not to include that much of the deposition footage because we thought it was more revealing to show how Elizabeth wanted to be presented, to show her movie so that you could see how she wanted to sell her own story.

Right. Over and over, you’re seeing her the way she wanted to present herself and then you intercut that with someone like a Tyler Schulz saying, “This is what was actually going on.”

Yeah. The difference between what Tyler … Tyler had a great distinction. He called it the difference between the carpeted world and the tiled world. The tiled world was the world of the lab where nothing worked. Everything was breaking. And the carpeted world was the executive suite where Elizabeth would hold forth and would convince even Tyler — who knew how badly things were working in the tile world — but he would come up to the carpeted world and after a 10-minute conversation with Elizabeth, he’d be full of dreams and visions of how this was all gonna change the world. Then he’d get back down to the tile where he’s like, “Oh my God, it couldn’t be further from the truth.”

And his grandfather, George Schulz, I mean … one of the poignant tales in this film is that George Schulz really wouldn’t believe his grandson about the nature of the fraud going on inside. By that time, Elizabeth had gotten so much into his head. I think in some ways, this tale is about something I dealt with in the film on Scientology, the prison of belief.

Once you’ve committed…

Once you’ve committed, it’s very hard to walk out of that cell even though the door is open.

Yeah. So, you’ve got this is footage that she has basically provided for you, not intentionally. The footage you’ve made of interviews with people who were directly involved. And then you intersperse it with recreations here and there, right?

Sure.

Here is a vial falling on the ground, here is what it looked like when the woman walks out of the office and is served with deposition papers that have her temporary address, so it’s super creepy. When you’re … I imagine you do this in many of your movies, but with this movie specifically since it’s about fraud, about recreation, are you at all nervous about inserting footage that is a recreation or a dramatization?

Not really. I think that in a way what you’re doing is playing with layers of deception, and you’re creating what I think are stylized moments that effectively serve as kind of recollections. Or in some cases are stylized moments which serve to, in a playful way, show what might’ve been going on inside the machine that you can’t really see. And I think there’s enough distance there, so it’s not like we’re trying to fool people. We’re trying to put them in the psychological or mental frame of mind of what that moment might’ve been about.

You’ve mentioned HBO a few times, we’ve mentioned Richard Plepler. You premiered this movie or there was a big screening and party for this movie literally the night that Richard Plepler said, “I’m leaving HBO.” What will that mean for you going forward working with HBO or not working with HBO? He was a champion of your work.

Hard to say. I mean, I’ve talked to Casey Blois and all the regular folks I normally deal with at HBO and they all say, “We’re bullish on telling these stories in the future, so let’s keep pushing.” So, great. I mourn the passing of Richard. I think he was a unique individual in terms of his ability to both really invest in understanding the territory that particularly a documentarian was getting into and to really grapple with the content, and also to support and promote the creators at the channel, and also to be a kind of skillful impresario, which is important. As much as we’re talking about the fraud with Elizabeth Holmes and how promotion or over-promoting can take you into an area of deception and lies …

You can put on a show.

You can put on a show and the show’s good. You’ve got to get people to pay attention. We’re all kind of in an ADD world where we’re bombarded 24/7 with Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and the nightly news and updates on the New York Times every 10 minutes. So, you have to find a way to call people out and say it’s important to pay attention right now.

And he was very good at working with people like me and the press in general, right?

Yeah.

He was gracious and knew how to sort of give us things that we needed and were useful. There’s plenty of people who know how to do that. I’m just … and maybe this is why, but all the stories that came out immediately after he left said he was special and different and he was the special juice that sort of made HBO go and the AT&T guys, the telco guys that bought this, don’t get it. The AT&T guys, if you talk to them, say, “He’s really good at doing what he did, but …”

”We’re doing something different now.”

And also, he’s not the only person who can talk to talent.

Right.

It’s technically possible, right?

Yeah, sure.

You’ve worked with lots of other people.

Sure. And there were other talented executives. I’m just … Richard was particularly talented. And you know, at some point along the way, the way I have a small company, we’re doing a bunch of projects, some of which I’m involved and some which I’m not, but one of the things that we try to promote at our company is that we’re not doing something for the corporation. The corporation is there to celebrate the talents of a bunch of people. So, we’re investing in the people. We’re not trying to jam/fit the people into some kind of rigid corporate philosophy.

So, you’ll certainly, I assume, keep working with HBO if they make a deal for you?

Sure. Absolutely. Like I said, I know Casey is a very creative and intelligent guy who’s done a lot of great work, and the two women, I mourn the passing, too, of Sheila Nevins. She decided, she retired a number of years ago, a couple years ago, I guess. But I know Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller at HBO, they’re great. Very savvy executives who really know what they’re doing. And honestly, too, there’s a kind of back office, particularly the back legal office at HBO, that has been hugely supportive.

You did a Scientology doc, as you referenced.

They really got behind us in ways that were very powerful. And even on this one, I think, made sure that we made good law when we went after the depositions, the video depositions in this case, in order to be able to make them available. We didn’t end up using them in the film for aesthetic and creative reasons, but it was a great service, I think.

Yeah. And she was still professing her innocence while you were making this movie, right?

Throughout. Professing not only her innocence but the fact that she was a victim.

Yeah. We were talking about the Fyre Festival documentary before we started and I wish you’d seen at least one of them so I could tell you about it.

I’ve got to check them out.

But one of the striking things about that one, they’re not parallel … they’re parallel in some ways. But in both cases, when you think of a fraudster, you think of someone who takes the money and runs. In her case, she stuck around.

She did.

She was there when there was billions, she was there when it’s worth zero, she maintained her innocence. The Fyre Festival guy is literally on the island as the whole thing is disappearing, insisting that it’s all gonna work out. And this is what I wanted to ask you about: You do spend some time — obviously you explain how the fraud happened — but you do try to explain why the fraud happened, why she did this, and debating is this just outright greed or is there something else?

Yeah. I don’t think it was outright greed. I don’t think she’s Bernie Madoff. I think she believed in the mission. I also think she believed in the idea of who she was, right? But sometimes, that’s not the good news, it’s actually the bad news, because it’s a variation of the end justifies the means, right? And I think she was able to …

”I’m gonna help people, so if I have to bend something here, do a workaround here, it’s okay.”

That’s right. And I think it also was able … it allowed her to lie more effectively, because she believed she was doing it for a good cause. Or she convinced herself that she wasn’t lying at all. And I got some help on that front. One of the things I got interested in when I started to make this film was the whole psychology of lying. And not only lying to others, but lying to yourself in order to be able to lie more effectively to others. And there’s a through-line in the film, the voice of a man named Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist who’s very much in the tradition of these guys, Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who was celebrated by Michael Lewis in his last book.

And he’s all about the irrational. He wrote a book called Predictably Irrational, in how we respond in very irrational ways to the market and to the issues of supply and demand and so forth and so on. But he also really digs deep into the idea of deception and self-deception. And one of his most wonderful experiments is something he does with dice. And the experiment goes something like this, where you give somebody a die and you say, “Look, we’re going to pay you according to how the die comes up. If it comes up six, you get $6. Four, $4. Whatever.” But he puts a little hop in the ball and says, “Before you roll, just think in your mind but don’t tell me, are you betting on the top or the bottom? The six or the one? And roll.” Okay. So, they roll and people write down their scores and so forth and so on.

It’s self-report.

It’s self-reporting. And it turns out that the people in pursuit of their own gain are incredibly lucky, meaning they cheat. And then they put them on the lie detector to say, “Well, did you cheat?” And they say no. And of course the lie detector picks up the lie right away.

Then they do a second experiment, and this is the really interesting part of it. In the second experiment, they say all the money is gonna go to a charity that benefits orphans. And you’d expect that they would cheat less, but in fact they cheat more. And when they put them on the lie detector, the lie detector cannot detect the lie. Why? Because there’s no tension between this notion of, on the one hand, I want more money, but I think it’s wrong.

I’m not harming anyone.

“I’m not harming anybody. Even more, I’m doing good. So, what’s the problem?”

I ask people, I have asked people for a while in Silicon Valley, particularly investors, so much money is sloshing around. Even well-intentioned people you think would be screwing up left and right and burning holes. Not to mention, just the cross-section of any population, you’re gonna have fraudsters there. There have not been that many stories about outright fraud and deception, right? There’s this one, the Fyre Festival doesn’t really count, although it sort of does. I know some VCs who met those guys and said, “I don’t know how you were deceived, you could figure this out in a second.” As an aside, there was a …

There’s not that many stories …

There was a VC who it turned out was absconding with everyone’s money. But there are not that many stories coming out of the Valley given all the billions of dollars that have gone to big companies and small guys with an idea on a napkin. Why do you think we haven’t heard those stories?

Well, some of those companies fail early, probably. But I think the other thing I would say is we do hear these stories about lies in Silicon Valley, and that’s another interesting point that Dan Ariely comes up with. He consulted with Elizabeth Holmes. He’s actually in the story. But he also does a lot of consulting.

She brings him in to sort of boost everyone’s … “The morale is not good here, can you help us?”

It’s funny that why she brings him in. She brings him in because in the wake of Carreyrou’s articles, yeah, motivation is in the pits. And she thinks, “How can I motivate?” The problem is not that there’s a bad technology, the problem is …

“Can we message our way out of this?”

These people are insufficiently motivated. They’re not trying hard enough. So, she brings them in to motivate the employees. Nothing to do with her problems. But I think he gives talks to Silicon Valley and does a lot of talking to corporate groups, and a lot of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs would always tell them, “Look, Silicon Valley is all about technology and technology doesn’t lie.”

Well, let’s think about some of the lying that’s going on in Silicon Valley. What about that whole story with Apple and the battery in the phone? Were they being honest with us upfront? No, not really. That was something we just discovered. Now we’re learning about all the stuff that Facebook and Google were doing with our data, so it’s not fraud. But it’s a kind of lying that I think tech companies feel they’re entitled to do because they’re doing good.

It seems like you could do nothing but Silicon Valley docs now for a while. What are you working on next?

I think Silicon Valley is where a lot of the power is. I’m exploring some other stuff. There’s a film I’ve just done on a completely different topic about a conflict between Russia’s richest man and Vladimir Putin as a way of looking at how Russia works.

That seems like an easy, low-stakes thing for you to do.

Exactly.

I can’t wait to see that. At one point, you said you were gonna do an actual feature film?

Yeah.

For Amazon. Is that still going?

There’s a couple of things. I mean, of course, I’ve done some dramas. I did this series called The Looming Tower with Larry Wright and I directed …

That was on Hulu, right?

That was on Hulu. And I did an episode of Billions, which was kind of fun.

Really? Which one was that?

It was season two, I believe. And it was the one about the high-stakes poker game.

That was great! That was great. Gotta go back and rewatch it.

Yeah. There are a couple of features that I’m interested in doing and also some other dramatic series that we’re developing that I think would be good. It’s fun to inhabit that world. I’m not one who’s like, “Oh, now I can jump to drama and I won’t have to do documentaries anymore.” I love doing documentaries. But there are things sometimes you can do in drama that you can’t do in docs and vice versa.

I will watch anything you make and especially I love Billions. I’m gonna go back and rewatch that episode. Alex, thanks for your time.

Thanks so much.

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