Director Alison Klayman Discusses 'The Brink', Her Reasons For Profiling Steve Bannon
KORVA COLEMAN, HOST:
Steve Bannon has become a household name. He was for a time President Trump's chief strategist and the executive chairman of Breitbart News. "Saturday Night Live" portrayed Bannon as the Grim Reaper when he was in the White House. And for some, this one-dimensional characterization stuck. But the newly released film, "The Brink," provides unfettered access to Bannon's meetings, colleagues and opinions, creating a more complete picture of who he is.
Director Alison Klayman shadowed Steve Bannon from the time he left the White House in 2017 until right after the midterm elections. And she joins us now from the NPR bureau in New York. Alison Klayman, welcome.
ALISON KLAYMAN: Thank you so much, Korva.
COLEMAN: So Steve Bannon speaks in the film of, quote, "doing the Lord's work." What is that work according to Steve Bannon?
KLAYMAN: In some ways, that ends up being kind of a tricky question because the worldview in general tends to be a little bit incoherent. But what he is really focused on this year that I've been following him is he's really someone who is articulating a vision for an international, unified far-right nationalist movement.
It's an idea that is gaining some traction because of the successes that far-right, anti-immigrant parties have had across Europe and also in other countries around the world. And so he's trying to take the clout that he has as a former member of the Trump administration, White House chief strategist, and to push forward and make himself a figure of importance.
COLEMAN: Your film captured Steve Bannon's ability to negotiate. You captured his energy. You captured his charm. Let's listen to a scene from your film.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BRINK")
STEVE BANNON: People are really thinking about making race and identity politics the centerpiece of the Democratic primaries. If they do that, we'll win. It's just - they just - people are - because people - it's economic nationalists. They care about jobs.
KLAYMAN: But all I'm saying is, like, you're making deplorables the identity that you're rallying people around. Like, you're showing them being attacked and saying that they should be outraged at how people are talking about them, right?
BANNON: And your point?
COLEMAN: You're telling him that he's blaming liberals for engaging in identity politics when he's engaging in identity politics.
KLAYMAN: I'm so happy that you played that clip because that, to me, really was one of the things that genuinely bothered me the most during the time I spent. I didn't know this about him and what he was doing before I started. I really didn't know a lot about him.
But the way he would go around and speak to Republican groups, whether they were small grassroots groups or fancy fundraising dinners in all different parts of the country, what he was doing, first and foremost, was playing identity politics and creating this in-group identity, this shared identity, you know. We're - remember, quote, "Billy Bush weekend," you know. Remember our great victory in 2016 and really trying to create these moments of shared victory.
And he would accuse the left and liberals of playing identity politics, when as far as I could tell, that was really the bread and butter of what he was doing.
COLEMAN: There is one really startling scene when you seem to be taken aback, and you say, what did I just see? Was that you talking about working with the National Front in France?
KLAYMAN: Yeah, I mean, I watched this meeting in the summer of 2018 when he's sitting down with two leaders of the party. And they're kind of talking about messaging, talking about what voters are thinking about Macron right now. And because, you know, he doesn't really have a depth of expertise or knowledge in any of these European contexts.
So, you know, this is like fact finding for him to talk to them about their electoral situation. But then where it becomes something where he is providing something to them is they start to discuss financials.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BRINK")
BANNON: You've got - you want to go through the financials? Do you have those documents?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, they're all - these here.
BANNON: That 2 million - or 2 million euro is what you're paying expenses for the month of July and August. Anything else you need for this right now? Or...
KLAYMAN: That's, of course, the part where they invite me to leave the room.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BRINK")
KLAYMAN: Are you now, like, consulting for the National Rally Party? Or what - what did I just watch?
BANNON: Every populist party or nationalist party that looks viable - right? - I'm trying to help. This is what I've done for 40 years. This is no different than in the 1980s when I was at Goldman Sachs sitting down with entrepreneurs and tech companies or media companies, or in the '90s when I had my own firm. It's literally just a different conference room, right? It's the same thing.
KLAYMAN: To me, that was a really key thing to understanding who Bannon is and what he's providing in a lot of contexts. I really think advice about financials is something that he's providing. And I really did feel like he was there as a consultant.
The people who he is really working with and the areas in which he's working - he's a millionaire funded by billionaires. You know, there's a lot of billionaires in the film. When he's getting together with these parties, it's not talking about, how can we bring value-added manufacturing jobs to the people? It's about, how can we fund these movements, and frankly, talking about how immigration is the issue on which they're going to win?
COLEMAN: Steve Bannon is often seen smiling and engaging light-heartedly with you. We also see him throughout the film backtrack on statements or redirect conversations to focus away from perhaps the question you're asking him or something he just doesn't want to answer. Is he that good of a manipulator?
KLAYMAN: I do think that's a big reason why I took the approach that I did for this film. First of all, there's no talking heads or sit-down interviews with other people. But there isn't really anything like that with him. Although, there's a lot of you, know, kind of side conversations that we have.
But fundamentally, it felt like encountering him in an interview setting, there really wasn't much that was going to be revealed by that because he approaches every interview like it's combat. And he approaches it not in good faith. So his tactics are sharp, but also they're kind of not ethical because he will change the topic. He will distort facts. He will lie. And so for me, what is to be gained?
You know, I did spend a lot of time having these conversations with him. But, you know, the film is much more about seeing him in action and kind of letting him reveal himself through his words rather than being like, you know - it's certainly not about can I, you know, spar with him and get a point in.
COLEMAN: Steve Bannon is 64 at the time this film was made. Was it difficult having a great difference in age between you two to complete this film?
KLAYMAN: You know, my first film, I was following the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who - I can't do the math now - but, you know, who is also - we have a couple of decades in between us. I do think that Weiwei has a kind of very young spirit. But still, you know, in a lot of ways, that was not a bad preparation even though they're two practically opposite people. It was a good preparation.
I also think with Bannon, that dynamic might have even been helpful when it comes to maybe him underestimating me a little bit. That was really my - that was really my hope. My daily mantra was let him be underestimating me, and let me never underestimate him. From the first time I met him, I - that was very, very clear to me, that, you know, he is a force. He is smart. He is savvy. And so if I'm coming in here and my goal is to have him expose himself, that I need to not ever underestimate him.
And I shot it all myself. So it's just kind of me with a camera and a fanny pack and a monopod, you know, in the corner. I do think that he was able to let his guard down. And if not, sometimes he said he forgot the camera was there, as people might say. I still always don't understand how that could happen because I'm always very camera aware, but at the very least, to feel a little bit of safety. I think I was around so much that you can't - at some point, you can't conceive of what is being recorded, the amount of what's being recorded and what it's eventually going to become.
COLEMAN: That was Alison Klayman, director of "The Brink," which is now playing in select theaters. Alison, thank you so much for speaking with us.
KLAYMAN: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.