An interview with Alex Gibney, director of Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

How should we remember Steve Jobs?


When Alex Gibney premiered Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine at SXSW, a group of Apple employees in the audience walked out. That's okay with him — the director behind 2005's Enron exposé The Smartest Guys in the Room and Scientology documentary Going Clear isn't known for shying away from complex topics.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine hits theaters, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and on demand systems today, and it's already provoking a wide range of reviews and discussion. In March, our own Bryan Bishop called it an "unflinching look at the emotional shrapnel people took when they were part of Jobs’ life," and that focus sets it apart from the growing body of work that celebrates Jobs' accomplishments in business and technology while glossing over the depth of his character.

I spoke with Gibney earlier this week about the movie, what he'd learned while making it, and the future of Apple.

So it's a pretty dark movie. Even some of your music choices — it's not like always uplifting, there's a real darkness to it.

Gibney: I would say it's light and dark. The moment at the beginning where you're hearing the studio version of "Tambourine Man" and you're seeing all those people hold up their iPads with candles on them, there's a stirring of some real pathos there. And that was not mocking or meant to be ironic.

We certainly found things that caught our eye, and a number of them were interviews with Steve. One is an SEC deposition, which actually helps to form a rough structure of the overall film. And one is an interview with Steve where he's talking to a very small Silicon Valley group. It was a very much off the beaten track kind of video, and he's not trying so hard to impress, he's thinking a little bit more thoroughly. That's the one where he talks at the end about how we’re all a piece of sedimentary rock and then the next layer forms on top of us, and our contribution disappears.

So I think that you begin to build with materials that you find, as they seem to be important. I don't think there was a grand design at the beginning, but there came to be a grand design at the end.

I hadn't seen that SEC video, and it struck me how different Jobs is in that video compared to everything else. It's the least polished version of him. Why didn't you lean on that harder?

Perhaps, perhaps, but those [answers] get technical awfully fast. I think that when you start out the film, he's giving you information about his life and his career, and you don't really understand until late in the film that it’s actually an investigation of a possible criminal activity. That was intended to be something of a surprise, but along the way it reveals things about him that are interesting: the kind of contempt with which he treats the questioners, the sarcasm he uses to answer many of these questions, and then the self-pity toward the end. He talks about how he was hurt because the board didn't award him a bigger compensation package. All of that I found terribly interesting.

And his body language as well.

Very much so.

"I don't think there was a grand design at the beginning, but there came to be a grand design at the end."

It feels like the first act of Steve's life, the early Apple stuff and even a bit of the NeXT stuff is really well documented. There was no internet and there was no ability for Jobs to control the message, so there was actually some journalism being done around him, he gave access to people. It seems like that’s way more open.

And then as he came back to Apple, everything seems much more closed. What I've noticed in virtually every piece, even the Isaacson book where he had so much access to Steve directly, is there's a wall that goes up. It's hard to see the actual person behind some of these actions — you end up with Apple history, or even cultural history in the case of some of the products. But it's very hard to see Steve. Did you struggle with that? Do you think that you were able to get through it?

I never saw it so much as walls going up as he was always constructing a persona for himself. And earlier on, you're right, he didn't have as much control over that persona as he did later, because he got a lot more power later. That to me is the big difference between early Steve and late Steve.

The book by Brent Schlender and [Rick Tetzeli], Becoming Steve Jobs, makes the case that he changed as a person. I'm not sure I agree. I think he was the same, but he got more power later, and that made it difficult to see him as anything more than the character he wanted you to see, particularly on stage. And he'd begin to stage manage how his life was written, right on down to the photograph that Walter Isaacson used for the cover of his book.

Jobs was very much controlling about his image, which he always wanted to be one with Apple. He never allowed some of his key lieutenants to speak out in public forums. He always resisted that. The walls did go up in a way, but he so carefully cultivated that personality. He stage managed a role that he felt he was born to play.

Obviously when the movie first came out, Eddy Cue tweeted that "this isn't the Steve I know." How do you respond to that sort of criticism?

I don't know how to respond to it. First of all, I'm not sure Cue was at the SXSW screening. Do we know if he really was? I know a bunch of Apple people were. But you know, that's his opinion. I can tell you that a lot of very high-ranking Apple executives have seen the film, former high-ranking Apple executives, who don't have to be keepers of the flame, and they found it to be very accurate.

In the years now since Steve has died it seems like his ability to stage manage his persona persists, and the real stories don't seem to be coming out. Particularly — and this is what I think of as the walls going up — his decision-making process around the later products has still not been revealed. The stories around him not paying Woz for Breakout have been revealed. The stories around the first Mac have been almost completely revealed. But we don't really know anything about the iPhone. We don't really know anything about the iPad and how these products really came about. Why do you think that persists?

I think it persists because they would almost certainly reveal that while Steve was a great storyteller at Apple, he wasn't always the person who was driving the products. He was the guy who would choose between two paths, but there are a lot of very smart people at Apple who are doing a lot of very good work.

I wasn't there, but from what people have told me, it wasn't like Steve came into the office every day and then chiseled out a tablet of what was going to happen and how things were going to proceed. He was a band leader, and he knew it was very important to have very talented musicians in the band. But I think he decided that it was also important for the public at large — and some executives managed to make themselves comfortable with this because it seemed to make them a lot of money — that it was important for the public to feel that Steve did everything. That he was the grand vizier, that he could see into the future, that he was going home into his house at night and just imagining what the next product would be, and thinking about new tech and how it was going to be engineered and how it was going to be designed. My understanding is that it was not like that at all. That Steve was a storyteller, but not really the inventor. And that's not a story that Steve wanted anybody to tell.

"Steve was a storyteller, but not really the inventor."

You come back to that storyteller theme several times in the movie, but I think the answer you just gave me — "Steve was great at telling the story but he wasn't actually the driving force behind the product" — is more explicit than anything in the film. Is there a reason it’s not as explicitly stated in the movie?

You know, sometimes I think it's a good thing to pull material out of the movie. But I think it's there. When you hear Jon Rubinstein talk about how the iPod was put together, it's clear that they were looking to do a music player, but they hadn't figured out how to make it work yet. And they didn't figure it out until Jon found that small drive. And that was just a kind of a peek, in a way, because this film is not really about the technology, it's not really about how each product was invented. It's really more about values, I suppose. But that gives you a little bit of a peek into how this stuff worked.

I think it's worth it for people to look at the moment when Jobs comes back to Apple. A lot of the so-called "dream team," that group that really brought Apple rolling back, were already in place when Steve came on board.

I think that's present in the film, even though, as a narrator, I didn't feel compelled to say, "Remember this." I felt like, it's there, in a subtle way.

young steve jobs mac

You're saying it's not a film about the technology, it's a film about values, and Jobs comes back to values several times. You very sharply highlight how his early, rebellious values about controlling a large system don't necessarily mesh with his later values about protecting his own large system. As a person who covers Apple frequently, that’s fascinating. It's almost like, I think about it so much that I stop thinking about it.

It was to me one of the most striking things about him and his growth. Even though he thinks he didn't grow out of those countercultural values, I think he took certain affectations from the counterculture and left some of the more deep-seated values, both from the counterculture, and frankly from his "search for enlightenment," quote-unquote, behind.

And I think he didn't really fully appreciate that he had left that behind. He starts out doing blue boxes with Woz, right? And yet by the end he's going after the guys at Gizmodo. Who you'd think actually had that same kind of renegade blue box spirit that he celebrated himself and liked to believe that Apple still represented. It’s the idea of this plucky startup. Apple wasn't a plucky startup anymore! And he never was able to reconcile himself with that idea.

"He starts out doing blue boxes with Woz, and by the end he's going after the guys at Gizmodo."

He was genius at creating the notion — and I must say I fell for it too — that by using these products you were somehow investing in a higher ideal. "Think Different." Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Einstein, you know. But actually, the way Apple ran wasn't really that different at all. In a corporate sense, they didn't think different at all! They thought pretty conventionally, really, except when it came to the products. That's when Steve’s zen-like focus was riveted on the idea that his products would be different because they would connect to people and be an extension of themselves. And that they would be designed beautifully, so that people would want them, desperately. That's where the iPod was revolutionary.

But all the other stuff — when it came to workers in China or pollution in China — he wasn't thinking different. And it certainly wasn't counterculture values. I found it really interesting that for all the time he spent in Japan — there was something about going to Japan that seemed to loosen Steve up, and he became a slightly more compassionate person — yet with all of Apple's business in China, he never went there. Ever.

That is fascinating. I'd never thought about it that way before. Tim Cook is always going to China. He's constantly talking about China.

Tim Cook and Jon Rubinstein. Jon Rubinstein was going to China so often that when he sat in 3C instead of 3B the stewardess said, "Wait, don't you want your familiar seat?"

You touch on Lisa in the movie. Obviously she's an enormous part of that early Jobs arc, but you don't really touch on what his life was outside of Apple. His wife, or his three kids, or even to a certain extent Pixar. What was your decision process there?

I thought long and hard about, particularly the Lisa and Chrisann Brennan issue. The reason I felt it was legitimate to go there as opposed to dealing at length with Laurene and the other kids was that Lisa was something that crossed over into the company. After all, he named a computer "Lisa." And that confusion between real life and the machine seemed very poignant in light of the other episodes in the film, and the other concerns of the film which is all about how we use technology.

"The Confusion between real life and the machine seemed very poignant."

Also, he used a lawyer in order to fend off Chrisann when she was trying to get a paltry amount in order to survive — he used the attorney who helped set up the Apple corporation originally, so there was an eerie kind of personal-corporate connection there that I felt was appropriate to look at. Yet, the reason I included the writing from Lisa later was that it also fit in with this theme about Japan. And I felt having shown that cruel moment where he tries to run from his paternity, it was only fair to show that he reconciled with Lisa even though their relationship was rocky off and on. And to give some sense of that relationship and not just leave it early.

I didn't set out to make a complete biography of Jobs. It was intended always to be angled and speak to a few people and to focus on a few key things, rather then try to tell the whole story. Which if I had done, I'd have got bogged down in listing events rather then trying to probe their meaning.

Pixar is a really interesting episode in Jobs' life, and I think as a manager, he was tremendously successful at Pixar. And his fortune was really made at Pixar. But his heart beat with the blood of Apple. That's really what he was all about. Pixar made him a lot of money, and I think he handled it very well, but it was all about Apple for Steve.

young jobs sweater

At the end of the film you reveal that you’re an Apple fan as well, and you had bought into the myth of Jobs. Do you think that myth persists around Apple in the absence of Jobs? I'm going to the iPhone launch next week, and I think it's changed. I think in many ways that Apple feels like another company now. And their products are very good, but —

The products are very good. I'm not sure I'd ever, having done this movie, I'm ever interested in really investigating the Apple Watch. I don't want to be prodded any more into doing stuff than I already am.

I mean, look, here's the danger: when you design the marketing strategy for a company that revolves around one person giving you all these great gifts and looking into the future and telling you what's going to come next, well, when that person leaves it's bound to create a sense of disappointment. Jobs had a succession plan, but it wasn't a succession plan for the idea of how he presented Apple to the world. And I think one of the reasons that people wept when he died was that he was singularly associated as a human being with the growth of the personal computer, which became the way we all changed. So, yeah, it's inevitably going to feel like a different place because Steve isn't the face of it anymore.

"There's still a bit of ruthlessness leftover from Jobs in that company."

Do you think that they can succeed without the qualities Jobs brought to Apple?

I think they can. It's a big company with a lot of very smart people. But they'll have to figure out a way for themselves to change. And it's hard to keep hitting home runs all the time. You're going to have to go back to bunting and hitting a few singles and doubles. But there's still a bit of the ruthlessness left over from Jobs in that company, and that might not be such a good thing to hang onto.

Apple fans are notoriously harsh about things they don't like or that are critical of Apple, and particularly of things that are critical of Jobs — what's the feedback been like?

So far, honestly, it's been pretty good.  Maybe the Apple people have been holding back. I know a number of Apple employees walked out of the SXSW screening, but that's kind of to be expected. I mean, if you attack the Pope, or if you speak ill of the Pope, many Catholics don't like it. And I think there is a kind of cult of Mac, but I hope I've created a space in this film to ask some questions, not only about Steve, parts of whom I greatly admire, but also about who we are and what our values are. Particularly as it comes to not only business but technology. Those are the far more important things, not whether or not I spoke occasionally critically about Steve Jobs. I hope a lot of Apple people will come to this movie and reckon with that. And discuss. I make films in order to stimulate discussion and to have people think about them after they leave the theater or stop the streaming on the computer.

Steve Jobs with Lisa

You brought up the Pope, and you brought up cults. And you made Going Clear which was about Scientology, and I'm wondering, that cult aspect around Apple, that almost religious fervor for the company and for Jobs, did those things strike you? Were there any similarities?

Yeah, there were some similarities. I don't want to overdraw them, because Scientology actively practices human rights abuses as part of the L. Ron Hubbard doctrine of fair game. And Apple doesn't do that, but Apple in its own corporate way can be very cruel to its critics, and very fastidious about protecting its image. I don't think that's really a good thing. So, yeah, there are aspects of it that struck me as being similar. I mean, it's funny, I sometimes do a number of projects at the same time, and along the way that I was making this film, I made a film about James Brown and about Church of Scientology and both ended up being very reflective of certain aspects of the Jobs film in ways I never expected.

What do you think Jobs' legacy is?

The true legacy of Jobs was creating a sense of deep connection between people and computers. I really think that was his genius, and I think he succeeded in that. I think that people are now beginning to realize that there's a downside to that. That sometimes, when they look incessantly, like I do, at an iPhone instead of engaging in conversation it can be a bit of a problem. And I think that was baked in, unconsciously, to the character of Steve Jobs also.

"JUst because Apple is hugely successful, we don't have to make the same choices Steve did."

What I'm sad about — I see a lot of people in Silicon Valley who feel like they need to ape every aspect of Steve Jobs. So, "let's not give to charity, that would be a fucked up, stupid waste of time." You know, how does that compute? And how does being unnecessarily cruel to people or not reckoning with the kind of corporate responsibility that big companies should have to reckon with, how does that really advance the ball? Was it really necessary? I think that was a kind of peculiar petulance that Steve had that doesn't have to be observed. The guys at Enron were very consciously libertarian and quite cruel also, thinning the herd inside their own company and also practicing a ruthless kind of cowboy capitalism on the electrical grid in California, but when Enron failed, everybody didn't feel that that kind of cruelty or corporate irresponsibility should be mimicked. But now that Jobs is successful, everybody thinks you should ape everything about him, and one of the reasons I made the movie was to say, "Some things were great. Some things were not so great. So just because Apple is hugely successful, we don't have to ape them all, we don't have to make the same choices that Steve did."

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