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Q&A: Director Marina Zenovich on the making of LANCE

Documentary filmmaker Marina Zenovich discusses 'LANCE,' her ESPN 30 for 30 film set to air this Sunday.

Lance Armstrong is the subject of a new documentary film, titled ‘LANCE,’ which is being released as one of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. We caught up with Marina Zenovich, the director and producer of the film, to discuss its production and her perspective on Armstrong. Below is a section from that interview.

The first half of ‘LANCE’ airs Sunday night at 9 p.m. Eastern.

VeloNews: We have the Alex Gibney documentary, the film ‘Stop at Nothing,’ the Hollywood feature ‘The Program,’ as well as books like Wheelmen and Cycle of Lies. Why did you set out to tell this story yet again even though there has been so much media coverage around it?

Marina Zenovich: There is a lot of media, but there hasn’t been anything like this at all, and nothing for a long time. Those films were several years ago when he had his fall. I, too, thought ‘why?’ initially, but when I delved into it and saw that Lance was ready to talk and give me access, I was intrigued and curious.

VN: When you looked at the other films or books about Lance Armstrong, what were the unanswered questions that you set out to answer?

MZ: Just why. Why was he doping? Why was he lying? Why was he bullying? I mean, I know the answers but I didn’t live it, so I sought answers from not just Lance but from everyone, and you have to understand the documentary film form isn’t like people roll out the red carpet and say ‘I’ll tell you everything.’ I wish I was writing a book because people don’t want to go on camera and tell you these things. But they will tell you as much as they are willing to and then you get a bunch of interviews and put them together and try to make sense of everything. The story is about all of these other cyclists and what they went through, and a whole period of time. I feel like we brought a scope to the whole story and Lance, himself, looking at it in hindsight. So, I felt like there was really something there to explore if he was willing to go there. I found he was. Did it take prodding? Yes. Did he give me everything? No, but he gave me a lot and I give him credit for that.

Maria Zenovich

Marina Zenovich. Photo: Henry Gafunkel

VN: Were there areas around the previous reporting on Lance’s story where you tried to break new ground?

MZ: Have you seen the film? What do you think?

VN: It’s tough. I’m a cycling person and I came of age as a journalist during the last few years of Armstrong, when the biggest joke in cycling media was that everyone kind of knew he was doping but he just had so much power over the sport. I feel like you break a lot of ground in where he is now and his attitude toward the past. But the areas I’ve always wanted to see more reporting on is the relationship between Armstrong and the UCI. I’d like us to understand the mechanisms that allowed him to have so many get-out-of-jail-free cards. Getting to the bottom of that could tell us a lot about the sport.

MZ: Yeah, I feel like what we got really spoke to how things were done. But you know, people are only willing to go so far, whether it’s Pat [McQuaid] or Lance or Bill Stapleton. Hein Verbruggen is dead. I reached out to Thom Weisel who didn’t want to speak. There were a lot of people who didn’t want to speak. There were people who want to put this to bed and don’t’ want to bring it up ever again, and I had a lot of people who didn’t want to talk. I feel like Lance was more forthcoming than he was previously — I felt he spoke about Hein in a way that he hadn’t before. Forgive me if I’m wrong. It’s pretty clear what was going on. Yeah, we want all of the gory details but I don’t know who is going to spill those beans.

VN: I thought it was interesting that [UCI President] Pat McQuaid called Lance [in 2012] immediately after learning from Jonathan Vaughters that USADA had begun its investigation.

MZ: That was very interesting. I must say that Vaughters’ and Pat McQuaid’s versions of the phone call are different. Everyone has their own truth. It’s fascinating. And that’s what I tried to get into. Lance’s truth is his truth. Vaughters remembers it a certain way. Pat McQuaid remembers it a certain way. There’s a lot there.

VN: Toward the end of the film there is an interview where Lance gets emotional after speaking about Jan Ullrich, and he addresses what he perceives to be a double-standard in how riders are treated from his era. Guys like Erik Zabel, Rolf Aldag, and Ivan Basso are welcomed back to the sport, whereas he and Ullrich are in exile. Now that you’ve studied this story what do you think about the way he’s been treated?

MZ: I think it’s horrible but I don’t think it’s just him. I think it’s Floyd and Tyler Hamilton and I think it’s really unfair. There’s a real sense that these people who used performance enhancers are tainted, and I think it’s unfair. I was really hoping when this film came out; we were hoping to screen it across the country and have some sort of roundtable — maybe we still can on Zoom — with people from USADA and USA Cycling and riders to talk about this and to have some sort of come to Jesus moment in understanding that there seems to be a real disconnect between the cyclist and the powers that be about who is a good guy and who is a bad guy. I’m not just talking about Lance. Lance is different, but it feels like the other riders who took performance enhancing drugs are suffering as well, and I tried to tell their story. It’s just sad. Tyler said something great in the film: ‘I was hoping we wouldn’t have to tell this truth in our generation.’ What was astounding to me as an outsider was to interview these people and say, ‘How did people think this story wouldn’t come out?’ The fact that they were taking enhancing drugs, how could this not come out? That’s one level, and then there’s the level of Lance of what he did as well. That’s why Floyd is such a fascinating part of the story. He couldn’t keep it in anymore because of how he was treated.

VN: I suppose my pushback to Lance’s perspective is that Ivan Basso and Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag never sued the Sunday Times for millions of dollars or used their power to bully people. It’s like, those guys didn’t act the same way you did when you were cornered.

MZ: For me, that section was surprising because it was a moment when I was going to bring up cancer and debating how much time he was going to have, and you need people to talk about something they’ve talked about a zillion times before but in a fresh and emotional way. The moment I was going to ask about cancer he told me I had 10 minutes left. I was like ‘Oh God, I can’t talk about cancer in 10 minutes.’ I didn’t know what I was going to do and I just said, ‘Why did you go to Germany to see Jan?’ I had no idea I was going to get that response. For me, it was not about how Lance was the same as those people, but it was about Pantani being dead and Ullrich being shunned and whatever Lance’s reality is of how he views himself in that. It was about what the sport could do to people. It was a very emotional moment and it was like, ‘Wow.’ And I think he used these sessions to vent and try to explain things and it was interesting to see how with each interview he went deeper. It was often getting him out of his environment and not having people around. We did a great interview in Arizona, where he was training for something, and I got him in someone’s back house and there was nobody there and it was one of the best interviews to really put him in the hot seat and get him to open up.

VN: Twenty years from now, how do you think people will view Lance Armstrong?

MZ: Oh gosh. You tell me. He’s young. It was quite interesting in the Gibney documentary that he had these titles taken away, but the people below him were also doping. Who won those tours? I think he’ll always be a compelling figure and always be an iconic figure, but he’ll be just as divisive as he is now. People really feel strongly about him and I guess that will continue.