Interview | Director Daniel Gordon Talks ‘9.79*’ Documentary
25 years after the game-changing events of the 1988 Summer Olympics in which Ben Johnson was stripped of his 100m Gold medal for failing a drug test, the use of banned substances in sport is more rampant than ever. Assembling each of the eight athletes who competed in that fateful 100m final, Daniel Gordon’s apt documentary 9.79* – which was part of EPSN’s 30 for 30 series last year –presents a candid exploration of the bitter rivalry that existed between its participants as well as depicting a period where drug testing was in its infancy.
On behalf of HeyUGuys I recently had a chance to chat with Gordon, and in-between sharing some humorous anecdotes of his own, the BAFTA-nominated director discusses his approach to documentary filmmaking and how drugs impact sport today.
Amon Warmann: What were your expectations before going in to interview these guys in terms of how much information you were hoping to get?
Daniel Gordon: I had done a lot of research on each athlete. Some have written books so you’ve got a fair amount to go on to start with, others less so. My expectation was just to try and keep everyone talking as much as possible so I can get back to my editing suite with as much material as possible. I had no idea how much or what I would get beforehand, but apart from Carl Lewis – where I’d gone through the management team – I had spoken to every single one of them on a number of occasions before I’d gone in to interview them. In some cases I had met them beforehand, so I knew an awful lot about what I wanted to ask them and what they were willing and unwilling to talk about. However, it is one thing thinking you’ll get it. It’s quite another when it comes the day of the interview.
AW: One of the athletes (Desai Williams) says that before a race starts, you close your eyes and you envision running the perfect race. When you were thinking about how your documentary might come together, what’s your process and how close was the final film to your initial vision?
DG: The initial vision of the film was to get all eight to speak, that was the thing I wanted more than anything else. When I first started researching the film it was all about the fact that this was the fastest race in history, and I wanted to find out from the men who ran it what it was like to run that race. The more I looked into it, it became much more of a complex film. It’s about drugs, it’s about upbringing, it’s about identity, it’s about national pride. It’s quite a layered story. I wrote an early lengthy synopsis about what I wanted to do, but until you start researching you still don’t really know what you want to do.
When you got all the material, what I tend to do is start drawing these spider diagrams with subjects and links and all that side of things and stick them up and the editor can ignore them or embrace them. It depends on which editor I use. When I sit down and I watch that final film I’m immensely pleased with it so in that way it’s kind of like that’s the perfect race. There’s nothing where I have been like “Why has that gone in” or “Shouldn’t I have put that” or “Wouldn’t it have been great if”.
I know Carl Lewis has said that when he finished the only thing he wanted to do was go back to the start line and run it again; he hadn’t run the perfect race. I said that to Linford Christie and he was like “Come on, every single one of those people wanted to rerun that race, including Ben Johnson!” so that sort of opened my eyes a little bit.
AW: Have the athletes seen the film?
DG: I know Ben has seen it. He came to the Toronto premiere with his wife and they both loved it.
AW: What’s the most memorable reaction you’ve had from people who’ve seen it so far?
DG: We premiered the film at the Toronto Film Festival last year. At the end, the credits came up and it got a standing ovation which blew me away. I’ve had ovations before but nothing like that. We’d gone to the cinema and it was pissing down with rain, proper Northern England weather in Toronto, just miserable, and there was a queue around the block for tickets which was an amazing moment for me. To get that reaction in the really big traditional theatre it was amazing. I thought everyone was clapping me, but I turn around and Ben Johnson is walking on the stage behind me, and that was what all the clapping was for! [laughs]
AW: When you finish filming and you have this wealth of information in front of you from all the interviews to clips, how far into your editing process does the film really start to take shape?
DG: These days I tend to film the entire lot, leave it with the editor and then walk away for a bit. What happens is that I’ve got all my ideas and I know what I think is really important and what is amazing, and they’ll probably turn around to me and go “You know what, that bit is not that interesting, it’s a great quote but it’s not that interesting it doesn’t move the story on”. That’s the beauty of the editor that they’re able to have that distance. That sort of initial process is daunting and over the years I’ve learnt to stay away from the edit at the beginning because otherwise it does get too overwhelming.
AW: When making documentaries, you want to be comprehensive but at the same time you don’t want to overload the audience with too much information. I recently asked this question of the director of the Hawking documentary, which is also released this week incidentally; what’s the trick to finding that balance?
DG: As much as possible, I try not to get involved in the mechanics of anything I’m doing. I don’t really want you to know what makes an amazing 100m runner. For me it’s more about the character and the story behind that character. I don’t mind throwing in a little bit of narration to contextualise stuff a bit, such as how money was beginning to get important and the stakes were getting higher, because then you’ve got the understanding of what motivates people to do a certain thing. For me, I want to try and make the subject tell the story, and let the story tell itself so an audience can interpret it. I’ve done films in North Korea before where people think they have an understanding, but the way I always approach it was that the explanation ought to just help move the story on. It shouldn’t be guiding you or making you think a certain way.
I sat in the audience at screenings of this film, and people in the same row as me have got totally different opinions of all eight athletes. That’s brilliant for me, because it shows me that I’ve not led them down a certain path. They’ve all got it, they’ve all understood it, but they still taken their own interpretation away from it. My normal test is to show the film to my wife, and if she doesn’t understand anything then I know I’ve overcomplicated it [laughs]. It’s quite a good idea to get someone completely away from the story, completely away from the film, just an ordinary person to give you an honest opinion.
AW: When you watch 100m races now and you see Usain Bolt destroying the competition, in the back of your mind are you thinking he might be on drugs? Does that affect your enjoyment?
DG: It doesn’t affect my enjoyment anymore because I’ve developed a really healthy cynicism. The questions aren’t at the back of my mind, they’re at the front of my mind. Having the knowledge that I’ve managed to acquire in the making of this film just leaves you with unquestionable cynicism, not just about track & field but pretty much with every sport. I remember I interviewed a guy who’s not in the film but he’s an expert on the history of doping whose been working in the field for 35 years, and he was telling me about how every single sport is riddled with it. He talked to me and he could see what was going through my mind, and he said “Don’t think your English Premier League aren’t doing it because they are”. So I’m completely cynical about this subject throughout sport, not just athletics, and nothing surprises me about anything anymore.
When Ben ran the race he ran he was aided by what he took, it wasn’t necessarily a shortcut, he didn’t take it and become a really quick runner. It was a sad day for me when I realised that I couldn’t take drugs and become a brilliant sprinter, but I had to be a certain level to start with [laughs].
AW: Are there any other cases of drugs in sport that you’d like to do documentaries on so that you and by extension the audience can better understand their reasons for doing it?
DG: Not especially, because I already touched on it with this. The hardest thing is getting people to talk about it. It’s a really difficult subject matter. There’s obviously the fallout with Lance Armstrong, but in the same way that Ben Johnson is now able to look back on it, I actually think that story will be more interesting in 20 years when there’s been that distance.
AW: Do you have any other documentaries in the pipeline?
DG: I’ve been doing a film intended for theatrical release next year on the Hillsborough disaster. It’s hopefully the definitive story of the Hillsborough disaster. It’s been quite an undertaking, but it’s a story that I feel needs to be out there. We’re just at the beginning of the editing process with that one.
AW: I look forward to seeing that! Great job on this documentary, I think it deserves to be seen for footage of Carl Lewis singing alone! [laughs]
DG: [Laughs] That moment…It’s not just that, because everyone is laughing about the singing then you’ve got Ben Johnson going “He can’t sing”. [laughs] I was standing at the back of the cinema, but one of my friends was sitting next to Ben Johnson and looked across and he had never seen a man laugh at his own joke so hard! [laughs]
This interview was originally published at HeyUGuys.