Bryan Fogel had expected to be tested like he never had been before in making “Icarus,” volunteering his body for unimaginable consequences to understand how doping worked and could go untested by so many as it ravaged his favorite sport of cycling. But in preparing for the grueling physical toll of training for the Haute Route, an amateur event too crazy for professionals to put themselves through (likened to “the hardest seven days of the Tour De France back-to-back”) and injecting himself with God knows what as part of his personal experiment, it was the mental fortitude that he picked up from the sport, an ability to know when to keep his head down that got him through the production of a film he could never see coming.
“I’m like a guy who gets an idea in his mind and I’ll keep going,” says Fogel, making his first documentary after previously adapting his stage hit “Jewtopia” for the screen in 2012. “It took me over a year just to get the first chunk of money to go make this. My other movie, it took me five years to get the money. So I don’t know when to say stop and I think it was the same thing [where] I’m flying down mountains, going 70 miles an hour on the Alps risking my life, in essence to make the film, and when all of a sudden this other thing happens [beyond the doping], it’s like, ‘I guess I’m along for the ride.’”
No matter what you may have already heard about “Icarus,” a film that literally caused an international incident well before its celebrated premiere at Sundance this year and couldn’t possibly be more timely, there’s little that could prepare you for the ride it has in store. While Fogel had initially envisioned a more sober-minded version of a Morgan Spurlock-esque exposé, enlisting the help of an anti-doping expert to evade authorities as he competed in cycling competitions and demonstrate a porous system, everything changed when he was placed himself in the care of Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the gregarious (and oft-shirtless) director of the Olympic lab in Moscow. Quite the character on his own, Dr. Rodchenkov became a person of interest in more ways than one in November of 2015 when his lab was targeted by the World Anti-Doping Agency as supplying undetectable steroids to generations of Russian athletes, leading to a ban from international competition for the country.
The fallout requires Fogel to get far more involved in the story unfolding than he could anticipate, but in bringing the camera with him, “Icarus” fully immerses an audience in a level of international intrigue typically reserved for spy films. Told with urgency and considerable rigor, the film isn’t only riveting as a globe-trotting adventure, but in how it sheds light on cultural attitudes in Russia that have shaped world affairs well beyond athletic competitions. Shortly before the film debuts on Netflix, the filmmaker spoke about how he quickly had to shift gears from the story he set out to tell to something beyond his wildest dreams, doing justice stylistically to the compelling tale, and fine-tuning the film even after it premiered at Sundance.
Did you have any inkling what you were getting into with this?
When I started on this thing four years ago, how could I have ever imagined that I would essentially end up helping to expose the biggest scandal in sport history, a scandal so big it basically changes 40 years of sporting history? And then how could I even imagine that we’d be in this current political climate where basically the U.S. and Russia are back in what’s basically a Cold War and that Russia is in our news 24/7? The timing of these events happening and then as this is revealed to [then] have this other shoe drop with the election hacking is mindblowing. It certainly has been a long, strange trip.
Logistically, what’s it like getting crew for this? First, if you’re facilitating interviews for yourself, but then for confidentiality reasons.
Every phase of this was different. When I started out making the movie, I essentially had this first round of investment that I thought would get me through the first year — through the first race clean and get me all the way up through doping until the second race. From this [initial investment], I went and bought C300s and a Vixia [camera] and literally just started picking up the camera and shooting. So much of this footage never makes it into the film, but you see a little bit of it in the beginning [where I] was essentially shooting myself, documenting my journey.
I brought on Jake Swankto, a DP out of New York, and said, “Hey, I’m going to go to Colorado and I’m going to train for two months to get ready for this race in Europe,” and I’m shooting with this coach in Boulder and with trainers, getting aligned on the bike and getting blood work done and VO2 max tests, [with] all this insanity leading up to this race to measure how I’m going to do this first year next to the second year. At the same time, I’m interviewing guys like Victor Conte and Don Catlin and this scientist and that scientist and all these different sports writers. I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know what I was doing. [But I thought] hey, I’m just going to shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot and you know, hopefully what I have in my mind I’ll be able to put together in the construct of the film that will be riveting, and as you see in the film, the story just keeps getting crazier and crazier.
Was it easy to pivot when you realized the gravity of the situation you found yourself in?
The pivot was immediate, but also a very slow process because I had [spent] two years essentially making this other movie. I was essentially just a documentary filmmaker exploring anti-doping and whether the system actually worked, and aside from like Don Catlin, all the other people that I interviewed, not to a single one of them did I ever say I was working with Grigory. That was my secret. I had interviewed [International Olympic Committee member] Dick Pound and [Anti-Doping Investigator] Richard McLaren about the Russia investigation. I never told them I was working with Grigory. So I was doing my due diligence and there were many other people I spoke to who aren’t in the film basically that I said, “Hey, there is this ongoing investigation. I don’t know where it’s going to lead, but I’d be a fool if I wasn’t making sure if this goes somewhere, to be ready for that.” But I had no idea how far it was going to go. And as [Grigory] gets here [to the U.S.] in November and these allegations [come out], I realized that essentially the movie that I thought I was going to make is not that movie. That movie is only going to be the journey of how we get to this second movie.
That was a slow process for me to go, “Okay, that doesn’t matter. That doesn’t matter.” Oh that interview that I love? I shot an interview with Alex Gibney, that doesn’t matter. The interview with Tyler Hamilton, that doesn’t matter. The interview with the editor of Sports Illustrated, that doesn’t matter. Victor Conte, that doesn’t matter. All these drug tests and blood tests that I took – none of that matters. It was thrilling to be able to throw that all away and leave that basically sitting on drives and realize that I basically had to film and create a new movie at that point.
The story is compelling enough on its own, but it’s also told in a particularly compelling way. How did you find the style for this?
When I bring [Grigory] into protective custody in July 2016, that’s the moment really where creatively the film is able to be set free because everything up to that July moment was crisis management. We’re filming the WADA meeting, we’re filming the fallout. Basically that year [Grigory was in custody, we were thinking] how we were going to craft this story and we finished the movie about June 1st [of this year]. Even though it had been seen at Sundance, this is an evolved version of that film and I had an amazing team around me. Filmmaking, and I think being a good director, is basically being the master of nothing and the master of everything at the same time, meaning you don’t have the individual skills to necessarily fulfill your vision, but you have an idea and you surround yourself with incredibly talented people and give them ideas and let them go to work.
I had a couple amazing editors that were going through this footage night and day and they would pull stuff and then I would see it and go, “Oh my God, that’s great” and “That’s great.” And Mark Monroe and Jon Bertain, my lead editor, helped me essentially write and script this project because regardless of [it being a] documentary, there is a script because you shape that story — what was going to be there, what was not going to be there and how we were going to move these parts. Then I started watching all these thrillers that I love – the Paul Greengrass “Bourne” films and “Enemy of the State” and “Argo” because I felt that the film was a thriller. It was all real, but it was a thriller and the film should feel like you’re on the edge of your seat. Then when I started thinking about music, I heard Oliver Stone was doing a movie on [Edward] Snowden and I looked up who did the music because I’m imagining to myself anybody who had done the music for Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” had to be great. I saw it’s this guy Adam Peters and I contact his agent. I say, “Hey, this is crazy” and they send me basically the music from “Snowden” and I go, “Oh my God, this is the guy. We have to get him.”
We latched onto “1984” [as a parallel to the story being told in the film] because Grigory was always quoting “1984.” One of my editors Kevin Klauber starts reading “1984” and he comes back to me and Jon and goes, “Have you guys read ‘1984’ recently?” And [we] start reading “1984” again and it’s like, “Holy shit, no wonder this guy is quoting [it] — Grigory is Winston.” [laughs] This entire story is “1984” – fake news, alternative facts, basically totalitarian governments, leaders who never cop up to the truth, saying one thing and doing another thing, double think. Everything in Grigory’s existence was double think. He’s developing the testing to catch athletes at the same time he’s developing the ways for the Russian athletes to get around it. All of a sudden, it’s clicking to us why this is Grigori’s favorite book, so we start building this “1984” theme and Kevin Klauber latches onto this and we decide eventually that we’re going to bring Grigori into the studio and have him read all these passages from “1984,” several days before he heads into protective custody. Then we have all these passages from “1984” and we were able to take that and use this to craft the narrative.
The graphics, like that Sochi Lab sequence, took seven, eight months to build. We didn’t have the actual lab, so [it was like] how do we recreate the lab? I had this idea of an “Ocean’s 11”-like “break into the bank vault” scheme, and we found this company in New York, the Office of Design and Development (ODD) and they were passionate about it. That CGI sequence was six months of building, rendering and creating the bottles and then making sure it was accurate and having Grigory go, “Yeah, that’s exactly how it was.” That was a slow, slow process and I was blessed with this amazing amount of time and the resources to keep building on the vision. I was up at Skywalker for three weeks to do my sound mix because I wanted it to feel like you’re there and it’s like a big narrative thriller. So it was a lot, but I had an amazing team behind me to craft this into what it became.
It’s interesting to hear you were working up until June on the film – did either events that have happened after with the fallout from the presidential election or the reaction from Sundance shape what you may have wanted to ultimately include?
Not really. There were discussions [of] do we bring the election hacking into the film towards the end because January 6th or 7th, the FBI, CIA and NSA released that declassified report [where] they listed seven reasons as to why our election was hacked, and reason number three was they believed it was revenge of Putin [because of] the Russian doping scandal and the leaking of the Panama Papers, which he both attributed to American media. Then of course, the United States has this ongoing investigation – [with] the Department of Justice and the FBI – into the Russian doping scandal. But to put that in the film felt that it put a slant on the film. We wanted the viewer to simply watch the film for the facts, not going into other realms of what ifs or the election or the hacking and just simply present this is the story as we know it.
Out of Sundance, it was really about shaping and fine-tuning and really being able to keep building these elements that I really didn’t have the time to complete, like the graphics, the opening titles and the end titles and keep working on the sound design and the music and then shortening the front half of the film to chip away at all these things that were no longer important. Even though we had these amazing reactions. [I still thought] there’s still work to be done because I wanted to keep whittling away the original movie to make room for the other movie, which is the movie that transpired as we went on this journey exposing this spectacular scandal and to more fully live through that emotional journey of what that was – really from November 9th [on].