Nanette Burstein has encountered her fair share of big personalities over the years. For “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” she and Brett Morgen resorted to animation to convey the larger-than-life exploits of the legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans, and followed it with “American Teen” where she ably dealt with the whims of hormonal high schoolers, and “The Price of Gold,” in which the long-vilified Tonya Harding could once again be seen as human. However, John McAfee was another matter entirely.
“[He was] the biggest [personality] and the weirdest one because I developed a cyber-relationship with this person as opposed to a real life one as I’ve done in the past,” Burstein said shortly after the premiere of “Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee. “So it was very unusual and different – and scarier.”
Ironically, McAfee will forever be synonymous with security, having pioneered anti-virus software for computers during the 1990s, but as he tells an officer on police surveillance video at the start of “Gringo,” you’re more likely to know him these days for escaping Belize authorities who wanted him for questioning in connection to the murder of his neighbor Greg Faull, among other suspicious activity. However, rather than hide as he more or less did after amassing his fortune – first setting up a holistic yoga retreat in Colorado, then decamping for San Pedro in Belize where his dollar went far further in essentially running the place – McAfee has been more public than ever this past year, assuming the CEO job at the tech firm MGT Capital and giving a run at Gary Johnson for the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidacy.
While McAfee’s resurfacing has been well-documented, Burstein’s explosive “Gringo” still finds plenty that hadn’t yet been uncovered by going to Belize, with the director meeting with the gangsters that became McAfee’s bodyguards, the teenage girlfriends he asked to perform deviant sexual acts and Allison Adonizio, the microbiologist he hired to pursue research to end resistance to antibiotics. Just out of the reach of the FBI’s jurisdiction in Central America, the film illustrates how McAfee created his own island fiefdom where the rules were vague to everyone but himself, setting his own 8 pm curfew for the town and using the after hours for nefarious activity, said to include alleged rape and conspiracy to multiple murders. As Burstein finds, this behavior was hardly limited to Belize as McAfee encouraged an “odd office culture” back in Silicon Valley, where employees indulged in “sex competitions,” and his paranoia about personal safety only grew more feverish.
Making the sordid tale that much stranger, Burstein was able to communicate with McAfee sporadically throughout the film’s production at his insistence – although he declined to speak with the director on camera or even over the phone after their initial contact, he would toy with her with e-mails, continuing a long history of attempted media manipulation and inadvertently supplying the film with its most damning imagery of how McAfee would like to see himself as an omnipresent god. As a result, “Gringo” is both an extraordinary look at abuse of power and privilege while being a completely unbelievable thrill ride. The Showtime Documentary film will premiere on the network this weekend after dropping jaws in Toronto, Burstein spoke about getting involved in her craziest production to date.
How did you get interested in John McAfee?
I have been interested in people that have money, power and fame and how they are judged in the spotlight, for better or for worse – with the Robert Evans film, which was all about his reputation, or Tonya Harding, who lost everything [though] she never went to jail, and now this. John was someone who I had started reading about in 2012 when he was fleeing Guatemala, and like any filmmaker, you read an article and you’re like, is there a film there? I was approached by Spike Television to do a documentary about two years ago, but [the idea] was more, is John really paranoid or are people really after him from Belize? And I didn’t get that.
Jeff Wise, who’s a reporter, had done a lot of reporting on John McAfee and certain people had reached out to him online like [McAfee’s driver] Tom Mangar and [his security guard] Eddie McKoy and said, “We have more to tell you.” So he interviewed some people and came back [from Belize] with some startling stuff about the David Middleton murder. Showtime wanted to get involved and they asked me if I was interested, so then I went to Belize and found out a whole bunch of shit I didn’t expect to find out. [laughs] And then I was in it.
It’s recounted to some degree in the film, but how did you actually get in touch with John?
From the beginning, perhaps naively, we thought that John would sit down and do an interview with us. He had reached out to Jeff originally and said, “I know you’re doing this” and jokingly said, “Yes, I’ll do an interview with you if you give me 50% of the film and I’ll say I did anything – I’ll say I killed Jimmy Hoffa!” Then when I reached out to John, he was very wary. He was like, “Don’t contact me,” but then would keep e-mailing me. I let it go for a while and I met Rebecca Costa, a good friend of his who is in the film talking about the Silicon Valley era, and she says, “I need to set you up with John. I’m going to call him and tell him you’re great.” He called me and we started talking, but he wouldn’t sit down for an interview. He kept saying he might, but at a certain point, I realized he’s not going to, and [again] he kept e-mailing me, so I just decided well, he’s not going to sit down [for an interview], so I’m going to include these [e-mails] in the film as representation of him. [I also realized] I have to put myself in the film because he’s not directly in it. That’s not something I’ve ever done before – and never want to do it again, either. But I had no choice creatively.
You show demonstrate quite effectively how he’s used the media to his benefit, particularly with the Michelangelo computer virus, where he stoked fears of its effects to play up fears to sell his anti-virus software. Was it in the back of your mind that he could see this film as an opportunity?
Absolutely. You couldn’t make this film if he wasn’t always in the media without his participation. There’s so much coverage of him and Jeff had these audio interviews [where] you could get his voice and his character in the film that way. Part of what he’s always done is to have a love/hate relationship with the media — he both wants them, but then to quote him, tries to “fuck with them,” creating hoaxes and he likes this idea that he’s never quite telling the truth. Like there’s this whole thing of him saying he lost 90% of his wealth and then saying, “Oh, I made all of that up. I didn’t lose my money. But I didn’t want to get sued.” It’s like, did he or didn’t he lose his money? Who knows? And you’ll never get to the bottom of it.
Even the e-mails in the film, he says “I love messing with the media. That’s what I do. You are my magnum opus.” [Now] he says he never e-mailed me and that it was his acolytes – it was always someone who was with him, so that it had the same IP address — he’s come out with that like a week ago after he read the description of the Showtime synopsis. His e-mail communication made the film difficult at times because you never know what personality you were going to get. Sometimes [the e-mails] would be scary, sometimes they would be flirty, and sometimes they would be just nonsensical.
There’s that chilling e-mail where he sends you photos of when you’re filming in Belize. What did you think when you got that?
He got three shots from his friends. It wasn’t surveillance. There was a third picture actually [where] we were posing for a photo. We didn’t care.
Was it easy to find the structure of this film?
In the end, it was, only because his story — and this was unexpected for me – became a real metaphor for “Heart of Darkness.” He lived on a river — he even makes a joke about it to the news — and he did get darker and darker and go down this path of thinking, “Well, I can do this…” and “Now, I’ve gotten away with that, so I can do this…”, just pushing the envelope. I did not know before I spent time [in Belize], so I used the river visually to create this metaphor and realized that was the structure of the film.
In general, what was going to Belize like? This seems like a different kind of investigation for you.
It is. Tonya Harding’s story and even Robert Evans’ story did delve into crime to an extent – Bob with “The Cotton Club” murders, although it’s only one part of the film, and Tonya’s whole story, obviously, though it’s more than that. This was going along that path, but much further and I wound up spending three months [in Belize]. I went from November through January, came home for the holidays and would go back. Each time, I would meet more people and they would introduce me to more people.
Some people were very afraid to talk, particularly Greg Faull’s friends, the ex-pats. They were too scared. But I think a lot of the locals felt quite burned. When Greg Faull was killed and John went on the run, the cops went to the house and they arrested who was in the house, which was Cash. There were illegal weapons in there and he went to jail for months, so I don’t think he felt any loyalty in the end. Eddie McKoy says he’s always worried that John wants to assassinate him, so some of these people had a willingness to talk for their own personal motivations.
Was this new territory for you legally since this was an active investigation you were looking into?
There was a lot of very serious legal issues that went into how the film was edited and what could be included. I’ve never dealt with that before to that extent, because usually you have the main subject involved, so it’s different because they signed a release. Legally, it’s safer, but there was a lot of flexibility [here] because he’s such a public figure and he decided to run for president, which changes the standard for defamation.
Was there something that changed the direction of the story for you?
Definitely. The Greg Faull murder, I didn’t know I would find out what I found out, and the girlfriends [of John McAfee], that shocked me. And Allison [Adonizio]’s story, I contacted her just because she worked with him when I first started in October and it wasn’t until July that she sat down for an interview. There were many phone calls, many meetings…and once I learned what happened, I didn’t want to push her too much because it’s a big deal to decide to do this. But in the end, she wanted to do it because she felt like if I can protect one other person from this happening to — and clearly he’s involved in the same thing [now], running for president and [being the] CEO of a major corporation [where] there’s these young people around him and he’s promising them that same dream — then maybe something positive will have come out of this horrible experience.