Perhaps no modern sports figure has gone from the heights of praise to the depths of public revulsion as spectacularly as Lance Armstrong, the disgraced former cycling champion who beat cancer, won several consecutive Tours de France, but then watched his legend implode after admitting to doping over the course of many years.
Armstrong’s unlikely rise and even more drastic fall is being retold by filmmaker Marina Zenovich as part of the acclaimed ESPN series, “30 for 30.” In the documentary’s first minute alone, Armstrong, now 48 and with graying hair, tells Zenovich of being shouted at by a passersby: “Hey, Lance, fuck you!” Zenovich then bounces back to his Texas origins and follows the athlete’s arc from humble beginnings, athletic glory and on to his pariah status.
Zenovich’s two-part, four-hour documentary, “Lance,” is premiering this week after various festival screenings this winter, including at Sundance. Part 1 is now available on demand, and Part 2 will air Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.
Zenovich spoke with me Thursday via telephone about the documentary. Our conversation has been edited and condensed to fit this column:
How did you get involved with this project?
I made [another “30 for 30”] film for ESPN in 2016 called “Fantastic Lies” about the Duke lacrosse scandal. They asked if I would be interested in making a film about Lance.
I was like “why?” There had [already] been two other documentaries and a lot of books. They said. . .maybe there is something there, maybe he is ready to talk.
I went to Austin and met him [when] the final lawsuit was about to go to trial. But we couldn’t film in the courtroom. And then he ended up settling.
I think if I started the film today, it would be different in the sense that he would be at a different place in his life.
How long did the filmmaking take?
Two years basically. These things take a chunk out of you.
Did Armstrong say up front that any subjects would be off-limits?
Not at all. I was told he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to do it or not. But I think that Lance is the kind of guy who when he decides he’s going to do something, like he did with [being interviewed by] Oprah, he just decides.
What I appreciated was he was game to let me ask him different questions. For me to have a living, breathing, energetic, smart, funny person who was willing to go there, it was gold to me.
Did you have any preconceived notions about Lance Armstrong? If so, what were they, and did they change over the time you spent filming him?
[“The Armstrong Lie” director] Alex Gibney is a friend. He made a film about Lance during his comeback. I talked to Alex about [Armstrong] it as it wasn’t really my world.
Lance’s mother, Linda Armstrong Kelly, is a fascinating part of this documentary, especially considering she had her son when she was only a teenager herself, so they have always been relatively close in age. Was she at all hesitant to speak on camera?
I think she had done a lot of interviews through the years but hadn’t done any after the “fallout.” She was willing, but I think she was protective.
My husband and I were actually just talking about that: how hard it must be for a mom to make peace with all that stuff.
And Lance’s own son, Luke Armstrong, is an athlete in his own right, too. He features prominently, especially in Part 2. What was he like to speak with?
Luke is a wonderful kid who was incredibly solid and honest, and I was really happy that he had a lot of great stuff to say. It was really important to me to get [VIDEO] of Lance’s first wife [Kristin Richard] talking about dropping Luke off at [college, taking] a step into manhood.
Lance Armstrong unquestionably did great work on cancer awareness after his own health scare. But then his star flamed out after admitting to cheating on all of those races. How can people square those two circles as they watch your film? Do you feel one set of actions “cancels out” the other?
I think it takes a certain level of sophistication to understand that you can be both things at once. People are always trying to make it black and white, and it’s not — it’s gray. That’s what I was trying to show.
I think Lance is showing himself in a way that he hasn’t before. And that’s a combination of the documentary form and a filmmaker who is willing to take him there. That in itself is why we watch documentaries.
But a lot of people have very strong feelings about the lying, the bullying, and for good reason. I don’t know how people are going to react to Part 2. People see Part 1 and think I’m too soft on him, but how could you not tell the whole story? You have to go back in time to put it all in context.
And as hard as it may be for Lance to see that, I think it helps other people to see the whole story, warts and all, and him trying to come to terms with it.
Has Lance seen the film, and if so, what was his reaction?
I flew to Austin before Sundance, and we showed it to him in a theater in two parts.
I think he liked the first part. I think the second part was harder for him. It opens up a lot of old wounds.
There’s a lot of strong feelings about him, and with good reason. I get that. But I can imagine how hard it is for him to have all this stuff come up. I think it’s hard for everyone in the story. Some people don’t feel that he’s apologized to them, hasn’t made amends, so they’re still angry and talking about it. Other people he has made amends with.
It’s been interesting to see the different reactions.
What has life been like for you as a documentary filmmaker during quarantine? Are you prepping anything else?
I’ve been making a film about former [California] governor Jerry Brown for several months. We were able to get it to a rough cut. We had some interviews scheduled, but we canceled them. We have a few more days of filming to go.
I think what everyone in the documentary community has figured out is you can shift how things are done. So on different projects, we’re starting with archival [research] first and then shooting later.
What’s upsetting is seeing places like the Tribeca Film Institute shutting down and not knowing who’s going to stay open and what’s going to happen.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about your documentary?
I loved interviewing him; I never wanted it to end. I tried to find ways to do more.
The first time I interviewed Lance, he did an exercise beforehand. And then [director of photography Nick Higgins] told me he made this film about ballerinas and found that if they exercised first, they would give a better interview. So we started that with Lance: “Why don’t you get your workout in first?” Because after he got that out of his system, he would be more open and settled.
One of the interviews was the day he ran the Austin Marathon. He was sore, but there’s a stillness to someone when they’ve exerted themselves so much.