It would be easy to compare Alex Gibney’s new HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley with the recent films about the failed Fyre Festival. All involve a certain glee that comes with watching the wealthy and powerful lie and get their comeuppance. But the lie Elizabeth Holmes pulled with her company Theranos makes the Fyre Festival look like amateur hour.
Holmes, who modeled herself after Steve Jobs, going so far as to wear a black turtleneck daily, set out to revolutionize blood tests. But her health care startup famously ended up being a multibillion-dollar fraud.
The new film about Holmes and Theranos, which airs on HBO starting Monday, March 18, had its San Francisco premiere last Monday.
After the screening, Ina Fried of Axios led a discussion with the documentary’s director Alex Gibney, producer Jesse Deeter, Theranos whistleblower Tyler Shultz and Holmes’ adviser at Stanford University, Phyllis Gardner. Gibney, who also made Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side and Going Clear, posits that a belief in bettering the world drove Holmes to stop at nothing to see her vision realized.
Below are some highlights from the Q&A. And for more thoughts on The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, check out our review.
Director Alex Gibney on why the Theranos story strikes a nerve
“It’s a story about somebody who motivated so many people about a sense of mission and idealism and hope. And also hope in the sense that here was a young woman entrepreneur in male-dominated Silicon Valley who is going to make a success of herself — and that represented so much for so many people — but who turned out to be a fraud. And that was terribly upsetting to people.”
Phyllis Gardner on hearing Holmes’ idea for blood testing
“I spent years very upset about Elizabeth. She came to me when she was 19 and she did not have a realistic idea and she did not want to listen. And that’s just not the way it is. It’s one thing to fail if you’re in a software or hardware business. But in medicine: No! You cannot do that.”
Gibney compares Holmes with Steve Jobs
“What she shared with Steve Jobs was an ability to be an incredible storyteller. Steve Jobs was a magnificent storyteller. Whether or not he was an inventor is the matter of some dispute. But he was a magnificent storyteller. And so was Elizabeth Holmes, I would argue.
“What Elizabeth didn’t take from the Steve Jobs lesson … was Apple 2.0 (the iPhone version of Apple) — an Apple in which Steve Jobs had learned some very powerful lessons of failure. Failure at Next, the failure at the first go-round with Apple. And he surrounded himself with some very powerful and capable people: Jon Rubinstein, Avie Tevanian, Jony Ive and people who were willing to give him bad news — and he was willing to hear it. So that’s not something she absorbed at all.”
Gardner talks Holmes’ impact on future female entrepreneurs
“I think it’s been devastating for women. But I believe there are good women and smart women and women who can do this. So I still stand behind women.”
Producer Jesse Deeter on women’s reaction to the film being made
“I had multiple women who were former employees who said we won’t talk to you because what you’re doing with this reporting is letting down the cause of women. And I was like, I’m a woman! You can’t do that. You can’t do bullshit work. You can’t lie, cheat and steal because you’re a woman. That’s not an excuse … We have to be held to the same standards.”
Gibney on how Holmes compares with Scientology
“In terms of Scientology — the subtitle of the film Going Clear is “The Prison of Belief.” I think Elizabeth was very much a prisoner of belief. That’s one of the things that led her to disregard all of the warning signs and all of the criticism. And those who attacked her — she would rather ruthlessly attack back. Indeed, some of the folks who were interested in her story were prisoners of belief.”
Whistleblower Tyler Shultz on being sued by Theranos
“One of the things my mom would always remind me of is, ‘No matter what the outcome is, you’re still young, you’re creative, you’re still healthy, you have a Stanford education. They can’t take any of that away from you. So you will be fine. Always remember that.’ And that got me through everything.”
Gibney on how Holmes compares with Enron
“You think of Enron as scamsters. But particularly Jeff Skilling (who just got out of prison) was somebody who really believed in the mission of Enron and believed in the idea of a pure free-market company that revolutionized energy — so much so that when things start to go wrong for him, instead of admitting it, he kept on doubling down, pretending that the dream was real instead of admitting it wasn’t. He believed the end justified the means, [that] it was OK for them to engage in this massive deceit where they hid all sorts of debt and pretended that it was revenue because they were ultimately going to change the world.
“So this idea that the end justifies the means … When you believe so passionately in a mission like that, it allows you to be far more effective about your deceit because you don’t believe you’re doing anything wrong.”
Deeter on Holmes’ vision for the film
“I thought we were meeting to discuss them allowing us to film an interview. [But] I was being interviewed. She presented it as if we were so lucky to possibly be the team that captures Theranos 2.0, i.e. the same bullshit they’ve been doing before.”
Gibney on getting behind-the-scenes footage
“We found a couple of folks who were willing to leak about a hundred hours of footage from inside the company. [Theranos] were making their own documentary, [like] they analyzed what if there’d been a camera in the garage with Steve Jobs and Woz.”
Gardner on what she’d ask Holmes now, given the chance
“I just pray I get this chance. When she goes to prison: Would she like a black turtleneck accent with her orange jumpsuit?”
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