Oscar-winner Bryan Fogel on how Icarus was pieced together

March 5, 2018 Danny Munso

Here’s an excerpt from Backstory Issue 31 for your reading pleasure:

In his efforts to find a doctor who would help him dope, filmmaker Bryan Fogel was put in touch with Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian scientist we would soon learn was integral to his country’s doping efforts in multiple Olympic Games. Rodchenkov is boisterous, ebullient and bounces in and out of rooms with a huge smile on his face, quite counter to the iconic image of the stoic, secretive Russian. He agrees to help Fogel beat the system but also make sure he does it safely, and during the process, the two actually form a friendship. Then all hell breaks loose: The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)—and later, the International Olympic Committee—launches an investigation into what the Russians had been up to, and it turns out Rodchenkov is at the center of the storm. Later, two of Rodchenkov’s colleagues with major knowledge of the doping system suffer mysterious heart attacks. Fearing for his life, Rodchenkov flees to the United States to stay with his new American friend. Fogel’s job from this point was less about being a director than it was about simply keeping Rodchenkov safe. “For about eight months, the filmmaking part of things went out the window and it was purely a matter of having cameras there every day and having someone there to shoot,” he says. Usually, documentaries are assembled on the fly so directors can see where they need to fill in the gaps of their stories. Fogel wasn’t able to do that here. “The time to craft the narrative of the film was not there. We were in daily crisis management. There was no time to structure the film because myself and my time was spent navigating a life-or-death situation. We were trying to keep Grigory alive.”

Fogel and producing partner Dan Cogen, along with Cogen’s company Impact Partners, convinced Rodchenkov to tell his story to the New York Times. Rodchenkov went from protecting himself to becoming a true whistleblower, delivering details and timelines on how Russia often cheated to get to the top of sporting events. There is a striking moment late in the film when Rodchenkov’s wife, who remained in Russia, asks him over the phone what he hopes to achieve by doing all this. But the question is never really answered because after the Times report was released, Rodchenkov was placed into protective custody by the United States. Fogel can get in touch with him for emergencies via a lawyer, but the two friends no longer have regular contact. Why does Fogel think Rodchenkov talked to begin with? “I think there’s a couple truly substantive reasons,” he says. “The first is that had he stayed in Russia, he’d be dead—100 percent. The other two guys that had knowledge of the system and had evidence, they died under mysterious circumstances within two weeks of each other. Had he come to the U.S. and just sat quietly and not gone public, it would probably be very hard for him to have remained alive as well. The decision, of course, is the more public we could bring him, the better chances he would have of survival.” But Fogel believes that fear for his own life was not the motivating factor for Rodchenkov. “The main reason was he had a true desire to become a whistleblower. He had prepared for it in many ways for years. When you look at the evidence he was compiling and the photos he was taking and all these documents he was supposed to destroy and yet he was hiding them—he was in the back of his mind preparing for that day. A lot of it had to do with he had reached a point of no return with the Ministry [of Defense]. He was deeply, deeply frustrated. His job went from being a scientist to being a technician. It had reached its logical conclusion. He had guilt over the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. He viewed that the system had to stop and the only way he had a chance to survive it was to come forward with this information.”

To read the complete article in Issue 31 of Backstory, click HERE to subscribe.

Backstory Issue 31 includes in-depth looks at Oscar-winning films The Shape of Water, Coco and Get Out plus fellow nominees Lady Bird, Mudbound, Molly’s Game, The Big Sick, and more! For more info, check out the Table of Contents.