How Totally Under Control pulled off a secret, explosive COVID-19 documentary
Operation Warp Speed, the codename for the U.S. government's effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine, would have made an apt working title for Totally Under Control. The new documentary, which examines the government's failure to contain the virus in devastating detail, was completed in secret in just five months, with the filmmakers determined to release it ahead of Election Day. As the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading throughout the country in early April, co-director Alex Gibney (Going Clear) was already forming a plan to document the story on film.
"I was motivated because a friend of mine had died from COVID, and another friend was on a ventilator," Gibney explains. "It seemed like the federal government had badly bungled their response. I thought it would be a potent thing to try to do a film investigating that and see if we could release it before the election because it seemed that the election was a kind of existential judgment on the [government's] performance."
Gibney brought co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger on board to help tackle the challenge. With such a sprawling and constantly evolving subject before them, the filmmakers quickly decided to focus on the critical first few months of 2020, so as not to be "chasing every news story," as Gibney puts it.
"It became pretty clear in our early research that we had to look at how prepared this administration was going into this pandemic," says Hillinger. "Being able to focus on those early decisions became really critical because we realized everything that we were experiencing in May, when we started, and through the summer, were direct results of those early decisions that were made."
"This is not something that just happened, that had to be this way," Gibney adds. "We could have contained this. So much of the damage and so many of the deaths could have been prevented."
Totally Under Control compellingly and carefully makes this case, outlining a pileup of failures in the government's response. As the film reveals, bureaucratic red tape hindered efforts to ramp up testing. State governments were forced to compete for limited medical supplies. Donald Trump's administration ignored experts' warnings and preparatory measures, and the president himself downplayed the threat to the public. Whistleblowers, medical experts, and other firsthand witnesses testify onscreen to the sheer malfeasance that occurred, as political concerns repeatedly took precedence over public health.
"The key theme here is science versus politics," says Gibney. "It's so important that a nation doesn't allow its scientific evidence to be undermined by political exigencies. It's a super important lesson for us, for citizens to insist that they get the real dope, and hear it from the mouths of scientists, not from politicians who are trying to twist their words."
The three directors worked efficiently together to complete the film on schedule, dividing their workload while remaining as informed as possible. "I think it enabled us to move really fast," Hillinger says. "We sort of helped each other to retain everything. One person could read an article that just came out and catch the other two up, or one person would have an interview and be like, 'Here's my first pass at questions, what else should I be asking this person?'"
Securing those interviews, however, was an inevitably challenging endeavor. First, the filmmakers had to devise a way to film subjects in the midst of a nationwide quarantine. Cinematographer Ben Bloodwell ultimately came up with an elegant solution, dubbed "the COVID-cam." (The setup, largely consisting of a camera draped in a protective screen, is visible in the film.)
"He put together a camera setup that we could send to subjects, and all they would need to do is just pick it up, put it in their house, and we would completely remotely record the entire interview from a different state," Harutyunyan explains.
Then there was the matter of convincing people to speak on the record. "People who were in the federal government, or had recently left but still wanted a career in politics, it was tremendously scary for them to talk," Hillinger says. "These are people who frequently are off-the-record sources for journalists, but asking them to show their faces in a documentary is different, and using their names is different. I had a lot of off-the-record conversations with these folks, and they knew that the story was important to get out, they just felt like it would be the end of their career."
Harutyunyan spent days trying to persuade one state official to appear on camera. "For hours I would speak to her, I would convince her, she would say, 'Okay, yes, let's do it,' I would schedule the interview, and then she would get cold feet," the filmmaker says. "She was really concerned about her state getting a blow from the president after seeing the film, because the states are still heavily relying on the government for tests, for support, for money for PPE. So she didn't want to harm her people by doing an interview, which was really hard for her to decide."
Hillinger, meanwhile, made repeated overtures to the CDC, to no avail. "Over the summer, I was starting to hear from sources: 'No one's gonna call you back, no one's gonna email you back, because they actually believe their inboxes are being monitored and their phones are being tapped,'" she explains.
Indeed, reports later emerged that Trump officials were interfering with CDC reports in an attempt to control the available information about COVID-19. "The messaging coming out about how to protect yourself, about the virus, about where it was spreading and how it was spreading, that was all being controlled by the White House," Hillinger says. "That was really frustrating to hear, that not only could we not tell the story from the horse's mouth in the film, but the information was also not getting out to the American people."
After a feverish post-production involving four film editors — "It was only with the extraordinary storytelling skill of these editors that we were able to get to where we got," Gibney says — Totally Under Control was finally unveiled to the world, presenting the first rough draft of history for this still-unfolding story. (A concluding title card notes that Trump tested positive for COVID one day after the film was completed.) But as the filmmakers emphasize, citizens will play a major role in writing the next chapter.
"Go vote for who you think is going to be able to best turn things around," Hillinger advises. "And it's not just the president. It's all of your elected officials, and it's also whoever they appoint once they're in office. I think we are capable of helping to push that change."
"This is a very important decision," adds Harutyunyan. "This pandemic has proven that it is crucial who is in charge, that one person can do a lot of damage. We really need to think hard about who we're putting in charge of our lives and livelihood."
Totally Under Control is available to rent on digital platforms and will be available to stream on Hulu Oct. 20.