- LOS ANGELES
The pairing of a first-time documentary director with a first-time feature producer--who hadn’t planned on assuming that role--has yielded a breakthrough piece of work chronicling a story far greater than originally envisioned, and along the way earning plaudits which include a Best Documentary Feature Oscar nomination, a DGA Award nom, a 2017 Sundance Film Festival Orwell Award, two Cinema Eye Honors, a Critics’ Choice Award for Best Sports Documentary, and a BAFTA Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
That documentary is Icarus (Netflix) and the director and producer, respectively, are Bryan Fogel and Dan Cogan.
An entertainment industry veteran active in live theater and feature filmmaking, Fogel initially intended with his first documentary to delve into sports doping and how star athletes--such as champion cyclist Lance Armstrong--are able to avoid detection, passing assorted drug screening tests. Icarus follows Fogel as he takes performance-enhancing drugs to see if they will strengthen his endurance as an amateur bike rider. He then seeks out help on how to test clean, leading him to Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, a maverick Russian scientist who’s expert at beating the system. Over a period of months, the two form a bond as shocking allegations emerge placing Rodchenkov at the center of Russia’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program. For Fogel, the first-hand guinea pig premise of his documentary gives way to a much bigger story, arguably the biggest international sports scandal in history which he and Rodchenkov are positioned to expose to the world at large. Rodchenkov eventually flees to the U.S., leaving his family behind and in fear for his life. The suspicious death of a colleague back in Russia underscores that Rodchenkov is in mortal danger.
The jeopardy that Rodchenkov is in served as a catalyst for the involvement of Cogan in a way he had no way of foreseeing. Cogan is the executive director and co-founder of Impact Partners, a fund and advisory service for investors and philanthropists who seek to promote social change through documentaries. “We’ve done 90 films over the past 11 years--and up until this (Icarus) you won’t see my name as a producer on any of them,” related Cogan. “We oversee. I don’t produce. However, when Grigory called and needed to flee from danger, I had to find a criminal attorney, an immigration attorney, negotiate with the (U.S.) Department of Justice so that he would be viewed as a whistleblower, not a target. We were going past boundaries of the traditional documentary film, and in trying to protect Grigory I had become a producer, working to protect him and working with the production and postproduction teams. What did we know going into this about how to keep someone like Grigory safe? How do we best hide him secretly in the U.S.? We had to invent the wheel as we were making this film, which in the end made being able to get this story out there all the more fulfilling.”
Fogel too found his role shift on several fronts. For one, he was no longer the film’s protagonist. Rodchenkov succeeded him in that capacity. Furthermore, Fogel takes on a new role--he is no longer just a filmmaker but a guardian for and protector of Rodchenkov. “Nobody else had the info, the evidence he had. We had to preserve this story--and preserve him,” said Fogel. “Every day we were navigating the process, protecting Grigory so we could continue our journey to tell his story.”
Fogel noted that all kinds of precautions were taken, like moving production offices four times and setting up Rodchenkov in a safe house. “There was zero interest from global sporting bodies and Russia for this story to come out. Everyone would try to discredit Grigory--and we were afraid there would be efforts to permanently silence him.”
In terms of the biggest creative challenge that Icarus posed to him, Cogan observed, “The situation on the ground had changed. We had to reconceive the story and its structure. Our crew--writers, lead editor, cinematographer, composer--all helped us pivot from one film to another. You had to go from what in your head you thought you were doing to what you should be doing instead.”
Getting this story out to as large an audience as possible became paramount--not just for exposing the scandal but also because the more attention Rodchenkov gets, “the safer he will be,” said Cogan.
And integral in gaining widespread exposure has been Netflix. “The marketing and support they gave this film has been awesome,” affirmed Fogel. “I’m in love with that company.”
Netflix has been an invaluable platform, literally, for documentary filmmakers, bringing a reach of 190 countries spanning 120 million homes and 600 million people.
But Netflix’s contributions don’t stop there, noted Fogel who hearkened back to when the company acquired Icarus at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. “At that time, we all felt the film could be better. We all wanted to continue working on the film coming into Sundance,” recalled Fogel. “We delivered out Sundance cut at 8 am on the day we were premiering at 11 in the morning. As proud as I was of that Sundance cut, creatively I felt the film could be made stronger, further polished and crafted. Netflix gave me the creative runway to do that. They allowed me five months after Sundance to continue to craft and work on the film.”
It’s that crafting which helped Fogel make what he hopes plays like “a narrative feature thriller which so happened to be a documentary.”
Rodchenkov’s story as told in Icarus played a major role in the International Olympic Committee’s original decision, announced in December 2017, to ban Russia from participating in the 2018 Winter Games. In the ensuing weeks, though, said Cogan, “a lot of loopholes were found for that ban, limiting the consequences of what Russia had done.”
Thus many Russians were allowed to compete in the ongoing Winter Games in South Korea. “If it had been Guatemala, Nigeria, Somalia, any smaller country, there would have been no problem with outright banning. But with Russia, the money involved, there’s a different level of accountability,” said Fogel.
So even though Icarus uncovered what Fogel described as “a shocking level of fraud and conspiracy” going up to the highest level of the Russian government, viewers aren’t hearing that story in NBC’s coverage of the Games. Fogel said there’s “a level of complicity” by international sporting bodies, even NBC which paid megabucks for the rights to the Olympics and doesn’t want to hurt viewership numbers for the Games.
The overseeing bodies entrusted with protecting clean athletes and the values of the Games have abdicated those responsibilities, camouflaged said Fogel by “the illusion of love and brotherhood” that the Olympics are supposed to be about. Fogel cited George Orwell’s observation that “sport is war without the weapons.” And for an event such as the Olympics, sport, noted the documentarian, is “a geopolitical weapon showing the power and strength of that country,” a concept which Russian President Vladimir Putin has embraced as his approval rating in Russia “skyrockets” with each Olympic victory.
“That’s why Grigory coming forward with these truths is so important,” affirmed Fogel, adding that the Oscar nomination is a recognition of that importance. “It’s a humbling, incredible honor for any filmmaker, and I’m very grateful to all those who helped us get this story told.”
Cogan shared that a prime lesson learned from the experience of making Icarus was “the most important trait you can have as a storyteller is persistence. That may be a cliche but it’s true. Stick with it even when it gets incredibly difficult, even with no idea as to how it’s going to end up. You need to have a devotion to story and whatever you have to do to tell it.”