Any documentary filmmaker would like to delve into the trial between Hulk Hogan and Gawker: a high-profile case filled with sex, betrayal, and outlandish courtroom testimony.
But director Brian Knappenberger also saw something more troubling beneath the surface. The case was also a fight against the freedom of the press. Regardless of what you may think of Gawker’s content, ruling against the site in this case could open the floodgates for silencing other media whenever it runs a negative story on a person with influence.
It was a scary thought to Knappenberger. And then it became a reality.
Currently on Netflix, Knappenberger’s latest documentary, “Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and Trials of a Free Press,” is a fascinating look at the story behind the Hogan win against Gawker for posting a sex tape of the former pro wrestler. The $140.1 million verdict in favor of Hogan led to Gawker closing its doors and its publisher Nick Denton going into personal bankruptcy.
But two months after the verdict, it was revealed that Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel was responsible for financing Hogan’s case against Gawker. It was also revealed that the major motivation for Thiel to do that was less because he was sympathetic to what Hogan was going through and more that he wanted Denton and Gawker to feel his wrath after the site ran a story in 2007 outing him as being gay.
“This notion of a nine-year grudge and this epic tale of revenge was so spectacular,” Knappenberger told Business Insider at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “That’s when I really started work on the movie.”
Knappenberger — who previously made the movies “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” on internet activist Aaron Swartz, and “We Are Legion,” about the hacker group Anonymous — got in touch with Denton and Gawker editor-in-chief (who also posted the Hogan sex tape video) A.J. Daulerio to be in the film as well as Hogan’s lawyer David R. Houston.
They all took some convincing to come on camera and talk for the movie, according to Knappenberger, but at the end of the day they agreed because they all wanted to tell their sides of the story.
“The Gawker guys were angry,” he said. “They wanted to talk, and David Houston wanted to tell his story.”
There was also a time that Knappenberger thought he would get Hogan to participate, but ultimately Hogan declined.
“They didn’t want him to say something that would hurt the settlement,” Knappenberger said of Hogan. “But even if we got him now I would add him in the film.”
In many ways, “Nobody Speak” portrays Hogan in a sympathetic manner, basically as the pawn in Thiel’s mission to destroy Gawker (Knappenberger said he also tried to get Thiel to be in the movie, but Thiel declined Knappenberger’s numerous requests). And the movie shows how other people with money and influence can and do silence the media.
Knappenberger also showcases what happened to the Las Vegas Review-Journal at the end of 2015. The paper’s staff was suddenly told that the paper had been sold, though they were never told who the new publisher was. A group of reporters found that the son-in-law of Las Vegas casino titan Sheldon Adelson was a major player in the purchase of the paper. According to the movie, Adelson had a vendetta with the paper’s columnist John L. Smith, who wrote unflattering things about him in a 2005 book. Smith was even ordered after the paper was bought that he was never to write about Adelson in any of his pieces.
For Knappenberger, there’s no other way to look at it: The suppression of the media by billionaires is happening. But it was the election of Donald Trump as president that influenced the movie the most.
“It went from cautionary to holy f—,” Knappenberger said. “Things that seemed lighter before now seemed serious.”
Knappenberger said the making of “Nobody Speak” was a fast process that constantly changed, but it’s the ending that has become the most nerve-wracking, as he’s gone through numerous versions to paint a most up-to-date picture of Trump’s dislike toward the media.
“What we’ve seen is disturbing,” he said of Trump. “Calling reports scum, calling them vile, slime, it’s just a regular feature in his speeches. The blacklisting of the press… This is a clear intimidation of the press. I think all of that is scary.”
Knappenberger said he doesn’t see the press lying down and playing dead, but he hopes the new administration will be a wake-up call to the media to be on their game.
“The press should be adversarial, should be confrontational, should be questioning those in power, that’s the role of the press,” he said.
And that’s why Knappenberger believes the loss of Gawker is such a huge blow for journalism. As one former Gawker editor says in the movie, “If you’re not pissing off a billionaire, what’s the point?”
“Yeah, they insulted people, but why is there not a place for that in this media environment?” Knappenberger said. “This is free speech. We protect hate speech. We protect a lot that one side or the other doesn’t like. Thiel’s response that Gawker is a ‘singular, sociopathic bully’ is absurd. That is only true if you live in a world without Facebook or Twitter.”
When speaking to Knappenberger before the movie’s world premiere at Sundance, the director wasn’t too nervous about Thiel or Adelson’s representatives showing up with legal papers. “We’re ready for it,” he said (none were ever given). But he added, the bigger issue is getting people to understand that the loss of the free press is “the most important thing facing our country.”
“Lots of other films at Sundance have legitimate causes and important things and I wouldn’t say this is more important than those causes,” he said, “it’s just that you can’t do anything about those causes unless you have this first. Free speech, First Amendment rights. Without that, there’s no democracy.”