Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes shimmying into a room filled with her employees to the tune of “Can’t Touch This” is one of the more memorable, ironic scenes in an upcoming documentary about her now-disgraced startup.
The HBO film, “The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley,” due out March 18, follows the rise and fall of the Silicon Valley-based company that aimed to revolutionize blood testing. (CNN and HBO share parent company WarnerMedia.)
Founded in 2003, it was reportedly worth about $9 billion before a bombshell report revealed it to be a house of cards. The SEC charged the company with “massive fraud” involving more than $700 million and it remains the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by the Department of Justice.
She was celebrated as a female founder success story and often graced the cover of magazines. But the company was notoriously enigmatic about its supposed revolutionary technology and processes.
“The Inventor” is the work of Alex Gibney, the prolific documentary filmmaker behind “Dirty Money,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and “The Armstrong Lie.”
The 2-hour documentary features interviews with former Theranos employees and the journalists who were among the first to cover the startup. Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou, who ultimately brought the company’s truth to light and is the author of the definitive tell-all book about Theranos, “Bad Blood,” is also a central figure.
Given the level of secrecy at Theranos, obtaining footage from inside the company was no small feat. Gibney said his team was “sucking wind” for a long time before ultimately landing 100 hours of recorded video, including promotional videos for Theranos directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris.
“We were able to find a number of people who leaked us footage from inside the company; footage that was owned by Theranos,” Gibney said in an interview with CNN Business at SXSW.
“That was Theranos as Theranos wanted to present itself,” he added. “Kind of like Elizabeth’s version of what it would have been like if you have a camera in the garage with Woz and Steve Jobs. I think at their height of their delusion, they didn’t even really fully appreciate how bad it must have been making them look. But luckily for us, we were able to get our hands on it.”
Getting employees to talk was initially difficult, so his team set out to speak with the journalists who were duped by Holmes, Gibney said.
Holmes declined to participate in the film. But producer Jessie Deeter had a five hour dinner with Holmes in an attempt to convince her.
“She wasn’t giving much up, but what she did convey to Jessie was that she was the victim — not that she’d done anything wrong,” he said.
Gibney, whose body of work has examined deceptive individuals over the years, said he wasn’t surprised.
“I think a lot of these people who over promise and imagine that they can do things well beyond what anybody else has done so far, they are possessed of a certain delusional quality — a certain kind of narcissistic belief in their own powers,” said Gibney. “That’s become, in a way, kind of my stock and trade: to examine those characters, ’cause there’s something glorious about that.”
The documentary includes 3-D visualization of Theranos blood testing machines based on images of the real thing. The cringeworthy renderings show what happened inside, like spillage of blood samples, based on details from former employees.
When asked what was left on the cutting room floor, Gibney said they originally included an anecdote about an entrepreneur who had a very similar idea to Theranos decades ago.
“We stumbled across a story that we had in the film for awhile about a guy named Abrams who had come up with a device called a Dynamizer,” Gibney said. “This was in the 1920s.”
The Dynamizer intended to take a single drop of blood on a piece of cloth and be analyzed for hundreds of diseases.
“But famously, he never allowed anybody to look inside the box and made a fortune until, sadly, somebody died as a result of a misdiagnosis based on his device. And he was shut down. So that was interesting,” Gibney said. “Did Elizabeth go trolling for prior inventors? I don’t know.”
The documentary, which debuted at Sundance Film Festival in January, was screened at SXSW last weekend.