In Oliver Stone’s new film, Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as one of the most polarizing figures of our times, the man responsible for what’s been described as the most far-reaching security breach in U.S. intelligence history. Snowden (whose supporting cast includes Shailene Woodley, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson and Melissa Leo) tells the story of Edward Snowden’s political transformation over a nine year period – from conservative patriot to whistleblower – in a film which raises proactive questions concerning our sacrifice of privacy in the name (and arguably under the pretext) of national security.
That Oliver Stone should take on a film exploring Snowden’s actions and underlying motivations while working as a contractor for the NSA should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the director’s work. From Vietnam to 9-11, Stone has consistently embraced controversial subjects in films which are both intensely personal and universal in their appeal.
Why did you want to make a film about Edward Snowden?
Well frankly at first I didn’t (laughs)… I wanted to stay away from it. This was January 2014; Snowden’s disclosures had only recently taken place. And as a filmmaker I feel very worried about chasing current events. Perceptions of events change. Perspectives change… Getting in the middle of a scandal is sometimes the stupidest thing you can do – six or seven years later, you might be a fool and your movie completely forgotten. So you have to deal cautiously with history. I jumped in on W in 2008 because… Well, I knew that Bush was a goner (laughs)… I was confident on that one. But on everything else I waited. Nixon had died when we did Nixon (1995). The Wall Street crash had happened in 2008 when we did it in 2010 (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), so there was a lot of consensus at that point. But Snowden? I was scared of it. I met him in late January 2014 and went back two more times to talk to him. From the start though I was very impressed with him I have to say. There was no bullshit about the guy. Honesty was the window of his soul. I felt very strongly that he was telling the truth. Still, I went back two more times. By May we made a contract for Anatoly’s book (‘Time of the Octopus,’ by Snowden’s lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena) and (Guardian journalist) Luke Harding’s book (‘The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man.’).
Did Snowden himself have any reservations about making the film?
At the beginning he did. He didn’t know much about the film world. But he realized somewhere along the way, and he said this (via satellite) at the Comic-Con talk in July… He said, movies have a way of just taking over. They subsume your life, even if you don’t cooperate. So better to get it right. I think he also admired my films. But I have to say, you know, we were both doubting how we could pull this off. The other [idea] we had was to make a movie that was not based on a character named ‘Ed Snowden’ – more like the novel that Anatoly Kucherena had written. It was a possibility. But we didn’t go that way. We went with using the real Snowden name, which of course took a lot more work than we thought. The screenplay took another few months and then we went back and forth – he saw two drafts I believe – and he made very good suggestions… That screenplay kept being rewritten and revised all the way through shooting and editing. It was a long process.
What was the impact of the Laura Poitras documentary Citizenfour on your film?
That came out in December of 2014. We were about to shoot in February. We really didn’t overlap. But in some early criticism of the movie it was always, ‘Why do you need to do another film?’
Let’s rephrase the question, then. What can a feature film do that a documentary can’t?
I live inside that little zone of drama. I believe in drama. There’s only so much you can get out of a work of non-fiction. Still, that question comes up on the internet. “Why the hell do I have to see this movie if there’s a great documentary?” Fair enough. But I’ll tell you what you’ll see. You’ll see all the things that you don’t see in the documentary. For starters, Why… Why did he do what he did? What was he like before? What was it like during? How did he do it? The documentary is the first slice, but it doesn’t go into all the areas that I’m interested in.
As you say the film addresses the question: “Why did he do it?” Was that the dramatic core of the story for you?
That’s part of it. You want to know, “How did this happen?” Who is this man? I actually didn’t even know he was in the army until I ready Luke Harding’s book. In making the film, we found out a lot of stuff that we didn’t know and that the news reporters of that time did not know. So it felt like we were pregnant with a mission… We also got into the basis of Ed’s relationship with his girlfriend (played by Shailene Woodley). This is also very important. In the media at the time, if you remember, there was a lot of doubt about Lindsay Mill’s character. That she was “a pole dancer.” A “flighty girlfriend” on Twitter and Facebook for numerous years. The opposite of Ed. Well, that’s true. But we use that story point to go further – the importance of that relationship to Ed. Because without her, I don’t think he would have done what he did.
What was your collaboration with Snowden like as you put the script together?
I kept my critical side with him over that period. We went through drafts of the script. And his input was invaluable. During the course of it he might say something like, “You can’t do this because this is an ongoing case… We don’t want anyone we can recognize, except maybe Lindsay, who doesn’t know anything… But here’s an idea…” He gave us some very good dialogue suggestions, very powerful ones. If you look at the film closely there’s also a lot of technical language and you have to get it right. He really helped with that too.
On most every film you’ve made, I imagine.
Yes, and they’ll start on this too… I have to plead innocence in the spirit of the truth. If I knew something was actively distorting that, I wouldn’t put it in. I really wouldn’t. No, my movies have been honest in that regard. Unless I didn’t know a piece of information. For example, in Midnight Express (1978, for which Stone wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay) there was a piece of information I didn’t get until 30 years later, which was that he’d smuggled [drugs] before. It changed my whole outlook on it. I went on the basis that that was the first time… But I’ve always done my best to research. My best… And you go with that. I would challenge anybody who wants to come after me for it. Just to show me where. Where do you think I violated the spirit of the truth with JFK or with Nixon or with any of them, and I’ll give you my counter argument?
What was it like working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt?
He was my first choice. With movies, because it’s a ‘star business,’ you go through that routine of waiting and waiting and bullshit hoping. In this case I just said, look, it’s not a movie about a star. It’s a movie about a big idea. We just need the accurate portrayal, an accurate reflection. So it was luxury to be able to cast the right person as opposed to the ‘bankable person’. I felt he looked like him to some degree. But more importantly, he felt like him. I also saw a movie that he did, very little seen, but I think it’s one of his best works, Don Jon (2013)…
Were you anticipating shooting the film primarily abroad from the get-go?
We got turned down everywhere in the US studio system. Which was a heartbreak. Because it was a good script, decent budget and two top actors…It was really heartbreaking. And it made everything so much more difficult. Thank god, Germany and France were more enthusiastic and we got it done. And also Open Road came in, not for a big chunk, because they’re a small company. But they’re an honest and decent distributor. They’ve been listening to our input. And they did give us a home.
I assume it was pushed back for awards season?
Not so much that, as it’s a more sober season now where you don’t have the summer blockbuster mentality. It’s a season where more serious films come. In September, October, November, there’s more of an adult audience it seems.
What was your biggest challenge making the film?
Time, money. It was a rough shoot. Big sets that we had no money for (laughs)… Built beautifully and economically by Mark Tildesley (28 Days Later). Shot digitally, my first time the whole film, by Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire). Good German crew.
Do you think they use the pretext of national security, as the film suggests, as means to pursue US economic and political interests worldwide?
I believe so, yes. And it’s also been said by Snowden… You cannot make this an argument between security and your individual rights. They basically say: ‘You can’t have civil rights. You can’t have freedom of speech. You can’t have freedom from search and seizure, you can’t have privacy. You can’t have any of these things because we have to watch for terrorists. Terrorists are everywhere in the world. We must protect you. We have your safety in mind.’ Well that’s an agreement that makes no sense and it’s a lie because they can say that all the time. They can say, “We’re protecting your life,” on any occasion they want and they have no proof of it. And they don’t show it. And they just say you have to trust us. Well, the history of government to me is one of lies. Especially the American government. They’ve been lying to us solidly, with great PR, since World War II. And probably way before that.
How is Snowden himself doing these days? Do you see him returning to the US?
I don’t. I think hardline pragmatism dictates that the United States will never forgive him unless the idea of our president changes. I mean Mr. Obama has been vicious in his prosecution of whistleblowers… And Hilary Clinton is no hope for Snowden [either].
So you don’t see him ever coming back?
Well ever is a big word. Things can change… But there’s no way in this present environment. It’s a shame because I think if you put it to the people and you let him have a fair trial where he could state these things and you could really make these people from the government work to explain why they’ve taken away our civil rights, you’d have an interesting case.
Have Snowden’s revelations had any impact on how the NSA operates?
As he said, it’s changed the draperies in the White House. Obama, right away in 2014, asked for recommendations from a board of distinguished people who knew a lot about the NSA and about privacy. He got recommendations from these people. There were about 45 or 50; I think he implemented two or three… All these recommendations were basically thrown out the window by the White House… Ed, from Moscow, is still working on reform. He’s working on these issues. It’s very important to him. He also works with the Freedom of Press Foundation (Snowden joined FPF’s board of directors in 2014).
What was your biggest takeaway making this film?
[That] we took over the internet. We militarized it and polarized it. Now it’s an object of suspicion at best. That’s the big takeaway. The second takeaway is that Ed Snowden is a very courageous man. He’s been able to present the public with evidence of wrongdoing and did it in a way that he avoided the pitfalls of what happened to Chelsea Manning (currently serving a 35-year sentence in Ft. Leavenworth) and to Tom Drake (NSA whistleblower prosecuted by the US government). This is a real hero who survived it. He’s lucky to be alive… I don’t feel sorry for him in Russia. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He’s on a mission of his own and he understands… He’s got life. He’s got freedom there, to a degree… But I think as we said at the end of the film, it’s a bargain well worth making because he can sleep well at night.
“Snowden” opens in Philippine cinemas September 28, 2016, released and distributed by Captive Cinema.