It’s rare that a movie inspired by true events is released while those events are still happening. But such is the case with “The Fifth Estate,” a movie that dramatizes the firestorm of controversy that engulfs Julian Assange, the eccentric founder of the WikiLeaks website that made national headlines when they distributed thousands of previously classified documents about America’s ongoing wars in the Middle East. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange as part freedom fighter, part hustler, part egomaniac, accompanied by lively direction from “Gods & Monsters” filmmaker Bill Condon. We spoke with the director about visualizing Assange’s headspace, a potential return to horror, and his upcoming Sherlock Holmes movie.
“The Fifth Estate” is partially based on a book by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who was responsible for much of what the site was capable of in its formative years (in the film he’s played by Daniel Bruhl), and charts those early, developmental periods where the site was still something of an odd duck and had yet to become a government-threatening behemoth. Occasionally, Condon dips us into Assange’s head, a stark office space known as the virtual submission platform, something not unlike “memory warehouse” from the Stephen King adaptation “Dreamcatcher.”
This kind of project is incredibly tricky for a number of reasons, and Condon seems to realize that (based on the reviews out of Toronto—read ours—where the movie premiered, audiences felt the same way), insisting more than anything that this is more a “journalistic thriller” than anything else. Like the rest of the movie, it’s up to you to decide.
The movie takes this kind of position that you (the audience) should decide what’s true and what’s not, although it was based on a book by Assange’s former partner. Was it hard balancing those aspects?
Yes, although I don’t think the film takes the position of you deciding what’s true and what’s not. I think we’re presenting a lot of different points of view, and you can decide on where you land on it, is kind of the invitation. But those two books in and of themselves take different points of view. Daniel’s book was a source but I have to say the movie, very quickly, once I got involved, never embraced that fully as the point-of-view of the film.
Was it tricky to include and what not to include?
Yeah, absolutely. Part of it was that since it was an ongoing story, we needed to find a story that had a beginning, middle, and end. And it did seem to me that this story captured within it so many of the issues that remain so pressing and complicated.
Some of those early sequences feel very influenced by William Gibson.
That was a part of it. The submission platform was his idealized view of a 21st century newsroom that has imagery that goes back to “His Girl Friday” and “The Apartment” and “All the President’s Men” but yes, I know what you mean. There is a sense that you’re entering a kind of closed world that when you communicate in this way, there’s something very immediate about the way they interact.
Can you talk about that submission platform, it’s kind of a ghostly office space.
It was my idea once I had read an early draft. I loved the moment when we realize that Julian is alone and doesn’t have this huge support group. I thought, ‘Well that’s just dialogue, that’s got to be visualized,’ and working backwards from there. I wanted a kind of visual metaphor for the technology that allows whistleblowers to be completely anonymous. It all kind of developed into this idea of the virtual submission platform. Then when we were making the movie I had a lot of meetings with the DP and the designer and one big issue was we’re making a kind of journalistic thriller that’s quite realistic and we didn’t want it to feel like, somehow, we were in a completely different movie. If you look at the movie, in terms of the color scheme and other things, what seems hyper-real is actually quite heightened and when it came to the time to go into this other world, we gave it the same texture and tone of the rest of the movie. We were shooting in Brussels and there’s this great museum there and the idea of the sand came out of that. That Julian’s informed by some potent memories of his childhood in Australia.
What was it like working with Cumberbatch? He’s playing a real person but you obviously still had to create this character.
It was great because he’s so committed. It starts, as is the case with many people with a theatrical background, from the outside. So that’s: what’s it going to look like? What’s the wig? What’s he going to sound like? He did an amazing work on all that but also burrowing deeper and deeper and deeper into the psyche of this guy, just trying to capture him in the most empathetic way possible. None of us had any interest in doing something that was going to malign him. We weren’t going to white wash him either, but we wanted to understand him.
Was there anything you really wanted to keep in there from his life that just wouldn’t fit?
That’s a good question… Maybe stuff that’s happened later that just didn’t fit within the timeframe. That amazing video he made last week, I would have loved to have included that and seen Benedict imitate that.
Where did the opening, depicting the history of communication, come from?
It’s more about the history of the technology of journalism. [We wanted to] set the stage for this title and kind of visually explain it, that this is the next dimension of journalism and the sharing of information, the post-print time. And it was also just a quick reminder of the speed in which we move through technology, all with the same attention. I think the story, with its mixture of traditional journalism and citizen journalism, is a pretty good example of that.
You directed “Candyman 2,” do you ever plan on revisiting the genre?
Yeah, absolutely. That’s part of what appealed to me about “Twilight: Breaking Dawn.” The second half of that movie with the childbirth was like a pretty scary horror movie. So yes, I had fun doing that. There’s nothing like creating a horrific atmosphere. I would love to. I’ll remake “Strange Behavior.”
What’s your approach on the new Sherlock Holmes project, “A Slight Trick of the Mind”?
Well, it’s a really lovely script by Jeffrey Hatcher [based on a novel by Mitch Cullin]. Obviously Holmes is solving one last case, but it’s about Holmes at the age of 91 at the end of the 1940s, and it asks the question: if Sherlock Holmes is starting to lose his mental abilities, what else is left? When you lose the thing that defines you for the entire world, what else is essentially you. It’s a very delicate and really lovely story.
From one weird intellectual to another.
“The Fifth Estate” opens everywhere this Friday, October 18th.