Josh Singer Talks Challenges of Tackling WikiLeaks Drama ‘The Fifth Estate’ –and What He Left Out

Josh Singer Talks Challenges of Tackling WikiLeaks Drama 'The Fifth Estate' --and What He Left Out

Written by Josh Singer and directed by Bill Condon, Dreamworks biopic “The Fifth Estate” (October 18), which opened the Toronto International Film Festival to mixed reviews, is nothing if not ambitious. It’s demanding and challenging because it’s the rare studio movie–supervised closely by DreamWorks chief Stacey Snider–that is willing to deal with one of the pressing issues of our time: the ways the digital revolution and the internet are changing how we exchange and share information. 

Check out our interview with screenwriter Singer, who got his start right out of Harvard Law School with John Wells on “The West Wing” and went on to write “Fringe” and other TV series. He talks about the fascinating real-life personality at the center of the action, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose many skills include playing the media. His latest move was to appear on Skype with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, blasting the film, telling the HFPA it was “opportunistic and hostile.”

This came after Assange revealed that before production he penned a letter  to “Fifth Estate” star Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the bleach-blond provocateur, trying to talk him out of doing the movie. 

Our TOH! interview with Alex Gibney, who directed Wikileaks doc “We Steal Secrets,” is here. It’s fascinating what he chose to include in his story–namely Bradley/Chelsea Manning and the Swedish sex scandal that placed Assange into exile–and what “The Fifth Estate” leaves out. 

Anne Thompson: Your movie is based on two books, Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website,” and The Guardian writers David Leigh and Luke Harding’s “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy”?

Josh Singer: Daniel’s book talks about all the
other days and then The Guardian book talks about the cables. For me, the
challenge was both getting my head around the issue and my head around the

What is the issue? 

JS: The issue of what should be public and what
shouldn’t be public, and how do you feel about transparency and how we feel
about who should be making those decisions of what should or shouldn’t be
public. Where journalism is today, given that in the last 10 years it
hasn’t been such a good time for newspapers or for reporters. So why we might
need people like Julian and Daniel to come into that. So there were a lot of issues
to get your head around. Fortunately I had some good people to talk to from
Harvard, where I went to law school, and they told me what to read and who else
to talk to.

You have a law degree and a business degree. How did you get to be a

JS: A show came on the air called “The
West Wing” and I decided maybe that’s a good way to talk about issues with
a large group of people. I came out here and I took a sublet out from the
fiancé of a guy named Lou Wells, a producer on “The West Wing,” and
he read my spec and he gave it to his brother John Wells who was taking over
the “West Wing” for Aaron Sorkin and John liked it and brought me on.
John was the greatest boss in the world and I learned a ton from him. I did a lot of television. I wrote a spec
screenplay which got bought by DreamWorks and then they gave me a blind deal
and then they optioned these books and they looked at these very fancy
screenwriters, then they said, “maybe we’ll give the kid a shot.” And they gave
the kid a shot. 

DreamWorks sent me abroad, to Germany and London to spend four days with
Daniel and then to spend three days with all the different folks from The
Guardian, and that research was really important for me because Daniel’s book is
a controversial one. Julian Assange doesn’t like it at all. One of the things
important to me was to find out, “well what do I think of Daniel?” So I spent
four days with him, and what you find when you spend time with him is that he’s
not charismatic or mesmerizing like Julian is, but he’s a real true believer,
and is nothing if not genuine. He’s a very youthful 32, maybe a little naïve. Not only was he getting details right from the book, like the story about
how they verified the Julius Baer sources, which was in the book and that came
right from him. Beyond giving me those details, there seemed to be a veracity and backup to everything he was saying. 

When I went and talked to the Guardian guys, the stories they told me
of their interactions with Julian were exactly the same arc as the story of
Daniel’s interaction. So, they got sucked in by this guy who’s incredibly
charismatic and incredibly bright and had this brilliant idea for how he was
going to change the face of journalism. At some point the mask comes off and
you realize the guy you’re dealing with is someone who’s somewhat manipulative
and maybe a bit of a liar. The fact that their stories were the exact same as
his and in that trajectory, and that the fact that other people who I didn’t
talk to like James Ball, who moved from WikiLeaks to The Guardian and the
Australian folks who were part of the WikiLeaks party who were trying to run
Julian for senate there, they all tell the same story of interaction with
Julian. So that gave me an enormous amount of faith in Daniel’s story. And spending
time with him gave me an enormous amount of faith that what we were telling was
responsible and that it was the accurate story.

The books are critical of Assange.

JS: Assange would say they’re critical but
I would say they’re fairly balanced. Both books really present him as a genius
and a pioneer and they really extol his ideas. There are plenty of things in
the book that we left out and there are plenty of things that Daniel told me
that are much worse than what’s onscreen that we left out. And moreover,
whereas Julian would say, they’re negative books, I think when you read them,
he comes off mixed and moreover to me I’ve had a lot of people come up and tell
me, “wow this is a much better view of Julian than I had walking into this
movie.” I came out
with a higher view of Julian.

Alex Gibney’s documentary is tougher on Assange and
he also gets into the issues of what happened to the Swedish girls, which you
didn’t use.

JS: It’s interesting because I think all of
that tells you a lot about Julian’s character. I loved the Gibney documentary. I
think he did an excellent job of going boldly for all the facts and actually unveiling
what I had known from folks at the Guardian who’d done the homework. From what
they uncovered, these aren’t just crazy allegations, right? I wrote a 53-page
outline at the outset, which I handed over to Stacey Snider and the folks at DreamWorks,
and I included the rape allegations because I thought they were interesting in
terms of Julian’s character. Stacey pulled back and said we ought not to
include them. It wasn’t that she was offended; it was because she thought they
were outside the film. The point was transparency and responsibility in
journalism. The whole point was you can look at those reactions and also
see, that’s the question, right? Who do you want making those decisions of what
is public and what is private? That is the real question. If newspapers are
going out of business, we’re going to need people to step up and put a check on
the government. Who do we want those people to be? 

Bradley/Chelsea Manning was less of a character in this than
in the “WikiLeaks” documentary.

JS: Manning’s story was fascinating. But to me, the
one thing that I didn’t love about the Gibney doc was that it went down that rabbit
hole and took us away from the central story. Not only was that, I thought,
problematic–we were already juggling a lot of balls–but also there was a
concern we didn’t have his rights. We didn’t have Julian’s rights either but
he’s a public figure. Manning is going through a trial so we wanted to be
pretty careful. Snowden is fascinating to me. To me, the litmus test of how
someone might feel about Assange is a story that was told to me. I went over to
New York and showed the film to a number of people who were in the film, which
was a very excruciating experience. Fortunately, they were generally happy with
it. One of those people was Marcel Rosenbach, one of the journalists for Der
Speigel. All of these guys were involved with the Snowden leak, which was
interesting to have a window into that as they’re watching the film right after
the British government went into The Guardian and destroyed the computers. It
was a wild time to be over there. One thing that Rosenbach told me was that
Snowden had told him that if Assange still had a submission platform on his
site —

It’s very different from what the website was
before and that’s because Daniel and the architect basically disabled the
submission platform. That’s part of the reason why they published much less
than they did in the two years that Daniel was working with him. So Snowden
wanted to send the information to Julian but he had no way to do it and that is
why he reached out to Laura Poitras and he said to Rosenbach, if Julian still
had this submission platform up—that’s where I would have sent the documents. You
can be someone like Snowden who’s very much for “I’m glad the information
is getting out there through these channels” and you can still be quite
happy that he didn’t get the information from Assange because maybe he wouldn’t
have been as responsible with that information.

In the course of this was it Daniel’s story you were telling?

JS: When I started down this path, I was very
focused on Daniel’s story, which felt to me like a real coming-of-age story of
an idealist coming at something and as he becomes educated, he realizes the ramifications of
what he’s doing is are much more serious than he thought. I wrote an outline which I
got lots of notes on. Then I wrote 16 scripts, which I got lots of notes on
from DreamWorks and our producers, and then Bill came on board. When he came on
board, we wrote another three or four drafts, which then we got notes on from
other people. Over the course of that process, people were continually
attracted to Julian and wanted to see more of him because he’s fascinating. The
story ended up moving a little bit away from Daniel and toward Julian and
certainly he had more for Mr. Cumberbatch to do. It definitely moves things a
little bit.

How do you balance something like this so that you’re giving us
enough information and not too much information? How challenging is this for

JS: The audiences we screened for generally were
pretty responsive. They liked the movie and didn’t find it necessarily overly
challenging. But I do think it’s a lot to take in. I’ve had more than one
friend say, “Wow the first time I saw it, there was so much to take in but the
second time, I could really then just focus in on Daniel and Julian and not
just be so overwhelmed by all the information.”

It’s also a hybrid in that it’s a drama but also a thriller.

JS: That’s a little bit of a challenge. On the one
hand we want it to feel like a thriller and on the other hand you want to be
able to settle into the characters. One thing I would say is, if you go back and watch “All the President’s
Men,” I had to watch it six times before I knew what was going on. I find
that movie challenging. That said, the more I watch it the more I love it.
That’s a high-bar. I don’t think we’ve made a movie like that. It’s a little
bit of an odd comparison in some ways. But what I would say is yes, it’s a
challenging movie but it opens up. Absolutely part of the challenge is we want
it to remain pretty faithful to the story. In fact, you’re going to hear a lot
in the coming weeks, Julian saying “this movie is terrible, it’s all
fiction.” But he said the same about the Gibney documentary, and I don’t
know how you can attack that movie because it’s interviews with real people and
yes there is a perspective but it’s just a lot of facts. If I think the documentary
has a problem it’s that there’s not enough of a clear narrative. If you start
comparing the documentary to us, I’m here to tell you that we were very
careful. Most of it is all based on fact and we were very careful where we
strayed from facts.

You did try to reach out to Assange? 

JS: We did try to reach out to Assange. When we
were in prep, I was very nervous. If you asked me to write the letter in
response to our reaching out, I probably would have written something similar. I
probably would have written something similar to the letter just came out that
everyone published today which he put up on the website. I anticipated that he
would not be interested in talking to us and would try to attack us in some
way and that’s exactly what happened.

How long has he been in the London Ecuador embassy now? 

JS: I think it’s getting on two years I think.
Daniel Bruhl, Benedict and I went and saw him on the first anniversary, last
Christmas. We went and saw him speak, which was sort of a fun and whacky
evening for the three of us I’m sure you can imagine. It’s amazing that
Benedict didn’t get spotted because he’s such a star over there. But it’s a
funny thing because he’s lashed out on almost all media. Bill was talking to
David Carr the other day and David Carr wrote a lovely article about him and he
lashed out. It’s just what he does. I’ve got a 53-page annotation spelling out
everything that is fiction and everything that is fact. At some point I’m going
to release it, probably not before the movie opens because we want people to
see the movie first. In the spirit of transparency I will release it so that
people, after they see the movie, can go back and say, “What did they make up?”

You worked in TV where the writer is a powerful entity but when you
go to the movies you’re not necessarily calling the shots.

JS: With a different director it would have been
awful. I worked with Bill Condon who’s a lovely, lovely man and a genius. In
television writing, you have a room of writers and there’s the show-runner and
basically your job is really to make the show happen. I had the script for six
to nine months and suddenly I had a show-runner on my script. The good news is
he was a genius and a lovely, lovely man so I couldn’t have asked for a better
show-runner. Creatively we were pretty much aligned.

What’s next?

JS: I wrote a movie with a lovely director named Tom McCarthy about when the Boston Globe covered the Catholic Church in 2001. It’s a great journalism story. It’s a story about when basically they got this new writer who came onboard and there was a priest who had molested a bunch of kids. There had been one or two cases, but he came into the Boston Globe and said, “we should take a look at this.” Their spotlight team, in about six months, figured it wasn’t one of the priests involved. Cardinal Law, the most senior Catholic in Boston had known about it for years and years. When they broke that story, it became a sort of patient zero. Suddenly there were stories all over the country and the world of very similar situations. Anything you know about the Catholic Church scandal came from this team. To the extent that the Catholic Church has started to move in the direction of getting better about these people and solve this problem, it’s because of the work these guys did. We’ve got a couple of good actors circling and hopefully we’re ready to shoot it next year.

Audience: I’m curious about the R rating.

JS:: I am too, and I don’t really have an
answer. The only thing that I can imagine is that you are only limited to one
or two F words, and we might have two and a half. It’s a surprising rating to
me, though perhaps the raters were afraid of young, innocent kids being pulled
in by Assange.

Audience: Not having access to Assange, you’re telling us his
story from the point of view of those who told you, from their
point-of-view. Was that always your intention?

JS:: First of all, we tried very hard to
separate the idea of the leaks from Julian because he tries to conflate the
two, but they are two different things. We were very much trying to make that
distinction. Regarding the submission platform, the wild, crazy Julian Assange
dreamscape: when I was in Germany with Daniel I started thinking about, how do
you get these hackers who are often talking through chat to be in the same
space? I had this idea, what if they are in this virtual space? That’s where
there virtual office is in their head, where they all meet up. I wrote it into
my early outlines and quickly scratched it. I couldn’t get my head around it.
In the first script I wrote, it was not there. When Bill Condon came on board,
he was very excited about this notion of making it more visual. He thought the
idea was terrific. We had this rough idea of a place that looked like “The Apartment.” What’s great about that visual is it gives you the opportunity to
see the hundreds of Assanges and to see the destruction of that submission
platform. Mark Tildesley came onboard. He’s a wonderful production designer and
he said, let’s make this Assange’s dreamscape. Let’s put sand on the floor,
let’s have no ceiling, let’s have these flashing lights coming out of nowhere
and let’s be able to see Assange and his cohorts around a campfire in the
background. To me that made it really fascinating and opened up the movie.

Audience: Why can’t get they get the submission platform back after
two years?

JS: I have hunches but I don’t have a real
answer. It’s just code. He just needs a good coder. Julian is a pretty good
hacker, not the greatest. As a coder, I think he’s good but not amazing. This
guy they had in there, Marcus, who I never met but I Jabbered with him, I don’t
know his real name. He’s somewhere in Germany but I’ve never met him because he
keeps a low profile and Jabber, as you probably know, is totally secure and cryptic.
I was told by Daniel, here’s where you Jabber with him and that guy is a genius
coder, one of the best in the world, and so my guess is that Julian was stung
by the fact that he brought this architect on and that guy was able to wreak so
much havoc on his site. My guess is that Julian is just afraid to bring anyone
with that kind of power to work with him because he’s afraid they could do the
kind of damage that Marcus did. Daniel is a lovely guy but he’s not that kind
of coder. He helped the architect but Daniel is not the guy who built the
platform or took it down. My guess is that Julian is afraid of bringing someone
like that on to do the coding necessary that he can’t do himself that would
bring the platform back up to that level again. This process of total
anonymity, so you don’t know who the source is, is a somewhat complex idea but
a really complex idea to do with code.

Audience: The writing gave me the impression it was really the two
of them, though Assange had the ego for the both of them. Why did the
governments only go after Assange and not any of the other people?

JS: There were a couple other people on the
periphery but no one was as involved as Daniel. They did go after this guy
named Jacob Applebaum who was involved early on but sort of fell off. The
government actually went after him. He’s an American. They were going after
Twitter accounts. Other people floated in, especially as Daniel moved out. But
I think the government understands that Assange is really the genius behind it
all. Moreover, he’s the figurehead. He’s the guy who’s very public. In terms of
the government going after him, it’s unclear what they’re doing. There’s been
some reporting that suggests there is indeed a grand jury and they are indeed
planning to indict him at some point if and when the Swedish mess ever gets
cleared up. One thing that’s not clear is what happens when that gets cleared
up. Does the US government go after him? I really hope they don’t. While I
don’t think Assange was the most responsible of publishers, I’m very much for
the first amendment and I think it’s really hard to go after publishers in
almost any context. So I really hope they never try to bring him to trial.

Audience: The movie shows intelligence sources ruined as a result of the leaks, was that an amalgam or based on real people?

JS: It is based on four cables. What we
wanted to do there: Assange will tell you no one was hurt because of his
releases. I don’t know if any informants in Afghanistan have been killed. They
might have. It’s unclear. Probably one or two might have been but there is no
hard evidence of that. In terms of the sources for the cables, I would doubt
anyone has been killed. But saying no one was hurt is a gross misstatement
because frankly there were 2,000 sources who were strictly protected in those
cables and all those sources were in countries where I’m sure they are no
longer. The US government gets its information primarily from its embassies and
the way they get the information is they make contacts in the field who are
these sources. Some of those sources, if the governments of those countries
knew these sources were talking to us, those sources would be in great
jeopardy. When we write a cable, we write “strictly protect.” In
other words, don’t say this person’s name because it will get them in great
jeopardy. In those 250,000 state department cables, there were 2,000 such
strictly protected sources, all of whom I assume are no longer in their country
of origin. I was told this by a number of former state department folks. They
got the hell out of there because they were afraid of the cables coming out as
they did. Not only did this harm the US government and the state department,
because no longer did we have those 2,000 sources giving information, but it
did harm those sources in that their entire way of life is upended and turned

To demonstrate this, we took four cables out of
Libya, three of which had strictly protected sources, and we made them out of
those. There was a guy who was on the national security council of Libya that
was run by Mutassim Gaddafi and that guy gave us information. My guess is that
guy, who’s actually a woman, is no longer important. Moreover, they don’t get information
from her anymore. We were trying to demonstrate what the harm was without going
overboard without saying these people were slaughtered. That’s not true. If
you’re someone who believes the state department does good work and believes
that maybe the US government isn’t always the best but a lot of what it does is
good for us, then you’re probably someone who didn’t want that information out
there the way it was put out.

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