Nobody owns Oliver Stone. I’ve talked with this filmmaker for decades, and he’s consistent to a fault. The Oscar-winning writer-director (“Platoon,” “JFK,” “Wall Street”) has always gone his own way. If there’s an impediment, he’ll find a way around it. Hell, he’ll even con the El Salvador government to give him army soldiers for a movie critical of El Salvador.
Which is one reason why Stone met with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in Moscow, not once, or twice, but nine times. Stone will tell you: You can’t trust the United States government. You can’t trust the NSA, CIA, or FBI. You can’t trust the Hollywood studios, because those are corporations run by lawyers. And you certainly can’t trust the media.
So who does he trust? His wife and kids. His German producer, Moritz Borman, who assembled the pieces for “Snowden” after Stone’s Martin Luther King project fell apart—to be produced by Steven Spielberg and star Jamie Foxx—and “Selma” grabbed all the kudos. Borman brought Stone the novel “Time of the Octopus,” the story of fictional American whistleblower Joshua Cold. The author was Anatoly Kucherena, otherwise known as Edward Snowden’s Moscow lawyer, and who served as the liaison between Stone and Snowden.
The director had no problem optioning rights to “Octopus” (for a reported $1 million), as long as the movie he was writing (with Kieran Fitzgerald) was based on “The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man” by Luke Harding (which cost another cool $700,000) –and interviews with Snowden himself, who didn’t get a dime. As far as Stone was concerned, he was telling Snowden’s story, from his POV.
“Snowden” scuttled Sony/Columbia’s own Snowden project based on Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide.” Stone would have preferred that Sony back his movie at $50 million. It would have made things a lot easier, as he had to make do with less, while crossing continents to shoot locations in Munich, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, and Hong Kong. However, no studio would touch his “hot potato,” as he calls it.
Instead Open Road, which is owned by Regal Entertainment and AMC Theatres, picked up the movie for North America. And when Sony declined to acquire world rights, Stone took the foreign sales route with French indie Wild Bunch. They sold the world, but he’s annoyed that the United Kingdom doesn’t have a release; only studio distributors could afford the minimum guarantee. So he’s taking “Snowden” to the London Film Festival. “I’m proud of the movie,” he said.
He should be. A sweeping, paranoid, fast-moving political thriller, “Snowden” is a portrait of today’s cyber-espionage culture, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the earnest 29-year-old NSA whistleblower. Stone tries to show us how this patriotic one-time Army man and CIA computer analyst wound up leaking thousands of files revealing the extent of the NSA’s monitoring of Americans’ phone calls and emails to The Guardian.
Snowden met with journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) in Hong Kong to pass along the data, and then fled to exile in Russia, where he still resides. (Poitras’ “Citizenfour” won the 2015 doc Oscar.)
Part of the answer lies with Snowden’s loyal girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who grounded Snowden and liberalized his conservative views over time—and still lives with him in Moscow. Despite the unorthodox road to getting “Snowden” made, its subject finally agreed to appear in the film. And he comes off rather well.
Stone and I talked in Los Angeles before “Snowden” (September 16) played the Toronto International Film Festival, a stop on Stone’s tour to promote the movie as well as a new coffee table tome by Matt Zoller Seitz, “The Oliver Stone Experience,” which hits bookstores September 13.
Open Road Films
Anne Thompson: Why did did you go forward with the Edward Snowden movie instead of Martin Luther King?
Oliver Stone: It wasn’t my choice. I finished the screenplay to my satisfaction. I thought it was a very penetrating movie that hasn’t been done and hasn’t been seen. But the owner of the property was really embarrassed and didn’t want to bring it to the King family, “blah, blah.” That included Spielberg and that group, Stacey Snider, there were three partners. It’s all very proper, it’s not my scene. I was stupid to get involved. I put in a lot of effort. In the 1990s it was developed at Warners, it now belongs to Amblin. They worked a game. They wanted to go back to the King family for rights to the speeches. You could make a movie without the rights. But once I accepted the money to do rewriting and directing, I made a mistake. That was a judgment call.
That’s the problem with real-life characters like Snowden. I backed away when Glenn Greenwald approached me: “It’s a hot potato, stay away from this.” Back then in 2013-14, Snowden was radioactive, and you never know what’s going to happen. I don’t want to do contemporary stories. It takes one or two years and it blows up in your face, with lawsuits. I was admiring of King, but I brought out adultery, other issues. You can’t say the truth, you can’t do it.
Sad news. My MLK project involvement has ended. I did an extensive rewrite of the script, but the producers won’t go with it.
— Oliver Stone (@TheOliverStone) January 17, 2014
My Lai, that was a fucking drain. A year of preparation [on “Pinkville”], getting into the mentality to make a massacre. I was three weeks from shooting! Here’s a case that would be even more problematic.
Who approached you on the project?
I was going to Moscow at the invitation of Snowden’s lawyer [Anatoly Kucherena]. He had written a book. In January 2014, I met him and Snowden. I was wary; he was wary, too. By May I had made three visits. I made nine in total; we’d agreed to make a film, because he was cooperating. It would be realistic. I bought the book from the Russian lawyer, it was like a fiction, a “1984” book, and a second “The Guardian” book, and spoke to Snowden himself. There were errors —I got the story straight from the man himself, and brought Kieran in to help me.
How did you find Open Road?
I ended up suffering disappointment, as no major distribution came through. Open Road stepped in, kudos to Tom Ortenberg—my primary money was German and French with foreign sales from Wild Bunch. The budget was not the $50 million (revealed) in the Sony hack, they turned it down. It’s not a budget problem. It’s self-censorship. I don’t say that the NSA was nefarious.
The studios are all scared. Before, it stayed at the film level, with an Arthur Krim or Terry Semel. Now it has to go to to the corporate board and you never hear back. Lawyers, what are they going to say? “No” is the easiest word in the English language.
Also, in Germany the polls were more favorable to Snowden than in the U.S. They have a history of surveillance with the Statsi and Communists and Nazis. In France, there was popular sentiment for Snowden. Everybody was being listened on, the President of Bolivia’s plane couldn’t fly home because all the air space was controlled by the U.S. We are the dominant power, not willing to allow any rival to emerge. Americans don’t take it seriously, but we are looking to dominate the whole world, that’s the source of all our problems. That’s what we use cyber-warfare for. You can’t push people around. I’ve never believed in bullies. It’s old-fashioned bullying.
You cram a lot of intel into this movie; were you worried about making it fun to watch?
It was a lot of work. I liked “Enemy of the State,” I love political thrillers like “Syriana,” with a lot of information. We had no violence, no guns, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not a heroic-looking guy, he’s a bland desk clerk. Shailene Woodley filled in as a powerful figure. That’s the way their relationship worked, extrovert/introvert. I loved the ways they come together. He was Ron Kovic (“Born on the Fourth of July”) a bit. She is the only link he has to humankind, who do you trust? The girlfriend in some deep way keeps him rooted. The pressure was intense.
Those nine conversations with Ed gave us density never dreamed of, dialogue, it’s complex. You get the idea of what was being done, just listening, you don’t understand it necessarily, I’m not a computer expert, but with the faces you sense something going on.
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle makes a good fit for you, on your first digital feature.
I’ve shot documentaries. I’ve chased him since 2012. He was never available. I admire “Rush,” and his shooting on “127 Hours” was incredible. He’s worked with Lars von Trier. The guy’s been there, he’s older, he got me to use an Alexa 65! It brought resolution I never thought possible. On this film, the computer work has to be as good as possible to make it last on screen.
You make Edward Snowden out to be an American hero. And his CIA boss Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) a villain.
No. Not at all. I honestly tried to adhere to the truth of the situation, from Snowden’s POV. It’s dramatized. Corbin O’Brian is based on “1984”‘s Winston Smith, remember, otherwise it would have been impersonal. You say villain, that’s not my word. O’Brian had open opinions about going into Iraq, “it was stupid;”‘ he says that Americans want security at any price. The government, even Obama, defends what he perceives as American interests, it could be [counter-terrorism czar] Richard Allen Clarke or any of those guys. They see America as the city on the hill, the most important empire since World War II. That’s what they see.
Was Snowden a rising star in the CIA?
He felt guilty, having built [data backup system] EPICSHELTER, and was treated not as a superstar but as a rising figure. He had support, he was one of the first offshore contractors hired on cyber-warfare. It’s ironic that we unleashed it.
[Retired CIA and NSA General Director] Michael Hayden boasts about and is happy and proud that he destroyed Iran’s centrifuges (they rebuilt them in six months) with Stuxnet. They realized America started cyber-warfare, just like dropping a bomb. The last document releases of Snowden found the informant. There’s no end to cyber-warfare. No one knows who is doing what to whom, under whose command. When the next war begins, no one’s going to know who started it. It’s frightening, what’s going on in our lifetime.
Does the FBI have a file on you?
I lived a public life. I knew my profile. I said embarrassing things. I’ve been out there. I went to the FBI and got some answers. I can’t get the whole story. They say “no,” you accept it. They have nothing.
How many times have you been to Cuba since we both went to the Havana Film Festival in 1987?
That was my first time, I met Bob Rafelson and Fidel. “Comandante” was a great movie. I went back and did another small doc in 2010, “Looking for Fidel,” and “Castro in Winter.” He was an old man. You’ll never see it in the U.S. It’s out there [pointing].
[Reacting to my smile.] It’s not funny to get muzzled, censored! It’s wrong. Get to know your enemy!
Were you surprised by the way your Pokemon Go quote was picked up at Comic-Con?
It was misinterpreted—Pokemon tells you where you are, when and where they geolocate you. They want your business, among other things. What I meant was this was surveillance capitalism. They sell information about you to another company, that’s a big business. Google collaborates with the government, now they provide encryption, who knows what’s really going on?
I’m making a documentary. I wrote a movie in the interim. I am looking for financing acceptable to the powers that be. How’s “Snowden” going to do?
It’s going to play well, it’s smart and entertaining.
I didn’t not intend to!