Scott Z. Burns, writer-director of “The Report” and writer-producer of Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat,” built his career with the Oscar-winning filmmaker. They’ve now collaborated on five films, with these last two tackling the Panama Papers and torture reform via screwball comedy and a CIA procedural, respectively. If that seems a little schizophrenic, it’s only because most of us don’t have a history of working with Soderbergh.
“That’s the price of admission for me if I want to come back,” said Burns. “I come back with something new.”
The approaches to Netflix’s “The Laundromat” and Amazon’s “The Report,” a deep dive into Dan Jones’ massive and controversial 2012 Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, seem very different. However, both rely on Burns’ unique capacity for diving into the weeds so that, as he says, “the audience doesn’t have to.”
Burns first worked with Soderbergh as the screenwriter of “The Informant!” in 2009, but his interest in that 6,700-page CIA report began with a 2007 Vanity Fair article “Rorschach and Awe” about two psychologists, James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who created the CIA torture program. “Because both of my parents are psychologists,” Burns said, “I was aghast that they came from a profession I had always associated with healing. As someone who had some familiarity with that field, I couldn’t understand that someone would think that weaponing psychology was an acceptable idea.”
Over the years, Burns kept digging and interviewed Daniel Jones, the man who wrote The Torture Report. Over a beer in Washington, D.C., Burns “heard the story of a guy trying to tell a story,” he said. “In the times we are now living, his perspective of how government works and accountability became as important as the atrocity and tortures. A lot was dictated by the fact Dan Jones struck me as a hero. I wanted to write something respectful of what he did in some way that mirrored the resolve he showed in getting The Report out.”
A lot of screenwriters were interested in Jones and his story. But Jones noticed that after the Senate released the report in December 2014, Burns was the only writer who read its voluminous footnotes. He gave Burns his full cooperation. Writing the script required more than five years and 20 drafts, but as producer Jennifer Fox noted in a post-screening Q&A: “In all that time, Scott had a deep commitment to finding the story in the way that a great journalist can create a narrative that is not a documentary but dramatic.”
Soderbergh and Fox raised the financing, but a film about a government investigation isn’t an easy pitch. Vice came on early, while former Vice chief creative officer Eddy Moretti invested at the 11th hour. And Soderbergh suggested that his “Logan Lucky” star Adam Driver would “really connect” with the role of Dan Jones. “He initially built a bridge to him,” said Burns.
Burns approached “The Report” as a modern-day paranoid political thriller like Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” and “The Parallax View.” He shot the complex government procedural in 26 days. With Burns forced to keep camerawork swift and surgical, Driver and Annette Bening (Senator Dianne Feinstein) were willing to shoot two or three takes before moving on.
After working together for 13 years — Soderbergh came on as an executive producer of Burns’ directorial debut, “PU-239” — they are something of a franchise unto themselves. However, Burns said it only works if he keeps bringing his mentor something new. “Steven’s view of collaboration is that you should keep doing it as long as you’re not repeating yourself,” he said. “So he’s encouraged me to come back to him with ideas that aren’t repetitive with the work he’s already done. That’s antithetical to how Hollywood works: Some people are associated with a certain genre and continue to do that. He has always shown me a way to have a career where you constantly push yourself to explore new structures, new styles of storytelling.”
When he pitched “The Laundromat” to Soderbergh, “I was coming off a very intense political thriller that had as its bones a formal investigative structure,” Burns said. “I wanted to go as far in the opposite direction as possible and try and do something else.”
The massive 2016 leak of the Panama Papers inspired Burns’ fascination with “the shell corporations and how wealthy people use them,” he said. He tracked the progress of Jake Bernstein’s book as well as the human stories behind “the technical side, the intricacies of international finance and banking.”
That led to writing “The Laundromat” from the point of view of international lawyers Jurgen Mossack (Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Banderas), who created over 2,000 shell corporations and are now under federal indictment. “They are not heroes, so I did not feel the same sense of obligation to them in terms of how to connect with the material,” he said. “Steven has a belief that when you get people to laugh, you get them to open up in a way they don’t always do if you present serious material. Some of it is about writing a story for a director, understanding where you’re catching him and what kind of storytelling he wants to do.”
Soderbergh fell for Burns’ idea, which was inspired by Damian Szifron’s “Wild Tales”: string together outrageous stories from Mossack and Fonseca’s far-flung clients “to show the scope of problem.”
Burns interviewed Mossack and Fonseca over Skype. “It was interesting to hear them say they felt that you couldn’t only blame them for operating a system created by the world at large and the world’s wealthy,” said Burns. “It made me feel okay about using them as tour guides through this world, to give them the opportunity to be outrageous apologists for a system operated so successfully for 20-30 years.” That became the movie’s chorus structure. “I had commedia dell’arte thrown in there, the unreliable narrator from ‘Amadeus.’ It’s about point of view. I’d written about Mark Whitacre in ‘The Informant!’ and his unusual relationship with truth.”
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Burns began his Hollywood career as a producer of the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth;” before that, he worked in advertising and was part of an award-winning creative team whose credits included the “Got Milk?” campaign. While he winces a little at the memory, he recognizes that advertising taught him a lot.
“I learned that I can find another idea,” he said. “That the act of clinging to an idea is usually born out of fear as it is anything else, that you might not come up with another idea. In advertising, you are taught you need to go back to the drawing board sometimes and solve the problem. That’s been helpful to me in filmmaking. Steven and I like having problems to solve together; that exercise, both on the page and also in practical terms in the real world when you’re directing, is exhilarating, to see how other people and events and budgets and schedules impact the fantasy movie you are carrying around in your head.”
After “The Report” and “The Laundromat,” Burns moved on to unpacking the script for the ultimate escapist movie: James Bond film “No Time to Die.” He’s also developing his second television show — a near-future sci-fi series on climate change.