Scott Z. Burns has made a name for himself by being part investigative reporter and part screenwriter, which has allowed him to create quite a solid working relationship with Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh, the two of them collaborating on a number of movies: 2011’s “Contagion,” 2013’s “Side Effects,” and this year’s “The Laundromat.” In fact, it’s been almost 13 years since Burns directed his earlier film “Pu-239,” but his latest film “The Report” is probably his most complex screenplay yet, although Burns decided that was the one he should direct.
It stars Adam Driver as Daniel Jones, an assistant to Senator Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening) who is assigned to write a report about the CIA’s misuse of torture techniques to get information from Iraqi detainees post-9/11. Without the help of the CIA – despite having an office in their headquarters – Jones works diligently to get information from all avenues, creating an enormous document that might never get seen by the public as it gets caught up in political red tape.
The movie was all the talk at the Sundance Film Festival way back in January, mainly for the performances by Driver and Bening, but it still stands up months later due to the cast Burns assembled, which includes Jon Hamm, Corey Stoll, Tim Blake Nelson, Matthew Rhys (from “The Post”) and Michael C. Hall.
Next Best Picture spoke to Burns over the phone for the following interview.
Next Best Picture: Obviously, you’ve done some politically-charged corporate thrillers before, mainly for Steven Soderbergh to direct. What motivated you to tackle this subject, which is A, tough, and B, scary, maybe?
Scott Z Burns: I’m not sure why it’s scarier than anything else, but I have two parents who are psychologists, so when I initially came in contact with this story and understood that these two psychologists had created the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, I was alarmed and confused because my understanding was that psychology really wasn’t intended to hurt people, and I had never seen any science that suggested that physically abusing people leads to them telling the truth. I had some questions about the program itself, and I read an article about the two psychologists in Vanity Fair. As I continued my research into them, I came in contact with the Senate report on the program and on the CIA’s actions after 9/11. From there it was easy to get in contact with Daniel Jones through Senator Feinstein’s office, and I started asking him questions about the report. Obviously, he couldn’t tell me anything other than what’s been declassified. We eventually ended up going out for a beer and talked about his experience as a writer creating this document and what sort of adventures he went through trying to get it out into the world.
So you met with Daniel, before you did any writing I presume, or had you already started doing some other research?
No, I had actually started writing what would have been a very different screenplay about this that was more focused on the psychologists. That was going to be sort of a dark comedy in the spirit of “Dr. Strangelove.” When I met Daniel, I felt really strongly that this was a better direction to go, that there was a real hero in the story, and I think as a storyteller, you recognize that when you find the story of a hero, that that’s usually the best way in. Conversely, I think the fact that it was the kind of story where you wanted a person who could be a tracer bullet, not just through the CIA’s program, but also through the U.S. political system so that you could see the state of things right now.
It’s interesting that you mention the comic route, because obviously “The Informant!” and “The Laundromat” took that route, and you were originally going to direct the latter but then this happened first and Steven directed that? How did that happen with the two movies?
Actually, what happened was a few years ago, Steven and I worked on a movie called “Side Effects,” and that was a movie I had hoped myself to direct, but I was struggling to find financing. Steven read that script and said that he really wanted to direct it because he hadn’t really done a Hitchcock sort of film. As a screenwriter, I felt like if Steven Soderbergh wants to direct my script, I’m all in favor of that. I stepped aside on that one, but he really encouraged me from that point on to find a story that I wanted to tell, so this movie was always something I felt that I was going to do, and “The Laundromat” was something that I wrote specifically for Steven.
Once you began working on this, how easy or hard was it to get access to others, besides Daniel, such as the Senators and others in government? Did you generally have to find people like Tim Blake Nelson’s character who would talk off the record?
The great thing for me when I started my research was, obviously, Daniel had already written the report and the executive summary, so he had done so much of the heavy lifting about the program itself. There were also a lot of really spectacular journalists who had done work in this area, so I spent a fair amount of time with Jane Mayer, who wrote a book called “The Dark Side,” people like Jim Risen, human rights investigators, people in the military, people in law enforcement. Ali Soufan, who, obviously, is portrayed in the movie, is someone I spent a fair amount of time with, learning about his experience. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse was someone I spoke to a lot, Senator Mark Udall. So, there were people across the story who are willing to speak to me both about their take on the program, but also their experience of Daniel. So that work had been done, but the character of Tim Blake Nelson came out of a story that Daniel told me, which was that the CIA, even though they weren’t going to provide official access to people as part of the Senate’s investigation, there were people from the CIA who approached Dan confidentially and said, “Hey, you should look at an e-mail from April of 2004” or “You should look at a cable from 2005.” There were people at the agency who did not support this program, who sought out Daniel during his investigation because they wanted to help him uncover things, and so that’s where that character came from. I didn’t actually speak to anybody from the agency who did interact with Daniel that way. That’s just based on Daniel’s experience.
Did you have any access to Dr. Mitchell or Dr. Jessen? Or have they disappeared off the face of the earth at this point? They must have had some interest in how they were portrayed in the film.
Dr. Mitchell is a commentator, and you can frequently see him on Fox News. Dr. Jessen, I’m not aware of what he’s doing currently. There was a civil suit brought against both of them on behalf of a few of the detainees a couple of years ago, and my understanding is that suit was settled, so I know that there has been an attempt to hold them accountable. It’s important to remember, as the movie mentions, that they were indemnified by the CIA, so whatever that settlement is probably didn’t affect them personally. Dr. Mitchell wrote a book that I have read, and he’s also been very outspoken. There’s a big piece that Vice did on him, which was a big part of my research, so you know, there’s a lot of open-source reporting on him.
One thing I love about “The Report” is the cast you put together, which is an abundance of wealth, starting with Adam Driver and Annette Benning, but then literally, like every five minutes someone else shows up. How do you cast such a big movie in terms of roles even though much of it takes place in a few rooms?
Exactly what you just said was sort of my guiding principle. When you do a movie like “Contagion “or “The Bourne Ultimatum,” you know you’re going to be switching locations and having new landscapes for the audience all the time. This movie was fairly confined in terms of the spaces it was going to take place in. What I happened upon was, instead of changing locations, I needed to have new actors appear as sort of my new locations, so that, every few minutes, you see somebody who pops up who is yet another challenge for Daniel, whether it’s in the shape of Ted Levine or Maura Tierney or Michael C. Hall. I felt like if on one side of the ball I had Adam and Annette, that I needed to populate the other side of the ball with some pretty formidable actors, and it was one of these situations where everybody worked for scale, and so they all showed up for the best of reasons, which is they just wanted to help tell the story, and we managed to get it done in 26 days, which was hard, but it was really the only financial model that worked for this film.
Was Adam a very easy person to think of in terms of playing Daniel?
When I finished the script, I showed it to Steven Soderbergh, and we had a conversation about casting. He had worked with Adam on “Logan Lucky,” which I realize is not an obvious comp for this, but Steven had had an amazing experience with Adam, and he felt that Adam’s curiosity, Adam’s work ethic, his focus would be very helpful in a role like this. Also, the fact that Adam had been in the Marines I think made him have a kind of investment in the story, because the U.S. military was not in favor of this program, and so I do think he had a horse in this race, but also, working or having had experience in the Marine Corps, he really understood chain of command and protocol and things that I think a Senate staffer also has to observe in doing their work.
I was curious about making a political thriller – I guess this can still be called that – in such politically-turbulent times. Is it still timely and relevant? Is it still important to make sure people know this stuff happened even though it’s now been six or seven years ago?
Well, I hope that it’s relevant because I think that this movie isn’t just about what happened five or six years ago. I think the movie ultimately is really about a crisis of accountability, and I think if you turn on your TV or radio today you’ll see that that crisis continues through this moment in time, and that had a lot to do with why I felt strongly about telling this story, is some of what it reveals in terms of our system and its current dysfunction. You can see the seeds of, you know, going back many years now.
Where do you go from here? “The Report” was your second or third movie as a director…
Really, it’s my first theatrical movie. I made a movie for HBO about 10 years ago. I probably go back to a little café on the corner and go back to work and try and write something else, and hopefully, people will let me direct more movies.
I love your ongoing relationship with Steven Soderbergh since it’s produced so many movies on interesting subjects. Do you frequently talk to each other about what you might do next?
Well, we do stay in fairly constant contact. Funny that you mention it because he is moderating my Q&A tonight in New York at the Directors’ Guild, so I’ll be seeing him later. One of the really inspiring things about Steven for me is that he is really the prime example I can think of someone who, as an artist, continues to try and find new ways to use the medium. And so his challenge always, to me, is not just to bring him an interesting story, but to bring him an interesting way of telling an interesting story. That’s sort of the basis on our collaboration, I think. My feeling every time that we finish something is, I’ve got to go find something and work really hard to get my seat back at the table. And, our collaboration, I think, is really based on pushing each other to find new ways of telling stories, not just on the fact that we know each other’s phone numbers.
“The Report” is now playing in select cities and will hit Amazon Prime on Friday, November 29.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW