Talking Snowden With Its Director: An Excerpt From The Oliver Stone Experience

By
Oliver Stone and Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the Snowden screening at Comic-Con 2016. Photo: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

The following is an excerpt from my new book The Oliver Stone Experience, about the life and work of Oliver Stone, whose long career includes Salvador, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, The Doors, Nixon, U-Turn, Any Given Sunday, World Trade Center, W., and the documentary series Untold History. I first interviewed Oliver — as I’ll call him from now on, as we've become friendly — in 2010. He was doing publicity for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. He’d seen a series of videos that I had co-written and edited with one of my filmmaking partners, Kevin B. Lee, about his historical movies; he mostly liked it, although he disagreed with many of our conclusions. Our sparring over that series led me to invite him to screen his films Nixon and Alexander at the Museum of the Moving Image in 2011 and discuss them afterward.

Over the next few years I talked to Oliver for Vulture about his years studying film at New York University under Martin Scorsese and about the making of his drug drama Savages. After a certain point it became clear that he was already becoming the subject of a book; the result, which was released on September 15, Oliver’s 70th birthday, is a 480-page, six-volume set that includes a book-length interview with Oliver; critical essays about aspects of his work; excerpts from his novel A Child’s Night Dream and Ron Kovic’s memoir Born on the Fourth of July; personal and set photos, storyboards, production design sketches, letters, telegrams, memos, and other memorabilia culled from his private files, which date back to the early 1970s.

The following is an excerpt from the book’s final chapter, a look at his latest work, the biographical film Snowden, which opens today. In 2013, Edward Snowden copied classified information on global surveillance programs, flew to Hong Kong, and told his story to the journalists Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Laura Poitras, the director of the documentary Citizen Four. The details were published in a series of reports in The Guardian of London.

I talked to Oliver about the production of the film; about what it was like to get to know Snowden; about his direction of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden and Shailene Woodley as his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. We also discussed the surveillance state, the military-industrial complex, and the relationship between Snowden and his other work.  

What did you think about Snowden’s actions, as a detached observer?
I was totally for them. You know, I stated as much, I went public in support of Ed, I was one of his early supporters. But when I did the movie, I consciously said to myself, I’ve got to be careful here. This is going to be misunderstood. And it will be! But I am doing this movie as a dramatist, not from my citizen side.  

How much of the script for this film comes from your own conversations with Snowden in Moscow, where he’s been a guest of the Russian government since leaving Hong Kong?
I can’t say.

How did your contact with Snowden come about?
I was in China and got a call from Germany from Moritz Borman, who produced Alexander. I was not working with him at that time. Moritz said, Look, I know this Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena. He called a friend of mine, a producer friend in Paris, and said he’d like to contact Oliver Stone. I said, Go to CAA, but they insisted, and he was calling me, this lawyer, and he said he’d like to meet me in Moscow. He said he was a lawyer for Snowden. Anatoly’s a wonderfully charming man. Bit of a bluffer—he’s a lawyer. A contract finally was made between us and Anatoly to buy his book.

Anatoly Kucherena’s book is Time of the Octopus, right? And it’s about Edward Snowden?
Well, sort of. There was a lot of good stuff in the book about Ed, but I didn’t realize the degree to which it became a Dostoevsky-like confession between a lawyer and Ed, whose name had been changed to Joshua Cold. And there were flashbacks to Ed’s life as imagined by Anatoly. Now, a lot of it is very fanciful, but some of it is accurate to some degree. My cowriter Kieran Fitzgerald and I didn’t know at that point, frankly, without having learned the real story, if we were going to do the movie as fictional or factual. It could easily have been a changed name.

In other words, you could have just told the story of an Edward Snowden-like figure.
Yeah, yeah. And probably would have been the easier way out, given all the difficulties. See, I had been through the Martin Luther King thing, and I didn’t want to go through this again.

Your King film fell apart because the King estate owned the copyright on all of King’s speeches, which means that basically they had approval over any biography that wanted to use the speeches—and they didn’t like the way you were handling the stuff about his love life, the FBI wiretapping, and other aspects.
Yeah. That told me to stay away from real-life figures. They’re fucking dangerous; they blow up in your face. If anybody’s going to blow up, it’s Snowden, so I didn’t want to get burned again. I was reluctant.

But Moritz convinced me that this was a story worth doing, and we went back to Moscow and saw Ed several times. Several months later, Kieran and I were still changing the script madly all through January 2015, and we didn’t know if the financing was in place. It was horrible—a big step forward, but it was still not there. We started shooting February 16 or 17 and the bank loan had closed a few days earlier. The errors and omissions, which was crucial for a movie like this, was signed right before then, and it had to come from a smaller company in Australia willing to underwrite it. We couldn’t go the normal routes, because we’re not a studio film. The big setback had been October–November [of 2014], when our draft was rejected by all the studios. These corporate boards wanted nothing to do with a Snowden picture. 

What were they afraid of, do you think? What some people call a “ripple effect”—where the entertainment companies aren’t afraid of the NSA per se, but they are afraid that if they do something that criticizes the NSA, the next year they’ll find themselves audited? Or some tax loophole that used to be open for them will suddenly be closed? Or they’ll be seeking approval for some merger and they won’t get it? Stuff like that?
I think it’s self-censorship. Where you do something and corporate life follows . . . like they did with Snowden and all these telecommunications companies that signed onto the government’s surveillance programs. Why did all those companies let the government tap them? Again, fear, right? Just plain fucking fear!

The NSA—oh my God, that mystique about the NSA still exists. I think it scared people, like, “We can’t do anything about it.” [Bill Gates’s] company [Microsoft] signed on to the wiretaps early. Apple, I think, resisted for a while—that was when [Steve] Jobs was still there. I know a couple others resisted, too—Yahoo did. But they all gave in because of conformity. Everybody gives in. That’s the problem. Everybody turned us down except one independent company—thank God, or we wouldn’t have made the film.

Do you understand what I’m saying? It’s pretty shitty. This is a guy who’s a whistle-blower, he broke the law—the law currently, I should say. But we’ve made films about criminals since the beginning of Hollywood. So what is it about this particular “criminal” that makes him worse than John Dillinger? I’m just asking you.

Edward Snowden. Photo: Antoine Gyori/Corbis via Getty Images

You really want my answer to that?
Yeah.

Because Ed Snowden went against the Beast.
Aha! You’re using my terminology.

You’ve talked many times about The Beast with me, and it’s a phrase that occurs in Nixon, and it’s a theme throughout your work—this idea of the military-industrial complex, as seen not just in fiction films like JFK and Nixon but also Untold History. 
The fear of Communism and the Cold War were the results of domestic selfishness, the desire to make more money, and keep the corporate control of the world, which today has grown into this monstrosity. It’s no longer military-industrial, it’s military-capitalist-corporate.

Throughout your work—and we’re talking three-plus decades of directing here—often you present the true patriot as the person who is willing to go against the government.
Yeah, well, that’s certainly true. It’s reached Alice in Wonderland proportions. Snowden can’t get a fair trial—he’s a whistle-blower, he’s not a spy. He’s not in an espionage unit. And if you’re in his situation and you let yourself be tried, often you don’t know why you’re being charged or the secret evidence against you, and you can’t defend against the charges, because certain witnesses cannot appear.

Now you’re talking about the secret courts that are discussed in the movie—the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts.
Yes, and things like that.

They can issue FISA warrants, in one of these FISC hearings, which are closed to the public and almost totally secret, so the press and the public can’t even know that a request to put somebody under surveillance even took place, much less the reason for the request.
Well, that’s sometimes true in regular courts, too: If the government slaps “national security” on the case, you’re automatically denied certain rights as to who you can interview and what you can say in court. That’s a mockery of our justice system, saying anything you want to keep secret has to be kept secret because it’s a matter of national security. National security has been completely distorted. What Snowden said very eloquently, far better than I could, was that “national security” as it’s defined by the government is not so much about terrorism, it’s about economic and social control. Terrorism is a misnomer for a few single individuals who don’t amount to much of a threat at all, and in the name of fighting terrorism, fighting the phantom enemies, like Russia, Noriega, Grenada, Saddam Hussein.

It’s crazy that we’ve allowed ourselves to be so mythologized and distorted that we believe people like Ed Snowden are truly dangerous to a great country. I think Ed is an icon. He became an icon. But I don’t think I treated him like that in the movie. I think I treated him as a guy struggling with a lot of fucking problems, with a girlfriend, and this and that, and life. Is Ed going to take on his bosses? These are important men, these are powerful men, and he’s only thirty years old. What the fuck? You don’t declare your conscience at thirty! You’ve got to have something else on your mind and heart. You’ve got to be really a patriot, which I’d argue is what Ron Kovic and Edward Snowden are, you know?

What was Edward Snowden like, personally?
I found him very reserved, very articulate, extremely intelligent. I found him to have a sense of humor. And although he hadn’t seen many movies, he could imagine things that the dramatist would imagine. He had the dramatist’s ability of looking at things. But he was very accurate about his own world, and very detailed and articulate. Very extraordinary for a young man. At the same time I don’t find him to be forbidding. I know people who are intelligent who can be very forbidding, but he was certainly very open.

Almost all the time it was at the offices of his lawyer, in various rooms, and in the dacha owned by the lawyer. Never saw his security, although I know he had some, since it took time to get there, and never outside those [circumstances]. I would’ve loved to have gone to a restaurant with him, and I’m sure he could’ve, but I think he didn’t want to be spotted in Moscow. I met his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, there and then I met her on the set the day you were there.

What did you think of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s work for you as Snowden?
I’m very happy with him. There’s a push and pull on any creative relationship, and any director who tells you different is full of shit. Go back to Billy Wilder, Hitchcock—most are not as honest as they were, but the whole everything is rosy, that’s bullshit. I loved Sidney Lumet, but he’d always say everything’s perfect, and it’s just not true. I talked to people who worked for Lumet, and it wasn’t all rosy. Marlon Brando did a movie with him called The Fugitive Kind and Lumet did take one—Marlon, that was great! So Marlon kept hearing that, and then they’d do take two and Sidney would come up to him and say, That’s even better! And then Marlon would start to fuck around, and he’d do another take another way completely, and then it’d be take three and Sidney would come up to him and say, That’s perfect! So Marlon lost respect for him and sort of said, Fuck this guy, he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about, he’s just always on a time clock.

Is that your roundabout way of saying you disagreed a lot?
We disagreed, but that’s normal. I’m trying to say to you I’m happy with him, and I’m being straight. I’m just really happy with the result, and it wasn’t easy sometimes getting there, but we got there. I think the results are in his work.

I think Shailene is certainly different in this movie [from previous performances]; she grows on you. She represents a younger generation, and she’s interesting. She’s twenty-three, for Chrissakes! It’s like directing my daughter. Her limits of life—she’s very idealistic, and I love that, but she has limits of experience, you know? It’s a very sweet kind of thing. And Joe is thirty-whatever, but he’s grown up inside the world of acting—so there’s another different experience of life, right?

Where did you shoot?
In Munich, because Moritz is German. Great crew, efficient, English-speaking. Wonderful town, easy to work in. We had a great subsidy deal with Bavaria, which is the state it’s in. It originally started because I think Moritz was, justifiably, paranoid. We didn’t know where this was going. We know now because it’s safer, but we didn’t know if this was going to get made. We didn’t feel comfortable being on American soil to do this. Who knows the tentacles of the National Security State? Who knows? Honestly, we don’t know, it’s a mystery. We just seemed safer, not to risk everything here. We did take a chance by leaving Germany because of the shooting schedule.

We left in the middle of the film to go back around the world because Shailene was leaving to shoot Allegiant, one of the movies in the Divergent series. We went to DC to shoot her out one week, and then we went and did one week in Hawaii to get her done. And then we moved on to Hong Kong for a week—we got the permission of the Mira hotel at the last second—then went back to Germany to finish the film. So that’s two US weeks, but that’s not the same as shooting an entire film and having your offices in the US.

Why Germany? Just because your producer was from there?
We felt Germany was more neutral. As a US satellite, basically, it had a more open attitude about Snowden, and a deep hatred for the surveillance state from the Cold War days. Thus they were more favorable to the film. But, I have to say, all the German sponsors with American headquarters, like BMW, pulled out of the film, which normally would’ve been available if you shoot in Germany. But they pulled out. There were important sponsors who were not there for us in the end. It’s a strange environment to work in, because I don’t think they were told by the government not to work with us; I think their reluctance goes back to self-censorship, which, again, goes back to the McCarthy era.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley on set in Washington, D.C. Photo: Open Road Films

People on set in Washington, DC believed the production was spied upon when you were there.
I didn’t feel that. I do think the NSA would have a problem if they were actually doing something actively; if that came out in the press, I think it would be very embarrassing to them.

But you did take security precautions to keep details of the shoot a secret?
What we did was more along the lines of, Be careful on e-mails, don’t say where you’re going, and stuff like that. We always had code names, and we tried to stay off phones and avoid talking about things openly. We became coded in our language.

That was the nature of being with Ed, too. Ed’s into calligraphy and cryptology, you know. All our communications were hidden through Pretty Good Privacy, or some equivalent. [My associate producer] Janet Lee did a great job of securing the script, which was always sent around in different formats and broken up. Actors would get secret codes to open iPads at a certain time for a certain hour and amount of time.

I experienced a version of that when you let me read it in DC. I sat in a trailer and was warned to keep my finger on the trackpad because if the computer went into sleep mode, I would have to have someone come in and type in a password so I could continue reading the script. And the computer was not connected to the Internet: That was interesting, too.
No, we kept off the Internet. We took great precautions with the script. You have to realize that that script was worth something if it was leaked. It would’ve been a bounty, because it’s about the major hacker in the world, so these people are very smart. I must’ve been hacked. I mean, I was hacked several times.

I am struck by, as you’re telling the story of this difficult production, how much it sounds like your accounts of the productions of Salvador and JFK. Those films and other Oliver Stone films were shot very quickly, and the financing in every case was lower than you might expect, looking at what ended up on-screen—even Alexander, although that was a long shoot, had to be done quickly for a film of that size, and it was financed independently through a lot of different places. Do you ever think, “Goddamn it, why can’t I just make a one-hundred-million-dollar studio film with superheroes or dinosaurs and have six months to shoot it and not have to hustle?”
I’ve thought that way at times but I couldn’t do that, because I feel we all have a limited time, and I just don’t know I’d be happy doing something I don’t care about or realize was unimportant. You have to find a reason behind a movie to spend that amount of time. You know, even by the time I’m doing the editing, I’m going over stuff for the one hundredth time in detail, and it takes care. It’s like the level of a craftsman or a jeweler or a watchman—someone who cares about the piece. I feel there’s a craftsman aspect—just professional craft. Just to build a watch that you think is a piece of junk—I mean, I did work on Mission Impossible II and developed that with a writer, and we really put hours into it, but we were trying to make that series significant, and I think we tried to do an artificial intelligence story, very much like Colossus: The Forbin Project from the sixties, which I always admired.

But it didn’t fit the needs of that series, which needs a certain amount of action every few minutes: That’s the way the series is built. I saw the new one the other night, and it was disappointing to me because the plots have to become more and more preposterous. I enjoy those movies—not often, but I enjoyed Kingsman, for example. It was fun to watch. And The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Everything’s being done to death now. Now that they’ve discovered the mega-size, everything’s done mega, and when a spy film is done mega, it loses its charm for me. The Bond films aren’t done tongue in cheek now, they’re overdone.

As to your point, though, when I did the second and first Wall Streets, which were both studio films, I was paid, I was secure, I felt like we weren’t going to run out of cash, they’d make this movie, they were on our side, and I had final cut. Never felt that way on Platoon, Salvador—they were hit-and-run jobs. Those were like, Look behind you, make sure you’re still there.

On Snowden, we were rushed. I mean, I was flying back and forth from working on the script here, and in Germany, trying to scout locations and cast the whole thing there, and England, and the States, too. It was endless detail. No money, and I’m talking to people who I’d love to be in the movie, and cast and crew, and I know they’re working on a dream. Like, Am I really making this movie? How can I asked Mark Tildesley, a very talented production designer, not just to design but to build the sets, when there’s a limited amount of money to build?

The Open Road people were not in 50 percent. It wasn’t a big deal, it was a certain amount. I forgot what it was, but France was very important, Pathé. They worked with us on Alexander. As much as there was respectability to this thing, it was underwritten for a while by a French bank. And even that was complicated. Germany was crucial because of the subsidy, but they came in, and Russia came in. A Ukrainian friend came in with money, so that helped a lot: cash. And then Fernando Sulichin, who was my producer on Untold History as well as Comandante and all those documentaries . . . he came in with equity at the end. We wouldn’t have made the movie without Fernando.

So you see, the parts are really tricky. The problem is, when you start to shoot you’re basically still doing prep, too, so at every free moment, instead of being able to relax, breathe, think about tomorrow, you’re also catching up. Most of my rehearsals happened on the weekends, and a lot of the actors were coming in for the first time. It was a grind, a hard film to make. It was cold in Germany—there’d be wonderful days and then really cold. We started with the military scenes in the fields, Ed training; it was freezing, but day by day, inch by inch, we chipped away, chip away, as my [director of photography], Anthony Dod Mantle, would say. We chipped away.

Prior to starting work on the script to this film, did you realize the extent to which Americans were being subjected to indiscriminate, mass surveillance by their own government?
No. No! I was quite surprised. I have an imagination, and in 1984, you see sci-fi versions of that kind of thing, but this was actual reality, and the motherfuckers could do it in bulk. There are going to be ways where you can simultaneously monitor five billion people, and if you want to retroactively go back and find certain information from all the stuff you’ve collected, you can. I mean, the machinery is going to get insanely thorough once artificial intelligence takes over. It already has.

I didn’t know until I read the screenplay to Snowden that the camera on a laptop really could be triggered remotely to spy on the user. I thought that was an urban myth.
Sure, that’s what Ed told us. I didn’t know about that, either.

Have you changed your practices or behaviors as a result of working on this movie?
To some degree, but not really. I can’t live with hiding. I can’t live with cryptology everywhere, but I do have some in my own system, and the editing room of this movie. But no, I’m not there. What am I gonna do? I mean, if I want to watch porn sites, I will! Fuck you, bastards! (Laughs)

I think [this story is] a hopeful one, because as long as people are willing to go against the powers that be, there’s hope. Out of that protest comes a sense of continuity. All through the ages we’ve had, from the Magna Carta to the revolutions to the civil rights and feminist movements, people who are sometimes a pain in the ass become the leaders of new ideas. I think that’s so important.

All your films have autobiographical elements, of course, but have you ever thought about doing an Oliver Stone film that’s just straightforwardly about Oliver Stone? With somebody playing you, officially? Or maybe something like what Jean-Luc Godard did later in his career, where you’re in it as yourself, and you’re sort of the protagonist and narrator of an essay-type film—something like Untold History, but pushed a lot further? Maybe there’s a mix of documentary, biography, and drama, sort of swirling around you?
That’s very kind of you. You know, it’s possible. When I can get away—maybe later in my life, when I’m old enough, when I can survive the outpouring of hatred that would come with that kind of movie. They’d say, “His ego is so massive, he had to make a movie about himself!”

But I remind you, Truffaut, Fellini, so many great filmmakers made disguised films about themselves—nobody more overtly than Fellini, and he’s one of my greatest influences. So I’m not ashamed of the wish to make something like that. But I am ashamed of it in this country. It’s somehow easier to do that sort of film if you’re European or Asian. It’s harder to do it here, because of the shit you take! You pay a price, unless you do it in a way that’s non-offensive.

I guess you could do it that way—but what would be the fun in that?
But it’s a good idea. I will really take it under consideration. I’m seriously getting there, so I can maybe just sort of do it and run! And I don’t want to run—I’d just like maybe to do a film like that. Maybe it’s time.

You could start with a scene where a film critic interviews you about your life.
No, I’ll start with a sex scene.

Excerpted from The Oliver Stone Experience by Matt Zoller Seitz, with permission from Abrams. Copyright 2016.