Oliver Stone, Snowden interview: ‘Entertainment comes first but you don’t sacrifice the truth for that’

Director Oliver Stone talks to Kaleem Aftab about meeting ‘boy scout’ Edward Snowden for the first time, how he kept his script from leaking and the need to balance facts with drama

Kaleem Aftab
Wednesday 12 October 2016 11:42
The Oscar-winning film director says he struggled to find a studio that would put its name behind the film
The Oscar-winning film director says he struggled to find a studio that would put its name behind the film

Oliver Stone says that making Snowden was harder than putting together his films on American presidents, Nixon, W. and JFK. He says it’s because studios are being controlled by corporations who baulked at the prospect of making a film on the fugitive American whistleblower currently in exile in Russia.

“There was as much drama in the making of the film, as on screen,” claims the director who recently turned 70. Speaking at the Zurich Film Festival, he complains that studios would have meetings with him and declare their interest before it all turned sour. “But they don’t tell you that they are going to send it upstairs for approval, because they are embarrassed by the upstairs corporate lawyers, who say this is too much, we don’t want anything to do with it because we have a merger going on with this other company and the US government and Department of Justice have to look at it.”

He names BMW and Apple as companies that tried to prevent Snowden from being made. “Our German producer does all of his films with deals with BMW but they say no, because their satellite BMW say it’s too risky.”

As for Apple he believes problems may have arisen because, “Apple was named as one of the collaborators on the PRISM program.” PRISM is one of the clandestine surveillance programs that Snowden revealed was set up by the American government to spy on American Internet search providers.”

Stone is also worried by the influence that the American government has on the movie business. “The government are influencing films too,” he explains. “There is a study that the CIA and the Pentagon have played a large role in filmmaking since the 1990s. They have collaborated on TV shows and it’s not just giving money, they are giving advice and that’s even better than sponsorship.”

Of course, Stone, who has famously been tarnished with the brush of being a conspiracy theorist, is given no such advice. He is a director who looks to real life events, whether it be his own experiences as a US infantryman in Vietnam to use in his 1986 Best Oscar winning picture Platoon, or the life of Jim Morrison for the biopic The Doors and the events in New York on September 11th 2001 for World Trade Center. More often then not, he’s been cited as a left-wing sympathiser. Although he smirks when he says, “It was the left who were criticising me when I made W as they said that I made Bush too sympathetic.”

Stone found the real life Edward Snowden to be like a ‘boy scout’ when he met him 

There is the need to balance facts with drama. It’s a see-saw that Stone sits on both sides of, as he struggles to get equilibrium, but when he has to decide, “Entertainment comes first, but you don’t sacrifice the truth for that. The truth is important and it’s always my goal to find out more. I would not pervert the truth knowingly.” He talks about how Snowden had numerous supervisors in the 9-year period that the film covers, but they were condensed into one character for Snowden.

His first impression of the whistleblower, who he met in a private Dacha in Russia in 2014, is that “frankly by most standards he is a boy scout. He is pretty straight and narrow. He’s had one woman in his life for nine years. There is no drinking and there is no drugs or smoking. There are no vices apart from sitting behind a computer or you could call it emotional stunting. He is withdrawn and shy as a lot of people in that world are. He is pleasant and polite. He has a southern background but there is a difficulty in emotional expression, a difficulty in expressing himself. He has epilepsy and in the movie and you can argue that that epilepsy is the signal of his inner stress. Some have accused me of making him a white knight but they don’t know the real man.”

Snowden - Trailer

Originally, he says he had no intention of making a film about Snowden: “You don’t chase the news as a moviemaker, are you crazy! It takes two years to make a movie. I met him and I was very impressed. He was wary.”

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In the end Snowden began telling him about his life, and helped with descriptions of what the computer programs the government were using looked like, as well as offices in Hawaii.

Hearing about the levels of surveillance, Stone took a number of precautions to stop the script from leaking or getting into the wrong hands. He wrote the script on a single computer that was never plugged into the Internet. When they wanted to share the script, they would print off one copy, mix up the pages on the floor, and then make four piles and send them to different addresses. Someone would pick them up from these addresses, collate them and hand-deliver the script.

Playing Snowden is Joseph Gordon-Levitt: “I was not chasing movie stars on this one,” says Stone. “I went to Joseph right away. I don’t know him but I thought that he had that physical and emotional resemblance, the kind of restraint.”

Stone was immediately drawn to the idea of Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Snowden in his film 

Shailene Woodley, who won the role by writing the director a letter, plays Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills. Clearly not a fan of Divergent or The Fault in Our Stars, Stone says, “I didn’t know who she was either. She’s an activist of sorts.”

So, given his concerns about government surveillance, I ask the director if he fears that he is being watched? “I try to keep tabs and use the information act to make requests, and I have paid the lawyers to act, but I have not found anything of consequence yet or else they are lying. It could be that, but I don’t think they are. It will be kind of hard to go after a filmmaker, a director who is relatively harmless in their world and it would cause tremendously embarrassing publicity for them to be tracking entertainers. It’s like they are tracking Banksy or something.”

Snowden plays at the London Film Festival as a Headline Gala on 15 and 16 October

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