Writer-Director Scott Z. Burns on 'The Report'
November 8, 2019
The Report is a new film written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, who is probably best known for his many collaborations with Steven Soderbergh. Burns has written screenplays for such Soderbergh movies as The Informant!, Contagion, Side Effects, and his Netflix movie The Laundromat.
The first film Burns has directed since 2006's Pu-239, The Report takes on the Herculean task of dramatizing the Senate’s investigation into the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program—the findings of which eventually revealed the CIA to be participating in what many considered to be torture.
Adam Driver stars as Daniel Jones, the Senate staffer leading the investigation, and Annette Bening as Jones' boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who instigated the investigation which took place between 2009 and 2014.
Like a modern-day All The President's Men, The Report is all about process, and Burns does a deft job of presenting the complicated set of circumstances surrounding Jones' work in such dazzlingly cinematic terms. Burns states that as a screenwriter, he’s always on the hunt for stories that seem like they could be a movie. And like its predecessor, The Report often plays like a fictional conspiracy thriller. But even more scary, it's all true.
“There was so much that reminded me of movies that I love from the 70s, paranoid political thrillers, that it felt like Dan's journey was very much deserving of that kind of treatment,”
Burns became interested in this particular period of American history in early 2014 after coming across a Vanity Fair article about the two contractors credited as the architects of the interrogation program. Then, in 2014, Jones’ report came out.
“When I read the report, I started the conversation. I reached out to Daniel Jones, who was the lead investigator, and I had conversations with him about the two psychologists, but he couldn't tell me anything more than what is in the executive summary of the report. Eventually, Daniel and I wound up in New York at the same time. We went for a drink and I started asking him about his experience of writing the report and we sort of bonded as fellow writers,” Burns recalls. “From there, we were off and running. When I heard what he went through to get the report out, it struck me as something that was a journey like The Insider or All The Presidents Men, Serpico…and it very much felt like a film.”
Burns found dramatizing the bureaucracy—the importance of what Jones was revealing—inherently dramatic. “I mean, the United States violated its own laws, international laws, and as the report itself points out, they've misrepresented the results of this program to Congress, and to the President. Actually, to two Presidents and to the American people. That struck me as being very dramatic. For a Senate staffer locked in the middle of a bureaucracy to become aware of those things is a terrific burden for a character,” Burns concludes.
But he still found it very difficult to write the script. Burns had to compress the events revealed in the report, as well as depict the entire program that the CIA created. “At the same time, I have to create a believable, entertaining journey for the character—Daniel Jones—and fit both of those aspects together. I don't even know how many drafts I ended up doing, but probably more on this film than any other I've worked on,” Burns admits. And in the end, his final product is very different from his original vision.
“Initially I wanted to do a dark comedy, like a Catch 22, about the two psychologists [who promote the torture methods]. About two years in, I abandoned all of that and shifted gears to work on a story that was centered on Dan and his experience doing the research and then trying to get his work out. It evolved 180 degrees into something very different from a dark comedy,” Burns says.
However, there are still hints of that comedic tone. “I think that even within dramas, you still want to find moments of levity for the audience. There's such absurdity in some of what the psychologists did that I felt like leaving the vestiges of the dark comedy in was only going to help.”
And the theme of individuals doing the right thing in the face of enormous governmental pressure can't help but feel relevant to what's currently going on the country.
“I think the big message of our film beyond what it says about the CIA's program, and the way that the United States responded to a terrorist threat, is really about a crisis of accountability,” Burns says. “That is certainly a story that continues through to this day. I can't help but wonder that the beginning of this crisis can be traced back to a kind of political expediency that started 20 years ago. Obviously, this program is a stunning example of what happens when we don't have accountability. So I do think the events in our movie foreshadowed exactly the moment we're currently in.”
As gripping as it is, The Report doesn't feel like an especially commercial film. It started at HBO and Burns developed it with the executives there. “I had a great experience,” Burns says. “At the end of the day, HBO decided that they didn't want to make this film and they were respectful enough to give it back to me in short order. We took it out to financiers in Hollywood and nobody really wanted to step up; they didn't see a political thriller as being a viable commercial entity. Fortunately, the people at Vice media stepped up and felt this was a story worth telling.”
It’s just another example of the type of filmography Burns is known for—the kind that flies in the face of prevailing ideas about what films Hollywood seems interested in making. His take on the state of populist cinema is it’s extremely divisive.
“On one hand, it's easy to say that the studios have turned their attention primarily to franchises and comic books, and as Scorsese said, they're almost advertisements for thrill rides at amusement parks. But also, because of Netflix and Amazon—and I hope Apple will follow suit—there are opportunities to make other kinds of films like The Report. So I think there's a kind of bifurcation that's going on,” he states. “On one hand it’s allowing for movies like ours to get seen. But, on the other hand, the ability to get a movie like this done at a studio has just become incredibly difficult unless you're a director who has a brand name.”
Burns has two approaches when he’s writing: one for when it’s another director, and one when he’s at the helm.
“I think when you know you're collaborating, you tend to leave room for that input. When I know that I'm working with Steven Soderbergh—and this would be true of any director—I leave space in the script where you don't maybe need to bolt everything down quite as tightly, because you know that they're going to have input along the way,” Burns says. “So you tend to write in a way that's a little bit more subjective, and a little bit more illustrative, because you know that you're really trying to get something across.”
“When I'm writing for myself, the recipe's a little bit different in that I'm writing for the actors and for the production designer and for the cinematographer. I want to take that space for myself and try and give them as much information on the page as I possibly can. So, [when writing for a director] become an invitation for collaboration. The other is a document that's built much more to provide information that is in my head.”
The Report is released in cinemas on November 15th.
Written by: Dominic CorryDominic Corry is a Los Angeles-based film critic, writer, journalist and broadcaster. Raised in New Zealand, he is also the West Coast editor of Letterboxd, the social network for movie lovers. For more of his film writing, see his website www.TheGoodInMovies.com