A frequent collaborator of Steven Soderbergh’s, now Scott Z. Burns steps behind the lens himself, to direct the compelling political thriller The Report. Starring Adam Driver, Annette Bening and Jon Hamm among others, this is a fascinating insight into one man’s quest for the truth – as he shines a harsh light on the CIA. We sat down with Burns to discuss his writing process and what appeals to him as a storyteller.
This film felt, in some ways, like a continuation of Daniel Jones’s victory. Part of the film’s dramatic tension is the inability to get this report out there, and this film is like the pinnacle of that – do you feel like you’re a part of this story, by telling this story?
I hope so. I think the story of the journey that Daniel went on is a triumph of somebody who forced the system to work. I think that is a story worth telling, there is certainly a place in society right now for whistleblowers and people who have to blow up the system because it is so corrupt that it can’t be preserved. But what is fascinating to me about the choices that Daniel Jones made, is that he decided that he was going to make the system work, and he was going to personally hold the people he worked for accountable. It’s really a story about accountability.
When writing it did you know right from the offset that you’d be directing? If so, do you think that changed the way you wrote it at all?
Yeah I had always intended to direct this. There was a movie I wrote a few years ago called Side Effects which I did with Steven Soderbergh, and I had intended to direct that but I struggled to get financing, and I struggled to find a cast. So Steven one day said to me that he’d like to direct it, that he wanted to do a Hitchcock style thriller, and I said yes because if you’re a screenwriter and Steven Soderbergh expresses an interest, you say yes. But Steven also said that I need to go and write something by myself, for myself, because he knew that I wanted to direct, and so this was always intended to be that. I think there is a little bit of a different discipline that creeps into your head when you know that, because you can’t leave things on the page that you don’t know the answer to. If I’m writing for Steven I know that he has a point of view and so I’m more inclined to write a scene that has some vagueness in it, because I want him to collaborate. I want him to answer questions. When I’m writing for myself I feel a greater sense of responsibility to the actors and to the cinematographer and production designer, because I know that this is going to be a guide for them, and that ultimately I’m going to have to answer the questions, where I do it on the page or during prep.
The Laundromat also came out recently, which also has a pertinent message to it, digging into modern society and scrutinising over it, in the same way The Report is. Some filmmakers may make throwaway comedies and films like that, but do you personally feel a responsibility as a filmmaker to tell stories that matter?
Well I do think that entertainment and comedies also matter. I really do feel that stories choose me as much as I choose them, and we live in a time that’s very provocative to me, and I am concerned about people’s freedoms, and the planet and corruption, and so these are stories that I crossed my field of view and I felt like I knew how to tell them, and that was what drew me to them. Maybe that was misguided and I don’t know how to tell them but I hope I do. But I don’t start from ‘I wanna do a film that is overtly political’. I start from a place where I just want to tell an interesting, entertaining story and I think both of these required me to kind of go into the weeds and find the story and drag it out for the audience so they didn’t have to go into the weeds. So in that way I had a similar kind of task, but I don’t know that the next thing will necessarily be as immediately recognisable as a film that has a specific purpose.
The film is extremely, and deservedly critical of the CIA. As we can see in the film, when something is critical of the CIA, they don’t quite like it and they try to shut it down. Have you had spoken to them at all about this project, what has been their feedback about this movie?
I’ve not spoken to them directly, but I worked with a lot of journalists who I think have had direct contact with them. For me the CIA by the time I started working on this project, a lot of the principles of the CIA and a lot of the people who are in the movie and responsible for the programme have written books. They all have books out and all of their books espouse a narrative that the CIA have endorsed. So in a sense my research as a screenwriter was to go and read those books, where I find a consistent narrative that speaks to the triumphs of the CIA and is contrapuntal to the narrative that Dan has. So my research was reading their side of the story.
So perhaps no feedback from them as such, but there’s derogatory a line about Zero Dark Thirty in there, did you hear from anybody involved in that film about that moment?
Not really, the reason that moment is in there is because that movie was something that Dan encountered when he was doing his work, and so one day he emerged from the basement and that movie was coming out and he had a different understanding8 of events. Senate reports are not as famous as movies. That being said, Kathryn is an incredibly talented filmmaker and she made a really strong piece of cinema.
So finally what’s next?
I’m actually adapting a film from a British documentarian who did a cool little doc called The White Helmets, so I’m talking to him about trying to turn that into a film.