Interview: Legendary filmmaker Oliver Stone explains how and why he decided to make the film “Snowden.” From the beginning, it was difficult to film and difficult to attract financing, but it was a movie that Stone knew he had to make.

A footage from Oviler Stone's movie "Snowden." Photo:

On Sept. 15 the movie “Snowden” directed by iconic filmmaker Oliver Stone will finally hit movie screens in Russia. It tells the story of one of the most controversial characters in recent U.S. history – former American intelligence agent Edward Snowden. In 2013, he singlehandedly exposed how ubiquitous the eyes and ears of the American intelligence community are; under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the U.S. government hacked into the PCs and smartphones of hundreds of millions of people – including several world leaders.

The film was in the works for two years. Even for a filmmaker of Stone’s stature, it was challenging to take on such a recent and controversial subject, which at the time discredited the U.S. government and its spy agencies, and sparked several scandals with other states. But the story was classic for Stone: political intrigues, a government plot and at the center of it all – a disillusioned American patriot.

In an exlusive interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Stone explains how and why he decided to make the film “Snowden.” 

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Snowden’s revelations had a severe impact on the U.S. intelligence community, particularly the NSA. Weren’t you and your team afraid of putting yourself in the spotlight of the NSA because of the movie? Why did you shoot in Germany?

Oliver Stone: We felt it was safer to make it in Germany. Germany was more anti-surveillance state because of its own past. So going back to 2014… Remember, it all was fresh news and was scary. In the U.S., people were saying hysterical things against him - like he was working for Russia or for China, that he was a traitor, a spy. It was quite heated.

Also read: "Snowden’s saga: Whistleblower, hero, traitor, spy"

In that environment we found that if we would shoot in the U.S., we would not have the same friendly feeling. We felt that too many people were against him. The polling showed that Germany was far more favorable to his actions as opposed to the U.S., where 60 percent were against him. That changed later by the way, it became much more friendly. But not then…

But actually, we shot two weeks in the U.S. We had the character playing Snowden [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] walking right in front of the residence of President Barack Obama. We also went to Hawaii, Hong Kong and Moscow.

RG: Did you feel any pressure from the U.S. government or intelligence agencies while working on the movie? 

O.S.: Frankly, we took precautions with the script, didn’t talk about it over the phone or email, we went offline, we had our conversations encrypted as much as possible. It was quite complicated. I would never talk on the phone with Snowden. I would go to Moscow. We were working in Munich and it was closer. Or I would send him a message through his lawyers. One was in Washington – Ben Wizner, the other one was Anatoly Kucherena in Moscow.

I didn’t feel the NSA would attack us on the film. That would have been stupid and backfired on them. I’ve done these things many times before. I felt that I was protected because I was public and legal about my business affairs.

RG: Was it easy for you to find actors, a studio, and financing for the movie on such a politically heated subject?

O.S.: No, the studios were very difficult. Studios belong to major corporations in this country. And they all turned this down. It was, I think, a case of self-censorship. I really felt they were reacting to a chilling effect and a fear of the controversy. And that’s always the case with corporations. That’s why the Supreme Court is dead wrong: Corporations are not people. And they can’t allow this to happen that corporations have so much power. But this is another topic.

Video by Open Road Films / YouTube

We financed our film essentially in the beginning from Germany and France and foreign sales. Open Road Films, which is an independent, small and young distribution company, picked this up. But they don’t have the big money to spend on the movies that the majors have. [In the spring of 2015 Stone couldn’t go to his mother’s funeral, who passed away in the U.S. – due to his limited financing, he couldn’t afford to suspend shooting for several days – Editor’s note].

It’s actually odd to make a movie about an American and not be able to finance it in the U.S. And it’s disturbing to think about the implications it might have on any other subject that is not entirely pro-American.

And we had to sell our distribution rights country by country. It has been a really fractured schedule. In Russia, Central Partnership is so concerned about piracy that they insist on opening Sept. 15, which is one day ahead of the U.S. It’s kind of funny, but, you know… It seems Russians are very smart when it comes to computers. I imagine the film will be hacked right away and will be on the Internet. But I think it is worth seeing in person in a theater, it’s beautifully shot.

RG: So you worked in some tough conditions. But you have experience on that. You’re famous for making movies that resonate on controversial subjects, and this one is no exception. So, on your own scale, was it difficult?

O.S.: It was a complicated story. Aside from the usual physical challenges, the biggest problem was to dramatize it, to make it a thriller. The story is about computers and encryption, but it’s not exciting, it looks boring on the screen. At the same time, we needed to tell the truth, the reality of what happened. Also to build the sets accurately, especially computers, not to make them overdone, too sci-fi, too James Bond, you know.

But the script was the toughest thing to lick. Snowden worked in three different places and each time you had to establish a new setting, [so] we were constantly changing the script on the go. And Mr. Snowden helped me and Kieran Fitzgerald, my co-writer, over a long period. I went to Moscow altogether about nine times.

RG: What kind of advice did Snowden share with you? Did he watch the film? Did he like it?

O.S.: I took it to him twice. Yes, he got it. He was helpful on both sides. He understands the computer world very well and helped with technical corrections. Because he was there, he knows the language. At the same time he understands the needs of drama. You can’t have something going on and on… You need shape, a form, to this thing. We can’t film some of the computer stuff he talked about. We had to create it artificially, but it gives you a sense of what a computer can do.

RG: Many questioned his motivation. In the U.S. he was accused of narcissism, seeking fame and popularity. The government calls him a traitor, while for a liberal part of society, he is a hero. How did you feel about it? 

O.S.: This was my job as a dramatist. You have to see the movie to understand it. I can’t sum it up in a journalistic statement. There are a number of reasons. He was a patriot. He really believes in the U.S. constitution, almost like a boy scout. And his oath of loyalty was to the constitution, not to the CIA or the NSA. We show you his progression in the intelligence community, his different jobs and what he sees in these different jobs. And it’s horrifying to him.

Director Oliver Stone discusses his new film 'Snowden' with moderator Ron Suskind at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government Institute of Politics on Sept. 12. Source: Getty Images

On top of that, he had a life. If you take his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills into account, it’s a ten-year relationship. And I think giving her up was one of the big aspects of that story and was most difficult to him.

You have to take into account his epilepsy. That feeling for the first time in his life that he’s mortal, that there’s a limit to this life. And when a young man runs into that, he has second thoughts about what is he doing in this life. In the movie you see his development from about age 20 to 29. That’s quite a step. You learn as you go, you change, that’s what life is about. This movie is really about how to keep your soul.

RG: Snowden is one of the most famous whistleblowers in U.S. history. This is a recent controversy, it’s not even a completed controversy, a very heated subject. How have your decided to direct a movie on it? What attracted you as a filmmaker?

O.S.: It’s easy to make a movie about the leaders of the civil rights movement who are already dead. But it’s harder when it comes to the current man. I didn’t want to do this at first. I resisted. When you do controversial movies, often you don’t get away with it because of lawsuits, problems. The story changes, especially this one, it can change. It was too difficult.

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But I admired him much when he did it as a citizen because I had suspected something was going on like this, basically since the James Risen story broke in The New York Times in 2005 [James Risen wrote a series of controversial investigative reports about the NSA’s surveillance activities – Editor’s note]. When Mr. Snowden did it seven years later, he had facts, he hit the world.

I knew Glenn Greenwald before and met Laura Poitras at the Las Vegas convention for hackers in 2014 [Glenn Greenwald is the journalist who first broke the Snowden story in a series of reports in The Guardian newspaper – Editor’s note]. He asked me for advice on his book. I gave him some suggestions, but I didn’t really see myself doing this. I was already burned out on the Martin Luther King story, which I tried to do. In the movie business, you have to try to make a film that is commercial and profitable.

What happened then is that I got a call from Moscow from Mr. Anatoly Kucherena. It was January 2014. He called my producer Moritz Borman and asked him if I could come to Moscow to meet Mr. Snowden. I was really curious, I didn’t know what was going on, and I went. I had one session with Mr. Kucherena, but it was not an easy session.

Finally, I did meet Snowden on the first trip. He was wary of me, like “Why a movie?” – that kind of thing. And I was wary of him and wary of doing the movie. But he was an impressive young man. I went back two more times before June. We felt Ed was cooperating with us and telling the things within the bounds of what he could do. He wouldn’t deal with some of those issues because they still were very sensitive. And after three meetings I decided to go ahead and make this story as realistically as possible.

So we bought the book from Mr. Kucherena, which is a fiction book, “Time of the Octopus” [Stone paid $750,000 for the book, which, he says, granted him good access to Snowden – Editor’s Note]. We also purchased another book – “The Snowden Files” [by Luke Harding] - as a factual basis to go ahead.

RG: Snowden’s actions served to open up a discussion in the U.S. about the delicate line between democracy, human rights, security and fighting terrorism. After his revelations, the Obama administration took some steps to limit electronic spying. As you’ve mentioned, U.S. society as a whole also was re-thinking the issue. Recently former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called Snowden’s actions a “public service.” In what direction is this dialogue moving?

O.S.: Frankly Mr. Snowden himself said that Mr. Obama made some reforms, along the lines of “changing the drapes in the room.” Spy agencies can go back and retroactively get what they want. I think all Americans feel that we’re being watched, or potentially watched. I grew up in the early 1950s in New York and I remember that Cold War feeling from my father. The same chilling effect and fear exists in all of us, and we watch what we say because if you express yourself openly, you might become a class enemy or enemy of the state, or an enemy of business or corporations, more likely.

Also read: "Is a cyber arms race between the US and Russia possible?"

The big reform that happened after Snowden in my opinion was the concept of encryption. It was carried out through private corporations. Some of them were major collaborators of the government in the period before Snowden. That’s not to say that the biggest phone companies, like AT&T or Verizon, have changed their ways. I doubt it. But Google and Facebook have gone ahead. Not because they believed in what Snowden was doing, but because they didn’t want to lose their customer base. I think other commercial outlets would have presented products with encryption and customers would have gone.

RG: Was that the right thing to do for Russia, to give asylum to Mr. Snowden?

O.S.: Frankly, I asked Mr. Putin about that, and he gave me a very good answer, but I can’t tell you that until the film is released. But the fact that Mr. Putin gave asylum to Mr. Snowden has affected his relations with the West. I don’t think the United States, which dominates the West, was very happy with him.

RG: By the way, you were working on a documentary about the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. How is that going?

O.S.: I’m completing it, yes. Maybe it will be done next year.

RG: In the U.S. the movie will hit movie screens on Sept. 16. You’ll celebrate your 70th birthday on Sept. 15. Is it a coincidence?

O.S.: It coincides with the Russian distribution (laughter). But it’s actually a coincidence, because we were supposed to finish the film earlier in time. There were delays because of the financing. Anyway, we’re here.

RG: Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who played Snowden in the film, promised to donate his entire salary from the film to a foundation that works on civil rights protection. What impact do you expect this film to have on the dialogue on this important issue?

O.S.: Right, Joseph donated it to the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, it has been around since the 1920s, protecting the constitutional and civil rights of people in the U.S. It’s a very noble gesture.

I hope the movie comes to mean something. To me it does. I hope the film does well everywhere. It’s a worldwide issue that concerns all of us. I think young people especially should care about their sense of privacy. You hear young people say all the time: “I have nothing to hide.” It may be true if you are a certain age, but as you get older, you get wiser - you know you do have something to hide: Yourself, your soul. Dostoevsky would know what I’m talking about.

We posture so much. We talk so aggressively. I think this is a curse. I really wish I could do more to bring peace to the world. That’s what I’m trying to do with my work.

You know, I’ve directed 20 films. This was a story I had to tell. I do think about what have I done. I would love to have one more movie just for myself. Twenty-one is a good time to finish. Because when you’re doing a movie on someone else you have an obligation, a responsibility. But I’d like to be completely free and make a movie about… Well, I have written a few things, let’s see where it goes.

The interview was first published in Russian in Rossiyskaya Gazeta