Snowden Roundtable: Oliver Stone on JFK, Propaganda And Protecting The Truth

“Please say something strong,” Oliver Stone implored us at the end of a roundtable interview for his new movie Snowden. Stone has long been a political filmmaker with obvious examples like JFK, Nixon and W. but also in his approaches to he media in Natural Born Killers, finance in Wall Street and war stories like Platoon, Born on the 4th of July and Heaven and Earth.

Snowden is the story of Edward Snowden, the CIA analyst who exposed the NSA’s surveillance program and currently lives in exile in Russia for it. Discussing the film with reporters, Stone discussed his opinions about the security state, political propaganda in movies and where to find unbiased news. I personally loved that Stone got the name of Suicide Squad wrong, because Oliver Stone has bigger things to think about than a comic book movie! I want him focused on those things. Snowden opens Friday.

Joseph Gordon-Levit as Edward Snowden
Joseph Gordon-Levit as Edward Snowden

In your talks with Edward Snowden, and this would have been before his time there, but could he confirm or refute any of your theories about JFK?

Oliver Stone: We never discussed it. I went nine times to Moscow. We mostly talked about this. He was too young. He was born after that. He hadn’t read up on it. He was most concerned about the reform of the internet. He talks to groups in Europe and groups in the U.S. He’s definitely in the public eye. I think he’s not going to be forgotten. There was jokes in the U.S., John Oliver was it who was saying people don’t remember something because American memory is kind of short. He did a sequence where Julian Assange was confused with Ed but I don’t think he’s going to be forgotten. I think the fact that the two presidential candidates are not talking about them is more indicative of the mentality of the candidates than it is of the truth which is that he will not be forgotten. Although they never take about the surveillance state or Snowden or the wars that America is in or climate change. I think we’re in a strange time.

Did you have your hands tied about any things you could or could not show?

Oliver Stone: Very good question. Certainly now you have to analyze it. I had admired political thrillers always and made some, going back to the ‘70s and Manchurian Candidate in the ‘50s. I consider JFK a political thriller. So is Enemy of the State, 1999, impressed me. Of course, not realist but impressed me. So did WarGames. I love those films. I think here I’m constrained by reality. We had two books. We had the Russian fiction book and we had the Guardian book. I made three visits in the early part, from January to May of 2014 and that’s when we agreed, after being wary of this story. I didn’t want to get involved in something overly controversial. It could backfire in my face. I’d already been involved in the My Lai Massacre and the Martin Luther King movie so I’d been kind of burned out. I didn’t want to get into a mess and not make a movie after a year of work again. Anyway, I got involved. He would tell us only certain things. He can’t talk about other things but he often suggested ways to do it and ideas. Very interesting young man.

What were your visual constraints?

Joseph Gordon Levitt as Edward Snowden, Melissa Leo as Laura Poitras, Tom Wilkinson as Ewen MacAskill and Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald
Joseph Gordon Levitt as Edward Snowden, Melissa Leo as Laura Poitras, Tom Wilkinson as Ewen MacAskill and Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald

Oliver Stone: Oh, the idea, when Kieran Fitzgerald and I wrote the first draft, was let’s stay with two storylines. Let’s stick to Hong Kong, because that is a pressure point, whether this thing would get published. This is a big deal to get published. James Risen in 2004 had the story of mass eavesdropping but the New York Times buried it for a year and a half because the White House asked them to. It’s a dirty story but Snowden brought us the evidence, the evidence. And you can’t deny it. It’s so thick, this evidence. They’ve only released 10% of it but I’m saying it’s so thick that people don’t even understand the implications of what he released. Not only is it about mass surveillance, illegal mass surveillance, unconstitutional mass surveillance but it’s also about cyber warfare. The whole Japan sequence is about that. Michael Hayden was boasting about it if you remember, bragging about how he initiated the moment. He didn’t take credit because he didn’t want to officially admit it but he said he was so happy about Iran having problems with their centrifuges. Well, we unleashed the worm, the worm that continues to this day. This thing is very dangerous. It was not a successful operation. The Iranians got their centrifuges up within six months. The problem was that the worm didn’t stop, it just kept going. People picked up on oh, the U.S. is using cyber warfare. Now we’re going to use it. So the world is much more dangerous as a result of our stupidity.

As you got to know Ed, what did you want to make sure you conveyed? His story reminded me of Ron Kovic, a patriot who got caught up in circumstances that really transformed him.

Oliver Stone: That’s true and stayed a patriot like Ron did thinking that the best way, really concerned with the interests of the United States. They’re Americans first and foremost. In other words, Snowden thinks that the NSA is taking the wrong path to protect our interests. They’re overreaching. “The more you look, the less you see” is what Nic Cage says in the movie and they proved it at 9/11 by the way. They had so much information they just couldn’t put it together. They can’t make the connections. We need a leaner way of doing it, a better way. In fact, the Russians are a pretty good example of people who have been fighting terrorism for a while and are really doing an effective job of it actually, very effective. But that’s beside the point. The Kovic story was in fact a very good basis but we had much more violence. We had wars. It was a very dramatic story whereas this has a more cerebral story. So how do you make it into a dramatic thriller? That was always pushing that point. How do you keep this thing going? Who wants to see a movie about computers? I don’t. I mean, reading an NSA manual is like the most boring thing you’ve ever read in your life. If you read the recommendations of the review board that Obama appointed, it’s torture. You don’t need the CIA to torture you. You just read that.

How do you feel about privacy, not only government but in the public spectrum?

Oliver Stone: I am in a bit of a dilemma because I can’t say that I’m a private citizen. You make a contract I guess when you become public, so they’ve been reviewing me for 30 years, since 1980, ’79 actually. So I’m in a different position. To some degree it protects me. They could still kill me. I’m sure they could make it look simple. I mean, I had a heart attack. I’m old enough, or something like that. So far they’ve let me alone. At least I think so. I was worried about this movie. We went to Germany to shoot it. We set up shop there. We took great precautions with everything we handled offline. Code, we used encryption when we could. We also sent the scripts in pieces and parts to various actors all over the world. You have to get it out there and at the same time you have to be cautious. So we spent quite a bit of money protecting ourselves.

Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) applies to the CIA
Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) applies to the CIA

How did shooting digital impact you?

Oliver Stone: It’s a new technology and it seems to work. Anthony Dod Mantle, I really wanted to work with him for years. I’ve been offering him stuff. Finally got him. Slumdog Millionaire and Rush, Rush is beautifully shot. He did a great job, but we had a very limited budget. He wanted to work with a 65mm camera which is much more expensive actually. Thank God we were in Munich because that’s the headquarters of Arriflex. We worked out an arrangement. We did it experimentally on the basis with Arriflex where it minimized our cost. I liked the look. It allows you such a strong resolution. It’s a great looking film. Also the projection of digital is so much better. When you film, you have to go to every theater and see how it’s shown so sloppy, the way we show film. There’s no standard. I’m still having some of that problem with digital because they lower the sound in theaters. This is very quiet film. It was mixed very rationally. We didn’t exaggerate it like Suicide Club [sic] and all these films with action. We made it very real, a real mix. But we’re going to have to go out and fight for it.

Was Joseph Gordon-Levitt always your first choice?

Oliver Stone: Yes, he was. It was funny. I didn’t know the movie would get made, but I really wanted that if I did it, I did it with him. I called him on the phone. Perhaps that was a mistake. I think I said, “You’re my first choice.” I should never say that. I liked his demeanor. He was not a star so he wouldn’t help us at the box office. But at the budget level, he was a solid young man and respected. He feels like him. He looks like him. There’s a certain neutrality about Joe. And the right age – the right generation. And Shailene [Woodley] too. She sent me a letter out of the blue. She really wanted to do it. I saw The Fault in Our Stars and liked it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley in Snowden
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley in Snowden

As much as any filmmaker, you know the power of a movie to change people’s minds about things. We’re going to have these big discussions about privacy and the government, but there’s still a man in political exile right now. Do you hope this movie helps him find some sort of resolution?

Oliver Stone: You can’t be an activist when you make movies because they have so little effect on the government officials. I made a movie called JFK, and you know what the officials did? They created an assassination review board because they were so outraged they wanted to prove me wrong. The assassination review board put out a million some pages, and repressed another million probably, but what they put out in those little details was very helpful to the community including the revelation of Operation Northwoods against Cuba. There was a lot of other things that came out but you’ll never get a ‘smoking gun.’ In other words, I’m trying to say, the government is not working in the interest of the people. They tell you that, but you can’t believe it. I mean, go to the 9/11 commission and look at Philip Shenon book [The Commission: What We Didn’t Know About 9/11]. You’ll see what I’m talking about. They cover up everything. And now they’ve reached the point of insanity, declaring everything national security, including the Espionage Act does not give Snowden the right to represent himself with anything factual. He has no defense. It’s a strange time we’re living in. They are telling us they have to protect us. And they are saying they have a collective agreement with all of you that you will be strip searched wherever we want, at the airports, and on top of that, we are watching all of your communications. To me that sounds like 1930s Germany. “We have to protect you. This is in all of your best interests.” I didn’t make that agreement. I’m sorry. Give me to me on paper and you’ll see if I sign it.

Where do you get your news from?

Oliver Stone: Alternative sources. Believe me. You could not get it out of the U.S. I run Al Jazeera. I run BBC. BBC is very bias too, but generally speaking. Al Jazeera, and they make fun of in the U.S., but actually if you listen to RT you learn, maybe not a lot about Russia, but you learn about what’s going on in the world because the stories they publish are not repeated in the stories in the western press, ever. You have to listen. I always said, when they criticized my subject for interviewing Castro or Chavez, I say, “If that is your enemy, wouldn’t you want to get to know him?” That’s not the response in the U.S. They censor you. They muffle you. They don’t put the Castro documentary on television. They don’t want to hear an opposite line.

After watching this movie, I felt helpless now.

Oliver Stone: Yeah. You should.

What should we do? 

Oliver Stone: It’s very tough. Snowden has recommended as much encryption as you can get. I mean, you have one party in this country. You should be aware of it, there’s been no talk about peace. There’s no peace party except for Jill Stein. Really it’s depressing. Both candidates are basically embracing this continuation of the wars which are draining us. That’s our national security. What do we do? Vote, I guess? Keep voting. Keep protesting. Keep writing. What can we do? We can only have that little smattering of art that comes up when we say, “Look this community doesn’t go along with that, but we’re a small community compared to the overall.” With the degree of education America gets… I did The Untold History of The United States. Five years. It’s a beautiful story, the real story, in my opinion. I had historians work with me. That should be read in schools and studied. There’s no way I could get through the school boards. This goes back to the 1950’s, the McCarthy Era. We were so set on creating an enemy out of the Soviet Union, we cut out everything that was critical of the U.S.. Only after the Vietnam War did we get that period in movies where there were movies critical of the U.S. Think about the movies since. Most of them are about Americans, heroes. They will rarely go into the area of being critical of the U.S., like a Born on The Fourth Of July. You can be critical and love the United States. I do.

I heard they are funded by the government, some of them. Is that true?

Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)'s brief time in the military.
Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)’s brief time in the military.

Oliver Stone: Well, not funded by, but the CIA, since JFK came into this business and really has had great influence, give cooperations to the Zero Dark Thirtys, to the Homelands, to 24. It’s all subtle but they definitely influence television. Alias! Alias is a great example – a beautiful heroine, it’s all sexy, this or that. You watch it, but the message is being planted. Did you see the military movies? The Pentagon’s all over them. Did you see Lone Survivor? Did you see American Sniper? Sniper is a good movie, but it’s very subtle; it’s okay to go to other countries and snipe and kill women and children because they are carrying bombs. It may be true in certain instances, but you have to think about the overall generality of it. Pearl Harbor, they had big money in that one and of course at the end of that, Doolittle flies over Tokyo.

With the current presidential election, how much as a citizen are you dismayed and how much as a filmmaker are you like, Trump: The Movie is going to make a helluva movie?

Oliver Stone: No, I wouldn’t. Did I say it earlier, they’ve avoided this issue? Yeah. They’ve not talked about any of the wars, or climate control, or anything that matters. Really. To me, it’s trivial, this election. I would not go there. I mean, they made an Obama movie. That’s typical of America that we make an Obama movie that I hear was so bland. Did you see it?

I saw it. It doesn’t go into politics. It’s about their first date.

Oliver Stone: And? Does it go into what Obama did to the country? That he was even more efficient than Bush closing up every f*cking loophole. That he prosecuted eight whistleblowers – eight! – with the Espionage Act? There’s so much that he’s done. Because he’s a good looking guy and he seems reasonable, but every Tuesday, he drops bombs in the world with drones, kills people. Assassin in Chief, whatever you want to call it. It’s a weird time. Obama didn’t fight, man. He didn’t have a spine. He didn’t confront this issue. How do you confront this national security state? It’s been growing since 1945. That’s another issue. Keep fighting. Keep talking. Talk to your kids. That’s the only hope I see. Unless we destroy ourselves first, which is possible, because we are warmongers. Martin Luther King, remember? “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

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