Bill Condon isn't happy with the response The FIfth Estate got out of the Toronto International Film Festival. The director, who has wonderful movies like Gods and Monsters and Dreamgirls under his belt, as well as the delightfully delirious Twilight: Breaking Dawn duology (still the best superhero fight on film), has now tackled the true story of Julian Assange and Wikileaks. But like his other work, Condon has approached the true story with a sense of heightened reality, something the director feels has been lost on many of the film's detractors.
Dressed in a suit and sitting Indian style on a couch, Condon was incredibly forthcoming with his frustration, but also with his pride that he had tried something outside of the usual studio biopic/movie of the week mold.
In the film Benedict Cumberbatch plays Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, a website devoted to giving whistleblowers a safe space in which to spill secrets. Daniel Bruhl is Daniel Berg, a hacker who Assange enlists in his crusade. The film is told from Berg's point of view as he slowly begins to discover that this technomessiah might not be everything he's cracked up to be, and as he begins to wonder about the downside of indiscriminately sharing government secrets. It's a movie that's intended to set you talking in the theater lobby afterwards, arguing about who is right. But does Condon have a point of view on how right Assange was? And more importantly - does he think Assange is an asshole? I had to ask.
Hollywood has a really hard time with technology in the movies. This is a technology-driven story. How do you approach that so as to make the technology understandable to the average person without becoming The Net?
We have so many moments - there’s easily 20 minutes of movie here of people communicating through laptops. I was looking at that and I thought, ‘This is a silent movie.’ That means you have everything at your disposal that a silent movie maker did, the only thing missing is the dialogue. The screen becomes the card. Once I thought of it that way that got me going… and it’s driven me crazy. I think people misunderstand, because this is already a period movie. It got me going, but not in terms of where we’ll be in the future but in a retro way. This was early days! For example, I wanted to visualize the submission platform not, as some people have been saying, a Computers for Dummies idea, but as an idealized, almost movie-inspired, Julian’s vision of the ideal newsroom. Obviously I started with that image [of the office] from The Apartment, but that also extends to the Watergate era, the Washington Post, and there are things that are His Girl Friday - all things he would have grown up with, but taken to an absurd, abstract level. I think it’s mostly the retro thing. Almost everything was created on the set. The first stylization is the text coming off the screen and playing on their faces, and that’s a theater device. Instead of a million things you could do with VFX I wanted to capture the feeling of the whole world being blotted out and you’re only in this moment, which is much more interesting than the stuff happening around you. That’s the notion behind it. It drives me NUTS that people see it as this wannabe Matrix…
That’s why I’m here - to set the record straight!
How quickly can you publish?
It seems obvious to me that there’s a stylized aspect to the film, especially when it goes into that newsroom.
Yes, and it’s part of the overall aesthetic. This is not the factual retelling of the Julian Assange story. There have been others, most recently the amazing movie Alex Gibney made. I’m surprised that people don’t notice there’s stylization throughout, that the colors are more vibrant. When it comes to that… boy world there’s something where they want their features straight up. They want it all severe - which I love too! But that’s not how I see things. The heightened nature of it all reflects the paranoid, self-invented aspect of it all.
Is it because it’s a true story and because it’s a tech story that people are having that problem? Or is it because there’s an inability to read film language these days and that people are only interested in straight, boring realism?
I think that’s it. I think you can’t break their rules. I have a lot of theories I’ve developed over the last month. There’s a lot of snark underneath it all, and I feel like what people are saying - and I kind of get it - is that it’s too early to dramatize, or to make art of, this. It’s still happening all around us. And what is it to dramatize? You’re making choices about what to include and what to leave out. Even when you have something like Zero Dark Thirty, which is ripped from the headlines, it has stuff we don’t know about. But this story is happening all around us. Deciding to tell it from Daniel’s point of view, in this self-invented way to tell it in a thriller mode, to have conventional things like he has a girlfriend and how it affects his life. “Why are you wasting our time on that, why aren’t we getting more on the rape case?” Basically they’re saying, “You made these choices to dramatize something” and I think they say it with resentment. The other film that could be made from this is right there in front of you. Talk about sausage making - it’s right out there. To me I find that exciting, that you have all this and you put it in one form. And the question is “Why bother?” The answer to me, partly, is that there’s such a fading line between journalism and entertainment anyway, and it raises questions in a way that people might be seduced by it.
Look at the Gibney movie - and I adored it - I was in London when it opened to loveletters, and nobody went [to see it] even in the context of how many people go see docs. How do you get people engaged at the cineplex?
You’re hitting a larger audience. 40 years ago All The President’s Men opened up just a few years after Watergate went down and audiences were okay with it. Do you think there’s a shift in how we’re approaching movies since the 70s?
Obviously there’s a tremendous resurgence of stories based in fact. I think this is not so emblematic of something as it something very specific - which is what I love about it. It’s a very unique studio movie. If you look at other subjects I’ve taken on it’s usually from a pretty safe perspective, in terms of politically how you would feel about. There’s no safe spot here when you talk about Assange. It’s unbelievably complicated. That, I think, is part of it.
There is that feeling at the end that we can’t judge what has happened yet. Was it good, was it bad? We’re not even 100 percent sure yet, and that feels like a brave place to end a movie.
I think it is. It’s not telling the audience what to feel, and letting them have very conflicted feelings about Assange. Figure it out for yourself. These are the issues and they haven’t gone away. Just because he’s stuck in an embassy… there’s a whole new set of characters living out a similar story. The beats of the Edward Snowden story are so similar.
There’s a question everybody who follows this story or watches this movie has to answer for themselves, and it’s is Julian an asshole. Where do you come down?
Asshole doesn’t begin to describe it! There’s no question. But at the same time he’s an extraordinary, transformative figure. He’s all of those things.
You have Benedict Cumberbatch playing him. He’s cornered the market on charming, smart… and right on the edge of sociopathic characters. What is it that drew you to him?
Because he’s incredibly charming and sociopathic. No! [laughs] I have to say it’s not much of an imaginative leap to go from what he’s doing on Sherlock to Assange. It is on a continuum. When you make a movie in Europe there are so many assumptions about Assange but also about Benedict and Daniel. Coming at it initially, making those decisions over here, I was excited by the no baggage thing - or not too much baggage. It turns out there’s a lot of baggage for him in Europe, but that relative blank slate in America allows people to see him in a new way.
There is a complexity to Cumberbatch. I’m curious how it translates to America. I don’t think Star Trek was a good way to judge, and Sherlock has a niche thing, but I wonder if Americans will tune in to the complexities he likes to layer into his characters.
I think so. I really do. He has that thing, where he’s a highly trained stage actor, so underneath it all he’s an entertainer. I can think of other people of his generation who have emerged who don’t quite have that instinct, that urge to always find the rhythm and making sure he’s keeping it interesting all the time. That dance that happens when people become stars - how much do they adapt their eccentricities to being a leading man, and how much do they expand what we think of a leading man. The good ones have done the latter, and that’s what he’ll do. I hope.
When you’re working with him on a character like Julian, who is a real world person, how important is it that he portrays Julian as Julian or that he creates a character that will take the place of Julian?
I think really it’s the second. As a world class actor he wants to get the impersonation right, but for both of us it just starts there. I was less fussed about the moments when we were in pure Cumberbatchland and had left Assangeland. He always wanted to make sure - and did it successfully - [that he was Assange] but it was less important to me.
Between Twilight and Benedict Cumberbatch you’ve cornered the Tumblr world. Do you see that you’re bringing Twilight people to a more serious movie?
I hope so. My partner Jack Morrissey, who is all over that, is trying to connect those dots. And what is the connection? There’s a certain female fantasy…
Benedict Cumberbatch fits into it, Twilight fits into it.
I hope even a little bit of that audience can connect to it. The challenge is making people aware of the movie, aware of the title. Getting what the title is. I worry it sounds like a Merchant Ivory film, The Fifth Estate.
You don’t go into the rape stuff. You leave that to a card at the end. What is the dramatic reason to leave that offscreen?
The shape of the movie is the relationship between these two guys, so it’s outside of that. Hopefully there are enough hints about behaviors that in a weird way the way in which he’s responded to all that in real life reflects on other things in the movie. And it’s such a big, loaded thing, it truly is something we’re in the middle of right now. Let’s face it, if you asked some people ‘Who is Julian Assange?’ they’d say, ‘He’s the rape guy.’
It’s interesting because you have a moment where David Thewlis says to Julian ‘They’re going to smear you however they can.’ Do you think that’s what’s happened with the rape allegations?
No, I honestly don’t. But I think there are other ways - and you saw it with Snowden - there are actions that allow a depiction of him as someone crazy. Sadly, in this case, there are real things that have happened, and the least admirable thing he has done is hide behind the idea that this was a set-up. I hope the movie shows that the kind of person who could pull off [Wikileaks] is also the same person who wouldn’t have the sense, at that heightened moment, to put himself in that position.