The Report director Scott Z. Burns: ‘In the paranoia and fear after 9/11, we lost the plot’

Adam Driver plays the US Senate investigator charged with examining the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11 in the new political thriller The Report. We read between the lines with director Scott Z. Burns.

Lou Thomas

Scott Z. Burns directs Adam Driver for The Report (2019)

Scott Z. Burns directs Adam Driver for The Report (2019)

The Report is writer-director Scott Z. Burns’ fact-based drama about United States Senate investigator Daniel J. Jones’s study of the CIA’s use of torture after the 9/11 attacks. Played in the film by actor-of-the-moment Adam Driver, Jones spent seven years compiling a 6,700-page report for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence based on 6.3m pages of classified documents, making it the largest investigative review in Senate history.

With an impressive supporting cast, including Annette Bening as Jones’s boss senator Dianne Feinstein and Jon Hamm as former White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, Burns condenses this huge, complex story into a tense political thriller. The Minnesota-born filmmaker has form grappling with intriguing socio-political stories and is a regular collaborator of Steven Soderbergh, having written screenplays for The Informant! (2009), Contagion (2011), Side Effects (2013) and The Laundromat (2019), the last two of which Burns also produced.

We met Burns ahead of the UK premiere of his film at the BFI London Film Festival to discuss how he made a palatable film out of such fascinating and convoluted source material.

What first inspired you to make a film about Daniel J. Jones?

I started out making a very different movie about the CIA’s programme, [but] not long after I started the project the report was released. [Dan and I] started having conversations, limited to what has been declassified. It was made abundantly clear to me that what was redacted needed to remain redacted, and what was excluded was going to be excluded, so it was just me seeking clarification about certain points. Dan and I ended up going out for a drink, and I asked him about his experience of what it was like to do this work over the course of many years. Once he told me his story, I scrapped the previous version.

How close is the film to the real events?

I pulled as much from the actual report as I could. I had to choose episodes that I felt were emblematic of the progression of the programme. I tried in about four or five instalments to give the audience a sense of how we went from the FBI using what they call rapport building – which is how most law enforcement works – to the CIA forcing the FBI out of the room and starting to use these enhanced interrogation techniques, and then how those evolved up until the end where the CIA, by their own admission, said that these techniques don’t appear to be working.

Additionally, there was a seven-year odyssey that Dan goes on, which is this very Kafkaesque journey of a guy who was sent off to a basement room to piece this thing together. That requires a lot of compression to get seven years into two hours. There are entire years that are cut down to one scene, and whenever you’re doing that you have to take dramatic licence.

How did Adam Driver come on board?

I’m fortunate that one of my readers in life is Steven Soderbergh, and whether it’s movies that I’m doing with Steven or other things, he’s always been very generous about reading my work. This was always a movie I had intended to direct, but I had him read it. I said: “Who do you think would be a good Dan Jones?” And he – without hesitation – said: “I really think you should send it to Adam.” He had just worked with Adam on Logan Lucky (2017).

Something about Adam’s work ethic made Steven feel that Adam was going to be a good call, not the least of which was [the fact that] Adam was a United States marine after 9/11. I think Adam’s understanding of decorum and chain of command really helped him understand that a Senate staffer is an employee of a senator and they’re there to serve at the pleasure of the senator. There’s a necessary respect for decorum: Dan Jones couldn’t just come in and pound on the senator’s desk; he has to understand the system in which he’s working.

The Report (2019)

The Report (2019)

What I told Adam the first time we met is: “Imagine you’re given a blueprint and you’re sent off into a basement to build something and you don’t know what it is. After six or seven years you take a step back and look at this gigantic thing that you’ve constructed, and you realise that it’s probably your own gallows.” That was the arc, and Adam embraced that fully.

What drew you to Annette Bening for the role of senator Feinstein?

[Annette] was the first person I went to with the role. I didn’t know this until I met her, but she had gone to university in San Francisco at the same time that Harvey Milk was murdered and that Feinstein became mayor. And so she had an awareness of the senator back when she was a mayor. Beyond that, Annette is an incredible student of American politics. I couldn’t believe how well-versed she was in not only this story, but in the recent history of American politics. That was really important in terms of the authority that I wanted in that role.

The Report (2019)

The Report (2019)

Having learned what you’ve learned, how do you feel about the CIA’s methods following 9/11?

I think our story is about a few people at the CIA. Also – and Tim Blake Nelson’s character is emblematic of this in the film – there were a lot of people at the agency, then and now, who want to do the right thing, who uphold the law. The intelligence communities in our country and in all of the Five Eyes [intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and USA] are really important. So it’s not a condemnation of the CIA. It’s a commentary on what happens in any government when we lose accountability. That was the tragedy here, that in the paranoia and fear and misunderstanding and embarrassment after 9/11 we lost the plot and went down a path that was antithetical to everything America is meant to stand for. That to me is the real tragedy and the real story.

I can’t condemn the CIA because I understand that they also do really important work that saves lives. This is just not an example of that in my understanding.

Is torture ever necessary?

No, torture does not work. I think that is something that we’ve known for a long time. You can find quotes from Napoleon where he says, basically, this practice of torturing people only results in false confessions. When you look at the recent past in Korea, United States airmen were tortured to get them to sign false confessions. The countries that employ these techniques [use them] not to get the truth but to get people to admit lies that then they’ll use to further their own agenda.

It’s really important that people understand this does not work. If you talk to [former FBI agent] Ali Soufan, who’s portrayed in the movie, who has spent more time than anybody in a room with a terrorist trying to get them to talk, what he’ll say is you need to build a rapport with these people. There is interesting trickery and there are shrewd methods, but those methods do not involve physically harming somebody. That is the difference between the countries that we want to live in and the countries that we oppose.

The Report (2019)

The Report (2019)

The event that looms over the whole film is 9/11. Some people have described it as the defining moment of the 21st century so far. To what extent do you think that might be true?

I think it will be a terrible commentary on humans if 9/11 really is the defining moment of the 21st century. I would like it to be the moment that we decide to defeat climate change.

I think the way that you overcome a terrible tragedy is by understanding why it happened and stopping it from happening again. Unfortunately, some of the wars that we’ve chosen to fight and some of the things that we’ve decided to do to Arab men aren’t making us safer.

Your work is often interested in notions of secrecy and geopolitical situations. What is it that interests you in these subjects?

I think secrecy is part of suspense, and I like movies that are suspenseful. I like political thrillers, and for those the stock-in-trade is always going to be a secret and the desire of somebody to get that secret told.

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