Scott Z. Burns has tackled some of the weightiest subject matter in a series of movies made in concert with Steven Soderbergh—movies like The Informant!, Contagion and Side Effects—in ways that are equal parts in-depth and accessible. But this year’s double bill might represent his most comprehensive, and ever so slightly dispiriting, study of the state of the establishment; a pair of features that lay bare the injustice that can run unchecked as long as nobody dares to speak up.
First, there is his Sundance-premiering directorial outing The Report, which follows Senate Intelligence Committee staffer Daniel J. Jones, as he sets out on his years-long odyssey to craft a report into the enhanced interrogation tactics—the U.S. Government’s euphemistic phrase for torture—employed in the war on terror. Playing out as a deeply dramatic political thriller, the movie is anchored by Adam Driver’s stunning turn as Jones, alongside Annette Bening as Diane Feinstein.
And then there’s The Laundromat, which made its world premiere bow at Venice on September 1st, and which reteams him with Soderbergh. A finely crafted comedy about the John Doe dump of Mossack Fonseca company data in the Panama Papers, the film takes an anthology approach to connect the misdeeds of the uber-elite with the very real, very human victims of their greed and indifference.
In both movies, frustration plays a very real role, as their protagonists’ truthtellers run up against systems designed to prevent those truths from being revealed. But, says Burns, it was his attraction to the truthtellers themselves that spurred his writing process. And who provide a grain of positivity in a world that can feel crushingly bleak.
DEADLINE: You’ve been involved with two of the finest horror movies of the year in The Report and The Laundromat. Which came first?
SCOTT Z. BURNS: [laughs] Well, this is fun for me, because I think you, me and Steven Soderbergh are the only three people who have seen both—maybe there’s a couple other people.
The Report happened first. It probably happened around 2014, and The Laundromat a year and a half later. It’s funny, because initially I had an idea to do The Report as kind of a very dark comedy, and yet it became clear to me, as I started my research, that the story was so upsetting that I wasn’t going to be able to do anything about it in a darkly comic back-to-school kind of way. So that ended up going down a different path.
In fact, that’s probably what made me even more inclined, when I got to writing a movie about the Panama Papers, to take that different direction. But the main reason was I had seen this movie that I loved called Wild Tales, by Damián Szifron, and I just loved the structure of an anthology movie. When I started to read these stories about people who were putting their ill-gotten gains into offshore shell companies, I really wanted to write something more comic. I felt like that was the only way to get people over the obstacle of a movie about financial entities.
DEADLINE: Do you see similarities between the two, even though the approaches were radically different?
BURNS: For me personally, when I finish a project and move on to another one, I feel like I want the next thing to be remedial to whatever I’ve just gone through. So if I write something that’s a dark comedy, like The Informant!, I then want to do something more suspenseful, like Contagion. On that conscious level, I think I’m always setting off in a different direction, but I’m not so naïve as to not realize that I’m always taking me with me.
So yes, I do see similarities, in that both Daniel J. Jones, in The Report, and John Doe, in The Laundromat, were people who were going to stand up against a system that was much larger than them, at considerable personal risk. In terms of those characters being at the center of the two stories, maybe I do see that these were people who were trying to tell the truth about something that the rest of the world had either chosen to ignore or even suppress.
DEADLINE: Cutting through the headlines when it comes to a report into torture practices by the U.S. Government and the mass data dump of the Panama Papers can’t be easy. How do you find the humanity?
BURNS: What works for me is, I go through this process that I’m very aware of when I’m doing my research, which is racking focus between the micro and the macro and back again. On the one hand, I feel there’s an obligation to understand the detail and the specifics; the thing that keeps any given theme from becoming generic.
So I want to learn about the techniques that were employed by the CIA in real detail, because they were just words for such a long time, until the Abu Ghraib images appeared. We talk about waterboarding, or sleep deprivation, or walling. But what we’re really talking about is physically hurting people.
Then you have to take a step back and go, “How did we decide that was OK?” Someone made that decision, even though it turns out, going back to Napoleon, that this doesn’t work. Somehow, we still stumbled back into it. And it seems apparent to me that it was easier for us to do, because we were torturing people who didn’t look like most of America, and who didn’t believe in a religion most Americans believe in.
I think there’s a similarity between the kind of abuses we hand out to others in terms of interrogation techniques and the way we treat the other. When we think about the elites in the world, and the way people with money feel about people who are not so fortunate, we are all sitting here watching economic disparity get worse and worse every year as though there’s no consequence to it.
DEADLINE: Both films tell stories set prior to 2016. And it’s hard not to watch them without wondering about whether things have gotten worse, rather than better. Is there a silver lining?
BURNS: Well, my hope is that people will look at a public servant like Dan Jones, who really believed in the system, and he’s an American hero because, rather than going the way of the whistleblower, he invested enough of himself into the system that he was going to get results through the structures and institutions that exist to hold people accountable.
The situation politically in the U.S. has evolved since I wrote the movie, and this issue of transparency and accountability has become more and more resonant. I think you can connect the early oughts and the fact that Bush and Cheney and the CIA were not held accountable, to what we’re living through now, where there is no transparency and there is no accountability, and we’ve turned the tables to such a degree that suddenly the press and the truthtellers are the bad guys. That’s terrifying to me. So a character like Dan Jones, who was able to draw within the lines but still draw the right conclusions, is really inspiring to me.
Similarly, the lack of transparency and the lack of due diligence in the global financial system is seemingly insurmountable. When you see that real estate is used to cleanse money from people who are committing some of the worst crimes, it’s really mortifying to realize that someone who went by the name of John Doe was able to open this whole thing up. So I hope that inspires people to look at these things and not feel overwhelmed by the status quo.
DEADLINE: John Doe spoke of the importance of protection for whistleblowers. Where do you stand on how the U.S. Government treats those who try to shine a light on injustice?
BURNS: The CIA did go after Dan Jones on a personal level, and they accused him of hacking, which was an outrageous accusation. I think it’s horrifying that an organization like the CIA, which exists to protect our country, would use its weaponry against a truth-teller, who is basically tasked with oversight. That is what the Senate Intelligence Committee was created for; to provide oversight of the CIA. The corruption of the system that would allow them to think they can operate above oversight is again something that we’re seeing more and more of in this government. I want to remind people that these organizations have an intellectual beauty and justice to them, but they still rely on people.
DEADLINE: The Laundromat is told in vignettes. The retiree whose husband dies in a boat accident and then she cannot get the insurance company to pay out. The father who negotiates to give his daughter a $20 million company as a way of getting her not to disclose that he’s having an affair with her best friend. Tales of so many victims and conspirators in a vast global system of financial immorality. Did they all come from Jake Bernstein’s book, Secrecy World?
BURNS: The interesting thing about the process with Jake was, his book proposal had been brought to my attention, we met, and I told him I wanted to do an anthology film. That was how I always pitched this to Steven, was that I wanted to find examples of how the system gets used to either shield people from paying their taxes or allow them to conceal ill-gotten gains. When we talk about these things, we frequently pretend there’s no victim, and what I really kept saying to Jake was, “I want to trace this back to the average person.”
People going to see the movie have to understand that this system is the reason their kids don’t have schoolbooks, or the reason they don’t have healthcare, the reason there’s a pothole on their street, and that their airport is shabby.
All of these things aren’t because we don’t have enough money. They’re because a lot of very wealthy people don’t pay their taxes. A lot of the suffering that we encounter is so that other people can experience extreme pleasure, because they’re not paying their fair share. And that is a big societal question.
So, there’s that aspect of it, and when I was writing the script, I wanted to find a way to have all of these things ripple across the world and find the victim. And when Meryl Streep became involved in the project and was going be Ellen Martin, I decided that the comic idea would be to have all of these things sort of cross her threshold.
DEADLINE: Without giving too much away, Meryl has a barnstorming speech in the movie.
BURNS: I’m glad that moment landed for you. I remember watching it—and I have this really wonderful experience as a screenwriter where you write something, and it lives in your head, and you imagine Meryl Streep saying it. And then, all of a sudden, Meryl Streep is saying it in front of you, and she’s somehow making it much better and more emotional than you wrote it. I was really struck by how emotional it was to see that and hear that.
DEADLINE: You have Adam Driver, also, who carries The Report on his shoulders. Tell me about that collaboration.
BURNS: Part of the reason I was drawn to Adam was that I always feel when I watch him that he brings curiosity to every character. He really is astonishing at being in the moment. There were days when we would shoot outside and there’d be helicopters overhead because we were shooting in New York. If the helicopter was really noticeable, Adam would look up at it, in character. There are other actors who might just stop because they know there’s a helicopter and it’s time to stop. Adam is so with the moment, and so curious about the moment, that he’s just going to use whatever’s going on in the world around him.
When we started talking about the character, I said, “I think the way that you’re going to keep this fresh, and the way that you can be the audience’s proxy, is to use your curiosity.” That had to pull people through this. And then, as you begin to learn really the details of what was done, it’s really the experience of someone who goes from frustration to false hope, to frustration, back to hope. And it’s that kind of Kafkaesque experience of being sent off by your employers to learn something, and as you learn it, realize that the truth that you’re finding is one that is going to make everybody uncomfortable.
I think the first time we met I said to Adam, “Imagine that you’re a carpenter, and you’re hired to build something. You look at this dusty blueprint and begin building, and after a few years you realize that what you’re doing is building your own gallows.” And I always felt like that was a good arc for this character, that he realizes he’s going to get caught in his own discovery.
DEADLINE: How involved was Dan Jones? Was he present on set?
BURNS: I spent a fair amount of time talking to Dan about his report and having him help me understand the process by which it came out. And I think that was probably where he was the most helpful, is explaining why, after something had been voted on and approved, it needed to go through another round of redaction, as well as the role of the CIA and the Executive Branch. He was very helpful in terms of illuminating this incredible odyssey of how you find out these terrible truths and instead of people trumpeting them and realizing that this program didn’t do what it was supposed to do and that the CIA lied about it, instead of these things being embraced and made public, the decision was made to maybe suppress them.
The report is the report, and it’s online and publicly available. So, I used that also. I also spoke to a number of Senators. Senator Whitehouse from Rhode Island was really helpful to me. Senator Udall, who is played by Scott Shepherd, he’s no longer in office, but he was very involved in the release of the report. Both of them were very helpful, as well as the FBI agent portrayed, Ali Soufan. It was a pretty diverse group of people who I spoke to, all who had a different vantage point on the story.
Adam, I think, was curious to speak to Dan about the details of the job. What does a Senate staffer make, what are the rules about what you can wear to work, how does one speak to a senator? Kind of the decorum aspect of it, which informs a lot of the relationship between, for example, Dan and Senator Feinstein. She is a senior senator and is a legendary figure, and there’s a kind of respect and ceremony around all of those interactions that inform these relationships.
When you’re in that kind of relationship where there isn’t a lot of space for human emotion, you realize that you don’t have to do much to actually make something really resonant. Even at the end, when she comes to his office and says thank you, when I was talking to Annette Bening about it I said, “You’re going to his office. That’s the only time in the movie where you are going to his office. And that in itself is such a huge gesture. I don’t know that we need to layer in a lot more emotion. You say thank you, and that’s it.” And in talking to Dan, he was like, “Yeah, that’s about right.” That’s about the extent of emotion that exists between you as a staffer and your boss.
DEADLINE: I’m guessing you weren’t able to communicate with John Doe.
BURNS: I have no idea who John Doe is. I honestly don’t know if even Jake Bernstein knows. I suspect he does not. I was actually able, through Jake’s assistance, to have a couple of Skype calls with both Mossack and Fonseca, which was pretty amazing. Those conversations really informed how I wrote them.
When you speak to them, not surprisingly, they will very quickly point out to you that what they were doing was largely within the boundaries of the law. There’s just a sort of shared understanding that the system is something that has been created by politicians and bankers and lawyers specifically to facilitate the very wealthiest among us. Its very inscrutability exists to prevent our understanding, so that only they understand it. You begin to realize, pretty quickly, that this thing is actually built to confuse you, and put you off its trail.
That’s true of so many of the problems we face. Because people are overwhelmed by the cost of entry, they just don’t bother to go deeper. It all just seems overwhelming and foreign. If they’ve got you feeling that discouraged, you’re not going to keep on pushing until you get to some of those horrible truths.
DEADLINE: Another similarity between the two, then, because for Dan Jones it seemed there were people trying relentlessly to make it all seem overwhelming.
BURNS: It’s funny, I had been looking forward to talking about these movies together, but this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to speak about them both in the same interview, so I think it’s a learning experience for me, because you’ve helped me see connections that perhaps I wasn’t even aware of.
I’m so aware of the fact that, as a screenwriter in Hollywood people will ask you, “What’s your genre?” I’ve never known how to answer that question. My instinct, as soon as I finish something that might be one genre, is to immediately go and explore elsewhere. I’ve been terrified of finding myself writing the same movie for an entire career. I don’t think I’d be very good at that.
As time went on, a big shift for me happened after having written a movie like The Informant!, about somebody who was an incredible liar, and The Mercy, which was about Donald Crowhurst, who is another person who certainly misled people. Oskar Eustis, who is the Artistic Director of the Public Theater in New York, he said to me, “You seem to want to write about liars.” I hadn’t been aware of it until he said it.
So now that we’ve finished these two movies, I realize that both of these people drew me in because they were truth-tellers. I don’t know what pivot existed that made me turn towards that, other than I think the times in which we live are terrifying to me, mostly because I always have felt people should form their own opinions and theories. But I guess I desperately want to live in a world where there are still some agreed-upon facts.
To me, what’s even scarier than the subjects of these two movies, is trying to deal with the prospect of being in a world in which there aren’t protagonists like Dan Jones and John Doe, who stand up to stop these things.