Interview: Scott Z. Burns talks The Report
Katherine McLaughlin | On 10, Nov 2019Reading time: 7 mins
Scott Z. Burns’ The Report stars Adam Driver as former United States Senate investigator Daniel J. Jones, who, after many years of hard graft and personal sacrifice, brought the CIA’s shocking torture practices following the 9/11 attacks to light.
The political thriller is also the product of years of research and interviews, where Burns had close contact with Jones who offered him guidance on the project. It premiered at Sundance in January and plays on Amazon Prime Video from 29th November, after screening in cinemas on 15th November. We sit down with Burns to talk inspiration, casting and tackling such challenging subject matter.
You’ve mentioned Sidney Lumet’s Serpico as a source of inspiration. I know you met with Daniel Jones in real life, so what kind of conversations did you have with him about how his work impacted his personal life?
Initially, our interactions were all about the report. I didn’t necessarily imagine him as the lead of the movie, but as I got to know him a little bit better and I began to understand the amount of time this took, the burden, I became more and more interested in him as a hero. He started turning into a Serpico-like character before my eyes as I understood his role in it. Dan is a pretty humble person and so he spoke more about the report than himself. At times I would ask him, ‘Did you have dreams about this?’ and he would say, ‘Yeah’. But then he would quickly say: ‘I didn’t sleep much back then because I would wake up and realise a connection between two or three documents and I would feel like I needed to go back to work, so I really lived at work and drank a lot of coffee.’ The story really consumed him and probably the realisation that he was probably one of the only people in the world who knew the whole story because the CIA is so compartmentalised. I think he recognised that some of these disparate emails and cables had never been assembled into a narrative. The more that I heard him talk about this, the more interested I became in having him be the through-line of the story. Like a guy goes to DC and has integrity and the best of intentions and is a patriot and is given this task to assemble one of the darkest stories in recent American history.
Adam Driver plays Daniel – do you know if they bonded at all and what research Adam carried out?
When Adam and I first started working on the movie I made it clear to him that I didn’t expect or want an imitation of Dan Jones. People don’t know who Daniel Jones is and to some degree I didn’t want Dan Jones to be that specific. I wanted him in a way to be a Jimmy Stewart figure where everybody can feel a little bit like Daniel Jones. Adam has, I think, a version of Jimmy Stewart to him there. There’s a kind of genuine quality to everything Adam does where I think we all feel his humanity come through. And so, what I did find that was helpful and connective is that Adam had been a marine and he had been in systems that require a sense of decorum and a chain of command you have to honour. I think he brought to the part a really good understanding of how Dan’s job is circumscribed as a Senate staffer. He came equipped with that and I also think he came equipped with a really good sense of obsession and how that takes over a human being. I think a lot of actors really understand that and are fascinated by that kind of compulsion. That was really what we built the character on. What I said to him in our first meeting was, ‘Imagine that you are given a blueprint and it’s old and dusty and you go off to your workshop and you start building and you step back after three or four years and you realise you’ve been sent off to build your own gallows.’ That was the sort of Kafkaesque arc that I wanted him to build.
He does this twitch under his eye when he’s under duress. Was that written into the screenplay or is that all him?
That’s just him. One of the incredible things about Adam is that you can pretty much watch him do anything and it’s interesting. I did know that there were going to be scenes of a guy looking at a computer screen and I needed to make his reaction the story. He has just this incredibly expressive face. Stephen Soderbergh says, ‘There’s absolutely nothing that guy does that’s boring.’
Can you tell me more about your early meetings with Daniel? You read the report a few times before meeting him.
Initially, I was very interested in trying to build a movie that told the story of the contractors. They are mentioned in the report under their pseudonyms, Swigert and Dunbar, but by the time I came to the story, their actual names – Mitchell and Jessen – were already known. Most of my questions were about them. But through my questioning, Dan kept directing me to other bits of the report and I became aware of a broader story. I also became aware of Dan and so initially I would question him about a page or two and I was doing other research, so it would involve me talking to a human rights investigator and then coming back to Dan with a question. Or a journalist like Jane Mayer, who had covered this subject and then speaking to Dan. Eventually those conversations evolved into asking Dan about process, and how this thing came out and why some of it was redacted. And where was the rest of it? And because we can’t talk about what’s classified what we could talk about was the experience of writing something almost 7000 pages long and having it turned into something that was 500 pages long. I think we recognised in each other the spirit of the writer.
I read that you were compelled to make the film after reading the 2014 Vanity Fair article, so as you got in deeper to the report, as with Dan, how did it affect you?
I think when I read it… when I really became to understand what we did and what waterboarding is… when I understood that by their own admission, something like a quarter of the people in the programme should never have been detained and when you think about that, what kind of justice is it when 25 per cent of the people who you’re doing these things to are completely innocent it made me incredibly angry and sad. I think like a lot of people I’ve grown up believing that America should be better than that although I’ve constantly read stories going back to a kid about how we’ve treated African-Americans and how we’ve treated native Americans, but I liked to think that we’ve learned and we got better. So, when I realised this was a thing that we did to Arab men, it was disgusting and upsetting. I think the thing that mitigates against that is the fact that, ultimately, Dan, through force of will, got this story out.
When you were writing the screenplay what was behind your decision to insert the torture scenes?
In regards to torture and those scenes, there were early drafts of the script that didn’t have any torture in it. I really struggled through the edit deciding how much we needed to put in, so that people understood what these things are. The thing that really stuck with me is that I interviewed a gentleman named Alberto Mora, who was the general counsel for the United States Navy while the programme was going on. Alberto is a great unsung American hero who stood up at The Pentagon and said, ‘We should not be doing this, this is against the law, and it’s immoral and unethical.’ What he said to me is that, ‘If you don’t put scenes in that really show people then you’re doing what the CIA did, you’re burning the tapes.’ It’s a struggle for me and it breaks my heart when I see audience members struggle with it. The other day I got a note from somebody saying, ‘It was hard for me to watch those scenes, but thank you for putting them in because I needed to see that to really understand.’ And that’s why I did it.
The Report is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.