“History Doesn’t Always Welcome The Truth” Scott Z. Burns Talks ‘The Report’
Acclaimed Writer-Director-Producer hyphenate Scott Z. Burns is known for his work on Side Effects (2013), The Informant (2009), Contagion (2011), and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). This year, he has written Laundromat and The Report. He has also secured a writing credit on the next Bond film, No Time To Die, due for release next year.
He spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about The Report, his documentary film about the release of the contentious CIA report on the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on terror suspects.
Burns came across the story of this shameful character in America’s history about seven years ago. Apart from its historical context, the screenwriter felt The Report “contained a number of characters that would also make a compelling movie. It was also about something I felt society needed to have more of a conversation about.”
The story behind The Report creates an opportunity for people to see what is going on in our government without our knowledge. Despite the contentious and ineffective CIA’s post 9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program discontinued during the Obama administration because it forces us to look at the failures and lack of accountability of our government in our society. “People need to know what is being done in their name as American citizens.” The highly contentious and ineffective CIA’s post 9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program was discontinued during the Obama administration.
Despite its weighty political content, Scott Z. Burns is mindful of not making his film too worthy. It simply represents a starting point to get audiences thinking beyond the film. “As a storyteller, it’s not my job to do anything that didactic. My first obligation is to tell intriguing, compelling stories. Beyond that, I hope The Report is provocative enough so people realize our system is deeply flawed and in desperate need of care and attention.”
Burns acknowledged the balance required in presenting the explosive and horrific facts in a calm and sobering manner. He didn’t want an entirely informational documentary, but neither did he want to fetishize torture. “I spent a great deal of time discussing the portrayal of torture with my collaborator Steven Soderbergh. I didn’t want to be exploitative.”
During the research phase of The Report, he spent significant time with Alberto Mora (the U.S. Navy’s General Counsel at the time) who was a vocal opponent of the “enhanced interrogation” program. In an effort not to sensationalize the program, Burns omitted scenes of overt torture in his earlier drafts of his screenplay. However, Mora challenged him by asking “if you don’t include these scenes of torture aren’t you perpetuating what the CIA did when they destroyed the tapes to sweep it under the rug?”
Scott Z. Burns had a change of heart and decided to add some brutal images of these unproven techniques which were later defined as torture. Since film is a visual medium, The Report needed to show what was done to Arab men and what that means. “There’s a big difference between hearing the word ‘waterboarding’ and seeing what that really does to another human being,” added Burns.
The screenwriter-director wanted to steer the conversation away from the usual political traps of “right versus left toward right versus wrong.” Despite lamenting the current state of political polarization in the United States, Burns still holds hope for American politics. One positive aspect of this report is that a bipartisan agreement could be reached not so long ago. “It will take a long time for America to heal, but there is some hope when people are rigorous and fact-based in their understanding of a story to come to conclusions that reach across the aisle. People need to put country and morality ahead of party. Patriotism over partisanship”
Scott Z. Burns hopes The Report will inspire other storytellers to consider what is making us so divisive in our own country and make films about our flawed government.
Researching The Report
The genesis of the film began with a 2007 Vanity Fair article called “Rorsache and Awe” by Katherine Eban which criticized the work of the two CIA psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen who praised the efficacy of their cruel and ineffective techniques. From there, Burns worked Nathaniel Raymond a human rights investigator (majoring in war crimes). An abridged version of the scathing US Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA Detention And Interrogation Program was finally released in 2014, about six months into Burns’ research process.
He got in touch with Daniel J. Jones who was the lead investigator who was hired by Senator Feinstein. Burns was intrigued with the meticulous nature of how Jones gathered information. “I was fascinated by the story of a guy trying to tell a story. I’m fascinated by the role of the truthteller and messenger in society and what happens to that person if they have a story that will cause widespread anxiety and disgust.”
Spending time with Daniel Jones, inspired Scott Z. Burns to redirect the focus of The Report into Daniel’s story. Burn’s conversations with various senators on the Select Intelligence Committee, law enforcement interrogators, and interviews with other journalists completed his research to write a more robust and inclusive screenplay.
There are many ways to tell a good story according to Burns. “It all starts with a character whose actions are curious, compelling, heroic and a little unusual. The stakes must reach inside the audience and be important to them.” An arcane and esoteric concept needs to be made relevant to the average person driving to work or reading the newspaper.
Like all screenwriters, Scott Z. Burns has a bold philosophy on screenwriting. The story comes first. He tries to understand the story itself before coming up with an approach that is in service to it. But he’s careful not to overplay his presence in the story. “To some degree, that means becoming invisible in the work as the writer.”
Burns describes himself as a screenwriting chameleon. “I would like people to be surprised that I can write vastly different kinds of movies. I put the story in front of the creation and expansion of one specific voice. I’m less inclined to develop a voice that is immediately identifiable as mine and more interested in exploring the different ways people speak and stories can be told.” He starts by deciding what’s best for the story and how the story architecture or genre can be subverted.
Collaborating With Steven Soderbergh
Scott Z. Burns has spent over a decade working with award-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. “Steven is one of the most intellectually curious people I’ve ever met. Fortunately, a lot of our interests overlap. He is brilliant in a hundred different directions and it’s staggering that you can discuss anything from neuroscience to baseball with him.”
Burns describes Soderbergh as an oracle of film. “You can bring him a film idea and Steven can tell you all the other films that have previously explored that subject.”
Apart from his librarian-like knowledge of world cinema, Soderbergh’s career advice to Burns is simple. “Figure out how to tell a story that only you would. Steven also pushed me to do something different every time out of the box.”
This cements their creative relationships by encouraging them to explore unchartered creative waters.
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