This story first appeared in the appeared in the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap Oscar magazine.
For Scott Z. Burns, the biggest challenge in writing (and directing) “The Report” wasn’t deciding how closely to stick to the facts of the CIA’s use of torture post-9/11 — it was figuring out which set of facts he should place at the center of the movie.
Burns came to the story in 2014, just as journalists were reporting on the scandal, ex-military members were speaking out, and the CIA was trying to spin its own version of events. Following the tangled story, Burns originally wanted to make a film about the two psychologists who persuaded the CIA that its extreme methods were the key to effective interrogation. But then he ran across Daniel J. Jones, and all that changed.
After Jones had submitted his 6,700-page report to the Senate Intelligence Committee, he’d spent months battling the CIA’s accusations that he was a spy and broke the law. After meeting Jones, Burns could no longer just tell the same drama that had already been told in documentaries, books and newspapers.
“It wasn’t just about the program itself; it was that the person who had been sent to do the report on it was subjected to this incredibly Kafkaesque ordeal in trying to get the truth out,” Burns said. “That ended up being the movie I felt I really wanted to make.”
Burns is making his feature debut on “The Report,” and it was his frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh who first encouraged Burns to get into the directing chair. Soderbergh, for whom Burns had written “The Informant,” “Contagion” and this year’s “The Laundromat,” among others, sensed that only Burns could grasp the full extent of the CIA’s cover-up. Even so, Burns struggled to balance the density of the politics with the drama surrounding Jones as a character.
“Every time I would write a draft, I would try and arrange a table read so I could hear this thing out loud. It was always going to be very dense by design, but I didn’t want that density to get in the way of people really understanding it,” Burns said. “So I had table read after table read after table read, and I honestly don’t even know how many drafts I went through.”
In a way, Burns spent almost as many years working on his film as Jones did holed up in that CIA basement, and you can feel that same sense of frustration and outrage Jones did in trying to uncover the truth.
“The fact that this story played out over seven years allowed for the frustration and anger to dissipate and spread out,” Burns said. “So when I started writing the story and you realize that all of these points along the timeline are connected, it really hit home with me about how f—ed up this thing was.”
Read more from the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap Oscar magazine.