Scott Z. Burns: The Report Ultimatum

November 16, 2019
Regular Steven Soderbergh screenwriter takes the brave challenge of directing The Report, a dramatic and thrilling adaptation of a 500-page government report.

In Scott Z. Burns’ The Report, the leading character played by Adam Driver is based on the real-life Daniel Jones, a US Senate staffer, who was tasked with compiling a report on the CIA’s post 9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program for Senator Dianne Feinstein (played in the film by Annette Bening).

From that report, Burns wrote a screenplay.

“I don’t think that I could ever match Dan in his obsessiveness,” says Burns when we tell him that writing a screenplay from a governmental report may seem a tad obsessive. “I think my task when I came to it was more as a dramatist. I read it thinking about scenes and thinking about things I can pull to tell a story; how can I assemble this into a two-hour film that is exciting and entertaining and that required a character.

“And the great thing about having met Dan was that he had so much integrity,” Burns continues. “And when I was doing other research, with a journalist named Jane Mayer, who wrote an incredible book about this called The Dark Side, Jane turned to me at the end of one of our sessions and said, ‘I’m really glad you’re doing this movie because Dan Jones is a hero and nobody in America would ever think that a Senate staffer could be a hero’. That was incredibly encouraging to me that I was going down the right path. I hadn’t written a lot of movies that had a hero, and I now understand why that’s a good idea.”

And for a change, that hero doesn’t win the girl or participate in a frenetic chase scene, as usually expected in Hollywood. “I understood from having worked on a film like The Bourne Ultimatum, the function that those scenes play,” acknowledges Burns. “Even though the movies are in a way very, very different, I think dramaturgically you have the same sorts of responsibilities; you want to keep the audience leaning forward to see what’s going to happen next.

“If it’s talkie, starts talking down to the audience, or becomes preachy, then I think it gives you a way out. And for me, the challenge was keeping people tracking Dan. This is a guy who shows up in DC with a lot of integrity and wants to do a good thing in the world, and I think that’s something that we can all relate to regardless of the country that we live in.

“And then he is given a task and goes off, works in a room for years by himself and steps back at the end and realises, ‘oh my God, I’ve built my own gallows’. And that’s what I told Adam Driver when we started. Although I don’t think Dan necessarily considers the report his own gallows, it’s certainly changed the course of his life. And in that regard, having the mantle of that task on you is a little bit like Jason Bourne.”

Adam Driver is currently one of the hottest movie stars in the world, and there’s a reason for that – he does the work, including reading the report – and not just the script – at the centre of the film.

“Adam was a Marine, and so I think he instinctively understood the kind of decorum that a Senate staffer has to follow,” says Burns. “There’s a chain of command and you can’t just walk into an office and start pounding on the desk; you have to stay within the lines, you have to colour within the lines.

“Adam is incredibly rigorous about every detail of his performance and he is very in the moment when he works. The only way you can be in the moment is if you show up really prepared. Adam would call me sometimes at 1 or 2 in the morning before a shoot and say, ‘Is it okay if I invert these three words?’

“Our conversations were about the difference between merely memorising the text and really understanding it. Adam showed up understanding exactly what the stories he’s telling the world about. And I think that really comes through in his performance. It’s not just the recitation by someone who’s good at memorising, it’s about an actor who is rigorous enough about his craft and inhabiting the character deeply enough that he really had to understand exactly what was being uncovered.

And the other remarkable thing that I think Adam did was, we shot the movie in 26 or 27 days… And we shot out of sequence. And for him to be able to communicate the passage of time in this sort of Kafkaesque journey of a guy who keeps encountering obstacles to what he’s found out… That’s really hard work on the part of an actor to convey that sort of exasperation without repetition. And I think that was probably the most important thing that he and I had to navigate; how do you titrate the frustration and give yourself room to still emote and still communicate?”

The other essential ingredient in The Report, and an enabler for Scott Z. Burns to direct his first feature film in 13 years (his little-known debut is 2006’s Pu-239) is prolific filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who produces.

“A few years ago, we worked on a film together called Side Effects, which initially I was going to direct. I spent years trying to cobble together financing and find actors, and Steven always liked the script and had wanted to do a more Hitchcock type movie, because he didn’t really have one of those under his belt… He came to me one day and said, ‘I know that you really want to direct this, but I think I can help get it made’. And as a screenwriter, your first obligation is to the pile of pages that you’ve created. And if Steven Soderbergh ever says to anybody, ‘I want to make your movie’, you know the answer…

“Steven has always given me a seat at the table to participate,” says Burns, who stepped aside for Soderbergh to direct Side Effects. “I was the only too happy to step aside for that one. But in that process, he did spend a lot of time saying to me, ‘Go write something for yourself. You know you need to have this experience because it’s what you want to do, and I think you’d be really good at it’. And when I gave him The Report script, he said, ‘You know, you need to direct this because you’re the only one who really understands the clockwork here and the math of this. And so, this one has to be yours’.”

Other Burns and Soderbergh collaborations include The Informant! (Burns screenplay), Contagion (Burns screenplay), the aforementioned Side Effects and the recently released The Laundromat.

“What was conscious was the decision not to repeat myself,” says Burns about his screenplay for the comedic The Laundromat. “I knew from my relationship with Steven that he is more drawn to comedy right now. Very drawn to dark comedy as a tool for comment. And the sort of price of admission as a screenwriter for Steven is you have to bring him something that he’s never seen or done before. He’s 27, 28 movies into his career now. I had an idea for The Laundromat to do something that was very much like Wild Tales [2014 Argentinian film written and directed by Damián Szifron movie]. Steven and I both loved that film and so I said, I want to use that as a point of departure. And he was excited by that. So I went off and wrote, but it did come right on the heels of writing The Report and it was really nice for my brain to be able to go off into a more fantastical world.”

The Report is in cinemas November 14 and on Amazon Prime from November 29, 2019

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