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Josh Singer Talks Challenges of Tackling WikiLeaks Drama 'The Fifth Estate' --and What He Left Out

Interviews
by Anne Thompson
October 16, 2013 9:10 PM
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'The Fifth Estate'

Written by Josh Singer and directed by Bill Condon, Dreamworks biopic "The Fifth Estate" (October 18), which opened the Toronto International Film Festival to mixed reviews, is nothing if not ambitious. It's demanding and challenging because it's the rare studio movie--supervised closely by DreamWorks chief Stacey Snider--that is willing to deal with one of the pressing issues of our time: the ways the digital revolution and the internet are changing how we exchange and share information. 

Check out our interview with screenwriter Singer, who got his start right out of Harvard Law School with John Wells on "The West Wing" and went on to write "Fringe" and other TV series. He talks about the fascinating real-life personality at the center of the action, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose many skills include playing the media. His latest move was to appear on Skype with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, blasting the film, telling the HFPA it was "opportunistic and hostile."

This came after Assange revealed that before production he penned a letter  to "Fifth Estate" star Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the bleach-blond provocateur, trying to talk him out of doing the movie. 

Our TOH! interview with Alex Gibney, who directed Wikileaks doc "We Steal Secrets," is here. It's fascinating what he chose to include in his story--namely Bradley/Chelsea Manning and the Swedish sex scandal that placed Assange into exile--and what "The Fifth Estate" leaves out. 

Josh Singer

Anne Thompson: Your movie is based on two books, Daniel Domscheit-Berg's "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website," and The Guardian writers David Leigh and Luke Harding's "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy"?

Josh Singer: Daniel's book talks about all the other days and then The Guardian book talks about the cables. For me, the challenge was both getting my head around the issue and my head around the story.

What is the issue? 

JS: The issue of what should be public and what shouldn't be public, and how do you feel about transparency and how we feel about who should be making those decisions of what should or shouldn't be public. Where journalism is today, given that in the last 10 years it hasn't been such a good time for newspapers or for reporters. So why we might need people like Julian and Daniel to come into that. So there were a lot of issues to get your head around. Fortunately I had some good people to talk to from Harvard, where I went to law school, and they told me what to read and who else to talk to. 

You have a law degree and a business degree. How did you get to be a screenwriter?

JS: A show came on the air called "The West Wing" and I decided maybe that's a good way to talk about issues with a large group of people. I came out here and I took a sublet out from the fiancé of a guy named Lou Wells, a producer on "The West Wing," and he read my spec and he gave it to his brother John Wells who was taking over the "West Wing" for Aaron Sorkin and John liked it and brought me on. John was the greatest boss in the world and I learned a ton from him. I did a lot of television. I wrote a spec screenplay which got bought by DreamWorks and then they gave me a blind deal and then they optioned these books and they looked at these very fancy screenwriters, then they said, "maybe we'll give the kid a shot." And they gave the kid a shot. 

Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Fifth Estate"

DreamWorks sent me abroad, to Germany and London to spend four days with Daniel and then to spend three days with all the different folks from The Guardian, and that research was really important for me because Daniel's book is a controversial one. Julian Assange doesn't like it at all. One of the things important to me was to find out, "well what do I think of Daniel?" So I spent four days with him, and what you find when you spend time with him is that he's not charismatic or mesmerizing like Julian is, but he's a real true believer, and is nothing if not genuine. He's a very youthful 32, maybe a little naïve. Not only was he getting details right from the book, like the story about how they verified the Julius Baer sources, which was in the book and that came right from him. Beyond giving me those details, there seemed to be a veracity and backup to everything he was saying. 

When I went and talked to the Guardian guys, the stories they told me of their interactions with Julian were exactly the same arc as the story of Daniel's interaction. So, they got sucked in by this guy who's incredibly charismatic and incredibly bright and had this brilliant idea for how he was going to change the face of journalism. At some point the mask comes off and you realize the guy you're dealing with is someone who's somewhat manipulative and maybe a bit of a liar. The fact that their stories were the exact same as his and in that trajectory, and that the fact that other people who I didn't talk to like James Ball, who moved from WikiLeaks to The Guardian and the Australian folks who were part of the WikiLeaks party who were trying to run Julian for senate there, they all tell the same story of interaction with Julian. So that gave me an enormous amount of faith in Daniel's story. And spending time with him gave me an enormous amount of faith that what we were telling was responsible and that it was the accurate story.

The books are critical of Assange.

JS: Assange would say they're critical but I would say they're fairly balanced. Both books really present him as a genius and a pioneer and they really extol his ideas. There are plenty of things in the book that we left out and there are plenty of things that Daniel told me that are much worse than what's onscreen that we left out. And moreover, whereas Julian would say, they're negative books, I think when you read them, he comes off mixed and moreover to me I've had a lot of people come up and tell me, "wow this is a much better view of Julian than I had walking into this movie." I came out with a higher view of Julian.

Alex Gibney's documentary is tougher on Assange and he also gets into the issues of what happened to the Swedish girls, which you didn't use.

DreamWorks/Disney 'The Fifth Estate'

JS: It's interesting because I think all of that tells you a lot about Julian's character. I loved the Gibney documentary. I think he did an excellent job of going boldly for all the facts and actually unveiling what I had known from folks at the Guardian who'd done the homework. From what they uncovered, these aren't just crazy allegations, right? I wrote a 53-page outline at the outset, which I handed over to Stacey Snider and the folks at DreamWorks, and I included the rape allegations because I thought they were interesting in terms of Julian's character. Stacey pulled back and said we ought not to include them. It wasn't that she was offended; it was because she thought they were outside the film. The point was transparency and responsibility in journalism. The whole point was you can look at those reactions and also see, that's the question, right? Who do you want making those decisions of what is public and what is private? That is the real question. If newspapers are going out of business, we're going to need people to step up and put a check on the government. Who do we want those people to be? 

Bradley/Chelsea Manning was less of a character in this than in the "WikiLeaks" documentary.

JS: Manning's story was fascinating. But to me, the one thing that I didn't love about the Gibney doc was that it went down that rabbit hole and took us away from the central story. Not only was that, I thought, problematic--we were already juggling a lot of balls--but also there was a concern we didn't have his rights. We didn't have Julian's rights either but he's a public figure. Manning is going through a trial so we wanted to be pretty careful. Snowden is fascinating to me. To me, the litmus test of how someone might feel about Assange is a story that was told to me. I went over to New York and showed the film to a number of people who were in the film, which was a very excruciating experience. Fortunately, they were generally happy with it. One of those people was Marcel Rosenbach, one of the journalists for Der Speigel. All of these guys were involved with the Snowden leak, which was interesting to have a window into that as they're watching the film right after the British government went into The Guardian and destroyed the computers. It was a wild time to be over there. One thing that Rosenbach told me was that Snowden had told him that if Assange still had a submission platform on his site -- 

It's very different from what the website was before and that's because Daniel and the architect basically disabled the submission platform. That's part of the reason why they published much less than they did in the two years that Daniel was working with him. So Snowden wanted to send the information to Julian but he had no way to do it and that is why he reached out to Laura Poitras and he said to Rosenbach, if Julian still had this submission platform up—that's where I would have sent the documents. You can be someone like Snowden who's very much for "I'm glad the information is getting out there through these channels" and you can still be quite happy that he didn't get the information from Assange because maybe he wouldn't have been as responsible with that information.

In the course of this was it Daniel's story you were telling?

JS: When I started down this path, I was very focused on Daniel's story, which felt to me like a real coming-of-age story of an idealist coming at something and as he becomes educated, he realizes the ramifications of what he's doing is are much more serious than he thought. I wrote an outline which I got lots of notes on. Then I wrote 16 scripts, which I got lots of notes on from DreamWorks and our producers, and then Bill came on board. When he came on board, we wrote another three or four drafts, which then we got notes on from other people. Over the course of that process, people were continually attracted to Julian and wanted to see more of him because he's fascinating. The story ended up moving a little bit away from Daniel and toward Julian and certainly he had more for Mr. Cumberbatch to do. It definitely moves things a little bit.

How do you balance something like this so that you're giving us enough information and not too much information? How challenging is this for audiences?

JS: The audiences we screened for generally were pretty responsive. They liked the movie and didn't find it necessarily overly challenging. But I do think it's a lot to take in. I've had more than one friend say, "Wow the first time I saw it, there was so much to take in but the second time, I could really then just focus in on Daniel and Julian and not just be so overwhelmed by all the information."

It's also a hybrid in that it's a drama but also a thriller.

JS: That's a little bit of a challenge. On the one hand we want it to feel like a thriller and on the other hand you want to be able to settle into the characters. One thing I would say is, if you go back and watch "All the President's Men," I had to watch it six times before I knew what was going on. I find that movie challenging. That said, the more I watch it the more I love it. That's a high-bar. I don't think we've made a movie like that. It's a little bit of an odd comparison in some ways. But what I would say is yes, it's a challenging movie but it opens up. Absolutely part of the challenge is we want it to remain pretty faithful to the story. In fact, you're going to hear a lot in the coming weeks, Julian saying "this movie is terrible, it's all fiction." But he said the same about the Gibney documentary, and I don't know how you can attack that movie because it's interviews with real people and yes there is a perspective but it's just a lot of facts. If I think the documentary has a problem it's that there's not enough of a clear narrative. If you start comparing the documentary to us, I'm here to tell you that we were very careful. Most of it is all based on fact and we were very careful where we strayed from facts.

You did try to reach out to Assange? 

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