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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"

JS: We did try to reach out to Assange. When we were in prep, I was very nervous. If you asked me to write the letter in response to our reaching out, I probably would have written something similar. I probably would have written something similar to the letter just came out that everyone published today which he put up on the website. I anticipated that he would not be interested in talking to us and would try to attack us in some way and that's exactly what happened.

How long has he been in the London Ecuador embassy now? 

JS: I think it's getting on two years I think. Daniel Bruhl, Benedict and I went and saw him on the first anniversary, last Christmas. We went and saw him speak, which was sort of a fun and whacky evening for the three of us I'm sure you can imagine. It's amazing that Benedict didn't get spotted because he's such a star over there. But it's a funny thing because he's lashed out on almost all media. Bill was talking to David Carr the other day and David Carr wrote a lovely article about him and he lashed out. It's just what he does. I've got a 53-page annotation spelling out everything that is fiction and everything that is fact. At some point I'm going to release it, probably not before the movie opens because we want people to see the movie first. In the spirit of transparency I will release it so that people, after they see the movie, can go back and say, "What did they make up?"

You worked in TV where the writer is a powerful entity but when you go to the movies you're not necessarily calling the shots.

JS: With a different director it would have been awful. I worked with Bill Condon who's a lovely, lovely man and a genius. In television writing, you have a room of writers and there's the show-runner and basically your job is really to make the show happen. I had the script for six to nine months and suddenly I had a show-runner on my script. The good news is he was a genius and a lovely, lovely man so I couldn't have asked for a better show-runner. Creatively we were pretty much aligned. 

What's next?

JS: I wrote a movie with a lovely director named Tom McCarthy about when the Boston Globe covered the Catholic Church in 2001. It's a great journalism story. It's a story about when basically they got this new writer who came onboard and there was a priest who had molested a bunch of kids. There had been one or two cases, but he came into the Boston Globe and said, "we should take a look at this." Their spotlight team, in about six months, figured it wasn't one of the priests involved. Cardinal Law, the most senior Catholic in Boston had known about it for years and years. When they broke that story, it became a sort of patient zero. Suddenly there were stories all over the country and the world of very similar situations. Anything you know about the Catholic Church scandal came from this team. To the extent that the Catholic Church has started to move in the direction of getting better about these people and solve this problem, it's because of the work these guys did. We've got a couple of good actors circling and hopefully we're ready to shoot it next year.

Audience: I'm curious about the R rating.

JS:: I am too, and I don't really have an answer. The only thing that I can imagine is that you are only limited to one or two F words, and we might have two and a half. It's a surprising rating to me, though perhaps the raters were afraid of young, innocent kids being pulled in by Assange.

Audience: Not having access to Assange, you're telling us his story from the point of view of those who told you, from their point-of-view. Was that always your intention?

JS:: First of all, we tried very hard to separate the idea of the leaks from Julian because he tries to conflate the two, but they are two different things. We were very much trying to make that distinction. Regarding the submission platform, the wild, crazy Julian Assange dreamscape: when I was in Germany with Daniel I started thinking about, how do you get these hackers who are often talking through chat to be in the same space? I had this idea, what if they are in this virtual space? That's where there virtual office is in their head, where they all meet up. I wrote it into my early outlines and quickly scratched it. I couldn't get my head around it. In the first script I wrote, it was not there. When Bill Condon came on board, he was very excited about this notion of making it more visual. He thought the idea was terrific. We had this rough idea of a place that looked like "The Apartment." What's great about that visual is it gives you the opportunity to see the hundreds of Assanges and to see the destruction of that submission platform. Mark Tildesley came onboard. He's a wonderful production designer and he said, let's make this Assange's dreamscape. Let's put sand on the floor, let's have no ceiling, let's have these flashing lights coming out of nowhere and let's be able to see Assange and his cohorts around a campfire in the background. To me that made it really fascinating and opened up the movie.

Audience: Why can't get they get the submission platform back after two years?

JS: I have hunches but I don't have a real answer. It's just code. He just needs a good coder. Julian is a pretty good hacker, not the greatest. As a coder, I think he's good but not amazing. This guy they had in there, Marcus, who I never met but I Jabbered with him, I don't know his real name. He's somewhere in Germany but I've never met him because he keeps a low profile and Jabber, as you probably know, is totally secure and cryptic. I was told by Daniel, here's where you Jabber with him and that guy is a genius coder, one of the best in the world, and so my guess is that Julian was stung by the fact that he brought this architect on and that guy was able to wreak so much havoc on his site. My guess is that Julian is just afraid to bring anyone with that kind of power to work with him because he's afraid they could do the kind of damage that Marcus did. Daniel is a lovely guy but he's not that kind of coder. He helped the architect but Daniel is not the guy who built the platform or took it down. My guess is that Julian is afraid of bringing someone like that on to do the coding necessary that he can't do himself that would bring the platform back up to that level again. This process of total anonymity, so you don't know who the source is, is a somewhat complex idea but a really complex idea to do with code.

Audience: The writing gave me the impression it was really the two of them, though Assange had the ego for the both of them. Why did the governments only go after Assange and not any of the other people?

JS: There were a couple other people on the periphery but no one was as involved as Daniel. They did go after this guy named Jacob Applebaum who was involved early on but sort of fell off. The government actually went after him. He's an American. They were going after Twitter accounts. Other people floated in, especially as Daniel moved out. But I think the government understands that Assange is really the genius behind it all. Moreover, he's the figurehead. He's the guy who's very public. In terms of the government going after him, it's unclear what they're doing. There's been some reporting that suggests there is indeed a grand jury and they are indeed planning to indict him at some point if and when the Swedish mess ever gets cleared up. One thing that's not clear is what happens when that gets cleared up. Does the US government go after him? I really hope they don't. While I don’t think Assange was the most responsible of publishers, I'm very much for the first amendment and I think it's really hard to go after publishers in almost any context. So I really hope they never try to bring him to trial. 

Audience: The movie shows intelligence sources ruined as a result of the leaks, was that an amalgam or based on real people?

JS: It is based on four cables. What we wanted to do there: Assange will tell you no one was hurt because of his releases. I don't know if any informants in Afghanistan have been killed. They might have. It's unclear. Probably one or two might have been but there is no hard evidence of that. In terms of the sources for the cables, I would doubt anyone has been killed. But saying no one was hurt is a gross misstatement because frankly there were 2,000 sources who were strictly protected in those cables and all those sources were in countries where I'm sure they are no longer. The US government gets its information primarily from its embassies and the way they get the information is they make contacts in the field who are these sources. Some of those sources, if the governments of those countries knew these sources were talking to us, those sources would be in great jeopardy. When we write a cable, we write "strictly protect." In other words, don't say this person's name because it will get them in great jeopardy. In those 250,000 state department cables, there were 2,000 such strictly protected sources, all of whom I assume are no longer in their country of origin. I was told this by a number of former state department folks. They got the hell out of there because they were afraid of the cables coming out as they did. Not only did this harm the US government and the state department, because no longer did we have those 2,000 sources giving information, but it did harm those sources in that their entire way of life is upended and turned over.

To demonstrate this, we took four cables out of Libya, three of which had strictly protected sources, and we made them out of those. There was a guy who was on the national security council of Libya that was run by Mutassim Gaddafi and that guy gave us information. My guess is that guy, who's actually a woman, is no longer important. Moreover, they don't get information from her anymore. We were trying to demonstrate what the harm was without going overboard without saying these people were slaughtered. That's not true. If you're someone who believes the state department does good work and believes that maybe the US government isn't always the best but a lot of what it does is good for us, then you're probably someone who didn't want that information out there the way it was put out.


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