Column: Director Scott Z. Burns on why ‘The Report’ on CIA torture interrogation needed to be a feature film


Here’s the math of this movie: Out of more than 6 million pages of CIA documents came the 6,700 pages of the classified 2014 U.S. Senate report on CIA interrogation techniques, and that was boiled down to about 500 pages of the public executive summary, and out of those — and a lot more research — come two hours of a new film: “The Report,” about the politics and the substance of the CIA’s post-9/11 torture tactics for questioning terrorism detainees.

The middle word in the title of the movie is, significantly, blacked out. It’s the word “torture,” and the redaction symbolizes how ineffective “enhanced interrogation” tactics like waterboarding ended up being used, and then covered up. The film uses the entwined stories of real CIA and intelligence officials, of political figures like California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, and her staffer Daniel L. Jones, the movie’s protagonist, who spent years immersed in an investigation whose findings he knew might never see the light of day. Director and writer Scott Z. Burns details the path to making a feature film about a significant but secretive chunk of the life of the nation’s intelligence operations.


Did you have any idea when you began it how massive a job it would be?


I don’t think so. I may have changed my mind if I had known, so I think that’s a good thing that I didn’t fully appreciate the thread that I was pulling on.

At one point about a year and a half in, when I had a draft, I took it to [writer and director] Tony Gilroy, who is one of my screenwriting heroes, and he wasn’t thrilled with the draft.

I think he looked at my reaction and felt like I was going to maybe give up. And he said to me, “You can’t give up. You’re the only one who’s gonna do this. You have to do this. You’re the only one who’s gonna tell this story.”

And I wrote down in my notebook: “You’re the only one who’s gonna tell this story.” That line actually made it into the movie. I guess that’s how I felt after that meeting was that, it was me versus the story, and one of us was going to win.

What about it made you think, gee, this story needs to be told as a feature film, not as a documentary?

I think of stories that I’ve seen in my life where there were actors instead of documentaries, movies like “Serpico,” movies like “Erin Brockovich,” “Silkwood,” more recently a movie like “The Insider.”


I like stories about truth tellers who stand up to a corrupt and broken system very much. So I felt that the power of that would really benefit from some amount of dramaturgy and some amount of narrative compression, because so much of the language of this story had always been legalese and governmental, that that in itself was an obstacle to our understanding.

To get it off of the formality of governance and into an idiom that I think people could relate to more seemed like an important task in and of itself.

The thing took place over almost 10 years, between the revelation of the [CIA interrogation] tapes being destroyed and the report itself coming out. It’s hard for, I think, for people to really piece together a story, a tragedy that unfolds that slowly.

It’s also unlikely that people are going to go online and look at the report and make their own decisions.

The added problem that the report faced was the CIA had a very nimble and organized counter-narrative that they put out the day the report came out.

The story of that day of Dec. 9, 2014, was the revelation and the admission that we had conducted a systemic, brutal torture program in this country.

But the next day, everybody moved on, and the CIA went on news programs and they won the broadcast media battle unopposed because Sen. Feinstein is not someone who would go and do that. So there wasn’t really advocacy for the narrative that was put out.

The CIA said its “enhanced interrogation” program was based on techniques devised by two psychologists who believed using coercion and forced helplessness would get detainees to offer up intelligence details, which didn’t happen.

In talking to psychologists and military interrogators, they are all very angry because [James] Mitchell and [John] Jessen said that there was science that these brutal methods, these enhanced interrogation methods as they called them, were effective. Military interrogators, FBI agents, all of these people would say to me, there is no science.

And yet I don’t really think Mitchell and Jessen were charlatans. I think they really believed that they were doing righteous work on behalf of their country, which to me is in a way even more upsetting.

When I became aware of Mitchell and Jessen, I had an idea that maybe I could turn this into a sort of “Dr. Strangelove” dark comedy about torture, and I started down that path.

Then the [Senate] report came out and I did a very fundamental move. I called Feinstein’s office and I said, “I’m a citizen of California, and I’d like to speak to this gentleman, Daniel Jones, who is listed as the lead investigator on this report.”

Daniel and I started having conversations. He never told me anything that wasn’t open source. And when I heard his story, there was a massive pivot that I felt I needed to make, which was that this was someone who struck me as an American hero.

I wanted to use him as not only sort of a tracer bullet through the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, but through how our government functions right now, some of these larger issues, which we keep cycling back to about accountability and separation of powers.

You also make it clear that the Obama administration does not come out of this with clean hands.

That was sort of a revelation to me when I started doing my research. It’s this sort of politics of expediency that I think particularly the Democrats practice where, “You know what? Yes, torture is bad and we stopped the program. But we said we were going to be bipartisan, so we’re not going to hold anybody accountable.”

Or, “yes, these bankers did horrible, criminal things, but we need them to fix the system, so we’re not going to hold anybody accountable. Because if we hold people accountable, then maybe they won’t let us have our healthcare plan or our immigration plan.”

And what I find pathetic about that is we didn’t get our healthcare plan and we didn’t have our immigration plan. So clearly that strategy is a loser.

There was a clip that I found early on of Barack Obama saying, “We need to turn the page.” It’s exactly what George Bush said: “We need to turn the page.” I just wish we’d read the page before we turn it, and learn from it.

It must have been very difficult to decide how to do the torture scenes, because they’re very unsettling and very graphic. But you also needed to convey, “Look, this is what was being done by and in the name of the United States” … that this was probably very much what it looked like, what was on the tapes that no longer exist.

When I did my research, I started off by needing to understand what SERE school was, because these [interrogation] techniques were based on a thing called SERE; it stands for “survival, evasion, resistance and escape.”

SERE school is a place where we send our elite forces to prepare them for what the most despicable regimes on Earth might do to them if they were captured.

When we train people to tolerate these techniques, we instruct them to give false confessions. So it’s almost something out of “Catch-22,” to think you can reverse-engineer this and turn it into some magic way of getting people to tell the truth.

But the most important conversation I had around this was with Alberto Mora. Alberto Mora, during the program that the CIA was conducting, was at the Navy as their [general] counsel.

He said, “Are you going to show this [torture] thing?” And I said I wasn’t sure. I had toyed with the idea of trying to get around having to shoot these things, because it was scary to me that it would alienate people.

I also didn’t want to be accused of being exploitive or sensationalistic.

And Alberto said to me, “If you don’t show it, aren’t you doing exactly what the CIA did? Aren’t you getting rid of what everybody knows? It’s very powerful communication, to see the thing being done to fellow humans.” And I found his argument very, very compelling.

The title has the word “torture” excised, and its impact is visual: This is a word that is censored from the title to convey how censored this entire program had been. What were the debates over the title that you staged with other people or with yourself?

I’ve always had a hard time naming movies. When I wrote “The Informant!” I remember Steven Soderbergh and I sitting around staring at it for a long time. And I said, “It just doesn’t feel like a comedy right now.”

Then he took out a Magic Marker and put an exclamation point at the end of it and said, “Now it does.”

At one point I think I had toyed with it being called “Survival” — SERE, basically, whatever that acronym stands for, but obviously the fact that I can’t even remember it now probably means it wasn’t a good title!

When we were in production, you have to put something on the call sheet, and the art department said, “Do you want to call it ‘The Torture Report’”?

I said, “Well, no, redact the word ‘torture’ on the call sheet.” And it just sort of stuck.

I wish I had had a name like “The Parallax View” or “All the President’s Men,” because those were movies I really admired, and loved those titles, but I’m happy with “The Report.”

You cite “All the President’s Men,” which is essentially a movie about people talking to other people, people writing down notes and people typing, and yet it’s a gripping story. I guess you had it in mind when you thought about this story about people taking notes, comparing notes, reading stuff and yet the subject is a blockbuster in its impact on the country.

I love that movie. I had my entire crew over to my house for weeks beforehand, and we would sit around and eat pizza and watch ‘70s political thrillers. And foremost among them — in my mind, anyway — is “All the President’s Men.”

To me, it was very inspiring because it is exactly what you said: It’s a movie where people talk to each other and you see a horrible truth emerge, and then you see the struggle of deciding what to do with that information once you have it.

That is very much the arc of Daniel Jones in our film, so it felt like a really good resource for me to go back and refer to time and time again.

Was that also useful when you were trying to get funding? Because it can’t have been an easy sell yeah, we’re making a movie about the CIA torture report.

Well, you know, we didn’t get funding very easily, and nobody in Hollywood really helped with this movie, and pretty much everybody passed on it.

Selling it as “All the President’s Men” didn’t work, even though we tried that. We also talked about it as a movie like “Spotlight,” which was an investigative piece that I thought would work.

But you hear a lot of things that are sort of deflating, like, “Nobody wants to hear about this piece of history,” and “This movie won’t do well internationally.” It’s discouraging. And I don’t think it’s true.

I don’t think it’s “Star Wars” and that everybody is going to go with their family. But I do think that it’s important that we tell these stories, and I do think that there are people who are really fortified by going to the theater and seeing these kinds of things play out.

I had a very interesting conversation with [author and New Yorker writer] Jane Mayer one day. We were talking about whether this story has a happy ending.

I said, “Well, I guess I look at the toll this took on Daniel. I look at the redactions. I look at the 6,300 pages that we don’t get to see. I look at the fact that this program existed at all, that a Republican administration created it, endorsed it, ran it, and that a Democratic administration failed to hold people accountable for it. That doesn’t feel to me like a happy ending.”

And Jane said, “But it got out. Countries all over the world do bad things. And once again, we did do something exceptional. We owned our mistake.”

That was a really great moment for me.

Yes, this is about dysfunction, but it’s also about some extraordinary people who, because of their rigor and their integrity, allowed this story to find a place in the public record.

You look at the fact that the amendment that came out of this [torture finding], the McCain-Feinstein Amendment [prohibiting inhumane treatment of prisoners], and that there was a moment not that long ago when a Republican and a Democrat could agree on something and get the work done.

You can either go, “Wow, it’s really tragic that we have lost that this quickly,” or maybe it’s inspiring to go, “Maybe there is a way to get that back.” It’s not like it never happened.

You were a producer of “An Inconvenient Truth,” which won an Oscar for best documentary feature. Now, having done this movie, have you thought maybe it’s time for “An Inconvenient Truth” as a feature film?

I am working on a project that hopefully we’ll be able to announce before the end of the year, which is a climate change project that is scripted. It remains to me the central issue of our time.

And I think it’s really interesting why it hasn’t found its way into fiction and cinema and music and other arts to the degree that it needs to.

When you think about other major events — when a war happens — it finds its way into every artist, and we all have to process it. Climate change, because it’s such a slow-moving disaster, hasn’t really done that.