When it comes to real-life narratives, Edward Snowden’s seems tailor-made for Hollywood. The mix of espionage and government antipathy, as well as the evolution from obedient soldier to on-the-run whistleblower, makes a compelling enough case for a Breaking Bad: NSA Edition. Yet while Americans have strong opinions on national security—stoking the ongoing brouhaha over hero or traitor, public servant versus political dissident—few of them can actually say who Snowden is.
“That’s a problem,” says Kieran Fitzgerald, screenwriter behind the Oliver Stone-directed biopic Snowden. Though Europeans, who have dealt with more recent privacy transgressions in their politics, know and approve highly of the American government leaker, he says the same can’t be said stateside. “People will almost certainly confuse him with WikiLeaks or Julian Assange.”
Snowden’s story has hit the big screen before, with Laura Poitras’s Academy Award-winning Citizenfour in 2014. While that account certainly played out like a Hollywood thriller—from one of the reporters who facilitated Snowden’s government leaks, no less—it remained very much a documentary retelling, one centered almost exclusively on the disclosures and their sensational aftermath. Citizenfour did little to make a proper introduction to the man at the center of the furor, much less one outside the scope of the scandal.
That’s where Fitzgerald stepped in. Along with Stone, he found himself in the unique position of writing what could end up being Hollywood’s definitive take on Edward Snowden—the one most likely to shift public opinion in a significant way. “I was motivated by a sense of responsibility for this guy’s life and his public perception,” he says. “And his life is going to depend on public perception.”
For three years, Snowden has lived in Moscow, where he’s been granted political asylum since the United States revoked his passport. And it was there, in May 2014 and only a stone’s throw away from Vladmir Putin, that Fitzgerald first met the movie’s subject.
By his account, the visit came together rather easily. Anatoly Kucherena, the Russian attorney representing Snowden since he first landed at Sheremetyevo Airport, had reached out to producer Moritz Borman about purchasing the rights to his novel. Titled Time of the Octopus, it revolves around a National Security Agency whistleblower who finds himself in limbo at a Moscow airport. Borman called Stone, whom he’d worked with before, and Stone called Fitzgerald. A week later, they were in Moscow.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Fitzgerald says. While many films, and certainly most biopics, begin with some sort of blueprint, he says they approached Snowden’s story with open minds. They had very little to go on, outside of a Vanity Fair piece (“very, very long,” he says) and Luke Harding’s book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man. (“It had inaccuracies.”) The simple truth was that they wouldn’t know what they had to work with until meeting the man himself.
To complicate matters, Snowden had maintained a policy of not telling his own story to the media for the previous nine months, wanting to keep the spotlight on the issues and not himself. When Fitzgerald and Stone came around, Snowden hadn’t yet met with or been interviewed by journalists; theirs would be one of the first attempts to get his first-person account. “It was a delicate moment,” Fitzgerald says. “There was this sort of anxiety wondering whether we were going to get enough to write this movie.”
In the end, the visit lasted five days. The three men sat in a room for nearly a week, spending hours at a time jockeying between what Fitzgerald and Stone needed for a movie and what Snowden felt comfortable disclosing. By the time Fitzgerald returned home, he’d reached a point of openness with Snowden such that they kept in constant email communication while writing the script that summer. “Ed was very forthcoming and very helpful throughout the entire process,” he says. “The ball was really in his court.”
With enough material at his disposal, Fitzgerald set out to write a movie that would humanize Edward Snowden to the American public. The key challenge was finding an emotional throughline that audiences could connect with.
Looming in the background was the added pressure of having to move as fast as humanly possible. “There was no time for creative blocks. It was a competitive project early on,” he says, referring to another Snowden project announced at the same time as theirs. Sony had optioned Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, which pushed Stone’s project to put out a script and get into production first.
It was during that process that Fitzgerald had to narrow his focus. None of the story ideas discussed early on—showing Snowden’s childhood, making his parents main characters, exploring his life in Russia—yielded the kind of baseline connection he’d been looking for.
There was also Time of the Octopus to consider. A WikiLeaks report revealed that Kucherena’s novel cost Stone $1 million, an exorbitant sum for material he and Fitzgerald ended up not using. The purchase, Stone has admitted, was a means of getting access to Snowden; otherwise, many people involved with the film—including star Joseph Gordon-Levitt—refuse to discuss the book. In fact, when asked about it, Fitzgerald says, “What I want to say about [Kucherena] is that he is a lovely, lovely man.”
After sorting through all his available options, Fitzgerald was left with one obvious element: Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (played in the film by Shailene Woodley). “Lindsay was really the only consistent presence for him in his nine years in the intelligence community,” he says. “She was with him every step of the way.”
Fitzgerald used their relationship as the crux of the film. It was his entry point into making Snowden relatable, and his way of showing the transformation from a patriotic 20-something to a man who believed patriotism meant breaking a law. “That’s a journey that I don’t think has been fully appreciated by the American public at all,” he says. “For that to happen, we had to show Ed Snowden as a regular guy with girlfriend issues and epilepsy and broken legs in the Army—all of the bumps that come along the way in life.”
Throughout production, Snowden’s team had to straddle the line between a faithful retelling and entertainment value. It meant Snowden and Mills’s relationship could fill the Hollywood love story quota; it also meant taking the existing drama and ratcheting it up tenfold.
“Ed Snowden is, in many ways, a squeaky clean guy,” Fitzgerald says. But making the story accessible to general audiences required a level of tension and conflict expected from a late-summer studio release. “Our challenge was to find the rougher spots of Snowden’s life and bring them out.”
But as production went on, Fitzgerald discovered that the truth and entertainment went hand in hand; they didn’t have to do much more than let the story unfold exactly as Snowden experienced it. “The process of revelation he went through was shocking for him, so we wanted that to be shocking for the audience,” he says. “That alone is very entertaining. We used what was available to us to keep a mainstream audience as engaged as possible.”
Not that he and Stone didn’t have help. Technical supervisor Ralph Echemendia had a hand in all the movie’s visuals, leaving him with the unenviable task of making computer work look dynamic on screen. “Coding doesn’t look exciting, and neither does typing on a keyboard,” he says. But nailing the technical nuances was necessary to complement the escalating drama. “It was reaching a balance where it wasn’t Star Trek but it wasn’t Cubicle Land either.”
Staying true to the tech also meant staying true to Snowden’s story. Echemendia—who also oversaw a system of protocols to ensure production details wouldn’t leak to the NSA (“We were going to be attacked from the beginning”)—understood the significance of Snowden as both man and historical event. “This is a story about somebody who’s alive. We can’t make that up,” he says. “This is a real human issue.”
Fitzgerald also seems to recognize the potential impact of Snowden’s story as finally told by Hollywood. It may lead to Snowden’s pardon, which he sees as an inevitability. It may also inform policy, he says, as well as the way kids grow up thinking about privacy in the digital era. That, he argues, is worth making a movie such as Snowden.
“We’ll never see another Edward Snowden in our lifetimes,” he says. “That adds a real sense of duty to the whole thing.”