'Snowden' Producers Talk Joseph Gordon-Levitt, How They Protected the Film From Hackers

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rachel Handshaw in "Snowden"
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rachel Handshaw in "Snowden."

The KCET Cinema Series continued its fall season on Tuesday, September 6, with a screening of "Snowden" at the historic Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. The audience had the unusual opportunity to see the Oliver Stone-directed biopic of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden before its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden, Shailene Woodley as Lindsay Miller, Melissa Leo as Laura Poitras and Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald. After the screening, producers Eric Kopeloff and Rob Wilson joined Cinema Series host Pete Hammond for a Q&A session, a portion of which appears below. 

The fall season of the KCET Cinema Series is sponsored by the James and Paula Coburn Foundation and runs at the Aero Theatre weekly through October 10. 

On why "Snowden" was made.

Eric Kopeloff: I think this gives you a real understanding of who, what, when, where and how. I think the documentary is almost like an appetizer to this. It got you a taste of what it is, but we took you on a journey, hopefully, and gave you an understanding of who he is and why he made this decision. 

On Edward Snowden's involvement in the movie.

EK: None in the beginning. Moritz Borman, who is not here tonight, and myself, it started where we were looking at some books that would be published on Snowden and there was a book that was coming out from the Guardian newspaper called "The Snowden Files." We decided to go down the road and speak to them. We did this very, very quietly and made a deal with the Guardian for this book that was going to be published, but also with the Guardian itself as a newspaper. That was step one. Once that was in place, Oliver and Kieran [Fitzgerald] started putting the script together. It wasn't an idea that we thought would even be possible, to have access to Edward Snowden. 

Over the years, Oliver has had a relationship with the ACLU and different people at the ACLU. Once we were far along, we reached out to the ACLU and they gave us a connection to... a lawyer who is based in Russia, who is Mr. Snowden's lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena. There was a connection made and Oliver and Kieran went over to meet with the lawyer first and get a sense of him. He also had a piece of material, a fiction-based book that we also decided to acquire. Through this process and talking to them, eventually, the word came back that Snowden would like to meet with Oliver and Kieran. 

Pete Hammond: So, Oliver went there and met with Snowden?

EK: Was it the first trip?

Rob Wilson: Second trip. 

EK: And Snowden said, "Why don't we meet." And they just started talking about it. It was more about, there's a fictional component to this movie. You can't, he's not going to reveal exactly what he did or how he did it or he could be self-incriminating. So he ultimately ended up working with us on a through line for certain components in the movie that you see. 

"Snowden" producers Eric Kopeloff and Rob Wilson at the KCET Cinema Series
Pete Hammond and "Snowden" producers Eric Kopeloff and Rob Wilson at the KCET Cinema Series. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

On Edward Snowden's appearance in the movie.

EK: That wasn't something that was discussed beforehand. It wasn't something that we engaged with Snowden prior to. We finished the sequences... we were shooting in Munich at the time and, at that point, it was an idea that was starting to be kicked around with Oliver and Moritz [Borman] and myself. At that point, we decided, let's reach out with this idea that we had and we wanted to show him a little bit of the movie and what we were planning on doing and he said, "Let's give it a shot." 

RW: I was there. Eric was there. We had a very small crew from Germany, including our DP when we found a little location and tried to make it look like a house or an apartment or a home. We had a wonderful day there. 

EK: It's not like you pick up the phone and call him and say, hey, we're going to meet over here, you're going to come and we're going to shoot you. It was pretty complex. 

PH: You have to deal with the Russian government, probably on all of this. 

EK: Not the government. 

PH: Really?

EK: No, not actually at all. He's a guest of the government and he lives freely over in Moscow. I don't know the particulars of how his movement works. Does he wear a baseball cap and sunglasses when he goes out? It's more about, we had to coordinate with him, usually through the attorney, so that we could find a location. We set everything up and at that point, there's a time where we would go and he shows up, we chatted. We do our thing. We had lunch, etc. We keep shooting and then he finishes and he leaves and then we pack up and get out of there. 

On Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

EK: Joe was, truthfully, Oliver's first choice. When he was writing the movie, he just felt very strongly that Joe would be the guy. 

I think he just watched a series of his films and knew him as an actor and he just felt that he was, I don't think it was the political component. I think he just felt that he could do this part...

The first thing we did after we had a script and Oliver felt that was the direction we were going to go, we went to Joe and then built everything for Joe. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley in "Snowden"
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley in "Snowden."

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On Lindsay Mills, Snowden's girlfriend, as a character in the film. 

EK: I think it definitely was in the writing process. As we did research about Mr. Snowden, you realize that there's a human side, a side of his relationship with her and how she really did not know anything. He picked up and left. It was definitely an important through line and it was a situation with Joe -- we had Joe --  and Shailene [Woodley], she heard about the project and she passionately reached out to us. I think one or two letters to Oliver. Her agents were very persistent and really reached out, so this was something that she very much wanted to do. 

On protecting the film from hackers.

EK: Two things I can say, number one, there was a very specific choice when we decided that we were not going to shoot the movie in the U.S. We felt nervous about approaching, telling this story and basing ourselves here. One of the things that came up early on is maybe go to some other places. We felt very comfortable, based on laws and different things, to go to Germany. There's also very good tax deals. That was part of the trip, of course. Our partner, of course, is German. He grew up there. He had experience and we had a German producing partner over there, Philip [Schulz-Deyle], who we knew. There was a series of things, but that gave us a sense of security. 

But, going back to your specific hacker question, this was a big question for us creating the film, creating, really the script, and so we looked at all these different technological ways of blocking this. Then we came up with an idea: Why don't we just do it analog? Why don't we just do it in a way where everything we do that comes to the script, it will never, ever touch the internet. We went out and got a computer and a printer and Final Draft and we had a hacker guy come in and disable all the Wi-Fi, break the ability to plug in the internet and create this air gap. The script had to be created on only this computer with only this thumb drive that would come in and out. It would be separate and only on this one printer. That was it. Everything was printed. Everything was watermarked so every draft that went out was paper. Period. No emails. No PDFs going. 

It would have had to have been social engineering [to leak the script]. Someone would have had to weasel their way into the office and somehow get it out of somebody, but we were able to control it. If we did need to send it, because every once in a while, there was an instance where you had to get it somewhere, we would basically break the script up completely out of order and use four different services to mail it, to send it. Fed Ex. DHL. UPS. It only happened three or four times that it had to go this way. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Snowden"
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Snowden."

On Oliver Stone's documentaries and how they relate to "Snowden." 

RW: He's got an interest in the world that extends outside of being a dramatist. "Untold History" was five years, the series that we did for Showtime, and he could do things within that series that he could never do within the film, or even the conversations with Fidel Castro that we did, there isn't a feature-film component to it.

What I was doing on this film were the documentary-type montages and things that were within the film. There are a lot of those and I think that comes out of his documentary background also. 

On shooting the hotel room scenes.

EK: All the exterior locations, we actually traveled around the world -- Washington D.C., Hong Kong --  to the locations. Specifically in Hong Kong, yes, at the last minute. Mira Hotel said no to us for months. "Absolutely not. You cannot shoot there." We kept asking. We kept asking. We kept sending letters after they kept saying no. About eight or nine days before we flew, they said yes. We shot everything around and they gave us complete access to the lobby. They had specific -- you had to do it super early in the morning so that you don't impede business, but we were able to get access to the exact room he was in and the floor and the hallway was actually, all the exteriors except the mirror. But what you see a lot of the detailed, big sequences where all of the actors are in the room talking on the bed, etc., that was actually shot in Munich because the rooms were too small. You need to be able to take walls and remove them to have a place for the camera... We created the room in Munich and we built it a small percentage size bigger, which is kind of the magic of movies. You're not really going to tell the difference, but we need a little bit more space. Need it to be a little bit wider. 

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