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Oliver Stone had no desire to make a movie about Edward Snowden. That might seem surprising for a man who has tackled everything from the Vietnam War to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in his 40-some years as a filmmaker. Wasn't Stone tailor-made for the story of the NSA whistleblower?
Perhaps, but he'd been burned a few too many times lately. There was the Martin Luther King, Jr. movie that fell apart and the My Lai movie, too. Plus he really didn't want to do "a computer movie."
"You stay away from hot current topics because they change, the winds change, something changes, a new person comes out of the woodwork, lawsuits," Stone said in a recent interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the title character in "Snowden," out Friday. "It's just a nightmare to do a living person."
And yet, somehow, Stone found himself in Moscow with his longtime producing partner, Moritz Borman, Snowden, and Snowden's Russian lawyer talking about just that.
"I was wary of the movie and (Snowden) was wary of a movie," Stone said.
In fact, Stone was considering making something entirely fictional. Snowden's lawyer had written a "Dostoyevsky-like" novel inspired by the ordeal that was on the table. Stone had also thought about a version where the character is chased in Russia, like "a Bourne Identity," something where he goes back to hide in the U.S., or maybe even a James Bond-type story.
"The reality of course is much stiffer. There are no guns, there are no chases, there's no violence in the movie, and a typical coder at the NSA is not that interesting," Stone said.
He grappled with questions about how to make it exciting "a movie as opposed to a documentary."
Still, in the end, he decided to stay small, and make a more realistic "dramatic interpretation" of Snowden's 10 year journey from soldier to the man who leaked thousands of classified documents exposing the government's mass surveillance of private citizens. "Snowden" is also told in parallel with that pivotal 2013 meeting in Hong Kong with Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill and documentarian Laura Poitras, which was chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary "Citizenfour."
Stone had "enormous problems" financing the movie. The major studios shied away from it, and he had to cobble together money from France and Germany. He also got a lifeline from Open Road Films, the independent company behind last year's best picture winner "Spotlight."
The silver lining was that Stone had the support of Snowden himself. That ended up being pivotal to Gordon-Levitt, who took on the challenge of disappearing into the title role. Snowden is even out promoting the film from his exile in Moscow.
"I don't think anybody looks forward to having a movie made about themselves, particularly someone who is a privacy advocate," Snowden told an audience via live Google Hangout in July, but said that there was a "kind of magic" to the film and its potential ability to reach a large audience through storytelling. "It was something that made me really nervous but I think it worked."
For Gordon-Levitt, the film gives the Snowden story an emotional depth that he believes can be particularly resonant to the masses.
"You understand why as a human being he decided to do what he did. That's really a great entre into understanding what all is going on," Gordon-Levitt said. "Hopefully it will inspire people to think about it themselves."
Gordon-Levitt and Stone are in some ways polar opposites Stone being the conspiracy theorist filmmaker of our time, and Gordon-Levitt as the brainchild of the unwaveringly positive open source production company HitRecord.
"(Stone) points to the phone and says 'this will be the end of us.' He's pretty pessimistic," said Gordon-Levitt.
Stone, separately, quipped back: "He's younger."
Still, Gordon-Levitt recognizes Stone's unique drive to tackle subjects others might think too nuclear.
"Oliver is the only one who could have made this movie," Gordon-Levitt said. "He's the only filmmaker who is willing to say 'I love my country but this thing that the government is doing isn't right and we should look at it.' No one else does that as pointedly and courageously as Oliver does."
Stone, who is turning 70 this week, is as passionate as ever talking about the sins and missteps of America, past and present, and how it all relates to this moment. He's dismayed that neither presidential candidate talks much, or at all, about mass surveillance, and worries that no one will be able to trace the start of the next war. He even doubts his own ability to change things through his films anymore.
"I really think that we have a limited run. A book comes out, a movie comes out, people remember, it has impact, like 'JFK,' but time goes by and the establishment repeats, repeats, repeats. 'Oswald did it. Oswald did it.' Whatever. 'Russia is our enemy,'" Stone said.
And yet, as world-weary as Stone is, there is still that subversive twinkle in his eye in recalling a moment on the "Snowden" shoot when he got to bring the exile (at least his character) home.
"We went to Washington D.C., right to the heart of the beast, and walked the Edward Snowden character right past the White House, back and forth," Stone said with a big grin. "It was amazing."