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Oliver Stone & Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Making New Film “Snowden,” Humanizing World’s Most Wanted Man

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As the much-anticipated movie “Snowden,” about one of the most wanted men in the world, hits theaters, we spend the hour with its director, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone, and the actor who played Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and feature clips from the film that tells the story of how NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed massive surveillance programs by U.S. and British intelligence agencies. “Our goal was to humanize the man, to bring you … the feeling of his life,” Stone says of Snowden, who he notes was originally politically conservative and tried to enlist in the military to serve in Iraq but joined the CIA instead.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Today we spend the hour with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone, director of the much-anticipated film Snowden, that hits theaters this Friday.

DR. STILLWELL: [played by Robert Firth] The best I could tell, you’ve been walking around on two broken legs for weeks.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: [played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt] When do I go back?

DR. STILLWELL: If you ever again land on those legs of yours, those bones will turn to powder. Plenty other ways to serve your country.

CORBIN O’BRIAN: [played by Rhys Ifans] You wanted to be Special Forces?


CORBIN O’BRIAN: Why do you want to join the CIA?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I’d like to help my country make a difference in the world.

CORBIN O’BRIAN: The average test time is five hours.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I’m done, sir.

CORBIN O’BRIAN: It’s been 40 minutes.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Thirty-eight minutes? What should I do now?

CORBIN O’BRIAN: Whatever you want.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: The deputy director of the NSA offered me a new position.

LINDSAY MILLS: [played by Shailene Woodley] Can you tell me anything about it?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: You know I can’t.

HANK FORRESTER: [played by Nicolas Cage] Find the terrorist in the internet haystack.

CIA AGENT GENEVA: [played by Timothy Olyphant] You’re making people very happy.


CIA AGENT GENEVA: You ready for a little action?

GABRIEL SOL: [played by Ben Schnetzer] Oh, this looks cheesy.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: How is this all possible?

GABRIEL SOL: Think of it as a Google search, except instead of searching only what people make public, we’re also looking at everything they don’t—emails, chats, SMS, whatever.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Yeah, but which people?

GABRIEL SOL: The whole kingdom, Snow White.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: The NSA is really tracking every cellphone in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED: Most Americans don’t want freedom. They want security.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Except people, they don’t even know they’ve made that bargain.

LINDSAY MILLS: Are they watching us?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: There’s something going on inside the government that’s really wrong, and I can’t ignore it. I just want to get this data to the world.



EDWARD SNOWDEN: I feel like I’m made to do this. And if I don’t do it, then—I don’t know anybody else that can. This is everything I have. They’re going to figure out what I’ve done.

CORBIN O’BRIAN: Did you access an unauthorized program?

GLENN GREENWALD: [played by Zachary Quinto] The government knows that we have these documents now.

EWEN MACASKILL: [played by Tom Wilkinson] You’re looking at a possible death sentence.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I can’t turn back from this.

CIA AGENT GENEVA: Watch yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED: We are running out of time.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: They’re going to come for me. They’re going to come for all of you, too.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s the trailer to the new film Snowden, directed by Oliver Stone, about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who exposed sweeping surveillance programs by U.S. intelligence agencies and became one of the most wanted men in the world. The film recreates what transpired in a Hong Kong hotel room over eight days in June 2013 when Snowden first met with now Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill to leak a trove of secret documents about how the United States had built a massive surveillance apparatus to spy on Americans and people across the globe. It also tells the story of Snowden’s longtime relationship with his partner Lindsay Mills.

AMY GOODMAN: Through flashbacks, the film chronicles Snowden’s career in national security as a staffer and contractor with the CIA and NSA, and shows his eventual realization of the extent of the U.S. mass surveillance program, as illustrated in this scene with an NSA hacker, whom he later befriends.

GABRIEL SOL: [played by Ben Schnetzer] What I will be providing you and the fine gentlemen at Secret Service is a list of every threat made about the president since February 3rd and a profile of every threat maker.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: [played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt] And these are like existing targets?

GABRIEL SOL: Ninety-nine percent are going to come from the bulk collection program, so Upstream, MUSCULAR, Tempora, PRISM.


GABRIEL SOL: You got a little Snow White in you, which makes me feel like the witch bringing you a poison apple. Here, exhibit A. Oakland resident Justin Pinsky posted on a message board, “Romania has a storied history of executing their leaders, couldn’t they do us a solid and take out Bush?” Oh, this looks cheesy. It’s from a Gchat: “with the biggest python you’ve ever seen.” Hmm.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: How is this all possible?

GABRIEL SOL: Keyword selectors: “attack,” “take out Bush.” So think of it—think of it as a Google search, except instead of searching only what people make public, we’re also looking at everything they don’t, so emails, chats, SMS, whatever.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Yeah, but which people?

GABRIEL SOL: The whole kingdom, Snow White.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the new film Snowden. The film’s release comes amidst a stepped-up campaign for President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden before he leaves office in January. Snowden is charged with theft of state secrets and is accused of violating the Espionage Act. He faces at least 30 years in prison, but argues his disclosure of mass surveillance by the U.S. and British intelligence agencies was not only morally right, but left citizens better off. The ACLU is coordinating the campaign with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other groups. Full-page ads are running today in Politico and The Washington Post.

Well, for more, we’re joined right now by the director of Snowden. Oliver Stone is a three-time Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter. He’s made nearly two dozen acclaimed Hollywood films, including Platoon, Wall Street, Salvador, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon, W., South of the Border and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. He joins us in studio today along with the star of his latest film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who stars in Oliver Stone’s film as the character Edward Snowden. Gordon-Levitt is an actor and filmmaker, known for his roles in 3rd Rock from the Sun, 500 Days of Summer, Inception and other films.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Congratulations, Oliver. You have just released this film. Tonight, in 800 theaters across the country, you will not only show the film, but project a conversation with Ed Snowden, who is in political exile in Russia.

OLIVER STONE: That’s correct. Yes, tonight.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about why you chose this as the subject of your latest film.

OLIVER STONE: Well, as you know, Amy, it’s an important story. When it broke, it was very hot, and I didn’t want anything to do with it, because I just don’t think movies can chase the news. We’re always about a year or two behind. You know, things change in a case like this. But I went over to Moscow. His lawyer invited me, Anatoly Kucherena. And I met with Ed, and he was wary of a movie, and I was wary of the whole situation. I went back two more times. And by the third visit in June of 2015, we agreed to go ahead and do as realistic a version as possible of his life.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the decision to make a feature film? Obviously, Laura Poitras’s film Citizenfour had just won the Academy—had won the Academy Award.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your decision to make a feature film and concentrate so much more on the story of his journey?

OLIVER STONE: Yes, one’s a documentary, a fine film, and this is a drama and is—it’s two different genres. I mean, sometimes they’re compared, but I think falsely. No, our goal was to humanize the man, to bring you behind the eyes, behind the feeling of his life, what he was about, why he did it. You’ll remember, he was a conservative young man. He joined the military at a young age. He wanted to go to Iraq at the most dangerous time to fight that war. He couldn’t serve because he was frail, frankly, physically, and he ended up joining the CIA instead. He was a—his father, grandfather were both in the service. So, it’s an interesting—like, remember my film Born on the Fourth of July, where you—Ron Kovic turns? You see an interesting turn in personality, and through his relationship, partly, with Lindsay Mills.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back. Oliver Stone and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are our guests. Sarah Harrison will be joining us later in the show, the investigative editor for WikiLeaks who accompanied Edward Snowden on his flight from Hong Kong to Moscow and ended up spending four months in the Russian airport with him. This is Democracy Now! Snowden is being released this week—well, that’s the film, not the man. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “The Veil” by Peter Gabriel, who composed this song for the new film Snowden. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re speaking with the director of Snowden, Oliver Stone. Let’s go to another clip from the film Snowden.

HANK FORRESTER: [played by Nicolas Cage] Hank Forrester. Where did you study, Snowden?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: [played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt] Mostly I’m self-taught. You can tell me if you’re busy, but that is a Cray-1?

HANK FORRESTER: Why, yes. Yes, it is. The first supercomputer. We get all of this on a cellphone now.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Yeah. So, you’re an engineer?

HANK FORRESTER: Am I an engineer? Instructor and counselor, too. I’m supposed to keep an eye on you CTs, make sure you don’t buckle under the pressure, turn to drugs and booze.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Well, you won’t have that problem with me. I don’t drink or do drugs.

HANK FORRESTER: What is your sin of choice?


HANK FORRESTER: Well, then, Snowden, you’ve come to the right little whorehouse.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re joined by the director of Snowden, Oliver Stone, and the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who played Snowden, who stars in the film as the main character. I’d like to ask you about, one, the times you were able to meet with Ed Snowden to get into—get your sense of the character, and what most surprised you about the man you were portraying.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Sure. Well, as Oliver said, he and his co-writer, Kieran Fitzgerald, took a number of trips to Moscow to meet with Mr. Snowden, and he was really generous with his time and gave a lot of input on the script. And then they brought me once. And I had a chance to sit with him for about four hours. And it was me and him, as well as his longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, who is played in the movie by Shailene Woodley. And the thing is, he’s—he’s always trying to take the attention off himself personally and put the attention on the issues that he’s trying to bring up. And I think that’s proper; I admire him for it. However, because I’m an actor and I was getting ready to play him in a movie, I was focused on him personally, on the little nuances that you can—you know, that you can pick up when you shake someone’s hand or you see how they sit or stand or walk or talk or eat, even, when, you know, we ate lunch together. And those little details are really valuable for me.

AMY GOODMAN: You have an interesting background, especially for our viewers and listeners.


AMY GOODMAN: Your parents met at the Pacifica station KPFK in Los Angeles?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: That’s right, yeah. My dad was the news editor at KPFK in the early ’70s, and my mom was working there, too. And that is where they met.

AMY GOODMAN: And your mom ran for Congress on the Peace and Freedom ticket.


AMY GOODMAN: And your grandfather was a blacklisted director?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: That’s right. My mom’s dad, his name was Michael Gordon. And he had just directed a movie called Cyrano de Bergerac, which was a very, you know, lauded movie. The actor, José Ferrer, had just won the Oscar. And he had been to, you know, some meetings, which were basically people gathering at homes and generally talking about, you know, the kind of things that you talk about on this program—rights for workers, poverty around the world, things like that. But at that time, the U.S. government, you know, mostly led by Senator McCarthy, considered that un-American, and a lot of people were put on a list, called the blacklist, and not allowed to work. So, my mom’s family, they actually had to move because my grandpa couldn’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: Issues that are un-American, that—considered by some, considered by so many others as patriotic. I think you could sort of talk about Edward Snowden the same way. I want to turn to another clip from the new film Snowden, where the character you play, Joe, Edward Snowden, reveals the extent of data collection worldwide.

GABRIEL SOL: [played by Ben Schnetzer] What is this?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: [played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt] OK, so this is data collection for the month of March worldwide, emails and Skype calls. So, France, 70 million; Germany, 500 million; Brazil, 2 billion; inside the U.S., 3.1 billion emails and calls. That’s not including any of the telcom company data.

PATRICK HAYNES: [played by Keith Stanfield] OK, so what’s the collection of Russia?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Russia is 1.5 billion.

PATRICK HAYNES: Wait. So, we’re collecting twice as much in the U.S. as we are in Russia?

MALE DRONE PILOT: [played by Logan Marshall-Green] Yeah, I figured it was a lot, but—

GABRIEL SOL: This is out of hand, man.

MALE DRONE PILOT: Have you shown this to anyone else?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: No, you guys are the first.

PATRICK HAYNES: Yeah, yeah, you know, I’d be careful about that. You know, it could seem like you’re rocking the boat.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Yeah, you’re right. No, I just—I needed to know if I was the only one that thought this was crazy.


TREVOR JAMES: [played by Scott Eastwood] What the [bleep]’s going on?


TREVOR JAMES: What are you doing in here?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: It’s nothing. I was just showing them this one slide.

MALE DRONE PILOT: My bad, Trev. Made a bet with Ed about which country we were collecting the most signals from.

GABRIEL SOL: Yeah, I need to head out. I’ll see you guys.

MALE DRONE PILOT: You’re going down next time, man.


TREVOR JAMES: I don’t want anyone unauthorized in here again, especially not with Heartbeat.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: You’re right. Won’t happen again.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s a clip from Snowden where Edward Snowden is talking about, to the other members of the team, the extent of the surveillance that he has managed to pull together because he developed a program called Heartbeat, right?

OLIVER STONE: That’s correct.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And that was an interesting aspect of your film, because, in essence, the Heartbeat program that he created, which was an index of the surveillance programs, made it easier when he finally decided to download the material to be able to do it in a more efficient manner.

OLIVER STONE: Actually very few people know that, and some technical people, who know a lot about the case, have pointed that out. It’s a revelation. Of course, the NSA has 150 programs. Their names are insane. But in there—it hasn’t come out yet—I think you’ll find Heartbeat. Of course, they’ll cover it up when they release it, or they’ll do something. But it was planned to—offense and defense. The last thing that Ed did was to work on offensive capabilities in cyberwarfare out of Hawaii, in his second position there with Booz—Booz Allen—is that the correct?


OLIVER STONE: And anyway, that’s—he learned a lot. He combined the offensive and the—and that’s one of his major points, is: Why are we waging offensive warfare, when we can’t secure our homeland without defensive capabilities?

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the process of making the film and the elaborate security protocols that you went through, using code words, handwritten notes, so they can’t be picked up on the internet.

OLIVER STONE: Yeah. I’m going to answer that in a sec; I just want to point out one more little thing. It’s if Michael Hayden was the head of the NSA at 9/11, and they failed to do their job. That’s very important, that Americans don’t sometimes realize the extent of that failure, that he had good information that led to two of the hijackers who were in San Diego. That was through a safe house they owned. I mean, they didn’t own it; they had spied on it for a long time. It was in Sana’a, in Yemen. So, in other words, they haven’t really utilized those tools for defense.

As to our protocols, we were—we were suspicious that there would be interferences, and—but I can’t say that it happened. I don’t know. We did go offline and off the grid as much as possible—meetings in person, we checked the phones, debugged the computers. We really tried to be wise about it. Whenever a script had to go out, we’d cut it up into sections and put it on a device and encrypt it and send it off to whoever was reading it in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And you didn’t film here; you filmed in Germany?

OLIVER STONE: We filmed—we started in Germany. We built most of the America out of Germany. And then we came here for one week only to Washington, D.C. And we—Joe and Shailene walked right in front of the White House with Mr. Obama, who came in and out once or twice, and we had to suspend filming. There was a blackout that day. And we also moved on to Hawaii and shot near that base. We shot actually in the home—close to the home that Ed had in Hawaii next to that golf course. And then we moved to Hong Kong and on back to Germany and then to Moscow.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask Joe about this issue of—this is not only a tale of international espionage and intrigue; it’s also a love story. And the love story is not only crucial to holding the audience, but also to the development of the character that you portray, Edward Snowden. Can you talk about that, as well?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Sure, well, that’s just the thing, is the real-life story of Edward Snowden’s life these nine years, between 2004 and 2013, which is really the bulk of the film—the real-life story is the perfect material for a drama, because a drama is always focused on a character who changes. And, you know, as Oliver pointed out, Snowden enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2004. He’s the kind of guy that wants to go fight for his country, and he’s a certain kind of patriot. And I almost think he kind of evolves into a new kind of patriotism—one kind where you just believe that everything your country does is right no matter what and you don’t ask any questions, and then a new kind, where you do ask those questions and view that questioning as patriotic. So, a big part of that development, from one kind of patriotism to another, is due to his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, who was brought up in a really different environment than he was. Whereas, you know, Ed’s father and grandfather were in the service, as Oliver mentioned, Lindsay came from a very different upbringing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s go to a clip from the film, which features Snowden and his girlfriend, Lindsay, as they walk through a protest in Washington, D.C., against the Iraq War.

PROTESTER: Excuse me, ma’am, would you like to sign?

LINDSAY MILLS: [played by Shailene Woodley] I actually just signed.

PROTESTER: OK, thank you very much.

LINDSAY MILLS: Thank you. Too much independent spirit for you?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: [played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt] No, I just don’t really like bashing my country.

LINDSAY MILLS: It’s my country, too, and right now it has blood on its hands.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Sorry, I just—I have friends who are over there right now.

LINDSAY MILLS: I’m not talking about the troops. I’m talking about the moron sending them to war.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Mm-hmm, you mean our commander-in-chief?

LINDSAY MILLS: Yeah, whatever you want to call him, he’s still wrong.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: How do you know he’s wrong? You’re just lashing out.

LINDSAY MILLS: No, I’m not lashing out. I’m questioning our government. That’s what we do in this country. That is the principle that we are founded on.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: OK, but how about questioning the liberal media? I mean, you’re just buying into what one side is saying.

LINDSAY MILLS: Maybe I am, because my side is right.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: See, that’s funny, because my side’s right. So—

LINDSAY MILLS: Oh, really?


LINDSAY MILLS: Huh, why is it smart conservatives always make me so mad?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Probably because you don’t like hearing the truth.

LINDSAY MILLS: You are a very frustrating individual, you know that? How am I going to make you see?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I can see just fine, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Edward Snowden, played by our guest here today, Joe Gordon-Levitt, and Shailene Woodley playing the longtime girlfriend of Ed Snowden, Lindsay Mills. Talk about what happens in Hawaii when Ed has come to this decision that the American people should understand what’s happening to them, being surveilled.

OLIVER STONE: In movie terms or in real life?


OLIVER STONE: Because in real life, you know, it’s hard for Ed to define the moment. It’s a growing phenomenon. It starts in Geneva, when he serves, and then it increases through Japan, goes through Maryland, and then he ends up in Hawaii, because he wants to go there. He has a case of epilepsy that comes up late in the movie, which is accurate to that time period. It was quite shocking, when you’re that age, 29, to encounter the limits of your life. A mortality sets in. So, you have to make your decisions, to a certain degree. His relationship with Shailene has turned—in a sense, she’s brought him to a new awareness against his previous conditioning.

And when he gets to Hawaii, he sees the worst of it, some of the worst of the offensive cyberwarfare particularly, not just the eavesdropping. We’re past the eavesdropping at that point, because he’s seen plenty of that in Japan and Geneva. But in Hawaii, he sees the capability. It’s always pictured to the American public as a defensive capability, but it’s not. It’s an offensive one. The Chinese are always hacking us, per the news. In reality, people like this were hacking them, and quite efficiently. So, in Hawaii, he comes to this—you’ll see. I mean, I don’t want to spoil the movie, but there comes to be—when he lifted these materials and helped get them out to the public, it is not done in the realistic way that it was done. It was—we gave it a little juice, because it’s a drama, and because, frankly, it’s probably much more banal than you think, the way he did it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about the process of getting the film made, when you first went to the folks in Hollywood to try to talk about this film, and you ended up going with an independent—with an independent distributor?

OLIVER STONE: No luck, no luck. We really were disappointed. No, we really—you know, the film required some hardware and some budget, and we had a good cast, and it made sense at the price. They all said no. We don’t know why; you never do. But we suspect it did go up to corporate boards, because the heads of the studios liked the script, for the most part. It went upstairs, you know, three or four days go by, you don’t hear anything. So, the lawyers—as I said, you know, “no” is the easiest word in the English language, and it’s—they passed. We were—we went to Open Road, is a brave, young distributor, new in the business. Spotlight last year, Spotlight, the movie. And they’ve done a terrific job. Very, very courageous of them.

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Next story from this daily show

“Pardon Snowden” Campaign Launches, Led by ACLU, Amnesty & Human Rights Watch

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