Minnesota Native Writes and Directs Upcoming Political Thriller: The Report

Scott Z. Burns tackles CIA and White House corruption in newest film
Scott Z. Burns

Scott Z. Burns—born and raised in Golden Valley, Minnesota, and a University of Minnesota alumnus—is set to release one of the year’s most captivating and appalling thrillers (in my opinion) on Nov. 15. Burns’ other notable screenplays include The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant!, Contagion, Side Effects, and The Laundromat.

The Report will release exclusively at St. Anthony Main Theatre Nov. 15, nationwide Nov. 22, and on Amazon Nov. 29.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The Report follows former U.S. senate investigator Daniel J. Jones as he unravels the lies, corruption, and incidents of torture involving the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program under the George W. Bush administration post-9/11. Jones spent seven years investigating the CIA’s program, as requested by former senator Dianne Feinstein, after The New York Times reported the CIA destroyed interrogation tapes of Al Qaeda detainees.

In hunting for the truth, Jones milled through 6.3 million pages of documents, including phone records, email records, and official reports. What he found was jarring, deceitful, disgusting, and infuriating. After compiling the data, he created a 6,700-page report detailing the CIA’s wrongdoing. Jones was permitted to release a 550-page summary to the public but only after the CIA redacted much of the pertinent information. The Report will release exclusively at St. Anthony Main Theatre Nov. 15, release nationwide Nov. 22, and release on Amazon Nov. 29.

Adam Driver playing U.S. senate investigator Daniel J. Jones in The Report.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The star-studded cast—including Adam Driver (Daniel J. Jones), Annette Bening (Sen. Dianne Feinstein), Jon Hamm (Denis McDonough), Corey Stoll, Michael Hall, Maura Tierney, Tim Blake Nelson, and Ted Levine—deliver brilliant performances that draw you further and further into the drama.

Several disturbing scenes depict the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, with Burns believing he would have done a disservice to viewers had he omitted them. Of course, it isn’t easy to watch because it shouldn’t be. While watching, there were several times I felt very uncomfortable, but it was a necessary discomfort that drove home the point of the film.

I had the opportunity to hear Burns’ and Jones’ thoughts behind the film and research following an early screening. Here’s what they had to say.

Q: Has there been any audience reaction that stuck out to you?

Jones: The thing that comes up, again and again, is the lack of accountability. People have a certain sense that we’re in an accountability crisis right now, post-9/11. We were going to look forward, not backward. We’re showing this film to people who follow the news and are informed. They are surprised. It was front-page coverage all over the world in 2014. And the next day it wasn’t.

Q: Where is the full report now?

Jones: When the report was released in Dec. 2014, Sen. Feinstein sent the classified 6,700-page report out to all the intelligence agencies and the White House. I also stuck around at the Senate for the passage of the McCain-Feinstein Anti-Torture Amendment. Feinstein stepped down and chairman Kerr (Donald) recalled all the pages of the report back. There are only three that I know of that are in existence outside of the committee, at this point. One is in President Obama’s presidential library. The other two are being held in relation to the trials happening in Guantanamo Bay.

Q: Some believe what we did is illegal now but that it wasn’t at the time. I think the movie is the first time someone tackled the narrative that it wasn’t legal at the time. Instead, [torture] was signed off on or covered up based on two lies: 1) It worked—the CIA was getting intelligence. 2) It was medically safe. Why did you choose to include that in the film?

Burns: Because I really can’t tolerate either of those lies. I really wanted to get into that. It’s really interesting because I think even the most liberal and humanistic of us had some discomfort and thought, ‘Maybe it really does work when you do these cruel things, because we’ve seen that in shows like 24.’ It was really important to me to make it clear to people that it’s OK for you to say this doesn’t work because it doesn’t work. I wanted to disabuse people of the notion [that] if this was unique intelligence it was OK.

Q: What emotions/actions do you hope your film will elicit for viewers?

Burns: I always loved movies that, when I got to the end of them, they made me feel and think. They didn’t necessarily just put a bow on things. I had to go and have my own experience of it. I think, in this film, there’s a lot to be angry about. There’s a lot of blame. I hope people are made uncomfortable because this program did that. It was so hard for somebody (Jones) who wanted to tell the truth to get it out.

I do want people to feel angry. But I also think the flip side of that is you can look at it and say, ‘There is a 6,700-page report, and only 500 pages came out.’ Or, you can look at it and go, ‘500 pages came out, and that’s a victory.’ And even though our system right now is certainly pretty banged up, it can work if it’s populated with people who have integrity.

Q: This is only your second time directing one of your screenplays. What is it like to direct your own screenplay? What are some challenges and benefits?

Burns: When you’re writing for another director, you get to bounce ideas back and forth. You realize that your script is feeding someone else’s vision and you want to support that person. When directing your own work, it’s a little bit lonelier because, ultimately, you’re making all the decisions.

But the great part about it is there are things in the script that you sense are true and you want to emphasize more than others. When you’re the director, and you get to go through the editing process with your film, you’re given the authority to see those things through. There’s still collaboration … but there’s one filter that’s taken out.

Q: How did it feel to come back to Minnesota to share this film?

Burns: I love doing that. I love Minnesota. I think a lot of the way I look at the world comes from having grown up there. I like that there are seasons, and people have a connection to nature in Minnesota that’s pretty profound. I also like the fact that I grew up in a place where the politics of someone like Paul Wellston was really prevalent. You could be progressive in the way you thought about America but you were also a patriot. You were really, first and foremost, concerned with the experience of people who might not be as fortunate as you and that you wanted society to be fair. I really feel that’s something most the people in Minnesota believe in.

Q: How does a college kid from Minnesota make it big in Hollywood?

Burns: For me, knowing that there were people like the Replacements, like Prince, the Coen brothers. Gina Davis has a great line, which is, “If you can see it, you can be it.” That’s all it really takes, is to know someone who is doing it or see someone who’s doing it. Then, have the discipline to work on your craft, and you can do that anywhere.

For more information and to view the trailer, click here.

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