The wait is nearly over. The much-talked about WikiLeaks movie, The Fifth Estate is opening this week. ScreenCrave recently spoke with director Bill Condon about the film that shines a light on the controversial site’s origins. It also gives us an inside look at its eccentric founder Julian Assange thanks to British actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Condon reveals why it was important to adapt the story now, instead of 10 years down the line. He also explains the trick to making something as mundane as typing look exciting.
How did you make typing on a computer so visually interesting?
Bill Condon: I looked at it [the script] and thought, ‘What does this remind me of?’ It’s like a silent movie. Like when you have the scene when they’re having a huge argument while Julian’s on a plane and they’re in the hotel, and it’s all happening through texting. What do you have? You have all your actors. They’re acting. It’s a really intense scene, but instead of coming to the title card of a silent movie you have the screen. The only thing you don’t have is dialogue. So how did they do it? You go back to the essence. You make it visual. That got me thinking in a whole retro way… I was trying to figure out old-fashioned devices. I thought of that screen as titles and then the words coming off the screen onto their faces. You wanted to get a feeling of what it’s like when you are involved in a conversation online and the whole world disappears. Because that’s how it feels. It can be more intense and intimate than being in a room with somebody.
The opening of The Fifth Estate throws you right into the action with coverage from The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel. Did you collaborate with their offices, because those sets looked pretty official.
Bill Condon: We went to the offices. Der Spiegel let us around, but because we had to shoot it all in Brussels, those were locations we adapted to make it look like the colors of the real offices and stuff like that. We used exteriors from the real stuff and then did those in other places.
You shot the whole thing in Brussels?
Bill Condon: Not all of it. We had a week in Berlin and we had some time in Iceland and we had some time in Kenya. But everything else was shot in Brussels, yeah.
You really fooled me with that New York Times building. I’ve seen it in person.
Bill Condon: That was the great [production] designer Mark Tildesley. The red glass is the thing that makes you feel like you’re there and then [we] green screen in the shots of New York.
Benedict Cumberbatch completely transformed himself for this role. A lot of people are talking about his hair and Australian accent, but it was his body language that sold it for me.
Bill Condon: Yeah, I know. The hands and the slinky thing and the lisp. That was totally him.
Julian also seems to have an obsession with his backpack. He takes it with him wherever he goes. Where did that come from?
Bill Condon: We just did incredible research about so many people who knew him. But then for Benedict—there is footage of him [Julian] standing and being that slinky thing, like that dance scene. If you go to YouTube you can see it. Have you seen the real Julian doing it? It’s crazy right?
Yes! It’s amazing. When The Fifth Estate screened at TIFF, that dance scene was noted in every review I read.
Bill Condon: That’s great.
We all know Julian Assange chose not to support this film, but how was his former partner Daniel Berg involved?
Bill Condon: Josh Singer the screenwriter spent a lot of time with him early on. I got to know him a little bit when he came to visit for a few days. But he was very respectful of the boundaries. He was there as a resource for us and for Daniel Bruhl. I think Bruhl spent an evening with them, went to their house and kind of soaked up behavioral things and stuff. But again, different from what Benedict was doing, because Daniel’s now a public figure. In fact, Bruhl, Daniel, came back from that speaking in a thicker German accent reflecting Berg… But he was great. It was great. I think we captured him in the movie as a very open and honorable guy.
The Fifth Estate is a drama, but there are a few small comedic moments. My favorite being an interview where it updates the viewer on Assange’s latest legal woes. Since they’re still ongoing did you have to go back and do reshoots?
Bill Condon: We added that when we were shooting. It was while we were shooting. It wasn’t later.
OK, because that was fairly recent.
Bill Condon: Yeah. It was really interesting because I kept thinking, “Oh God, we’re going to have to come back in August.” But we didn’t.
Assange is still young and continues to be in the news. Why cover his story now, as opposed to in 10 or 15 years?
Bill Condon: First of all, I thought there was something — the character is so good and interesting. There are no answers to what WikiLeaks ultimately means in all that. But the character is good enough to where he’s worth digging into I thought. But more than that, I think we live in a world now where it’s like entertainment and journalism — they’re not so different… And there’s a whole tradition of plays of ideas and movies of ideas where you’re throwing stuff around as a forum to introduce this stuff. You know the [Alex] Gibney movie is fantastic and got great reviews, but there’s not a huge audience that goes to see it. I’m not saying this will be huge, but certainly if just the Benedict Collective…
Bill Condon: …The CumberCollective were to show up then I feel like you’ll talk about them a little bit more. So that was part of it. It’s just introducing the stuff to a bigger audience with the kind of sugar pill of entertainment.
After seeing this film, it did make me more interested in the WikiLeaks story. Not just the scandals, but how it came to be.
Bill Condon: It just felt to me like it had it’s own beginning, middle and end to the story. It felt really dramatic and also, we can’t pretend to figure out where it’s going to land in history. This already is a recent part of our past that I found so eerie to be putting this movie together and watch [Edward] Snowden happen. And to watch the same things happening almost in the exact same way, so it’s not going to go away either.
The Fifth Estate opens in theaters October 18.