Scott Z. Burns has worn different industry hats with great aplomb. He was a producer on the Oscar-winning feature documentary An Inconvenient Truth and then its sequel. His writing credits range from director Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum to Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, Contagion, Side Effects and the recent Netflix release Laundromat. Burns also served as a producer on Side Effects and Laundromat.
Now he has further extended his filmography and storytelling reach with The Report (Amazon) which he not only wrote and produced but also directed. Slated for a November 15th release, The Report is the second feature directed by Burns, the first being Pu-239, a 2006 release. He has also ventured out directorially into television with episodic credits on Californication (Showtime) and this season’s The Loudest Voice (HBO), the minseries which starred Russell Crowe as Fox News founder Roger Ailes.
Earlier in his career, Burns was an advertising agency creative and then a commercials director. He was part of the creative team at Goodby Silverstein & Partners that brought us the iconic California Fluid Milk Processor Advisory Board’s “Got Milk?” campaign.
On stage, Burns’ play “The Library,” which deals with a high school shooting, was produced at The Public Theater and was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best New American Play.
Now Burns finds The Report in the awards season conversation. Based on actual events, the film stars Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones who is tasked by his boss, Sen. Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening) to lead an investigation of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, which was created in the aftermath of 9/11. Jones’ relentless pursuit of the truth leads to explosive findings that uncover the lengths to which the nation’s top intelligence agency went to destroy evidence, subvert the law, and hide a brutal secret from the American public. The cast also includes Jon Hamm. Sarah Goldberg, Michael C. Hall, Douglas Hodge, Fajer Kaisi, Ted Levine, Jennifer Morrison, Tim Blake Nelson, Linda Powell, Matthew Rhys, T. Ryder Smith, Corey Stoll, and Maura Tierney.
Burns, Soderbergh and Jennifer Fox served as producers on The Report which tells a story that is both disillusioning and uplifting. The cause for dismay is rooted in an institutionalized cover-up as politics get in the way of the truth, fostering and protecting a torture program under the Bush-Cheney administration that is the antithesis of what America is supposed to be about. Yet the cause for optimism is Jones himself, the epitome of a dedicated, honest public servant who through the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report is looking to bring the facts to the American people and the world at large.
Among Burns’ other credits are serving as writer and a producer on director James Marsh’s The Mercy starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, and as an exec producer on this year’s documentary Sea of Shadows--directed by Richard Ladkani, Sean Bogle and Matthew Podolsky--which follows undercover investigators, environmentalists, journalists and the Mexican Navy in their desperate effort to rescue the Earth’s smallest whale, the Vaquita, from extinction, and bring to justice the international crime syndicate behind this potential eco tragedy.
SHOOT connected with Burns who discussed the catalyst for The Report as well as the challenges it posed to him as a filmmaker.
SHOOT: Provide some backstory on The Report. What drew you to the story?
Burns: My first exposure to the Detention and Interrogation Program that the CIA had was a piece in Vanity Fair titled “Rorschach and Awe.” It was about the origin of the program, the two psychologists who devised it. I started looking into it, trying to find more detail. Then the Senate Intelligence Committee report came out that Dan led.
Eventually Dan and I wound up having a drink. We talked about how the report came to be. I felt the story of the report was an important as the story it tells. I also felt it was time for me to try to write a script about a hero instead of someone who might have been a liar.
SHOOT: What was the biggest challenge posed by The Report to you as a filmmaker?
Burns: From a screenwriting standpoint, the biggest challenge was taking a 6,700 page report that turned into a 500-page summary and then trying to get that into the form of a 120-page screenplay. This constant boiling down of the information was the challenge, trying to figure out what was the best way to try to illustrate the depth and breadth of the report. I ended up doing something Dan had done in the report--relying on the stories of a few detainees. I picked three or four to focus on who allowed the viewer to understand how this program came to be, how it came to be identified as ineffective and how it was misrepresented to the public and Congress.
I relied on doing a table read with the script, something I had never really done with a film project before. I had written a play previously to doing this. And in (live) theater, there are countless table reads. I relied on that to hear the story out loud and to identify redundancies, to see if it would bore people, to determine how far I should go. That was helpful.
As a director, the challenge was coming up with a cinematic language that would allow me to have flashbacks that weren’t going to confuse people in terms of the time period of the film.
SHOOT: This is just your second feature film as a director. Would you talk a bit about the challenge of bringing to life what you’ve written.
Burns: Before I ever was a screenwriter, I worked in advertising for awhile as a copywriter. Eventually I started directing TV commercials as well. So I had some experience as a director before I ever wrote a screenplay. I had at least a rudimentary understanding of the task of visual storytelling--and I had the incredible opportunity to work with Steven Soderbergh for the last 15 years. At one point I was going to direct a script I had written which turned into Side Effects. Steven wound up directing it. He said I should direct the next thing I wrote. I shared with him the screenplay for this (The Report). He said I should direct it, that I was the only person who understands the mechanisms and the clockwork behind it. “You understand how it’s built,” he said. His encouragement was meaningful to me. He made me feel good about it.
Ten or 11 years ago, I had done this before, directing a movie for HBO (Pu-239). Steven was an executive producer on that film as was Jennifer Fox, who’s a producer on this (The Report). Both of them had some confidence in me, that I could pull this off.
SHOOT: How did you go about assembling your team of collaborators, specifically cinematographer Eigil Bryld, editor Greg O’Bryant and production designer Ethan Tobman?
Burns: Eigil was my cinematographer on Pu-239. We had an incredible collaboration on that film. I can’t take all of the credit but that movie for HBO established him in the U.S. I spent a fair amount of time singing his praises to other filmmakers. He’s done great work (including an Emmy-winning effort on House of Cards). Eigil understands me really well. He understood that with this challenging schedule on The Report, we needed an aesthetic that could be accomplished within that timeframe, something that wouldn’t get in the way of all the information we had to convey. We have similar feelings about establishing a cinematographic grammar for a project.
I hadn’t worked with Ethan before but I had seen Room. My film was going to involve a lot of people talking in rooms. He and I had a good laugh about that. He understood that those places had to become characters as well. Dan spends all of his time in a windowless room constructing this report. Dan’s story was going to need to have a corollary in the design of the film.
Editor Greg O’ Bryant was a complete revelation for me. He had worked on The Girlfriend Experience, the Starz TV show that Steven (Soderbergh) was an executive producer on. Greg immediately understood what I was trying to do with this script. I wanted to find people who all would agree on a grammar for this movie. Greg was amazing. Every once in a while you get really lucky and find somebody who is ready to really step in and he was that guy.
SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned form your experience on The Report?
Burns: Sometimes in Hollywood you tend to very quickly succumb to thinking that a story like this can’t be made. That is isn’t commercial or that people don’t want to see people talking in rooms. I’m grateful to everybody I worked with who continued to push forward and to push me forward to try to tell this story. There is a space in our culture for this and we need to tell these stories, probably now more than ever.
I learned about not giving up. When you lose financing and you see your schedule getting smaller and smaller, there’s a temptation to throw in the towel. One of the most apocryphal moments came when I took an early draft of my script to Tony Gilroy, one of the most brilliant writers we have in film. Tony didn’t like an early construction I had come up with. He could tell I was at the end of my rope. I thought maybe instead there was a romantic comedy in me somewhere. But he said, “You can’t give up. What do you mean? You’re the only one who can tell this story.” I wrote that down in my notebook--that what Tony said is something that someone should say to Dan in the movie. That was something I felt in the moment.