Bill Condon – Eclectic, brilliant director – but does anyone remember him?

                              December 2013  By Philip Berk

You couldn’t pick a tougher subject for a movie than WikiLeaks or a more enigmatic hero than Julian Assange. But that’s the challenge director Bill Condon faced in his new movie The Fifth Estate in which Benedict Cumberband plays the fugitive wanted by numerous governments for revealing secret information and classified data provided by anonymous whistle blowers.

Assange is presently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he enjoys diplomatic immunity.

Condon is no stranger to tough assignments

His first feature was Gods and Monsters in which Ian McKellan played the openly gay director James Whale best known for the original Frankenstein. After that there was Kinsey and Dreamgirls and then his uncharacteristic but successful foray into pop film making — the last two Twilight films.

At his Toronto press conference, where The Fifth Estate was the opening night gala event, FilmInk is eager to respond to the bottom-line question: Is Julian Assange a patriot or a criminal? 

“It really is too early to judge,” he answers.  “I think it’s going to take decades for us to figure out whether Wikileaks was good or bad. There are many different points of view, but I think we can safely say that he succeeded in his basic intention which was to reveal to the world and to get a conversation going as to the limits of mass surveillance, and that’s something that wouldn’t have happened without Wikileaks or without Julian.

Benedict is the perfect Julian Assange. How did that come about?

“I was a big fan. So was (producer) Stacy Snider of DreamWorks. We went and talked to him, and he jumped on very quickly.  He was very interested in playing the part. Working with him is amazing.  He so immerses himself in a role, it was like having Julian on set. The first thing he did was  put the wig on and see how that looked, and then he put in those teeth so he could start to talk like him. It was months and months of prep on just the voice, and then he worked his way in deeper and deeper so that by the time you’re making the movie every day would start with a  political conversation taking on Julian’s point of view; so it was absolutely stimulating to work with him.”

Was there anything specific that he, Bill Condon, brought to the project?

 ”Well, when I read Josh Singer’s script, I realized  there was not only a story but there was a story within the story. People were asking me, ‘Isn’t it weird. How can you make a movie that has no ending?’ Well, actually, Josh’s story does have an ending.  It’s about the relationship between those two guys. So when I got involved that became a focus, and it was fun for us to make sure this had the structure of a romance, the courtship, the relationship and the break-up, and in a way that’s what it is, a bromance.”

Daniel Domscheid Berg (played by Daniel Bruhl) is equally controversial. What did he learn about him that surprised him?

“The movie is based on Daniel’s book as well as  the book by the two Guardian reporters. Daniel acted as a consultant on the movie so that first with Josh, then with me, and then with Daniel Bruhl, he became a decided asset offering interesting behind the scenes anecdotes about Julian.  What was surprising to me, you got a good sense of something I hope the movie captures which was just how dangerous this felt for him for so long, and I think he’s still living with that. There’s still a sense of someone looking over his shoulder. He really takes very seriously the threat of whether it’s the US Government or other forces or other people who have come out against him; it’s hard for him to relax.” 

Why Daniel Bruhl for that important role?

“Well, I’d seen him in a few roles, Goodbye Lenin, Inglorious Bastards  – we were in Berlin scouting locations, and he came to breakfast. and we spent ninety minutes together, and it’s one of those moments, you step up from the table and you think oh, God, I don’t want anyone else to play that part, and you spend the next day hoping and figuring out how to make that happen. There were all the qualities that I’d seen in the real Daniel that were just mirrored there, his incredible openness and kindness and wit and intelligence and humility. And in a movie that features such an extreme character it was so important to have that balance. And the fact that he is also German made making this movie fascinating because the attitude toward Assange is very different in Europe than it is in the United States. I think more people know about him, more people are engaged in the story, more people are sympathetic to him there, and Daniel comes out of a progressive European tradition and education; so for me as an American, it was great to know that the person taking us through this would also be someone who knew it so well and could even tell us when we got it wrong.”

  Was there any pressure from the studio to cast someone better known, Alexander Skarsgard for example? (James McAvoy was initially cast)

“Surprisingly everyone was interested in Bruhl from the start, but you always have that conversation when you’re making a movie: it’d be nice to get someone who is known across America.  Let’s face it, this is a kind of rare bird, isn’t it, it’s a major studio movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl.  In America they are not well known, yet.  I think that’s changing quickly. At the time it was more of a risk, but to the studio’s credit, it was always, who was right for this part and that’s how Daniel won out.” 

 Was he able to talk to Julian Assange before starting the movie? (obviously not after since he’s condemned the movie.)

“No, we didn’t meet Julian.  He had a very negative attitude toward the movie and didn’t want to, in his words, legitimize it. Benedict however was in e-mail contact with him, but nothing came of that.”

Benedict’s Australian accent is impeccable. Was that hard earned?

“ He worked so unbelievably hard to make it so. His speeches in the script were marked with accent points, and it was sort of interesting because sometimes on a set you’ll hear a turn of phrase. and you want to loosen it up a little, and that wasn’t easy for him.  He’d say yeah, sure, but then he had to process it through finding the exact  thing. He was very, very sensitive about that.”

And his look, was Benedict involved in that?

“That’s interesting because movies have become so interactive. In the movie there are five or six scenes at the Frontline Club in Iceland where Benedict (Julian) is dancing which are exact duplications of film that exist on You Tube. Anyone going to You Tube will say, ‘Omigod, that’s  exactly as it was in the movie,’ which was why we wanted to capture him exactly.  But even though you try hard to do all the externals and Benedict nailed the voice, you have to put those aside because in the end it’s a performance not an impersonation. Ultimately it’s Julian emerging through this other vessel.”

Having worked on the film for over two years  has he changed his mind about the public’s right to know?

“There are things governments do. There are things that are done in diplomacy that demand secrecy, and there are secrets.  The question becomes who decides who keeps those secrets. Very often that clash is between the Fifth and the Fourth Estate. From Julian’s point of view we have a Fourth Estate that’s been so co-opted by powerful institutions they’ve kind of given up that function; so it takes someone like Julian to step in and say, ‘This is how you reported the events of collateral murder. Nobody asked the questions, not even Reuters, and if they were asked, they were rebuffed.’  So it’s an incredibly complicated dance that has to continue.”

 Not surprisingly the film was a box office bust.