Burns, Jones discuss making ‘The Report’

A promotional poster for 'The Report' (2019) is pictured. via IMDb

The Report” (2019) follows Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) and his investigation into the “enhanced interrogation techniques” — a softer, more cryptic term to describe systematic torture — that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employed following the Sept. 11 attacks. Based on Jones’ real experience with the “Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Report of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program,” the film spans a decade, highlighting the years Jones worked on the project. It focuses on Jones’ struggle — alongside California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) — to bring to light the information gathered from more than 6.3 million documents and materials about interrogations, methods used to obtain information and revelations that those methods just didn’t work.

At a roundtable interview Friday, Scott Z. Burns, director and writer of “The Report,” and Daniel J. Jones sat down to discuss the film and why this story matters now. 

When I learned about the program,” Burns said, “I was horrified that my country did something that routinely we hold other countries in contempt for.” He noted that the story felt immediately hypocritical and especially upsetting after the later revelation that torture does not work, something that was “well known to people in law enforcement, in the military.

The Report” makes Jones’ dedication its focus, from shots of Jones working late into the evening under sterilized, fluorescent lights to the film never going home with Jones and barely discussing his personal life. Burns was called to the story by that work ethic and his meticulous research and writing. “Whenever you can find a character like that, as a filmmaker, that’s what you instinctively want to pursue,Burns said.

The work Jones does throughout the film is daunting and exhausting. “You have Dan Jones in a basement, working tirelessly, working very cautiously to piece together this puzzle,” Burns commented. “It’s important to reflect on what that must be like.” He shows that difficulty in many ways — the millions of scattered papers all around the basement office, the slow, methodical process by which Jones and his team begin to trace each prisoner’s situation. Eventually, the information is hung on the walls around the office. It’s overwhelming to look at.

Since the film spends so much time with Jones, Driver has to deliver a lived-in performance — nothing as tortured as Kylo Ren or funny as Adam Sackler, but honest and human and normal — and Driver does it impeccably well. Burns commented that Driver was recommended by director Steven Soderbergh. “I met with Adam and he said something that made me very excited to work with him,” Burns said. “He felt that he had some awareness of the story and yet when he read the script, he became aware of how little he didn’t know and that made him curious.” That curiosity is in Driver’s portrayal.

The Report” also thrives from Jones knowing Burns and being a part of the process. “He [Burns] always wanted to get it right and be respectful,Jones said. “This is a story about the report itself, I don’t view it as my story. But he made choices that I’m very proud of and happy about.” He commented that beyond his screenwriting and filmmaking, Burns is a researcher, which explains his interest in both this film and in getting the story right. For the actors, specifically Driver, Bening and Jon Hamm, who plays Barack Obama’s White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Jones was more of a consultant. “All of them also wanted to know context and background, and to an extent, I could help. I also just tried to stay out of their way.

Jones also compared the process of helping work on “The Report” with his role as an investigator. “For me, I can sort of peel off a part of myself and focus on just all business. I think that’s how I’ve approached this process.” However, Jones said that the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year the first time the film was shown to an audience larger than around 15 to 20 people — was a heavy experience. “The whole reason I was in a basement, with other people, was to make sure that people knew this story,Jones said. “The report came out in December 2014 and it was worldwide press for one day and then it was gone.” Now, as “The Report” opens in theaters and the story and its details are told, Jones is grateful.

The film is edited excellently, flowing through various timelines and locations to show the torture being done while Jones and his team research it. Some of the torture scenes, specifically the waterboarding scenes, are gruesome and honest depictions. Burns noted the importance of including this and John Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, the psychologists behind the techniques used in interrogating detainees, as well as focusing on how desperate certain characters are to believe in the effectiveness of the “enhanced interrogation techniques.

One of the most important moments — although it might not seem like it at first glance — is when Jones sees an advertisement for “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) on television one night while working. “This movie, with a studio budget and an ad campaign, goes whistling by him, and I felt like that was an important moment where the main character of our movie sees what’s going on outside of the basement and that this is a narrative that is now loose in the world,Burns noted.

And as for what audiences should be thinking, doing and feeling after “The Report,” Burns isn’t so sure he’s in a position to make those decisions. “I feel very strongly, as an artist, that I don’t get to tell people how to feel,” he said. “I get to make choices about what I want to write about and what I want to make movies about, but I don’t get to tell the audience how to respond.” He’s focused more on presenting the accurate information rather than telling the viewer what they should make of it — something that’s important when dealing with a story as harrowing as this.

But it’s important to note that by the conclusion of “The Report,” which finally shows the December 2014 release, Jones leaving work and Feinstein congratulating Jones, it’s impossible to not feel upset for not knowing about this story and the work behind this report sooner. The film’s highlighting of the painstaking process behind uncovering the truth is a reminder of how much more there is to a story than one might already think they know.

The Report” is in theaters starting this weekend.