‘The Fifth Estate’ Interview: Bill Condon Pushes Boundaries with Julian Assange
Coming off the highly marketable Twilight movies, director Bill Condon decided to go a bit more mature but stick with a pasty pale figure that strikes fear into the heart of many: Julian Assange. It’s fitting Condon’s approach is radical in its own way. Assange himself has publicly taken issue with the film, and when you see the warts and all portrait, you’ll understand why.
Thus far the movie has been as splitting as the man in question. Critics have been mixed, including our own Kate Erbland who reviewed the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s the reaction Condon expected. It’s probably not the response he wanted, but, as he says, it happens.
Condon sat down with us to discuss those responses to the film, as well the battle between great characters and real life.
When you come off two big hits like the Breaking Dawn films, is it like people imagine? Having the ability to make any film you want?
No. I have to say, it has helped me. There’s no question. That was an interesting bit of timing with me getting involved with that [series]. I had a couple of movies, with the Richard Pryor movie and another, which I couldn’t pull together. There was a long gap for me after making Dreamgirls. Coming off that, it has been easier to get these films going. I think it’s a fallacy, at least in my experience. You tend to only get offered what you just did last. It’s, like, you want to do a film version of a Beckett play, but nobody is giving you that.
Was this an easy one to get made?
It was shockingly easy. We kept pinching ourselves. I got involved as I was editing the second Breaking Dawn movie. We tested the interest of Benedict ‐ and he wanted to do it ‐ but he had to do it quickly. Dreamworks were, kind of, intrigued by it. They had foreign partners who were very interested. There’s this incredible company Participant, whose first movie was Good Night, and Good Luck. With them it’s like stepping into a different version of Hollywood. Their thing is to make movies that have social relevance, to the point where they don’t really care how commercial they are. Can you imagine? No movie is easy, but this came together, like, there we were making the movie.
It’s interesting making a film about Assange when his story is very much ongoing. What convinced that this could be told just as well as it could be 15 years from now?
I think that’s a part of what’s interesting about it. I don’t think the movie pretends to have a perspective about it, and I think we’re very clear about that with the ending. It was the strength of the initial script and the story that had a beginning, middle, and end with the relationship between Assange and his acolyte, Daniel Berg. You hope to deal with all the interesting issues surrounding this case, but with some kind of finality.
Since it is a modern story, do you approach it from a different perspective than you did on Kinsey?
Yes, certainly. With Kinsey I wrote that script and I did the year of research that [screenwriter] Josh Singer did on this. I dove in and tried to catch up, but I don’t think I ever did. Yeah, there is the distance, but it was interesting…maybe this is less true now, but certainly up until that point Kinsey had been kept alive as a Boogeyman by a majority of the Christian right. He was an incredibly complicated guy, but there were real distortions over his record. There was a woman ‐ and I’m not even sure if she’s still with us ‐ who was a real crusader against everything he represented. It was surprising that even a few years later what a hot button figure he remained for a few people.
You’ve mainly focused on characters pushing boundaries.
That’s right. To me, there’s some way in which they haven’t quite figured out the social contract [Laughs]. You know, they see themselves and feel separate from the world. They’re trying to understand how to make sense of everything, and I find that a very moving thing in everybody. They all go about it in very transgressive ways. I think that’s probably more of a fantasy, because it’s not something I do much in my personal life. It’s fun to watch characters who do have that strength or madness.
A tricky balance with Kinsey and The Fifth Estate is embodiment versus impersonation. What kind of conversations do you have with Neeson and Cumberbatch about walking that line?
Well, you don’t really tell those actors anything, in a way [Laughs]. I mean, you work with them. I have to say, it was very similar, especially if I include Ian McKellan as James Whale in that group. Maybe it’s because they’re European stage actors, but it starts from the outside. It was the day Ian trusted that hairdresser to go snow white with his hair, because that goes a long way. I remember when Liam got the Kinsey haircut, and when I came back, he pulled together his own outfit with the bow tie. With Benedict it was the first time he put on that wig and the teeth. It’s just those simple theaterical things.
I remember Ian put it so well when we brought him to Whales’s house and I remember him saying, “I got it down, but I think I need to make it my own.” Each one of them comes to the point where it stops being about any of that stuff, but how it’s going to be transluted through their experience and who they are.
Obviously you have a degree of responsibility to the real life subject, but there’s also the greater responsibility of telling a good story. Have you ever found that the two can clash?
It’s a good question, because, yeah, it’s a challenge, especially in this case. I remember going to the British premiere of Gods & Monsters and meeting his grandnieces and one of them said, “No, he wasn’t like that. He wasn’t as mean as you suggested he was.” My feeling was, “Well, you were eight when he died.” [Laughs] In this case, because he is so with us, I think that’s why I wanted to end with that postscript.
It really acknowledges this is an interpretation and exists in one world. There are great documentaries on him and he’s still here to make his case, and believe me, he’s not shy about it. Look, you put a wig on an actor and you roll a camera, so it’s already a work of fiction in some way. I always felt like at a certain point we had to plead guilty to that. Yes, we’re doing that, but are we getting to the essentials?
He definitely hasn’t been shy. Do you think that’s beneficial in a way?
I think so. There are some useful things, but you’re making a film that’s…I don’t want to call it a work of fiction, but you have to speak more to that than the actual people. It sort of becomes less interesting. I know that’s kind of brutal to say, but I was more interested in our characters than I was in the real people.
People have responded to that in varying ways. Have you noticed those reactions?
The reaction has been weird. We had your critic…what’s her name?
Right, right. That review was… [makes a face] yeah. You know, it’s a typical thing, because I thought it was a complete misreading of every bit of the intention, but it’s interesting. I’m not claiming it wasn’t a genuine reaction on her part, but it is a Rorschach Test aspect to the movie. I think people think they don’t bring politics into the movie, but I’d say they do. I’m not specifically talking about ideological stuff, but even the expectation of what part of the story you should tell or, you know, “Who are we meant to root for?” I think all that stuff plays with you. I think it’s doing something different.
Actually, Gods & Monsters covered this idea of intent versus content. At the end of the day, do you think intent matters?
Well, I have to say, intent matters. There’s nothing like reading a great critic who gets something. I’ve had that experience on this movie, with people deeply understanding it. That’s not to say they are right, but it does make the more glib putdowns even more frustrating. Now, this will just be me spinning out of control into pure bitterness…
[Laughs] Do you always read reviews?
Oh yeah. I love film criticism. It’s always interesting to me. It is hard, especially on something like this, but I think the more substantial writers are coming up. You get the first rave of mostly blog reactions, but…yeah.
Before we wrap up, there’s a great line in Gods & Monsters about how making movies is wonderful but the business of it is terrible. Do you agree with that?
Making films is fantastic. The business…I don’t know. I have to say, it’s been an incredible experience on this movie, from start to finish, except for maybe…not the reaction, because I’ve always felt this was the opposite of a consensus movie. It has something for everyone to take objection to or have a problem with. I have to say, the whole thing has been great. It’s just the people who are dismissive about it as a work of creation that is…you know, it happens.
The Fifth Estate opens in theaters October 18th.