Russian spy novels and secret meetings: How Oliver Stone made the “Snowden” film

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden.
Image: Open Road Films/YouTube screenshot
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Acclaimed director Oliver Stone, the man behind Oscar-winning films like Born on the Fourth of July and Wall Street, is readying to release the first—and perhaps the definitive—biopic on American whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden, which is slated for US release on Sept. 16, tells the tale of how Snowden came to unearth and subsequently leak details about the US National Security Agency’s surveillance on the American public.

As it turns out, the story of how the movie was financed and filmed is almost as amazing as Snowden’s, revealed an article by Irina Aleksander published in the New York Times Magazine Aug. 30.

  • The film is “based on” a Russian spy novel that Stone paid $1 million to option in order to get access to the whistleblower himself, according to Stone’s reported account. The book, called Time of the Octopus, was written by Snowden’s Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who reportedly arranged for the filmmakers to meet with Snowden, and for him to appear in the final scene of the movie. Based on Snowden’s life, the book tells the story of a fictional fugitive US intelligence officer named Joshua Cold. Snowden reportedly hasn’t read it.
  • Stone initially pitched the movie to Hollywood studios with a $50 million budget and December 2015 release date. No studio allegedly wanted to touch it. Stone believed they were turned off by the controversy surrounding the film’s protagonist and the NSA leaks. Snowden, a former US spy agency contractor, is a fugitive wanted by the American government.
  • Ultimately, Stone and producer Moritz Borman took on “several hundred thousand dollars in debt” to finance the movie, which still wasn’t enough. Shooting was put on hold for a three-week period while Borman sought financing from European partners. Snowden is being distributed by Open Road Films, a small US-based production company that released Spotlight and the Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher, Jobs.
  • The bulk of the movie was made in Germany, allowing Borman to make use of tax subsidies there, because Stone thought filming in America would be too risky. Parts of the movie were also shot in Washington, Hawaii, and Hong Kong. The scene featuring the real-life Snowden was filmed in Moscow, Russia.
  • There were last-minute rewrites because Stone thought actor Joseph Gorden-Levitt was playing the role of Snowden too “documentary-ish” at times, while Gordon-Levitt worried parts of the script were too heavy-handed, according to the article. Stone was desperate for a Hollywood hit after years without having a major critically-acclaimed film and wanted to play up the drama as much as possible.
  • The film’s release date was pushed twice, to May 13 and then Sept. 16, when it will be able to take advantage of fall film festivals.

Aleksander reportedly learned many of the details behind Snowden’s chaotic production process while in Moscow with Borman and Stone in 2015. The story notes that Snowden’s lawyer, Kucherena, has refuted parts of the account given by Stone, specifically that he agreed to provide access to Snowden in exchange for Stone optioning his book.