Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi, Carice van Houten, Dan Stevens, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney
Director: Bill Condon
Running Time: 123 minutes
Synopsis: The First Estate: Clergy/Government
The Second Estate: Nobility/Wealthy Elite
The Third Estate: Commoners/Workers
The Fourth Estate: Press/Media
The Fifth Estate: Those who aim to keep the other estates in check, recently defined as whistleblowers, watchdogs, citizen journalists . . . and WikiLeak
In 2010, a website dedicated to protecting whistleblowers released an avalanche of classified US documents that triggered a new age of high-stakes secrecy and explosive news leaks. Now, in a dramatic thriller based on real events, DreamWorks Pictures' 'The Fifth Estate" reveals the quest to expose the deceptions and corruptions of power that turned this Internet upstart into the 21st century's most fiercely debated organisation.
The story begins as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) team up to become underground watchdogs of the privileged and powerful. On a shoestring, they create an online platform that allows whistleblowers to anonymously leak covert data, shining a light on the dark recesses of government secrets and corporate crimes. Soon, they are breaking more hard news than the world's most legendary media organisations. But when Assange and Berg gain access to the biggest trove of confidential intelligence documents in U.S. history, they find themselves at odds as they struggle with a defining question of our time: what are the costs of keeping secrets in a free society"and what are the costs of exposing them?
The Fifth Estate
Release Date: November 14th, 2013
The Debate Of Our Times
'It may be decades before we understand the full impact of WikiLeaks and how it revolutionised the spread of information. With events still unfolding, this film does not aim to be the conclusive statement on the topic. Instead, we set out to create a drama that explores the challenges of transparency and that, we hope, enlivens and enriches the conversations WikiLeaks has provoked."
- Bill Condon, Director
Every generation produces a rebellious figure who changes the game of power and becomes something larger than himself; for some, a visionary symbol of hope; for others, a dangerous enemy of the state. In the early 21st Century, such a figure has emerged in Julian Assange and his ground-breaking, information-disseminating organisation, WikiLeaks. Initiated in 2006 as a non-profit devoted to publishing previously secret, potentially incendiary information from anonymous sources - while offering the security of cutting-edge cryptography - WikiLeaks shattered the mold of 21st Century news-gathering, trumping mainstream media organisations and infuriating people in power.
Then, Julian Assange became a news story unto himself. In 2010, as WikiLeaks led the release of the largest trove of secret, government files ever to see the light of day, Julian Assange began to emerge simultaneously as a hero, a villain?, a journalist, or perhaps just a guarded man caught in a blinding global spotlight.
At this very moment, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks remain at the white-hot centre of raging debates over where our society will draw the lines between openness and security… and who should decide where to draw those lines. It's a fire that is further fueled each time volatile information - the kind that can be both world-changing and dangerous - is revealed, as in the recent case of Edward Snowden.
So did WikiLeaks in 2010 strike a bold, winning blow for democracy and justice, allowing ordinary people kept in the dark to see the concealed actions of governments and corporations that skirt the edges of law? Or did it open the digital floodgates to reckless disclosures that can put people and nations in unpredictable peril?
These questions are at the heart of the first major feature film to explore the WikiLeaks phenomenon. Director Bill Condon probes them in a lightning-paced, kaleidoscopic portrait of our information-obsessed age, but does not pretend there can be any final answers at this juncture. Instead, he turns the story of WikiLeaks' emergence from an anonymous hacker's movement to a major world player into a gripping political thriller, a drama of friendship and betrayal and a thought-provoking snapshot of a world where electronic communication can be both liberator and threat.
Though the story pulses through a variety of screens – in tweets and texts and strings of code – Bill Condon also unravels a starkly human story of fiery ideals colliding with thorny realities.
Like any unfolding story of invention and change, there are naturally several opposing versions of the rise of WikiLeaks. That is why Bill Condon insists that 'The Fifth Estate" is just one take on these contentious events – events that are viewed very differently even by those on the inside of them.
'This is a subject that almost no two people can agree on," Bill Condon notes. 'So, respecting that, we wanted to make a dramatic movie that would spark real conversations about the issues raised by this part of WikiLeaks' history. We didn't set out to make an anti-WikiLeaks movie, or a pro-WikiLeaks movie, but rather, to look at the how and why of some of the extraordinary things WikiLeaks accomplished. We chose to present multiple points of view, to pose a lot of questions and then leave it up to you to come to your own conclusions."
Although the film is drawn, in part, from two of the most detailed accounts of WikiLeaks yet published, Bill Condon has broadened the scope of the film. The result is a multiplicity of perspectives: that of Berg as an early admirer who would ultimately decry Julian Assange's lack of accountability; that of the U.S. diplomats whose delicate work and local operatives were threatened by WikiLeaks' sudden revelations; that of the journalists who butted heads and wits with Assange as they scrambled to pull headline-making stories from WikiLeaks documents in a professionally vetted format; and that based on Julian Assange's own words in which he champions the pure freedom of information, warns that he may be the target of government smear campaigns and points out that no proof has been offered of any individual who came to bodily harm because of a document published by WikiLeaks.
But 'The Fifth Estate" is first and foremost a work of cinematic drama, not a strict historical record. Events have been compressed, there are composite characters among the supporting cast and the filmmakers have brought their own powers of analysis and imagination to all that is unknown about the elusive Assange and his private conversations to make for compelling storytelling.
'The film is not a documentary, and not designed to be one," Bill Condon states. 'A number of good documentaries on WikiLeaks already exist and there will doubtless be more. We wanted to do something different – to explore some of the bigger issues WikiLeaks provoked in the world while also taking the audience on an emotional journey with a fascinating character of our times. 'The Fifth Estate' represents just a slice of the WikiLeaks story, and one interpretation of it. There are certainly going to be other chapters in this story in the future and that's part of what makes it so exciting."
Chasing A Story In Progress
'Two people and a secret, the beginning of all conspiracies . . . but if we could find one moral man, one whistleblower, someone willing to expose those secrets, that man could topple the most powerful and most repressive of regimes."
How do you tell a story that is moving and shifting at the very same time that you are telling it? How do you craft a tight narrative out of secrets, tricky personalities, technological wizardry and such vital but ephemeral concepts as information, national security and free speech?
Those questions all weighed on the filmmakers' minds as 'The Fifth Estate" got under way. The project began shortly after DreamWorks acquired the rights to Daniel Domscheit-Berg's book, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website. Julian Assange and others have disputed the book's full accuracy, but it remains the primary insider account of WikiLeaks' fascinating rise to date, and reflects Daniel Domscheit-Berg's own insights into Julian Assange, his philosophical ideals, and the way he handled the immense responsibility foisted upon him when he found the website to be in possession of hundreds of thousands of hyper-sensitive U.S. military and diplomatic documents.
Producers Michael Sugar and Steve Golin of Anonymous Content immediately took the book – and all the questions it raises about WikiLeaks and even about who to believe in a story with so many personal and political angles - to screenwriter Josh Singer, best known for his work on the acclaimed TV series, 'The West Wing" and 'Fringe." They felt Josh Singer had the unique mix of skills to tap into both the youth culture elements of the story and its intricate web of clashing viewpoints.
They also immediately had a director in mind: Bill Condon, whose films have spanned from the Academy Award®-winning 'Gods and Monsters" to the breakthrough cinematic musicals 'Chicago" (a Best Picture winner) and 'Dreamgirls" to the massively popular 'Twilight" series. It was precisely his wide-ranging intelligence that convinced Michael Sugar and Steve Golin he was the man for the job.
'Bill Condon was the right director for this movie from the outset because he is somebody who can capture the nuances of relationships while telling a story of genuine relevance," says Michael Sugar. 'He had the insight to look at the WikiLeaks story within a very specific context – to show how it started like many of the world's most powerful inventions with a remarkable idea and a very human relationship."
'He also is so experienced," adds Steve Golin. 'I don't think we could have made this movie the way that we did with a less experienced director. It's a movie that doesn't fit into a box. It's a kind of thriller, but it's also a human drama and a morality tale about the push and pull between right and wrong, and Bill Condon does a great job achieving that kind of hybrid."
Bill Condon had a vision for the film from the get-go. 'I always saw it in the tradition of journalistic thrillers, one of my favourite genres," he explains. 'It's very much about chasing stories and staying one step ahead of the people who don't want you to have that story, which gives it the tension of a thriller. I also felt that even though people might have seen a lot about WikiLeaks, they haven't yet seen the story play out from a personal point of view – which brings you inside these events."
Meanwhile, Michael Singer was diving into extensive research, exploring Julian Assange's convoluted history. He looked into his seemingly lonely childhood, during which his mother joined an Australian cult known as The Family; into his teenaged hacking adventures under the pseudonym Mendax for which he nearly went to prison (saved only by a judge who noted that Julian Assange's only aim when hacking into the Pentagon and other sensitive sites seemed to be the intellectual thrill); into his studies in pure math, physics and philosophy at an Australian university (from which he never graduated); and into his catalytic decision to devote his advanced cryptography skills to fighting for social justice.
He met with inside players and an extraordinary range of leading thinkers on WikiLeaks, flying to Berlin for intense talks with Daniel Domscheit-Berg, jetting to London to hear the riveting tales of Guardian journalists, Skyping with Icelandic Parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir, pouring through blogs on Julian Assange, as well as holding conversations with legal scholars Lawrence Lessig and Jonathan Zittrain, former State Department insider P.J. Crowley (who resigned in the wake of statements questioning the treatment of Bradley Manning), Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism Nicholas Lemann, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media Ethan Zuckerman, transparency activists, members of the hacker community, and many others.
All of this went into the complex mix of the narrative. 'I began to see the story in terms of one of the most fascinating questions of our time: what information should be public and what should not? And I equally saw it as the story of a guy who gets swept up into a movement that changes the world, and yet learns that changing world can come with its own hazards," says Michael Singer.
The research itself came with risks. At one point, Michael Singer's computer was infiltrated by an anonymous hacker, then he was questioned by the FBI, reportedly because his name came up in a Chinese hacking investigation. 'It was a little freaky," he admits, 'but it also helped me in writing about paranoia. I started to see that maybe being paranoid wasn't so crazy under the circumstances."
As Josh Singer and Bill Condon started working together, they began to hone into the fragile friendship between Julian and Daniel as the centerpiece. 'Josh Singer is wonderful writer and as we focused the story on Daniel and Julian, we began to see it as a kind of love story gone bad," recalls Bill Condon.
'You could make several movies out of this material," Josh Singer notes, 'but we had to choose one, and ultimately, the story of Daniel's journey with Julian was the most relatable. It's a universal story – that of an idealist who follows his principles only to see them crushed. At the same time, I think we always tried to separate the strength and importance of Julian's ideas about transparency from the story of Julian and Daniel as two friends in conflict."
The question Daniel grapples in the film with is one the world-at-large is still grappling with: who exactly is Julian Assange? There are no simple answers. Certainly, he is a man of his times. Some call him the ultimate 'cypherpunk," a term coined in the 1980s to describe those who champion the use of modern cryptography to achieve social change, expose unjust systems – and to flip the status quo in favour of 'privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful." Julian Assange seemed to embody that view, writing: 'Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love."
But for Josh Singer, Assange's belief in the most robust freedom of expression raises as many moral questions as it addresses. 'There are clearly situations where we as citizens need to be far better informed of what is going on," he comments. 'But the question is who should decide which information should be put out? Can all information be trusted? The movie pushes that question."
When Julian Assange launched WikiLeaks in 2006, human rights workers, dissidents and whistle blowers for the first time had a clear place to go to unmask government and corporate crimes without fear of persecution. Thus, the organisation quickly became not only a hot news-breaking source, but also a worldwide disruptor, throwing a wrench into the works of business-as-usual for bankers, politicians and CEOs. Secret-keepers were put on alert as the organisation published a Somali assassination order, Swiss bank documents revealing money laundering, evidence of massive Kenyan corruption, a Guantanamo Bay operations manual, evidence of a nuclear accident in Iran, a document detailing a toxic chemical dump in Ivory Coast, evidence of bank misconduct In Iceland and more.
Some began calling Assange 'The James Bond of journalism." The Guardian dubbed WikiLeaks 'an untraceable and uncensorable leaking machine." But high as the stakes were already, WikiLeaks entered a true danger zone when in 2010, an anonymous contact offered access to a true 'mega-leak," a stunningly massive cache of the most sensitive U.S. military and diplomatic documents (including 91,000 documents from the war in Afghanistan, 400,000 documents from the Iraq War and 251, 287 classified cables from diplomatic missions around the world) ever to fall into civilian hands.
Now, WikiLeaks would be going up against the full might of the United States government – and events unfolded in rapid-fire fashion. A short time later, Army Specialist Bradley Manning was arrested in Iraq for providing the documents. (While WikiLeaks' submission platform remained secure, Manning confessed he was the leaker to fellow hacker Adrian Lamo, leading to precisely the kind of exposure WikiLeaks was created to avoid.) Meanwhile, as 'Cablegate" got under way, the U.S. dubbed WikiLeaks a foe that was gravely endangering intelligence sources, though even the question of whether WikiLeaks broke any U.S. laws could not clearly be established.
Was WikiLeaks a new form of media, and thus protected under the Constitution's guarantees of free speech, or something closer to a novel, stateless espionage entity, exposing secrets without regard for the human consequences? To many, WikiLeaks' successes underlined the failure of the established press – the Fourth Estate – to raise the difficult but necessary questions about power that keep a democracy vibrant and safe from tyranny. A press that some felt had evolved to become too friendly to elites, too tied in with moneyed interests and too slow to respond to an electronic world proved to be consistently one step behind WikiLeaks.
That is why some began to refer to WikiLeaks as The Fifth Estate. 'The Fifth Estate basically refers to the rise of the new citizen journalism of the internet age," says Bill Condon. 'But it also gets to the heart of one of the big questions our film raises: if citizens can now break the news, who is going to make sure that news is the truth? That was the traditional role of the Fourth Estate, but establishing the truth takes time and money that many media organisations no longer have."
Josh Singer, who spent hour after hour talking to journalists and scholars about the rapid shifts in the media that have left investigative journalism hanging by a thread, agrees that WikiLeaks filled a serious void. 'We've lost many newspapers and thousands of journalists in the last few years and this great check that the Fourth Estate was supposed to have on power has been weakened," he observes. 'That's where -citizen journalists' have come in to pick up the slack. And it has been exciting to see when they serve as an additional check on power. But as WikiLeaks grew so rapidly, it also underlined another important question: who is The Fifth Estate and how do we know if we can trust them?"
Like Bill Condon, Josh Singer is insistent that the film is not a docudrama. 'There are places where we made choices for the sake of time compression or for character and narrative sensibility. In that sense, there are elements of fiction but our aim was to focus the storytelling on reality of the larger themes," he says. 'We made some difficult choices – and Bill Condon and I agonised over each one."
At the same time, Josh Singer says that rumours that Daniel Domscheit-Berg never worked closely with Assange are unsubstantiated by the facts. 'I spent four days with Daniel, hanging out with him in Berlin, and talked him through the entire story, pressing him on different questions and issues. And it is clear he was very much part of things. You can also go online and look at the Chaos Communication Congress in 2008 and 2009 and see Daniel and Julian presenting there together."
He also verified their one-time closeness with Icelandic Parliament member Birgitta Jonsdottir, who was formerly associated with WikiLeaks. 'She said that when Julian and Daniel came to Iceland they were a team, they were Batman and Robin, and then they had a major league breakup. Getting her third party perspective was incredibly useful. Not to mention the fact she's a transparency activist and was very, very valuable in terms of helping me think about WikiLeaks more broadly."
Despite pressure from all sides, says Josh Singer, Bill Condon remained committed to going deeper in the storytelling than merely documenting the chronology. 'We had a lot of back-and-forth discussions and he was just incredible. If you look at all of his movies this is one of the things he's so good at - looking at what makes people tick. In -Gods and Monsters' and -Kinsey,' he was all about getting into the heads of these complex men. And that's what he encouraged me to do with Julian and Daniel."
Josh Singer would continue to write on the fly, but once the structure of the script was in place, production began at an urgent pace. The speed was necessary given the lightning-fast nature of the story – but it also served to tighten the bonds of the team. 'Everyone had to be on their game from day one," says Bill Condon. 'It was an incredibly exciting process because all throughout prep, production, editing, post and even now the controversy surrounding Assange and all the themes of the film continue to play out on a daily basis."
The Renegade: Julian Assange
"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.
Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
- Oscar Wilde
At the heart of The Fifth Estate is a man who remains a captivating enigma, perceived alternately to be a savvy hacker, an anti-establishment revolutionary, an impassioned idealist, a historically significant media pioneer, an arrogant troublemaker, an eccentric, paranoid personality and an outlaw. This is Julian Assange, the white-haired, Australian-born digital whiz kid who established WikiLeaks. He is a man with some 36 million Google entries and multiple unauthorised books about him, yet his broad-ranging intelligence and veiled personality have made him a confounding difficult man to analyse or truly know.
Julian Assange has always been the core of WikiLeaks. As he once said: 'I am the heart and soul of this organisation, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organiser, financier, and all the rest." Indeed, without Julian Assange, WikiLeaks may never have existed or changed the landscape of global secret-keeping as it has.
For Bill Condon, Julian Assange is someone so full of light and dark, he might have been dreamed up in a Greek theatre. 'He has the qualities of a classic, tragic figure in drama," he notes. 'His background led him to became a visionary who changed the world, yet perhaps within that past also lay the seeds that led to a downfall."
Casting an actor to play a man who is at once idolised and despised, endlessly scrutinised and perpetually mysterious was a task filled with risks. Going in, Bill Condon knew he wanted someone who would not merely resort to imitation, but would come up with his own original and accessible interpretation of a man resistant to revealing himself.
As the search got under way, the filmmakers agreed that one actor seemed to best embody Julian Assange in all his mix of geeky cool and single-mindedness: Benedict Cumberbatch, who has come to the fore this year in diverse roles ranging from an interstellar villain in Star Trek Into The Darkness, a guilt-stricken slave owner in Twelve Years As A Slave, an unemployed black sheep of the family in August: Osage County and as the dragon Smaug in 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." This performance would, however, be like no other.
'Benedict Cumberbatch is an actor we still want to know more about and that is so very appropriate for Julian Assange," says Bill Condon. 'There were obvious hints in -Sherlock Holmes' of his incredible intelligence. And he has that kind of other-worldly quality that makes him and Julian Assange so fascinating."
Benedict Cumberbatch was instantly attracted to the material. 'The story is about a massive moment we are going through in politics, media and contemporary history," he observes. 'But it is also the story of a friendship going through a shake-up in the middle of it."
He certainly knew Julian Assange was a divisive figure, but he also was enamored of many aspects of the man, particularly his willingness to lay his ideals on the line, to act when others remained silent.
'It's one thing to have an idea like WikiLeaks, and it is another to carry that kind of idea out with the level of skill and tenacity that Assange has," Benedict Cumberbatch comments. 'I have a great deal of respect for that. He had this idea of maximising the flow of information to achieve just reforms and no matter how you look at him, that idea will now be a major part of our history going forward."
At the same time Benedict Cumberbatch understood he faced a daunting task. He was acutely aware he would be taking on the portrait of a man who also inspires anger – and who has personally rankled at almost every depiction of himself by writers, documentarians and others.
'After a brief spell of euphoria, I spiralled into panic about how on earth I was going to do this," Benedict Cumberbatch recalls. 'There was so much to take on – vocally, physically and just confronting the full import of the story. I did a lot soul searching. Reading the source material books was exciting, but at the same time I was aware that Julian himself despises the people who wrote those books, so I went back to other material, including interviews he had given. And then I went through a process of marrying this person I was discovering to the script."
The more he watched Assange in action, the more Benedict Cumberbatch found empathy for him. 'I would often be seduced by what he was saying and the image he was projecting. He is striking in the way he takes control of his interviews, refusing to just give good television," the actor observes. 'He has an impassioned integrity and holds his line very firmly."
That unwavering quality – which can be perceived either as bold commitment or stubborn disregard – became one of the keys to his performance.
'There was no excuse for not having a somewhat detailed level of verisimilitude in his body language, so I was keen from the beginning to do that as much as possible and Bill Condon was too," Benedict Cumberbatch says. 'But we didn't want him to be in any way two-dimensional. We didn't shy away from exploring the human elements that Julian might prefer to keep private, because it was also about creating a film character in the most fully rounded way."
Everyone on set was impressed with Benedict Cumberbatch's dedication to the task. 'Benedict Cumberbatch found Julian's emotional core – a very relatable core – and created something that is not an imitation of Julian but his own impression of the man," says Michael Sugar.
Equally key to the breadth of Benedict Cumberbatch's performance is Julian's relationship with Daniel which turns from a heady, youthful partnership to a serious war of ideals. 'I think in a platonic way, Daniel fell in love with Julian and his ideas," observes Benedict Cumberbatch. 'They became very close at the crucial, formative time of WikiLeaks – and they shared an extraordinary adventure. But it came down to a battle of principles between two very different men."
Benedict Cumberbatch collaborated closely on the inimitable look of Assange, donning prosthetic makeup, colored contact lenses, bleached eyebrows and of course the trademark ice-white hair to fully take on the persona. He also did extensive vocal work to latch onto Assange's very particular way of speaking – his fast pace, his soft sibilants, his quietness, all in an Australian accent.
Throughout what was a never-ending web of complexities trying to get to his own interpretation of Assange, Benedict Cumberbatch felt the steadfast support of Bill Condon. 'You feel Benedict Cumberbatch's focus is tailor-made for you," he says of the director. 'It's not just about him getting his shot; he is really going through your beats. He also had a real concern for the morality and responsibility involved in telling this story. He deeply cares about the real people in the story. So while he worked to create something thrilling and engaging – it was equally important to bring an integrity that honours the subject matter."
Bill Condon was in turn impressed by Benedict Cumberbatch's commitment, which even included ultimately establishing a private, personal e-mail connection with Assange himself.
'Julian has a very insistent take on these events that in many ways no one else agrees with, but his responses to Benedict were interesting and valuable," says the director. 'Benedict Cumberbatch understood that his job was to morph into Julian and to represent his point of view. He got so into the head of Julian, he brought something beautiful to the performance." Adds Josh Singer: 'Benedict Cumberbatch was looking for a way to figure out how to both embody Julian and have perspective on him. I think if he had not struggled so with what was the truth and who Julian is, maybe we wouldn't have gotten this performance."
Like Bill Condon, Benedict Cumberbatch ultimately sees 'The Fifth Estate" as a story leading into a new era that is just beginning. 'WikiLeaks and Assange are an unfinished drama," he observes. 'As a storyteller, you can only ever give one version of the events to date, but hopefully this version will motivate people to keep looking deeper into what is really going on around them. In the end there's no such thing as the objective truth, there's only your personal truth."
The Breakaway: Daniel Domscheit-Berg
'Courage is contagious . . . right?"
Since splitting with WikiLeaks and publishing his memoir of working with Assange, the German technology activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg has also become a controversial figure. His tell-all book, Inside WikiLeaks, revealed previously unknown operational details about WikiLeaks and personal details about Assange, though some have questioned Berg's motives and even dubbed him a WikiLeaks saboteur. He went on to establish his own WikiLeaks-like organisation, Open Leaks, intended to be more transparent and to work more closely with established media, though it has yet to get up and fully running.
But as 'The Fifth Estate" begins, Daniel (who took the alias Daniel Schmitt while working with WikiLeaks) is still a boisterous, wide-eyed network security specialist fired up by ideas that he, like Julian, hopes will change through the world.
To take Daniel on a journey from idolising Assange to questioning him, it was essential to find someone who could play dynamically against Benedict Cumberbatch. The filmmakers found that ability in German actor Daniel Brühl, who came to the attention of U.S. audiences in Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglorious Bastards," and will also be seen this year in Ron Howard's 'Rush."
'We all loved the idea that Daniel Brühl is actually German," says Steve Golin. 'Bill Condon really believed in him and supported him for the role even though we knew there would be pressure to find someone more widely known. He just brought so much empathy to the role."
Says Bill Condon: 'Daniel Brühl is the Everyman of the film, so it was really exciting to be able to find an actor who comes in without a lot of baggage in this country."
Daniel Brühl was instantly attracted to the trajectory of their friendship, which flies close to the sun before taking a precipitous fall. 'They go through a very intense journey, because they were nobodies, geeks, computer nerds and then they became famous very, very quickly," he observes. 'I think it's an important story to tell because what they did changed our ideas of secrecy and transparency. But the avalanche of information may have been too much for them and the organisation was fragile. And, of course, sometimes rapid success and attention changes the way people behave."
Once Daniel Brühl began his own research, like others he found that there were several variations on how the history played out. But the potential for controversy did not alter his interest. 'I felt we would be telling one version of the story, based on particular perspectives of people who were there. I think the film shows the very human flaws in both of these guys," he says. 'It's natural that friendships will change when you are leading such crazy lives. The ultimate importance of what they did, though, lies in the things they were exposing."
Unlike Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl had the chance to meet with the man he would be playing, which lent additional insight. 'Daniel has an incredible energy, and when we talked about WikiLeaks he still had a sparkle in his eye and got very hyperactive again. He is still a true activist. When I visited him at home, outside Berlin, he had French anti-fascists living and working in his barn, because they had nowhere else to go," Daniel Brühl recalls. 'He really wants to help change things for the better. He was very open and shared his sadness at how one of the most intense relationships in his life had ended. I could tell how much this meant to him, and I hope to have portrayed that in the film."
On set, Daniel Brühl says that Bill Condon's way of giving every actor his undivided attention further honed the performance. 'Bill Condon understood that with actors playing real people we needed individual attention as we each defend our character and their different perspectives," he explains.
He especially loved establishing a rapport with Benedict Cumberbatch, even if the bond between Julian and Daniel collapses under the weight of events larger than any one person. 'Benedict Cumberbatch is highly energetic, very powerful, very funny and he has great, spontaneous ideas," Daniel Brühl sums up. 'We really did become friends and I think you can see that on the screen."
A Global Response: Supporting Cast
'12 million people have seen that video. You still want to tell me it's just a little website?"
To capture the clashing points of view that quickly surrounded WikiLeaks, 'The Fifth Estate" features a diverse cast of characters beyond Julian and Daniel – who are in turn brought to life by an accomplished cast.
Representing the U.S. government response to the leaks of secret American documents are three fictional characters based on composites of US government insiders: White House Deputy National Security Advisor Sam Colson, played by Anthony Mackie ('The Hurt Locker"); Under Secretary of State Sarah Shaw, played by three-time Academy Award® nominee Laura Linney; and James Boswell, Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs, played by Academy Award® nominee Stanley Tucci.
'My character is the link to the White House who has to report to the President about what's happening in the media – and he has to figure out how to handle these leaks and what official statements to put out," Anthony Mackie explains.
Laura Linney - who garnered an Oscar® nomination in Condon's 'Kinsey," then worked with him on the pilot for HBO's 'The Big C," for which she won a Golden Globe - relished the chance to work again with Bill Condon. 'Bill Condon loves a challenge, so he creates a fantastic environment to work in," she says. 'What's so interesting about this story is that people have so many different, conflicting, passionate feelings about Assange, about WikiLeaks and about all that they've ignited. So Anthony Mackie, Stanley Tucci and I get to represent the counter point of view in the film to Assange."
Stanley Tucci felt similarly. 'I like that the film doesn't really come down on one side or the other, and that it presents the story as very complex, and as not finished," he says. 'Everyone is grapping with all of this still and that makes for some really interesting storytelling."
Another POV on WikiLeaks comes from the professional Journalists at the UK's The Guardian newspaper, who found themselves both colluding and clashing with Assange after they convinced him to utilise the mainstream press to funnel this massive story to the public. Ultimately, a trio of the world's most respected newspapers – The Guardian, The New York Times and Germany's Der Spiegel – would attempt to verify, investigate and publish stories based on WikiLeaks documents.
To bring the real Guardian journalists to life, Bill Condon cast three highly regarded British actors. David Thewlis, recently seen in Steven Spielberg's 'War Horse," plays renowned investigative reporter Nick Davies, who wrote many of the big stories at the height of the WikiLeaks revelations. Peter Capaldi, recently cast to play the new 'Dr. Who," is Alan Rusbridger, the current editor of The Guardian; and Dan Stevens, of 'Downton Abbey" fame is Ian Katz, deputy editor of The Guardian.
Rounding out the supporting cast are Swedish actress Alicia Vikander ('Anna Karenina," 'A Royal Affair") as Anke, Daniel's skeptical girlfriend, and acclaimed Dutch actress Carice van Houten, most recently seen as Melissandre on 'Game Of Thrones," as Birgitta Jonsdottir, the Icelandic poet, artist, activist and Member of Parliament who was among the first to offer support to WikiLeaks.
Shooting On The Run
'They're coming after us."
To give 'The Fifth Estate" the visceral feeling of fast-paced reality, but with a heightened intimacy befitting a Shakespearean tale of shifting loyalties, the filmmakers utilised multiple, hand-held cameras that allow for both a fly-on-the-wall closeness to the action and an array of perspectives. Bill Condon reunited with cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, with whom he worked on 'Dreamgirls," in a shoot that traversed multiple countries, from Belgium and Germany to Iceland and Kenya.
Bill Condon says the look of the film, in which function follows form, evolved out of passionate discussions that hooked back into the film's themes. 'We spent a lot of time going through the script to decide on the visual approach. I wanted to try something that Tobias Schliessler has become a master at, which is getting a group of great camera operators, putting a camera in each one's hand, and letting them roam around finding the drama."
He continues: 'It worked for the story and It was very fun and exciting to play with the actors that way, too, without any blocking and just letting the camera figure out how to express what they were doing in the best way. It was liberating for both cast and crew. There was a lot of freedom, but Tobias Schliessler also lights and shoots in a very expressive way that captures the emotions going on within."
Bill Condon, Tobias Schliessler and Tildesley also talked a lot about the inherent tension between the film's two disparate worlds. 'We were looking to capture a strong contrast between the glass-and-steel world of power - whether it be the banks, the corporations or the governments that WikiLeaks took on - and the grass-roots, homemade, hand-painted, graffiti world that Julian and Daniel live in that is so full of kinetic energy. Theirs is a revolutionary world full of saturated colours."
Tildesley had all the skills to take on this kind of hyper-contemporary world. Known for his numerous collaborations with Danny Boyle, he recently designed the much-acclaimed Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the Olympics in London. That vast undertaking spoke not only to his versatility, but his ability to work with wide-ranging cultural themes.
All that came into play as he began the daunting task of recreating the many locations where WikiLeaks history unfolded around the world – in a short amount of time and with limited resources. He found himself working on-the-run, echoing the style of WikiLeaks and the film. 'We had to find a nomadic way of working because we were moving through nine countries – but that also gave us a great kind of energy and it helps to give the look the right feel," he observes.
Production began in Iceland, the tiny, volcanic island nation nestled on the edge of the Arctic – a place that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Here, one of the most evocative scenes takes place at The Blue Lagoon, a vast landscape of lava rock and erupting geysers, where Benedict Cumberbatch and David Brühl filmed a key conversation in howling wind and almost horizontal rain.
In Berlin, filming took place in several iconic locales, including the gleaming Berliner dome of the Anglican Cathedral, where Julian takes Daniel to show him a city that transformed from a closed Fascist society to one rife with freedom. In the midst of filming there, a massive blizzard began whirling. 'The blizzard almost obliterated the view," remembers Bill Condon. 'But it left us with something else, which was just this explosion of crows and dense snow – and the actors completely embraced it, so that Benedict started incorporating the weather and what he was seeing into the speech. It was an amazingly tough location for the crew. We had to drag all the equipment up this old staircase, it was as cold as anywhere I've ever been in my life, and on top of it all, the bells would ring every half hour for what seemed like 10 minutes. But it was one of those experiences that really brings people together."
One of Tildesley's most interesting challenges was recreating the Tacheles, the famed 'artists' squat" in Berlin where Daniel spent time. In the 1990s, the dilapidated building that had previously been a department store and a Nazi prison became home to artists, anarchists and libertines from all over the world who transformed it into a living gallery, bursting with every form of human expression inside and out. It served as a vibrant symbol of Berlin's unbridled creative freedom but after years of legal squabbles, was closed down in 2012 to be turned into apartment buildings.
Bill Condon says it still retains a sense of that of mythology. 'The feeling of the building is still so strong, and even now there's this amazing sort of community who lives outside of it," he says. 'Some people were afraid that just opening it back up for a few nights that we shot there would bring it back to life, which in a way we hoped would happen."
After wrangling permission to shoot in the refurbished building, Tildesley's team began working to take it back to the days when it was buzzing with electric energy. They even rebuilt the nightclub that formerly resided there. 'We found the original club owners and we managed to get all the original furniture and art back, and even reinstated the fire dragon over the bar," the production designer muses. 'It came out looking exactly like it would have back in the day."
When Daniel Domscheit-Berg came to the set, he was especially impressed with the way the production had transformed the Berlin Congress Centre to how it looked when it hosted the Chaos Computer Club (Europe's largest association of hackers) conventions he attended with Assange. 'Daniel Domscheit-Berg said we had recreated it so perfectly, he felt he was having a flash back," laughs Michael Sugar.
Visualising Information: The Submission Platform Set
'Are you safe?"
At the core of WikiLeaks' bold idea was Assange's secure submission platform, allowing anyone to upload information or documents in a way that, using a form of 'deniable encryption," was entirely untraceable back to a specific source. It was a brilliant, even life-saving, concept, but ephemeral enough that Bill Condon wanted to find some way to put it into visceral, compelling visuals.
Thus was born a series of sets that would make concrete the 'rubberhose" file system, which was created by Assange, Suelette Dreyfus and Ralf Weinmann. They originally developed it for use by human rights groups working in repressive countries – thus a name that brings to mind the rubber hoses used to beat prisoners to get information -- but it also became a seed of WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks would soon use a more sophisticated form of encryption (allegedly designed by a programmer known as 'The Architect") to move disguised information from a leaker to the world so that no one in the organisation could possibly know who was providing top-secret documents. Even if someone from WikiLeaks was interrogated, they would have no information to give under any circumstance.
The WikiLeaks platform did remain secure. But what Assange may not have accounted for was the human factor that allowed a young Bradley Manning to talk openly about his leaks in a chatroom to a former hacker who became a government informant.
To make the platform tangible, Mark Tildesley explains, 'We conceived of it as a safe haven where all information is free. So we start with someone typing into a monitor and then you see the letters gathering speed becoming encryption code leading to a room filled with simple computers and documents flying in from all over. It gives you a visual impression of how the information was stored."
It was exactly the kind of challenge Mark Tildesley loves most. 'It was exciting to try to take this story that is all about people in front of screens and make it really cinematic," he says.
That aim followed Condon into the editing room, where he collaborated with long-time associate Virginia Katz ('The Twilight Saga," 'Dreamgirls") to weave the final narrative. 'Because of how we shot the film, it made for a very intense editing period," Bill Condon notes. 'We had mounds of footage, and Ginny and I scoured for all the best moments. It was long and involved, but worth it."
Another challenge of the editing was pacing, especially given that some climactic scenes take place almost entirely in exchanges of text. 'The big question was: How do you make the reading of text as dramatic as two people shouting at each other? Ginny did a really, really beautiful job of making you hang on every word," says Bill Condon.
The final touches on the film came in the form of the score by Carter Burwell, who has worked on several films with Bill Condon, as well as multiple films for the Coen Brothers. For 'The Fifth Estate" he was also able to tap into his background studying electronic music at Harvard and MIT.
'There's a very specific sound to this period in Germany, a techno sound that inspired us," says Bill Condon. 'Carter dove into a style that he's never really played with before. And we added to that a soundtrack of artists from all over Europe and America. Techno is the dominant sound, but there's a very different sound for the State Department sequences and another for he newspaper sequences. There's a whole wide range of musical styles, and Carter pulled it all into a strong, cohesive whole."
Pulling multiple strands into a cohesive whole was the overarching aim of the entire production – but all the filmmakers acknowledge that no matter how you look at this story, it keeps shifting like the fractals of a kaleidoscope as the news itself keeps spinning. The recent NSA leaks brought to light by Edward Snowden only serve to underline how the story continues to morph.
'I think now with Edward Snowden, people have realised what happened with WikiLeaks wasn't a one-time thing," Josh Singer observes. 'Manning wasn't a one off. It happened again. And it could happen again, and again, and again, because information transfer is so easy in our world right now. And, no matter where you come down, it's something we all have to talk about."
Sums up Bill Condon: 'These are the questions we are all asking right now: who will be the judge of which secrets we need to know and which are too dangerous to share? Julian Assange believes almost no information is too dangerous to be shared and that the majority of information should be free. Others argue that it's irresponsible to reveal everything a government or company does and that, even in a democratic society, some things must be kept concealed. These are complex questions but WikiLeaks has made them very, very real."
Dec. 2006: WikiLeaks.org launches, offering a secure platform for whistleblowers and leakers to post secret, newsworthy documents while keeping their identities hidden. Julian Assange, a former Australian computer hacker, cryptographer and internet activist with strong views on liberty and transparency, calls himself its editor-in-chief
Aug. 2007: The Guardian newspaper publishes a front-page story about massive government corruption in Kenya, citing WikiLeaks as its reporting source
Nov. 2007: The 'Standard Operating Procedures for Camp Delta," which details internal procedures at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility goes online
Nov. 2007: Daniel Berg begins volunteering for Wikileaks
Dec. 2008: Daniel Berg and Julian Assange meet in person for the first time at the Chaos Communications Congress (24C3). Julian gives a small lecture.
Jan. 2008: WikiLeaks publishes internal documents that suggest that the Julius Baer Bank in Switzerland is helping clients launder money. The bank files suit against WikiLeaks, but later drops the case
Nov. 2008: Wikileaks publishes a report by John Paul Oulu and Oscar Kingara of the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights. The report accuses Kenyan police of thousands of extrajudicial killings.
Dec. 2008: Daniel and Julian speak at the Chaos Communications Congress (25C3) to a packed main auditorium
Jan 2009: Daniel quits his job and starts working full time for Wikileaks
Jan 2009: Wikileaks releases telephone recordings of Peruvian politicians and businessmen involved in the Petroperu oil scandal.
Mar. 2009: John Paul Oulu and Oscar Kingara of the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights are murdered
April 2009: The Architect (Marcus) joins Wikileaks. He immediately begins upgrading the Wikileaks' operation system and submission platform.
June 2009: Wikileaks publishes internal documents from the Kaupthing Bank in Iceland implicating various owners of the bank in its collapse
July 2009: Wikileaks releases a report showing that Iran has covered up serious nuclear accident at the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran
Nov. 2009: Half a milliion never-before-seen pager messages sent during the attacks of 9/11 become available on the WikiLeaks site
Dec 2009: Julian and Daniel speak again at the Chaos Communications Congress (26c3).
April 2010: WikiLeaks posts a video entitled 'Collateral Murder" – footage from a 2007 U.S. military helicopter strike in Iraq that appears to explicitly show civilians, including two employees of Reuters news agency, targeted and killed
May 2010: Army Specialist Bradley Manning is arrested in Iraq in connection with the release of the classified 'Collateral Murder" video
July 2010: In conjunction with Wikileaks, The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel release dozens of articles based on 91,000 classified U.S. military documents from the war in Afghanistan. The articles provide previously unknown details of the war's operation and casualties. Wikileaks releases 76,000 of these documents unredacted.
Aug. 2010: Two Swedish women claim Julian Assange insisted on having unprotected sex with them. An arrest warrant for sexual assault is issued then withdrawn
Aug 2010: Julian Assange suspends Daniel Berg
Sept 2010: Daniel Berg and the Architect leave Wikileaks. They remove all improvements the Architect made to the submission platform, rendering it impossible to submit new material online.
Oct. 2010: In conjunction with WikiLeaks, The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel publish the Iraq War Logs based on 400,000 classified U.S. military files about the war in Iraq, marking the largest military leak in American history
Nov. 2010: An arrest warrant is issued for Assange in Sweden
Nov. 2010: In conjunction with Wikileaks, The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, El Pais and Le Monde publish a series of articles based on 251,287 secret diplomatic cables. The US State Department condemns the release, but activists around the world greet these reports with great enthusiasm.
Dec. 2010: Assange turns himself over to London police and after spending several days in prison is placed under house arrest in a supporter's country home
Feb. 2010: A British court rejects Assange's claim that he will be extradited to the United States or not receive a fair trial if he is sent to Sweden and orders him to be extradited. Assange appeals
Aug. 2011:Wikileaks discovers that a copy of their file containing the unredacted diplomatic cables has been leaked online. Wikileaks then publishes all 251,287 cables in their original form, without redactions.
Oct. 2011: WikiLeaks announces it will temporarily shut down after a financial blockade by major credit card companies cuts off its funding
May 2012: Assange loses his appeal in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and is once again ordered to be extradited to Sweden. The Ecuadoran embassy in London allows Assange to take refuge inside, where he has now remained for over a year
June 2013: Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old contractor for the US National Security Agency, leaks details of secret government surveillance programs. Wikileaks subsequently provides legal assistance to Snowden
July 2013: Bradley Manning is convicted on multiple counts of violating the Espionage Act for leaking documents to WikiLeaks. He is sentenced to 35 years
The Fifth Estate
Release Date: November 14th, 2013