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Chasing a Story in Progress
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?

All those questions weighed on the filmmakers' minds as "The Fifth Estate" got underway. 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." 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 Berg's own insights into 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 hypersensitive 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 whom 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 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 Oscar winner) and "Dreamgirls" to the massively popular "Twilight" series. It was precisely his wide-ranging intelligence that convinced Sugar and Golin he was the man for the job.

"Bill 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 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 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 does a great job achieving that kind of hybrid."

Condon had a vision for the film from the get-go. "I always saw it in the tradition of journalistic thrillers, one of my favorite 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 4gives 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, Singer was diving into extensive research, exploring 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 by a judge who noted that 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.

Singer 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, poring over blogs on 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 he made questioning the treatment of Bradley Manning), former Dean of the Columbia University Graduate 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 the world can come with its own hazards," says Singer.

The research itself came with risks. At one point, an anonymous hacker infiltrated Singer's computer and then the FBI questioned him, 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 Singer and Condon started working together, they began to home into the fragile friendship between Julian and Daniel as the centerpiece. "Josh is a 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 Condon.

"You could make several movies out of this material," 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 with in the film is one the world 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 flip the status quo in favor of privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful. 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 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 Assange launched WikiLeaks in 2006, human rights workers, dissidents and whistleblowers for the first time had a clear place to go to unmask government and corporate crimes without fear of persecution. Thus, the organization quickly became not only a hot news-breaking source, but also a worldwide disruptor, throwing a wrench into the works of business-as-usual bankers, politicians and CEOs. Secret keepers were put on alert as the organization 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 ever to fall into civilian hands (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).

Now, WikiLeaks would be going up against the full might of the United States government; and those 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 underway, 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 become too friendly to elites, too tied in with moneyed interests, and too slow to respond to an electronic world was now shown 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 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 organizations no longer have."

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 Condon, 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 and I agonized over each one."

At the same time, Singer says that rumors 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 Singer, Condon remained committed to going deeper in the storytelling than 7merely 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."

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 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."

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