Director Scott Z Burns and Daniel J Jones on bringing the true story of The Report to the screen

It feels like Adam Driver Week at the cinema. Getting perhaps the most attention is Marriage Story, which many expect to earn him his first Oscar, but slipping in at the same time (and released on Amazon Prime at the end of the month) is The Report, the low key but nonetheless significant story of what became known as The Torture Report – The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme after the events of 9/11.

For many, Daniel J Jones, the leader of the team writing the report (and played by Driver in the film) is a hero. He received a standing ovation when the film was screened at Sundance at the start of the year, but modestly prefers to talk about the ovations given to the film at other festivals. As far as the movie is concerned, he sees importance very much as secondary to the report itself. “Scott (Z Burns, director and writer) uses me as a tool to tell the story of the report itself – and it’s the report itself that’s the star, getting the content out to a wider audience,” he comments. “The full report is almost 7,000 pages and the executive summary is about 525 pages and Scott had the challenge of taking this document – the summary – and turning it into a 120 page script for a two hour film.”

He describes his years working on the report as “a strange time. When you do a project like that, you disappear from the world. It was important. There’s a line in the film – ‘we’re the only ones left’ – and had the Senate not done this project, the story wouldn’t have been known. It just makes you wonder about all the other stories that haven’t been written. The whole point of the report was to document what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. And Scott’s film goes a long way to helping make that happen.”

Director and writer Scott Z Burns is more direct about Jones’s role in the story. “I think the story of Dan Jones is meant to be like a tracer bullet through our political system and its fractures and its problems,” he says, in a very deliberate, considered way. “Dan was able to accomplish what he did by forcing the system to work. The leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee made this report come out – and it’s about accountability and transparency, more than anything. Without them, all of our governments are in jeopardy.

“Initially, I was interested in why my country had embarked on a programme that was so antithetical to what it’s supposed to be about and to stand for. The hypocrisy of that was very provocative to me. But as I got to work with Dan and know him better, I realised that the bigger story here was about accountability and that, unless we start holding people accountable, we allow an insidious cynicism to take over our systems and once our institutions fail then we are really in jeopardy. And that is true for all Western democracies right now.”

Better known as a writer (The Informant!, Side Effects, The Laundromat), The Report sees Burns combining his usual role with directing. He pays tribute to long-term collaborator, Steven Soderbergh, for his inclusive style of directing, which allowed him to be part of the entire film making process – and how he played a part in The Report being made. “A few years ago we did a movie called Side Effects and I was going to direct that and I struggled to get a cast together and to get financing,” he recalls. “And Steven watched me flail and one day said ‘I really like that script and I’ve never done a Hitchcock style psychological thriller, and I would like to do that.’ If Steven Soderbergh says he wants to make your movie, the right thing to do is quickly say yes! But as part of that arrangement, he said to me ‘You need to go and write a movie for yourself. You need to go and direct. That’s what you want to do.’ Not long after that I became aware of this story and when I finished the script I gave it to Steven – not because I wanted him to direct, but because I wanted his input. He said that nobody else was going to understand the math and the intricacies of it and that I needed to direct it.”

It was also Soderbergh who pointed Burns in the direction of Adam Driver to play the lead. “He told me that Adam was a Marine after 9/11 and that he would understand why this story is important. One of the things people don’t understand about this issue is that it was the military that was most outspoken about the CIA’s use of torture, because it means that when their people are captured, they might be subject to torture techniques. And we can no longer claim the high ground of the Geneva Convention if we’ve already violated it. And I think Adam came to it with that understanding, and also knowing the decorum that goes with being in the Marines. That same decorum goes with being in the United States Senate. But the main thing is that there’s really nothing that Adam does that isn’t interesting to watch. And I knew there was going to be a fair amount of time watching a guy look at a computer screen or watching him react a system that wasn’t working correctly and seeing the frustration build on his face throughout the film was something that he alone could do.”

More recently, Burns has been involved in the script for a much bigger production, Die Another Day. “I wasn’t involved with Bond for that long, but when you come into a movie like that (fiction) you come in to solve problems and they’re very specific. We were very close to production and it’s just about coming up with ideas but respecting the structure that’s already there. And Daniel’s done such a great job with that character and Cary has some really wonderful ideas, so I was just happy to put in my two cents.”

Daniel J Jones and Scott Z Burns were talking to Freda Cooper.

The Report is in cinemas on Friday, 15 November.