Bill Condon isn't afraid of a challenge. Over the past decade, the director has taken on Broadway, Twihards, the science of sex, and now, WikiLeaks.
In "The Fifth Estate," which opened this year's Toronto International Film Festival, Condon tackles the rise of whistleblower website WikiLeaks, and its divisive mastermind, Julian Assange. While it spans half a decade, chronicles the exposure of government secrets from across the globe, and is told largely from the point of view of WikiLeaks collaborator Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), the movie's centerpiece could only be Assange, played with uncanny ease by Toronto "it" boy Benedict Cumberbatch, who also stars in the Oscar-buzzy "12 Years a Slave" and "August: Osage County," both making their worldwide debuts at TIFF this year.
When Moviefone sat down with Condon in Toronto, the director revealed the "terror" of taking on a WikiLeaks movie, the dancing Cumberbatch-as-Assange you never knew you wanted to see, and reuniting with Sir Ian McKellen for his next film, "A Slight Trick of the Mind."
Moviefone: The events surrounding WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are so public and complicated -- you could say that bringing that story to the big screen is a daunting task. Was there any apprehension about taking on the project? What went through your mind?
Bill Condon: There's an awful lot of terror, you know, which gets assuaged the more you immerse yourself in it and find out. But yeah, it's so immensely complicated. And it's an ongoing story, and Assange, obviously, is in this complicated situation himself. There are a lot of potential pitfalls here.
Was there one thing that made you say to yourself, "Okay, I have to do this movie."
Oh, man. That's a good question. I think it was, actually, having followed the story pretty closely, it was reading that early draft of the script. I think when I saw that there were really juicy, good dramatic characters and a good central relationship that was like, Wow, I get to do that, plus play around with all these other ideas from the story.
Once you'd signed on, was there anything that you knew that you wanted to avoid, knowing what you did about the story?
Yeah. For example, the sexual allegations. It just seemed to me that that was -- you know, sadly, I think, if you were to ask people if they know Julian Assange in America, that might be one of the first things that people mention: "Didn't he rape somebody?" or something. So, it did seem like that was not a part of, first of all, this very limited story with a beginning, middle, end: this relationship between him and Daniel. But also, it's sort of a distraction, I think. Which is not to say it's not a real thing.
On the opposite end, in the process of making this movie, what was the thing you knew you wanted to do? Like, the result of saying to yourself, "If I'm going to do this movie, this is what I want to accomplish."
I think it was Benedict recreating that disco scene in Iceland.
It was pretty perfect.
It said everything about Julian Assange.
I think so, right?
There's quite a bit of visual metaphor used in "Fifth Estate" to represent the "hundreds of volunteers" that Julian Assange claimed to have had. What was the thought process behind that?
Again, when I read the first draft, there was this moment -- which was juicy -- when Daniel finds out that it's a one-man operation. I was like, Wow, that is so good. It's a shame that it's just happening in dialogue. How do we visual it? So I thought, Well, that's a way to do it. Just sort of visualize Julian's ideal of a newsroom, you know, where he thinks he's working, with desk lamps that feel like they're out of "The Front Page" and fluorescent lights that feel like they're out of Watergate-era Washington Post -- and to introduce that idea, and then use that as a revelation that behind every one of the those desks is Julian Assange.
That was a moment when you realize Assange is either wickedly smart or just plain dubious. Throughout the movie, one minute you're with him, thinking that he's standing up for what he believes in. Then, the next minute, you think he's a slime-ball who stabs people in the back. But then you're with him again. Was it important to you to humanize him in this way, to show both sides?
I can't imagine making a movie where you'd take one of your two lead characters and just demonize him in some way. What it is is laying out how complicated he is. You know, I've been down this road before; "Kinsey" is representative of that. He's still a divisive figure, and still there are people who absolutely despise him. I certainly didn't feel that way. What you want to do is sort of present the reasons why people feel that way, but yet, there is this. That, to me, is what makes for interesting characters. I'm never as interested in plays or movies where you sort of have a very good person who just becomes even better. You sort of want something that is more complicated.
What was the process for casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange?
It wasn't a long process. The long process was with Daniel [Bruhl's] character. That was a tough one. Benedict is just one of the major actors of his generation. I'd seen, obviously, "Sherlock" and "Frankenstein," and "Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy" and "War Horse" and, actually, a number of other things. I really had been a fan of his and just felt like, Man, you can imagine him in this drag. You know?
Speaking of "Sherlock," you're re-teaming with Ian McKellan ("Gods and Monsters") for "A Slight Trick of the Mind," which features an aging Sherlock Holmes.
It's a lovely script by Jeffrey Hatcher, and it's an interesting premise. I mean, there is one last case that he needs to solve -- he's aged 91. But, who is Sherlock Holmes if he's losing his mental abilities? They're everything that defines him. What's left of a person when the one thing they're known for starts to fade? I think it's a lovely, very small movie.
Wouldn't it be cool if Cumberbatch could play young Sherlock in flashbacks?
I know, right?
It's like the six degrees of 221B Baker Street.
One last question we like to ask all directors: What movie do you wish you'd directed, one that you just love?
And what movie were you obsessed with as a kid?
"Sweet Charity," that was the first movie I fell in love with. That, and "Bonnie & Clyde."
"The Fifth Estate" opens nationwide in the U.S. on October 18.