Scott Z. Burns sneaked a look over his shoulder near the start of a recent interview at Loews Minneapolis Hotel, a fact that would not be worth mentioning except that Burns wrote two movies whose main characters are constantly looking over their shoulders to see who’s spying on them.
The Golden Valley native and University of Minnesota graduate wrote thrillers “The Report” and Netflix’s “The Laundromat.” The former, which opens Friday and which Burns also directed, is based on the true story of Daniel J. Jones, a Senate investigator who helped expose the United States’ secret torture of political prisoners after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Although it’s also based on a true story, the latter has a lighter tone. Meryl Streep, under the direction of Steven Soderbergh, stars as a widow who, swindled out of her retirement fund, tries to uncover the legal conspiracy behind her losses.
The buzz is that “The Report” is likely to earn Burns, who also wrote “Contagion” and “Side Effects,” his first Oscar nomination. None of this was part of the plan when he grew up in Minnesota, playing guitar with bands at the fringes of the developing Minneapolis Sound, going to movies at the Cooper Theater and opting to major in English at the U because it was a way to avoid the legal career that all three of his older siblings pursued.
“I had no plan,” said Burns, whose stocky, short frame suggests an ex-gymnast. “Luckily, my parents [both psychologists] were believers in the value of a good education.”
Burns, 57, was an advertising copywriter for years, a career that he says prepared him for screenwriting because he learned to “solve problems.” But coproducing the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and writing “The Bourne Ultimatum” rocketed him to Hollywood’s A-list. His movies have ranged from comedies to political thrillers, inspired by his love of ’70s movies such as “Klute” and “The Parallax View.” But they all have something in common.
“It’s usually about being fascinated by a person and then working from there, trying to figure out where the movie is,” Burns said.
The title of his new movie is a redacted version of “The Torture Report,” and his initial thought was to make something about the psychologists who advocated torture as an effective means of getting information. Burns became intrigued after reading about them in a Vanity Fair story.
“The contradiction, the idea that they are psychologists whose job is to help people, but they were behind this effort to weaponize psychology, was fascinating to me,” said Burns, who experimented with writing a “Dr. Strangelove”-like dark comedy with the psychologists as evil manipulators.
However, doing the research for a fact-based movie forces Burns to spend a lot of time in his main characters’ heads and, sometimes, he discovers he does not want to be there.
“This was one of those cases, and the more I researched it, I kept encountering Dan,” Burns said. “I found him really compelling, this hero whose story has an element, I think, of optimism. Dan is this person who becomes obsessed with finding the truth, and for years that is all he does. I started to want to write something that was respectful of what he did, creating this almost 7,000-page document that is now a part of our history. It felt like audiences needed to see that.”
“The Report” follows Jones (Adam Driver) over the course of several years, most of which are spent in a windowless basement office in which he pores over the sketchy documents that the CIA deigns to release to him. Virtually the only time we see Jones outside that fluorescent-lit cave is when he visits Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The movie gives Jones no friends or family to distract him, so their relationship is the central one. It feels almost courtly, with the unnervingly calm Feinstein (played by Annette Bening, who’s also earning Oscar talk) constantly sending the fiery Jones back to his dungeon to find more facts.
“Except at the very end, it’s always him entering her office, so there is this formality that she creates. He’s entering her space, and it’s clear that this is just how that works,” Burns said.
He was so taken by how Bening uses her voice in the film, in which she sports a Feinstein-esque bob to help her resemble the senator, that he rewrote some scenes to take advantage of the actor’s subtle evocation of one of our most famous politicians.
Burns asked a lot of his huge cast. They were given just a couple takes to get it right because he had only 26 days to shoot the movie on an $8 million budget. So it helped that he was working with veterans, who also assisted Burns in another way.
As a director, he needed something to keep the movie fresh. In a “Bourne” movie, he would just shift the action to another picturesque European capital but he didn’t have that option (again: basement). What he could do is perk things up by constantly introducing new characters, played by such recognizable actors as Tim Blake Nelson, Maura Tierney, Ted Levine, Jon Hamm and Michael C. Hall, all of whom worked for scale. Burns also threw in less familiar faces, including Driver’s wife, Joanne Tucker, as a CIA antagonist of Dan Jones, and Linda Powell, the real-life daughter of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, as Feinstein’s assistant.
For his next project, Burns will have both big money and European capitals, as well as a box office star in Daniel Craig. Burns was hired to rewrite the script for the next James Bond movie, “No Time to Die,” which opens in April.
“No, I never could have imagined this when I was watching the 007 movies at the Cooper,” said Burns, whose childhood Bonds were Sean Connery and Roger Moore. “But I can’t tell you anything about it.”
The 007 movie producers are always tight-lipped about plot details, so let’s say that’s why Burns glanced over his shoulder at Loews: in case there was a studio executive there, monitoring him to make sure he didn’t spill any secrets.