Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the title character in “Snowden.”

Oliver Stone brings ‘Snowden’ controversy to big screen

LOS ANGELES — When it came to making a film about Edward Snowden and his decision to leak classified National Security Agency files to the public, director Oliver Stone originally was hesitant.

“When this [film] project was getting started, it was still a current news story. You didn’t know which way it could turn. It was very much a hot potato,” said the three-time Oscar-winning filmmaker. “Anything could have happened. There were lawsuits. It really could have blown up in our faces, because a movie takes a year, two years to make. … So, I really had to think this thing through, because I had never done something this current.”

There was another complication. Not only was Stone very cautious about tackling this project, Snowden himself “was very wary of us. We had to meet three times over four months before he agreed to participate in this and I agreed to commit to doing this.”

Once Stone made that decision to direct and co-write “Snowden” (opening Friday), he also decided to avoid “a James Bond or Bourne type fictionalized version of this story. Yes, it would have possibly made for a good spy film, but we decided to go real and simply tell the story in as straightforward a way as possible.”

Oliver Stone speaks Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival. | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Oliver Stone speaks Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival. | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

That was a challenge, because Stone initially worried that by taking that approach he might not deliver a dramatic thriller that would appeal to audiences. “But I did what I set out to do, which was to tell his story simply and properly, and let the world decide where he stands. After all, the [National Security Agency’s] point of view is represented here as well.”

After making “Snowden,” Stone admitted that he is “very paranoid now” when it comes to international security issues. As for whether Snowden’s leak will make a difference in our world going forward, Stone said, “It’s a question of privacy and it’s also a question of cyber-warfare. There really are two questions there.

“As am American, who has lived 70 years here, it’s just disgusting that the government just assumes the right to listen in on your life. … It’s an American right. We have individual sovereignty. I didn’t make any deal with the government that you can protect me at all costs. … [The government] has deluded the American public and has scared them to death, and yet has failed to protect us from terrorism on so many occasions, including 9/11.

“On the other hand, cyber-warfare is the most dangerous thing that has happened in our lifetime, because it’s out of control and no one knows how to control it.”

As for the casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role, “this may be one of those times I actually got it right,” Stone joked. “I went right to him and told him, ‘You look like Snowden, you feel like Snowden. Do it!’ Fortunately, he saw the opportunity in it and he said, ‘Yes.’ ”

After being cast, Levitt had a chance to get to know the man he would portray. “One of the first thing I noticed, after I first met him, was that he has really good manners,” said Levitt, one of the most polite people in Hollywood.

“I wouldn’t have necessarily expected that. He’s like a computer kind of guy. They don’t always have the social graces. But, Snowden actually is an old-fashioned gentleman. … It probably has to do with his growing up in North Carolina, and I think they put more emphasis on good manners there than where I grew up in Southern California,” the actor said with a smile.

Unlike his director, Levitt doesn’t consider himself paranoid about the government and the possibility of being spied on by Uncle Sam.

“Thinking about issues doesn’t necessarily equate with paranoia. I think it is good to think about things we showcase in the film, and making this movie did make me think about things a bit more than I did before making it.

“For example, when I join a website nowadays, and you have to check the box to agree to the terms of service — I never used to think about that beforehand. Not even for a second. Now, I won’t say I read that whole legal contract — because I don’t think anyone can, except a lawyer — but I do now think, ‘How’s this working? What’s this company doing? How are they making money?’

“Don’t get me wrong, I think the internet is fantastic. I think all this technology is great. I’m happy to be alive today. But every technology can be used for good — and also can be used for bad. So, it’s up to us to think about the potential downsides here.”

Sneak preview screenings of “Snowden” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at several area theaters also will feature a live online conversation between Stone and Snowden. Tickets:

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