The Fifth Estate Exclusive: Bill Condon on Julian Assange & “The Greater Good”

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We met director Bill Condon for an exclusive talk about putting down his baton helming Breaking Dawn and picking up the one that orchestrated the Oscar-buzzing The Fifth Estate. In fact, the fantastical elements of both worlds are surprisingly congruent. The Fifth Estate trailer shows us that Condon has tackled a delicate subject: The WikiLeaks world and its enigmatic founder Julian Assange.

The Fifth Estate Bill Condon Benedict Cumberbatch

Condon talks the majesty of the man playing Assange, Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as the intricacies of telling a story that is still so fresh in our minds in a manner that has produced the sizzling drama that hits theaters October 18. And he chimes in on the role of privacy in government as a whole when it comes to keeping the world safe and where he thinks Assange will stand as history heads forward.

Movie Fanatic: I have to start with a man riding a wave of well-deserved success. What most impressed you about Benedict Cumberbatch and why was he right for the role of Julian in The Fifth Estate?

Bill Condon: Once you work with him, there is a long list of things that is impressive about him. He works so hard from the outside, from the way he looks, sounds, moves and gestures and then deeper and deeper into whom the guy is. He had a special challenge that I can’t help but think is unique. He’s not Daniel Day Lewis and we had to call him Julian [laughs], but he’s not far. He’s really inside the head of Assange. He’s also in touch with Assange who is begging him to pull out of the movie… begging him. Imagine the schizophrenia of that. You want to be that person who is also saying, “Please don’t do this to me.” It was an immense pressure that he handled so gracefully. To watch him not shy away from that and still seek it out knowing how Julian felt and still find his way through all of that is pretty amazing.

Movie Fanatic: For you with bringing the story to life, is there an added pressure because you’re chronicling something that really happened?

Bill Condon: I got involved early on with the script, and that is something we talk about all the time. There are these two masters we have: Good drama and being accurate. It does feel as though we all understand the ways in which you can combine events and combine characters that make for more effective drama without crossing the line into not reflecting the basic truth. That was a line we tried to walk all the time.

The Fifth Estate Star Benedict Cumberbatch

Movie Fanatic: Does it enter the head that we’re talking about recent history here too and does that alter things? This is not something that happened 40 years ago.

Bill Condon: That’s huge. I’ve done films like Kinsey that were about things that happened 50 years ago. But now, to have something like this… it was complicated. There were a lot of journalist characters, and none of them agree on what happened either. No one really agreed on anything. Then, there’s Assange who has his own version of everything. It’s complicated. It added to what was complex about making this movie.

Movie Fanatic: Why was this film the right one for you at this time?

Bill Condon: You get older and you realize how much time a movie takes. You want it to reflect your interests. Believe it or not, Twilight did in many ways. I am a political junkie, so to make a political film was something I always wanted to do. This one story, specifically, I followed and learned much more once I got involved. I like the fact that there are no easy answers. There is no easy villain or hero. That was exciting. 

Movie Fanatic: You mentioned Twilight. One could say you are coming from a world of Breaking Dawn to The Fifth Estate, two very different worlds. But, I think each are quite fantastical in their own way. Am I far off?

Bill Condon: I’m glad you said that. Even though this has a lot of handheld camera, there is a certain sense of a peek behind the scenes of events as they actually happen. There’s also a stylization. There is something, the colors of the world, even the flights of fantasy -- that is an approach that cuts across all movies for me. There is something heightened about it.

Movie Fanatic: Also an actor you have in this that I have been blown away by in Rush and now The Fifth Estate is Daniel Bruhl. What are your impressions of him, director to actor?

Bill Condon: Oh, my gosh. What you see on screen in this movie, it’s an openness, sense of humor, great modesty and great talent. He’s got it all. This is the tougher part to play. You don’t get all the arias, but you have to hold your own against a person who is doing all that. The movie wouldn’t work without his brilliance and never calling attention to it.

Daniel Bruhl Benedict Cumberbatch The Fifth Estate

Movie Fanatic: What surprised you most about the WikiLeaks world, the stuff that is not in the headlines?

Bill Condon: I think about him, there’s so much. He’s never really had a residence. This continues to now. He’s always living on somebody else’s bed. That story of his from an early age and being on the run [from a cult] in those years when you learn how to fit in the world, that never happened for him. I think we all feel that, that we don’t fit in. But, he embraced it and it made him capable of doing what he did. That’s also what made him tone deaf when it came to human emotions. He’s somebody who… everyone falls away from him. Everybody.

Movie Fanatic: Through your own research and making The Fifth Estate, did your opinion on the need or the role of a WikiLeaks and secrecy in government change?

Bill Condon: I wouldn’t say it did. I think it’s clear that you cannot have total transparency in government. There are too many functions that would be compromised. There are numerous examples in history… like imagine trying to break the code in World War II. Julian Assange would be running around telling everybody about that. That’s a good example of something that was for the greater good. We face it in so many ways. When idealism butts against the way the world works, where do you go with that? 

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The Fifth Estate Review

The Fifth Estate tells the story of how the vision of one man, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the breadth of knowledge of...

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