Irina Aleksander writes: The summer light was fading to gold near Red Square as Oliver Stone maneuvered through the lobby bar of a five-star Moscow hotel last year. He walked past the marble staircase and the grand piano to a table in the back. A group of businessmen in suits lingered nearby. Stone grimaced.
“I think we should move,” he said. His producer, Moritz Borman, led the way to another corner. “How’s this?” Borman asked.
Stone didn’t answer. He eyed an older couple slurping soup and kept moving. A moment later, Stone finally settled in by a window, comfortably beyond earshot of the other patrons.
Such security precautions had become routine. Ever since Stone decided to make a biopic about Edward Snowden, the American whistle-blower currently holed up in Moscow somewhere, the director — who became a Buddhist while making “Heaven & Earth” and sampled a buffet of psychedelic drugs for “The Doors” — had gone all method again. On “Snowden,” he and Borman became so preoccupied with American government surveillance that they had their Los Angeles offices swept for bugs more than once.
The director hadn’t been sleeping well. Principal photography wrapped a month earlier, and now Stone had come to Moscow to film Snowden for the movie’s grand finale. He ordered a decaf coffee and began to lay out the events that led him and Borman to be hanging out in Russian hotels, on the lookout for potential spies. “Last January, Moritz calls me,” Stone said. “He says: ‘You got a call from this fella who represents Mr. Snowden. You’re invited to Moscow.’ ”
The call had come from Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s Russian lawyer. In the course of his career, Kucherena has represented Russian oligarchs, film directors, a few pop singers and a state minister. In 2012, he campaigned for Vladimir V. Putin, and soon after Snowden landed in Moscow, Kucherena showed up at Sheremetyevo Airport and offered his services. Then Kucherena wrote a novel about his new client. Titled “Time of the Octopus,” it follows a National Security Agency leaker named Joshua Cold who is marooned in the airport and the Russian advocate who liberates him. In January 2014, months before the book was published, Kucherena called Borman to see if Stone might like to make it into a Hollywood movie.
“And I know you from working on, what, three films?” Stone said at the bar.
“Five,” Borman said.
At the time, Stone and Borman were barely speaking after a falling-out during the making of “Savages,” a beachy Blake Lively thriller. “We’ve had our fights,” Stone said. “You know, he’s German; I’m American.” He didn’t elaborate.
“He calls, and I go: ‘Oh, [expletive]. Not again,’ ” Stone continued. It wasn’t just about Borman. Stone wanted nothing to do with another political docudrama. He spent two decades trying to get a biopic about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. off the ground, only to see “Selma” get made to critical acclaim. Then there was the My Lai massacre film. Merrill Lynch put up cash, Bruce Willis was set to star and Stone built an entire village in Thailand. As the economy collapsed in 2008, the financing evaporated. “You get these scars, and they don’t go away,” Stone said.
So Stone was skeptical. But this was Snowden, who single-handedly exposed the colossal scale on which the United States had been surveilling its citizens. Plus, the director needed a hit. After early successes like “Platoon” and “Wall Street,” his more recent films didn’t receive the attention he hoped. The Snowden story had all the ingredients of an epic Stone picture: politics, government conspiracy and, at the center of it all, an American patriot who had lost faith. If it panned out, it could be Stone’s millennial follow-up to “Born on the Fourth of July,” the Ron Kovic biopic that won him an Oscar in 1990.
But first Stone and Borman had to make sure Kucherena was for real. Borman asked the lawyer to send the book and two first-class tickets to Moscow. Both arrived the next day. In case they still had doubts, Kucherena’s office gave Borman a number to call. On the other end was an employee of the Russian consulate in San Francisco, who turned out to be a big fan of “The Life of David Gale,” a film Borman produced. They were issued visas that same week. (Kucherena denies buying first-class tickets for Stone and Borman or helping expedite their visas.)
“When that happened,” Borman said, “I thought, O.K., I guess Kucherena can pull the strings.” [Continue reading…]