It was inevitable that Edward Snowden’s escapades would inspire a feature film, but who knew a Victoria-raised filmmaker would be first out of the gate?
Jason Bourque, the prolific director of genre pictures and documentaries such as Shadow Company and Music for Mandela, is setting his sights on the former National Security Agency contractor whose leaks of classified information revealing the U.S. surveillance program’s invasive spying techniques ignited a global security scandal.
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way, which co-produced Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, is also reportedly developing a potential feature.
“Ours is ultimately a biopic, but because it’s Edward Snowden and what he stands for — freedom of information — we’re giving it away,” Bourque said.
The film, Classified: The Edward Snowden Story, which Bourque is making with Vancouver producer Travis Doering, will be distributed under the Creative Commons License.
It allows the film they’re crowd-funding through snowden.sx, and making available for free via file-sharing website The Pirate Bay, to be shared freely on platforms like YouTube and Vimeo.
The filmmakers have already raised $834,000 of their $1-million funding goal through PayPal, product placement and Bitcoin.
Classified is believed to be the first film to use Bitcoin, the crypto-currency, for payroll.
Bourque said contributions ranging from $50 to $50,000 (for executive producer credit) from potential backers made via PayPal would be converted to Bitcoins, providing they reach their financial target by Dec. 31. Cast and crew would have the option of leaving their salary in Bitcoin or withdrawing it for cash at Vancouver’s Robocoin ATM.
Bourque says crowd-funding gives them freedom creatively and from political or studio interference.
If their final push falls short, Bourque admits they’ll have to rethink the project.
“We’d either give donations back to our supporters or talk to them and see if we can do it for a smaller amount,” he said. “Worst-case scenario would be to do it as a documentary.”
With a laugh, Bourque said Classified won’t be confused with “the campiest thing I’ve ever been involved with” — Stonados, the loopy low-budget disaster flick he shot in Victoria last year for Sy-Fy Channel about stone-filled tornadoes that terrrorize Boston.
And don’t expect The Fifth Estate, the recent box-office failure starring Bernard Cumberbatch as WikilLeaks founder Julian Assange, either, he says.
Classified will chart Snowden’s life from his early enlistment in the U.S. Army to his work for the CIA and NSA. Whether the fugitive whose temporary asylum in Russia expires next August, decides to abandon his bid for political asylum in Brazil and return to the U.S. remains to be seen, so the shoot could be challenging.
The filmmakers are leaving it to viewers to decide whether Snowden, 30, is a traitor or heroic whistleblower.
Classified won’t be “a generalized debate about the morality of government surveillance,” but the story of one man and his views, insists Bourque.
His co-producer brings a unique cyber-perspective. Doering, a former hacker and “penetration tester” for Canadian companies with vulnerable security systems, was once affiliated with global hacker group Anonymous. He also produced the realilty TV series Hacked and was “hacking consultant” on the sci-fi series Continuum and the James Bond film Skyfall.
Reflecting the film’s subtext, the duo value transparency so much themselves they plan to make their budget public at snowden.sx during production.
Meanwhile, Bourque has begun preliminary negotiations with his dream cast — Kevin Zegers (Transamerica) as Snowden; Michael Shanks (Stargate SG-1) as Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian journalist who broke the NSA story; and Carmen Aguirre, the actor, writer and former revolutionary, as journalist Laura Poitras.
“I think it’s simply a great story,” said Bourque, explaining his motivation. “On one hand he has this hero status on an international level yet also has heaps of condemnation from his government. “What makes him tick? Why did he choose to make these sacrifices for what he believed in?”
Bourque hopes his “kickass little thriller” will also stimulate debate, as Shadow Company, his documentary narrated by Gerard Butler, did about the private military industry.
“I see it as something with elements of Erin Brockovich or The Insider, and a love story. It has all the elements — paranoia, espionage and this emotional roller-coaster.”
With Music for Mandela having just premièred on TV One, the satellite network that specializes in African-American programming, and his Snowden project attracting international attention, Bourque is keeping busy. That’s likely to continue with Telefilm Canada now funding Black Fly, his long-awaited thriller pre-sold to Superchannel.
“I wrote the core story for that 15 years ago in Victoria,” he said, recalling what was then titled Black Fly Summer, an entry in a four-part horror series.
Bourque plans to start casting in January, with shooting slated for early next year in Vancouver.