When the NSA story broke last month, many commentators invoked Enemy of the State, the 1998 movie you wrote in which Will Smith is chased by an omnipresent security state. Did this instance of life imitating art surprise you at all?
It didn’t. When Lucas Foster at Simpson/Bruckheimer brought me in, he said he wanted to do a movie about how a guy gets taken down electronically. Behind him on his office wall was a poster of North by Northwest. So I said, “All right, North by Northwest, a guy is taken down electronically, got it.” I started looking around at possible bogeymen, and I came across this book called The Puzzle Palace, by James Bamford, in which he pretty much lays out everything that the NSA is doing now and has done for years. It was a massive eye opener. Anyone who was in any way paying attention to this stuff knew that the NSA was a big vacuum cleaner and that they were storing everything. This has been going on since World War II.
Did you hope the film would set off a debate?
I did. I thought it was important to bring these issues up. The first director I’d gotten the script to was Oliver Stone. Oliver called up the head of Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer and said, “This is a great conspiracy film, and I’d love to do this.” Ultimately Jerry brought in Tony Scott, who did a terrific job, but Tony made it much more entertainment fare. I think had Oliver been involved, the issues would have been highlighted.
What kind of comments did you get from viewers?
A lot of the critics found the plot far-fetched. At the time, no one had ever heard of the NSA, so when I was telling people about the NSA’s capabilities, they would look at me like I’d just come off a UFO after having been abducted by aliens. They’d say, “The government can’t do this, the government can’t do that.” But I was reading a lot of reports. Several whistle-blowers have come forward saying this is what they’re doing. You had Frank Church and the Church Committee warning about this stuff years ago. They used to open up every piece of mail that was coming back and forth between East Germany and West Germany. Can you imagine the manpower it would take to do that?
Did anyone from the NSA get in touch with you?
The Department of Defense asked me to come down and speak to them after the film came out. I met CIA guys and NSA guys. I found them all to be very professional. They were very focused on the mission and on defending the country. I didn’t walk away with a sense that any of them were malevolent. But some of them also had a very myopic view—here’s what you do, and you sit at your computer and you do it.
What you have is this machine that’s self-perpetuating. It starts to grow on its own, and the more power it gets, the more power it wants to assume. And as a result of the Patriot Act and 9/11, that apparatus is looking more and more at what’s going on inside this country.
Do you think we now view the privacy-security trade-off differently than we did in 1998?
Something that Orwell never figured out in 1984 is that people would embrace the idea of Big Brother if there’s a game attached to it, or if it’s convenient. You buy a monitor at Best Buy that has a little camera inside that allows you to make Skype calls, and you don’t realize what else is behind that camera. As long as you can present that kind of technology with a fun app, it’s no longer the omnipotent HAL with a red glowing eye—it’s a little black dot at the top of your computer that allows you to talk to your friends all over the world. But that comes at a price. You as an individual have to make a choice: Do you want to use this technology and what comes with it, or do you want to move out to a cabin in the woods and start growing vegetables?
Do you think the most recent leaks are going to send more people out to cabins in the woods?
I don’t think your average American cares. After a couple of months these kind of things usually blow over, and no one thinks about it anymore. But with the Snowden leaks, it might be a bit different. Every day that he is out and free, he’s bringing more attention to this issue. People get it thrown in their face on the nightly news.
So Snowden is a character who can keep a narrative alive.
Yeah. And he’s not a villain, he’s not a spy. He’s just a man who saw something that he believed was quite wrong. I salute him for his guts and his courage. And I’m sure there are twenty screenwriters in Hollywood right now trying to track down the rights to his story.