The trick this new documentary used to talk to anonymous NSA whistleblowers

Zero Days Magnolia PicturesMagnolia PicturesNSA whistleblower in ‘Zero Days.’

Alex Gibney has made a living making movies about topics that people don’t want to talk about publicly.

He was nominated for an Oscar for his look at the downfall of Enron (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), won an Oscar for a movie about the US’s torture and interrogation practices during the war in Afghanistan (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), and recently gave us a peek into the Church of Scientology (“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”).

For each, he was able to get important people related to the topic to get in front of the camera and talk candidly about it.

But for his latest movie, “Zero Days” (opening in theatres on Friday), which looks at the Stuxnet virus, Gibney could not get anyone to talk about the malware that America and Israel allegedly built to attempt to destroy Iranian enrichment centrifuges (the virus has since spread across the world).

Especially at the National Security Agency.

“For the first year [of production], we weren’t getting very far,” Gibney told Business Insider. He said he had hundreds of email exchanges with people from the NSA, but those never led to anyone within the agency coming on camera to talk about Stuxnet.

At the same time, Gibney was building off-the-record relationships with sources in the NSA.

“They were reluctant at first just saying, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting project,'” Gibney recently told Business Insider. “It then turned into ‘All the President’s Men.’ We would go out and get information and they’d say, ‘OK, you’re getting closer, but you’re not there 100 per cent.'”

Then a year ago, Gibney came up with an idea to get the insight in the film his NSA sources had while protecting their identities.

Instead of the traditional blackout-face-and-distort-voice method that TV news magazines have used for decades, Gibney decided to cast an actress to play a combination of all the NSA sources he’d been talking to.

“This gave more source protection,” Gibney said, since one person was speaking for multiple people. Gibney would not divulge to Business Insider how many sources he had. “But in the case of this script, we had to be careful to not include phrases used by the sources that might give them away.”

Gibney had done something similar in his 2010 movie “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” in which he cast an actress to play a source who didn’t want to go on camera. But for “Zero Days,” the filmmaker went a step further. To make a commentary about notions of secrecy, the film introduces the actress, Joanne Tucker, as an “NSA whistleblower.” It’s not revealed until the end that she is an actress. To sell the “whistleblower” character, the scenes of her speaking were shot in a distorted, pixelated look, so it seems Gibney is trying to hide her identity.

Gibney said creating the digitally enhanced shots of the NSA whistleblower took a lot of “trial and error.”

With the help of the Brooklyn-based media studio Scatter, Tucker was filmed with a regular camera for her interviews, but there were also data capture monitors in the room that scanned her 180 degrees.

Alex GibneyMichael Loccisano/Getty ImagesDirector Alex Gibney.

Early on, Gibney said what he got back from Scatter was too clean.

“Often when people work with graphic companies, it’s, ‘Here’s the movie, make it look good,'” Gibney said. “We didn’t want that at all. The early versions were too perfect. It was sharp and all the lines were right, there were no flaws. We liked the flaws because it felt hacked to us.”

So after months of back-and-forth, Scatter gave Gibney a very primitive version of Tucker that can best be described as a combination of how Neo saw The Matrix and Max Headroom.

“It enabled us to then work with these images narratively so we can change them and morph them over time because we wanted to create an uncomfortable impression for the audience,” Gibney said. “Where the face becomes more and more revealed, the viewer is thinking, ‘I think I recognise this person! Why are they showing so much of her face?’ So everyone watching is reflecting on this issue of secrecy and openness.”

Gibney admits that if this idea didn’t come up, he wouldn’t have been able to make the film the way he wanted. But he isn’t calling this a revolutionary new way for filmmakers to protect their sources. To him, this was just the right method for his movie.

“At some point you have to grapple with, you’re making a movie, you’re not writing something on a whiteboard or presenting a report,” Gibney said. “It’s something people have to be engaged by. The aesthetic is a comment on the secrecy that you’re talking about. So it’s not just ‘let’s make it fun,’ it’s part of the storytelling process.”

Watch the trailer for “Zero Days” below:

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