'Snowden' Cinematographer On Re-Creating "Horrifying Journey"; Security Anxiety

"There was a lot of genuine debate about security," says Oscar winner Anthony Dod Mantle.
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

If in some of the scenes in Oliver Stone's new film Snowden, which recounts how Edward Snowden came to decide to blow the whistle on the National Security Agency, an unseen presence seems to be watching over critical conversations, that was entirely by design.

Explains cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, because there is so much technology today that can eavesdrop in sophisticated ways, he made the decision to frame shots in a way that suggests "there's another presence in the space. [It involved] framing or moving the camera as if there's a third person in the room. [Sometimes] the position of the camera is related to surveillance undertones. It also had to be the mood of the film. I was trying to hit this feeling that creates suspense but at the same time always try to be authentic."

Snowden, which Open Road Films opens nationwide today, represents the first time Stone and Dod Mantle, an Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire, have worked together. And Dod Mantle, says, immersing himself in Snowden's world proved to be an education. "I never researched a character as much in my life as I did in the case of Ed Snowden," he explains. "It’s a horrifying journey that this man has taken. But this is a young man who felt he didn’t have a choice.”

The cinematographer says he tried "to create an emotional, empathetic document about what could, if not did, go on in this period of this man's life."

He describes his work on a sequence set in Hong Kong, during which Snowden reveals confidential information to small group of journalists: "He is in this limbo period of his life, before he releases the information. I wanted neon and colors outside, but in his hotel room, it was sedated, dark, more sinister. The camera moves less. Then when the [information is released] you start to sense the outside world again."

The movie was filmed on location in Munich, Hong Kong, Moscow, Hawaii and Washington D.C. And Dod Mantle — whose work on Slumdog Millionaire was the first movie shot primarily in digital to win an Academy Award in cinematography — used various cameras to create specific looks, including the Arri Alexa; the Arri Alexa 65, a large-format version of the Alexa; and, for select shots, some smaller Leica bodies.

Considering the topic of the film, security was a concern during filming.“I’ve been surrounding by hackers, and hackers that could hack hackers," says the cinematographer. "There was a lot of genuine debate about security. [Snowden] may still be a hot cake today but he was a boiling bun when we started making this film in the spring of 2015. We had a lot of caution around internet access. We tried to protect our material and we tried to minimize the amount of monitoring on set. But you can't make an undercover, clandestine movie of that size, traveling the world with Oliver Stone."

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