A Deadline Interview with George Clooney
December 18, 2014
Sony Pictures was the victim of a cyberterrorist act perpetrated by a hostile foreign nation on American soil, questions will be asked about how and why it happened, ending with Sony cancelling the theatrical release of the satirical comedy The Interview because of its depiction of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. One of those issues will be this: Why didn’t anybody speak out while Sony Pictures chiefs Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton were embarrassed by emails served up by the media, bolstering the credibility of hackers for when they attached as a cover letter to Lynton’s emails a threat to blow up theaters if The Interview was released?
George Clooney has the answer. The most powerful people in Hollywood were so fearful to place themselves in the cross hairs of hackers that they all refused to sign a simple petition of support that Clooney and his agent, CAA’s Bryan Lourd, circulated to the top people in film, TV, records and other areas. Not a single person would sign. Here, Clooney discusses the petition and how it is just part of many frightening ramifications that we are all just coming to grips with.
DEADLINE: How could this have happened, that terrorists achieved their aim of cancelling a major studio film? We watched it unfold, but how many people realized that Sony legitimately was under attack?
GEORGE CLOONEY: A good portion of the press abdicated its real duty. They played the fiddle while Rome burned. There was a real story going on. With just a little bit of work, you could have found out that it wasn’t just probably North Korea; it was North Korea. The Guardians of Peace is a phrase that Nixon used when he visited China. When asked why he was helping South Korea, he said it was because we are the Guardians of Peace. Here, we’re talking about an actual country deciding what content we’re going to have. This affects not just movies, this affects every part of business that we have. That’s the truth. What happens if a newsroom decides to go with a story, and a country or an individual or corporation decides they don’t like it? Forget the hacking part of it. You have someone threaten to blow up buildings, and all of a sudden everybody has to bow down. Sony didn’t pull the movie because they were scared; they pulled the movie because all the theaters said they were not going to run it. And they said they were not going to run it because they talked to their lawyers and those lawyers said if somebody dies in one of these, then you’re going to be responsible.We have a new paradigm, a new reality, and we’re going to have to come to real terms with it all the way down the line. This was a dumb comedy that was about to come out. With the First Amendment, you’re never protecting Jefferson; it’s usually protecting some guy who’s burning a flag or doing something stupid. This is a silly comedy, but the truth is, what it now says about us is a whole lot. We have a responsibility to stand up against this. That’s not just Sony, but all of us, including my good friends in the press who have the responsibility to be asking themselves: What was important? What was the important story to be covering here? The hacking is terrible because of the damage they did to all those people. Their medical records, that is a horrible thing, their Social Security numbers. Then, to turn around and threaten to blow people up and kill people, and just by that threat alone we change what we do for a living, that’s the actual definition of terrorism.
DEADLINE: I’ve been chasing the story of the petition you were circulating for a week now. Where is it, and how were these terrorists able to isolate Sony from the herd and make them so vulnerable?
CLOONEY: Here’s the brilliant thing they did. You embarrass them first, so that no one gets on your side. After the Obama joke, no one was going to get on the side of Amy, and so suddenly, everyone ran for the hills. Look, I can’t make an excuse for that joke, it is what it is, a terrible mistake. Having said that, it was used as a weapon of fear, not only for everyone to disassociate themselves from Amy but also to feel the fear themselves. They know what they themselves have written in their emails, and they’re afraid.
DEADLINE: What happened when you sent the petition, and who did you ask to sign it?
CLOONEY: It was a large number of people. It was sent to basically the heads of every place. They told Bryan Lourd, “I can’t sign this.” What? How can you not sign this? I’m not going to name anyone, that’s not what I’m here to do, but nobody signed the letter, which I’ll read to you right now.
On November 24 of this year, Sony Pictures was notified that it was the victim of a cyber attack, the effects of which is the most chilling and devastating of any cyber attack in the history of our country. Personal information including Social Security numbers, email addresses, home addresses, phone numbers and the full texts of emails of tens of thousands of Sony employees was leaked online in an effort to scare and terrorize these workers. The hackers have made both demands and threats. The demand that Sony halt the release of its upcoming comedy The Interview, a satirical film about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Their threats vary from personal—you better behave wisely—to threatening physical harm—not only you but your family is in danger. North Korea has not claimed credit for the attack but has praised the act, calling it a righteous deed and promising merciless measures if the film is released. Meanwhile the hackers insist in their statement that what they’ve done so far is only a small part of our further plan. This is not just an attack on Sony. It involves every studio, every network, every business and every individual in this country. That is why we fully support Sony’s decision not to submit to these hackers’ demands. We know that to give in to these criminals now will open the door for any group that would threaten freedom of expression, privacy and personal liberty. We hope these hackers are brought to justice but until they are, we will not stand in fear. We will stand together.DEADLINE: That doesn’t sound like a hard paper to sign.
CLOONEY: All that it is basically saying is, we’re not going to give in to a ransom. As we watched one group be completely vilified, nobody stood up. Nobody took that stand. Now, I say this is a situation we are going to have to come to terms with, a new paradigm and a new way of handling our business. Because this could happen to an electric company, a car company, a newsroom. It could happen to anybody.
DEADLINE: You said you won’t name names, but how many people were asked and refused to sign?
CLOONEY: It was a fairly large number. Having put together telethons where you have to get all the networks on board to do the telethon at the same time, the truth is once you get one or two, then everybody gets on board. It is a natural progression. So here, you get the first couple of people to sign it and … well, nobody wanted to be the first to sign on. Now, this isn’t finger-pointing on that. This is just where we are right now, how scared this industry has been made. Quite honestly, this would happen in any industry. I don’t know what the answer is, but what happened here is part of a much larger deal. A huge deal. And people are still talking about dumb emails. Understand what is going on right now, because the world just changed on your watch, and you weren’t even paying attention.
DEADLINE: What kind of constraints will this put on storytellers that want to shine a critical light on a place like Russia, for instance, with something like a movie about the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the KGB officer who left and became an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin?
CLOONEY: What’s going to happen is, you’re going to have trouble finding distribution. In general, when you’re doing films like that, the ones that are critical, those aren’t going to be studio films anyway. Most of the movies that got us in trouble, we started out by raising the money independently. But to distribute, you’ve got to go to a studio, because they’re the ones that distribute movies. The truth is, you’re going to have a much harder time finding distribution now. And that’s a chilling effect. We should be in the position right now of going on offense with this. I just talked to Amy an hour ago. She wants to put that movie out. What do I do? My partner Grant Heslov and I had the conversation with her this morning. Bryan and I had the conversation with her last night. Stick it online. Do whatever you can to get this movie out. Not because everybody has to see the movie, but because I’m not going to be told we can’t see the movie. That’s the most important part. We cannot be told we can’t see something by Kim Jong-un, of all f*cking people.
DEADLINE: Some have pointed fingers at the media that feasted on these tawdry emails. Were they culpable in giving the terrorists a foothold, as Aaron Sorkin has said?
CLOONEY: I do know something about the news world. I was sitting on the floors of newsrooms since I was seven years old, and I’ve been around them my whole life. I understand that someone looks at a story with famous people in it and you want to put it out. OK. It’s a drag, and it’s lame. But there’s not much you can do about it. You can’t legislate good taste. The problem is that what happened was, while all of that was going on, there was a huge news story that no one was really tracking. They were just enjoying all the salacious sh*t instead of saying, “Wait a minute, is this really North Korea? And if it is, are we really going to bow to that?” You could point fingers at Sony pulling the film, but they didn’t have any theaters, they all pulled out. By the way, the other studios were probably very happy because they had movies of their own going in for Christmas at the same cineplexes. There’s this constant circle, this feeding frenzy. What I’m concerned about is content. I’m concerned that content now is constantly going to be judged on a different level. And that’s a terrible thing to do. What we don’t need happening in any of our industries is censorship. The FBI guys said this could have happened to our government. That’s how good these guys were. It’s a serious moment in time that needs to be addressed seriously, as opposed to frivolously. That’s what is most important here.
DEADLINE: As Amy and Michael took their turn in the barrel because of these emails, some questioned why they’d approve a movie that ends with the death of a standing dictator in a hostile foreign country. Others have said she should be able to make any film she wants. It’s a satire. What do you think?
CLOONEY: The South Park guys did it. They blew up his father’s head. The truth of the matter is, of course you should be able to make any movie you want. And, you should take the ramifications for it. Meaning, people can boycott the movie and not go see your film. They can say they’ll never see a Sony movie again. That’s all fine. That’s the risk you take for the decision you make. But to say we’re going to make you pull it. We’re going to censor you. That’s a whole other game. That is playing in some serious waters and it’s a very dangerous pool.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Team America. Some theaters wanted to show it on Christmas after The Interview was pulled as a show of defiance and Paramount pulled it back. They too are afraid of being in the hacker cross hairs.
CLOONEY: Everybody is looking at this from self interest and they are right in this sense. I’m a movie theater and I say, “OK, there’s been a threat. Not really a credible threat, but there’s a threat, and my lawyers call and tell me, “Well, you run the movie and you could be liable.” And all the other movies around it are going to have their business hurt. I understand that, and it makes complete sense. But that’s where we really need to figure what the real response should be. I don’t know what that is yet. We should be talking about that and not pointing fingers at people right now. Right now, it’s not just our community but a lot of communities. We need to figure out, what are we going to do now — when we know the cyberattacks are real, and they’re state-sponsored.
DEADLINE: Knowing what we do now, what does the government owe Sony?
CLOONEY: I’ve seen statements they’ve put out and what the president said and what the response is. The truth is, it’s all new territory and nobody knows how to handle it. I don’t think anyone was prepared for it. So now we’ll be prepared for it, hopefully. Everybody was doing their jobs, but somehow, we have allowed North Korea to dictate content, and that is just insane.
DEADLINE: You said everyone acts based on self interest. What’s yours?
CLOONEY: I wanted to have the conversation because I’m worried about content. Frankly, I’m at an age where I’m not doing action films or romantic comedies. The movies we make are the ones with challenging content, and I don’t want to see it all just be superhero movies. Nothing wrong with them, but it’s nice for people to have other films out there.