The scandal surrounding the revelations contained in the Panama Papers is labyrinthine. So complex, in fact, that Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Jake Bernstein spent years unearthing the intricacies of the enmeshment of the financial system and Russian interests for his book, “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite,” which came out in 2017.
[Featured image: still from “The laundromat”]
“I spent a year on the project diving into the data and then focusing intently on the Russia piece of it […] and how people used the secrecy world to buy and sell art,” Bernstein, who had been the senior reporter with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, said. “By the end of that [report], there were still unanswered questions, in particular what were the perspectives of these two [businessmen], Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca. So then I spent another nine months on the book [getting] their perspectives.”
Interest from Hollywood was almost immediate upon publication of “Secrecy World,” including from screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Contagion”), a longtime collaborator of Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”). Both Burns and Soderbergh loved Bernstein’s book and thought this could well be their next joint project.
“Our collaboration is not obligatory, and it’s based on both of us having a similar intellectual curiosity about the world,” said Burns, adding that Soderbergh has always told him to “try and write the version of the story that only you would write.”
“As a screenwriter who didn’t go to film school […] it was very refreshing to hear someone say to me, ‘go and find your own process and your own structures.’”
Burns’ and Soderbergh’s adaptation of “Secrecy World,” which is called “The Laundromat,” opens worldwide Friday on Netflix october 18th following a limited theatrical run commencing october 11th. It features an all-star cast that includes Meryl Streep, Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer and James Cromwell, among others. Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas play the hucksters Mossack and Fonseca, respectively, and speak to the camera, functioning as a combination of Greek chorus and circus ringmasters.
“What Scott and Steven end up doing is using these characters to be your guides through the system, and they’re going to tell you how it functions,” Bernstein told me in describing the adaptation of his book.
Indeed, Oldman and Banderas function somewhat similarly to the infamous cutaways employed in “The Big Short,” wherein a tricky bit of financial arcana is explained by a third party. In this way, Burns was able to, in his screenplay, be the audience’s advocate.
“Just as Jake needs to explain everything to me, I needed to be able to explain it to the audience,” Burns said, adding that this very complexity is used by the uber wealthy to game the system. “I thought, all I have to [do] is to tell the audience that there’s a trick being played on them. And that was exciting when that revelation happened.”
Burns has himself moved into directing in addition to screenwriting, and even helmed one episode of the Roger Ailes biopic “The Loudest Voice, ” this year for Showtime. Sure, he would have liked to have directed his own script for “The Laundromat,” but he admits that his star does not shine as brightly in the industry as does Soderbergh’s.
“Steven can get those [actors, but] as a director I’m relatively unknown, and I don’t know if they would have signed up,” Burns said of thespians such as Streep, Banderas and Oldman. “I always try and remind myself that the story comes first, not my career ambitions.
“Anytime as a screenwriter, regardless of your ambitions, that someone named Steven Soderbergh wants to do your movie, it’s pretty wise to take a backseat.”
Burns’s and Soderbergh’s multiple collaborations included the 2013 psychological thriller “Side Effects,” which Soderbergh claimed at the time would be his final film for the big screen.
“Steven is so generous with me in terms of the creative process […] and that is incredibly meaningful and has helped me become a director as well,” said Burns. “Beyond that, as a screenwriter in Hollywood, you hope that whoever is going to direct what we wrote is going to be inclusive of you.”
Bernstein feels “The Laundromat” does justice to his book “Secrecy World,” while acknowledging the film stands as its own unique entity.
“They’ve made a comedy. And there’s not a huge amount of humor in my book,” Bernstein said. “There’s a sort of dark humor, I suppose, but it’s not an absurdist humor. It’s something that is distinct but wonderfully complementary.”
“The Laundromat” opens theatrically october 11th and begins streaming on Netflix october 18th.
“I’ve had the experience of adopting a few books, but Jake was such an incredible resource to myself and Steven and the actors,” Burns added.
Burns and Bernstein both hope that audiences comes away both educated and entertained, with the creators adding that the financial-political system needs to be changed to be more fair to the common person whose fortunes are invariably used as chess pieces by the uber-wealthy.
“One of the greatest comments I heard from someone who saw the movie is ‘Now I finally understand the Panama Papers,’” Bernstein said. “So the idea that this movie is going to bring this topic home to people [is] really exciting.”
Added Burns, “Beyond that, I hope that [audiences are] entertained and they laugh and walk away from it feeling like they learned a little and laughed a lot.”
Eric Althoff is a film critic and world traveler (@singerwriterEFA)