Four amateur filmmakers in Hong Kong have beaten Hollywood to the draw by producing the first film on Edward Snowden, a five-minute thriller depicting the nail-biting intrigue surrounding the intelligence leaker when he was hiding in the city.
Shot in less than a week on a shoestring budget, the film imagines the drama which must have unfolded in Hong Kong leading up to Snowden’s bombshell leaks on vast US surveillance programmes.
“To be the first one to really do anything about it…it was quite invigorating,” cinematographer and editor Edwin Lee told AFP of the YouTube film that used local actors and shaky camera work reminiscent of the Bourne spy thriller series.
Snowden, 30, abandoned his high-paying job as an IT technician contracted to the National Security Agency and went to Hong Kong on May 20.
He then began issuing a series of leaks on the NSA’s global gathering of phone call logs and Internet data, including in China and Hong Kong, before his dramatic escape to Moscow where he remains holed up in an airport transit area.
“This is a spy movie that’s developing,” Lee said of his film which gets its title from the code name Snowden gave himself — “Verax”.
The expats from Ireland, Australia, the US and Canada, of which Lee was the only filmmaker by trade, made the film “to catch onto the interest on Snowden and the attention on Hong Kong,” Lee said.
Production for the film took place at breakneck pace as drama, diplomatic intrigue and tensions surrounding Snowden unfolded in the southern Chinese city.
“It was a lot of adrenaline…it was all very guerilla filmmaking style,” Lee said.
Though production was rushed, the film, which has gained more than 8,500 views on YouTube since it was released on Tuesday, stayed true to the actual locations in Hong Kong where Snowden was reportedly seen.
The film covered the swanky Mira Hotel where Snowden initially hid out and carried out his sensational leaks to Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Props such as a Rubik’s Cube, which Snowden reportedly used to identify himself to a Guardian journalist, were also used in the film.
Meanwhile, Hollywood is sure to derive inspiration for new plotlines from the riveting Snowden saga.
Phillip Noyce, director of action thrillers “Salt” and “The Quiet American”, is reportedly keen to turn the real-life hunt for Snowden into a Hollywood thriller with Australian actor Liam Hemsworth in the lead role.
“This is a movie that’s playing out before our eyes, even though we can’t see anything,” Noyce told NBC News on Thursday.
For Lee and his team, finding an actor to play Snowden was one of the biggest challenges.
“We needed someone convincing to play Snowden,” he said, adding that the production team went through a list of friends who would “remotely” look like Snowden.
They struck gold with Andrew Cromeek, an American school teacher who needed just the right haircut, among other cosmetic changes, to develop an uncanny resemblance to Snowden.
But near the end of production, Snowden escaped to Moscow, a shock development that left the crew disappointed.
“We were proud that he would call Hong Kong his refuge. He trusted our rule of law and our government to protect him,” Lee said.
“In the end we understood he did what’s best for himself,” he said, adding that the production crew was hoping that Snowden will watch the video.
“I’m just waiting for someone to comment on YouTube saying ‘hey you guys did a good job of re-creating me’,” Lee said.
Watch “Verax,” as posted on YouTube on June 25, 2013, below.