Filmmakers tackling stories about public figures are often faced with a difficult decision about how much to involve their subject in the creative process. “Winner” — which tells the story of NSA whistleblower Reality Winner, who was sentenced to five years in prison for leaking documents alleging Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — was no exception. While Winner was still under house arrest when the film entered pre-production, director Susanna Fogel opted to form a close relationship with her and her family from the very beginning.

Fogel and her stars Emilia Jones, Kathryn Newton, Zach Galifianakis, and Danny Ramirez stopped by the IndieWire Studio at Sundance, presented by Dropbox, to discuss bonding with their subject as they told her life story.

“This movie started with an article that Kerry Howley wrote, she’s a journalist and screenwriter, and she was really involved in profiling Reality,” Fogel said. “She was at her hearing, so she really got to know her from that side of things, and she visited her in prison. So she was really involved with her and made a connection with her family. And then years later when I got involved, I went down to Texas to meet her with our producer Amanda. And from there we just kind of struck up a friendship.”

Fogel went on to say that her relationship with Winner and her family became so close that she began to worry that the outcome of the film could damage their genuine friendships.

“We all just authentically befriended her and the family, and they were so accessible and put their trust in us over time,” she said. “So my experience was that they just became acquaintances, and then friends we could talk to. Which was stressful, because you never know how it’s gonna turn out when they see the film.”

Jones, who plays Winner in the film, added that she travelled to Texas and spent extensive time with the Air Force veteran and former NSA translator.

“I went to visit Reality in Texas in her house, and I met all the animals she rescued,” Jones said. “I did her yoga class and her CrossFit class, which was a big mistake because I had never done yoga before but I was trying to show her I could play her. I did both back to back, and I literally couldn’t walk for like three days after.”

Jones explained that she originally envisioned her time with Winner as a formal research trip, but quickly found herself eschewing her planned questions in favor of forming an organic relationship.

“I thought I would have all these questions, but when I was there with her I just found myself getting to know her as a person,” she said. “And I think that’s perfect, really, because that’s what we’re trying to do with this movie. We’re trying to humanize her and show people she’s so much more than just a name in a headline.” 

The 2024 Sundance Film Festival runs January 18–28, with festival talks taking place January 19–26. See the full lineup here for the IndieWire Studio at Sundance, presented by Dropbox.

Dropbox supports and champions independent makers, crews, and teams behind the camera who bring their unique perspectives to life at the Sundance Film Festival. We’re proud that over 60% of films at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival leveraged Dropbox in their filmmaking process. It takes a monumental effort for film projects to go from ideation to completion, and Dropbox is dedicated to helping filmmakers get their projects across the finish line faster. Filmmakers used Dropbox as one organized homebase to keep video files secure, to remotely collaborate with teams around the world, and to get real-time video feedback with Dropbox Replay.

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