Exclusive: Sony Emails Say State Department Blessed Kim Jong-Un Assassination in ‘The Interview’

CEO Michael Lynton showed a rough cut of the movie to U.S. officials before moving ahead. Now hackers are threatening to bomb any theater that shows it.

12.17.14 7:30 AM ET

The Daily Beast has unearthed several emails that reveal at least two U.S. government officials screened a rough cut of the Kim Jong-Un assassination comedy The Interview in late June and gave the film—including a final scene that sees the dictator’s head explode—their blessing.

The claim that the State Department played an active role in the decision to include the film’s gruesome death scene is likely to cause fury in Pyongyang. Emails between the Sony Entertainment CEO and a security consultant even appear to suggest the U.S. government may support the notion that The Interview would be useful propaganda against the North Korean regime.

Back on June 20, the first threat lobbed by North Korean officials against the holiday blockbuster seemed as empty as a North Korean villager’s lunch box.

The Seth Rogen/James Franco-starrer, which centers on a TV host and his producer being tasked by the CIA with assassinating North Korean despot Kim Jong-Un, was branded “an act of war.” Studio executives at distributor Sony Pictures and the general public mostly laughed it off as yet another example of muscle-flexing by the rotund ruler.

But now, the controversy surrounding the political satire has gotten serious.

In late November, a group that calls itself the Guardians of Peace breached Sony’s company servers, and leaked several large caches of private internal data online, including the emails of several top Sony executives, Social Security numbers and private info of employees, screeners of upcoming feature films, and more. Some believe it to be the work of North Korean hackers as payback for The Interview, and while a spokesman for North Korea claimed ignorance, he added that the hack “might be a righteous deed of the supporters and sympathizers with the DPRK in response to its appeal” against the film. The Guardians of Peace, meanwhile, posted a message online that read, “Stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War.” 

On Tuesday, the Guardians released what they referred to as a “Chrsitmas gift”—the eighth collection of hacked files consisting of the emails of Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Entertainment.

The leak also came with a disturbing threat:

We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places ‘The Interview’ be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to. Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made. The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)

Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment. All the world will denounce the SONY.

Following the most recent threat, a source at Sony told Deadline that the studio is “leaving it up to the discretion of the theater owners and chains” as to whether or not they’ll carry The Interview. Meanwhile, late Tuesday evening, Landmark Theatres announced it was canceling Thursday night’s planned New York premiere of the film, which was scheduled for the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, and Carmike Cinemas, which operates 278 movie theaters in 41 states, announced it was pulling The Interview as well.

A series of leaked emails reveal that Sony enlisted the services of Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation who specializes in North Korea, to consult with them on The Interview. After he saw the film, including the gruesome ending where a giant missile hits Kim Jong-Un’s helicopter in slow-mo as Katy Perry’s “Firework” plays, and Kim’s head catches on fire and explodes, Bennett gave his assessment of it in a June 25 email to Lynton, just five days after North Korea's initial threat.

“The North has never executed an artillery attack against the balloon launching areas. So it is very hard to tell what is pure bluster from North Korea, since they use the term ‘act of war’ so commonly,” wrote Bennett. “I also thought a bunch more about the ending. I have to admit that the only resolution I can see to the North Korean nuclear and other threats is for the North Korean regime to eventually go away.”

He added, “In fact, when I have briefed my book on ‘preparing for the possibility of a North Korean collapse’ [Sept 2013], I have been clear that the assassination of Kim Jong-Un is the most likely path to a collapse of the North Korean government. Thus while toning down the ending may reduce the North Korean response, I believe that a story that talks about the removal of the Kim family regime and the creation of a new government by the North Korean people (well, at least the elites) will start some real thinking in South Korea and, I believe, in the North once the DVD leaks into the North (which it almost certainly will). So from a personal perspective, I would personally prefer to leave the ending alone.”

That same day, Lynton responded saying that a U.S. government official completely backed Bennett’s assessment of the film.

“Bruce – Spoke to someone very senior in State (confidentially),” wrote Lynton. “He agreed with everything you have been saying. Everything. I will fill you in when we speak.”

The following day, June 26, an email from Bennett to Lynton—as well as several other forwarded emails—revealed that Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human-rights issues, was helping to consult on the film as well through Bennett and addressed the June 20 threat by North Korea.

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I talked with Amb. King a few minutes ago,” wrote Bennett. “Their office has apparently decided that this is typical North Korean bullying, likely without follow-up, but you never know with North Korea. Thus, he did not appear worried and clearly wanted to leave any decisions up to Sony.”

(A spokesman for the U.S. State Department later admitted that Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, had a conversation with Sony executives but vaguely denied having any direct influence on the creative direction of The Interview.)

Still, Sony executives felt nervous about not only the film, but also the scene depicting the murder of Kim Jong-Un. An email dated June 20 from Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, sent to Vice-Chairman of Sony Pictures Jeff Black said, “we need sonys name off this asap everywhere,” asking to remove the name “Sony” from all of the film’s promotional materials and package it as a Columbia Pictures release (a subsidiary of SPE). Then, a July 9 email from Lynton to Pascal expressed the company’s desire to not show the DPRK leader die.

“Yeah we cannot be cute here,” wrote Lynton. “What we really want is no melting face and actually not seeing him die. A look of horror as the fire approaches is probably what we need.”

Kaz Hirai, CEO of the studio’s parent corporation, also expressed his concerns over the death scene, igniting a lengthy email debate between Pascal and Rogen about the ending. On Aug. 14, an email from Pascal to Lynton seemed to express the execs’ frustrations with how things were going.

“Are you having a nice holiday?” Pascal wrote to Lynton. “Just arrived in Bali. Seth rogan [sic] is driving me nuts.”

Lynton replied, “Yeah. Heard all about it. Feels like he will drive you nuts for awhile.”

“Till December,” Pascal wrote back.

On Sept. 25, Sony seemed to be winning the creative battle against Rogen and The Interview crew. In an email to Pascal, Rogen wrote, “We will make it less gory. There are currently four burn marks on his face. We will take out three of them, leaving only one. We reduce the flaming hair by 50%… The head explosion can’t be more obscured than it is because we honestly feel that if it’s any more obscured you won’t be able to tell its exploding and the joke won’t work. Do you think this will help? Is it enough?”

The studio seemed to be satisfied with the results—although still opted to censor the death sequence in many foreign territories.

Rogen recently addressed the hacking situation in an interview with The New York Times, saying, “No one has officially told me our movie, 100 percent, has proven to be the cause of any of this stuff. We’re not the first people to shed light on how crazy North Korea is, the myths that exist there and the oddities of the regime.”

The Interview is still scheduled to hit U.S. theaters on Dec. 25… although that may change in the coming days.