THE HACKING

Exclusive: Sony Emails Say Studio Exec Picked Kim Jong-Un as the Villain of ‘The Interview’

Hacked emails also reveal that Sony execs didn’t take the threat from North Korea seriously, and that a CIA agent and a former Hillary Clinton aide looked at the film’s script.

12.19.14 2:00 AM ET

The controversy surrounding the Kim Jong Un assassination comedy The Interview reaches new levels of insanity by the day.

On Wednesday, U.S. government sources informed the media that the cyber-attack on the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures Entertainment, was “state sponsored” and involved the North Korean government, presumably as payback for the movie, which depicts James Franco and Seth Rogen as a TV host and producer who the CIA tasks with killing the North Korean dictator. Despite reports of FBI evidence linking the hacking to North Korea, the Obama administration has thus far been cautious in publicly assigning blame for the attack.

And, after the five major theater chains decided to pull The Interview from its screens following 9/11-invoking threats made by the hacking group, who call themselves “Guardians of Peace,” Sony announced that it would be canceling the movie’s planned Christmas release—and has no future plans to release it.

Now, leaked emails unearthed by The Daily Beast strongly suggest that it was Sony’s idea to insert Kim Jong Un in The Interview as the film’s antagonist in the first place.

An email from Marisa Liston, Sony’s senior vice president of national theatrical publicity, sent to the rest of the studio’s publicity team as well as their legal department on July 14, details a set visit conducted with a handful of online press in Vancouver with The Interview’s directing duo of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

“They mentioned that it was a sony executive that told them to not use a fictitious name, but to go with kim jon-un,” wrote Liston. “They mention that a former cia agent and someone who used to work for Hilary [sic] Clinton looked at the script.”

An email response from Keith Weaver, executive vice president of worldwide government affairs for Sony Pictures, addressed studio concerns over those two items.

“With respect to the ‘former CIA’ agent and the person who worked for Hilary...  is this tied to their research and what's the exact point of saying this? Gov't types with security clearances opine that there is nothing to be concerned about with the overall film, or plausibility of the plot, or what?  Depending on how this comes up, this can go in any number of directions in terms of how it's interpreted,” wrote Weaver.

He added, “With respect to a Sony exec telling them not to use a fictitious name, I think that's problematic...  There was much discussion on this and a statement like this makes it sound very ‘Sony’/corp directed versus talent desire... Perhaps we (Sony) were insistent or perhaps it was a consensus, but I think it's a challenge to put the company/our parent company out there this way.”

Further emails suggest that Sony executives had these two factoids excised from the media’s set visit coverage. These reports seem to refute claims made by Rogen and Goldberg in various interviews, including a recent one with the Los Angeles Times, that it was their idea to have Kim Jong Un be the evil villain of their film, and not Sony’s.

In addition, other emails between Sony execs show that they were not taking the threats levied by North Korea seriously in the months leading up to the release of The Interview.

On June 25, Nigel Clark, president of international marketing for Sony Pictures Releasing International, emailed Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, a link to a story on BBC News Asia whose headline read: “North Korea threatens war on US over Kim Jong-un movie.” In an email, Pascal replied, “Is this a joke.”

A follow-up email to Pascal from Sun Yong Hwang, senior executive director at Sony Pictures Intl. based in South Korea, claimed that the threats made by the North Korean regime were not to be taken seriously.

“Although major presses covered below news since last night, not many people is interested in their threat,” wrote Hwang. “Because NK has constantly threaten us since Kim Jong-un regime started. NK is like a paper tiger but this is the first time for me to experience.”

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Hwang added, “I believe the publicity is at least great.”

The one person who did seem to be concerned about North Korea’s response to The Interview was Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND corporation and expert on North Korea who was hired by SPE CEO Michael Lynton as a consultant on the film.

An email sent from Bennett to Lynton on June 20, just after news broke that North Korea deemed the comedy flick “an act of war,” addressed his concerns over the DPRK response.

“Michael, 
I was able to look at this movie last night,” wrote Bennett. “It certainly is of the genre you described. Ironically, there are parts of it that I think the North Koreans will love, but other parts they are going to really hate. Still, this is not the first time that American films have satirized the North Korean leader, I believe the most significant of which was South Park’s ‘Team America—World Police’ in 2004 aimed at Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il.”

Earlier emails between various Sony execs revealed the studio’s plans to censor The Interview abroad, including toning down Kim Jong Un’s grisly end (specifically, getting his face burned off and having his head explode while Katy Perry’s “Firework” plays), as well as emails that show that a senior U.S. State Dept. official consulted with Lynton on the content of the movie, and Ambassador Robert King, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, provided advice on the film via Bennett.

A spokesman for the State Dept. 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. The spokesman also said that Ambassador King “did not view the movie and did not have any contact directly with Sony.”

But an email dated July 10 from Ambassador King to Bennett (who then forwarded it to Lynton), says otherwise. The email included a link to a story about North Korea lodging a formal protest at the United Nations against the film, including North Korean UN envoy Ja Song Nam’s claim that allowing The Interview to be released constitutes “the most undisguised sponsoring of terrorism as well as a war action.”

“Bruce, Don’t know if you saw this AFP item (below) about the DPRK lodging a formal protest with the UN on ‘The Interview,’” wrote Ambassador King. “The DPRK has requested that its protest be circulated as a UN document. Normal procedure is that any member country can request that a document be circulated, and the UN does it pro-forma. The document will be circulated, but I doubt anything else will happen.”