Senior HTF Member
- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
Keira Knightly stars as Katharine Gun, the now famous whistle-blower who leaked a memo detailing the actions of the British and American governments unscrupulous efforts to dig up dirt on fellow United Nation diplomats to coerce them into voting for a UN resolution supporting the invasion of Iraq. Gun was arrested for a breach of the Official Secrets Act, and the film explores her actions and her ordeal in the months following her decision to expose the illegal spying actions.
With fine performances from a wonderful cast, including Matthew Goode and Matt Smith as journalists Peter Beaumont and Martin Bright, and Ralph Fiennes as British Barrister Ben Emmerson, and a focus on more intimate drama than international intrigue, Official Secrets is a splendid film. In support of the film’s release on DVD and Digital HD, Home Theater Forum spoke to Director Gavin Hood about coming aboard the film, his approach to shooting the material, and his hope for how the film might help Gun’s story and actions become better known.
Official Secrets is available now to rent or own on Digital HD and available to own on DVD on November 26.
HTF: When you first met Katharine Gun, the unassuming employee from the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) whose brave actions upended her life and gave us, the public, a seismic truth about morally questionable actions at the highest levels of government, what struck you most. You’d met her after googling her story and then, I’ve read, spent 5 days talking to her about her story, but what’s the thing about her that you will most remember?
Gavin Hood: When I first met Katharine, she appeared deeply suspicious of me (laughter). But other than knowing what she'd been through from reading about her story, I didn't [know that] various attempts had been made to tell her story before I showed up on the scene. I knew that some attempts had been made but didn't know any details. I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I met her and, to be perfectly honest, wasn't even sure I wanted to make the film without meeting her. So, both of us were trying to get a sense of whether we would respond to one another and trust one another with the process. And from the first morning of speaking, I think we were both just trying to get the measure of one another. But within a couple of hours, I think we bonded. And I simply asked her to start at the beginning, and I would make notes, and could she tell me the story from the beginning, even before she got the memo, how she met her husband, and then what happened from the moment she got the memo. And we did that for five days, for about five or six hours every day. I just listened, asked questions and made notes.
HTF: And I am assuming that's a very different process than when you typically come on board a film.
“…you've got to stick to material facts and material events in the film, or your story will be rejected by the people who are in it.”
Gavin Hood: Yes. This is the first time I've made a movie about characters who are still very much alive. It's not the first time I've had to do deep-level research. On Eye in the Sky, there was a lot of research done real British military intelligence officers, CIA people and drone pilots and we had all those advisers. But the characters in that film were still fictional characters, so you could build the drama around more conventional story points in some ways. What was interesting about Official Secrets was the characters in the film were very much alive and if they did not approve of what you wrote, you would probably have a marketing disaster. So that puts you in a certain box. But once you accept the box, it's quite liberating. So now we're going to get to the facts of what happened and construct the story best around material facts. You're obviously compressing time because the story took place over a year, and you're doing two hours, but you've got to stick to material facts and material events in the film, or your story will be rejected by the people who are in it.
HTF: Did you feel any pressure during the film to check in with Katharine or journalist Martin Bright and others, or was this something that once you signed on, they were comfortable with you telling their story?
Gavin Hood: I kept them involved throughout the process. Katharine came to see it. Katharine met with Keira Knightley. Martin Bright was extremely helpful in reading all my drafts and commenting. I picked his brains endlessly. I did the same with Peter Beaumont. And Ed Vulliamy, obviously, I didn't spend as much time with him as I did with Martin or Katharine because they were smaller roles in the film. But I did the same with the lawyer, Ben Emmerson, played by Ralph Fiennes. I met him and took down notes, asked a lot of questions, asked about the various scenes, went away wrote, and then sent him the scenes. Ben wasn't there while I filmed the show. He did meet with Ralph, but he was very busy, so he wasn't on the set. That might have been too intimidating anyway. But he had read the script, knew what the scenes were, and then I showed him the film once it was done. Obviously, the first time you show them the movie, you're always nervous. But fortunately, they responded very positively.
HTF: In political drama, there are some fine examples in cinema. There are fine examples of people who are doing a certain kind of job and just happen to be at the right moment in history, it seems, when they get an opportunity to go left or go right and they make a decision. I'm thinking All the President's Men. I'm thinking Spotlight. Even The Post which is telling the All the President's Men Story from another angle. Did you have that in your mind or even revisit some of those films for inspiration?
“…we were in development at one point with a [a different] studio who were inclined to try and sexy it up a bit and I remember in one meeting someone saying, "We need more running down alleys. We need more action." And the problem is if you succumb to that in this genre, you'll be caught at it. Audiences can tell when you're faking it.”
Gavin Hood: I did. And the examples you've given are intimidatingly brilliant. They are great films. So, you do feel like you're venturing into a genre that has very high standards. And we were in development at one point with a [a different] studio who were inclined to try and sexy it up a bit and I remember in one meeting someone saying, "We need more running down alleys. We need more action." And the problem is if you succumb to that in this genre, you'll be caught at it. Audiences can tell when you're faking it. The key to this film was sticking, as I said, to the key facts and events. So obviously, you are compressing time, and I'll give you a couple of examples. In the journalists' scenes, there were probably four or five meetings that Ed and Martin and the editors had before they decided to publish the memo. But the concepts and ideas discussed in all the meetings that actually happened all take place in that room. So the fact that in reality, there were four or five meetings before they had the case published and they reported back on each of the people they interviewed in trying to verify the memo, the fact that we do it in one scene, all of the journalists felt it's fine as long as you deliver on these salient points discussed in these various meetings. It's okay to compress it into one scene. You're still being true to the material facts and conversations that happened, if that makes sense.
HTF: Absolutely. I also want to talk about your approach to shooting and setting up the filming. There's an embrace, even a celebration, of the ordinary. I mean that as a compliment because it was an everyday, ordinary person who was in the right place at the right time, as I said, and chose to do the right thing at great risk. Was there anything different about how you approached shooting the material? Obviously, you're not setting up huge action sequences because this is not that kind of film. But just your framing, how you mentally think through how you're going to construct scenes, did anything of that change for this film?
Gavin Hood: It's a brilliant question. Thank you for asking it. I was very cognizant that I was walking a fine line between atmosphere and style over substance and the ordinariness of this extraordinary story. The way you put it, I think, was very well put. So there's a temptation sometimes to look for a cooler angle or a more dramatic angle, but if that angle in any way detracts from the work in my view, or [from what] the actor or actors are doing because you're not sufficiently looking into their eyes while they struggle with these thoughts, then you should abandon that angle. Because you, as the director, are going to impose yourself on the story, and audiences will feel that. At least that's what I felt. You want your compositions to be good. You want your lighting to be good. And you may or may not feel that we achieved that. But for example, when you're looking at Keira Knightley and she's making the decision to leak the memo, being on a 75mm lens - blowing up the background, looking at her close up with her eye line tight to lens, so that the audience can truly watch the thought process as she, for about 10 seconds in that shot before she leaks-- or before she confesses to having leaked, those two moments, I felt my job was to light Keira well, yes, with a certain atmosphere and mood, but to make sure that Keira's work was on screen, not a cool angle. And can you find that balance between a well-composed shot but an angle that's really aligned, the act that's delivered for the audience, the emotions that they're feeling? And I hope we achieved that balance.
HTF: Well, I would say you did. You know, there are some films in my life that I adore, and I have seen more times than I can count. But because I love it so much, because it's so well-made, there are moments in the film - even though I know exactly how the rest of the film's going to play out - that the performance and the way a scene is shot and constructed is so convincing, I'm pulled in and for a moment you doubt that they're going to make the wrong choice or make the right choice depending on the story that you have seen before them make. I felt that in some of the shots of Keira, that I know she will leak the memo, I know that she will fess up, but for a moment you don't know, or you have doubts. So that certainly comes through in the performance.
“Whether we work for Enron or a Wall Street bank or a newspaper, what if we are presented with something that says, "You know what, something is rotten here and I need to speak up." Would we speak up or would we just try to keep our heads below the parapet? And that's not a smug question. That's a difficult question.”
Gavin Hood: I think what's so interesting about what you're saying is that the key for Keira and I in those scenes, you kind of know she's going to do it. She had even told her husband she was going to confess for example. But I think the key is watching a person, who could be you, in that situation genuinely struggle with that decision. So, even though you know what's going to happen, the drama is in this personal struggle to make that choice. And that's what I think Keira delivers so well. And that was her approach having spoken to Katharine, where you now let that go and ask yourself the question, "What would I, Keira Knightley, feel and do in if I were in this situation?" As opposed to, "Am I doing what Katharine did? Am I doing what Katharine might have done?" Actually, a memo like this - and this is what drew me to the film - could, in one way or another, land on any of our desks, in any of our email boxes, not a memo about being a spy or from the NSA, but a memo or an email that suggests that something within the organization we work for is wrong. Whether we work for Enron or a Wall Street bank or a newspaper, what if we are presented with something that says, "You know what, something is rotten here and I need to speak up." Would we speak up or would we just try to keep our heads below the parapet? And that's not a smug question. That's a difficult question. And I think that's what Keira allows us to engage with. Even though we know what decision she will make, we still struggle with whether we would make that same decision.
HTF: Right. And the drama is watching her inside, mentally, and through expression, grapple with that decision that we would be faced with.
Gavin Hood: Exactly. Right. Yeah.
HTF: And I love that about the construction of the film. Fairly dominant in the early part of the film is how the tension is built around innocuous small actions that if it wasn't for the context and the overall story, they would be wholly ordinary moments. And I'm really talking about where Keira is trying to make a copy of the memo and the way that sequence is built, it's very dramatic. It's wonderfully tense and I love scenes like that. But I think what makes that quite dramatic and very intense is you know what will come of what she's doing and what it means. It's the ripples from that small act, the effects of choices, the potency of contemplation. All of that's built within “is she going to get away with it?” Again, you might know the answer to that question but watching how the scene and sequence is constructed and watching Keira's performance doing that is just fascinating and why it's one of my favorite moments in the entire film. Now, you've made some very, very expensive, action-driven, or high-visual-effects-laden films which require somewhat of a different consideration. Do you think you will be drawn to these smaller kinds of stories that don't require quite as much-- I don't want to say pressure, but don't require the same sort of expectation or the same sort of interference maybe?
Gavin Hood: That's the word [laughter]. Well done.
HTF: But do you think you'd be drawn to this kind of film more?
“Sometimes we want to go to the cinema and be entertained and watch a spectacle, and other times we want to figure out something about how we as human beings might respond and not look at people who are larger than life but look at people who, perhaps, are more like us.”
Gavin Hood: No. I think what's happened, I'm older now and I began my career in smaller, independent films. One didn't have a lot of money. It was all about performance. It was all about story. It was all about subtle moments. And I loved working with actors and loved looking for those subtle moments. I think when you can find drama in the ordinary and the everyday and the struggles that might confront you or I, as opposed to the struggles that confront humans to be heroes, then I think you find drama we can all relate to. And there's room for both. Sometimes we want to go to the cinema and be entertained and watch a spectacle, and other times we want to figure out something about how we as human beings might respond and not look at people who are larger than life but look at people who, perhaps, are more like us. And Katharine Gun, even though she did something extraordinary, is quite ordinary. She's an ordinary person who found herself confronted with something extraordinary, and I think that's what I loved about it.
HTF: In the films that you've made, like Rendition, where you explore an abhorrent practice and you raised questions of morality about those practices - questioning whether the ends justify the means. And in Official Secrets again you are talking about morally questionable abuses of power where people want to do what they do in order to get what they want, and there's always someone standing against it. I was surprised by the generally muted reaction to the revelations of what Katharine uncovered. Do you think there is outrage fatigue going on these last 10 or 20 years?
Gavin Hood: Yeah. This is a great question again. You mean the outrage amongst the public or in the film itself
HTF: The public. Now, at the time, it made headlines and news. But in the world, in the state of politics, I don't know there was any lasting repercussions. No-one, it seems, was indicted or called to necessarily account for that abuse. I just don't think there's been enough outrage, and I'm curious if you think the same. And to add-on to the question, do you think films like yours can have people start to pull at those threads again to see if accountability can be had?
“…to the point of outrage, the film is an expression of that outrage. And that's been part of the joy of making the film. I do feel like Katharine's story is something that should be on the record historically.”
Gavin Hood: Well, firstly to your point about was there enough outrage? I did wonder-given the political time between the making the film and where we are now, which is so muggy and confrontational-whether going back to the past was something people would take note of. So that's a good question. But to the point of outrage, the film is an expression of that outrage. And that's been part of the joy of making the film. I do feel like Katharine's story is something that should be on the record historically. Now, what are films? I mean they are not, in the traditional sense, historical documents in the academic sense, but they are, for good or bad, the vehicle through which most people, as we move forward in time, look back on significant events. If we want to know about the Vietnam War, most people, sadly, do not read up extensively about the Vietnam War. They watch Apocalypse, Now and Platoon. If people want to know about Nixon, they watch All the President’s Men. If people want to know, in 20 years' time, what the Catholic church was up to at a certain point in time, they are more likely to go to a Spotlight than they are to dig through academic articles about it.
As filmmakers attacking this kind of subject matter, we have a responsibility to get it right in so far as we know that we're using actors to tell a story. We know we're compressing time, but we should look for the emotional heart of the story, and we should be true to the material facts of the story. Because, for good or bad, films do become part of the historical record. And that is both the way of expressing the outrage in a large public forum, because again for good or bad, films are watched by many more people than might read an academic paper. That's not necessarily a good or a bad thing; it's just a fact. History has a way of catching up with you if you're a George Bush or Richard Nixon or Tony Blair. At some point, for good or bad, if the story is outrageous enough, someone's going to make a movie about it. So, the movie becomes an expression of that outrage as well as a part of the historical record.
HTF: Gavin, thank you so much for talking with us today.
Gavin Hood: Thank you, Neil. It was a great conversation.