Gavin Hood’s latest film Official Secrets opened this past weekend. It’s a film about a whistleblower who faces the dilemma of doing the right thing when a memo from the NSA lands on her desk. The memo reveals the details of an illegal NSA operation to push the Security Council into approving the attack on Iraq in 2003.
The narrative follows the memo from Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley) to the journalists, to the lawyer. Before taking the film on, Hood flew to London to meet with everyone involved including Gun. His main objective was to stay true to the story and the facts without giving the film a Hollywood ending or fictionalizing things for storytelling sake.
I caught up with Hood to talk about his journey in bringing Official Secrets to the screen.
I’m really excited to talk to you because the last time we spoke, it was for Eye In The Sky.
That’s right, and that was about three years or something ridiculous like that.
Here we are, and the first thing I thought of as I’m watching this film is why don’t I know about Katherine? Should I have known?
I had exactly the same thing. I’d made Eye In The Sky. Ged Doherty who was a producer on that, called me up and asked, “Have you ever heard of Katherine Gun?” To which my answer was that awkward, “No, should I have? Why haven’t I?” He said, “That’s interesting, very few people have, so just Google her.” I did and Googled her, spent a few hours looking her up. To cut a long story short, I flew to London, intrigued. There had been a version floating around that Ged had taken over the rights to and wanted me to look at in a slightly different way. I don’t know much about what happened there, but I just said, “Could I please before I make a decision, meet Katherine Gun? She may not like me, I may not respond.” But I went and I spent five days with Katherine. I spent a similar time with Martin Bright who introduced me to Peter Beaumont and Ed Vulliamy and then, Ben Emmerson.
I interviewed all of them, and I was hooked. I was there for about three weeks, and I stayed in touch with them throughout as we were getting the research done because you’re making a film about people who are very much alive. It would be terrible if we were releasing the film and any one of them said, “I don’t stand by this.” There are a couple like Ken Macdonald who is now Lord Ken Macdonald in England, he’s the man on the beach. We’ll see how he responds because journalists are very keen to ask him why he dropped the case, why he spoke to Ben, was it Lord Goldsmith who asked him to drop the case? The story is not over, but I would really be devastated if Katherine were to say it wasn’t her story. The point is they were deeply involved, and I met some really fascinating people and I got on board with the writing.
You have the book; the real people giving you their story of what happened, how do you then take all of that to form your narrative?
The first version of the script was written by Sarah and Greg Bernstein. They had based it largely on the book. That book and their script focused strongly on Katherine. They crafted a story that absolutely stuck to the key material and facts. They didn’t try to Hollywoodize or fictionalize it. When I met Katherine, she was weary. She didn’t want her story twisted or sensationalized. If we were going to tell it, we were going to tell it how it happened. I assured her; I would do that.
I said, “Let’s start at the beginning and tell me your story.” My major sources were; I started with the book, the script and from there.
Some of the characters were merged for dramatic purposes, but that didn’t turn out to be a good idea. You wanted Martin, Peter and Ed to strongly support the film. Martin was very uncomfortable, so it was a challenge, an interesting one. The story doesn’t easily fit into the dramatic structure. It doesn’t have a single hero who is wronged, finds an antagonist, overcomes obstacles, makes a speech in their trial and wins the day. That doesn’t happen. It wasn’t easy.
My way in was to stop focusing on trying to make one person a hero. I thought, let’s see what happens if we follow the story of the memo? A memo lands on Katherine’s desk. Imagine if something like that landed on your desk or my desk at work. Something that suggests the organization we work for suggests wrongdoing. What would you do? What I found fascinating was that Katherine wasn’t a larger than life political figure. She was ordinary like you and me. Something she didn’t expect, happened. Something that made her very uncomfortable at work landed on her desk and it challenged her to make a decision. In the film that’s what we decided to do. The memo lands on her desk and we watch Katherine Gun struggle with her conscience, and then she makes her decision. Then that same memo lands on Martin Bright’s desk in a newspaper that supports the war. And suddenly, we say, “What do we do with it?” It was sent to the Daily Mail. Then that memo is published and then it lands on the desk of the lawyers, so you keep passing the baton which is very unconventional.
If you go with it, it’s the story of what would you – an ordinary person, a journalist or a lawyer do if this lands on your desk. I found it fascinating because the ending isn’t predictable. It’s frustrating, but it’s a fascinating story to me about an ordinary person doing something extraordinary. In doing so, they become extraordinary.
It’s a rare story. It made us think about should we, but I enjoyed the watching of the different points of view you tell. Talk about the editing and putting in actual news archive of Cheney and Bush.
Your impulse, when you do the script, is, “Who am I going to cast as Bush or Cheney?” You suddenly say, “Who better to play George Bush than George Bush?” The real reason for doing it the way I did it was because that’s how Katherine experienced them, and that’s how we experience them, so why cast an actor when all I need is what Katherine and we. We had to decide at what moment she sees what speech, and we purchased that footage from the news organizations. We edited with rough clips.
The key to this is it is almost a psychological thriller about what’s going on in the young mind of a young spy. Somewhat naive and not perfect. You want from a stylistic and shooting point of view, to trust the actor and watch them. When you have someone as good as Kiera, you don’t want to get too crazy with the moody lighting. Let’s trust that we like the actor, get a long 75mm lens, isolate her and get these closeups so that its eyes to lens and trust that we will see the cogs turning in her eyes.
There are moments when we are on her for ten seconds. We do shots where we linger, and you see the cogs turn. We do shots where we linger, and you see the cogs turn. You’d cut between him and her, usually. But in this case, I wanted to stay on Kiera. It’s because there’s that slow burn, we’re hearing him and he’s talking and talking and we’re hearing him as if we are her, but we are watching her. We’re seeing that slow burn of anger and she says, “I will not speak to a lawyer unless I am charged.” It was a great fuck off line.
This is a story-driven by nuance, performance and actors, the way we shot that was to make sure we did good close-ups and tighter lenses.
In the editing room, we chose to be on reactions and that was our approach.
What about the music score?
They have a great understanding of my sensibility. They’re both trained classically. Paul is an incredible classical pianist. Mark is a jazz-trained pianist. He did his masters in film composition. Both of them are incredible world music experts. What you do in a film like this and what we did in Eye In The Sky is, because you’re dealing with multicultural points of views, there are many characters. What you’re trying to do, is the music fuses elements of various world personalities. You don’t even notice. We use many instruments from the Middle East, to give you a feeling of slightly off balance but in a multicultural environment.
It was so refreshing to have Keira in this and not in corsets.
I was so lucky when she said yes. She did say, “I’m so pleased I can play a strong female lead not in a corset.” She said part of the fun was not being in makeup and hair. There was a moment of dying her hair blonde and glasses, but she came in one day and said, “I’m not playing someone who is well-known. I don’t want the audience to say, “Oh look at her.” ‘She wanted to just come in and work from the inside out. “What would it feel like if I were in Katherine’s shoes moment by moment, how would I feel? Let’s forget about trying to impersonate Katherine.” You’re not playing Maggie Thatcher or The Queen where Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren did where you have to get every bit right. I think she was right; she could be in the pure emotional experience of the scene.
I always spend time casting a lot of the smaller parts. Any time you see someone on screen; they really are the lead. They are carrying the audience. When you get a bad moment, you drop the ball and now you have to pick it up.
There’s a lovely scene where the guard pats her down, those parts. I find great character actors to keep the standard of the acting up.
Then at the end, there is the handing off. In the end, the difficulty is you’re bonding with these actors and then you hand the baton to Ben Emerson, you better have a great actor. Thank God, Ralph Fiennes said yes. I thought, what if we couldn’t find a good actor to play Ben? He took over. Martin and Katherine wanted us to tell the story as it happened, so it breaks into these three stories. It’s Keira, the journalists and then the lawyers. You wanted great actors in each and we were very lucky.