Celebrity Interview: Director Gavin Hood Talks on the Making of Official Secrets, Casting, and Loyalty

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Gavin Hood, co-writer and director of Official Secrets, the contemporary espionage thriller chronicling the leak of a top-secret memo, the subsequent arrest and trial of British Spy Katherine Gun recently spoke with Haute-Lifestyle.com Publisher Janet Walker.

Official Secrets, from IFC Films, stars Keira Knightly, Matt Smith and Ray Fiennes, and presents the unknown story of Katherine Gun, a former British spy, who discovered the Bush's Administration was attempting to swing the UN Security Council vote by gathering dirt on smaller nations, coercing them to vote to pass the Security resolution of war.

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Below is an excerpt of our conversation. Gavin is very personable, forthcoming about his process and offering many hidden directorial points.

Janet Walker: Congratulations on the film. It is so intriguing and such a contemporary espionage thriller. So, tell me a little about why this project interested you?

Gavin Hood: My producing partner brought this to me early on and asked me if I had heard about the book, "The Spy Who Tried To Stop A War" I think it would be safe to say it wasn't until I met Katherine Gun, I hadn't so I googled it and that's how it began. I started reading about her and then I went to London and spent five days with her getting to know here, meeting for four or five or six hours every day, and I asked her to just tell me her story from beginning to end, and then I met the journalists, and then I met Ben Anderson the lawyer and spent about three weeks over there and speaking with everybody I thought Okay this would be something I'd like to dig into. I didn't know these people and usually it takes longer and is harder to find but this was a fascinating journey into a period of time that I thought I knew something about. I thought this was an interesting way into that whole political time and through the eyes of someone quite ordinary. I mean she was a young person going to work, in much the same way as you or I do, and came across something she thought wasn't right, and I wonder whether I would have had the courage to do what she did.

Driving The Narrative

JW: As the co-editor of the script, you said you spent about three weeks interviewing so how did you determine which events were important to drive the narrative?

GH: That's a great question. Well over a year the period I wrote the script, I would send drafts in and they would come back and basically, what I think we needed to see and had to do and wanted to do was to make sure that every material fact, and we'll come back to that idea, every material fact was in the movie. I needed the sign off, it was the first time, I need the sign off, Martin Bryant and Ben Anderson to come up and say I liked the movie because God forbid they come up and say they hate the movie because you'd be dead, right. Most likely, if they all dreaded it and said it was rubbish and made up.

So, the first thing for me was to gather all material facts, and by material facts you are compressing a story that took pace over a year, into two hours, obviously.

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I'll give you one example, there is a moment where you might remember a scene, where the Scotland Yard detective comes in and says, you can't talk to lawyers, you can't talk to anybody, and she said, "well if you charge me, I won't talk to any lawyers unless you charge me. So, how's, that for a deal, you guys back off and I'll do what you say which puts them in a dilemma because she said she will speak. It took six months in reality for the lawyers, the lawyers you see in the movie to lift that gag order and be allowed to speak to her about the leaking of this particular memo.

They had to agree not to speak about anything else at the GSHQ, no other work that she did, they would talk about this particular memo and that took six months. And it was a lot of anxiety and multiple cooks and when I was trying to put that in it just got a bit bogged down and that was one of the moment I went to Katherine and said, I'm going to ask a terrible thing, I'm going to have the scene where you are told not to speak and then six months later is going to appear on the screen, and you're going to say, "I can't talk to you. You've got a gag order. And he says, "the good news is the gag order is lifted, the bad news is they are going to charge you." So, we compressed those six months rather rapidly in the film and Katherine said, "that's fine Gavin, it was incredibly boring. Weeks went by, I was very nervous, so what are you going to show me doing, being nervous. And hoping they will get the gag order lifted."

The key ideas, the memo arriving, her wrestling with that idea, she deciding to print it, the memo landing on Martins desk, there were multiple meetings with the journalists before they decided to published which I the journalist for example, they were multiple meetings compressed into one meeting. In the movie I compressed those into essentially one meeting where they debate with the editor. But that's how we did it. All the material facts were present.

The Casting Process

JW: Did you always have the particular cast of talent in mind during your writing process or describe the casting process?

GH: Sure, I'd love to say I did. I didn't know who was going to play this role until much later. Usually when I'm writing fiction, I start looking up actors and start thinking about ideas, even if they don't play the role, its good to have someone in mind when you're writing. But in this case, the truth is I had Katherine, Martin and Ben in mind because I had interviewed them so extensively and I knew had been getting feedback from them all the time, so I was really trying to write them, and then at some point, you're saying who will be playing these folks.

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Then you sit down with your casting director and being to draw up lists of who's available and who's not available because they're working, and you slowly narrow it down and you make an offer. And we were very lucky that Keira said "yes," and Matt said "yes," and Ray Fiennes playing Ben Williams, was a huge win for us. You've got an actor coming in in the third act, you don't want someone who drops the ball and it's unusual in a normal narrative to bring in a new lead actor in the third act. Not the normal structure so we needed to get someone who could handle the process.

The Price of Loyalty

JW: What was your memorable moment of the entire process?

GH: That's a great question. You know, the most memorable moment that jumps into my head, when I realized I was going to make the film, I was interviewing Katherine on the third or fourth day or whatever it was and I said, and at one point I felt I had to say, "Katherine, excuse me, but you were a spy, your job was dirty tricks, you worked for the government, what did you think this job was going to be?" And she said, "Well, hold on, I didn't work for the government." And I said, "What? What do you mean you didn't work for the government?" And she said, "Well, I swore allegiance to the British crown and the crown represents the British people, governments change, my loyalty is to the British people, and that's when she said, to me the line about "I have no problem if my work helps prevent a terror attack, what I do have a problem with is my work being used by governments to lie to the British people."

I thought, Ah ha! That is intriguing, that is a real moment of consciousness and a difficult thing to process and if I can get that into the movie, it gave me my theme. That moment gave me my theme, loyalty, and loyalty sounds easy. But actually In Katherine's case she was challenged by four aspects of the film questioned her loyalty, one will she be loyal to her personal conscience, two, will she be loyal to her marriage and her husband because she puts that marriage at risk his safety at risk by confessing and arguable she wasn't particularly loyal to that relationship, and three, will she be loyal to her government and the obvious answer was "no."

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And the fourth aspect, will she be loyal to something higher than the government , the British people, which sounds abstract, or the world at large or humanity, wow, I had a theme of loyalty and loyalty is not simple at times, now loyalties are split and which ones win out. In her case she was loyal to her conscience and the British people, but she wasn't loyal to her government or her marriage.

So, I thought that makes for a genuine dilemma in a character, and I wonder what I would do If I were faced with that. I don't know, I've never been in her position faced with that so that intrigued me. This is an interesting person, who clearly someone who wrestles with her own conscience and that precious few of those hero's around.

With that time was called and the interview ended.

Official Secrets should be coming to any one of the streaming platforms available. See it if possible.


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