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Sundance Interview: Gavin Hood Talks “Official Secrets”, Katharine Gun and Keira Knightley


Director Gavin Hood. Source: IMDB

How important is it to have whistleblowers? It is very, I must admit when the information that can be shared with the public can save lives. In the light of current events or any other event which occurred in the political world previously, there is always a need for unsung heroes that can make a difference.

The story told in “Official Secrets”, directed by Gavin Hood and starring Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun, has never been so important to be brought back to the light, boost new energy into it, and have it spread across the globe.

An excellent political drama filled with suspense is the least “Official Secrets” is about. Despite having such a stellar cast, it never goes beyond its limits, possibilities, and the information that must be shared with us through the silver screen. A well-balanced direction from Gavin Hood showcases how important it is to not take such an important source of information for granted.

During the Sundance Film Festival that took place earlier in Park City, Utah, I had the privilege of sitting with director Gavin Hood to go a bit deeper into “Official Secrets” and what lies behind it.

MOVIEMOVESME: It feels like you want to get into the political subject that you feel perhaps at this time is very important. So why did you think that Katharine Gun’s story needs to be told in a movie?

Gavin Hood: It’s a really great question. You know, I grew up in South Africa when there was still the Apartheid Regime running the country so I’ve always had a sense of politics and the way governments behave can affect the populations. And I think my earlier films more socio-political in form. And then when I got the script about Katharine Gun in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq war I’d never heard of her. And seemed strange because it’s like there’s this missing piece of in this history of how we got into this war. Everybody knows that there was this claim that there were weapons of mass destruction and that the basis in which Bush and Blair said we had to go to war. And yet there’s another way that you can legally go to war which obviously is through a UN resolution. And if Bush and Blair had been able to get a UN resolution for war, then they wouldn’t have had to lean so heavily on the weapons of mass destruction argument. Because they would have had the baking of the United Nations.

And it just surprised me when my producer sent me this story that I hadn’t heard of Katharine Gun. And I think the only reason we hadn’t heard of Katharine Gun is because unlike so many stories about Dick Cheney or Colin Powell or George Bush, these are the big figures in history, and Katharine is actually more like us. She’s an ordinary person who finds herself in an extraordinary situation. What I thought as I was looking at the film is what would it feel like for me or for you to be in the same position as Katharine Gun? Just an ordinary person doing your job and something comes across our desk that is wrong and illegal. And would we have the courage to say so and risk our jobs. Now what I mean is, most people are not risking both their job and their freedom because most of us don’t work for the government and we’re not subject to the Official Secrets Act.

Most of us have a job and when we see something wrong in the company we struggle with whether to say something in case we lose our job. And here’s a young woman who stands to not only lose her job but also her freedom. Whether you agree with what she did or not, the one thing you can not say is that she’s not brave. She’s extremely brave. And I just wondered what it would be like to see the Iraq War and the way we got into that Iraq War through the eyes of somebody less well known. Not one of the big political figures. And that may be in exploring the way we got into that war through someone who is more like every person whether that might not challenge us to see what we might do if we were in her shoes.

MOVIEMOVESME: And would you do that?

Gavin Hood: I don’t know, you never know what you will do until you’re asked to do it. And I’ve never been in a situation quite as intense as Katharine faced, where I’ve been asked to speak up at the risk of losing my freedom. I think that’s pretty brave. I’d like to think I would. I’d like to think it, I think we all would like to think it but you can’t honestly say you would until you’re in her shoes.

MOVIEMOVESME: How about the screenplay? It was co-written by Gregory and Sara Bernstein.

Gavin Hood: Initially yes, Sarah and Greg had worked on a project before I was ever involved, for different producers. And for various reasons that project did not go ahead and Greg Doherty optioned the project and Greg was my producer on Eye In The Sky. When Greg came to me and said “Look, I’ve found the story. There is a script, but would you like to meet Katharine?” And I said Well I would because I think the story is great, but I would like to actually interview Katharine before I’m sure I’m the right director for it. And then I would like to interview the journalist Martin Bright, who’s the person who put the story into The Observer newspaper.

And then, what happened is I went to London and I spoke to Katharine. I saw her for five days, every day for five days. I sat with her for maybe four or five hours every morning then we’d go off for the afternoon. And I just asked her to start at the very beginning and tell me her story. And in speaking to her and then Martin, and then Martin referred me to Peter Beaumont, one of the other journalist. And then Ed Vulliamy and then to Ben Emmerson the great lawyer who took the case. And I ended up interviewing all these people and I found that I had a whole new ton of material that I could use in the script. That had only really come to the surface because I had been lucky enough to sit and really interview all these different characters that are in the film.

MOVIEMOVESME: Speaking of the materials that you had, having the book and now that I’m glad that you had mentioned that you had met with Katharine Gun as well to talk to her. How difficult was it? Because it couldn’t have been easy, that’s for sure. To come up with the best source of information to collect all of them together to tell in the movie because you need to dramatize it.

Gavin Hood: Yes, that’s a great question. The book gave me a certain amount because the book is principally about Katharine. And the Bernstein’s had worked very hard on that book. My approach was slightly different. I had that version but because I was able to meet with all the journalists and Ben Emmerson, the lawyer, I got a lot of insight to parts of the story that were not in the book. And so that’s how we finally created the film which has these almost parallel stories, which is Katharine’s story and Martin’s story and they only actually ever meet at the very end. Martin didn’t even know who Katharine was right up until almost the very end. I love the way there’s her story and then there’s the story of the journalist in the film trying to figure out whether the memo that has come into their possession, which is leaked, was true or not. And they didn’t know whether it was maybe fake, maybe it was something put out by who knows who.

Gavin Hood: Was it a Russian fake memo. Was it a French fake memo. Was it Americans faking their own memo? I mean, what was it? So I just love these parallel stories of Katharine leaking the memo and then the journalist Martin Bright who receives the memo and doesn’t know if it’s real. And how we watch the two of them until they finally meet at the court case, at the trial at the end of the film.

MOVIEMOVESME: Was Keira Knightley the first choice to portray Katharine Gun? Did you have to go through different actresses?

Gavin Hood: No, I think we were very very lucky to get Keira. I mean obviously you may not get her so you have other possibilities and so on, but I don’t want to say who the others were because that would be unfair. The beautiful thing is we sent the script to Keira and she said yes. So I didn’t have to think much further. I’m really thrilled that she did it. I think her approach to this is very interesting. As an actress we talked a lot about do we try and imitate Katharine? Should she have blonde hair and wear glasses? And eventually, Keira just said to me “You know Gavin this is not like trying to imitate Margaret Thatcher or Dick Cheney in “Vice”. This is someone who very few people know and if I go blonde they’ll think I’m trying to be cute. I just want to do this part with no makeup, with just my hair and just feel what it would be like if I was in her situation.”

And I’m really glad that we did that because Keira’s performance is so emotionally honest and unpretentious and clean and she’s just without her makeup just being herself.

She said to me “I’ve done so many of these period dramas where they do my hair up and I have to wear the fancy dresses and here I can just wear jeans and just be this young person. Be in that situation and try and feel as honestly as possible what it would be like to be in her think.” I think if you see the film and you watch the close-ups on Keira there’s an immense honesty in the way she’s thinking through what to do.

MOVIEMOVESME: What do you want the viewer to take after watching this, because the moment you mention whistleblower, people think about Edward Snowden, which in my opinion is a different kind of person that different reasons to act the way he did?

Gavin Hood: Yeah, look. The same as I did in “Eye in The Sky”, I don’t want to tell my audience what to think. I want to present them with a story where you can decide if you think she did the right thing or the wrong thing. That’s entirely up to you but I want the audience to go away with something to talk about. I want them to enjoy the movie. It’s a good thriller. Apart from anything else, it’s a story about a spy. I mean it’s a thriller in that sense. It’s more of a psychological thriller. And it’s a courtroom story as well, about lawyers. But most importantly I think they should enjoy a movie that keeps them on the edge of their seat and afterward have something to talk about. And if they argue with one another and they don’t agree, that’s fine. I think what I hope, it’s another way of looking of how we got into that 2003 Iraq war.

MOVIEMOVESME: So your film “Eye In The Sky” was about justifying an attack. But “Official Secrets” is about exposing the attack. Is that how it worked for you take another approach for your new film?

Gavin Hood: Yes, that’s very well put. You should write, you’re a writer. I love that. That’s really good, I might steal that. No that’s really good. It is about exposing the attack. But I think what’s interesting in Official Secrets it’s about conscience. There are four kinds of loyalty. For me the overwriting theme was loyalty. Now loyalty sounds easy, but who is Katharine loyal to? Is she loyal to her own conscience? Yes. Is she loyal to her marriage? Maybe not. Is she loyal to her government? No. Is she loyal to her country? I say yes. She’s loyal to the people but not to the government. So, where do you put your loyalty? Can you be loyal to all four things? And that’s what I think you’re left, something to talk about. If you were in Katharine’s situation would you leak? Should you leak? What else could she have done? It’s just an interesting dilemma. I don’t know if you agree but that’s the way I see it.

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