Breach - Billy Ray interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
BILLY Ray, the director of Breach, talks about why the film appealed to him and why it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the FBI…
Q. Breach is being released amidst Bourne mania, yet they’re two very different spy movies. How do you go about making an old fashioned spy movie, as opposed to Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies?
Billy Ray: Well, you have to know what you’re capable of doing as a director. I love those Bourne movies. But I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to shoot one. If you want huge car chases and big action sequences; I’m just not your guy. I just don’t know how to do it. And it didn’t seem to me that those things were necessary for the telling of this story. This story was really about these two guys, being locked in a room with each other, investigating one another simultaneously, where the tension would arise out of the characters and how they bounce off each other. Obviously, you can’t do that without two great actors, which I was fortunate enough to have. But, if you do have actors like that, nothing really needs to blow up. The tension just ramps up based on how they treat one another.
Q. Do you consider Robert Hanssen an evil man?
Billy Ray: Chris [Cooper] never played him in an evil way, which is why the performance is so compelling. In all the time of prepping the movie and shooting the movie, Chris never came up to me and said: “Should I make this scarier?” He wasn’t playing a moustache-twirling villain; he just doesn’t have it in him. I remember when we first showed Chris the movie, and we brought him over to Universal and showed it to him in the cutting room. The lights came up and I was waiting there with baited breath, because I wanted him to like the movie. The first thing he said to me was: “I had no idea that was such a dark character.”
I thought: “Well, that’s why Chris Cooper is Chris Cooper!” He never stood outside the character and judged him. He can now. But he never stands outside the character and judges him while he’s playing him; he’s just plays him as this man who has needs, desires, wants, failings, flaws and he goes out and behaves. One of the things that’s most gratifying about people responding to the movie, is they come away understanding Hanssen; they come away sympathising with him sometimes. And that’s all because Chris never judged him.
Q. How much assistance did you have from the FBI?
Billy Ray: We had enormous co-operation from the FBI, I wouldn’t have made the movie if we didn’t. First, we had Eric O’Neill, who Ryan plays. Without unlimited access to him, the movie would have been impossible. We would have had to fake things which I just wasn’t willing to do. I was very surprised by the openness of the FBI. They gave me access to everything I wanted. They gave me everybody that I needed to talk to. The guy who had lunch with Hanssen every day for 20 years then turned around and had lunch with me. The people who were working the case to capture Hanssen, I had access to all of them. I had access to everybody, except Hanssen himself.
They wouldn’t let me interview him, but I was able to submit written questions. I wrote out a list of 15 questions, which the FBI vetted. They kicked one question out, but they sent the other 14 along; which they didn’t have to do. Turns out Hanssen declined to answer any of them, because he wasn’t in the mood to help me out which I guess I understand. But the FBI also gave me access to the building itself. We’re the first movie ever to shoot inside the FBI building, which post 9/11 is a pretty tricky thing to pull off. They let my production designer and DP walk the hallways and take measurements and pictures, so that we could get it right. There’s a reason why those hallways feel as authentic as they do in the movie and it’s because they’re real.
I think the FBI knew from the beginning that we weren’t trying to embarrass them. We weren’t trying to make a movie about those 22 years in which Hanssen got away with it. We were trying to make a movie about those four weeks in which he was caught. In those four weeks the FBI worked very decisively, very cleverly. It was clever just to put Eric O’Neill on Robert Hanssen’s desk. And they got their man. So, while this movie was never going to be the recruitment poster for the FBI that Top Gun was for the Navy, the FBI knew they were going to come off looking good. And I believe they do.
Q. What is the current climate in America towards the FBI?
Billy Ray: I don’t think the film has had any impact on that. I think what has had an impact, is the war that’s taking place currently. I think you can say, almost without exception in our country, that if people read in the newspaper that the Department of Defence says something, that it’s likely untrue. That’s really a shame. If I read in the paper that we just went into a village and killed three members of Al Qaeda, it’s possible that it’s true. But the fact that it was said does not necessarily make it true. There’s an enormous level of suspicion that’s been engendered by the Bush administration, in my personal opinion, that I think is poisonous in our country.
We also have to stop thinking about these things as institutions. The FBI is not an institution. It’s a group of human beings that are custodians of an institution. Those people can have good judgement or bad judgement, they can be petty; they can be wise. For the most part, the people I met at the FBI were extraordinary people: true patriots. Mums and dads, husbands and wives, people who have to worry about getting their kids after school and meeting their mortgage. They work unbelievably brutal hours; the tension is horrendous; the pay is not great! If you’re working a 70 or 80 hour week, there’s no such thing as time-off. You just work. It’s unbelievable the constraints on these people and they do it because they believe in their country and they believe they’re doing an important job. I don’t anything I’m saying to be construed as being negative about the FBI. I think they’re remarkable people and I feel safer knowing they’re working for me. But, I think the political climate in my country, is not great. And, I’m happy to be part of that conversation.
Q. What surprised you about working with Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe?
Billy Ray: I’ll tell you what surprised me about Chris. Chris is a lot funnier than people think he is. He’s actually very gifted as a comedian. When we were shooting his coverage, if I would have Ryan just poke him in some way he wasn’t expecting; Chris’ reactions are very funny. There’s an odd, tense humour to the first half of the movie that comes from him being kind of craggy in an unexpected way. That’s not scripted stuff, when you read it on the page, it felt like it was going to be very serious.
Part of that came from the casting of Ryan. Once we had Ryan in the movie, he came to me having met Eric O’Neill and said: “You know, I think I need to punch back more.” In the script, Hanssen really steamrolled Eric almost every single scene! And once Ryan met Eric, he said: “No, this guy punched back and he annoyed Hanssen all the time.”
He got that from talking to Eric. Ryan said: “I need to do more of that; I just keep saying Sir all the time and I need to say something else.” So we made these adjustments to include little counter-punch moves within the context of scenes that change the power-dynamic of their relationship and give the movie textures and levels that it didn’t otherwise have.
Q. What audience do you think this film will appeal to?
Billy Ray: It’s hard to say, it seems like in America, we hit to all fields. I think anyone who wants to see great acting or a great story, if they want to feel tension between characters? I think if they want to see something rigorously authentic. That was the goal we set for ourselves and I feel pretty comfortable that we hit it.