By Iain Blair
South African writer/director Gavin Hood burst onto the international scene when he wrote and directed 2005’s Academy Award-winning Tsotsi. The film, which was also nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Hood followed up that success with the harrowing political drama Rendition (Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the sci-fi offering Ender’s Game (with Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley) and the thriller Eye in the Sky (Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman).
For his new film, Official Secrets, Hood returns to the murky world of government secrets and political double-dealing with a true but largely forgotten story that could have prevented the disaster that was the Iraq invasion and war. It tells the gripping story of Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a British intelligence specialist whose job involves routine handling of classified information. In 2003, in the lead up to the Iraq War, Gun receives a memo from the NSA with a shocking directive: the United States is enlisting Britain’s help in collecting compromising information on United Nations Security Council members in order to blackmail them into voting in favor of an invasion of Iraq. Unable to stand by and watch the world be rushed into an illegal war, Gun defies her government and leaks the memo to the press. So begins an explosive chain of events that ignited an international firestorm, exposed a vast political conspiracy, and put Gun and her family directly in harm’s way.
I recently spoke with Hood about making the film — which co-stars Ralph Fiennes as Gun’s lawyer and Matt Smith as journalist Martin Bright, who helped break the story — and his workflow.
To be honest, I’d never heard of Katharine Gun and her amazing story. Had you?
No, I knew nothing about it either. My producer Ged Doherty, who did Eye in the Sky with me, told me about this incredible true story and suggested I Google Katharine. Two hours later, having done a deep dive into this truly fascinating story, I realized it was this way of getting into the Iraq War and all that convoluted history through a very personal story.
What attracted you to this project?
That personal angle. Here’s a person who’s not a big political figure, but just someone going about her job. She comes across something that just smells rotten and decides she must say so. I thought, this could be any of us, in any organization, and who would be brave enough to become a whistleblower and risk losing our job in order to reveal the truth? She also risked losing her freedom as well, so whatever you think politically, she was very brave in following her conscience. I was intrigued right away by this character but not sure I actually wanted to do it.
I flew to London to meet Katharine. I sat down with her for five days, and each day we’d just talk and work for four or five hours. I’d take all these notes and over those five days, I think I won her trust. The main thing was, I just let her tell me about the events and what really happened without trying to make it into something more “Hollywood” or more exciting in terms of a movie. After that, I felt, “OK, we can do this.”
Lack of government transparency seems more timely than ever.
Absolutely, and that’s why this story is so important.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
A political thriller that’s also an understated personal drama. But making these kinds of films is far more difficult than making non-controversial entertainment fare, and it’s always so difficult getting financing.
Do you feel more responsibility when it’s based on real events and characters?
I do, and though I’ve made these kind of films before, this was the first time for me that all the main people were still alive, so it brings with it certain restrictions. You don’t want to fall short and have them scoff at your efforts, and you can’t take liberties with the narrative and the facts. Then this had the challenge of being a true story that doesn’t follow the conventional Hollywood “hero whistleblower” tale. It didn’t change the world. She’s just an ordinary person who did something extraordinary, and it’s about common decency and dignity.
What did Keira bring to the lead role, as well as Ralph Fiennes as her lawyer and Matt Smith as journalist Martin Bright?
They were all so committed and did a lot of research into their characters. Keira told me it was great to play a strong woman without having to wear a corset, and she really inhabits the role and makes you feel what it was like to be in Katharine’s shoes. She shows so much with just her eyes, so we used a lot of close-up work with a 75mm lens. Ralph shot all his scenes in just six days because of our tight 34-day schedule.
Your DP was Florian Hoffmeister, and you shot with the new Sony 6K Venice camera. Can you talk about how you collaborated on the look and how that affected the DI?
Yes, we were actually the first feature film to use it, so we did a lot of tests. It has an incredible dynamic range, not only moving from highlights to shadow but it’s got this great nuanced control of color. I’ve always loved shooting on film, but this camera’s so amazing that I’m now totally comfortable going all digital. In terms of post and the DI, we were really able to play with the footage.
When I shoot, I never want to push the look too much in-camera, as then you’re really limited in your choices in the DI. So my goal in shooting is always to get as much really detailed raw footage as I can, so I can then manipulate it in the DI. I don’t like to shoot with lots of filters and toys on the lens.
Where did you post?
At Technicolor in London and LA, and we did all the sound at Tribeca West in LA.
Do you like the post process?
I love it. I love writing, I love shooting, but post is where you actually make the film.
Talk about editing with your go-to editor Megan Gill who’s cut almost every film since 2005’s Tsotsi. How did that work?
She visits the set once or twice, but she doesn’t like to see how the sausage is made. She was on location and just to look at the dailies and do her assembly, and I’d drop by and we’d discuss it. Then she started cutting in London and then we finished in LA.
What were the big editing challenges?
It was basically a meticulous search for the most nuanced performances and trusting that we could then let them play out. There’s a scene where Katharine’s visited at home by a detective who tells her she can’t talk to a lawyer or anyone without clearing it with the authorities first. Instead of cutting back and forth between them as you’d usually do, we kept it on Keira and you see her slow burn, and it was far more effective that way. So, often it’s more important where you don’t cut rather than where you do.
VFX play a role. How many were there and what did they entail?
Technicolor VFX did them all, and they were mostly comps for scenes shot in places like rooftops in Manchester and Liverpool, which doubled for London. So it was live shots augmented with matte paintings and VFX for the London skyline. And we had a lot of television comps, but not nearly as many VFX as I had on my last film, Eye in the Sky.
Can you talk about the importance of sound and music, as again, you recruited composers Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian, who have scored a number of your films, including Tsotsi and Rendition.
We go way back, and they’re both amazing South African composers who have such a range — from classical to jazz and world music. That range works so well with my films, which are often multicultural. So in this film we have Britain, but it’s also about Iraq. And Katharine’s husband is Kurdish-Turkish, so we had to build a soundtrack that vibrates with the sound and emotional resonance of all these different places and cultures.
They crafted a great score that did exactly that. We did most of the sound work at Technicolor. Then sound editor Craig Mann, who won the Oscar for Whiplash and who did Eye in the Sky, did all the mixing at Tribeca West… most of it in a very small room. And he worked closely with Paul and Mark and is so good at building atmosphere and tension.
Where did you do the DI, and how important is it to you?
Also at Tribeca West, and it’s extremely important to me, as I have a background in photography. Florian and I worked very closely with colorist Doug Delaney, and it’s a period piece so we wanted a dusty, slightly period feel without pushing it too far.
I’m developing several projects, so whatever comes together first.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.