Shattered Glass was one of the strongest directorial debuts in memory. Not only did writer/director Billy Ray craft a suspenseful and intriguing story about a guy basically plagiarizing and bullshitting, he managed to get the only good performance out of Hayden Christensen ever. For that feat alone, Ray should be guaranteed a spot in the director’s pantheon.
After a quick side trip to scripting (but not directing) Flightplan, Billy Ray is back in the director’s chair with Breach – another true story about deception. FBI agent Robert Hanssen (played by Oscar winner Chris Cooper) was one of the worst spies in American history, selling secrets to the Russians for 22 months. Breach is about the final months before Hanssen is arrested, when the FBI put Eric O’Neill (played by Ryan Phillippe) in with Hanssen to gain the man’s trust and catch him in the act of betraying his country. In Shattered Glass Billy Ray made a dude making up stories exciting; in Breach he has a much more obviously dramatic story.
I spoke to Billy Ray on the phone last weekend. He gives short answers, and you have to pull things out of him a bit, but he’s not keeping it short to shut the interviewer out – he’s getting to the point. I also interviewed the real Eric O’Neill last week – you can read that interview here.
Breach opens this weekend.
Breach, as your second film, has a lot in common, thematically, with Shattered Glass. What is it about deception that you find interesting?
I get that question a lot. I guess I set myself up for it. I think liars make more interesting characters, because when you know someone is a liar and you’re an audience member, you lean forward more when they’re talking. It draws you in.
What was it about this particular story that drew you in?
For me the movie is about integrity. It’s about Eric realizing what’s important to him because he’s been stuck in a room with this guy and he’s had to ask himself that question. At the beginning he’s in a world of moral ambiguity, and that becomes at a certain point moral clarity, and that’s when he decides what to do about it.
There’s this interesting scene at the end where Hanssen is giving a speech about why he did this, and it all boils down to ‘It doesn’t matter.’ Do you believe that it doesn’t matter why someone does something like this, only that they did?
Yes. That is my personal belief. By that I mean, we are what we do. Our actions define us. Hanssen did enormous damage to his country, he had people killed, he risked all of our lives, he betrayed the Bureau, he betrayed his family. At the end of the day does it matter why? The point is that he did it. My hope is that people will be intrigued enough by Chris’ performance to go out, have a cup of coffee and come up with their own theory why Hanssen did it – and I have my own theories – but I thought it would be bad journalism to suggest I know why he did it. Because I don’t.
The film is set in the early months of 2001. Obviously after 9/11 the whole intelligence landscape changes. What’s the relevance of this story post-9/11?
In a funny way it becomes more relevant because with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the KGB, all of the secrets Hanssen had sold to the Russians were now in the hands of free agents. We know now that defecting KGB colonels sold secrets to Al Qaeda and North Korea and Iran and any rogue state that they chose. It’s become a greater threat since 9/11, although I’m sure it’s going to get less press.
A film like this, a lower budget studio movie, seems rarer all the time. How difficult is it to get a movie like this off the ground?
It’s very tough. The studios aren’t designed to make 25 million dollar movies. It’s not in their wheelhouse. They know how to spend 100 million on a movie, they can open a movie like that, but this is a hybrid. I feel very, very fortunate that Universal let me make the movie. I don’t know that there’s another studio that would have.
What was the process of getting the movie made? I know there were other writers who were on it at one point.
Two writers preceded me. They were a team; their names were Adam Mazer and Bill Rotko. They had written a couple of drafts of the script for the producer; his name was Bobby Newmyer, may he rest in peace. I was brought in by Bobby to rewrite and direct, and once I came aboard we took the project to Universal and set it up there. I was rewriting the script for Universal.
When you’re working on a 25 million dollar film, does the studio step out of the way?
I never directed a movie that cost more than that, so I don’t have any comparison. I thought the studio’s level of involvement was just right. They were there if I needed help. They would call once in a while with suggestions, but they were never heavy handed about it.
What’s your writing process like? Do you have a ritual?
I get up in the morning. I take my kids to school. I’m at my desk at 9 o’clock. I work until lunch. Somebody feeds me. I’m back at the desk at 2. I work until 5. My nights and my weekends are for my family.
Does the discipline come easily?
My fear of failure is so much greater than any other force in my life that it’s a great motivator. It’s never a problem sitting down to work.
The whole film hinges on identifying with Eric O’Neill. How did you come to cast Ryan Phillippe? Was it a long process?
It was a very long process because once we had Chris Cooper in place, he’s such an actor magnet that we literally had our pick of every single 25 to 30 year old actor in town – and I met with all of the. We screentested four of them with Chris, and Ryan just popped. His chemistry with Chris was great. I would have been happy making the movie with any of those four guys, but Ryan was the right choice?
How did they work together? Did they bond or did they keep their distance to keep the adversarial thing going? What was your part in that?
I wanted them to know each other. We did a lot of… I can’t call it rehearsals, but we did a lot of read throughs in the days before shooting. I didn’t want them out throwing down beers because I didn’t want them chummy, but it all took its own course. Ryan was watching and learning from Chris all the time. They both kind of pace in between shots, so they’re both walking around the set in their own world. They respected each other. I have to say the most fun I had on this movie were the five days where Chris and Ryan and I were shooting the scenes in the office, where there was nothing else to contend with but those scenes. Letting those guys loose on each other was a lot of fun.
Faith is a big part of the film. Was that part of what intrigued you about the project in the first place, and how important was it for you to keep it front and center?
Well, it’s funny, because I don’t feel like it’s front and center. I feel like the religiosity is in the background, which is where we wanted it. The movie is about how Eric O’Neill, because he’s stuck in a room with this guy, is forced to ask himself about his own life. He’s forced to reevaluate how he feels about his religion and his marriage and his career, which are the kinds of questions you ask yourself in your twenties when you’re trying to figure out who you’re going to be. It was very important to me that the religiosity be a component of the movie, but that it not overwhelm the movie because Hanssen’s problem wasn’t religion. Hanssen’s problem was more Hanssen. Religion was a crutch – or a cover.
It was a crutch and a cover, but do you think he believed in his religion?
I do. I think he believed in it to his core. And one of the questions I’d love to ask him, had I ever been allowed to, which I wasn’t, would be ‘Did you confess to your crimes on a regular basis with your priest?’ I wonder if he did.
Which raises the question of how much did he see what he did as a crime versus being a game or being something he deserved.
At the very least he had to know that the sexual deviance stuff was a violation of his faith. He had to know that.
You don’t make that front and center, either. That’s something so juicy and easy to sell in a trailer – why didn’t you have more of that?
Because that’s not what the movie’s about. The movie’s about Eric and Hanssen’s affect on him. The fact that Hanssen was running around having a relationship with a stripper wasn’t part of that story because it didn’t have anything to do with Eric.
Last time I spoke to you was in Toronto for Flightplan. You were working on 102 Minutes – is that still a project you’re attached to?
I wrote it. It’s at Sony, but I don’t know if they’ll ever make that movie. I hope they will. That’s a very important movie to me. I hope they put a director on it and make it.
Just reading that book is incredibly devastating.
Yeah, I think it’s the best book I ever read.
How does it effect you as a person when you’re living with that book for months? For days after reading I found my whole mindset was changed.
Mine too. I think permanently. 9/11 had such a devastating impact on everybody, and I think it impacted them in ways that they don’t understand. I think about it every day. What that book did was reframe that day for me, because that book is so much about the heroism of the people in those buildings. It enabled me to feel a little bit better about that day.
It’s a bigger picture, in terms of scope and scale, than what you’re used to directing. Would you be interested in taking a crack at it?
I don’t know. It would be presumptuous of me to say yes. I really feel like that movie needs a bigger director. Saying that, if Sony asked me to take a crack at it, I’d be crazy to say no.
Are you interested in moving on to bigger films, with bigger budgets?
No. I think in our business, and I believe this comes from the power of the agencies, directors have a tendency to grade their career paths by increases in the sizes of their budgets, and I think that’s a dumb way to measure your success. Ultimately, as movies get more expensive, they become more product than art, and you lose control of them because the studio’s investment is so huge. I don’t need that pressure on my shoulders.
My first question was about deception as a thematic element. But there’s something else that ties together your first two films – truth. Both are true stories. Is that something that particularly intrigues you as a filmmaker, or will you do a fictional narrative one day?
I wouldn’t limit myself to just true stories, but I do seem to like them more.
Why is that? Isn’t it limiting to take true stories when there are elements you have to be honest with and can’t go off with in your imagination?
Sure, there are limitations, but the question is could I have created a character that was better than Robert Hanssen, and the answer is no. Mother Nature took care of that for me.
Do you know what’s next for you?
I wrote another script, also a true story for Universal, called Hurricane Season. It’s a post-Katrina story, set just outside of New Orleans.