Billy Ray Interviewed – ‘Breach’

     February 15, 2007

Opening this Friday is a film based on the greatest security “breach” of all time in the United States. Directed by Bill Ray (Shattered Glass) the film tells the story of a young FBI in-training officer Eric O’Neil (Ryan Phillippe) who is assigned to monitor Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) who was one of the top operatives in the FBI when he was arrested for espionage.

Unlike a lot of Hollywood films that are based solely on the writer’s imagination, Breach was based on a real story and real people. While some of the events were fictionalized to make a movie, some of the key scenes were captured exactly the way they unfolded in real life.

The interview with Billy Ray, the Director,was done in the usual way a Universal junket takes place – a press conference, which means we had about twenty or so people asking questions.

If you want to listen to the audio of the press conference you can click here to download it or right click this link to save it for later. It’s an MP3 without any sort of copy protection so you can put it on an iPod or a portable audio player. But if you just want to read the interview here it is…

Question: What speaks to you about a story that makes you think it could be a film?

Billy Ray: Well, in this case, I loved the world that this movie was set in. No one had ever told a story like this set in the FBI before, no one had ever captured the FBI in this way before. I loved that opportunity. But the biggest thing for me was…People ask me why I’m drawn to these true stories, and the main reason is I can’t imagine coming up with a better character than Robert Hanssen. How could I have created someone more compelling, more nuanced, more strange, more idiosyncratic than that guy? I couldn’t have dreamed anyone up that was better. Human behavior to me is just so much more interesting than anything I could imagined. But having said that, a big thing for me was just the relationship between Hanssen and Eric, and that “mentor/mentee gone wrong” relationship. I loved that, too. It all just seemed movie-worthy to me.

Question: How much assistance did you have from the FBI and Eric?

Billy Ray: Okay, well, I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t have Eric’s assistance. If you’re going to do a research-driven movie like this, you better have someone that you can ask a million questions of, and Eric was incredibly generous about that. The FBI gave me as much access as I needed. They put me in a room with the people who had worked with Hanssen, the people who knew him, and the people who caught him. So I was able to educate myself about how Hanssen actually functioned, how he behaved. I wanted to talk to Hanssen. Obviously, that would be a dream. It would have been, you know, terrifying, but a dream. And the FBI said no, they wouldn’t let me meet with him. So I asked if I could submit written questions to him, and they said okay. So I wrote out 15 questions, the FBI vetted the list, they sent 14 questions along to Hanssen, and he declined to answer any of them. And I understand his not wanting to help me. I don’t blame him.

What question was left out?

Billy Ray: Oh, the question that they wouldn’t put through was, “If you ran the FBI, how would it operate differently?” I guess they just didn’t want him entertaining that possibility.

Did you get support or assistance from his family?

Billy Ray: I never spoke to any members of his family. I wanted to be very, very careful about that. I don’t celebrate the fact that this movie is going to create some embarrassment or humiliation for Bonnie and the kids. I didn’t want to add to that if I didn’t have to. I use as much of the Hanssen family as I needed to tell the story that we were telling, but literally not a frame more. And I hope they’ll respect that. I don’t know that they’ll even see it. I don’t know.

What are your thoughts on the Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame situation? And why weren’t they able to get the death penalty against Hanssen?

Billy Ray: Well, let me answer the second one first. They wanted to have the death penalty on him because they felt it was essential to debrief him. They needed to know who he had given up. They needed to know which foreign operatives they needed to pull back, who he had put into jeopardy. And they did have the death penalty on him because they had caught him making the drop. But because he talked, they cut a deal. They reduced it to life. And that was his decision. He could have refused to help, and then they would have prosecuted him, and the death penalty would have been the result, and there would have been no movie because Eric O’Neill would have had to have been a star witness at the trial. And it was only because there was no trial that Eric was able to be declassified, which made him available to us. To answer the first question second, I love the Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame/Judith Miller thing. I’d like to write that. I think it’s fantastic. “Educated people behaving badly…” That sounds great. But in terms of the context of Hanssen, the word spy has almost developed this kind of quaint sound to it now. When you say that someone’s a spy, it almost sounds like something that belongs in the 1950s. And I don’t think of Hanssen as a spy. I think of him as a thief. He stole from me, he stole from you, he stole from all of us, and happened to sell it to people who would like to kill us. There’s nothing James Bondy about that. It’s pretty serious stuff. He handed over the names of 50 people that we were working as sources. You know, a number of them wound up dead, and the rest wound up in prison. There’s nothing quaint about that, for sure. I asked one guy, he was not currently a member of the FBI, but he had worked at the FBI with Hanssen for years, and I asked him, “What would be your estimate of the damage that Hanssen did to the United States government just in dollars?” And he said he thought it was $27 billion.

Billions?

Billy Ray: With a B. B as in Billy. I can’t verify that, but that’s the number he put it at. Well, you know, that’s your money, that’s my money. And I don’t think Hanssen had the right to spend it.

Can you give some examples of dramatic license you took with the story, and talk about what you were going after in taking that license?

Billy Ray: Sure. The litmus test that you apply when you’re making a movie like this is always, “Are you being true to the spirit of events?” And I knew that we were. There were 500 people working this case at its peak. We were only telling the story of one of them, which is Eric O’Neill. So obviously we had to make him more central to the case than he actually was. If we were telling the story of the Kate character who Laura Linney plays, the movie would have been seen through that prism. Hanssen never took Eric out into a park and shot a gun towards him. That was dramatic license. But I felt that it was extremely true to the spirit of events in which Hanssen was completely menacing this guy and a sincere threat to his life and told him so. That felt like a liberty we could take.

Any others?

Billy Ray: I’d prefer to focus on the things we got right.

It’s not right or wrong, I’m just curious…

Billy Ray: No, I think it is right or wrong. There’s a movie that I directed before this called Shattered Glass, where we deal with this very issue about what you can make up and what you cannot make up, and I do take that stuff really seriously. In this particular case, we were telling the story of Eric O’Neill and the impact that Robert Hanssen had on him, in terms of making him re-evaluate how he feels about these central things in this life–his career, his religion, and his marriage. And so in telling that story, there were certain scenes that we needed to…Let me put it this way: certain events had to be compressed, certain characters had to be composited, Eric in a certain sense is kind of representing all the people that were going after Hanssen even though he’s only one guy.

How was it working with Caroline Dhavernas?

Billy Ray: [laughs] Are you from Montreal?

Yes I am.

Billy Ray: Caroline’s fantastic. She plays Ryan’s wife. I just love her. Once we had cast Ryan, I had read a lot of actresses for that part. We screen-tested four actresses opposite Ryan in Toronto just a few days before shooting, and she just stole that part. She’s…I think she’s great. I think she’s going to be a huge star.

Do you think this movie is timely because America needs patriotic stories?

Billy Ray: I don’t know, you’d have to ask Universal why they greenlit the movie. I don’t mean that in a snarky way. I mean, I would welcome that question, because I don’t know why they greenlit it. I don’t know if they saw that coming. When they made the decision to make the movie, it was May or June of 2005, so things were bleak in terms of Iraq then, but they weren’t like they are now, where it’s just an out-and-out disaster and everyone has sort of acknowledged that. There were only a few of us back then who thought it was a disaster. I’m glad that you raised the issue of patriotism though, because for me, it’s one of those things that is so much a part of the fabric of the movie, and yet it’s never really stated overtly. Part of what we were going for was the idea that, here’s Hanssen talking about patriotism and love of country and trying to help the Bureau, and of course he’s violating that at every turn. And he’s in a room with a guy, Eric O’Neill, who never says a word about any of that, and yet is living it completely. It’s just in his DNA, it’s part of who he is based on who raised him and how they raised him. That dichotomy was something we were hoping people would come away from the movie with, and I’m really glad you did.

And also religion?

Billy Ray: Yeah, but we wanted to be really careful about how we treated religion in the movie, because…It’s actually…I sent the script to Jodie Foster because I wanted her opinion on it while we were just about to go shoot. And she’s very smart, so she’s a good person to send a script to. And one of the comments that she gave me about the script was, “Be very careful that you don’t make religion the bad guy in this movie.” And she was dead right. Absolutely right. And we were very careful about that, because I didn’t want to suggest that Hanssen’s problem was religion. Hanssen’s problem is Hanssen. And religion was one level of many on which he was a complete hypocrite. He was also betraying his family and betraying his country and betraying his Bureau. Religion was part of the picture. I think it was a very big part of the picture of why they bonded, these two men, and why Hanssen chose to mentor Eric, and it was part of the hook that Eric had into him. But it was by no means the source of Hanssen’s problem. At least for me.

The production design harkens to a specific period in time. Specifically, the technology seems dated, like the relatively small download that takes 30 minutes…

Billy Ray: [laughs] I had a great production designer. His name is Wynn Thomas. He’s Ron Howard’s production designer, Spike Lee’s production designer. We were very lucky to get him. He, like me, is a ’70s movie guy, and that gave us a great shorthand. And I could talk to him about the movies of the ’70s and how they looked and how much I wanted to duplicate that if we could. And he understood that just to his core. I know that it is the current fashion, probably forever now, in Hollywood to make movies that are just CGI movies, where you just load up the frame with all this computer generated information. And I’m just not the right director for that kind of movie. They don’t really interest me, I don’t know how to do them. I’d be happy to write one of those and let someone else go direct it, but I don’t know how to do that. So that wasn’t the kind of movie we were making. And in terms of the speed of the download, that was the technology that existed in 2001. That’s what Eric was stuck using.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while making this film? And what was the hardest necessary thing to put into the film?

Billy Ray: I don’t know how to answer that because there was nothing about it that was easy, I guess except the performances of the actors. You know, they’re very talented people. But I don’t…It was all just tough, you know? [laughs] Making a movie’s really hard, even though everyone’s pulling on the same side of the rope. Yeah…I’m sorry, I’m just fumbling that one. Sorry.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while making this film?

Billy Ray: The most surprising thing about Hanssen?

Yes.

Billy Ray: The most surprising thing to me was, as I did the research, as I went through the FBI and spoke to people, several people said to me, “If you would have asked me while this investigation was going on to name a thousand people at the FBI who might have been the mole, Robert Hanssen’s name would not have been on my list.” Several people said that to me. That was amazing. And that informed who we were going to cast as Robert Hanssen. You needed someone who could disappear, which Chris does. And yet he looms at the same time. He’s pretty remarkable.

Did you do a screen-test with Chris and Ryan because of the importance of their chemistry? It almost seemed like casting a love story…

Billy Ray: Oh, it very much feels like a love story, actually. We used to joke on the set that we were making Breachback Mountain. Yes, we screen-tested Ryan. After we had cast Chris, it became a lot easier to cast the rest of the movie because he’s such an actor magnet. You know, everyone who acts for a living knows who Chris Cooper is, they all want to work with him. So we had access to just about every 25-30 year old actor in Hollywood. I sat down with all of them. And we decided to screen test four. And we flew Chris out from Boston to LA and screen-tested those four opposite Chris. And I would have been happy to make the movie with any of them, they were all great. But Ryan’s chemistry with Chris was really, really strong, and we knew that was the heart of the movie.

Could you talk about how you collaborated with Ryan to develop his character, and how your perception of his character changed?

Billy Ray: Sure. In the script, as I had originally written it, which was a script that I inherited from two other writers, Adam Mazer and Bill Rotko, Hanssen steamrolled Eric a lot. And that seemed like the dynamic that was appropriate for me. Once Ryan met Eric O’Neill, he came to me and he said, “You know what? I think I need to punch back a little bit more. Because the real Eric O’Neill would say to Hansen, ‘Get away from me, you’re bugging me.'” Which I had never considered before. It was just a question I never asked, which was my fault. And I thought, “You’re right, that would give the movie a great power struggle that would be interesting to watch.” And so we started to change the script a little bit to accommodate that. And they’re some of my favorite moments in the movie, where Ryan is poking at him a little bit. And Chris is so easy to irritate on that level that that dynamic really, really worked. And that was all credited to Ryan.

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