Official Secrets: A Conversation With Director Gavin Hood

Evan Vucci/AP Photo

President Bush visits the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland, January 25, 2006.

You may not know the name Katharine Gun unless you live in the United Kingdom, but she was a pivotal figure in the run-up to the Iraq War. Or at least, she could have been.

Gun, a translator with the British intelligence service known as Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), received a document just before the war from an NSA manager, seeking British intelligence support in spying on members of the UN Security Council, to effectively blackmail them into voting for a second resolution that would make legal the invasion of Iraq.

Gun made the choice to leak the document, which Martin Bright of The Observer in Britain published in a story on March 2, 2003. As a result, there never was any second UN resolution. But the Bush administration went to war anyway, using the pretext of weapons of mass destruction. What happened to Gun afterwards forms the basis of the film Official Secrets, which opened in New York and Los Angeles earlier this month and goes into wider release today.

It’s a fascinating film that really evokes the dangers of speaking out in the post-9/11 age, as well as the press’s inability to challenge the official story on Iraq, particularly the U.S. press, which really just blacked out the Gun leak entirely. Last week in Los Angeles, I got to interview the director, South African-born Gavin Hood, after a screening. There were some audience questions as well. A transcript, lightly edited with explainers where necessary, follows. Spoilers to follow as well.


David Dayen: The first thing I thought about when looking at this movie is that in most recent historical epics, the audience knows what’s happening next. This is a special case because this story is very little-known in the United States. Did that change your approach to presenting the film knowing that this was actually going to be somewhat of a surprise to people?

Gavin Hood: It’s a great question. The truth is that I didn’t know who Katharine Gun was until my producer Ged Doherty called me up one day, we made Eye In The Sky together, and said, “Have you ever heard of Katharine Gun?” That’s one of those moments where you think: Sounds like I ought to have, but I hadn’t. I didn’t know the story and I googled her. Two hours later after this deep dive, I called Ged back and said, “How come we don’t know this story?” I guess the answer to that is that her story was big news for the day, and then very quickly got crushed by a bigger story, which was the story of the invasion. Then, we all started watching the invasion and we weren’t how we got into the war.

But, did it change the way I approached it? I don’t know that consciously it did, it’s just that I didn’t know the story and so, for me, it was I asked Katharine, I flew to London, I met her for five days. Every day we worked together for about five to six hours and then I referred back to her many times, subsequently, but I had literally just said, let’s start at the beginning and let me hear first-hand from you your story and then I’ll tell that story. And I did the same for the journalists and the lawyers and everybody. It was the first time I had worked with characters who were still alive, and they very much wanted it to be accurate or they wouldn’t sign over their life rights. It was an interesting experience because you couldn’t really go bending things the way you thought would be more dramatic, you just have to make the story itself and hope there was enough drama there.

David Dayen: And you were dealing with a story that was about a leak that didn’t stop a war and leading to a trial that didn’t happen. [Gun was charged with violating the Official Secrets Act in Britain, but ultimately the case never went to trial.]

Gavin Hood: It’s a question of how conditioned are we to the conventional Hollywood structure. We typically, in the movie business, ever since Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero of A Thousand Faces—and I’m not meaning to be sarcastic because that’s a great piece of work, but it spoiled the idea that every development executive is reading these books because the hero we meet and then something upsets their world and the antagonist that must equal the hero, and eventually we go through these loops and the hero triumphs in the end. Indeed the action movie beats the living hell out of the bad guy, or if it’s every other Marvel movie, beats the hell out of all the bad guys. Then, the world is safer until the sequel when it all happens again.

We were in development with a particular studio, and I don’t mean to be funny after such a heavy film but sometimes we need a little bit of humor. So we’re in this development meeting, and the executive looks at me and goes, “Gavin, I mean we need her running down alleys more, someone needs to throw a brick through her damn window, and when does she don her cape?” It was literally the line. And I went, “Oh, that’s how much that superhero myth is in our system.” We didn’t end up making it with that studio. And maybe they were right, I don’t know. So thank you for being here, it means a lot.

What appealed to me in the end is that Katharine is in fact, far more like us. These superheroes, and I don’t just mean superheroes in the movie sense, but larger-than-life big political figures, or Edward Snowden is almost mythical in his brilliance whether you like what he did or not, he is sort of not me. He is just way out there in a whole other realm. And Assange is the same. But Katharine only ever leaked this one memo. She could easily have been me or you at your place of work, where something comes across your desk and you go, “This doesn’t smell right. What do I do?” And that was my way in. To look at someone who I thought was quite accessible and ordinary—and she doesn’t mind me saying this because Katharine is someone who keeps her head below and is quiet, and did something extraordinary. It almost started with, well, would I have the courage to do what she did in another setting maybe? Whether you work for Boeing or Enron or Wallstreet? Would you risk your job? And in her case, she risked both her job and her freedom and whatever you think of her politically, I think that takes some guts.

David Dayen: One thing I think you depict really brilliantly in this story is what the climate was like at the time. For me as a journalist who was really getting started around that time, this climate of fear that was in place in the United States and also in the UK. You see it most vividly in that scene where everybody stops calling Martin Bright, or they start canceling all the interviews.

Gavin Hood: After the spellcheck. Which really, really, really happened. [U.S. media dropped the story because the Drudge Report noted that the NSA memo in The Observer had British spellings for words like “favourable,” which nobody in the U.S. would write. It turned out a copyeditor at The Observer had run the memo through spellcheck before printing it.]

You can look up Nicole Mowbray, she wrote an article in The Guardian a couple weeks ago, about this worst day of her life. Amazing lady, she’s still a journalist.

David Dayen: As someone who works on a magazine, it’s the ultimate copyediting failure. But depicting that climate, people who were not aware or active at that time—didn’t realize how difficult this was to talk against the war both from the journalist’s perspective and obviously someone who’s in the intelligence community. That seems like the central undercurrent that is playing throughout the entire film.

Gavin Hood: There is a kind of cognitive dissonance. You are sitting in the intelligence services, and I’ve spoken to many now because I’ve made other films in that world and I have some interesting folks that I’ve been able to talk to, and the struggle was we’re being disloyal if you don’t toe a party line, as it were, but we know this isn’t right. At some point, as you probably know, Bush and Rumsfeld decided to bypass the CIA and take out that Office of Special Plans. It gives me an interesting pause. I didn’t know until I looked really deeply into this that there’s really two schools of thought. One is kind of what I thought it was, which is the CIA is the Central Intelligence Agency, walled off from politicians and the executive in a perfect world, where all the intelligence comes in, they analyze it and they then present their best intelligence estimates; this is pre-war, you’re not at war, to the executive branch. Or, in this case, when the Office of Special Plans was set up, you’ve got Feith and someone like Abram Shulsky, whose philosophy of intelligence is very different. It’s Straussian, over the top and pretentious but basically amounts to this. His exact words to describe the intelligence method is, “The goal of the intelligence is not the truth, but victory.” That is a quote from Shulsky.

So that’s who’s running this show. His philosophy comes from a military intelligence model, which actually, by the time you go to war, now it’s about winning. Now the goal is not truth, it is victory. But that shouldn’t be the philosophy pre-war when you’re trying to decide whether to go to war. Anyway, the Office of Special Plans and Abram Shulsky make an interesting Wikipedia read, it won’t take you very long. Sorry to digress.

David Dayen: No problem. And just coming from my perspective, the press, because a lot of this is a story about the press, and how they handle it. Martin Bright, who is in the movie very briefly I guess, is no longer in journalism as I understand it.

Gavin Hood: He’s not in journalism. He runs a media charity.

David Dayen: But he is not a headline journalist at a newspaper. Meanwhile, Kamal Ahmed, who is the guy at The Observer, is now the editorial director of the BBC. [Ahmed is depicted in the film as strongly pro-war, resistant to running stories that conflict with his opinion.]

Gavin Hood: Yes, it really sticks in my throat too. And I know whose throat it really sticks in, is [British journalist] Ed Vulliamy, who I adore. Ed, I know some people have said that Rhys Ifans [who plays Vulliamy] is slightly over the top. You have no idea. Ed, the real Ed, is absolutely delightful. He is wonderfully articulate but super pissed off, and his PTSD—because he’s been in Iraq for years—manifests at just disdain for that certain person you mentioned. Because it was tough—the guy wouldn’t print his stuff. He really wouldn’t; that scene in the movie really happened. Seven times I’ve submitted articles to you with an alternate point of view, and seven times you’ve turned me down. What is this paper?

David Dayen: Just the notion that the paper would say, “we’re for the war,” that was their editorial position. Not the truth, but the war.

Gavin Hood: That’s such an interesting statement, I mean, I just took it at face value that papers take an editorial position, but you’re right. The editorial position should never be that. It should take the facts as they lead.

David Dayen: So why do you think this is an important story to tell now in 2019? What do you think resonates? There’s an obvious scene of the immigration deportation. [Gun’s husband Yasar, a Kurd, was nearly deported back to the Middle East at one point, even though he had nothing to do with the leak.]

Gavin Hood: And that really happened. The only thing that we altered in that is that I didn’t have time to tell it for as long as it went on. He was actually gone for three days. She didn’t know where he was for three days and she took the train down from Charlton to London to see the MP, Nigel Jones, who said exactly what he says in the movie. Who spoke to the homeland secretary? So that’s how the scene happened, but she didn’t know where he was for three days, he was at Harmonsworth, before she got him out. And when we got to that point in the movie, I had to start montaging it because it was just taking too long to get to the end.

What resonates to me is the somewhat more, I hope, timeless thing. I didn’t plan to have this movie out today and know what was going to be going on. We started working on this three years ago and even then it felt relevant in the sense that the challenges we talked about earlier: Where does my loyalty lie? Me, you, not some big picture. And it’s not an easy question, it sounds easy, but I don’t think it is. Does your loyalty lie to your own conscious, does your loyalty lie to your marriage, does your loyalty lie to your government, does your loyalty lie to your country? We all, in some ways, make these decisions.

I actually think the little memo lands on our lap more often than we think, even if it’s just who I should vote for. Do you go vote? That’s the memo. Do you vote, do you analyze who you should vote for or do you just take it for granted? It sounds big with Katharine but that’s what inspired me. Even though she didn’t stop the war—  and some people are like what’s the point if she didn’t stop the war—well, the point is how do you sleep at night? She leaked a memo, she thought she’d get away with it, and she faced another one of these little moral dilemmas which was a few days later all her friends were being interrogated. Problem number two: Do you shut up or do you speak up? That’s really the simplest question: When do you speak up? Us, in any situation, wherever you work, I thought that’s what this timeless about it.

But I do want to give her credit that I think I didn’t do her justice enough in the moment that she leaked that memo; it changed so quickly to war that we don’t really get a moment to absorb the fact that as a result of her leaking that memo, there was no vote at the UN Security Council. Chile and Mexico and the other smaller countries were so outraged that they refused to even bring it to a vote. So, that’s where we had to go for WMD. So there is sometimes a thought in my head that says: What if Katharine hadn’t leaked that memo? Who knows whether they would’ve bent those other nations to vote for a resolution. If there had been a UN resolution, there would have been no need to make a WMD argument because there are two legal ways to go to war. You have the UN resolution, we’re all doing this together to stop the genocide or something, or it’s self-defense, we’re going to be attacked, it’s so clear we’re going to be attacked that we have to take pre-emptive action. So WMD may not have been as important, had they gotten that resolution.

David Dayen: I want to go to the questions now. Does anyone have any questions?

Questioner: It was so heartening to hear you talk about that hero’s journey because I feel like we so often take compassion, passion, integrity for granted as a call to action. Those are compelling and important qualities to see in characters that move through a story, and I feel like especially for women it’s an under-valued active engine.

David Dayen: How did you think Keira Knightley was an asset in showing that emotional journey throughout the movie?

Gavin Hood: Keira is wonderful and is absolutely professional, arrives perfectly prepared, very calm, no fuss. But again, I can’t help but make some small jokes about these things. So when I sent the script to Keira, and I was very hopeful that she would do it because she does a lot of period dramas, and you don’t often see her in a modern drama and I thought she’d be great. And that I think was the motivation. She said, “You mean I don’t have to wear a corset?” To your point, in some way, she said to me, “As a woman, it’s kind of ironic as an actress that I so often, even though I’m in the modern world, that I have to find heroic women in period dramas wearing corsets.” There’s something weird about that.

Interestingly I think we faced a challenge, which some of you may or may not agree with. So here we are in rehearsal, and we’re talking one day about the look. We have a blondish-looking Katharine. So we start with hair, and then we start with glasses, and Keira says, "Gavin, what if I just was me?" And I thought: this is good. She made the point that if you have Helen Mirren playing the Queen or Meryl Streep playing Maggie Thatcher, everybody knows those people and your judged on how well you impersonate, if you will, those people. And those two are great actresses. Keira said no one knows Katharine, and that’s not an insult to Katharine. She said, I worry what’s going to happen, they’ll go, “Ooh, I don’t know if I like Keira Knightly in blonde hair, what’s she done to her nose, does she have glasses on?” Because they don’t have a comparison to make, until you see her at the end of the movie. So she said, “Can I just do nothing with my hair, put on the jeans like Katharine wore?” So the wardrobe is accurate to Katharine’s style. But get out of that trailer as fast as possible, get onto the set, and work from inside? What might, I—Keira Knightley, feel if I’m sitting at my desk and this happened to me?" So we just worked on the performance from the very what if it’s you? As opposed to trying to be Katharine Gun. And I think that’s why you get this very honest, pure, deeply felt performance. I could put a lens on, and now my job is, this actress is doing great work, let’s not get tricky, let’s just get the audience into her eyes so that you could see those cogs moving. So I’m very proud of Keira’s performance and I don’t mind that she doesn’t have blonde hair.

Questioner: The only thing that I’ve wondered while watching the film, since it’s a true story, is how could Ms. Gunn, who was a spy, who was a member of an intelligence agency, be surprised when her husband got deported—or when the government came after her husband, how could she be surprised when all of the different reactions she got came forward?

Gavin Hood: I asked her the same questions, and on about my second day interviewing her, I said to her, because I wasn’t sure if I should make the movie; I mean, I needed to know whose story I was telling and if she was batshit crazy. That would be awkward. So I said to her at one point, and it’s in the movie because her interrogator said it too and you would ask her the same question, which is Katharine I hear all this, but it was a little muddy, you worked as a spy, you hacked people’s phones and computers, you do dirty tricks. What did you think was going to happen? You work for the government. And she said, “I don’t work for the government.” That was my first thought—what do you mean you don’t work for the government? [In the movie, Gun says “I don’t work for the government, I work for the people.”]

She said, “I was naive. I answered an advert in The Guardian newspaper for a translator. And I didn’t have work where I was.” There’s not a lot of work for translators; she’s a Mandarin translator in England. So she went along to this interview, and she was 28. She thought wow, they need a Mandarin translator at GCHQ. You don’t have to agree with what she did, I’m just telling you what she did. She said, “I thought that might be quite interesting and exciting. When I got to the interview that’s when they told me that it’s for GCHQ, I didn’t know what GCHQ did.” So, I think she entered the world out of a sort of strange curiosity.

And then, she said when she got in there—now bear in mind that she still is bound by the Official Secrets Act. She will not talk about it anything else. She said to me, “Gavin, I had no problem doing the work that involved a lot of listening in, in order to give information about trade negotiations, to give our country the advantage of trade negotiations when they go. And people do this in every country; they spy, they listen to what are the Chinese going to do when they get to this conference.” And she said, “Yep, I have no problem being asked to listen in, in instances where I might help prevent a terror attack.” What this memo suggested was neither of those things —it was a bridge too far for her. She had been following that war, as many of us had, for a year. She talks about having read all these books [about the war]. The truth is when she speaks to me, and she says, “Gavin, we also go to lunch like everybody else in any other office. We go to the canteen and we talk.”

And she and many in her world knew, and many in the CIA knew, as Mel Goodman who’s the man in the boathouse in Washington knew, that this was B.S. This whole intelligence didn’t match what the politicians were saying. So, I guess we all have a threshold. Where do you draw the line? And for her, this was too much. So, she began to feel uncomfortable in the work she was doing at that point. But she still was not uncomfortable with the other things we’ve talked about.

Now someone else may be—I don’t know if I could hack people’s phones and computers, personally. But, maybe if I didn’t know and maybe if I went into that job and discovered oh my God, maybe I really can stop a terrorist attack today. Maybe that’s rewarding. So, I’m not really answering your question well, but her feeling was just: Now I don’t belong in this company. And maybe if we went to work for Enron and we liked our job well enough, and it’s a job. Her husband said it’s a job, it’s just a goddamn job, I work at a café. You took this job and didn’t even know what it was. I got that from Yasar. He said she didn’t even know what the job was. She went to this interview, the next minute we’re down this rabbit hole, the next minute my wife’s telling the world. And she thought she wouldn’t get caught. Twenty-eight, pretty naive. She wasn’t planning to get caught and then the dilemma was, “My friends are all going to have their lives ruined.”

I don’t think she thought they would deport her husband, I really don’t think she thought that. Maybe that was naive, but she didn’t think that. The British are quite British, you know. They’re more polite to their suspects. Look at what happened to Reality Winner in this country. She got into a plea bargain, they still gave her five years. It’s tough, the laws here are even stricter than in the UK.

By the way, I know some amazing people in the intelligence services. And it’s a tough profession in many ways. But I know some folks because of films I made like Eye in the Sky, and before that I made a film called Rendition. So somehow in my rolodex, sometimes they sought me out. But ultimately, here’s why I think—this might sound like a strange statement. I am an American citizen; I have a strange accent but I’ve been here 25 years; my kids were born here. I grew up in South Africa in the seventies and eighties, when apartheid was really tightening and tightening and tightening. I know what it is like to watch the system become completely authoritarian. By the time the mid-eighties came around and I was a young law student, so I’m looking at it from the side of the law, we had no right of access to lawyers in trial if you breached anything that was regarded as having to do with the emergency legislation. It was—one of the reasons I came to this country in ‘89 was because we were getting drafted, and I thought I can’t do this. I’ve already lost a dear friend, and I can’t do this—get called up two months of the year, every year, for the next 12 years. And I thought this is going to end in the worst civil war. So I said goodbye to my mom and moved to America. Six months later they released Nelson Mandela. And I went back in ‘93 and did another two years with the new Department of Health.

But my point is simply this: The underpinnings of this country matter. When I was a young law student, we studied the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights. What we have in this country is very precious, and in a sense, when I make these kind of films‚ I don’t know if I consciously do it, it’s actually reminding about us that authoritarianism and governments gone awry are not okay, and what makes us strong—oh, that sounds terribly pretentious, but I think you see where I’m coming from.

And we keep that system alive. If we give over, if we start believing the fake news, as you say, we’re all doomed, man. That kind of propaganda has to stop. Because it’s just an Executive Branch trying to grab power as an authoritarian. I’ve seen that happen. Americans find it hard to believe that it could happen, but it happens, it happens fast. In the matter of a few years. Our institutions matter.

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