The cast and crew talk about the film
Oscar Watch 2008 Interview #6: Director Gavin Hood, Actors Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Peter Sarsgaard
Gavin Hood, whose Tsotsi became the first film from the former Apartheid state to win an Academy Award, will make his Hollywood debut directing first-time screenwriter Kelley Sane's multi-layered screenplay Rendition.
The plot revolves around a CIA analyst based in Cairo who finds his world spinning out of control after he witnesses the interrogation of a foreign national by the Egyptian secret police. Reese Witherspoon has been tapped to play Isabella El-Ibrahim, the pregnant American wife of an Egyptian-born chemical engineer whose family emigrated to the States in the mid 1980s, who is shipped off to a third world country for interrogation after he is deemed a political prisoner in our post-9/11 world.
Gavin Hood, the director of Rendition, recently met up with the stars of his film Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Peter Sarsgaard to discuss one the year's most riveting dramas.
For Jake and Peter, was there ever any discussion of switching your parts?
Peter Sarsgaard: No. Doesn't work like that.
Gavin Hood: I would much rather be the guy who makes the really good choice. I'd hate to be Peter's character. Peter sucks.
Peter Sarsgaard: I was very happy staying close to home.
Gavin Hood: The irony is: We would both make the opposite decisions, I think. I would make the bad choice and he would make the right one. I'm just trying to help you along Peter.
Peter Sarsgaard: I dunno. I don't have any defense there. I don't like the decision my character is faced with. You see all the torture, you see all of that stuff. You are the eye in the sky. I mean, if my character had to do what Jake's character does and watch the torture and watch her husband being tortured, I don't know if he'd make the same decision he made. That's just the way it is. That's the tricky part of human nature. They didn't pass out tapes to every American and make us all watch torture before we agreed on doing Rendition.
Gavin Hood: Also, I don't think the character would say he did the wrong thing. I think he's pretty practical. It's between what works and doesn't work.
Peter Sarsgaard: He's the senior aide to a Senator. I mean, he's gone pretty damn far. He's done a lot. He gives her a good card for a guy who can help you be on your way.
Now, to Reese and Jake, why do you think people will want to see a movie about this certain policy?
Reese Witherspoon: Why wouldn't they?
Why would they?
Gavin Hood: I think her answer is good. Why wouldn't they?
Reese Witherspoon: I think it's a film that has a lot of different, wonderful elements to it. There is definitely a romance to it. There are thriller aspects. It's not just a film about a message. I think it's a movie that raises a lot of questions and it really makes you think about a lot of the practices that are going on nowadays. And whether or not they are legal or ethical or even constitutional.
Jake Gyllenhaal: And who wouldn't want to see a love scene between Meryl Streep and Reese Witherspoon?
Was there one?
Jake Gyllenhaal: I guess you didn't see the movie we made.
Gavin, can you talk about your experiences making our first studio film?
Gavin Hood: It was the upgrade to Windows, version 7.0. No...It's a fair question, to be honest. When I initially started on this movie I was somewhat intimidated by many of these illustrious actors. But they very quickly put me at ease. I remember the first day with Reese. The paparazzi were everywhere, running down the street.
Reese Witherspoon: I don't remember any of this by the way.
Gavin Hood: And that's what's so amazing. She really doesn't remember. On the first day we shot, she playing soccer with her little son.
Reese Witherspoon: Oh, right, right, right, right. Now, I remember.
Gavin Hood: She really don't remember, because she is the pro that goes, "Let's just do the work." But I had never been exposed to that level of paparazzi scrutiny. I really found it quite intimidating for a moment. And you don't remember saying to me, "Gavin, let's just ignore them and do the work." You really don't remember that do you?
Reese Witherspoon: No.
Where did you guys shoot this, that that happened?
Gavin Hood: We were in Pasadena. As some journalist pointed out, "Well, it's clearly not Chicago!" Well that's true, there is a thing called a budget. So we shot the only scene in Chicago in a house that closely resembled a house in Chicago. And so, we were in Pasadena, and there were a lot of paparazzi trying to climb over the barricades that our assistant directors had put up. Shooting on long lenses. I thought, "My god, what does this mean?" And Reese literally said to me, "Don't worry about it. Let's just do the work." And as much as it affected her, I found after a couple of days that it no longer affected me either. It was a little baptism by fire and then these guys made me feel very at home. I think the great thing about these actors is they are actors first and foremost and they focus on the work and that's what we did.
So, you didn't enjoy the paparazzi?
Gavin Hood: No, seriously. I think that I was looking for a film after Tsotsi that I felt would be something good to follow with. And Kelley's script came across my desk. I started reading and I didn't know much about rendition frankly. I read Rendition on the cover and it could have been Beethoven's 9th, I dunno. Maybe it's a rendition of a song? I opened the script and I started reading, and I just found that I was captivated. I kept turning the pages and I wanted to know what happened next and I thought that he had drawn some incredible, diverse characters that were all emotionally rooted and real and when I got to the end of the script I also had a lot of questions. And I thought, if I have been emotionally engaged and want to know what happened next then maybe an audiences will feel the same way. But of course, when you've read a script, there is no one to talk to an audience. So I googled rendition and I found out a lot I didn't know about. Then Kelley and me engaged over a period of months in discussions, and did further research. We met with CIA agents, spoke to them, discussed the pros and cons of this current policy. And said, "You know what? This is something I feel we should talk about." And I've said it before, and I'll say it briefly now: I grew up in a country where we didn't have a constitution. We had detention without trial in the '80's. I was a young law student there. And we looked at the American Constitution as a document that we felt our country desperately needed. To see that these great principles were potentially being chipped away, it was quite a shock. And now that I have American kids, although be it very recently, I feel even more strongly about it, because I believe in the founding principals of this nation and I felt that this film would perhaps in some way contribute to a discussion that I feel is important if we are going to chip away at those principals in anyway.
Reese, What was the biggest challenge you faced on the set?
Reese Witherspoon: Certainly, I think the challenge of doing an ensemble piece is that your storyline is so short that every scene you are doing is sort of a pivotal moment in that character's journey. Everything was sort of heightened and very dramatic. I definitely was nervous the day I had to work with Meryl. Uh, yeah. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to do it. Definitely that ride to work that day was nerve wracking. But, she was wonderful. She's completely intimidating, completely professional, and had a thousand ideas. Don't you think she had a lot of great ideas?
Gavin Hood: Hmm. She contributed enormously to that scene. In terms of some of the dialogue we used, yeah.
Reese Witherspoon: Yeah, definitely. She had a lot of interesting ideas and immediately helped the scene, elevated it, and really, she's definitely worth every minute of screen time. She definitely makes the film, um, I dunno, what am I trying to say Peter?
Peter Sarsgaard: She makes the film better.
Was she there for every take?
Reese Witherspoon: Yeah, she was. She was always in character and as soon as you cut, she's like the nicest, warmest, funniest person. So she was great.
Reese, your character really captured the special kind of relationship that exists between two people from completely different cultural, religious backgrounds. Did you talk to anyone about this?
Reese Witherspoon: That's a good question. I think that is what really drew me to the part. I was excited about imagining a life that is very much like my own. She's a mother with two children and she's fallen in love with a Muslim man and married him. As someone who has lived a life without having religious intolerance or racial profiling ever touch her world, she is suddenly experiencing an extreme of one of those circumstances. I guess all you can do as an actor is imagine it. But I think that was one of the more interesting parts of the character that drew me to the script.
Why call it North Africa instead of Egypt? Also, can you talk about the torture scenes and the reality of that?
Gavin Hood: I'm happy to talk about the country question. Kelly's script originally did set the film in Egypt. And we were going to shoot in Egypt. And then we were not able to go there, because we simply could not get the cast insured to go there. And so, we had to look for somewhere else. But, we found that there was a tremendous amount of fury on the Internet about Egypt and about how dare we make Egypt look bad. And then we went to Morocco, now, let's clear this up once and for all. We know that rendition and renditions have happened to...Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Guantanamo Bay and...
Gavin Hood: So there are black sites in a number of countries. Well, we very quickly realized many of our crew come from countries which do not enjoy the kind of liberties and civil liberties that Americans enjoy. And that any country we named would potentially cause some backlash. So, hence the use of the word 'North Africa'. You'll forgive me for being frustrated on that particular point, you say "They can't even define the country." Do me a favor, I come from Africa, it's not a country as the president thinks, it's a continent and there are many countries in Africa. I'm very aware of that and one of them is not 'North Africa,' but in the interests of the safety of our cast and crew, and, by the way, in keeping with the notion that nobody knows where anybody is when they are rendered, we chose to just say 'North Africa.' Because Reese has no idea where her husband has gone. He has no idea where he is, which you find from many of the people who have been rendered. " think I might have been at Bagran airbase in Afghanistan. I was then flown somewhere else with a butt plug my butt and a nappy on my head.
Jake Gyllenhaal: What?
Gavin Hood: Yes, they put a butt plug up these guys butt.
Jake Gyllenhaal: Wait, are you talking about yourself? I was just confused, I think?
Gavin Hood: The point is, just once and for all, is that people are flown to destinations and they are not sure where they are and the fact that you don't know where they are, is okay by me. And thank you for asking that question. It's important that we know we are talking about things that happen to real people and there are greater risks for some of our cast and crew in terms of the realities of the possibilities of detention and torture.
Jake, how did you go about researching your role?
Jake Gyllenhaal: I never talked to anybody who I don't think would admit or say they were involved in any sort of extraordinary rendition situation. I only talked to CIA officers for fact checking. I think I found that when you talk to someone who has a job like that, it's very technical and the questions you want as an actor are a little bit more emotional. I think that's a real key into the character anyway. So, a lot of it was actually watching movies of people who played CIA agents and officers. And then a couple of movies of a couple of people who have played alcoholics.
What movies did you watch?
Jake Gyllenhaal: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which is a merging of the alcoholic and the spy. And then also, The Good Shepherd, actually. Which I think, just a little shout out to Matt Damon, that's a pretty incredible performance. More about the less he does, then the more he does and that's the kind of performance that I look up to. So, I just tried to copy it.
Peter Sarsgaard: Nice.
Were there separate directing units for the two different halves of the film?
Gavin Hood: No, we shot pretty much single camera through the movie. We started in the states and started with Reese and Peter's story and then we went to Morocco and we shot Jake and Omar. But we were pretty much moving between shooting their story and Zineb and Moa's story. In a way it was like shooting different short films and weaving them together. I think it's a credit to the actors that they were absolutely immersed in their own stories, so in some ways, some of them have said to me it was a bit of a shock to see all the stories come together. I liked the fact there was a Romeo and Juliet story. And then there is the other story, in a way, about these young men and Reese sort of being in between. And then another generation of stories, which is Alan Arkin and Meryl Streep, who have decided who they are and are acting out on their already formed beliefs. So, I like the three generations and that's a credit to Kelley's writing, because that was there and I felt it would be great to tackle those different stories and weave them together.
Jake Gyllenhaal: And then there is my story about the guy who is approaching 40 who is struggling with all the things a guy who is approaching 40 struggles with.
Is this a hopeful film?
Jake Gyllenhaal: Want me to take it?
Gavin Hood: I would love you to take it but I like the question, thank you very much.
Jake Gyllenhaal: Okay, the distinction in this movie is something I think everybody has talked about. In terms of the choice that he made in the end, I think, to put it frankly, that hope is dangerous. And I think that practicality gets things done, which leads you to a good place. The character asks himself the question not if it's the right thing or the wrong thing but does this work or does it not work? And it's very simple. I think if he weren't an analyst, I think the decision would be very different. This particular situation, it doesn't work. So it's nice to think that someone would be able to see through all of those complications and all that ego and make the decision. We always say if it ain't broke, don't fix it but we never say if it's broken, don't use it or if it doesn't work, don't use it. I think that's kind of the decision he makes. It was always very important, Gavin and I always talked about it and I think Gavin's intention was that they can talk about it, but that this wasn't a heroic move. This was a very practical move. If there can be more characters who make more practical decisions, I think that's hopefully the way modern cinema can work.
Gavin Hood: It's a very interesting response and I think it's interesting the way Jake phrases it because I absolutely agree with him in terms of where his character is coming from. Jake was very clear that he never wanted a heroic moment where he goes, 'I am going to do the right thing.' From my perspective, speaking from where I think that there's an upwelling in a human being that they're not even aware of. I believe in some sort of sense of justice that exists within 99.9% of us. Maybe that's naïve but I do. People actually do have within them a deep sense of what is right and wrong. It gets confused and it gets full of debates and arguments, but what I like about what happens to Jake's character is he doesn't really know why he's doing it but it's welling up from some place. On the one hand, it's because it's not working but if it's just not working, he doesn't need to let this guy out and risk his career and walk away from the CIA. I know we debated this a lot. We just, from my perspective, I just wanted that one moment where you feel it's kind of crept up on him and Jake gave it beautifully at the end. He's done something and he doesn't quite realize what he's done or does he? But he's done the right thing not because he was being heroic but because it just snuck up on him that this is just not right. It's not working. It makes me feel like I need to stop it. Am I putting words in your mouth?
Jake Gyllenhaal: I just want to say real quickly that I don't mean to say- - at the beginning that the reason why I think that hope is a dangerous thing is because I think it takes you out of the present. And I think this character makes a decision very much in the present moment. I think that as a culture, I think that the hope in watching this character that there can be people who can make these decisions, I think it takes you out of the present of what is actually going on. And I think there is a lot more muck than we think that there is. I think hope is the wrong message right now. I think really working at it is the right message. I don't know how successfully that was portrayed. I don't know if we did. That's an audience's decision to make that decision but I just wanted to say that.
Gavin Hood: And this is, you can see a process because I think it's essential that Jake and I absolutely 100% agree with this point, that there's a danger of being numbed and saying, 'Okay, well, it'll all work out fine in the end.' And indeed there was much debate about whether the character should even arrive at home. As one of the lawyers who represented five, I believe, and he's sitting at the back there, 'Hi, Ben,' he represents five victims of Rendition. So that we just take this from the abstract to the reality, represents five people who have been rendered and who are attempting to obtain compensation from the United States or at least an acknowledgement of what has happened. Some of them have been acknowledged. As you know, Maher Arar in Canada, Khaled El-Masri who was mistaken for Khaled Al-Masri who was a terrorist, is a terrorist and spent, what was it, five months, Ben? Being tortured and disappeared. This is real, guys. I think that do I have a certain hope? Ben commented that was the ending too hopeful? I think Jake makes the same point. I would like to think that at the ending, the reason that these two characters don't rush together, and we talked about this, Omar and Reese and I, about what does it mean? These people have an enormous amount of healing to do if they ever can heal. So some people have said, 'Oh, it's so crazy, he stands there and she stands there and why don't they rush together? ' Hold on a minute. If you watch, and it will be on the DVD, the documentary of Khaled El-Masri, go watch it online. He doesn't know how to move. That's what struck me and that's where Omar and I got this moment in the car when he just sits for a moment. So I hope the movie's on one level hopeful that we will rise to some [best? ] We put it out in the world to say, 'Look at all these different people and look at their common humanity' and to that extent I believe in humanity. But at the same time, let's not kid ourselves, as Jake points out, that this isn't real and that there's a certain in the moment reality that we need to deal with that isn't just going to go away tomorrow morning because we made a movie.
Jake Gyllenhaal: And also, I don't think that the white man is the one who makes the right decision. I think that was- - Gavin from the very beginning, because of where he comes from and because I think modern cinemas all about that, I think he was very clear that that's not what he wanted to do. That it's about humanity. So it was a very difficult line for us to walk in that the ones who think- - I consider all of these people who are involved in this situation are the ones that we, this one person who ends up holding the key that he doesn't even know he's holding. It's like Reese's character's desperate for that key. If he could just give it to her, she'd unlock the door. If he gave it to Peter, he could prove- - if he could give it to anybody in this situation, they would know how to do it, but he didn't. And then he just sort of realizes there is a lock and he has a key in his hand and he does it. But he's not the guy who makes it happen. I think that's very important.
Gavin Hood: In other words, thank you for the question because we need hope, but my hope is that we will be pragmatic, the way Jake put it. It's about saying, 'We can't just turn a blind eye to what's going on and if the rules are going to change, we would like a discussion about how those rules are going to change please.' If the ticking time bomb argument has a validity, which it does, then tell me how you're going to legislate for that reality as opposed to saying, 'Because there's a remote possibility of a ticking time bomb moment as we see every week on 24...' If that's the reality, fine but don't throw all the rules out. Just tell me. I don't happen to think that torture is justified under any circumstances but there are those who feel it is. Fine. If that's a possibility and that is a valid point of view, tell me how you're going to manage it legally. Don't tell me that we're a third world dictatorship where there are no rules. There are lawyers currently at work saying, 'Well, if in special circumstances we need torture, then we need to legislate for what that involves.' How do we register the fact that Jake's character for example is about to torture someone? Put it in a form. Fax it to a judge. Get a five-minute warning if you need to. We do it all the time in other criminal investigations. We apply for warrants overnight. We apply for rights to search a house overnight but we don't just bash down people's doors and invade their homes without some form of judicial oversight. Right now the rendition policy has removed judicial oversight. That, for me, is deeply un-American.
Jake Gyllenhaal: What do they say, the elephant and the donkey, right? Then Emily Dickenson says that hope is a thing with feathers. Neither the elephant nor a donkey has feathers.
Gavin Hood: That's way deep.
Why is the issue of the phone call never explained?
Gavin Hood: It is deliberate because the real issue is not whether this man is guilty or innocent. The movie starts out and you feel he's innocent. Then you feel he's guilty. Then you feel maybe he's innocent but there's the possibility of his guilt. Which means the real question for you to analyze in my mind is whether the process of Extraordinary Rendition is good regardless of guilt or innocence. That's why it was so important for us to [inaudible? ? ? ], even a small one, he might possibly be guilty. We based that on things that Ben will tell you about people who have been rendered based on a phone call from phones handed to people who've handed to people who've handed to people. So we drew that out of reality, which is, we've got all this sophisticated monitoring equipment tracking one call except you don't necessarily monitor whose hand it's in at the time of the call. Because these guys do hand phones off so the ultimate question that you're left with I hope is let's assume he's guilty. Some people were mad at us because one guy was very mad at me in a screening because he was so pleased when the guy was guilty, he wanted the movie to end with him being guilty so that you would have to confront the question of torture even if the guy is guilty. That's why we left it open. I'm not explaining that really well but the question, it's easy to discuss it if he's totally innocent. Well, what if he's not? Now how do you feel about torture?
I wasn't sure that he wasn't guilty.
Gavin Hood: Good. I'm delighted. Then you're left to ask the question: Do I still think the rendition program and the absence of judicial oversight and the act of right of access to a lawyer is a good thing? Is it? We give murderers lawyers. We give potential rapists, we give child abusers lawyers. What's with this notion the guy who might be a terrorist, that we just suddenly strip everything away and we end up with thousands of people in Guantanamo who we now don't know what to do with because we've stripped them- - it's just we're in a judicial mess and we've got to sort out that judicial mess. Whatever our point of view about torture is, we can't become a lawless society.
That's why so many are still there. We don't know what to do with them.
Gavin Hood: We subverted the rules that have made this society great. We've turned due process. We've stuck them outside the United States in Guantanamo so we can say, 'Well, the American laws don't apply to them.' Well then what law does? We've got to figure out a way to deal with this. We might be losing valuable opportunities to put people on trial who should be on trial in American courts because American court's saying, 'I can't give you evidence because I obtained it under torture.' This whole thing has created a myriad of problems and if nothing else, it needs to be talked about. I don't have the answer, but I sure think that we should not pretend that it's not something worth talking about. I'm glad you noticed that he might not be. Tell your husband he might not be innocent.
Can we talk Wolverine for a second?
Gavin Hood: For a brief second but I don't want to overdo it because it's not fair on the project that I'm involved with right now.
What attracted you to the project?
Gavin Hood: I'll give you two answers really quickly. One is called a college fund for my twins. That's what you're going to say so why don't we say it You know, it's not often that a script like Rendition comes across your desk. We think that scripts are just out there and they're not. I read 70 scripts- - [Jakes whispers] She just wants to know about Wolverine. I don't want to tell her about Wolverine. And if you want to know about Wolverine, I'll tell you why I love Wolverine. I love Wolverine partly because it will pay my [daughters'] college fund. I'm doing it because that's the cynical answer but the truth is, I didn't, at first, when Wolverine was offered to me, I went, 'Well, I'm the wrong guy for this.' And then I spoke with Hugh Jackman and the truth is that what's great about the Wolverine character, he's really a character who suffers from a great deal of existential angst. So you want to know why Gavin Hood is interested as somebody who loves actors and emotions is because looking at it more closely, and I was raised on Greek mythology, not comics- - [Jake whispers] Wait, give me a chance. I don't know anything about the details of the movie yet but what I do love about the Wolverine character is that there is within that character a great deal of disconnection from who he really is and what it means to be human. So what we're really getting a chance to do is do opera. We're taking human emotion and in the way that you would have Zeus throwing thunderbolts, it's three claws. I happen to be a big fan of the X-men movies because I think those, especially what Bryan Singer did, and those are movies about prejudice. They are movies about absence of prejudice and they happen to be done in a very accessible and commercial way. So I think there's a great deal of themes and ideas to explore in Wolverine beyond just three claws. And I'm not going to say anything more about the movie because we're here to talk about Rendition.
What about doing big special effects?
Gavin Hood: Well, it's another reason to do it because to work in a visual way, and I happen to- - my first film world was still photography and I love the visuals. Yes, to work at a level of heightened visual effects is going to be an amazing experience, yeah.
When will we find out about casting?
Gavin Hood: Honestly, we're involved in the casting process. We will not know for a good couple of months. We start shooting the film in December, possibly January. We're very involved in the prep process now and will be casting over the next couple of months. Not this week. Right now I'm still doing Rendition. That's all I can say.
Will it have a PG-13 rating?
Gavin Hood: Yeah.
How long will the shoot last?
Gavin Hood: Probably three or four months. Four months, about four months of shooting.
Are you shooting on location or in the U.S.?
Gavin Hood: No, it will be in Australia and New Zealand and a lot of it in the Fox Studios in Sydney. That's as much as I can give you.
Rendition opens in theaters on October 19th.