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Exclusive Interview with "Breach" Writer/Director Billy Ray and Eric O'Neill

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Ryan Phillippe and Eric O'Neill Photo

Ryan Phillippe and Eric O'Neill on the set of "Breach."

© Universal Pictures
Based on true events, Breach is an intense, mesmerizing look into the last phase of an FBI investigation that wound up with FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen, an agent with 25 years service, behind bars for committing treason. Critical to the agency’s ability to arrest and convict Hanssen was the placement of 26-year-old special surveillance operative Eric O’Neill in Hanssen’s office. Working directly under Hanssen, O’Neill was able to provide the team of investigators with information needed to take down one of the worst spies in the history of the United States.

Shortly after being intimately involved in the Hanssen investigation, O’Neill left the FBI to study law. O’Neill also took time to work on a book based on his experiences, which ultimately led to Breach, a film about his involvement in the Hanssen case.

On a publicity tour with Breach writer/director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), O’Neill said the experience of working on a feature film with Ray and Universal Studios was extremely gratifying. In fact O'Neill's experience was so positive that he's now working on a TV show based on a first draft of the film's script (back when it was known as The Eleventh Hour) by Adam Mazer. The series will focus on a young team doing the sort of field op/surveillance work O’Neill did with the FBI prior to being assigned the Hanssen case.

Commenting on the original script Breach writer/director Billy Ray said it was very good, however he had a different vision for the film. “That script would have made a perfectly valid movie but it was about something I didn’t want this movie to be about. We were just aiming at a different target and that required reworking of the material.”

Sitting down with Ray and O’Neill to discuss Breach, it was evident the two men really respect each other and are both proud of the way Breach, starring Chris Cooper as Hanssen and Ryan Phillippe as O’Neill, turned out.

The FBI was very supportive of this film. In what ways did they help?

Billy Ray: “Well first of all, they gave Eric permission to talk to us, which was huge. They declassified him. That was the biggest thing. But then once I started to do my research, I went to the FBI and talked to the people who had worked with Hanssen and knew him, the guy who had lunch with him every day – I talked to him. I talked to peopled who were in charge of him, throwing this dragnet around him, building this case around him. And then they let me, when we got closer to production, they let me bring my production designers through the halls. They let me bring my D.P. through the halls and let me take measurements and rebuild to scale so that our set would look exactly like the FBI, which it does. And then, the greatest gesture of all, they let me shoot at the FBI, which no one had been able to do.”

That’s an incredible amount of cooperation.

Billy Ray: “It’s great. The ultimate thumbs-up from them actually just took place yesterday so you’re the only interviewer we’ve been able to tell: we showed the movie to five major guys at the FBI yesterday and they are big fans. So we’re now doing a general FBI screening right before the release.”

Eric, did you expect the FBI to agree to declassify you?

Eric O’Neill: “I asked permission. In the very beginning when we wanted to, actually at that point it was just my brother, go out and try and sell this somehow - originally it was a book, not a movie - I had to get permission to tell that one small part that I worked under cover on this case. A lot of the spy stuff and the stuff that wouldn’t have been classified that you would need for the movie, they’d already declassified it because they put it in the public in the affidavit. I felt very comfortable with that side of it but I needed to be able to say that I worked undercover in the room because that was critical and very classified.”

It’s funny that you'd say you played a ‘small’ part in the case. You played a crucial role in bringing Hanssen to justice.

Billy Ray: “Well that’s part of what makes Eric Eric. He’s an unassuming guy. What he’s saying is there were 500 people working on the case. What he’s leaving out is that out of those 500, there was one that was stuck in the room with the guy all day long and that’s Eric.”

Some stories don’t translate well into films. Did you feel it was a big risk letting Hollywood handle your story?

Eric O’Neill: “Well I didn’t have a choice. When we went out to New York and we talked to all the big publishing houses, they all had a book. There were six Hanssen books – the market was flooded with Hanssen books. One editor said, ‘Look, I love your story. This is the Hanssen book. If anybody’s going to write a book on this case, it’s going to be you, and probably with some co-writer. But we already have a Hanssen book.’ I was told, ‘It’s flooded, I’m sorry.’ So there is no book. We just went straight to Hollywood with it.

It was a huge risk. I’d never believed, in those beginning months when we were trying to shop it around, that we would be here. I thought it would be fun to go out there and get in to see some studio execs and primarily get my brother exposure, because he’s an aspiring actor and screenwriter himself. So I thought, ‘Sure, we’ll get in these rooms and David will get a lot of exposure to Hollywood and get in and meet some people he needs to. I’ll go back and be a lawyer again and that will be the end of it.’ But it just took off.”

Page 2: On Working with Robert Hanssen, Remaining True to the Story, and Leaving the FBI

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