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Billy Ray and Eric O'Neill Discuss "Breach"


Writer/director Billy Ray and Chris Cooper Photo

Writer/director Billy Ray and Chris Cooper on the set of "Breach."

© Universal Pictures
Billy Ray, what drew you in about Eric’s story?

Billy Ray: “I loved what he had done in the case. He’s locked in a room with this guy who’s so impenetrable, and he had to keep his wits about him and he had to draw him out. I also loved the world of this movie and by that I mean Eric is a member of these two super-secret organizations that have their own rules, their own by-laws, their own culture: the FBI and the Catholic church. And Hanssen is a member of those two, as well. They use their membership in those two organizations on each other and to test each other and to prod each other and to guilt each other, to challenge each other. It just seemed like a great cat and mouse game to me but with these huge stakes. And of course, the undercurrent of all of it is patriotism and trust and betrayal and integrity. That’s gold for a writer. You want to be writing about those things.”

How much extra pressure did you feel in telling a true story and in portraying the real people involved as honestly as possible?

Billy Ray: “It puts pressure on me in that I didn’t want to be sitting in a cutting room one day showing a movie to Eric O’Neill and have him say to me, ‘You’re a chucklehead, you got it wrong. Good God, did I bet on the wrong horse.’ That would be bad. I was saying to Eric the other day, when you think about levels of trust, probably the highest compliment you can pay to another person is you allow them to watch your children - that’s pretty high trust. But not too far down the list is, ‘I trust you to make a movie about my life, which will forever be my face to the public, and not to make me look like a jerk.’ And that’s the trust that he placed in me. So yes, there’s a responsibility that is comes along with that. It’s just incumbent upon you.

I tried to look at it as an opportunity that when you’re telling a true story, you don’t have to invent characters. They’ve been invented for you. Could I, in my wildest dreams, come up with Robert Hanssen? Well even if I could have, I couldn’t have done it better than Hanssen did himself. So you have this opportunity presented to you when you’re writing a true story that real human behavior is always so much more idiosyncratic and interesting and compelling than fiction.”

Was there much you had to change or leave out from the true story in order to make it work on film?

Billy Ray: “No. I’ve said this in a couple different interviews now, but the litmus test that I was applying was always, ‘Am I being true to the spirit of the event?’ And in every case, the answer was yes. You can’t just make something up out of whole cloth and pass it off as the truth, if you’re dealing with a case with a historical record like this. But there were certain events that had to be compressed, and characters that had to be composited, and events that sort of had to be extrapolated. They’re all true to the spirit of who Hanssen was, what he actually did, and the activities between these two men.”

What were you told about Robert Hanssen before you were assigned to work in his office?

Eric O’Neill: “I knew that he was the subject of a counterintelligence investigation and that’s pretty much all I was told. Not that there was any information that pointed to him. I was in the business and knew they must have something that pointed us to this guy, but they really sent me in as a clean slate. Part of that was because they were worried that this guy was going to be working me and they didn’t want to put anything in my head that I might inadvertently let slip. It also helps because then I go in to my part of the investigation with no assumptions. I’m just searching for that truth through our conversations without doing what is an investigative mistake – believing someone’s guilty and then searching for the guilt. You wind up inventing it or never finding it. If you go in and you believe someone’s innocent until you find that guilt, you’re much more likely to find something very strong.”

Did you ever speak with Robert Hanssen after he was arrested?

Eric O’Neill: “No. I haven’t spoken to him since the last few words I said to him the Friday before he was arrested. It was just the end of the day.”

Was that your choice or was it just that you never had the opportunity?

Eric O’Neill: “It was because I wasn’t a part of the arrest plan. There were two arrest plans. One was to do it on Sunday, which happened, or they were thinking of allowing him to make the drop and leaving it and making him feel good about himself and then I was going to drive him to the arrest Tuesday.”

Would you rather have had it go down where you were the one who drove him to the arrest?

Eric O’Neill: “I would have rather have had that because I would have liked to have the closure. But I tell you what, I was just so relieved when I had the call from the real agent, Kate, who Laura Linney plays, that he’s been arrested. That’s portrayed really well in the movie, too.”

Do you ever regret leaving the FBI?

Eric O’Neill: “I regret it all the time. You know, it’s odd. Well…‘regret’ might not be the right word. I left for the right reasons, and I made the right choice. I wish that I could have had my cake and eaten it, too. Had the same life but also the very, very exciting and cool life that you get when you’re in the FBI. You’re on the in of so many things, but it can just be absolutely grueling and what I was doing was what I was the best at. When you take a job you do what you’re best at, and that just is not the sort of thing that was going to allow me to be as engaged in my marriage as I wanted to be.”

Page 3: On Casting Ryan Phillippe and Chris Cooper and Robert Hanssen's Arrest

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