Witherspoon plays Isabella El-Ibrahimi, devoted wife and mother (with another on the way) whose Egyptian husband Anwar (Omar Metwally) mysteriously vanishes when he’s suspected by the CIA of being involved with a bombing in Northern Africa, and unbeknownst to her, he’s been shipped back to the country to be questioned and brutally tortured by the head of a secret prison (Naro), overseen by Douglas Freeman (Gyllenhaal), a CIA analyst whose partner was killed in the bombing. It’s a post-9/11 policy known as “extraordinary rendition” that completely violates El-Ibrahimi’s rights, and unable to find out what happened to her husband, Isabella contacts a former boyfriend (Sarsgaard), now an assistant to a high-powered senator (Alan Arkin) who might be able to help her get to the bottom of the disappearance. Those are just a few of the pieces to this puzzle assembled by Hood and screenwriter Kelley Sane to tell this intricate multi-layered story.
A former lawyer, Hood is an eloquent and effervescent speaker who can filibuster as well as the best of them, and in this exclusive phone interview with ComingSoon.net, Hood pleads a very strong case for his powerful political thriller.
ComingSoon.net: First of all, congrats on the Oscar. Last time we talked to you was before that happened.
Gavin Hood: Oh, right! Yes, it seems somewhere in the dim distant past now, only it hasn’t been that long. It’s been a crazy rollercoaster.
CS: Between “Rendition” and some of the other movies you’ve done, you’ve become a globe-trotting director. Are you still living in South Africa or are you more transient now?
Hood: No, I pretty much live in Los Angeles now because very practically, it’s impossible to be so far away from the work that I do and so on. My family, my parents and my sister, are still in South Africa and I go back regularly, but I do live in the States now. Let me rephrase that. The truth is I live in between South Africa and the United States, so I think I’m a bit of a vagabond, but I do spend a lot of time in the States and still go back.
CS: You must have racked up some great Frequent Flyer miles.
Hood: I’ve got Frequent Flyer miles, my friend, like you wouldn’t believe.
CS: Excellent, excellent. Well if you ever need to fund another movie, maybe you can sell them to someone. This is a pretty wild concept to explore after “Tsotsi.” How did you first find out about the script? Did you know about “extraordinary renditions” before you read the script?
Hood: No, I actually have a law degree in my distant past when I was growing up in South Africa, so you’d think I’d know more about rendition. After the Oscar, I was sent a lot of stuff, which was flattering. I was reading and reading and this script came across my path, and I saw the title “Rendition” and I’m ashamed to say that my first reaction is “I wonder if it’s some sort of musical maybe it’s a rendition of Beethoven’s 9th”. I started reading it and of course, within a matter of a few pages, I was utterly absorbed by wanting to know what was going to happen next, and by what I thought was a tremendously diverse range of characters packed with emotional energy, all weaving together, and I just wanted to know how is it going to work out? I just felt that it was a real page-turner, and then I got to the end and I put the script down, and I realized that I had an enormous number of questions in my mind, and I wanted to talk to somebody about those questions. Given that I’d only read a script and nobody else was in my office that had read it at that point, I immediately went to the internet and I googled “rendition.” I knew what the general legal definition of “rendition” was two years ago when I was reading it. Of course, the rendition policy is more and more known now, but when I first read the script, I confess I only had the smallest inkling of what it was really about. Within a matter of days, I’d read a great deal on the ‘net and also read Steven Gray’s book “Ghost Plain” which was very informative, and “Torture Taxi” is another book and started gathering stuff. I said to my agent and my management, “I really think this is something that I want to do, because if it stirred this kind of level of debate within my own mind, maybe it would be something audiences would like to see and then have a good debate about it afterwards.” I felt that maybe we had a film that would be both emotionally powerful and glue you to your seat, and then afterwards give something to talk about, and that felt like a good reason to ask people to pay eight bucks to see it.
CS: After you read the script and did your own research, did you change a lot to get it closer to what you discovered in that research?
Hood: Well, sure, I thought Kelly’s script was very, very good. Obviously, we worked together for a few months. I had certain questions and we did further research together, and the important thing for me was to try and tap every argument in this debate from all sides, and then leave the audience with something to debate. Bear in mind, we wouldn’t presume in a two-hour emotional piece to be able to present deep, deep levels of academic research. I hope the film is a springboard for further discussion, as it was for me. I could make you a 50-hour film about this subject. There’s a great deal of academic writing on it now, there are books about it. It relates to a genuine Constitutional crisis right now. It seems to me that what has already made America great is that it’s been based on the rule of law and an extraordinary founding document in the form of the Constitution. It seems to me that Americans were largely behind the Geneva conventions after the atrocities of the second World War, where Roosevelt and Churchill got together with the Atlantic Charter and then subsequently, Eleanor Roosevelt was hugely instrumental in the drafting of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, so America has a very proud tradition of the defense of the right to habeas corpus, and the right to a fair trial, and the right to be told what you’re accused of, and a right for your family to know whether you’ve been detained. We accord this right to murderers and rapists and child abusers, and it seems to me that any tampering with those rights that have made America the envy of any country that did not have those rightsand I include my own country South Africa, and myself as a law student in South Africa, when I did live through the ’80s when the state of emergency, as it was then called, the state felt that it was justified in literally having detention without trial, without the right of access to a lawyer. I lived through that period of time, and we as young law students growing up in South Africa, looked to the American Constitution as a document that we felt our country desperately needed. I have two kids and they’re very young, but they’ve been born here, so they’re Americans, and I’m deeply patriotic about the institutions and founding documents of this country. I don’t say that lightly, because I know what it’s like to live through a period of time when there is arbitrary detention and no right of access to a lawyer, something I think almost every American would find abhorrent and deeply un-American.
CS: I was wondering, had you seen the documentary “Persons of Interest” by any chance?
Hood: I haven’t seen that documentary, no I haven’t. “Persons of Interest,” I better make a note of it. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t seen that. I can’t believe we missed that! I’m amazing. There actually is a lot of information out there and yet somehow it doesn’t seem to have quite penetrated the mass public’s consciousness and I hope that our film just all a film can do is it must entertain you and if it also provokes debate, then that for me is what the great movies have done. If you think of “All the President’s Men” and “The Insider” was another great film in terms of great filmmaking that provokes discussion. There are those who say, “Oh, films, they should only entertain us.” Well, my answer is, “Excuse me, the very foundation of drama in ancient Athens and the awards that were given were based on two things, on how much does the play entertain and to what extent does it challenge the public mind.” That’s what a dramatist should be, that’s what the very tradition of drama is.
CS: I wanted to ask you about that, because there’s obviously a lot of stuff going on in the world these days, and even though there’s a lot of great movies about those important subjects, it doesn’t seem like America is very interested in learning more than what they see on the news, even though that’s obviously filtered by the corporate news.
Hood: Which is also soundbites. The trouble with the world today is we’re so assaulted by imagery and information that we’re in a way, suffering from information overload, and it’s very hard to get anyone to sit down and really engage in a discussion of any depth, because it’s all about soundbites. I guess the film gives us an opportunity to at least say, “Look, I promise to entertain you. I promise to give you characters that are emotionally engaging.” I really do believe we should take our cue from where our Western foundations of drama come from, which is ancient Greece, that’s what they did. Very few people know that you had to go to the play, and poor people’s tickets were paid for, so it was considered an essential part of the democratic process that issues of the day and of the city were to be dramatized in order for the populus to better reflect on the debate, because we know that debate in its purely academic sphere is the exclusive world of the academic, and because Athens believed in the rule of the people, which America does, they felt that debates had to be made accessible to the mass audience. And the way to do that was to put it into drama, because then you can bring in everybody, entertain them, and then have a good old debate, and the citizens would be presented with the debate of the day I mean, literally, like Lissestrada on the discussions of the war, they made a comedy, but it’s all about women refusing men sex, because that’s the only way they would get the war to stop. When people tell me that filmmakers should stay out of political discussion, oh, please. Dramatists have been involved in political debate from the day our Western drama began, and we shouldn’t suggest in any way that we have the answers. I think that’s really important. But we should attempt through our work to generate further discussion, and just as a newspaper journalist does, there’s many ways to engage the public in the issues of the day and we’re just one of them.
CS: You have a pretty amazing cast, and I’m not just talking about Oscar winners like Meryl Streep and Alan Arkin, but also these non-American actors who play the Egyptian characters and Omar Metwally. Were there a lot of first-time actors involved here?
Hood: Obviously with a film costing a certain amount of money, the studio absolutely needs to have names that the public will recognize, but I think we were very very fortunate to attract the level of cast that we did, but the other challenge then was to make sure that given it’s a large ensemble cast, it was a real challenge to make sure that every member of that cast had the acting chops that would measure up to the stars, because otherwise, your whole film is out of kilter. The casting of the non-stars if you like was an extensive process, looking for the very best actors we could find to make sure that the performances across the board measured up. Otherwise, it was all going to be a little out of whack. That was a concern that I had, and I do feel proud of the performances from the actors who are not the movie stars. I think that I’m very proud that we searched the globe and we found actors from as diverse countries as Morocco, Algeria, Israel, France and of course, America, and one of the great joys was seeing that cast, and indeed the crew that came from all over the world, work together and engage in wonderful discussions around the lunch tables. One of the joys of this film was just the making of the film with people from very different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and seeing how they relate and enjoyed one another.
CS: I read that on the shoot, you also had a crew from all over the world working with you in Morocco. Does a set like that turn into a tower of Babel when you have so many different cultures and languages involved? Do you have a shared language or is it just the language of filmmaking?
Hood: Well, the first thing is that I always believe that the language of emotion is universal. We talk too much about how different we are, we don’t talk enough about how much we have in common. The truth is that obviously we’re very spoiled as English speakers that most people around the world have English as a second language, so of course, mostly the language of general communication was English. They were certain actors that did not speak English and I worked through a translator, but the way I work is to work very one-on-one with an actor and the translator is sort of off to the side. If I’m eyeball-to-eyeball with an actor, I’m trying to tap a moment of truth from that person that is a very universal moment of truth. I’ll give you a very concrete example and it’s the elderly lady who plays the grandmother towards the end of the movie. She has two lines in the whole film, and I believe she gives one of the most honest moments of truth in the film. For me, she’s extraordinary. Now that lady did not speak English at all, so through the translator, I explained to her the core feeling I was looking for, and she and I just looked at each other in the eye, and we worked and then she said in Arabic, “I understand, darling, and you just keep looking at me,” and we worked with each other and let the emotion build and then she did her piece, and I think she’s superb. She feels the moment as any grandmother anywhere in the world who’s lost a child would. That’s the universal language.