Rendition Writer Kelley Sane


It’s difficult changing careers when you’ve been successful doing one thing for so long, but photographer Kelley Sane, whose script for Rendition was turned into a star-studded Hollywood movie directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi), did just that. It’s not his first screenplay or movie, but it’s certainly an ambitious one, involving the little known CIA policy called “extraordinary rendition” where they can deport those thought to be involved with terrorism, then imprison and torture them, all without going through the normal American legal system i.e. lawyers, being in touch with your loved ones. It stars the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin and Peter Sarsgaard in an intricate thriller involving one such man who was taken off an airplane and imprisoned in Egypt without being able to contact his worried wife.

Continuing our series of interviews with interesting and prominent screenwriters, sat down with Kelley Sane to talk about how Rendition came about as well as to find out a bit more about his scripts for two other projects, both which also deal with real world hot topics. So let’s talk about your background. I know you were a photographer and you directed a film that went to Sundance.
Kelley Sane: Yes, that was a small comedy which I started writing in Milan when I was working there as a photographer. I had no history or training in screenwriting so it took some years in order to get the script together because I just had no idea what I was doing, but I got a little bit lucky, got some financing, made the film and then it got accepted into Sundance and it got distribution in various countries around the world. That was almost ten years ago so I’ve been writing almost every day since then.

CS: Did you still do the photography also?
Sane: Yes. I was using the photography to pay for my writing. I was shooting in the morning and then writing and shooting in the evenings, and I wrote several screenplays that got close to being sold, but “Rendition” was the first one that actually went across the line and sold.

CS: I assume you must have done a lot of traveling with that gig and you must have been to some of the places shown in the movie.
Sane: Yeah I have. It really helped me to kind of open my head up to other points of view which I hope show up in “Rendition.” I was in Tokyo, Milan, Paris, and Vienna. I was all over the place. It was actually very good. From an American point of view, we have our view of how things are right and wrong and we still maintain that compass, but when you’re abroad you have an opportunity to see things through other people’s eyes. When you are in Italy or Japan they have their motives or desires that sometimes match the United States, but they just like to go about it in a different way. So I liked that; seeing things through other people’s eyes.

CS: We’ve seen in South Africa and South America how people are taken as prisoners and tortured, but we could never imagine that our country was capable of that. When did you first hear about “extraordinary rendition”?
Sane: I had heard about that in February of ’05. It is very recent. I first heard about it and I was talking to a friend about it. It just seemed so surprising to me because even though the policy began under President Clinton it seemed to really kind of take on a whole new force after 9/11. One side of me understands how people in power want to use every instrument at their disposal to protect Americans and to show potential foes out there that the American might force is going to be employed and that we’re tough. Take the gloves off, and we’ll take the gloves off. But the other side is the bigger picture which is when we take our gloves off and lose our moral foundation, then we become less powerful. Even though we can slap down anyone in the world basically, the bigger picture is that we lose power when we do these things. So that was kind of the idea when I first started putting this idea together. When you think you are a powerful nation and you start doing these very aggressive things that you actually end up undercutting yourself so that the power you actually have for yourself is an illusion.

CS: Since 9/11, this is a subject that’s very much in the mind of the world, although it’s odd that so few people have heard about this U.S. government policy. This movie is an interesting way of informing them about it.
Sane: The thing is, is that I first and foremost am a screenwriter and my job is to write screenplays that will hopefully get made and entertain. This isn’t a documentary, this is for entertainment purposes. That has to be my first job. Secondly, to try to bring something interesting and something new and fresh and something that interests me and this really interests me. I’m happy that the studio went out and kind of broke its normal path and did the film.

CS: What kind of research did you do once you learned about it?
Sane: I did a lot of research online. I’m a clever researcher when it comes to online. You just have to kind of keep digging and digging and digging and you’ll find a lot of information out there that’s actually in the public domain. So that’s basically what I did.

CS: Did you meet any families of people that had been deported or went through this process?
Sane: No, because a lot of their feelings can be found in news articles and people that were interviewing them were asking basically the same questions I would have asked.

CS: I know that you worked on this with your producer and then brought it to New Line. At what point did they put you in touch with Gavin Hood?
Sane: What happened was my friend Mark (Martin) and I were the ones having this conversation and he said, “Wow, you should write a script about rendition.” So I went back home to New York and I put the outline together. First I did almost a month of research and I put the outline together and I wrote the script. Mark and I continued to develop it and then we took it to Anonymous Content and Steve Golin, an absolutely amazing producer, loved the script and we ended up selling it to New Line who ended up financing the film.

CS: Was it difficult to explain the concept of the film to people as the process went along?
Sane: People were surprised. I’m actually a little surprised that the normal, average citizen isn’t aware of this policy because it’s actually been in the airwaves for a while, but I also can understand that the average person has a job; they have kids; they have mortgages; they have a lot of stuff they have to deal with. They vote and they put a person in office in order to try and take care of these issues, so I understand why people don’t really want to tune into something like this because it’s hard, but at the same time I think it’s important that we stay connected to the policies that are driving this country, you know?

CS: If something like this happened, you would think it would be all over the airwaves so is the CIA and the government good at paying people off to keep these things quiet?
Sane: I think they are trying very hard to keep things quiet. I mean even recently a rendition, a fellow who was rendered a few years ago who got out and is trying to bring a lawsuit against the U.S. government for his kidnapping and subsequent torture, has been rejected by the Supreme Court. This just happened a couple days ago and was rejected on the grounds that the trial would release information and national security secrets, so there are powers that are trying to keep this very quiet. They don’t want to talk about this, which is how this administration operates. I believe their motives are correct. They want to protect American citizens, but they are going about it in a way that is just so aggressive and so secretive and it really undermines what their big goal is in a way and rendition is one of those things. Condoleezza Rice said that rendition is a valuable tool in America’s fight against terrorism. So recently this administration is saying, “Yes. Rendition is good,” and some people, like myself, can say, “Well, that seems really kind of crazy.” But from their point of view, they’re like, “This is what we have to do to protect this country.” That’s what I try to instill in the film, or in the screenplay, this balance. So people can come in with the hope of being entertained, but can also get a little information and start to build their opinions about the whole policy.

CS: This movie isn’t exactly a secret at this point, so have you gotten any calls from the CIA?
Sane: (joking) Other than me being audited, no I didn’t. No I haven’t had any contact. You know, extraordinary rendition has been in the news and has been flying under radar for a long time. I think that they’re probably hoping that it doesn’t spark too much of a debate, but seeing how the whole idea of torture is really in the news right now, this guy being rejected from bringing his rendition case to court is in the news. All of this is happening within a week of the release of the movie. I’m sure this doesn’t really please the current administration which just likes to operate under the radar.

CS: When I first saw the title of the movie, I don’t think I knew what it was about, so was there any playing with the title of the movie?
Sane: There were some ideas to change the title in order to make it a little more eighteen to twenty five year old male friendly, but I think they wisely decided to keep the title the way it originally was and let the public use that title to help inform the public as well. It’s a great tool I think.

CS: Gavin said he’d never heard of this before, so when he came on board, did you guys work on the script together and what changed?
Sane: It was really interesting because the first time I met Gavin I was told, “Oh, you’re going to meet the director. You guys can have a meet and greet and you’ll have the night (to yourself) because he loves the script. And he’s coming on to direct it.” I showed up at the office to meet him, and it turned into an eight-hour page by page review of the entire script, and on page eighteen I was just like, “Wait a second wasn’t this just a meet and greet?” “Well, disregard that Kelley. Just go ahead and do it.” But it was amazing working with him. He’s such a smart guy and very passionate and open to new ideas, which I find just great to work with someone like that.

CS: And he can talk! I’ve interviewed him a few times now and you ask him one question and you can have a good half hour of material.
Sane: For sure. He knows his business. You know it’s just his passion is so there. There’s nothing false about him at all. It’s real and it’s one hundred percent.

CS: Could you talk about how him trying to balance it out and show different sides of the equation affected the script?
Sane: Well the script was always, I mean, at the very beginning I tried to make it as balanced as possible. I wanted really to show the government’s argument on if the incarceration of ten people meant the possible saving of ten thousand lives, is that worth it? I think there are a lot of people that will say it’s worth it. Now if you just flip that argument and say, “Okay, your brother has just been taken away without charges. He’s in Guantanamo and he has no access to a lawyer and we think he might be suspected of terrorist activities, but we don’t have any absolute positive proof so that we can bring him in front of a judge. We believe that he’s involved so we’re going to keep him away and you can’t talk to him.” Now, if you frame it in that way, then everyone’s opinion changes. “Well, wait a second here. If he’s guilty then bring him in front of a judge and show your evidence and give him due process.” So I really wanted to show both sides of that argument and I think we were pretty effective in doing that.

CS: I think people might overlook that once you get into the legal system, a good lawyer can get someone off from any charges, and I understand how being involved with terrorism can be a problem, but there has to be a better way than torturing people like this and taking away their rights.
Sane: There has to be a better way and not only a better way, a smarter way. It just seems so strange to me that after 9/11 when we had the whole world on our side that a few short years later everything is changed, everything is flipped on its head because of our super aggressive actions. I think you can be aggressive, but you can be smart and aggressive.

CS: What about casting? When you were working on the script you must have had a vision of who you wanted for each part. What were your thoughts when you heard about who was jumping on board?
Sane: I was amazed at the cast because I had visions of Jake and Reese, and strangely enough those two were in my mind and in my heart when I was writing this. It’s just great to see that they responded to the material and they came on board. What was really surprising to me was when Meryl Streep came on board because I’m a big fan of hers and Alan Arkin and Peter Sarsgaard, just amazing actors. So I was just really blown away by the fact that they responded to the material and wanted to be involved in the project. It was really, really nice.

CS: Was there any rewrites that had to be done when each of the new actors came on board?
Sane: Just minor things. Just little tweaks here and there, but generally the film is pretty close to how the original script was.

CS: I don’t want to talk about the twist, but was that in the original script?
Sane: Yes, that was in the first outline that I wrote. That little, or shall I say big twist.

CS: How did you explain that in the script? Obviously, when you see a movie you eventually will figure it out, but did you have to explain that from the beginning when you were showing the script around? Did people get it?
Sane: No, people got it and to tell you honestly that’s why the script was made, because of that clever thing that I put in there.

CS: You have a couple of other things you’ve been working on including one with Lorenzo di Bonaventura called “The Shop” for Paramount. Do you think the looming strike might affect things?
Sane: Officially, when I go on strike as a writer I can’t write, but I am right now working on the Lorenzo di Bonaventura project for Paramount. I just finished a project for Universal and Imagine, an outsourcing drama.

CS: Outsourcing?
Sane: The whole job outsourcing in India.

CS: Oh, right. Could you talk about that a bit?
Sane: It’s the story of a woman based in a small town in Springfield, Indiana who works for a call center. She’s about thirty or thirty two-years old and she’s been working there since she was eighteen with two kids and a husband who has chronic fatigue syndrome and a mother-in-law that lives with her. To make a long story short, she’s been working with this company since she was eighteen and she worked her way up to manager and the company has brought in three Indians for training and she basically had to train the person who is going to take half her jobs. And it turns out that she’s going to lose the job to the guy that she’s training, but they make an emotional connection and they actually fall in love. So it’s about this uneasy relationship and a love story that just really has no future, but they are in love and the film also speaks about workplace violence as well. So we’re talking about two really interesting more powerful subjects: outsourcing and workplace violence wrapped in a very human love story. This is for Imagine.

CS: The other movie you’re doing with Lorenzo is also kind of a current affairs type movie?
Sane: Yes, (it’s about) the CIA and burglars who work outside the United States.

CS: So you’ve successfully gotten away from the comedy-musicals?
Sane: Yeah, yes I have. I’ve stepped away and one day I’ll make my grand return on the musical stage, but as it stands right now I’m writing these issue-driven dramas.

CS: Are all of these movies based on original ideas?
Sane: Yes, well “The Shop” is based on an article by David Weiss of “Vanity Fair,” but everything else is original.

CS: Is it difficult adapting articles?
Sane: Well, you have certain constraints that you are under, but Paramount is giving me lots of leeway in how I can interpret that article and so I’m creating in essence something completely new. So I’m taking the bare bones of that article and creating a new world basically.

CS: Do you think that will be the first one that might get going?
Sane: I think the outsourcing movie could possibly get going pretty soon too. It’s a timely story I think. I really love the script and it’s really a tight, good script, so yeah, we’ll see how that works out.

CS: So both these movies might be happening at the same time?
Sane: We just have to hope that they get all of the issues to the writers and producers solved so we can go to the studios, but I’m working away.

CS: I was trying to figure out how the WGA was going to enforce the strike and keep writers from writing, because if a writer wakes up and jots down a few ideas, does that mean they’re going against the strike?
Sane: It’s a tough thing. Yeah, the writer’s guild is a powerful agency, but I’m not sure that they have that much power. I’m hoping that they’ll be able to solve their differences.

Rendition opens everywhere on Friday, October 19.