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Billy Ray is in a rush to get out of town. The writer-director is so harried that he skips the beginning of an interview, leaving the first few questions to former FBI agent trainee Eric O’Neill, the inspiration for Ryan Phillippe’s character in Ray’s new film, Breach, a study of the investigation and arrest of treasonous FBI veteran Robert Hanssen. Ray doesn’t have a problem with Washington itself—in fact, both the films the longtime screenwriter has directed have been D.C. stories. “I love movies that are set here,” Ray says. “The place has a great feeling of power about it, a great feeling of history about it. Anything you do here automatically registers with a certain sense of importance.”
”But more than anything else, everything here has a feeling of deception under it,” he adds. “And that just infuses any scene with great subtext. Which is what you’re always trying to do as a writer anyway. You always want something to be living in between the words, and stories that are set here automatically have that.”
Washington isn’t the only American city known for intrigue, of course. Ray laughs when it’s suggested that Hollywood is another such town. “Yeah, I guess you could make that argument,” he says. “But the thing about Hollywood is, it’s such an obvious satire of itself. This place still takes itself pretty seriously. And I just find that to be more interesting.”
Ray’s first film as a director was Shattered Glass, a 2003 account of New Republic writer Stephen Glass, who successfully passed off fiction as reporting. Ray says he’s drawn to big-time liars as subjects. “It’s sort of a Screenwriting 101 rule that you’re trying to create not what the character is saying but what he actually means,” he says. “And if you make a movie about characters who are always lying, they’ve done your job for you. Nothing they say is what it appears to be. So just by definition, every scene comes alive. They engage the audience. Because you can’t take anything they say for granted.”
Glass sold fabrications to a neoliberal journal, while Robert Hanssen peddled top-secret information, including the identity of double agents, to the Soviets. Yet despite those differences, the two men “seem pretty similar to me,” Ray says. “Obviously what Hanssen was doing was a lie on every level. Stephen Glass was hurting a smaller group of people and hurting them in a more metaphorical kind of way. I mean, Hanssen was getting people killed.”
Breach’s Hanssen never directly explains his motivation, and Ray is content to leave it as the turncoat’s eternal secret. “I think even Eric and I might feel differently about it,” the director says. “Eric would tell you that Hanssen was an evil person who knew that he was evil, and that’s not my read on him at all. There’s room for either kind of interpretation. Because he never really left a legacy of why.”
In addition to Hanssen’s double life of serving his country while performing espionage for the Soviets, Hanssen also had a private moral rift: He was a devout Catholic and Opus Dei member who enjoyed the company of strippers and circulated secretly taped videos of sex with his wife. The two conflicts “feel to me like the same thing,” Ray says. “To espouse something in a really public way and completely violate it in private. I don’t draw a huge distinction between the two. They both bespeak such an internal chaos.”
While the sex videos make it into Breach, the strippers do not. “Most of that nonsense was over with by the time our story begins,” Ray says. “Our story is really about the last month before he was captured, and he wasn’t doing any of that. So it wasn’t germane to the story we were telling. It just felt unnecessary. It felt like we were showing off a little….But the bigger criteria for me was, the movie is about how Eric O’Neill, as a result of being stuck in a room with Robert Hanssen, is forced to reexamine and reevaluate how he feels about his job, his religion, and his marriage. He has to make decisions about those three.”
O’Neill agrees with that analysis. “It’s funny. I don’t think that’s what I was thinking at the time,” he says. “But it’s what happened. In the end, it’s completely true.”
The former FBI agent, now a Washington lawyer, was an important resource for Chris Cooper, who plays Hanssen. O’Neill flew to Toronto, where most of Breach was filmed, to consult with the actor before filming began.
“Chris needed me to help him,” O’Neill recalls, “because he’d never met Hanssen and never would. I spent about a day and a half just talking him through it: Hanssen moves like this; Hanssen walks like this; these are some of his quirks. He sort of limps a little and sways when he walks. The evolution was pretty amazing. Suddenly, he’s acting just like Hanssen. One of Chris’ goals was to portray Hanssen in a way that those who knew him would later say, ‘My God, the guy’s just like him.’ ”
O’Neill concedes that the film’s depiction of Hanssen’s aggressive nature is a little overstated. “But he was very in-your-face. He just seemed to really want to keep me off-guard, reacting to him.” The former agent attributes Hanssen’s behavior in part to his personality but also to the fact that the FBI had unexpectedly given Hanssen his “dream job,” upgrading him to computer-record security. Either the bureau had finally recognized his expertise, O’Neill says, “or he was in an elaborate trap. And he’d been involved in enough of them to know what they were like. The only way he could possibly find out if the FBI was on to him is by attacking the only source he had, which was me.”
The FBI granted O’Neill permission to participate in the film, and the bureau’s cooperation didn’t stop there. “They gave us a great deal of access to people in the FBI who could tell me how this had actually gone down, and who Robert Hanssen was and how he behaved,” Ray says. “This really would have been impossible to do well without the FBI.”
“They’re not foolish,” O’Neill adds. “The FBI knows that the movie is going to be made either way, and they can work with Billy and make it a great recruiting tool, which I think it’s going to be. They’re in a big push right now to recruit.”
One mark of the FBI’s support is that Breach includes a shot of the J. Edgar Hoover Building’s courtyard, which few people who don’t work in the place have ever seen. The film also includes scenes at some of the usual landmarks, including Memorial Bridge and the entrance to the Federal Triangle Metro station—altered to stand in for the Archives-Navy Memorial station, which is harder to use because of regulations on photographing national memorials.
“Washington’s a really tricky place to shoot,” Ray says. “And, of course, post-9/11, exponentially more so. My production designer called Washington ‘the land of no.’ It’s unbelievable, the jurisdictional overlap that goes on here. But everything we needed we got. We were supposed to shoot here for 10 days. We got out in nine.”
Ray even made sure to film Hanssen’s arrest at the nondescript Fairfax County park where it actually happened. “There are just certain moments of historical record that I didn’t feel I had the right to fudge,” he says. “A moment like that, the actual site of his arrest, the site of his last drop—you had to have that right. So we not only were on the exact corner at the exact spot, but we had the real agents, who were just standing right behind me, off-camera. [They were] choreographing that scene more than I did.
“I wasn’t going to shoot that scene in Toronto.”