"This business is brutal," Gavin Hood admits frankly. We're speaking the day before the world premiere of his latest movie, Official Secrets, at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and this first audience response is weighing heavily on his mind. by Fiona Walsh
A political thriller starring Keira Knightley and a strong cast of British acting talent including Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans and Tamsin Greig, Official Secrets is based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, and tells the true story of British Intelligence operative Katharine Gun (Knightley) and the professional and personal fallout from her decision to leak a highly classified internal memo.
Determined to stop what she sees as an illegal effort by the UK government under prime minister Tony Blair to help America swing a UN Security Council vote towards war with Iraq by blackmailing smaller, undecided member states, Gun decides to defy the Official Secrets Act, with far-reaching consequences.
It's early afternoon in Park City and Hood and I are sitting in the media centre on Main Street. Outside the temperature is hovering around minus one and the streets and buildings are inches deep in snow. The contrast with a South African summer couldn't be starker.
Hood is a frank and engaging presence and, if he's feeling the strain of his impending premiere and a morning spent in back-to-back interviews, he's certainly not showing it.
He has, in his own words, "bounced about, back and forth," for the past twenty years, firstly between South Africa and the US, studying film-making and taking his first steps in the industry, then between Joburg and the UK. But for the last decade he's largely been based in Los Angeles, although still travelling constantly, depending on where the next shoot takes him.
With his previous film, Eye in the Sky fronted by Oscar winner Helen Mirren, ironically the shoot took him back home. "We shot the whole movie in South Africa. I was very pleased to go back - the crews are brilliant."
After winning an Oscar of his own for Best Foreign Language Film for Tsotsi in 2005, Hood moved on to high profile features starring a range of A-listers, including Reese Witherspoon in Rendition, Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, as well as Mirren in Eye in the Sky. After big budget films with international themes, will he ever make another movie rooted in his home country?
"It's a good question, but it's all about the script. Let's face it, that's the hardest thing to find. The right story that has something you feel needs to be said. And that's the key."
Hood admits to surprise that the Katherine Gun story landed on his desk. "If you'd asked me 'Do you want to tell a story set in England?' I'd say, 'I'd love to, but I don't think anyone's going to ask me.'" But when the script arrived, it resonated.
"I think why Katherine Gun is so interesting is here is an ordinary person - it could be you or I - working for a company and we discover something wrong, something bad is happening in the business. Do we have the courage to speak up? This is a very contemporary theme; when do you speak up and risk losing your job, in any organisation? In her case it wasn't only a matter of losing her job, she could also potentially lose her freedom, because of the Official Secrets Act.
"So, there is a wonderful dilemma - would I have the courage to do what she did? And if I'm interested in that question, maybe my audience will be interested in that question too. They may not agree with what she did, depending on their political point of view, but I dare them to say she's not brave."
Hood studied law at Wits and admits his legal background tends to draw him towards stories that offer a moral or ethical dilemma for the audience. He based his directorial debut, the short film The Storekeeper, on a law school case that examined how far you can go in defense of your property.
"Sadly, that's a very South African question," Hood says ruefully. "The dilemma is, there's an elderly man who runs a store and a thief keeps robbing him. They never meet, but he takes measures to prevent the thefts; he puts up burglar bars and eventually he rigs a shotgun and a tripwire and then, of course, something happens."
His first major feature, A Reasonable Man, which he wrote, directed and starred in, was also based on a case from law school. Here the central question revolves around what can be considered a reasonable belief system. "And again," he says, "there's no good answer, just a fascinating question."
GAVIN'S PARENTS HIJACKED
Then came Tsotsi, based on Athol Fugard's novel, which gave him his major international break and propelled him all the way to the Academy Awards.
"Tsotsi happened because my mum was carjacked. I never remember the order - had I already been sent the script, before the hijacking? - but I was thinking, 'What's the way in? Do I have the right to tell this story?' And then my mum got carjacked with my dad.
"There were four carjackers with guns and my mum started having a conversation with this young 18-year-old carjacker, who had ripped her necklace from her and pulled out her earrings. And my mum, who was a schoolteacher and thought she could talk to anyone, said in her overly British way, 'My dear, you don't want to be doing this. What would your mum think? Let's all calm down.'
"Afterwards I said to her, 'What were you thinking!' And she replied, 'Gavin, he was just a child.'"
For Hood, this provided the key not only to Tsotsi but to a number of his subsequent features. "It's how to find a way to empathise. Can you make a film and generate an empathy for someone who for the first 20 minutes you absolutely loathe? Can you remove the mask of anger and rage and get to the person?"
A STRONG FEMALE LEAD
Following Rendition, which starred Reese Witherspoon, then Eye in the Sky which pulled in over $34m at the box office, Official Secrets marks the third movie from Hood with a strong central female role, something he's justifiably proud of.
"The truth is the part that Helen Mirren played in Eye in the Sky was originally written for a man and it was me that turned it around. Initially I thought 'Another all boys movie, a bunch of men telling a war story?' and then I discovered that many of the British military intelligence officers are in fact women. And putting a woman into a movie with men gives other dynamics. Plus, in that particular case she's by no means some touchy-feely sentimental maternal woman - she's almost terrifying! So, I just like mixing it up because, you know, 50% of the world is female. I'm not really interested in boys only movies.
"What's exciting about Official Secrets as a film is that although she's a spy and therefore her world is not familiar to all of us - she's also a very ordinary person. She happens to be female, which I think is great, because I was able to get someone like Keira who is hungry for parts that are as complex as this role.
"I also love the theme of loyalty in Official Secrets, I'm always looking for something with a strong theme that I haven't necessarily explored, and the theme of loyalty is interesting because it sounds such a simple thing, but where does your loyalty lie?
"She's faced with four layers of loyalty. There's loyalty to her own conscience. She was also married to an immigrant and to what extent are you loyal to that marriage, because when you leak, you potentially put that relationship at risk, and she did put it at risk. Do you stay loyal to your government, in her case the government of Tony Blair? Or does loyalty to the British people transcend loyalty to the British government?
"So, to whom is she loyal? And that's a great question. And that's the way Keira and I approached it, she's just raw and vulnerable, a young woman faced with a hugely difficult decision and in some ways slightly naive about it."
When I ask him about the strategy behind a premiere at Sundance he laughs and admits it was partly because the film wasn't ready in time for 2018's Toronto Film Festival. Nevertheless, he feels Sundance, with its independent spirit, is a great place to be.
"But it's a big test of the film for an American audience, because it's essentially a British movie. The Americans don't come out well, because it's about Bush and Colin Powell's lies, but let's see how an American audience responds. On a purely practical level, that audience response has an effect on how your distribution goes. So, for me, festivals are purely about the audience."
The night after we spoke, Official Secrets earned a standing ovation from a packed house of over 1000 festivalgoers. Days later IFC Films announced they had acquired the US rights for over $2m. So it looks likely that Hood has another box office winner on his hands and one that he hopes fulfils his overall approach to directing: "I never want to preach, I don't want to tell you what to think, but I hope when you walk out that you've got something to talk about."
So does he think he'll ever shoot in South Africa again? "I will - I love being back there." Let's just hope the right script lands on his desk sometime soon.