Remakes are tricky business even under the best of circumstances, but when you add in elements as fraught as “remaking an Oscar winner” or even “remaking a really recent Oscar winner,” things get even more complicated. That’s the undertaking screenwriter and director Billy Ray took on for his “Secret in Their Eyes,” a new version of Juan Jose Campanella’s “El secreto de sus ojos,” which won the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (that film was inspired from another source, too, as Campanella worked alongside novelist Eduardo Sacheri to retrofit Sacheri’s novel for the big screen).
Fans of the original — and there are many, including Ray — will recognize plenty of elements in Ray’s new film, although his Chiwetel Ejiofor and Julia Roberts-starring feature has moved its action to a post-9/11 Los Angeles, a far cry from the late nineties and mid-seventies settings in the Argentinan original. Still, the bones of the story are the same, following the fallout from a heinous crime (in this case, the murder of Roberts’ character’s daughter) and the subsequent attempts of a crime-fighting body (now a counter-terrorism force, of which both Ejiofor’s Ray and Roberts’ Jess are members) to bring its perpetrator to justice.
Indiewire recently got on the phone with Ray to talk about why he wanted to remake a film he’s admittedly in awe of and how he went about retrofitted its location, setting and even its core characters.
This film was many years in the making. Did you ever think it just wasn’t going to happen?
Oh, sure. Whenever you’re developing any movie, the odds are against you, just by virtue of the system that we’re trying to navigate — the studio system. The good news and the bad news is that nobody is making anything like this. The bad news is, it makes it very tough to get through the eye of that needle. The good news is, that if you succeed, there’s nothing else to compete with you because there’s no other movie like that.
Do you mean in terms of its budget or its subject matter?
I just mean in terms of the content of the movie. This is an adult thriller, and it’s about the cost of obsession and it’s got themes running through it that are grown up themes. And that’s just a very tough thing to get made today. If you want to do it, you have to do it within certain constraints, which are fine with me.
So many films we see getting made are comic book movies, and there’s a bit of a jab at comic books in your film. Was that intentional?
No, it wasn’t. In the original, the clue that they find that helps them get the bad guy is this series of letters that he wrote, which made sense in the seventies but did not make sense in the context of 2002. I thought long and hard about what would be an entertaining substitute for that. I like the comic books a lot, because the movie is about obsession and every beat turns on obsession, so I thought our bad guy, Marzin, his obsession should be the thing that catches him up.
In the original film, the villain is obsessed with a soccer team. Your film uses both the comic books and a baseball team to drive home that part of his personality, but his obsession still feels relatable.
Well, I certainly have mine: my beloved Dodgers, and movies. And I’m sure that people, if they would be interested — and I can’t imagine why they would be — could follow my behavior and see that it’s definitely dictated by the things that I fixate on. In a movie like this, because it’s about obsession, you want the characters to sort of hang themselves because of their obsessions.
You’ve made a number of updates to the story — now it’s set in Los Angeles, post-9/11, and it follows a counter-terrorism group. How did you crack that when writing your screenplay?
Well, 95% of writing is problem solving. In the case of this movie, where I’m adapting something that is so beautifully done, the original, I just love the movie. They had the dirty work in the seventies, which was a political circumstance that would make it credible that the government would let a rapist and murderer go free. What could possibly be the equivalent of that in our world? And the only thing that made sense was, in the months after 9/11, I did believe and still do believe that if someone was valuable in the war on terror they could get away with anything.
There’s this scene in the movie in the weight room, where Chiwetel and Michael Kelly have this argument about the guy they’re going after, where Michael Kelly says, “Hey, look, my guy goes down and everybody loses.” And that’s a totally defensible point of view to me.
You always want your bad guys to have a valid point of view and to be able to articulate it in a way so that the audience thinks, “You know what, this is not that cut and dried.” For Ray, it’s very cut and dried, you’ve just got to get this guy because he owes a debt to Jess, played by Julia. But for everyone in the department around him, it’s not quite that simple.
The film includes some really evocative details to set that kind of scene, from people yelling about chemical warfare to a guy on the street selling duct tape to protect homes. I think I had forgotten about that climate of fear.
Oh, I remember it very, very well. The other thing is, because we’re jumping in between time periods, you want to be able to give people tentpoles that will tell them where we are in time. And for me, that duct tape guy added both to the feeling of paranoia, but also clearly identified that time period as 2002.
You’ve also made some big changes to the character that is now played by Julia Roberts.
Going back to that idea that 95% of writing is just problem-solving — for me, as much as I love the original, and I really love it…The reveal that comes at the end of the movie, I felt was just too great of a reveal to give to the fifth most important character in the movie. That character had to be someone we were deeply invested in and someone that the character played by Chiwetel was deeply invested in.
That was the first big decision to integrate those two characters into one. But the idea of making it somebody’s mother was actually Julia’s. When it was written for a man, that was his wife in the dumpster. When we first started talking to Julia, the part was still written for a man, the character name was Cobb, and Julia said, “I’ll do it, but that should be my daughter down there.” That had a seismic effect on the script and on the movie, because when you have a mother who has lost a daughter it is like a tidal wave. It’s so huge in terms of its emotional impact, there isn’t a scene in the movie that isn’t profoundly affected by that change.
It changes the way that you cut the movie, it certainly changes the way that you end the movie, and it changes the meaning of the movie.
“Our Brand is Crisis” recently did something similar, changing a character that had previously been written as a man into a woman. Is that a trend you want to see more of?
Yeah, and I imagine that the great actresses in Hollywood want to see more of that. If there were great roles written for women, then I don’t think they’d be asking for roles that had originally been written for men.
I can tell you as someone who serves on the board of directors of the Writers Guild, we talk a lot about diversity in that body. You can see it, it’s in the zeitgeist. It’s all sort of moving now in television and film. I don’t think you’re going to see much more of this because I think people will just start writing better parts for women.
And I believe — and this is certainly my own self-interest, so forgive me — I think our movie is going to do really well. And I think that people will look at it and look at what Julia did in this movie in particular and I think it will encourage them to develop more in that way.
There was a note on IMDb that the movie was originally supposed to be rated R and it was cut or edited to be PG-13.
No, that’s not true. That was totally true of “Shattered Glass,” which was the first movie I ever made, but that’s not true of this movie. We were always trying to make it as PG-13 and we shot it as PG-13.
When you consider the subject matter of the movie and the intensity of the movie, by its very nature, it could have easily been an R rated movie. But we went out of our way not to do that, and we only drop one F bomb in there, which was very specifically targeted and I can’t tell you how happy Chiwetel was to say it.
The film also includes scenes where character has tremendous violence committed against her. How did you work through that to make something that leaves an impact but can still fit the PG-13 rating?
Well, understand that when you’re a director who’s about to shoot a scene about the rape and murder of an 18 year old girl, and you yourself have an 18 year old daughter, which I do, there is a sensitivity that is just understood. And it was one of those things that I talked about with Zoe [Graham], who was playing the part, before she had the part. I wanted to make sure I spoke to her mother before she took the part, so that her mother understood how sensitive we were going to be to that moment.
I wanted to completely choreograph it. I wanted to make sure we had safe words, I wanted to make sure that Zoe felt completely considered and completely safe so that she could play the scene.
Then we cleared out the set. We put up a big tarp in the back of a parking lot. Inside it was the van and Danny Moder, who was shooting the scene, and one or two other people. It couldn’t have been more of a skeleton crew. We needed a sound person there to record sound. We needed my first AD there just to run the set. That was it. Everybody else was gone.
I just kept running in between takes and whispering to both of them and saying, “here’s what we’re doing,” specifically choreographing it, saying, “when you get to this moment I’m going to say cut,” so that everybody knew exactly what we were doing. We just took care of her in every way we possibly could. We cut it in such a way that was extremely respectful of her privacy as both an actress and as a character.
What do you hope that fans of the original film are going to get out of your film?
I hope that they will recognize that it is not an attempt to duplicate another movie. I have a reverence for that movie that borders on awe, and I don’t say that lightly. But we were not making another version of that movie, we were making an American version of that movie, a much more muscular version of that movie, and we were making this very intense thriller. Whereas the original, you would have to say, leans more towards the love story, we didn’t. We had that component in there and I have Chiwetel and Nicole Kidman in scenes where they’re debating whether or not to have a relationship. So it’s there, but it’s not the same movie as the original.
It’s our movie and I hope that people who loved the original as much as I do will appreciate this as a completely different animal.
“Secret in Their Eyes” opens on Friday.