Interview with John Crowley, Director of Closed Circuit

We sit down with stage and screen director John Crowley to discuss his new thriller, how it reflects our modern era and the real life spy stories that may have influenced it.

John Crowley continues to be a filmmaker and storyteller who enjoys making surprising, and unlikely transitions. As an Irish stage director who conquered London’s West End, his unlikely biography led him to helm a number of respected theatrical productions, including An Irish Trilogy for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Into the Woods and Juno and the Paycheck at West End, The Pillowman on West End and Broadway, and A Steady Rain with Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig on Broadway. He also has developed the reputation of being a frank and successfully hard-hitting independent filmmaker with projects that allowed him to work with Cillian Murphy and Colin Farrell before huge stardom in 2003’s Intermission, as well as with Andrew Garfield in Boy A (2007). And as with Boy A, he has another project coming to screen about what happens when the British legal system breaks down. In Closed Circuit, which opens August 28, Crowley embraces a thriller where after a terrorist attack kills 120 London citizens, the entire country is ready for a conviction, even if the accused may be innocent. More insipidly, the Ministry of Justice is declaring that the trial be held, in part, in closed session where even the defendant will be oblivious to the evidence presented against him. The film stars Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciarán Hinds and Jim Broadbent. Thus, we were very happy when Broadbent agreed to sit down and take the time to talk to us about the film last week. In your previous stage and film work, including The Pillowman and Boy A, there is the recurring theme of the miscarriage of justice. Closed Circuit obviously continues this trend. Do you know why you are attracted to these kind of stories? John Crowley: I guess it must be because I don’t think the world is entirely fair. I’m drawn to stories where you see peoples’ hopes and wishes and disappointments about how the world is [when it] rubs up against a degree of power or authority, and where that authority comes and crushes something. Then some shard it comes back at the end, which is a belief in the individual’s choice to situate themselves in the face of an authority. That seems to me to be interesting, and something which appeals to me as an individual living in the world we live in, where we’re lucky enough to live in democracies, but you sort of suspect they’re up to things on our behalf that are not entirely ethical—shall we say?—and it felt to me that with this story, which is more genre than anything I’ve done before, it posed a really interesting question about the nature of the dilemma that democracies are now facing. Tony Blair famously said in 2005, “Make no mistake about it, the rules of the game are changing” in terms on how to deal with a terrorist threat. It was a rather unfortunate phrase, because I don’t think anybody thought it was a game per se, but what he meant was an interesting thing, which is those in power suddenly thought, “Okay, all bets are off. We have to do something a little bit differently here to protect our citizens.” But if you cross the line ethically, you risk undermining the very thing you are trying to protect in the first place. And the notion of secrecy and closed court hearings, and not letting somebody know the evidence you have against them, seems to me to be in danger undermining the whole basis of due process, even if it’s done for very good reasons. It’s still close to something that’s open to abuse. And maybe nine times out of 10 it isn’t abused. Judges are not actually corrupt, I have huge respect [for the judicial system]. But equally, as an Irishman outside of it, living in England, choosing to live in England, I love England: I look at…the pressure that was on that Crown Prosecution Service to get convictions after the IRA bombings in the ‘70s that led to two of the most famous atrocities with miscarriages of justice with the guilt for the Birmingham Six, where people spent 14 years in prison, having nothing to do with the events and were arrested and locked up on the most tenuous evidence. So, I think it’s fascinating. It’s one of the neat things that appealed to me about the film was the English legal system is fascinating. I thought the chance of having a look at it and seeing it in operation with respect and a critical eye felt like a fascinating charge. Eric told us that his character was a little nastier, a little more of a cad, and you went on to downplay that. Why? I felt that the scenes in which you saw that exposed, it was particularly upfront [in scenes of legal trials early in the film]. When we put the film together, the truth is you have the event at the start of the film: The big bomb. And what’s interesting is like, “Duh, you should expect this,” is that it is such a massive event to begin a film with. To then to go off and go like, “We’re on other cases and they’re working on this,“ it soon felt like, “Hang on, what film are we watching?” There was a real, I felt, propulsion into the film from that event that puts such pressure on the material that we had, which they acted beautifully, where you were getting to know them as characters, but in stuff that was marginal, and then this case begins. Because it was sort of 15, 20 minutes into the film, we were suddenly finding our feet with the film. It just felt wrong to everyone I showed it. They were like, “Okay, yeah it’s good, they’re very good in it, but c’mon.” I’d set-up a degree of motion, which you cannot then just stop and say, “Okay, let’s go over here.” That was the reason why. It wasn’t that I was worried about people disliking him so much. It was more that I have to trust the audience will get this character as we’re on the move. And I think it’s fleeting, and it’s quite subtle, but I think you get the sense of how cocky he is, and how arrogant he is, and how she sort of hates how he is in that first scene where they’re in the boat house. He’s a bit gnawing, and a bit smug, and a bit smart. I thought it’s there. It’s always a process when you’re editing, and you’re sitting down, trying to judge that it’s enough and not too much or too little.  As the film is called Closed Circuit, which was not the original title, could you discuss how that became a major aspect of the film? It’s an element that became more important in the edit, interestingly enough. In the original film, there were references to CCTV Cameras, but I sort of had a Eureka moment when I couldn’t figure out how to do the bomb, in the sense that I didn’t want to open the film with a big pop of slow motion explosions and bodies. It felt to me that I’ve seen so many explosions that felt like they were slightly fetishizing something horrific, and I did not want to open the film this way. You know when the riots happened in the UK two years ago? There was a series of riots where for two weeks people were crashing in. It was basically an underclass [fight]. And it was around the same time we were working on the script and trying to figure certain things out, and on a newspaper over someone’s should on the Tube one day, I saw an image that was in the shape of a cinemascope screen, conveniently enough, and it was just all boxes of perpetrators that they had nailed, because they had been filming it, and they were able to zoom in on cameras of such quality that these could have been head shots. And they were all from a high angle. I went, “Oh my God, there it is.” It felt like the perfect way to open the film, which is from a [certain] point of view, rather than from the point of view of a big splashy opening to a film. If you look at something through CCTV, you immediately wonder, “Who’s looking? Who’s on the other side?” You immediately begin to float the idea, which is what I was very keen on doing; that the antagonist in the film should be like the shark in Jaws. He should be largely invisible for about 40 minutes, basically. [Laughter]. You should be wondering who it is. That felt like to me like an appropriate way of subtly threading that through. As we shot scenes, because they weren’t scripted to be shot with CCTV, Adriano Goldman, a great DP who I had a wonderful time working with, everywhere we went…he would carry an F3 Sony Camera with him, which was what we were shooting the CCTV stuff on. He’d go, “You want a CCTV of this as well,” and I’d go, “Why not? If you can grab it, grab it.” And he’d just put a camera up in the corner, he’d just dot one in the corner of the set. So, when we got into the edit, there was a lot of extra material—because frankly there were times on set where I went, “Adriano, I think it’s a waste of time, I don’t want that,” and he’d get it anyway—and I’d come back and be like, “Thank God. I’m glad he didn’t listen to me!” [Laughter]. When we were editing it, that material had become more interesting because of something we had set up at the start of the film. We threaded it through a little bit more than we had. So to answer your question, it became important as we sort of discovered the film as we were cutting it that that point of view would be more powerful than I thought it would be at first. …It’s more about point of view. In comparison to something like Enemy of the State, I did choose to not have their chase be pursued by people behind banks of cameras. I get it, but it’s been done somehow cinematic, and it would take us down a separate road…It was just about letting a way for viewing these human events to thread its way through the film a bit more than, say, that there is a piece of evidence we have on closed circuit that will become essential. This is a compliment: It reminds me of ‘70s Brian De Palma. I wondered if his name ever came up on set? Yes, yes, very much so. Of course, there were the names of several of the great filmmakers of that period: Coppola, Alan J. Pakula, obviously with Klute, and Sydney Pollack, Three Days of the Condor. I mean that shot when Robert Redford comes out after the massacre in that office, and he sees the nanny reaching into the [stroller] and he thinks, “I am about to die,” when she is actually just straightening the baby? What he achieved in that, which is that feeling when an event happens in the world, you look at the world slightly differently through a slightly paranoid lens, I thought if we could get a little bit of that, that would be a major achievement. About directing actors…I’m going to guess that someone like Jim Broadbent needed one take. He was the most frightening person in the movie for me. You know, for that big scene with Eric, he was eating that breakfast from about 8am to about 4 in the afternoon. He was amazing. And I called him the next day and asked, “How are you feeling?” And he was, “Hmm, alright, alright.” [Laughter]. He was great, because we did a lot of sizes on that. Then we came around and did it the other way. You know, he’s not a one-take man. He’s a theatre actor, and he loves trying different things. He’s a wonderful actor. Out of curiosity in terms of a director’s perspective, because you had to portray the MI5 and the legal system in a certain way, tell us about what surprised you the most about the access and the accountability aspect of it and how far you needed to go in uncovering real corruption and portraying it in this film? Well, the film is conceived unapologetically as a film. Which is to say it’s not a documentary. And the logic of it is a thriller; it’s worked out according to that. But once we got to the dissembling part of the process long before we shot it, we had a very brilliant barrister, Tim Owen, whose idea for the film he first pitched to Working Title…We then were introduced through this barrister to a number of fascinating people. There were a couple of security correspondents who have been covering this forever who we wanted to meet, because we could not get a hold of anybody at MI5, because MI5 won’t return our calls. Because they’re undercover. Well, they pretend not to exist. So, there’s this surreal thing that there’s this huge building next to the Thames, and it’s like something from Despicable Me where it’s like, “We’re not here!” [Laughter]. Open the door! So, they have just this very English smile of amused silence about any attempts to fictionally portray them. So, we had this great long, boozy lunch with this security correspondent who was fantastically indiscrete and told us all sorts of secrets. And we said, “We need to get a hold of somebody whose worked with MI5. I need to ask them questions about actually what they do, so I don’t fall into clichés, and that I can be relaxed about what I’m not putting in the film.” It’s not like I’m trying to puts loads of stuff in. He said, “I have just the person.” We then found ourselves on a flight to meet somebody Dusseldorf. It was like being in a Le Carré novel: We had to fly to meet an ex-MI5 agent who had gone on the run, who’d been a whistleblower, and who fled to Europe with her then-boyfriend, and they separated subsequently, and we were given a place to meet her. We turned up, and there she was. So how do you know there weren’t any close circuit cameras around? Well you don’t know. But after about an hour in this beautiful square in Dusseldorf, we were sitting there drinking very nice German beer and having lunch, I started asking her, “How do you know you’re not being followed?” She said, “The shoes. You always look at the shoes, because shoes are the things people can’t change fast enough when they’re following you.” She said jackets, hats, wigs, anything else, can be done quite quickly. Shoes are the giveaway. So you start looking around the restaurant. And after about an hour with her, the world looked very different to me, and she was quite edgy. Now, I don’t think she thinks that MI5 are going to do anything to her, but her life is, while not anywhere near as extreme as what Edward Snowden is facing right now or Julian Assange, but it is that thing when you blow a whistle on a system, and then you are outside of the pale, [it’s like what I asked the security correspondent]. I said, “Okay, MI5 and killing people. We know MI6 do it, because they’re abroad and involved in all sorts of stuff. But, MI5? Homeland Security? Could they kill anyone? Do they?” He said, “That they don’t tend to like doing it,” in that very English way. “They tend not to like doing that.” So I say, “What are you saying here?” And he said, “They tend to farm it out.” [So I ask], “TO WHO?!” And he said, “Well, you know, they tend to farm it out to gangsters and things like that.” And I was like, “You cannot be serious. We cannot put that in the film, it will just look…” and he’s like, “Well, that’s just the way it is.” And we tried a version of that in the script, and I thought this looks like a cliché. So, that was his sort of way of suggesting that all sorts of stuff goes on that we may suspect goes on, but they get away with. The feeling that came back from everybody who kept looking at the script was, “Oh yeah, that is fine. You’re not stretching the bounds of credibility here.”  Do you see a parallel between stage and the legal system in Britain or otherwise? Yes, very much so. I think that especially in England, I think that the rituals in the English legal system are very theatrical. I think it goes to the core that a certain kind of theatre is still very popular in England, which is set in the form of Shakespeare. There is something to do with the ritual, and the costuming, and the wig, and the “AUTHORITY” of the voices and the rooms, which is fascinating. Of course, there is a big movement on to debunk all of that. And the barrister, who is a very modern barrister, who was advising us, said there has to be a scene where they say, “Wigs off.” Where they put the wigs down. And we did do that, when they said, “We’re in closed session,” and it’s different. It’s informal. And that felt quite interesting. It also affects the casting. I didn’t want a judge who was a crusty old posh English guy who’s half asleep. I asked Kenneth Cranham, who’s an actor I’ve seen in many things…and he came and met me, and he was very nervous. He said, “I only play gangsters, why do you want me for judge?” And I said that I don’t want this to be a crusty, old English geezer that we’ve seen before. Of course, he has a beautiful voice, but he feels like he’s just a bit more alert and that it’s not about class, necessarily. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!