In our second part of our Official Secrets set of interviews, I sat down with the real-life subjects of the film to talk about their portrayals on the big screen, the current political climate and what can we take away from the movie. I talked to Katherine Gun, the GCHQ translator who discovers the classified email that urged the blackmailing of UN members to ensure a yes vote on the controversial war resolution while Martin Bright was a reporter at the British newspaper, The Observer. Here’s your inside scoop!
When the producers and director of the film approached the both of you, that they were going to tell the story of your lives, were you apprehensive or were you ok to do that?
Martin Bright: What do you think, Katherine? Were you apprehensive?
Katherine Gun: Well, yes. This has been quite a long process. It started with a book by a lady named Marsha Mitchell, and she approached me in 2006 to tell my story, and I was very reluctant at first, but she was very persistent, she was very kind and persuasive and eventually I gave in. And so, it was kind of a very gradual process. A script was developed and eventually, it became this project, which I’m very proud to stand beside, and I’m very glad that it was the way it’s turned out to be. But yes, when I first met Gavin Hood in London, I was a bit reticent. Here is this big shot Hollywood director coming in. I was thinking, is he going to turn it into some high-octane action film? But he was very true to his word. He wanted to tell it truthfully, as factual as possible, so that reassured me. And within a day, I was feeling very comfortable in his presence.
How about you, Martin?
MB: Yeah, it was not dissimilar for me, in the sense that, obviously it’s my story as a human being. But there’s an extra element for me which is the journalistic element. So, as a journalist, I was very keen to see this as an accurate portrayal of events, because it’s an ongoing story. There are still unanswered questions we still need to follow through on some of the issues that were raised in the film. So for me, I wanted to be as close to events as possible, because I did not want to be misrepresented as a human being. But at the same time, it was very important for me to be accurate because this is about history and this is about journalism.
Absolutely. Katherine, so I was told you were approached by Keira Knightly to portray you. What type of advice did you give her to make sure that the story that she’s portraying is accurate and is factual?
KG: I met Keira and of course, I was very nervous to meet her for the first time—
You were nervous to meet Keira Knightly?
KG: (laughs) Yeah, I was very nervous. But she’s lovely, and she made me feel very at ease, and she was very keen to know how I felt. In each step of the way, she wanted me to tell—she asked me a lot of questions and sort of wanted to elicit, “how did you feel about that time?” and “what did it make you think?” She was really trying to get into character, but not in a way where she was mimicking me.
Which was really great, that she chose to do that. I think she discussed it with Gavin, bu she didn’t feel happy to copy my mannerisms like that, because I’m not really a famous person and nobody really knows me, and hopefully, people will think, “Katherine Gun’s like Keira Knightly.” Alright, I’ll still be anonymous! But, yeah, so I’m glad she took that route and she just wanted to be—portray, what it would be like to be in that position herself, and how would she react? And I think she’s done a good job of putting that across.
That’s good. Now Martin, I understand that you actually worked with Matt Smith in Party Animals. So, tell me about your experience when you worked with him to portray you?
MB: It was an interesting process. I had worked with Matt on one of his very early TV projects, which was a TV series about young researchers in the House of Commons in Parliament in the UK.
It was very obvious at that stage to the producers of that project what a star he was likely to become. And so, it was very easy then to approach him because I had worked with him as an advisor on that project, when it came to doing this part. What was interesting was that I was very keen to emphasize that he had, generally speaking, portrayed heroes, or very larger than life characters. He played Doctor Who, famously.
Yes, he did.
MB: And he played Prince Philip. In my case, the only advice I could really give him was that…journalists can be portrayed as heroes, of course, but that complex figure as journalists, we have to be a little bit sneaky. We are ambiguous figures. And so, I was very pleased when he started to act, that he wasn’t impersonating me.
That he wasn’t going for the big, heroic journalist that was a super hero character, who was taking on the baddies. It was a complex and subtle portrayal.
This question is for the both of you, especially since I graduated with a journalism degree from my college, and especially with the political climate these days, I want to know what do you feel has changed about journalism given what happened in the United Kingdom and also here in the states?
MB: It’s a very important question, how this film relates to the political journalistic situation we find ourselves in today.
MB: In some senses, I feel nostalgic about the period of 2003.
MB: Because we’re in a situation where the old-fashioned idea that you could hold politicians to account, that if your politicians were lying to you and you caught them out in a lie, it mattered. So, what we were doing during the period of Katherine’s leak was taking Bush and Blair, and showing that they had mislead the British and American people. And it mattered because, they cared. It mattered because they cared about the truth. Whatever you think of Bush and Blair, if you called them out in a lie, it mattered.
The difficulty now, when we catch out politicians—and this applies on both sides of the Atlantic—if you catch them out in a lie, they don’t care. So, it’s a whole new challenge for journalism, when we’re moving into this post-truth arena, and I’m not sure I have the answers of how to deal with that, except that quite possibly, we just need to return to old principles of accountability and just hold our nerve as journalists.
KG: Yeah, I think it’s easy to become echo chambers and it’s easy to fall into the trap of group-think, which I think did happen in the run up to the war with Iraq. So, for the lone journalists or the few journalists who stick their necks out and maybe get some flack from their organizations or flack from the administration, “knuckle down, you’re being un-patriotic,” or those sorts of allegations; we should support those journalists and say, “no, hang on a minute. We’re doing our job. Our job is not to parrot what you say but to challenge what you say,” and to make sure, as you say, you keep holding them to account.
MB: It’s perhaps all the more important.
KG: It’s just as, if not more important to do that.
Why should we see this film based on your lives, from the American point of view?
MB: Ah, ok. It is, on the face of it, a very British film. It has a number of very prominent British actors, it’s a British story about a British whistleblower in a British institution, the Government Communications Headquarters—GCHQ, our equivalent of the NSA.
MB: But there are huge implications for America. Some of our questions are unanswered questions that can only be addressed on this side of the Atlantic. So, why was this operation ordered? Who ordered it? We have the name Frank Koza, who is the man who sent the memo from the NSA to GCHQ to order this operation to spy on the United Nations. But who ordered him to do it or was he acting alone? So, there’s this whole network of unanswered questions, and in particular, because the American networks and American journalists did not follow this story at the time, I think there is a duty of American journalists to look at it now as a piece of history and follow it up now.
KG: Yeah, I would agree. I think to add to that, I would suggest it’s a story, hopefully, will resonate with everyone who sees this film. It’s about asking yourself what you would do in a similar situation. I’m not suggesting that everyone is working at the Intelligence Services, but you know all of us, most of us do work for somebody, as our director likes to say. And so, what would you do if you were faced with a difficult choice like this? And I think that is an important question for, especially now for people to ask themselves.
Official Secrets – Now Playing IN THEATRES and be sure to check out my first Official Secrets interview with director Gavin Hood.