Interview: Billy Ray on “Secret in Their Eyes”

Posted on November 18, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Copyright 2015 STX Entertainment
Copyright 2015 STX Entertainment

It was a thrill to get a chance to interview one of my favorite screenwriters, Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass,” “Breach”) about the new film he both wrote and directed, “Secret in Their Eyes,” a thriller starring three Oscar winners, Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Nicole Kidman. It is the story of a horrific murder and its impact on the lives of three people, a prosecutor named Claire (Kidman), and two FBI investigators, Jess (Roberts) and Ray (Ejiofor). The movie goes back and forth in time, and I asked Ray about the skillful way that he as both writer and director allowed the story to unfold. “The story to me is about the character played by Chiwetel, Ray, he and Jess and Claire played by Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman, they walked through a minefield 13 years ago and suffered horrible effects as a results. Now its 13 years later and Ray has come back to them and said, “Let’s walk through that again,” and they both know it’s a disaster although they know kind of on different level why it’s a disaster. But they both know as well that it is inevitable that they’re going to walk into that minefield again. And I felt it was really important to paint a picture of how the steps that they are taking now in 2015 completely mirrored the steps that they were taking in 2002. And that there was a certain inevitability to the tragedy in both time periods so you need to show the plot progression in 2002 with exactly the same plot progression now.”

What signals do you use to let the audience know what year we are in?

“You have a couple of cues. You have some hair and the whiteness in Ray’s beard. You have cultural references. If people are talking about 9/11 you know you’re in 2002. You have the character played by by Dean Norris, Bumpy. If he’s limping, it must be 2015. So we tried to drop as many of those in as we could without hammering it. It has always been a movie that requires some attention; I think that’s a good thing. I want the viewers of this movie to be actively in engaged in trying to piece together the puzzle of it. And part of that has to do with trusting your audience enough to know that it might take them 10 seconds into a scene to know exactly where they are but that they would be engaged by that. They will be with us.

This film is based on an Argentinian movie that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. In the original film the stadium scene was a big showpiece and Ray does the same here with a chase scene in Dodgers Stadium. Tell me about the challenge of filming that scene.

First let me tell you that I grew up in Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley and Dodgers Stadium was and is a cathedral to me. It’s one of the most important, iconic places of my entire life. So once I knew that we were going to be shooting the movie here in Los Angeles there was nowhere else I was going to put that scene except Dodgers stadium. It required a lot of begging, it was me personally hammering the LA Dodger organization, begging pleading, cajoling, doing everything I could to get them to say yes and eventually they did. And then of course we had to fight to make sure that we had the money in our budget to shoot it the right way which was its own challenge because we didn’t have an unlimited amount of money to spend on the movie. But it was extremely important to me because there are certain moments in the original that I just felt had to be honored and that soccer stadium sequence was certainly one of them, you know you can’t do that in Los Angeles and put it in a soccer stadium it is not the same thing here in an American context.

So for me to pick baseball which is a uniquely Americans sport and then to put it in a place that’s so well-known like Dodgers stadium with that great LA skyline certainly behind it, I just felt that that was going to be a great image and whatever we were going to do to get it we just had to do it.

So what was it like to film there?

We originally thought that we were going to have three full nights to shoot there. The schedule got compressed so we had to do it in two. So we had to be extremely prepared and very precise. We scouted dodger stadium eight times as a crew to make sure that that we know exactly what you are doing and that the camera was going to be in the right place. The trickiest thing in the world of course was that opening shot, the one that comes from behind hill and then over the parking lot over the stadium and then lands on Chiwetel and Dean and there was a lot of debate about how to do with that. At one point we thought it was going to be a drone but it turned out way too complicated because drones can’t fly at night, they can’t fly in a certain level of wind and they can’t fly in any rain at all. So if any of those eventualities took place were going to be scrubbed and that was going to be a disaster.

But someone invented this thing called the clouds cam which is a camera head that exists on a 30 foot long umbilical cord that hangs out of a helicopter so the helicopter could fly the camera head over the stadium and over the crowd but the helicopter would be high up above the cloud that they wouldn’t get the prop wash to blow their hair. So that’s what we did. It took 14 takes but we got what we wanted and moved on. It was designed actually to fly in between the crevices of ice glaciers so that they can get documentary footage inside glaciers. It doesn’t bounce and it doesn’t bobble at all. It stays very smooth and very steady.

There’s a struggle in the film between those who want to pursue the person responsible for a horrible murder and those who are more concerned with preventing future catastrophes.

Well to me, the movie is about the cost of obsession. And every beat in the movie turns on the idea of obsession all the way down to how they find the bad guys through their own obsession. Ray and Jess and to a slightly different degree Claire have an obsession about this case but they are running into people who have an equally valid obsession about public safety and that is why we set it against the backdrop of the repercussions of 9/11. I felt it was really important that the DA played by Fred Molina and the character played by Michael Kelly, have a valid point of view. And they do have a valid point of view which is that in those months right after 9/11, with the level of terror that was so great that if someone had come to me and said we can guarantee you that there will never be another 9/11 but we’ve got to take your civil liberties and we’ve got to take everybody’s liberties away, I would say, “Great, where do I sign?” You’re still in shock.

When you juxtapose that against the necessity for justice for this one case you then have the makings of good drama because everybody in the room has a completely valid and urgent point of view and they can defend it with great authenticity. That’s where we’re going for. I would love for this movie to be part of a larger conversation about the merits of this one case versus the needs of the public at large to be safe. It’s tricky and it’s nuanced and it’s not easy which is why I like it as a subject matter for this movie.

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