Breach: Interview with Director Billy Ray

The story of one man’s betrayal, “Breach” is a dramatic thriller set inside the halls of the FBI, an agency that serves as gatekeeper of the nation’s most sensitive and volatile secrets.
The film is directed by Billy Ray, who previously explored the theme of deception and betrayal with the acclaimed expose “Shattered Glass,” and co-written by Ray, Adam Mazer (“Shelter from the Storm) and William Rotko (“Freze”).

Inspired by True Events

In February 2001, renowned FBI operative Robert Hanssen was found guilty of treason against America. Over a period of more than two decades, Hanssen systematically and deliberately sold his country’s key intelligence to the former Soviet Union.

In “Breach,” Oscar-winner Chris Cooper (“American Beauty,” “Adaptation”) stars as Hanssen, one of the most notorious spies in American history. Ryan Phillippe (“Crash,” “Flags of Our Fathers”) joins Cooper as Eric O’Neill, the young agent-in-training, handpicked by the FBI to help draw Hanssen from his cover.

When O’Neill is promoted out of his low-level surveillance job and into the headquarters of the FBI, his dream of becoming a full-fledged agent gets close to reality. Even more impressive, O’Neill is selected to work for renowned operative Hanssen within “information assurances,” a new division created to protect all classified FBI intelligence.

The bureau asks O’Neill to use Hanssen’s growing trust of the apprentice to slowly draw the traitor out of deep cover. Now engaged in a lethal game of spy-versus-spy, O’Neill finds himself fighting to bring down Hanssen before the treacherorus double agent can destroy him, his family and the nation they are both sworn to serve.

Along with Cooper and Phillippe, the ensemble cast includes Laura Linney (“Kinsey,” “You Can Count on Me”) as Special Agent Kate Burroughs, the FBI staffer in charge of O’Neill; Dennis Haysbert (“Far from Heaven,” “Jarhead”), as Special Agent Dean Plesac, the man who teams with Burroughs to bring Hanssen down; Kathleen Quinlan (Oscar nominee for “Apollo 13”) as Hanssen devoutly religious and trusting wife Bonnie; Gary Cole (“The Ring Two,” “Talladega Nights”) as Special Agent Rich Garces; and new comer Caroline Dhavernas as Juliana, the strong-minded young woman newly wedded to O’Neill.

Behind the camera talent includes Tak Fujimoto (Manchurian Candidate, Sixth Sense), editor Jeffrey Ford (Family Stone, Shattered Glass), production designer Wynn Thomas (Beautiful Mind), and costume designer Luis M. Seqeira (Breaking Point). The film is produced by Bobby Newmyer, Scott Straus, Scott Kroopf, Adam Kerims, Sidney Kimmel, and William Horberg.

The Story

The story of “Breach” (as learned by the public) began only several months before 9/11. On February 18, 2001, as the result of an ongoing investigation by a committed team of more than 500 men and women in the FBI, Special Agent Robert Hanssen was arrested and charged with committing espionage.

Throughout his 25-year career with the Bureau, Hanssen spent the last 22 years of his ervice selling thousands of pages of valuable classified documents to Russia during the Cold Warand subsequently to the former Soviet Union. His betrayal included identification of KGB agents who were spying on behalf of America, as well as the U.S. template for relocation of the president in the event of catastrophic attack.

Snapping the Rights

Producers Bobby Newmyer and Scott Strauss of Outlaw Productions snapped up the rights to O’Neill story and, along with O’Neill, brought on screenwriting team Adam Mazer and William Rothko to craft the early versions of the script. During script developments, Newmyer watched writer-director Billy Ray’s 2003 drama Shattered Glass. Newm felt the filmmaker’s treatment of the true story of journalist Stephen Glass’s rise and fall would offer just the sensibility Eric O’neill and Robert Hanssen’s story needed. Ray joined the team not only to write, but also to direct and revamped “Breach.” Along with Scott Kroopf of Intermedia Films, the filmmakers brought the project to Universal, which greenlit the film.

“We agreed that this was a truly interesting story and a great concept for a movie, made all the more fascinating because it was based on a true story,” says producer Kroopf. “We also believed that Billy was the ideal guy to do this job, that he had the vision needed to pull it all together.”

Ray’s Favorite Subject

Ray reflects: “I tend to be attracted to stories that are about deception. Or maybe I’m just attracted to characters that have that split down the middlewho are able to compartmentalize, to live one kind of life on the outside, and a very different interior life. It makes for more interesting stories.”

Hanssen as a Man

“Hanssen” was a man of startling contradictions who did an unimaginable amount of damage to his country. He successfully spied on behalf of the Soviets and Russians for 22 years before being caught, so clearly he was an intelligent individual. But at the end of the day, he is an evil man and a traitor to this country.”

Casting Chris Cooper as Hanssen

With the project greenlit, the production team would turn its focus to casting the talent who would become the key players in one of the country’s biggest takedowns. “From the beginning, Billy Ray was taken with Chris Cooper,” recalls producer Kroopf. “He felt that Chris was the epitome of Robert Hanssen, that he could play the darkness of the character, but also find the humanity. The word ‘chameleon describes Cooper to a T. This character is all about shades and layers and colors and contradictions.”

“The character of Hanssen is alternately very punishing, then seducing,” explains Ray. “His intelligence becomes clear eight off the bat, but so does his oddness, his quirkiness. When he looks at you, it’s like being looked at by an X-ray machine. He has the ability to shake your confidence in yourself. There aren’t a lot of actors who can pull that off without twisting themselves into a pretzel, but Chris Cooper was born to play Hanssen.”

Cooper, who over the years has chosen work from his Oscar-wining role of Colonel Frank Fitts in “American Beauty” to the conflicted jockey Tom Smith in “Seabiscuit,” cites the smartness of the material and the complexity of the character as informing his decision to play Hanssen. “Good material is hard to find,” offers Cooper. “This jumped out at mea good script and an unusual character told very well. Hanssen is probably the most contradictory character I’ve ever played. There is a whole opposite world he’s living in, and it’s often a complete contradiction.”

Of playing a traitor, Cooper relates: “I really had to work on having something else to think about while playing a scene. When audiences see the film, I think that concept will become self-explanatory.”

Eric O’Neill as an Agent

A member of this team of federal agents, Eric O’Neill was a 26 year old special surveillance operative who, only three months earlier, had been recruited by the team to work as an assistant to Hanssen. The operatives planted O’Neill in the hopes that he could gain Hanssen’s trust, further drawing the suspected mole out of cover. After the arrest, O’Neill was reassigned to his original position; shortly thereafter, he left the Bureau to concentrate on his law studies. Once out of the Bureau, O’Neill recounted his experience of working with Hanssen, and the unique relationship that developed between them, to his brother David. David convinced him that the story would make a fascinating picture. O’Neill then sought and was granted approval by the FBI to move forward with the idea.

Ryan Phillippe as O’Neill

For Ryan Phillippe, who was tapped to play the role of Eric O’Neill, the opportunity ton work opposite Chris Cooper was a huge bonus. He says: “Chris is in my estimation one of the best actors working today. The idea of getting to work opposite him doing this material and having the ability to learn from him just blew me away.”

Phillippe also acknowledges he was drawn to the project because it was inspired by a true story. “There is just so much knowledge to draw from, if you’re doing something that actually happened. There are books to read on the events and people you can interview who lived the story. It’s valuable for an actor to have access to these kind of resources.”

Of his character, Phillippe says: “Eric O’Neill is ambitious, smart and, at times, maybe a little too cocky for his own good. He takes his job seriously but keeps a sense of humor. Hanssen’s idiosyncrasies and annoying habits get on Eric’s nerves; I liked the idea of seeing Eric’s frustration, and how he lets the guy know he irritates him.”

Recalls producer Scott Strauss: “It’s rare that you have the benefit of a protagonist who serves as consultant on the set and can find an actor who favors him so much. Every time I saw Ryan and Eric near one another, I did a double take. Ryan nails Eric’s mannerisms and idiosyncracies.”

Laura Linney: Instant Authenticity

Two- time Oscar-nominee Laura Linney  plays Special Agent Kate Burroughs, O’Neill’s liaison in the takedown. Ray observes: “It was a challenge to find the right actress for the part of Kate: We knew we needed someone very special to play the role. Kate is integral to the script, but her role is not the starring one. It’s tricky to go to a major actress and say, ‘You won’t be the star, but we really think you’re fantastic.’ We were thrilled when Laura Linney agreed to take on Kate. She brings to the party the same thing Chris does: Instant authenticity.”

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