Rendition with Gavin Hood

Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, and Meryl Streep head an all-star ensemble cast in “Rendition,” a political thriller from director Gavin Hood (director of the Oscar-winning film, “Tsotsi”), which takes a look at the complex political issues surrounding the U.S. government's policy of “extraordinary rendition,” abducting foreign nationals deemed a threat to national security for detention and interrogation in secret overseas prisons.

“Rendition” explores the gray area between left and right and right and wrong and finds no easy answers. Director Gavin Hood, whose film Tsotsi became the first film from South Africa to win an Oscar, makes his American feature debut directing screenwriter Kelley Sane's story. The film had its world premiere on September 7, 2007 at the 32nd Toronto Film Festival. New Line Cinema will release Rendition nationwide on October 19, 2007.

Writer Kelley Sane first decided to write “Rendition” after a debate with his friend, Mark Martin, about the American government's little-known policy of “extraordinary rendition.” Sane remembers, “Mark Martin, who is a co-producer, and I were talking about the potential for abuse, and how it seemed to not follow the lines of the American ideal. Mark suggested that I write a script. I had to think about it because watching someone getting picked up and tortured doesn't necessarily seem that cinematically interesting. On deeper thought, what really struck me was the fact that if someone disappeared, their family would have no idea what happened. Thousands of people disappear in this country every year, for various reasons, and I could imagine the heartache of not knowing where a loved one is.”

When it came time to look for a director, producer Steve Golin thought of Gavin Hood, who won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film for directing 2005's Tsotsi, a compelling drama which traces six days in the life of a ruthless young gang leader in the Johannesburg township of Soweto who ends up caring for a baby accidentally kidnapped during a car-jacking.

“Gavin is from South Africa, so he has dealt with a lot of very interesting political situations,” says Golin. “He's grown up in a political environment, more so than a lot of Americans. I thought he would be very sensitive to the material. He has had friends taken away who disappeared without a trace. I thought this material would be something he would have an affinity for and connect with.”

Hood happened to be looking for a special piece of material for his follow-up to Tsotsi and his move into American filmmaking. “When I am looking for a project I really believe a great film does two things,” says Hood. “First of all it entertains you and keeps you excited and thrilled to be in your seat. But I also believe great films leave you with something to talk about afterwards. These are the films where you go out afterwards and have a really good discussion, debate, even an argument with your friends or your partner. That was what was so great about reading the screenplay for Rendition. It was a real page-turner and a good thriller that had me wondering, “What's going to happen next” But at the same time it was raising profound and difficult questions that don't have easy answers. I remember finishing the script and just sitting for days wondering 'what do I think about this' It was an exciting story but it also left me with a lot to think about.”

Producer Bill Todman, Jr. was happy to have Hood on board as director, “Gavin brings an innate ability to tell a story without having to use any devices. “Tsotsi” was all subtitled. And you could literally turn off the volume and follow the story. He was a natural choice as a director, as he has this ability to weave all these intricate stories together.”

Multi-Layered Storylines

One of the first challenges facing the filmmakers was in tackling the script's multi-layered storylines. Hood explains, “You have to keep everything in balance and let every storyline arc sufficiently because essentially you are making four or five short films and weaving them together. One of the challenges I found exciting was how to get the maximum emotional impact, the maximum plot and story impact in the least amount of time so that you keep your audience moving. That is a tremendous challenge from a storytelling point of view and very exciting because there is no room for fat.”

Hood and screenwriter Kelley Sane teamed up for further work on the script prior to the start of production. “When I initially read Kelley's script, I thought it was structurally brilliant. He has this tremendous twist that happens at the end of the film that really catches you by surprise. All the characters are beautifully drawn in terms of coming from different angles of the story. So my work with Kelley was not about trying to create the story, since he'd already done that beautifully. It was a matter of finding rhythm and pace, which is a director's job, and to find the emotional arcs of these stories and whether we were in balance within the story. And, then, of course, to ask about the balance from almost a legal point of view. Are we making the argument for the necessity for torture and the other argument against torture Are these arguments balanced in the film Because the one thing Kelley and I didn't want to do was to tell the audience what to think.”

Casting

With screenplay in hand, the filmmakers set out to find the ensemble cast that would bring these characters to life, ultimately bringing together some of the screen's most accomplished actors.

Reese Witherspoon

For the role of Isabella El-Ibrahimi, whose must seek answers to her husband's unexplained disappearance, the filmmakers pursued Reese Witherspoon, who won an Oscar Award for her role as June Carter Cash in 2006's “Walk the Line.” “Obviously Reese is a real all-American girl next door,” says producer Steve Golin. “I think she is someone everyone can relate to–if this scenario can happen to Reese, it can happen to anyone.”

“Reese is incredibly disciplined and is always completely prepared,” says Gavin Hood. “She knows exactly where she is going. The only thing that was difficult for us was that it was my first experience working with an actress of her caliber and her fame “so I'd never before experienced the sight of the paparazzi all over the place!”

Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal, an Oscar nominee for his role in Ang Lee's “Brokeback Mountain,” signed on to portray CIA analyst Douglas Freeman. “Jake plays a young man whose sense of right and wrong turns upside down when he finds himself thrown into an extraordinary situation,” says producer Steve Golin.

Hood adds, “Jake had a very difficult role because Douglas in a way is the moral compass to the film. He's an observer, much like the audience. He is the one character whose opinion on the question of rendition is ambivalent. You don't know which way he is going to go or quite what he's feeling as the events of the film unfold around him. Jake did a brilliant job of knowing that his role as an actor was to say and do very little, yet absorb and emotionally reflect a great deal.”

Meryl Streep

Two-time Oscar Award-winner Meryl Streep portrays Corrine Whitman, head of counter terrorism for the CIA. Gavin Hood relished the opportunity to work with the legendary actress. “Possibly the greatest privilege on this movie was to work with Meryl, and I know it sounds sort of sycophantic to say, but it is true,” he says. “She is an icon and I can only say she is a consummate professional and so kind to everyone and completely disciplined. When you are ready, she is ready.”

Rounding out the international cast are American born Peter Sarsgaard and Alan Arkin (a recent Oscar winner for “Little Miss Sunshine”); Israeli actor Igal Naor; Moroccan actress Zineb Oukach; and Algerian actor Moa Khouas.

The topic of “extraordinary rendition” was a daily topic of discussion on the set– from the actors to the filmmakers to the international crew. It remained a hot button issue that fueled a lot of differing opinions. “My reaction when I first learned of 'extraordinary rendition' was pretty much disbelief that it was happening,” says Reese Witherspoon. It just doesn't seem altogether American, to detain people without due process, and without the opportunity to be charged with a crime and to go through a proper trial. And that there is no legal recourse for people who have endured this type of torture is shocking. I am really proud to be part of a project that is bringing this practice to the public's attention.”

“I think one of the dilemmas for us in the West, and in particular here in America, is we find torture unpalatable,” says Gavin Hood. “We don't do that. But the attitude is, 'hey, if it's gotta be done, just don't tell me about it. And that's where you get the concept of outsourcing the torture–well, these countries do it anyway, so let them do it.' That's a moral cop-out. Just because you are removed from it doesn't mean you are not involved.
“The other question is, does torture work It's apparent to enormous numbers of military lawyers, FBI agents, CIA agents Not just myself. It's apparent to a great number of people actually involved in the process that it frequently results in poor intelligence. The information you get is often bad because the person you are getting it from is terrified and wants whatever you are doing to them to stop. They will say what you want to hear so you will stop torturing them.”
Executive producer Bill Todman, Jr. feels that “If a person is rendered and our government let's that person go and they go to New York and blow up another building, is that right or wrong If a government renders somebody and treats them and interrogates them in ways we would never do in the United States, and they are innocent . . .is that right or wrong I am not sure if I have a firm perspective about it”
“In terms of survival of this country, and fighting for everything that we started out with, I do think the way we deal with things will have to change somewhat,” says Peter Sarsgaard. “It's just by how much. And if by compromising what we do, do we become a country that we don't want to be Is it important to sacrifice one man for the benefit of 7,000. I think it's wrong but it is a compelling argument. Rendition is something that our government could decide not to do anymore. But even if rendition goes away, there will be something else, some other way. We will be living with this for a long time.”