Exclusive: Director Billy Ray Talks ‘Secret In Their Eyes’ & Filmmaking

Billy Ray is that rare combination of a successful screenwriter (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips) who’s also a first rate director (Shattered Glass, Breach). His latest movie is “Secret In Their Eyes,” a topnotch thriller starring Julia Roberts and Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a remake of the Oscar winning Argentinean feature “El Secreto De Sus Ojos.” Thankfully, Ray’s version isn’t a step by step regurgitation of the film, as it manages to carve its own singular narrative.

During my one-on-one interview with Mr. Ray, he talked about how his three directing efforts are thematically tied together. He also discusses some of his early writing influences and elaborates on what some of today’s movies desperately lack. Finally, he briefly discusses “The Last Tycoon,” a project that received a pilot order from Amazon Studios:

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Secret In Their Eyes

The theme of self-deception filters through your work as a director. Is that a conscious decision or is storytelling more of an intuitive process for you?

Well, I think it’s more strategic than that. When you’re writing, you always want your character to have subtext. You always want them to be saying one thing and meaning something else. So I seem to be drawn to stories in which that subtext becomes very organic.

When you’re telling stories about people who have big lies that they are trying to protect, everything they say has subtext. They’re never saying what they exactly mean and I think that yields the most interesting performances.

Growing up as a writer, where there scribes or filmmakers who influenced you on a deep level?

Oh yeah. William Goldman (“Marathon Man,” “The Princess Bride”). Alvin Sargent (“Paper Moon,” “Ordinary People”). Francis Ford Coppola. I think about the work of Norman Jewison (“In The Heat of the Night,” “Moonstruck”), George Roy Hill (“The Sting”). Obviously Steven Spielberg and Alan Pakula (“Presumed Innocent”). Pakula is a big one for me.

That’s a great list of writers and filmmakers. Is there a certain spirit that’s lost with most of today’s films?

The thing that seems like is lost is that people are trying to make movies now that are for everyone. They are movies that are attempting to hit all four quadrants. When you try to make a movie for everyone, you end up making a movie for no one.

A movie has to have a point of view, and if you rob it of its point of view, what’s interesting about it? It feels to me like, and it’s not that I’m fascinated by my own process, I’m not. But if I were to look at “Shattered Glass,” “Breach” and “Secret In Their Eyes” – what they have in common is each of those three movies (has) this moral ambiguity that gives way to perfect moral clarity and then someone has to figure out what to do about it. I think that’s what ties those three movies together.

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR stars in SECRET IN THEIR EYES.
CHIWETEL EJIOFOR stars in SECRET IN THEIR EYES. Photo Credit: Karen Ballard © 2015 STX Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Can you talk about collaborating with Chiwetel Ejiofor?

Look, he’s scarily talented to me. Fiercely intelligent. I can tell you that’s a brain that never shuts down. I’m not sure what happens when he sleeps, but I think he’s secretly playing Brick Breaker or something.

He just has a restless, relentless talent with a gigantic engine. The thing about Chiwetel is he can’t say words he doesn’t believe. They just won’t come out of his mouth. So you make sure that the script doesn’t have any of that in it.

Secret In Their Eyes
(L-R) JULIA ROBERTS, NICOLE KIDMAN, and CHIWETEL EJIOFOR star in SECRET IN THEIR EYES. Photo Credit: Karen Ballard © 2015 STX Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

How much work did you and your cinematographer, Daniel Moder, put into the visual design of the film?

Well it was my DP Danny Moder and my production designer Nelson Coates, who are fantastic, and we wanted very much to capture a very specific feeling about Los Angeles because I thought it would bake really nicely into the movie.

Essentially we wanted to show the part of Downtown L.A. where people actually work. It wasn’t the L.A. of Brentwood or the beaches, it certainly wasn’t going to be Beverly Hills. We wanted the 9 to 5 L.A., which is what I think we got.

Can you briefly talk about adapting “The Last Tycoon” and its inherent challenges?

You want to be worthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald – that’s the biggest challenge. He’s one of the giants of all time but you also want to have access points for the audience that they wouldn’t expect from a classic which I think we’ve accomplished. I feel pretty good about the script right now.

For the DVD/Blu-ray release of Secret In Their Eyes, will there be deleted scenes?

Absolutely, I love deleted scenes.

Maybe a director’s commentary?

A commentary which I’m going to do with Mark Johnson, who’s my producer. I don’t know what other features are on there – but there are deleted scenes that I’m quite fond of that I’m very happy will get some life.

How was your meeting with Juan Jose Campanella, the director of El Secreto De Sus Ojos?

Well, when I first decided to do this, I contacted Juan Campanella and I said, ‘I need to take you to lunch.’ I was very nervous – the guy had just won an Oscar and I said to him, ‘Look, I’m going to take this on but I’ll be changing some things of yours and I really want your blessing.’ He could have been a jerk to me but instead he said ‘Before I went and made my movie, I took the novelist to lunch and had the same conversation with him. I had his blessing and he read the script and he loved it. And it turns out he loves the movie.’

Thank you for your time.

Thank you so much.

“Secret In Their Eyes” opens Friday, November 20.

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