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There's Something About Liars To Breach Director Billy Ray

FED UP: Director Billy Ray (center) details Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe.

By John Barry | Posted 2/14/2007

With his second feature director Billy Ray is once again telling a true story about a compulsive liar. His 2003 Shattered Glass told the story of Stephen Glass, the budding young New Republic journalist who fabricated dozens of stories. With Breach, Ray is taking on the capture of another accomplished, and historically significant, liar--Robert Hanssen, the veteran FBI agent who, after 25 years of selling secrets to the Russians, was finally nabbed by the bureau in February 2001.

"Yeah, liars are fascinating characters," Ray says, speaking on the phone from Colorado, where he is on a publicity tour with Eric O'Neill, the movie's primary consultant. Given that the central character in Breach's spy scandal is locked in a supermax penitentiary for life, Ray hasn't been able to get close to him. So when dealing with this story, Ray decided to focus on another character, one on the sidelines who was willing and eager to tell the story. That person is O'Neill (played in the movie by Ryan Phillippe).

"You have to be specific in terms of where you're focusing," Ray says. "This case had a lot of moving parts around it. But I decided to tell the very specific story about agent Eric O'Neill and what he believed in and how that was affected by his experience with Robert Hanssen."

At the time of Hanssen's arrest O'Neill was a 27-year old with four years in the FBI. He graduated from Auburn University in 1995 and joined the FBI right out of college. He moved to Washington, D.C., and lived near Eastern Market. As a newcomer, he was appointed to be Hanssen's assistant during the several weeks leading up to his arrest.

"Why did the FBI choose me?" O'Neill says, also on the line with Ray. "I think it was because they didn't have anybody else. [Hanssen] was a guy who was very, very savvy."

As Hanssen's assistant, he would pose as a young computer geek who would help Hanssen (played by Chris Cooper) restructure counterintelligence--a position that was, as O'Neill puts it, "fabricated" to keep Hanssen happy while the FBI constructed a case against him. "They needed someone who was young, who Hanssen wouldn't automatically suspect as a tail, and they needed someone with a background in computers. The FBI in 2001 didn't know much about computers."

O'Neill's name isn't found in any of the books published about Hanssen's arrest. "You're not going to find my name in any of those books because they didn't know about me," O'Neill says. "But I was really the guy who knew him closely."

And as a young man, eager to learn the workings of the FBI, O'Neill managed to work himself into Hanssen's confidence. "It was really tough at first," he says. "But I identified pretty quickly that he loved the role of being a mentor. And once I established the relationship that was mentor-mentee, I couldn't shut him up. He'd start to drag the depths of his memory, and then he began to tell me things he shouldn't have known."

Now, O'Neill acknowledges, there's a little envy among other FBI agents who played a part in Hanssen's arrest but aren't mentioned in the movie--or portrayed by Ryan Phillippe. "Well, yeah, there are those who say that, `Well, there were a lot of other people involved in the case,'" he says good-humoredly. "`What makes you the hero?' There is a little bit of that jealousy that I come against."

For Ray, special consultants like O'Neill have played essential parts in his filmmaking process. For Shattered Glass, Ray relied heavily on the advice of Charles Lane, who was the editor of The New Republic when the Glass scandal hit. "With Chuck, it was a slow start," Ray says. "He was a little hesitant initially. When we started, he was still an employee of the publication. So he was a little more careful. [O'Neill], though, was involved with the project before I came aboard."

O'Neill notes that, as primary consultant, he gradually found himself at the center of the Hollywood experience. "I'd never really seen how these movies were made," he says. "The whole experience was surreal and phenomenal. . . . I mean, my wife and I got to sit in the set they built that was our little apartment in Eastern Market."

And Ray appreciated that O'Neill was a detail man, somebody who had insight into Hanssen's personality but also managed to worm his way into the confidence of an agent who had eluded capture for years. "I mean, that's really how I do make films," Ray says. "It's specificity--[being] specific about how exactly people go about their job. Process is really fascinating."

In fact, Breach opens with a clip of a press conference in which Attorney General John Ashcroft announces Hanssen's capture. "I wanted to make it clear at the beginning," Ray says. "I wasn't interested in the what, I was interested in the how."

And Ray notes that he had an unusual amount of cooperation from a government that, in recent years, hasn't been all that open to revealing details. "They probably figured that this would be a great recruiting tool," he says. "And I'm happy with that. I'm a big fan of the FBI and I love what they do."

O'Neill, meanwhile, left the FBI immediately after the Hanssen case was closed. "The core of the decision [to leave] was to focus on our marriage and to create an environment where we could build a family," he says. "And doing the sort of undercover work with the FBI that I was doing wasn't great for that."

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