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When 20th Century Fox optioned Red Sparrow in 2013, it purchased the rights to a story that deliberately avoided spy-movie tropes: Jason Matthews’ debut novel features long scenes of spies walking around cities to throw off tails, gaining new sources’ trusts and trying to turn agents into double agents in the place of fancy gadgets, car chases or fight scenes on precarious ledges.
Nevertheless, the story is arriving in theaters this year as a major $69 million-budgeted movie featuring marquee names including Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Charlotte Rampling and Jeremy Irons. Part of the story’s appeal, no doubt, is that its heroine, Dominika, is a “Sparrow,” a Russian agent trained in seducing civilians and foreign agents to elicit information (a real program that the USSR operated in the ‘60s and ‘70s). Another draw is that its author was once a CIA clandestine services officer himself: Matthews spent 33 years working for the CIA and was posted in the southern Mediterranean, Asia and the Caribbean. He has adapted some of those experiences into the Red Sparrow trilogy, whose last installment, The Kremlin’s Candidate, was released Feb. 12.
The resulting film is a cross between an erotic thriller and slow-burn spy procedural, showing both the daily grind of office work and only slightly more glamorous fieldwork. Matthews, who has been a critic of spy movies previously, consulted on the authenticity of the movie. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with him before its release to learn what he thought of the end product.
First of all, give us a little bit of background on yourself — how long were you in the CIA’s operations directorate?
I retired about seven years ago, after 33 years at the agency. My wife and I both were in the clandestine service, which is the part of the CIA that sends officers overseas to foreign capitals under State Department diplomatic covers to live in the country of interest. What we do, basically, I use the metaphor of we’re clandestine journalists: We look for sources of information, humans, and we develop the relationship, we convince them to give us the stories or the secrets, as it were, and we write our stories up and then we protect our sources. The CIA protects its sources by operating mostly at night, after sunset, and we use tradecraft.
“Tradecraft” is the fancy word for skulking around. In certain countries, you cannot be seen, an American diplomat cannot be seen in the company of his or her clandestine source, so we use what they call “impersonal communications,” which is you leave a letter for me in a hiding spot and I pick it up later, that’s called a “dead drop.” And there are a lot of tricks of the trade that protect the identity of the source as a CIA source.
Were you ever posted in Russia?
No, we never lived in Russia. Mostly they were European countries, so southern Mediterranean countries. We had one tour in Asia and one tour of the Caribbean. It was 10 separate tours of duty over the 33 years, and we raised two daughters overseas, and Suzanne and I worked together, we were known as a tandem couple. Many evenings I would lead surveillance, the people who were following us in one direction, and Suzanne pushing the baby carriage would go pick up the dead drop or meet the agent.
Tell me a little bit about how this book began for you and how you drew from your experience in the CIA.
After I retired, the career was so experiential and so intense, 24/7, that when you retire it’s a big life change. A favorite Hollywood trope is that a retired CIA guy gets called back into service; in real life, that rarely happens, when it’s over it’s sort of over. So I started writing the book as a fictionalized account of some of the people we knew, some of the places we lived in, some of the things we did, and it was basically almost sort of therapy, reliving our past careers. The agency demands that they check and read every manuscript that you write for publication, so all three books were passed by the publication review board at the CIA. They want to make sure you don’t inadvertently reveal sources and methods.
Anything get redacted from yours?
A line here, a word there. But I sort of had an intrinsic sense of what was really classified and what wasn’t. Many of the tradecraft techniques are so old, they were used in biblical times. We were talking about “dead drops”? The Judeans were putting down dead drops so the Romans wouldn’t find their secret messages.
When was your book first optioned and did contemporary events have anything to do with that optioning?
That first book, my debut novel, Red Sparrow, was optioned by 20th Century Fox actually even before it was published by Scribner. My literary agent in New York shopped the manuscript around and like all good agents he started a bidding war, and 20th Century Fox picked up the rights to the book.
There was an interesting interim period where the studio was trying to find a director. It went from one director to the other until Francis Lawrence came on the project. I think when that happened, he had Jennifer Lawrence in mind and pitched the part to her and she said yes. They have a longstanding relationship, one of trust and collaboration.
Did you have any role in the production of the film after Francis Lawrence came on board?
I was technical adviser to the scripts. They used to send me scripts, and I would correct or suggest ways to make the tradecraft and even the dialogue sometimes and the action more authentically CIA.
Have you seen the new film?
Absolutely, we just came back from New York and we attended the premiere.
What’s your review?
The movie is a cut above the usual movie fare that we see in theaters these days: It’s atmospheric; it’s espionage noir; it’s pretty violent and pretty extreme, but it grips you. I’ve seen audiences actually stay seated after the lights come back up and they’re actually gripped by the power of the film. The film itself stays pretty faithful to the plot of Red Sparrow, which was gratifying to the author, obviously. And the cast is just A-plus: Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Joel Edgerton, along with Jennifer, I mean, it’s just absolutely amazing.
We visited the set in Budapest for a couple of days, and I was struck with how hard it is to make a film. A five-minute scene can take all day to film and set up and get ready. These actors, they finish a scene and they go back to their trailer to study the next scene, and they’re all working with dialects and Russian accents. It’s quite interesting to see.
You’ve been critical of spy movies portraying the work as a series of spectacular set pieces before. How did this one do, in terms of telling the work like it is?
I think it does a pretty good job. The reality is that CIA officers spend about 10 percent of their time on the street, 90 percent of their time in the office doing writing, submitting proposals to headquarters, trying to finish up their budgets and stuff. That very granular existence comes through in the movie as well. And the relationship between Joel Edgerton and Jennifer is very good, there are no car chases in the movie and it does a really good job depicting the measured pace of operations on the street.
Many people may view this film through the lens of the current investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. You originally published this book in 2013; do you hope viewers take anything in particular away from this story now that we’re in this heightened moment in U.S.-Russia relations?
What’s happening in current events is slightly different than what happens in the movie. But I think audiences might take away that the Cold War never ended, we’re now in the midst of a second Cold War. And different countries react according to their national interests, and the world is a spooky, scary, very challenging place out there. And everybody has to survive.
If you had written the book in 2018, would you have changed the way you told the story in terms of U.S.-Russia relations?
Yeah, I wake up every morning thanking Vladimir Putin for providing so much content for an espionage writer. … 2013 up to now, 2018, I think things have gotten a little more tense, what with Russian active measures, that’s political influence campaigns, and what Vladimir Putin’s goals are to weaken the United States, to weaken NATO and the Atlantic alliance. Whether you’re Democrat or Republican, the partisanship and the toxic atmosphere in Washington really just plays into Putin’s hands. They’re rubbing their hands in the Kremlin and laughing all the way to the bank.
Red Sparrow doesn’t just tell a story that’s timely for its story about Russia, but also for its frank depiction of the harassment, assault and sexualization of women in the workplace. There are some brutal scenes in this movie, and in the book: What was the thinking behind including those details?
Well, you know, the general plot concept I thought was interesting in three parts: No. 1, Dominika, the heroine, was forced to attend this horrible, horrible academy — in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was an actual sparrow school in central Russia. And it must have been a grim, horrible place where women were trained in sexual entrapment and things. So Dominika is forced to do that. No. 2, she falls in love with the CIA person who recruits her to be a spy for the U.S. And in so doing, the mortal danger in her life is multiplied 100 times. So it’s “sexpionage,” a love affair and mortal danger. And I thought to myself: That’s a pretty evocative combination. And I’m glad I made Dominika the main character because it really resonated with people.
Is sexual harassment a particular problem in the intelligence community?
I can tell you in the CIA, it’s pretty evenly balanced: Women have a role in the clandestine service, and in the early days of the CIA — I don’t think it was as enlightened — but my wife rose up through the ranks and handled assets and did unbelievable stuff. On the flip side of that coin, if you’re a woman in the Russian service, you probably have a big challenge ahead of you.
What did it mean to you that Jennifer Lawrence, who is an outspoken advocate for women offscreen, was cast to play Dominika?
Well I was delighted. The politics of it aside, she is a down-to-earth person. She’s charming; she’s a terrific actress; she does a very good job suppressing what must have been in real life the real dread of being in Dominika’s shoes, no prospects, forced to go to that school, and then going to horrible risks. Jennifer’s face transmitted all of those emotions in the film.
What message or experience do you hope viewers and readers of your story walk away with?
After Red Sparrow, I’m not sure if people will come to this conclusion automatically, but the work of intelligence is not car chases and poisoned dart guns and rifles and explosions, but it’s basically intelligence officers trying to establish a relationship with a human being and to answer human needs and recruit them as sources based on a genuine friendship and a genuine satisfaction of human motivations and vulnerabilities.
We used to study the four major motivators of every human being and we developed an acronym that was MICE. That stands for the four basic motivators that we all have: money, ideology, conscience and ego. We all have that in some combination or another, and CIA officers try to chart human motivators of their targets.
What are you working on now?
After the trilogy I told myself I’m going to take a little rest, and the very next morning I found myself staring at my computer screen trying to come up with a new plot. I’m going to leave aside the characters in the trilogy, I think, and try to explore some characters and some more relationships. There’s no scarcity of plot ideas just based on the news every day. We’ve got China; we’ve got Iran; we’ve got North Korea, you name it. It’s a good time to be a spy novelist.
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Sundance Film Festival
Sundance Film Festival