'Secret in Their Eyes' Writer-Director on Making a "More Muscular Version" of Argentina's Oscar Winner

'Secret in Their Eyes' Still - H 2015
STX Entertainment

Billy Ray reveals how he decided which elements of the 2010 best foreign-language Oscar winner to keep and change for the U.S. version starring Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

In 2010, Argentina's El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) won the best foreign-language film Oscar and one of the people who'd seen and loved the movie on its path to Oscar glory was writer-director Billy Ray.

He saw it as part of an Academy group that was considering the movie for best foreign-language honors and was "completely floored by it," Ray tells The Hollywood Reporter.

But when Ray was asked by producer Mark Johnson to adapt it into a U.S. version, he was reluctant to tamper with the original film.

"I was a little hesitant at first because it was so great and had set the bar so high, I thought, 'Why invite that kind of scrutiny if you don't have to?'," Ray says. "But I loved the story and felt that there was the possibility in it for a more muscular version of the thriller — a more American kind of story. And that seemed like a very worthy challenge to me."

Explaining what he means by "a more muscular version," Ray says, "There are thriller components that our movie has that our movie weaves into in a way that the original does not."

"In the original, in the current day story, the character played by Chiwetel [Ejiofor] has written a novel and he's just trying to get [another character] to read it," Ray adds. "In our story, there's a mystery happening in 2015 that's completely mirroring the mystery that's happening in 2002. That lends itself to a certain muscularity in terms of the storytelling."

In the U.S. version of the film, which hit theaters on Friday, Ejiofor, Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman play a team of law-enforcement officials trying to apprehend Jess' (Roberts) daughter's killer. The pursuit of the alleged murderer takes place both in present-day scenes and 13 years earlier, shortly after the crime occurred.

The dual mysteries "required scenes and arcs and all sorts of dilemmas that the original movie didn't have," Ray says.

Ray says that he and his team "were trying to tell a slightly different story" with their U.S. adaptation, which "created its own storytelling problems" and included some tweaks to elements of the original.

For one, Ray says he wanted to do a version of the original's soccer stadium sequence, which plays out in the U.S. version in Dodger Stadium.

"You can't really do that in America in a soccer stadium so baseball made sense," Ray says. "And I grew up a major Dodger fan and am still a major Dodger fan."

He also swapped the backdrop of the Argentine film for a post 9/11 environment in the movie's 2002 scenes, which seemed to create some understandable political complications for their story, Ray says, given the high priority placed on preventing another terror attack and the great fear felt by the American public of one occurring.

The search for Jess' daughter's alleged killer seems to come to an end late in the film when Jess tells Ejiofor and Kidman's characters what happened to him, as she tries to get Ejiofor's character to call off the chase, Ray says, but there's a further twist as Ejiofor's character finally uncovers the truth.

At the end, Roberts and Ejiofor's characters again find themselves trying to put an end to their ordeal. They exchange a look that Ray says reflects Jess' gratitude.