Jez and John-Henry Butterworth search for the relationship at the center of one of the most significant moments in recent American history in the political thriller Fair Game.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
Though it may seem a somewhat odd choice that two self-described apolitical Brits penned the new film Fair Game, based on the politically supercharged events surrounding the outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, it makes good writing sense. Playwright, screenwriter, and director Jez Butterworth and his younger brother and frequent writing partner John-Henry Butterworth were tapped for the gig after working on Mr. & Mrs. Smith with Fair Game director Doug Liman, and they brought something this potential vacuum of a story needed.
Fair Game confronts some politically and historically fraught stuff: the Bush administration’s alleged outing of Plame (Naomi Watts) after her husband, diplomat Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), publically questioned a centerpiece of their evidentiary argument for invading Iraq. Jez Butterworth, who says he hasn’t “found a reason to vote for the last 15 years,” and his brother are accomplished writers, who bring a crucial degree of separation to this story, allowing it to focus in on this story’s least publicized, most crucial script element: the relationship at its center. The Butterworths, who are two of a gaggle of five arts-involved siblings, felt early on that, while they would need to immerse themselves in extensive research, utilizing both the husband and wife’s books, reams of documents and dozens of firsthand interviews inside the Beltway, Valerie Plame-Wilson and Joe Wilson were the latchkey to a great script.
The Butterworth brothers spoke to the Writers Guild of America West, Web site about their research behind this story, why they wrote this script by candlelight in an old English barn, and what the late great Sydney Pollock taught them about film and spinach.
What, if anything, did you do to ensure your own political dispositions didn’t affect your work here in a detrimental way?
John-Henry Butterworth: I don’t think that I’ve got a particularly strongly held political position. I don’t think anything we’ve done has been politically inspired. We were quite careful when we were approaching this material to not allow it to become a trap, something that had a very clear agenda behind it.
Was there an attempt to remain impartial?
John-Henry Butterworth: Yeah, we tried very hard not to bias any of the stuff, and where we could, find the truth and be as diligent as we could in researching it. Obviously, there’s elements of this that are classified and will probably remain classified.
You’re obviously not bound by any journalistic responsibility, but…
Photo: © 2010 Summit Entertainment, LLC
Sean Penn and Naomi Watts in Fair Game.
John-Henry Butterworth: There’s responsibility to the people involved.
Jez Butterworth: More than anything we’ve written before, we’re bound by what actually went on. But what really drew us both to it was meeting Joe and Valerie for the first time and realizing what an extraordinary experience they’d gone through as a couple. It felt like such a powerful story.
In terms of the politics, I didn’t know anything about American government. It was a tremendous amount of research that got us there. All of that stuff had to happen so that we could get at the relationship. Equally, I’m not a massively political person. I haven’t really found a reason to vote for the last 15 years. It’s not what inspired us.
It was the story of this couple?
Jez Butterworth: It’s just great. If you’ve got a couple where she has to keep everything secret, and he wants to make everything public – both because of a sense of duty. You’ve just got yourself a great dynamic. In the end, you feel there’s kind of a duality to this story, the great historical/political drama and then this great interpersonal relationship story.
Those are the stories you seek out, the ones that resonate on both of those levels; one that resonates on a personal level but also one, as far as I can tell, that everyone went through after 9/11.
Did you utilize both books [The Politics of Truth by Joe Wilson and Fair Game by Valerie Plame-Wilson] ?
John-Henry Butterworth: Yeah. Her book came to us in a fairly heavily redacted form after it had been through the clearing process at the CIA, and we actually didn’t get hold of it until quite late in the process. Lots of what we did was based on primary research; we interviewed lots of people, we went out to Washington and sat down with everybody involved that we could – congressmen, senators, people from both sides of the House and Joe and Valerie.
Did you feel at any point as though you’d gone through the looking glass into a John Le Carré novel or something?
John-Henry Butterworth: We had one entertaining argument about whether our hotel room was bugged or not…
Jez Butterworth: I was no, John-Henry was yes.
John-Henry Butterworth: It was a very boring half hour for the CIA if they were bugging.
But it must get to you after a while when you’re running in the corridors of power and meeting these people.
Jez Butterworth: It’s terribly exciting. We wrote this thing on a little farm in Somerset, where I live. The first thing we had to do… well, John-Henry had to do…
John-Henry Butterworth: Was clean the rats out of the barn.
Jez Butterworth: Although I live on a farm, I’m completely unpractical. John-Henry had to clear out one of the stables where we could write. This whole thing was done at night by candles in a stable with pigs next door.
Really? What was the decision process behind writing it in a stable?
Jez Butterworth: Well, I just had our first baby, and we had to get out of the house…
John-Henry Butterworth: He means him and his wife, not me and Jez.
Right. That would be perverse on several levels.
Jez Butterworth: And unlikely to occur.
About as likely as you being bugged by the CIA.
Jez Butterworth: So we were down a little track in a stable at night delving into all this incredible material. Certainly at two in the morning, you can get a little paranoid out there.
So literally by candlelight with the stench of a barn…
John-Henry Butterworth: It wasn’t very smelly. It was pretty nice.
That’s an odd juxtaposition to a very modern espionage story.
Jez Butterworth: Sure.
So sitting in this beautiful old barn, writing by candlelight, does that filter into your writing at all?
Jez Butterworth: I think so. There’s something about being outside of electricity that really takes you back. If we’d sat in a library and written this or in Washington, which was an idea at one point, you would end up with a slightly different tone. We had to find what was at the heart of the story between the two of them.
Right and maybe being a little removed…
Jez Butterworth: Maybe helped.
Going in, I’m sure you discussed the fact that this is a highly political, low-action true story that you wanted to make into an entertaining film. Did you see that as a challenge, and how did you navigate that?
John-Henry Butterworth: We were very keen to make it as entertaining as possible. Sydney [Pollack] used to have a phrase – he would refer to some films as being spinach because you’re supposed to eat it because it’s good for you. We were very keen for this not to be spinach.
This could, on the face of it, very easily become spinach. What were the key ways you…
John-Henry Butterworth: It was just focusing on their relationship and getting that right and getting that central dynamic that Jez was just talking about to really sing and catch the light. Through that, you can sort of evince all the different pressures that were taking place in the wider world at the time.
Jez Butterworth: It was a very simple reversal that they were living. She is, in full effect, fighting the war on terror, [and] Joe’s career is somewhat in decline, so their roles have been reversed. She’s in a much more traditionally masculine role. Then, at the half point of the film, those roles get reversed. She’s completely thrown out and given no mandate or agenda, and he’s suddenly galvanized. That felt like a really strong in on a decade that has been incredibly complex, not just for the Plame-Wilsons, but for the country at large.