ANY story about the Central Intelligence Agency involves deceit, but the level of trickery behind just a single scene in “The Good Shepherd,” a new movie about the CIA’s founding, is particularly remarkable.
The setup is simple: On a bitter winter’s day on Long Island Sound, CIA agent Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is trying to determine whether Russian defector Valentin Mironov (John Sessions) is who he says he is.
Sessions is an English actor, so he’s already faking the accent. Mironov is supposed to be a concert violinist, so Sessions also has to pretend he can play -- that’s how Wilson will know if Mironov’s legit. Even inside a car, the air is freezing, making Sessions’ hands clumsy. The bow screeches across the strings.
“My fingering just went to pieces,” Sessions tells the film’s director, Robert De Niro. “I’m sorry.” Sandy Park, who coordinates the film’s prerecorded music, comes out to coach Sessions, who has been practicing for three weeks. Sessions gives it another go, but the results are still spotty.
“Sixteen bars? That’s what you learned?” Damon ribs Sessions while they prepare for one more take. “You call that a song?”
To polish the scene, De Niro will film an insert shot of a real violinist’s fingers. But that too will require some guile, not to mention discomfort. Sessions’ fingers are hairless. The stand-in violinist’s fingers are not. So his fingers had to be waxed bare. The pain was apparently spectacular.
As De Niro worked to complete the editing, it was unclear if the violin segment would even make it into the finished movie. The director’s latest cut of “The Good Shepherd,” which opens Dec. 22, was running at 2 hours, 40 minutes, and his distributors wanted 20 more minutes lopped off.
“It’s not over till it’s over,” De Niro said during a late October visit to Los Angeles. “But I can’t cut any more than I feel comfortable with.”
At least he had something to cut. It took a dozen years to bring “The Good Shepherd” this far, a period in which the film passed through five other directors’ hands. But with every false start, every maddening delay, the movie’s subject matter grew only more timely.
“THIS is not ‘The Bourne Identity,’ ” producer Jane Rosenthal said. “You have to get into the movie and pay attention.”
Eric Roth’s “Good Shepherd” script is neither intellectually nor historically modest: It aims to dramatize the earliest days of the CIA, ricocheting from 1961’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion to a 1939 initiation ceremony for the secret fraternity Skull and Bones to trading for Jewish scientists in postwar Germany.
At the center of the ambitious narrative stands Wilson, a fictional amalgam of several early CIA leaders, including covert operations specialist Richard Bissel and counterintelligence expert James Angleton.
Picked out of Yale to join the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services, during World War II, Wilson quickly ascends through both organizations.
At first unquestioningly loyal, Wilson learns that his calling threatens not only his ideals but also his friends and marriage.
“It’s what happens to a person who decides to invest himself in secrecy,” Roth said. “But it’s a family story of a certain kind.”
Roth wrote the script in 1994 for director Francis Ford Coppola and Columbia Pictures, just as Roth’s “Forrest Gump” became a global blockbuster. Coppola didn’t end up moving forward with the film, and the script went to Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”). Management changes at Columbia meant the project was next steered toward Philip Kaufman (“The Right Stuff”), but that proved equally fruitless.
“The Good Shepherd’s” next unproductive stop was with director John Frankenheimer (the original “Manchurian Candidate”) and MGM. Frankenheimer wanted De Niro to act in the film, but the director died in 2002.
At the same time, De Niro was developing his own spy story. “I had always been interested in the Cold War,” the actor said. “I was raised in the Cold War. All of the intelligence stuff was interesting to me.”
De Niro’s pitch was to trace the CIA from the Bay of Pigs to 1989’s fall of the Berlin Wall. Roth’s script stopped just after the abortive Cuban invasion. So De Niro and Roth cut a deal: Roth would consider writing up De Niro’s idea into a screenplay if the actor would consider directing Roth’s “Good Shepherd” script.
“The Good Shepherd” landed at Universal Pictures, where producer Graham King (“Gangs of New York”) was asked to help foot the bill. King had a deal with Leonardo DiCaprio, and the actor expressed interest in playing Wilson. De Niro and Rosenthal’s Tribeca Productions planned on shooting the movie early last year.
But the production couldn’t close DiCaprio’s rich deal, and De Niro was worried the actor would first make Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.” “I said one night, ‘You have to let me know now. Are you in or are you out?’ ” De Niro said. “Because I had intentions to get it to Matt that night.”
Damon also was starring in “The Departed,” but he would be done earlier than DiCaprio, and the ever-busy Damon didn’t want to take any time off before starting “The Good Shepherd.” De Niro would only have to wait six months to start filming.
But when DiCaprio left the project so too did King -- with all his money.
Finally, James Robinson’s Morgan Creek Productions came on board. The movie would get made, but with a budget under $90 million -- meaning that most of the principals, including Damon, would have to waive their normal salaries.
“Jim Robinson,” Roth said, “saved the day.”
AS frustrated as they were by their many delays, the filmmakers couldn’t help but notice “The Good Shepherd” carried new relevance. “The folks at Universal became much more interested in this movie in a post-Sept. 11 world,” producer Rosenthal said.
When he first sat down at his keyboard, Roth had no idea that the CIA subsequently would be found to be running covert prisons and allegedly torturing terrorism suspects or that the National Security Agency would be conducting warrantless wiretaps. Yet all of those incidents were presaged by his script.
“I wrote this 12 years ago,” Roth said. “The movie is not supposed to reflect anything politically.” Rather, Roth and De Niro said, the film intends to trace the personal and cultural evolution of the world’s most famous intelligence agency.
When Wilson joins the CIA, its tactics are almost courteous. Yes, the agency tries to orchestrate the overthrow of Fidel Castro and an unnamed Central American country (a fictionalized Nicaragua), but the CIA also parries with its Soviet rivals as if playing chess.
Unlike any number of spy movies, “The Good Shepherd” has no interest in gunfights and car chases. If the progenitor of Hollywood’s modern secret agent film is James Bond novelist Ian Fleming, De Niro and Roth owe much more to the literary espionage fiction of John le Carre.
“In movies where people are shooting at each other all the time, it just seems too much,” De Niro said. “I like it when things happen for a reason. So I want to downplay the violence, depict it in a muted way. In those days, it was a gentleman’s game.”
Even though it wasn’t in the shooting script, De Niro and Roth added a scene where CIA agents waterboard an interrogation subject.
While otherwise minimizing violence, De Niro and Roth want to point up the potentially corrupting influence of power. The CIA’s early leaders, De Niro said, “were idealistic, smart. They tried to do what they thought was right. And then, as they went on, they became overconfident and starting doing things that are not always in our best interests.”