Interview: Rogue Agent directors Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, October 5th, 2022  

Directors Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson on Psychological Thriller “Rogue Agent”

Stranger Than Fiction

Aug 24, 2022 Web Exclusive
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Having made a name for themselves as the writers behind high-profile UK TV dramas The Salisbury Poisonings and The Undeclared War, and coming from backgrounds in investigative journalism, Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson decided to tell a true (if unlikely) story for their cinematic directorial debut, Rogue Agent. The film centers on Robert Freegard (James Norton), a confidence trickster who, from 1993 to the present day (minus a spell in prison between 2005 and 2009), has forged a career from romancing women. He tells them he is an MI5 agent who thinks they would make good analysts or sub-agents, and then convinces them to hand over vast sums of money to either clear their debts in order to facilitate their recruitment or fund their escape from the IRA.

When asked what it was about Freegard’s story that made them believe it would make for a compelling thriller, Patterson explained, “We inherited the script from Michael Bronner, who had actually done a journalism article about Freegard and interviewed many of his victims back in the mid-‘00s, just after the case had happened in London. We were brought on to kind of do a revision of the script and then to direct. The reason why we did it was because it was one of the craziest stories we’d ever heard. We couldn’t believe a lot of the stuff that had happened and one of the biggest challenges that we had was trying to find a way to incorporate a lot of it. We had to sadly let a lot of it go.”

“There just wasn’t enough bandwidth within a two-hour dramatic narrative arc, but I guess the reason we wanted to tell it was because this is a story that could happen to anyone,” he continued. “The way we wrote it as a cat-and-mouse psychological thriller gives you a lot of character depth in both Freegard as the manipulator and Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton) as a woman who falls for him, becomes broken by him, and then somehow rises up to help bring him down. So that’s why we helmed it in that kind of psychological thriller territory.”

Lawn elaborated by saying that “as a couple of journalists who, until quite recently, were investigative journalists, sometimes you hear a story and you just want to know more. And I think, as a filmmaker, that’s a pretty good sign; that if you’re interested, then hopefully an audience will be. We were interested from the moment that Kitty Kaletsky, James Norton’s producing partner, told us the story. We were hooked instantly, couldn’t stop thinking about it, and realized pretty quickly that we wanted to be a part of it.”

The pair speak very positively about their experiences of working with Norton and Arterton. “James is a producer of the project and so was attached to this project for several years before we came on as directors,” said Lawn. “He was always a part of it, which was great for us, for two reasons. One, we’ve always been huge fans of him as an actor, the range that he’s displayed, and his desire to explore dark characters. Because he could quite easily just play the handsome, charming leading man every time that he wanted, but he wants to do more than that.

“So we knew from the start that he would be a great Freegard. And then, of course, we were involved in the process of casting Alice, who is the other lead character in this. We had seen Gemma quite recently in a film called The Escape, which we were very enamored by. We thought she was incredible in it, just really held the screen and captivated us from the start of that film to the end. So when her name came up as a possible Alice, we were just willing to do anything to get her on board.”

Regarding the performances of their lead performers, Patterson says, “It’s not an easy thing to pull off to have a charming sociopath and not make the woman who falls for him look quite foolish, still give her the respect that she needs and the strength that’s required to build herself back up. All I can say is that it was just a pure joy working with James and Gemma. We did a lot of work and prep. James had been across the story for a few years, because he, as Declan said, took it on with his company to produce it. He’d been deep-diving into the character for quite some time, so he came really prepared, although there’s a few decisions we made really early on.

“We didn’t want to try and make Freegard super-suave and slick, because the only way a person like Alice, a tough litigation lawyer, could fall for him is if he actually showed a bit of vulnerability,” he continues. “That shows the range that Freegard has as a manipulator, but also the range James has, to be able to pull off all those different elements that are needed to entrap different types of people. From convincing students that they want to become MI5 agents, to convincing a lawyer to leave her job, to convincing an American psychologist that he’s her Prince Charming, that’s not an easy thing to do for an actor. James just has that charm and, when needed in the film, he has that sinister edge. They were just a pleasure to work with. You threw anything at them and they tried, and then they gave you more. That’s all you can hope for.”

Declan is also keen to praise cinematographer Larry Smith’s contributions to the film. “We were first-time directors on this. Larry Smith is a veteran cinematographer and incredibly talented. He worked on Eyes Wide Shut with Kubrick. We couldn’t have done it or gotten through it without his guidance. We owe a lot to Larry Smith.”

Rogue Agent begins in 1993 when the UK is in the midst of a particularly intensive IRA bombing campaign. Lawn says he believes Freegard incorporated the threat of IRA terrorism into his cons because it was the most societally prevalent fear at that time, and therefore it would have seemed like the danger that would be most useful to Freegard in terms of convincing his victims to do his bidding.

“It’s very clear from Michael Bronner’s research and original article that he did utilize the current biggest fear at the time in society, which was IRA terrorism,” says Lawn. “Had he been doing it ten or 12 years later, he would have used Al Qaeda. If he was doing it now, he would use Russian infiltration. His talent was to take and utilize the biggest threats. I think there’s absolutely no doubt that in real life, as well as in our version of Freegard, that he did that.

“So, you’ve got that, on a bigger, socio-political level, but then with the individuals, the heart of this for us is that everybody’s got a story that they want to be told. With individuals, Freegard had an incredible talent for quickly recognizing a void that you might have in your life; a void or an aspiration. He would recognize it and then he would use it, and that’s what he seems to have done time and time again with lots of different people. The stories he told were different, because everybody has a story they want to be told, and they’re not all the same.”

Rogue Agent concludes in 2005 with Freegard’s imprisonment, but the recent Netflix documentary series The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Con Man alleges that he remains at large and is in a deceitful, controlling relationship with a woman named Sandra Clifton currently. The film’s directors say that whilst Freegard’s story is ongoing in many respects, they wanted to tell a story with a clear narrative arc, which unfortunately meant excluding the stories of many of Freegard’s real-life victims, including Clifton, from their screenplay.

“Our film wrapped well before the Netflix documentary series [aired],” says Lawn. “The recent tabloid exposés of Freegard have come out after our film wrapped. There’s always a risk, when you tackle a true story, that real life goes on and things can happen after you put your two rods in the sand and say, ‘This is our parcel of time that we’re looking at.’ I guess our view of Freegard is a slightly historical one. He is back out in the world … the simple reality is that people like Freegard don’t stop. They keep going on and keep doing the same thing, so it’s no surprise to us that he is out doing these things again. But yeah, I guess it is one of those things when you tell a true story. Our story exists between 1993 and 2005, so that’s what we focus on.”

Lawn is keen to stress that “as former journalists, we’re both very conscious of our responsibility to the truth. But as a dramatist, you have a responsibility to the essential truth; in this case, what it’s like to have been lied to, to have been sold an illusion by a sociopathic narcissist. That’s what we felt it was our job to achieve in this film. We’re actually really glad that the Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Con Man documentary exists as a kind of companion piece. People that are interested in the wider truth, they can go to that. But we knew, even as we were making this, that there were a lot of victims who we were aware of, that Michael was in touch with, that Michael had talked about in his research, that we simply couldn’t find a place for in this drama, because we weren’t doing a piece of journalistic work. We were hopefully doing a piece of artistic work that gets to the essence of what it’s like. We were always conscious of that, and we very much still are.”

This being said, Lawn is keen to stress that Alice Archer is very much based on a specific, real-life victim of Freegard’s. “She’s based on a particular person. A person who Michael Bronner, who co-wrote the script with us, had quite a long link with and still does. Whilst we did borrow some elements from other victims’ experiences, she is mostly a character inspired by a real person. We did, of course, change the names of some of the characters, because we felt that as we were consolidating action and squeezing things into two hours essentially, we should do the real people the service of just changing their names so that we weren’t professing to some literal truth. But yeah, she is based on a real person.”

As Under the Radar’s time with Lawn and Patterson begins to draw to a close, the directors say that they intended for Rogue Agent to function as a cautionary tale, and that a negative personal experience of Patterson’s was the main factor that convinced them to take on the project as their directorial debut.

Adam stresses that he believes “that this can happen to anyone. And I think if you can have one takeaway from the film, it’s that. It’s complicated. At the end, Alice is on top of a lighthouse and yes, of course she is delighted that Freegard is in jail, but there is also an irony there, because he has actually helped to set her free. She has left her job, the entrapments of being a city worker in ‘00s London, a male-driven world, and she is her own boss. She is essentially liberated by the man that she now despises, and that’s the reality of the world in which we now live.

“It’s not black-and-white. The film is complex, and I think it is cautionary, because these people do exist. They’re out in the world. Myself personally, I was in a relationship with someone who had similar traits to Freegard – a sociopathic liar. I went far beyond, and I completely ignored, reason. Because I believed them, because they were so convincing, at great detriment to me. Only through the help of friends and family like Declan, one of my best friends, was I able to extricate myself from that relationship. These things do happen, not enough people talk about it, and hopefully this film will serve to help people talk a bit more about the fact that these people do live among us.” (www.ifcfilms.com)



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