The-Gatekeepers-PosterOscar nominated documentary The Gatekeepers may be a somewhat solemn and immensely politically charged feature film, where we delve into the lives of a series of former heads of Israeli secret service organisation Shin Bet. However, such a grave atmosphere certainly isn’t one that extends to the director Dror Moreh – as we sat down to discuss the feature with the film enthusiast and self-proclaimed Lord of the Rings fanatic.

Moreh also discusses his delight at being nominated for an Academy Award, as well as his take on the controversial reaction this film has received worldwide. He also tells us what he plans on doing next – with a host of offers made to him from Hollywood. With a passionate and driven personality – not even allowing for our interview with him to end at the desired time – here is a filmmaker we may well be hearing a lot more of in the future.

We’ll begin by saying – congratulations on the Oscar nomination! Not to take anything away from the film, but did that come as a surprise to you?
Well it is a surprise because the Oscar is an American competition, and the film was not nominated as a foreign film, it was nominated for the competition of an American film, so I did not think it was a possibility. But of course, I was happy, thrilled, moved, what do you think? Every filmmaker dreams about that arena – it’s the most important, prestigious arena in the world. If you ask me now what would I rather be nominated for, the Palme d’Or or the Oscar? I would definitely vote for the Oscars. I was very happy.

When did you have this idea to make the film, and how did you convince these guys to get involved and be so candid with you ?
The idea for this film started with another film that I did about Prime Minister Sharon, who was the most frightening politician to sit in the Prime Minister’s office, the father of settlements. All of a sudden at the end of his career, when he didn’t know it was the end of his career, he started to do the disengagement, to basically change everything that he did. When I went to do the movie I decided to do something that would decipher this enigma. I did a lot of interviews with people that were close to him, one of them was his chief of staff. He told me basically Sharon introduced the idea of the disengagement in August 2003 in his ranch to a close group of friends and advisors… Then he went public with that in December, around four to five months after he introduced it. The chief of staff said a few things happened in those five months, there is a big difference between what you say in a closed room with a bunch of your friends, to when you announce it publicly as a Prime Minister. An interview that four former heads of Shin Bet gave to the most popular newspaper in Israel, basically saying that if Sharon were to continue his policy, it would end up in a catastrophe, which Sharon took very seriously, it really struck a chord in him. If this message came from the Israeli secret service – four of them they’re telling me something like that, it’s something to address seriously. If this moved Sharon – a small interview with four former heads of Shin Bet – moved him to announce that, if I could manage to bring them in front of a camera for me it would create some of the same resonance that I succeeded in the movie. The film is out and it managed to create the big buzz I wanted it to create, so I was right in what I felt. I went to them, we spoke a lot about the film, the message of the film and why I wanted to do the film. After he said he was in after a long interview he did to me, I asked him to tell the others, they all wanted to come as they felt it was about time to speak. I can tell you that after seeing the film, after the film was finished, I finished the interviews and the next time I saw them was in the screening room. They all stand firmly behind the film, and behind the message of the film.

Was there anything that you had to leave on the cutting room floor?
Besides my legs, my lungs, my heart, my kidneys and my hands? No. Of course, look, I had a lot of material; over 75 hours from all of them. This is why it took three years to finish the film. Most of the three years were spent in the editing room, trying to shake all the material to bring it into the essence of the film you see as a final product. The first draft, the rough cut of the film was around six and a half, seven hours long. It was a very tormenting process, but I learnt a lot from that.

So was there anything you weren’t allowed to keep in the movie?
No. Every film in Israel has to go through a censorship. For one reason, if they disclose secrets that could harm the nations security or endanger operations that are still going. So the film went through the censorship, and they took out about two or three words that they felt could not be used.

As an Israeli there is an incredible amount of information about your own country that came your way. Were you overwhelmed with what you were hearing and discovering?
Overwhelmed, completely shattered. This is the secret service, this is what they do. The fact that I had to confront them at times about morality was hard for me. For me as an Israeli it was a rare opportunity for me to ask them questions in the rooms where the decision makers make the decision. Imagine if you could have someone that would speak to you about the times of Tony Blair, about the decision to go into the gulf war and how it affected people, what does he think about it now? So, for me as a citizen of Israel, to be exposed to that type of information was really amazing.

Is it almost empowering to know you’re the person who is able to take these amazing stories and present them to the Israeli public?
Empowering is the wrong word, but I think it felt more of a privilege. After we finished all the editing we kept it very low key. I always thought this should be the most secretive film ever until it was released. I knew when I finished the interviews I had dynamite in my hands, so I had to keep it very low key. So did anyone who worked on the project, so it would not attract any attention until we released the film. We followed that very hard and sharp, when we screened the rough cuts we were very scared to get it out.

Can you tell me about the process of the interviews? They’re all quite different men with different characters. Did you have a different strategy for each one, or was it just developed as you went along?
Look, there was very thorough research before the interviews. I had a book of research and a background check on each one of them; everything from their career to their beliefs and habits. Also, all the major historical events that happened during that time period before I even started the interview. I took a lot of time preparing for the interviews because I had to ask questions, but I believe that interviews should be more of a conversation. You get off subject, but you develop comfort and the answers and tone of the interview become substantially better. When I see someone who interviews me and in the middle of an answer he is going back to his paper – I know he is not listening. If I know that, believe me these people know that much better than me, because it’s their to interview people. So I flew with the conversation and whenever I had a problem with what they say I confronted them, happy to deviate away from what I wrote. I’ve gone home after four hours of interviews and only answered one page out of 60.

When the movie was shown around the world were you at all concerned about the reactions from other people? Did you have a foresight into what the reactions from other countries would be?
I’m always aware of the reaction and what it will do. It definitely crossed my mind many times while making and editing the movie. Will it persuade me to soften the film or knowledge? Sometimes yes. Though it was very important for me not to take the words out of context, but at the end of the day they are the ones saying the words, not me. I’m editing and creating the context of that, but they are the ones speaking and it is how they see it.

When you have a film that is driven by interviews, one of the biggest challenges must be to keep it visually compelling. What was your approach to the more visual aspects of the film?
First of all I had to understand that I would have a lack of elements in the film, and there is no new material whatsoever because it’s the secret service, you know, they don’t have a photographer behind them photographing what they do. So in terms of archive there was very thorough research – I can tell you that I’ve watched more that 1500 hours of archive footage, that is after it has been watched by the archive researcher, who watched more than I watched. From the Israeli broadcasting authority, I have around 40 full DVD’s of archive material, some of them three or four hours long. I meticulously look at the footage and make sure it serves a certain purpose and tells a story. Then in places where I don’t have anything, I had to recreate footage, which I called ‘inside Shin Bet mechanisms’. So this was all recreated – CGI – but the data is completely accurate. Every data on every terrorist is completely accurate. That’s one thing. The second thing being, when you have only still footage, how do you use that in an innovative way. But today technology allows you to explore new horizons that say four or five years ago was too expensive for a documentary. How do you stretch the boundaries of the visual aspect of the movie in a way that you can tell a story and give it a visual aspect that you couldn’t do before? I’m very well trained in CGI and we played with that. It’s important for the audience to remember all the reconstruction is based on real events. The audience is watching something they haven’t seen before in terms of technology. We took the photos and extended them in a cinematic approach.

Would you ever use these skills to use and do a narrative driven feature as opposed to a documentary?
The next one is going to be. I’ve got so many proposals from Hollywood, really. The A team of Hollywood producers have offered me to domovies there. I will do a movie in America, it just has to be something that resonates in what I have to sa, I will not do a movie like Pretty Woman 2 or those kind of bullshit movies, like Avengers. Actually, well, Maybe Avengers, I like Sci-Fi.

So you don’t think you will always stay within a political type of movie?
I don’t know, people ask me that and I say I would have loved to do The Lord of the Rings. It’s one of my favourite books if not my favourite, and this is the type of movie that maybe in the far future I would love to do. I think now though political movies that speak about problems that are occurring now and raise more questions is more important for me to do. Although, if I was offered The Hobbit or something that was completely different I could see myself doing it, and maybe I’d enjoy it more than doing a serious, gloomy movie. Look, personally it wasn’t an easy project for me – I can show you the blogs and amount of hate mail that I get. Although there is a lot of supportive stuff, there is also stuff about me being a traitor, an enemy of the state. It’s not easy.

You’ve got to have thick skin then.
You have to. But you learn to deal with it. As long as you keep your perspective and you know what you want, and you believe that would you’re doing is for the best interests of Israel, then they can scream whatever they want.