'Red Sparrow' Author And Ex-CIA Agent Says New Movie Gets Spy Life Right

Mar 5, 2018
Originally published on March 5, 2018 9:51 pm

In the new film Red Sparrow, a CIA officer walks alone in Moscow's Gorky Park. There's a hand-off — a brush pass in the darkness with a Russian agent. Then all goes wrong: Police lights flash, gunshots ring. The CIA officer runs for his life straight to the gates of the American Embassy.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika, a ballerina-turned-Russian-spy who's taught the tools of her trade by a secret, highly specialized "Sparrow School."

The movie is based on the book Red Sparrow. Its author, Jason Matthews, is following the tried-and-true rule: Write what you know.

Matthews is ex-CIA: He's a former station chief with 33 years in the clandestine service. He says the film "did get it right. They stayed fairly close to the plot of the Red Sparrow book. Generally, the tradecraft is authentic and reflected the old Cold War techniques."


Interview Highlights

On an aspect of spy life the film originally got wrong

Well, the brush pass in Gorky Park. When I read the first script, they wanted to do it differently. And as technical advisor, I basically told them what a real brush pass looked like.

I think they wanted to have the agent — the Russian — leave an envelope on a park bench, get up and walk away as the American approached. You never do that. You go from hand to hand to make sure that the transfer is made.

On if there are real "Sparrow Schools"

In the '60s and the '70s in the Soviet Union, they had an academy. It was called State School 4. But I think now that academy is closed. Any such work --sexpionage ... is done by, probably, young ladies in the five-star hotels in Moscow. They're independent contractors.

On the advice he gave Jennifer Lawrence on portraying her character accurately

Well, we visited the set only for a couple of days. What we did tell her — that all Russians in the employ of CIA, especially in Russia, even to this day, most live with a constant over-arching dread: a dread of discovery, a dread of being arrested, a dread of going to prison. And in the old days, the dread of execution.

On old-school espionage and the new cyber battlefield

Well, I think the cyber stuff goes on, and the active measures go on, and all the influence campaigns go on. But at midnight behind the soccer stadium, in many countries around the world, CIA officers are meeting information sources still. Human intelligence is still the gold standard.

Art Silverman and Jacob Conrad produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the new movie "Red Sparrow," a CIA officer walks alone in Gorky Park in Moscow. There's a handoff, a brush pass in the darkness with a Russian agent. Then all goes wrong - police lights, gunshots. The CIA officer has to run for his life straight to the gates of the American embassy. Well, the movie "Red Sparrow" is based on the book "Red Sparrow," the first of an espionage trilogy. The author of which, Jason Matthews, is following the tried-and-true rule - write what you know. Jason Matthews is ex-CIA - a former station chief, 33 years in the clandestine service. He is in our New York bureau now. Hi, there.

JASON MATTHEWS: Hello.

KELLY: Welcome. I have to ask. In this movie, as you watched your writing be translated to the big screen, were there aspects of the spy life - of tradecraft that were important to you that they get it right?

MATTHEWS: They did get it right. They stayed fairly close to the plot of the "Red Sparrow" book. Generally, the tradecraft is authentic and reflected the old Cold War techniques.

KELLY: Like what? Give me an example.

MATTHEWS: Well, the brush pass in Gorky Park - when I read the first script, they wanted to do it differently. And as technical adviser, I basically told them what a real brush pass looked like.

KELLY: What did they get wrong that you had to correct them on?

MATTHEWS: Well, originally, I think they wanted to have the agent, the Russian, leave a envelope on a park bench, get up and walk away as the American approached. You never do that. You go from hand to hand to make sure that the transfer is made.

KELLY: There's something else I want to ask you if it's actually real - this Sparrow School. Your heroine, who is played in the movie version by Jennifer Lawrence, she is Russian intelligence. And she gets sent to a place called Sparrow School, which is a secret school that trains aspiring Russian spies to use their minds and their bodies as weapons. Let's hear a little bit of that from the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RED SPARROW")

CHARLOTTE RAMPLING: (As Matron) Here we deal in psychological manipulation. You'll be trained to determine a target's weakness, to exploit that weakness through seduction and to extract information. Take off your clothes. Your body belongs to the state.

KELLY: That's an instructor at Sparrow School speaking. Jason Matthews, is Sparrow School real?

MATTHEWS: In the '60s and the '70s, in the Soviet Union, they had an academy. It was called State School Four. But I think now that academy is closed. Any such work - sexpionage (ph)...

KELLY: Sexpionage, I haven't heard that. Go on.

MATTHEWS: Yeah, it's done by probably young ladies in the five-star hotels in Moscow. They're independent contractors.

KELLY: So this still goes on. They just may not be going to something called State School Four or Sparrow School.

MATTHEWS: That's right.

KELLY: The character Jennifer Lawrence plays, Dominika Egorova, she is SVR, which is Russia's foreign intelligence service and the counterpart to the CIA. What advice did you give her? I know you were on set. What advice did you give her to try to play that character in a way that felt accurate?

MATTHEWS: Well, we visited the set only for a couple of days. What we did tell her - that all Russians in the employ of CIA, especially in Russia, even to this day must live with an constant overarching dread - a dread of discovery, a dread of being arrested, a dread of going to prison and, in the old days, the dread of execution.

KELLY: And so the challenge was how to get her into that mindset so that she could play that character in a way that felt real.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Different people react differently to that horrible strain and pressure. But I think Jennifer did a fantastic job in being sort of very professional and very steely about things.

KELLY: The central narrative of "Red Sparrow" - if I can attempt to summarize it - it's spies who are double-crossing each other while being double-crossed or maybe triple-crossed. There's a scene I want to play. This is Dominika. She's being polygraphed because she's just agreed to spy for the U.S. for the CIA.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RED SPARROW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We're just going to ask you some routine questions to begin - name?

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) Dominika Egorova.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Did you eat breakfast this morning?

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Are you an officer of the Russian intelligence service?

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Are you here because CIA officer Nate Nash recruited you?

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Are you willing to work for the American government?

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) And you intend to give us genuine information.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes or no.

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Why would you do that?

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) I thought that was just yes or no.

KELLY: Without giving plot twists away, you never know which side she's on as this story unfolds. Is that how it feels in real life when you are working with a foreign agent?

MATTHEWS: That scene was very accurate, especially in the polygraph examination - is always answered yes or no. That scene was very, very realistic.

KELLY: It's funny watching this film, reading this book, today in 2018, with Russia so much in the headlines in real life, all the Russia investigations unfolding. What has that felt like for you, to watch this play out in this time where suddenly Russia is right back at the top of the news cycle?

MATTHEWS: I thank - every morning I wake up, I thank Vladimir Putin for being the endless, bottomless cup of content.

KELLY: (Laughter).

MATTHEWS: You could not make this up. And the movie is perfectly timed in terms of current events.

KELLY: Yeah, you got lucky.

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

KELLY: It's funny though because your book and now the movie version is so much about these two spies who become lovers circling each other. It's about seduction and manipulation. It is not about Russian trolls and cyber bots, which I guess wouldn't make for quite as sexy a Hollywood movie. But I wonder also if you're saying something deeper here about the way espionage with Russia used to work and, maybe to a certain extent, still does.

MATTHEWS: Well, I was setting out with the trilogy to write the classic spy novel - U.S.A. versus Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin versus CIA. And I think the love interest just sort of complicated the equation. I hope it worked. I hope the books are entertaining.

KELLY: But does it feel accurate to you, sitting here in 2018, when it appears that Russian intelligence efforts are very much focused on the cyber battlefield?

MATTHEWS: Well, I think the cyber stuff goes on. And the active measures go on. And all the influence campaigns go on. But at midnight behind the soccer stadium, in many countries around the world, CIA officers are meeting information sources still. Human intelligence is still the gold standard.

KELLY: Jason Matthews, thank you.

MATTHEWS: My pleasure.

KELLY: CIA veteran Jason Matthews, the author of a trio of espionage novels - the first of which, "Red Sparrow," is out now in movie version.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES NEWTON HOWARD'S "BLONDE SUITS YOU")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Well, in a further blurring of fiction and reality, Mary Louise, you're heading to Moscow next week and are going to be anchoring the program from Russia.

KELLY: I am indeed. Our visas just came through this afternoon - thank goodness. It was down to the wire. And I'm going to be anchoring out of the Moscow bureau end of next week, start of the following week because it's the presidential elections there - March 18.

SHAPIRO: And you've got a bunch of stories lined up. Want to give us a little sneak preview?

KELLY: I mean, the big question is - there's zero suspense in this election.

SHAPIRO: Right, Putin is going to win.

KELLY: Even the people who are running against Putin say he's going to win. But what's he going to do with it? What do six more years of Vladimir Putin look like? And how much does he need to win by to make this look legit? Well, we're going to be asking.

SHAPIRO: We will look forward to hearing you anchor this program next week from Russia as the elections unfold. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.