A gripping and emotional ride, full of twists and turns, you will be immersed in it and leave talking about it.
When Red Sparrow author Jason Matthews completed his thirty-three year tenure with the CIA, he found that he was not content to remain idle in his retirement.
Flush with time, Matthews took up writing for his second act.
“The career was so experiential. There was a great gap to fill,” Matthews says of his adjustment to post-CIA life. “It was either day trading, or fishing, or going for walks. It was as much therapy as anything else, starting to write.” The longtime fan of John le Carré and Ian Fleming began work on Red Sparrow, which was published in 2013 and became a best-seller and the foundation for a trilogy: Palace of Treason was the second in the series and upcoming is The Kremlin’s Candidate.
Jason Matthews is a retired officer of the CIA’s Operations Directorate. Over a thirty-three-year career he served in multiple overseas locations and engaged in the clandestine collection of national security intelligence, specializing in denied-area operations. Matthews conducted recruitment operations against Soviet-East European, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean targets. As Chief in various CIA Stations, he collaborated with foreign partners in counter proliferation and counterterrorism operations. He is the author of the books Red Sparrow, Palace of Treason, and The Kremlin’s Candidate.
While the world of Red Sparrow was familiar to Matthews, the novel’s central character was a product of invention.
Following a terrible accident, Dominika Egorova, played in the film by Jennifer Lawrence, leaves her career with the Bolshoi and is forced into a state-run school that trains her in sexual manipulation.
“Unlike the other characters in the book, Dominika was primarily imaginary,” Matthews says. “I wish I had met someone like Dominika. She had a career in the ballet, until it was taken away from her. And then she was forced to go to Sparrow school.”
Matthews may not have encountered a real-life Dominika in his work with the CIA, but “honeypot” school was indeed part of Soviet intelligence training.
“In the Soviet Union, they had a school that taught young women the art of entrapment, the art of seduction, for blackmailing intelligence targets,” Matthews explains. “They had a Sparrow School in the city of Kazan, on the banks of the Volga River, where young women were taught how to be courtesans. They were called ‘Sparrows.’”
Dominka’s training ultimately leads her to CIA operative Nate Nash, portrayed in the film by Joel Edgerton. Matthews explains the unusual courtship between Nate and Dominika: “Inevitably, they fall in love, which is dangerous and forbidden for him. Like Romeo and Juliet, it’s a love affair that can’t end well.”
The manuscript for Red Sparrow found its way to the offices of Chernin Entertainment.
Producers Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping and David Ready all took to Matthews’s novel, and they quickly snapped up the rights to develop a screenplay based on the book.
“The first draw was Jason’s background as a CIA operative coupled with the fact that this was his debut novel,” says Chernin. “And as we dove into the book, we quickly knew it was one of the freshest, most unique spy stories we’d seen.”
“We also loved seeing a spy story about a character who is not a Bourne, not a Bond, not a le Carré character,” adds Topping. “Dominika is actually a civilian who is forced into a spy plot, and whose training in spy craft is a means to survive, and to protect her mother.”
Director Francis Lawrence received the book as he added the finishing touches on The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2.
Associate producer Cameron MacConomy remembers: “We were both reading it at the same time. Every day, we would come in and find ourselves more and more excited about what we had read the night before.”
“I fell in love with the book immediately,” says Lawrence. “It just felt really fresh in terms of spy stories, and I fell in love with the character of Dominika Egorova, and her personal journey and her personal story and her dilemma in the story. I always gravitate toward personal lonely isolated characters and this story certainly focuses on a very isolated, lonely character. In addition, it was exciting to me, especially after having done three Hunger Games movies in five years, to do something completely different, in terms of story, in terms of world, in terms of tone, in terms of rating, all of that. That was really interesting.”
“Francis made three Hunger Games movies with Jen, and when he read this book, he thought immediately this would be their next collaboration,” says Chernin. “From there we had to find a good match, which we did in Joel, who we have worked with before as well. Same with Matthias, who we’ve worked with. We chose to go much younger with this role than originally scripted, which we think added something very different to the dynamic with Jen.”
After Francis Lawrence boarded the project, he worked hand-in-hand with screenwriter Justin Haythe.
“There wasn’t a rushed development process on this film,” Ready says. “It was a finely tuned process. Francis knew that this was going to be his next film and he wanted the screenplay to reflect his exact vision on the page. It was one of those experiences where you get to bring to fruition what you want to shoot.”
“I’d worked with Justin before,” adds Lawrence. “And he shared my vision for the movie. Sometimes, stories don’t come together, and translations of books to screenplay don’t always work as easily as one might think but this one kind of coalesced. Justin and I worked quite hard at it and spent a lot of hours in rooms together over the six months or so that it took to create the draft but there wasn’t much struggle. It just kind of seemed to work and to come together nicely.”
From the moment Lawrence read the book, he knew that one of the main goals would be to maintain key elements from Matthews’ original story.
“There’s definitely a sexuality to the book,” says Lawrence. “There’s definitely violence in the book. There is kind of an audacity to it and I wanted to make sure that we captured that. The thing that Justin and I really worked hard at – and later Jennifer and I worked on – was making sure that it felt organic, that it didn’t feel gratuitous, that it was never exploitative. The idea was never to make an erotic thriller, never to titillate in any kind of way, but to ensure that the content feels really organic to the story and to the dilemma of the character and so we really carefully modulated anything that was sexual or involved nudity or involved violence, to find that right tone.”
“It’s really about a single character’s journey, someone who finds herself manipulated by powers much larger than herself,” says Haythe. “Dominika suffers an injury and, through an uncle, is pulled into this world of espionage. And it’s a world where her sexuality is weaponized, as it were, in the sense that she is trained as a seductress. But she is too big and too complicated a person to be a seductress, and she changes the rules on the people that forced her into this world.”
Jason Matthews made his technical expertise available to Haythe throughout the adaptation.
“He’s a sensational writer,” Haythe says of Matthews. “Many of the technical aspects of the plot come from the book. If it was something invented, Jason was there on the end of the phone for technical advice, or he read the script and gave notes, which was hugely helpful. We were lucky to have an expert at the incubation period.”
Producer Peter Chernin agrees: “Jason gave incredibly detailed notes and feedback on our various script drafts—mostly regarding accuracy and believability of anything relating to Nate’s, Dominika’s, and their respective colleagues’ tactics, etc.”
Francis Lawrence encouraged Matthews’s participation throughout the script’s development. “When I read the book, I fell in love with the authenticity of the world that was created by Jason Matthews,” says the director. “It just kind of grabbed me.”
“I don’t know too much about Hollywood,” observes Matthews, “but Francis is a tremendous director with a tremendous body of work. He’s been inclusive. He’s encouraged my commentary, and I know that’s not always the case with film adaptations but he’s been encouraging and collegial.”
As an executive producer on Red Sparrow, Haythe remained with the film through its wintry production in Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and London.
“Francis has involved me in the process,” says Haythe. “We worked very closely in the adaptation process, and he has involved me in the process of filming, to sit in rehearsals, to give notes, to make whatever changes need to be made. That only really happens with a director who is completely in control of what he is doing.”
Jennifer Lawrence, who worked with Francis Lawrence on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2, joined the cast as Dominika early on in the process.
“I thought of Jennifer and I pitched her loosely what the story was about,” says the director.
“Obviously, we didn’t have a script yet, and I didn’t really want her to read the book yet, but I just wanted to know if, hypothetically, she would be interested in playing a character like this. So she was kind of loosely in from the very beginning, and we wrote for her. Then as we were developing the story, I would kind of drop little tidbits and hints and sort of talk about it a little bit. I knew that she was shy about these kinds of movies, when she was a bit younger so I guess I was kind of easing her into the story and the character and the tone and the content, throughout the process of the development of the project. By the time I had a real script, she had been sort of warmed up to it all.”
“Francis had introduced me to the story on the press tour for the last Hunger Games movie,” says Jennifer Lawrence.
“It was a book that he had been reading and he thought it would be an interesting movie. I think the first thing that we were discussing for Dominika is that this was going to be a person and a personality that’s completely different from anything I really knew. She’s really been put into a position of survival from a very young age. Her body has been used by the Government from the time that she was young. What with Ballet, being an athlete, being paid by the Government and then ultimately forced into the Sparrow program. I mean, when I first read the script and we talked about it, the Sparrow School scenes were terrifying. It was going to be my first time really going… um, the full Monty if you will, but then after doing it there’s something that felt so freeing about it. Because I would never put my character into a situation that I myself am not comfortable being in. But as you can see in the movie it’s this moment where she gains power, where she turns the tables on the people that are trying to control her and I felt that power. I found that exciting. Because the truth is Dominika’s trained to use her body but, ultimately, prevails by using her mind. To me she seems like a complex modern heroine, she uses her own rules, and has a tenacity to succeed.”
“The film is about survival and seduction,” observes Jenno Topping. “And the balance between the two is crucial. It’s survival that drives Dominika into the Sparrow world, and once she’s there, she needs to master seduction and intelligence skills in order to survive. The film explores seduction in a psychological, scientific way. We see a character figure out how much of herself she can give in order to survive, and if she’s able to hold something back and come out of this journey intact.”
“We never quite know what Dominika feels,” says Joel Edgerton. “What she’s thinking, or how close she is to crumbling, or lashing out. There is a certain resilience and stoicism to her as a character, and in Jen’s performance, that keeps us guessing. We always suspect that there is a strength in her that the men in her life have underestimated.”
Edgerton also responded to Red Sparrow’s cerebral approach to the spy genre. “I think it’s somewhat more interesting that the operatives are not smashing cars and shooting machine guns,” he says. “What they’re doing is often a big psychological game of chess.”
“There has not been a Francis Lawrence movie like this,” concludes Peter Chernin. “And there has not been a Jennifer Lawrence movie like this and there has never been a spy movie like this! It’s a gripping and emotional ride, full of twists and turns, you will be immersed in it and leave talking about it. That’s a promise.”