This week, 1950s-set revenge thriller-drama The Secrets We Keep hits theaters. The tense film revolves around the actions of Maja (Noomi Rapace), a Romani gypsy whose family was brutalized by Nazi soldiers. Maja survives and moves to the United States after marrying Lewis (Chris Messina), where they later have a son. But Maja’s fragile peace is shattered when she sees a man in her neighborhood that she swears is one of the Nazi soldiers who did vicious, inhuman things to her and her family. In an impulsive moment fueled by grief and rage, she kidnaps him. As the situation turns into a he-said/she-said scenario with potential deadly results, the secrets everyone is keeping threatens to tear two different families apart.
I spoke with screenwriter Ryan Covington about his script. Two things to note: One, in the interest of full disclosure, he and I are real-life friends. Two, this is his first film to hit theaters from an actual studio and, as such, this is the first official interview he’s ever given. Excellent. We spoke about everything from Chadwick Boseman, to the aftermath of the Holocaust, to how watching a man’s heart get ripped out in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom made him want to do movies for a living, to why writing milk into a script is bad.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Hi! How have you been keeping during quarantine?
Ryan Covington: Oh, man. Like the rest of us, I’ve been watching a lot of movies. But I can’t really watch anything new, you know? Because everything’s just so insane right now. So I’ve been watching a lot of Marvel movies. I love those movies. They’re my comfort food.
RC: Oh, man, I love them all. But I did feel obligated to watch Black Panther when learning about Chadwick Boseman’s death, just to honor him.
I get it. I still can’t bring myself to watch it – not yet.
You know, I have a weird connection to him that, to me, illustrates what a gracious guy he was. So, right when I sold Secrets, I was bartending at that movie theater in Hollywood. Chadwick came in and he came through my line and days, maybe a week or two before he came in, the original director for Secrets, unfortunately, had to pass on the project. He called me up and was like, ‘Hey, man, I’m really sorry, but I gotta go do this flick,’ and I was like, ‘No, I completely understand,’ and it turned out that movie he was directing was 21 Bridges with Chadwick Boseman. So when Chadwick came in, I was like, hah! What are the odds? And I came very close to being like, “Hey, man, say hi to your director for me.” But I kept it to myself because I was like, he has no idea who I am, he just wants to go watch his movie. So I just said, “Have a good one, man.” He was just really gracious the whole time. I even had an employee come out and she sees me and Chadwick talking and she just goes, “Holy SHIT!” and walks away. [laughing] We both just looked at each other awkwardly and I was just like, “Uh…want some popcorn?” Very smooth. But that was cool Chadwick moment and he was just so patient and down-to-earth.
I feel like that’s an “only in LA” story.
RC: Sure, I mean where else will that happen, really?
Let’s talk Secrets We Keep. You grew up as a white guy in the Pacific Northwest. This movie is such a far cry from your life. What prompted you to write this story?
RC: So, I initially had a lot of problems writing this movie. Years ago, originally, I was writing notes for a pilot for in my little pea brain, was going to go to HBO and be a 10-part series called Auschwitz. Ideally produced by the guys who did Band of Brothers. Because I really think that a 10-part series needs to be told about Auschwitz and Dachau and places like that, I was reading all these books and watching documentaries and I honestly wish that I had written down what documentary I was watching. But this woman who had survived Auschwitz, survived everything, she had a family and her adult son – this was back in the early 70s, there was a documentary where they followed her, she took her adult son back to Auschwitz and gave him a tour. And at one point, she told an anecdote about how she was in a grocery store and a German man had become irate and he just started screaming in German. And it [snaps] triggered her PTSD, just like that, and she started weeping in the store, freaking out, as I know I certainly would. So the entire movie, for me, came from that one single anecdote. I wrote the first draft in less than three weeks.
It’s fascinating because I think a lot of Americans know about Operation Paperclip by now. You know, the secret U.S. government program to smuggle over Nazi scientists and experts and whitewash their history to work for our government. But you don’t think as often about the normal Nazis and German soldiers who fled and reintegrated into other societies in secret.
RC: Definitely. They just went back home, or they went to Argentina, or here. If you remember the Nuremberg trials, there were only, what? Seventeen people put on trial? For everything? And maybe 10 of them did a few years and then went home, and a few others were executed. But really, that’s about it.
This is your first script that has gotten a theatrical release. Was there anything that you know now that is completely different than how you expected things to go? Was there anything that really surprised you as a first-time writer going through this kind of studio process?
RC: Everything is brand-spanking new to me in this process. I’m seeing the world for the first time. [laughs] Everything is brand-new to me, so it was a lot of, [pointing] “Hey, that’s pretty cool! Oh, no, that’s pretty cool! What’s that? And what’s that do? Who are you?” I was just, like, Zooey Deschanel eyes wide, trying to take it all in.
Scripts obviously go through a rewrite process, and Yuval [Adler] and Noomi [Rapace] did a pass on this one. That, to me, would be the hardest thing: Putting something out there into the world knowing that people are going to come along and change it. Is it hard to reconcile that?
RC: It’s not so much about reconciling as much as that you already know this is the process. This is how movies get made. Movies don’t get made by one person, movies get made by thousands of people. And inside of that little tiny group at the center of a movie, there’s going to be people with opinions. So you have to be able to listen and integrate and come up with a finished product that everybody agrees on. Again, movies aren’t made by one person and sometimes I think people do think that’s the case. It is not. So when I talk about The Secrets We Keep now, that’s why I say this is our movie; it’s not my movie anymore. This is everybody’s movie – the grips, the lighting, the stunts, the music, ADR, this is everybody’s movie that has a name on this. It’s not just a singular person who tells this story anymore.
The cast is phenomenal in this. All four major actors are on top of their game. Did watching an actor work with your script on set help you to understand how to better write scripts in the future?
RC: So I, too, have – well, not lately – but I have done a lot of acting back home. So doing the acting and being on the other side of the camera and saying other people’s words, you do learn stuff, because – well, here. I’ll give you a little anecdote: There was a scene in the movie where Joel’s character is being fed. And in my original script, he was being given a glass of milk. And then I thought, just for a split second, “Oh, wait. When this gets made, he’s going to be drinking a lot of milk. He’s not going to be happy at all,” and so in the script I changed it to water because I knew if a dude drinks that much milk, he’s not going to be happy. So I hope Joel thanks me later for that – you’re welcome, Joel.
Little things like that aren’t ones most moviegoers consider when watching a movie. Like the famous Wolf of Wall Street story when Leonardo DiCaprio ended up puking into a trash can because he had to eat sushi for so many takes in a row.
RC: Right, like, usually you have a spit bucket for scenes like that. Also, they snorted an amazing amount of powdered Vitamin C for that movie, so I imagine they were all extremely healthy.
I always find it interesting when I talk to anyone in the industry who is right at the upswing of their career because I always want to ask them what they wish they had known ten years ago when they only just starting out. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s still true.
RC: This is going to be an incredibly vanilla answer for you, but it’s honestly going to be: keep going. Keep doing what you’re doing. I’ve been writing movies since I was 11 years old, and before that, I wanted to be a special effects person, I wanted to be a stuntperson, all of it. Just keep honing your craft. The first 10 scripts I wrote were just trash. Then the next 10 were like, oh, that’s not so bad. And then the next 10 are like, oh, I think I’m doing okay. It’s the 10,000 hours thing.
Why has everything always been tied movies for you?
RC: Literally everything. I don’t have a good answer for that, but my very first memory is sitting down in a movie theater in Seattle and watching Return of the Jedi in 1983. So I must have been 3 1/2, 4 years old. Then watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I remember exactly what I was doing. I was eating a bowl of macaroni and cheese, I must have been 5 or 6 watching that movie, and when the guy gets his heart ripped out [mimics the beating heart], I knew I wanted to be part of making movies. And that was it. That was the only thing I ever wanted to do in my entire life. I never wanted to be an astronaut or a policeman or a firefighter, I don’t know math. It was movies.
So the moment you watched a guy get his heart ripped out was the moment you were like, “Yes. This. I want to do this.”
RC: [laughing] Yes! And that scene should have terrified most 5- or 6-year-olds! And I was just like, [puts chin in hands and mimics watching TV]. I just needed to know how they took a man’s heart out and he didn’t die. I needed to know that, I needed to know how he was still alive. Before I knew it was practical effects. And then it came full circle and I originally wanted to be a practical effects guy. In a couple of the movies I’ve done prior to this where I’ve acted in it, I have also served as the special effects guy. Growing up, I read all the special effects magazines and I learned how to do the squibs and blood effects and all that stuff. I love it, it’s just so much fun.
Part of screenwriting is reading other people’s scripts and learning what to do and what not to do. Is there a script out there that made you go, damn, I wish I had written this?
RC: Oh, God, so many. I will say that The Abyss is one of those early movies that I watched – I must have been 10 or 11 when that movie came out – and that movie just completely changed me. I think that was one of the movies that made me want to be a writer. Just because that movie is so complicated, there’s so much character depth in every single one of them, and this movie is stacked with people. And also, Terminator 2, it’s one of my favorite movies in the entire world. When that movie came out, I was at the bookstore and I saw the script-to-screen book – I even still have it in my closet – and I made my mom buy it, and that’s how I learned that oh, someone wrote this shit. Someone had to think all of this up and write all of this down, and that’s how I learned about screenwriting. If I ever meet James Cameron, he’s going to sign that book. Early James Cameron to me is what really sparked my early love and passion for screenwriting.
So few people ever know exactly what they want to do even into adulthood, let alone as kids. That’s awesome.
RC: You know, I have a specific memory of Batman Returns, it had just come out on VHS. And I begged my brother to help me hook up from the RCA TV into the stereo so I could record the movie on a cassette tape. And then I took that cassette tape to my room and listen to scenes and then I’d write the scene how I thought it might look like on a page. So I was writing Batman Returns by reverse-engineering it. That’s a very vivid memory for me.
The Secrets We Keep hits theaters on Wednesday, September 16th. Get tickets here.