Ex-ASIS, MI6 trained, agent Warren Reed was brought in to kick off the launch of Atomic Blonde on DVD and Blu-Ray. Hidden Characters and Universal Home Release rarely disappoint with their launch events for big name films but this one had the small audience of influencers and media glued to their seats. Reed spoke of the quality representation of the spy industry in the movie vs. the glamourised versions of Bond and educated the audience on the skills required for the spy trade. I caught up with Reed a couple of days later to ask a few more questions about his time in ASIS, his training, women in the secret service and representations of the spy industry in film.
Reed spent 10 years in ASIS from the late 70s, so his time was in the forming age of the spy industry – in particular what we know about it through popular culture. Reed had mentioned getting a, “tap on the shoulder”, whilst working in Japan to join the agency. I wanted to understand how something like this could just happen. Is someone watching us all the time? Were there actually meetings in underground car parks? He went on to explain that back then, a number of different people would pass names back to the government. Particular people they sought out were Australian’s working in countries of interest with language skills and networks already. Reed covered all of these areas as he had learnt Japanese during his two years in national service. One particular source of potential recruits came from universities, who would suggest students who could be interesting to the agency. From making the decision in his late 20s, he was whisked off to train at MI6 in London for six months.
This training was to equip agents with the skills they would need in the field. I, of course, had to ask if they were trained in all the glorified elements we get to see on movies: gunfights, hand-to-hand combat and car chases. The answer was an obvious yes (I had to ask) but this is not the sort of training that was called on day to day. The vast majority of the job is about human interaction, preparing you for information gathering. The intense six-month course is run, often day and night, with very little sleep to see if you will crack. “The course is constructed to put you under great pressure. To see if you can survive each given unit and eventually the whole thing,” Warren tells me. Back to guns and car chases…Warren seems to skilfully elude the question like a good spy, “Some of the areas…I wouldn’t talk about them…but you train for every contingency.” I am happy enough with this answer.
At 72 and sharp as ever, when asked if he ever had to call on some of the more aggressive aspects of his training he mentioned he had a few ‘close shaves’ in the Middle East but much of the training was never called on. This is not to say that it wasn’t locked away in his head. As he mentioned a few times, if you are out in the field and things go the wrong way you can’t just ask someone for help, “Oh shit, this is happening, I’m about to die, but can you email me the Chapters 3 and 4 of the training manual.”
Most of the work of a spy is around extensively managing human interactions. During the morning we spent with Warren he gave us numerous examples of memory work and understanding body language. These are some of the skills required to make close relationships with different individuals that will allow you to acquire the information you need. On further questioning with Warren he said this is what left the biggest mark on him as a person after leaving. The constant manipulation of your own behaviour and reactions when dealing with informants starts to change your habits and imparts idiosyncrasies without you realising. When dealing with a number of different people this can put significant strain on your psyche he says.
When asked what some of the worst parts of the spy industry can be relationships are the greatest casualty. The aforementioned changes and the late nights out have obvious impacts on relationships. Warren suggested that despite the lack of statistics, the relationship breakdown rates among ASIS agents and Foreign Affairs officials are very high. Partners are allowed to know what you do for a job but details are not shared for obvious reasons. Those late nights out, coming home smelling like cigarettes and alcohol are compounded by an inability to really discuss much of your work with your partner. I guess this is the sort of information that wouldn’t really make for exciting TV or movies.
As Reed says, “It [Atomic Blonde] ain’t no James Bond film”. Now, this is not a criticism of Bond. He certainly likes Bond films and enjoyed them as a young man in the early 70s but they are not a realistic depiction of the job of a spy. Atomic Blonde on the other hand is edging closer. Yes, there are some epic chase and flight scenes and if you are like me and are into acting, some of the behind the scenes footage with Charlize Theron learning the moves is testament to how seriously they took the action in this film. Warren felt that the level of deception was getting much more realistic in the film. The lead character, Loraine, is thrown into what is already a complete mess and she has several contingency plans ready to call on at any time because she does not know who is really on her side,“It highlights what it is to be a spy – to have to keep your emotions, nerves under control when you’re in a blizzard of everything changing and you don’t know who you can trust”.
Reed also appreciated the strong female lead in the film and has been known to speak on the topic of the need for more women in the spy industry. He feels that women possess a certain set of instincts and intuition that make them particularly proficient at recruiting both men and women. Reed clarified that he did not mean in the same way women have been used historically, in particular by the KGB as, “honey-pot agents” – using their sexual charms to take advantage of a target. He is a big advocate for the continued growth of the proportion of women in the service. He is not an advocate of just balancing the numbers, he feels more needs to be done to attract women to the secret service. He has seen women’s rights come a long way in the last 40-45 years, agreeing it is for the benefit of everyone. Interestingly enough the CIA was one of the first agencies of the Five Eyes (The five countries that have an agreement not to spy in each other: Australia, New Zealand, Britain, USA and Canada) to really embrace the hiring and promotion of women in the secret services.
One of the common themes in spy films and it seems the issue that comes up all to frequently is the double agent. The traitor. With this in mind and the fact that in the real spy game you are essentially doing two jobs but only being paid for one, I thought I had to ask about the pay for spies. It seems money is often the driving force that will get someone to turn on his or her country. Reed assures me that the pay for a spy is definitely reasonable but agents that supply information can pocket millions of dollars over a couple of years. This sort of money would have to be a bit of an incentive although, on the flip side, becoming a traitor to your country can have some rather dire consequences.
As in many businesses, succession planning seems to be a bone of contention for Warren at ASIS. He points out that over the years the vast majority of Director Generals (heads) of ASIS have come from Foreign Affairs and are essentially politicians with no field experience in the spy game. He is concerned that this sends a bad message to hard working field agents who are not seeing a path to progress up the ranks. I tend to agree with the concern he has in light of the previous comments regarding spies turning for money.
After 10 years in ASIS, Reed decided it was time to move on. One of the biggest challenges he, and other ex-agents, discover on leaving is getting back to who you were before you joined. This can be more of an issue if you have been recruited in your 20s like Reed. You, in essence are operating as a therapist with your contacts as you need to ‘befriend’ them and as previously mentioned this is far from the traditional sense of making friends. Altering your behaviour and paying strict attention to all your responses to elicit information from people takes its toll says Reed. A recommendation from a friend of his was not to rush trying to find yourself. The more you fight it, the further away you will get. Over time you will realise behaviours that don’t feel as natural as they should and over a few years you will settle back into yourself. On a positive note, Warren has been utilising the skills of boosting his memory and human interaction almost every day since.
Atomic Blonde is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now, I highly recommend the Blu-Ray version with the special features.
Written by Kai Lebens.