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How to Survive a Movie Interrogation Scene

From ‘Marathon Man’ to ‘The Usual Suspects,’ films have taught us what to do (and what not to do) when questioned by authorities. Or, you could just be Superman.

How to Survive a Movie Interrogation Scene Ringer illustration

An hour and 45 minutes into Molly’s Game, a movie about a woman who runs a regular poker game for famous and rich people, an interrogation scene happens. Molly, played by Jessica Chastain, finds herself tangled up in a RICO indictment aimed at mobsters, and so she’s sitting in a small room answering questions about things with three men. Her defense attorney, Chris, played by Idris Elba, sits to her left, and two prosecuting attorneys, an older white man and a younger white man, sit across from them at a table.

The older white man fires question after question at Molly, hoping to talk the shoes off her feet so she slips up a bit. She remains calm, though. So much so, in fact, that it begins to frustrate not only the prosecuting attorneys, but also Chris. But then there’s a hairline break in her exterior: For the entirety of the movie, Molly operates with a very measured amount of coolness and resolve. She’s a marble statue, really. Nothing shakes or wobbles her, not even getting [REDACTED] by [REDACTED]. But at the interrogation table, she pushes and bends the borders of her persona juuuuust enough to make it seem like she might be concerned without ever actually making it feel like she is concerned. I’ll refrain from telling you how it ends because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I will say: It’s a smart and a powerful scene, but it’s also a fun scene, if for no other reason than because it inspires a question: What are the skills needed to survive a movie interrogation?

What are the steps? What are the things you’re supposed to do? How are you supposed to handle a particularly aggressive line of questioning from a particularly aggressive police officer? Or what if the interrogators are hapless, horny detectives (like in Basic Instinct)? Or consider this: What if the person interrogating you is Batman (like in The Dark Knight), or a vampire (like in Blade Trinity), or a terrorist (like in Mission: Impossible III), or a maniacal man with an interest in dentistry (like in Marathon Man), or an ex-CIA agent with a temper problem (like in Man on Fire), or a villain with a fondness for genital mutilation (like in Casino Royale)? On and on and on. Because that’s really the twist of a movie interrogation scene, and what makes it different than a real-life interrogation: You never know who (or what) could be sitting opposite of you.

So, some general guidelines for handling yourself in a movie interrogation scene:

A good thing to do: Jump questioning timelines.

Here’s what that means, and Molly does it in Molly’s Game, so we can start with that one as the example:

While the two attorneys are questioning Molly, they begin asking about ancillary activities that might’ve been happening at her poker games. The younger white man asks if she ever had sex with anyone at the game for money, at which point Chris jumps in to stop the conversation.

Him and the older white man argue back and forth about the reason for the meeting. Chris says it was so that they could meet Molly; the older white man says it was because they wanted to see if Molly would provide any information that would help them prosecute members of the mob in exchange for her freedom. They have this sidebar conversation for nearly a full minute before there’s a break, but as soon as there is (which happens after the older white man asks if Molly will help them), Molly says “No.”

They think she’s answering the new question about cooperating with the government (“You’re not willing to cooperate?” asks the older white man), but what she’s actually doing is going back to the younger white man’s original question about whether or not she ever had sex with anyone for money. (“No, I never traded sex for money,” she says, pointing at the younger white man to make sure that it’s on the record.) It gives them just enough of a pause to realize that she is more focused than they are, and more diligent than they are, and, in all likelihood, smarter than they are. It’s the same trick that Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg used in The Social Network (another Aaron Sorkin movie) to make himself so intellectually smarmy and condescending, both in legal depositions and on dates with women.

A good thing to do: Be Superman.

Above all other Movie Interrogation Tactics, being Superman is definitely the tactic you should opt for if you, by chance, happen to be Superman. His interrogation happens in 2013’s Man of Steel. He sits there, hands cuffed together like some regular schmoe, pretending like he’s being detained just because he knows it makes all of the regular humans feel safer. (This happens in Zack Snyder’s Superman universe, which is why everyone in charge is afraid that Superman is suddenly going to start murdering everyone, because that’s exactly the kind of thing that happens in Zack Snyder superhero movies.*)

After a moment of talking with Lois Lane, a person standing on the other side of a one-way mirror interrupts them via intercom. Before he can even get his name out, Superman says that he knows who he is because he can read his ID badge through the mirror and inside of his pocket. Then Superman calls out everyone else standing with him, and then after he gets confronted by a high-ranking general (who is also standing on the other side of the one-way mirror), Superman stands up, pulls his handcuffs apart with 0 percent effort, then walks over and stares the general in the eyes through the mirror while telling him that no humans have ever controlled him, and no humans ever will.

And with that, the interrogation scene is over.

So, I say again: Being Superman is definitely the tactic you should opt for if you, by chance, happen to be Superman. It’s foolproof.

*If this comment sounds standoff-ish or like I’m angry that Snyder makes his superhero movies the way he does, then it’s merely a misunderstanding of tone. I don’t hate it. It’s actually, on occasion, kind of fun, and if you won’t at least admit that watching Angry Superman mollywhop the other members of the Justice League in Justice League after they woke him up from death then I don’t even know why I’m talking to you, what with you being an unreasonable person and all.

A bad thing to do: Misremember your lie.

You’ll notice that the bad thing here isn’t just lying in general. Lying is fine, particularly if you’re guilty of the crime that you’re being interrogated about. The problems come when you misremember your lie. Don’t do that.

I’ll give you an exactly perfect example of each, and we can use similar situations from movies that came out in theaters one behind the other:

  • Good at lying: In 1992’s Juice, Tupac gets interrogated by the police (his character’s name is Bishop). They’re questioning him (and his friends) about the death of a convenience store employee. Now, to be sure, Bishop shot and killed the convenience store employee, and he did so while robbing him, and also, just to throw it out there, he also killed one of his best friends during a scuffle after the robbery-homicide. But Bishop makes up a story about having been with a girl at the time, and he never once strays from that story or any of the details. He is perfectly married to and careful with it, and actually he spends a fair amount of time laughing at the officers questioning him. It’s remarkable. He’s so good at lying to them that even though you watched him shoot and kill the clerk, you’re like, “Wait, maybe Bishop is innocent. Maybe he was with a girl at the time.”
  • Bad at lying: In 1993’s Menace II Society, Caine, played by Tyrin Turner, gets interrogated by the police. They’re questioning him (and one of his friends) about the death of a convenience store employee. Now, to be sure, Caine’s friend shot and killed the convenience store employee, and he did so while robbing him, and Caine was there and watched it happen. But when the officer starts questioning Caine about it, Caine stumbles. The officer asks Caine if he was there around 11:15 p.m., then throws some misdirection at him, then doubles back and asks him about the time again, this time replacing 11:15 p.m. with 12:15 a.m. Caine steps right into his snare, at which point the officer pounces. “You done fucked up now, you know that, don’t ya?” he says. All of Caine’s words after that become 100-pound boulders. It’s a total disaster.

A good thing to do: Be the one who has the coolest thing to say.

There are two types of people in a movie interrogation. There’s the person who thinks he’s the one who has the cool thing to say, and then there’s the one who actually has the cool thing to say. You only want to be the first guy, never the second guy, because the guy who has the cool thing to say is the one who, even when it doesn’t look like it, has the upper hand.

To wit, there’s a part in Hitman: Agent 47 where 47 is in an impossible situation: He is handcuffed to a table, two Marines standing behind him, while an angry American diplomat sits seven feet away from him. The diplomat (Mr. Sanders) is holding 47’s rifle and aiming it at him. (Minutes earlier, 47 had walked into the building with a giant rifle in a bag, as well as holding some handguns and knives, so as to get everyone’s attention. He got arrested and his weapons were confiscated. Mr. Sanders brought the rifle into the room as a way to intimidate 47.) After 47 makes a couple of comments about Mr. Sanders’s family, Sanders grows frustrated and angry. He loads a single bullet into the rifle, then says, “The last time I checked, you’re the one locked in here with me, and I’m the one with the gun.” And at that moment, Sanders was absolutely in charge, because that’s a very cool thing to say to someone. HOWEVER, 47, very sternly and matter-of-factly, replies, “No, Mr. Sanders. You are locked in here with me, and you just brought me mine,” and that’s when Sanders knows that he’s fucked.

So be that guy. Be the one who has the cool thing to say.

(An underrated example of the Be the Person With the Cool Thing to Say guideline happens during the opening interrogation scene in 2012’s Lockout. Snow, a cocky and asshole-y ex-CIA operative, is getting interrogated by Scott Langral, the head of the Secret Service. Langral asks Snow for the name of a guy he was talking to on the phone. Snow says, “His name was Fuck You,” then there’s a beat, then he continues: “Yeah, he was Asian.” I laughed.)

A bad thing to do: Refuse to tell the interrogators what they want to know.

The main difference between me and mostly everyone who has ever been interrogated in a movie is I would spend exactly zero minutes and zero seconds protecting anyone who wasn’t me. The interrogator would walk in and say something about how they’d like to talk to me about something I was supposed to keep secret (like the location of a person or some valuables or whatever) and I’d be like, “Cool, turn on the tape recorder and let’s get this tattletale party started.”

(The most upsetting example of someone holding onto information longer than he or she should have is in 1976’s Marathon Man. A man is abducted by some war criminal goons and gets strapped into a chair. The main bad guy then comes in and begins torturing him for information by doing dental work on him. He pokes at the raw nerve exposed by a cavity, then drills into some of his healthy teeth to get to those nerves, too. It’s bad. It’s so, so bad. Don’t watch the scene. Here’s the link for it but don’t watch it. Don’t. Do not. Don’t. I mean, I know that you will because you’re a dummy, but don’t.)

(The most captivating example of someone holding onto information longer than he or she needs to happens in 2016’s Patriots Day. The wife of one of the terrorist bombers gets brought in for questioning, and the woman interrogating her comes as close as you can get to pulling someone’s legs off with words. She cuts her down into a trillion ribbons of shame, and it looks for all the world like it’s going to work, but then she makes one tiny misstep and the wife gains all of her strength and power back. It’s great.)

A good thing to do: Have a plan.

The whole reason that being interrogated is unnerving is because the interrogatee is in a position he or she either doesn’t want to be in or isn’t supposed to be in. Which is why if you have a plan—more specifically, if you have a plan that, as part of it, includes preparation for an interrogation—then you remove all the power from the other side of the table and place it on your side. It’s what we saw in 2009’s Law Abiding Citizen, which was a movie in which Gerard Butler’s Clyde Shelton, a master tactician, plotted out a very complicated and complex revenge plan in response to the unsatisfying conclusion to a courtroom trial.

A recap: Clyde’s wife and daughter were murdered during a home invasion. One of the two killers agreed to accept a deal where he would testify against the other, thus ensuring himself a far shorter sentence. He was released from prison just a couple years after being convicted. Clyde decided he needed to personally see to it that the justice system was restructured, so he set in place a plan to kill the killer, the judge on the case, the defendant’s lawyer, the prosecuting attorney, as well as everyone at a meeting at City Hall attended by the political elite. Every time the prosecuting attorney (Nick Rice, played by Jamie Foxx) sat down with him or talked to him, Rice was already four steps behind Clyde. Watching them duel is the only reason Law Abiding Citizen is any fun to watch, because mostly it’s a bad movie.*

*To be clear, it’s bad in a wonderfully good way. It is endlessly rewatchable.

A bad thing to do: Think you’re the smartest person in the room.

The gold standard here is Chazz Palminteri as special agent Dave Kujan in 1995’s The Usual Suspects. He’s interrogating Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint about some mega-crime that was masterminded by a mysterious mega-criminal named Keyser Soze, and Kint is a handicapped, low-budget criminal that Kujan knows he can bully around, so that’s exactly what he does. He flexes on him early on, telling Kint, “I’m smarter than you. And I’m gonna find out what I wanna know, and I’m gonna get it from you whether you like it or not.” And then for the whole rest of the movie we see him shoving and poking and prodding Kint, melting him all the way down to a broken, emaciated mess, and I’ll stop the explanation there because if you’ve seen the movie then you know where this is going and if you haven’t seen the movie I certainly don’t want to be the one to ruin it for you.

If you want another example that we can all the way flesh out, and if you’d like for us to circle back to the first part of the guidelines, a somewhat similar situation plays out in 2013’s Now You See Me, a heist movie that stars, among others, Jesse Eisenberg.

In Now You See Me, Eisenberg, playing magician Danny Atlas, joins up with three other magicians to perform a string of heists at the behest of a super-secret magicians group. After their first heist, they get called in for interrogation. Atlas toys with the main FBI agent working on the case (Mark Ruffalo’s Dylan Rhodes), eventually tricking Rhodes into handcuffing himself to a table, then pouring salt into his eyes by telling him, “First rule of magic: Always be the smartest guy in the room.” Of course, the gag there is we find out later that Rhodes is actually a legendary magician pretending to be an FBI agent, and that he’d set up not only Atlas, but also the other three magicians, as well as their boss, as well as the man trying to catch them all, as well as the entire FBI.

So don’t do that.

You can’t do that.

You can’t think you’re the smartest person in the room.

You have to know that you are.

So do that. Follow that rule. And the other rules mentioned here, too.