Professor steps into unfamiliar roles with latest film

by James Heffernan

Photo of filmmaker Tom O'Connor with videographer setting up a shot in a cemetary
SMAD Professor Tom O'Connor, left, and cinematographer Allen Moore at the grave of British author Graham Greene in the village of Corseaux, Switzerland. 

Capturing the enigmatic life of British author Graham Greene presents a challenge for an independent filmmaker. Add to the mix proprietary responsibilities like securing funding for the project and negotiating licensing and distribution rights, and the task can become as formidable as the subject himself.

James Madison University media arts and design Professor Tom O’Connor’s latest film, “Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene,” is the first in his 30-year career to be produced outside of a work for hire. “The drawback to owning it is that the buck stops with you,” O’Connor said. For the Emmy-winning writer-director, that meant stepping into some unfamiliar roles. “The whole thing turned out to be enormously complex, which is fitting, I guess, because everything about Greene was complex.”
“Dangerous Edge” is the first American-produced documentary on Greene, one of the literary giants of the 20th century. “What drew me to him was that he is an enduring literary figure that has a shelf life,” O’Connor said. “And he’s unique in the sense that he was very famous yet he kept his head down. People, in this country at least, don’t know him in the way that Hemingway, for example, was known.”

For O’Connor, a student of history — his most recent Hollywood script is for a feature film on Shakespeare and the Jesuits — researching Greene “was rather like following the history of the 20th century.” His 54 books spanned seven decades, and hundreds of his stories have been adapted for television, theater and film — some twice, such as “The Quiet American” and “The End of the Affair.” Greene was also a British spy during World War II and later became one of the world’s most respected foreign correspondents, covering events such as Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion, the Vietnam War, Haiti’s “nightmare republic,” the rise of Castro in Cuba and the fall of the Soviet Union. Greene wrote continuously until his death in 1991 and “in almost every conceivable form,” O’Connor said.

Finding visual material for “Dangerous Edge” proved difficult. A manic-depressive who traveled extensively to escape what he called the “boredom” of everyday life, Greene avoided television interviews, O’Connor said, for fear “of appearing as a performing monkey.” Aside from a few remarks during a brief appearance in an airport in Prague and his surrender to a BBC television crew that had caught up with him outside his apartment in France, little video footage of the author exists. “Dangerous Edge” therefore relies on the author’s own words from his books and recordings as well as resources from the National Portrait Gallery in London, Greene family photographs and clips from Hollywood movies of his works — an approach that created a tangle of licensing requirements.

“It’s the kind of documentary that many [independent filmmakers] will shy away from,” said executive producer Barbara De Fina, a veteran filmmaker in her own right whom O’Connor approached five years ago while she was working on a remake of Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter.” “There’s so much work in the licensing and clearing of material. Just a minute of footage can require 20 or more licenses. I don’t think he knew how difficult it would be.”

O’Connor said the biggest challenge was funding the six-year project. It was a lesson he shared with his filmmaking students at JMU. “The money is the big thing and one of the reasons why I’ll likely not do this again on my own,” he said.

The filming of “Dangerous Edge” began in 2006. O’Connor and his crew, which included Ken Burns cinematographer Allen Moore, shot on location in London, Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Vienna and Geneva, Switzerland, Greene’s final resting place and the home of his daughter, Caroline Bourget. British actor Sir Derek Jacobi, who appeared in three feature films adapted from Greene’s books, is the film’s narrator and actor Bill Nighy ("Love Actually," "Pirate Radio")  provides the voice of the author. “Dangerous Edge” also includes interviews with Greene scholars as well as fellow writers, critics and spies.
Boston-based PBS International acquired the worldwide distribution rights to the film in March, and sister company PBS Video will distribute it in the U.S. Charles Schuerhoff, who oversees acquisitions for PBS International, said the film is well made with a compelling story, and O’Connor’s use of Hollywood film footage should help in shopping the program to television stations, many of which like to time their release of a documentary about an author around the release of one of his feature films.

“Dangerous Edge” has an anticipated spring 2013 release date.

Related links:

• "Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene",
• JMU Professor Tom O'Connor,

Published: Thursday, July 19, 2012

Last Updated: Thursday, March 15, 2018

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