On August 12, a film called Rogue Agent had its U.S. release. It had previously carried the original title of my unpublished, 11,000-word magazine piece, which I’d kept back and adapted into the screenplay: “Chasing Agent Freegard.” It’s been a chase that has lasted 16 years—one that spanned a transition, for me, from journalism to deploying journalism in screenwriting and making movies.

It began in mid-2005. I’d left 60 Minutes after years of working on the Wednesday broadcast, and I’d had my first long piece published in Vanity Fair (“The Recruiters’ War,” about senior military recruiters hustling mentally and physically disqualified young men and women into the wartime services). I received an unexpected phone call from a producer in London named Lloyd Levin, who’d read the piece.

Then a phone call from Paul Greengrass, the only top director on planet Earth who could read all 600 pages of The 9/11 Commission Report, call up an investigative writer he’d never met, and say, “I think there’s a movie there. Do you reckon?” And four nights of late-night phone calls later, “Well, does it make sense for you to come over and work on it?” So began my career in film.

Robert Hendy-Freegard, the first Englishman ever convicted of “kidnapping by fraud.”

A dizzying eight months later, I found myself in a somehow frigid-yet-sweaty Soho editing room in London, during the final push on United 93, my first feature. We had four editing rooms spinning the night in question—two for the feature, and one for each of the accompanying documentaries a fellow associate producer and I had directed, with the real people we’d interviewed during research for the film. It was around the clock. My apartment building burned down during an all-nighter, and I didn’t know it until I went back a day later to take a shower. (A policewoman told me “a major piece of stolen art” had been recovered in the culprit’s apartment.) It was controlled chaos. I loved it.

Punch-drunk from lack of sleep, addled from coffee and whatever we’d eaten (or had not eaten), I picked up a discarded newspaper in one of the editing bays and scanned the first article I saw. It was about a fellow called Robert Hendy-Freegard, then 34, who had become the first Englishman ever convicted of the novel crime of “kidnapping by fraud.” In other words, kidnapping by brainwashing—by mindfuck—as opposed to the more traditional “by force.”

He’d been sentenced to life in prison for financing a “James Bond-type” lifestyle by convincing seemingly normal people for at least a decade that he wasn’t just the local barman, or car salesman, but rather a spy in Her Majesty’s domestic counter-intelligence and security service, M.I.5, and that their lives depended on trusting him—and paying out of pocket for witness protection. The scope of the con, as ultimately tallied by the Crown Prosecution Service, amounted to nearly $2 million in stolen cash and fraudulent bank transfers, possibly four kidnappings, assault and battery, and at least two missing women, one for as long as a decade.

The story, as written, made little sense. Who were these people he’d bilked? And how could they possibly have fallen for it? The investigative reporter in me thought the story was tabloid bullshit. That or, just possibly, a great story waiting to be properly told. It hadn’t yet occurred to me, though it soon would, that it might also make a great movie.

A Long Game

Soon enough, I found myself in cold, depressing corners of the U.K., speaking with warm, intelligent, no-longer-young individuals (one man, the rest were women) who had been conned by “Rob” and were, for the first time, speaking candidly (and courageously) about the years, and in some cases lifetimes, of family savings lost under his sway.

Gemma Arterton and Norton in Rogue Agent.

There was John, a fresh-faced and popular college student from a land-rich family that had been farming on the north coast of England for centuries. There was Maria, from a sheep-and-barley farm outside Bath, giggly and flirtatious, who’d been studying animal husbandry. There was Sarah, who’d always been conscientious and independent but would go missing for a full decade under Freegard’s sway. Later, as Freegard honed his “craft,” there was Kim, an American psychologist living in London.

I was reminded of what a senior military recruiter told me once in an interview: “It’s not about selling the military,” he said. “You just figure out what the kid wants, and that’s what you sell him.”

But Freegard’s victims were not high-school kids. They were solid, ordinary people. An F.B.I. agent and a Scotland Yard detective both told me later that Freegard was the most gifted con man either had ever encountered—ingenious at figuring out someone’s point of entry, their vulnerability, and playing a long game to separate them from their friends and family and finances and control their lives.

The key for understanding the story, for me, was Caroline Cowper, the in-house attorney for a major international firm in London’s financial district. Dirty blond, dogged, and formidably articulate, Cowper, 34 at the time, fell hard for Freegard but never fully toppled. She would become the woman who brought him down. It was Caroline’s story that captured the imagination of Robert Taylor, managing director of the Development Partnership, who read my story, optioned it, and hired me to write the screenplay.

United 93 was a 90-minute film about a 90-minute attack. It was sacred material and demanded a journalist’s rigor. We had a 9/11 Commission lawyer on set helping us. But this was a very different kind of story. It’s hard to let go of journalistic precision, but I learned that you have to be ruthless with yourself and channel all your research and material into making a much smaller story, one that captures the essence of the whole. And you have to fight if you feel the fiction crosses the line.

Being a screenwriter also involves letting go. At 60 Minutes, you’re trained to control the whole process, from finding a story to researching it, setting up production, executing the shoots, writing the script, sitting with the editor. This is not that. Once a director—or, in our case, a directing team (longtime collaborators Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn)—is brought on, you hand it over. The directors do a pass on your script to figure out what they think they can realize most powerfully on-screen.

Norton and Arterton in a scene from the film.

James Norton, who is also a producer on the film, was cast as Freegard, and Gemma Arterton came on to play the corporate lawyer. We shot on location in and around London for two months in the summer of 2021. Coronavirus was ever looming over the production. There were days when we had to show up on location at dawn, take PCR tests, and sit in our cars for two hours until the tests came back. We got our film made, by the skin of our teeth.

Months later, when you watch the cut, it never feels fully yours. But it partly is. Sometimes mostly. Hopefully it feels powerful and moving and finds your story’s beating heart.

Two years after Freegard was sentenced, after he’d served several years in prison, London’s Court of Appeals quashed his “kidnapping by fraud” convictions, ruling that the crime must include a “physical” deprivation of liberty. He was released, and there is ample evidence he’s up to old tricks.

What struck me in my conversations with the men and women whose lives were rended by Freegard was how he’d managed to fracture all sense of groundedness, replacing it with something else. “He always told you something that was plausible. That’s why he was so good,” Caroline explained.

Caroline, for one, thinks the law should be changed. “You actually can have emotional and mental power over someone else such that they feel that they are trapped. I can’t think of any other name for it than ‘kidnapping.’”

Michael Bronner is a journalist and BAFTA-nominated screenwriter. Rogue Agent, which he adapted from his own reporting, is available to stream on Netflix in the U.K. and Amazon Prime in the U.S.