‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ interview with director Tomas Alfredson

Slowly walking into theaters is the British espionage hit, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which can be summed up as “the anti-Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” The film boasts the casting of Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and more, while featuring zero car chases. Based on the book by John le Carre, and then the BBC mini-series that featured Alec Guinness, the film now receives a different vision from Let the Right One In Swedish director Tomas Alfredson.

I sat down in a roundtable interview with Alfredson to discuss making the film, the importance of Gary Oldman’s performance, and the differences between a Swedish film set and a British one.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens in Chicago on December 16.

So, working with this material that’s been known for the BBC series, and your own film ‘Let the Right One In’ being remade, I was wondering if you had any particular feelings about remakes and also if you thought there’s anything truly out of bounds to be remade?

Tomas Alfredson: I really don’t consider this one as a remake because I think you can remake stuff if you have an interesting take – why not? But I think if you just make a blueprint of something it’s not really honest to yourself if you are a filmmaker to just copy something. So I think I said that yesterday at the screening that John le Carre said in the beginning, he said “please don’t do this book, it already exists, it’s a great book and if you make a crappy film, the book is still good, I mean, so try to do your own take on this and surprise me,” which was a great thing to hear.

What do you feel is your own imprint on this story, then?

I don’t know—I suppose it’s easier for you to see and say that, but I think for me this is a very emotional piece rather than a documentary or something about the Cold War.

Do you think being Swedish changes your interpretation of the material more than if a Brit had tried to do it again?

I suppose so, it’s a little hard to say in what way, but I think when you spend some time in Britain it’s quite shocking to understand how the social structures work and how they place people after how they sound and how say… how they express themselves. And when I have spoken to Brit’s about this, they don’t really think about it, it’s just something they have. So that thing is quite striking to be foreigner in that context.

Along those same lines, like you say about the social structure, the book deals so much with everyone’s social status, like Ann’s an aristocrat, and she’s cousins with Bill, and also looking at the book now, later, and making it for contemporary viewers, what were some of the big conscious decisions you made, like, ‘Ok, the book, the BBC series, those were 30 years ago, what was different when making a film for 2011 viewers?

I’m not sure, but maybe it is sort of the emotional approach, I think they wouldn’t allow you to do that kind of take in the 70’s, I think. They would ask you to focus so much more on the east-west conflict thing, and the philosophical side of it. I think you could do that at the same time, and we have now historical distance to the Cold War where we can discuss this in a cooler and a more sober manner than we could before. Because as I remember it, from where I come from people got very upset and they had very specific ideas who was the best and what to think about this and that, so that might be something that would be different.

And also in the original’s you’re in the process of the British Empire’s decline and talking about WWII, and now we look back at it in a historical fact, you know, the decline of the empire.

One of the things I find interesting now in the material is back when it was written when it was dealing with the notion of surveillance and all that – where at the time it may have seemed kind of shocking whereas nowadays, basically I think with our own computers we have better technology than they had back then and we have stuff like the Patriot Act and stuff like that where we’re being surveyed all the time without even thinking about it. So I’m just curious, you know, talking about surveillance and the difference between how it’s portrayed in the movie versus how it is now, if there’s a difference in reception towards it?

The main idea about spying is that you know something about me that I don’t, I don’t know that you know something about me and you could share this with him. But if I knew that you were watching me, it wouldn’t be so interesting for you. So it is a theater, it is a game where secrecy is something you need to make it interesting. If everyone knows that everyone is surveyed in some way to the other, it’s like – ok there are people looking at all the billions of emails being sent everyday to try to find if there are terrorists. It’s not people that want to peek into your private life, it’s just people working with catching the bad guys. And you also need to be… what do you call this if I get one gun, you buy two guns, and then I get a bomb and you get two bombs, what do you call that?

Proliferation?

Yeah, for that to work it needs that someone is scared, or afraid. Otherwise it would be meaningless, or pointless. It’s like I saw this ad the other day that said “buy this software to protect your emails” and I was like, “who the hell is interested in my emails?” It’s like, anyone would write emails like me, it’s like business meetings, and “hello, I love you, how are you” and emails to your grandma – or whatever it is. It’s like, what is there to hide? If you come to think of it, anyone, I suppose, writes emails like I do – it’s nothing secret about that, so – and that is a big difference between then and now and the whole structure of that game.

Can you talk a little bit about working with Gary Oldman and maybe you could reiterate that great antidote you gave last night about the retirement scene?

Working with Gary has been very joyful, he is an extremely, how should one say – concentrated person at work. And we had an almost telepathic relation, we could just nod, or, “not good, again let’s do it like this” and we didn’t have to have long intellectual discussions about what was happening. It’s been really great and he, of course, understood that this is the part of his life, almost, to play George Smiley in this. I suppose you’re referring to the story.., there is a montage in the beginning of the film where we see Smiley doing different stuff as a newly retired, and there is a scene we didn’t bring into the film where Smiley fries an egg, which is a very boring thing to do, and we just did it and I let the film roll for two minutes frying an egg, in his wife’s apron, the wife that’s out with someone else, and I said ‘cut’ and Gary came to my place behind the monitor and he asked if he could see it and he watched it and he said, “I used to be Sid Viscous.”

What made you think he (Oldman) would be the perfect Smiley? Obviously we already have Alec Guinness in the mini series and it’s kind of this pivotal role in his career, what about Gary made you think he could do this and not erase peoples’ images of the mini series, but embody him and make it his own?

I clearly understood that we shouldn’t look for someone who sort of looked like Alec Guinness. That would be a strange way of approaching the task, so my eyes were in a different direction in that way. But the complexity of finding the right actor for the part was that… I mean he is described as anyone’s uncle, someone you would immediately forget if you saw him on the street and to have that as a leading part in a big film, it’s a contradiction. But the thing is that his dullness… he should play dull, not be dull, you know? That’s the big trick about it, and if you see, if you look what Gary’s done up today, it’s fantastic what the palate of so many different colors, and I thought he would be the perfect person for the part. and it takes a lot of guts to actually go around doing nothing and not reacting, you need a lot of experience to do that and to dare to do that.

Was he easy to get on board on the project or was it easy for you to convince him?

I think so, it was, yeah. We connected very fast and as it’s described to me today in the Hollywood system it’s like there’s always a list with others, and I didn’t have that, it was like I wanted him for the part and I think he was a little surprised that someone came with a proposal – like “we want you.”

What was the most challenging element of the production – was there a specific moment or scene or an overall challenge you faced when you were trying to make it?

I would say that the editing was the hardest and most interesting journey. But it was almost impossible to get it together

Was it much longer at certain point?

No, it was to balance it and how to make the right portions of information.

Following up on that one of the things that fascinates me about the three different versions was how much do you spell out for an audience. You watch the BBC again and there’s times, surprisingly where George Smiley stops sometimes and says ‘and this is why we’re doing this and this is who this is’ and you don’t do as much of that. Did you make constant decisions about ‘how much do we let the audience know what’s going on, and how much do we keep them working to figure it out?’

Well, for me the trick was to leave some information and then to create some space of the audience to chew and to swallow and to digest. If you leave a lot of information to the viewer and then start describing new information you get lost because you haven’t digested yet, so to find that sort of pace, that was the trick, I think. Because in the TV series that is the case in many sequences I think it’s too much information and about names and characters you don’t have an image, you don’t get an image in front of you when you hear the names, it’s a little too crowded.

About how long did it take to finally find it? Obviously you said if this is done the wrong way people are completely confused by a ton of information, or if it’s been cut too much, if it’s been cut too short – how long did it take you to get the right sort of balance because on something like that if you, if it misses by even a little bit that can destroy it.

Yeah, I think it took like seven months, or something, to get it together.

Working with, not just Gary Oldman, but a huge cast of very defined people, I was wondering did you have any difficulty kind of being able to meld them all together or was there like a certain amount of intensity that they could all agree on?

Yeah, and they, you pretty much get what you ask for as a director in the British tradition of working. In Sweden we want consensus, you know, we work together and we discuss and “what do you think?’ and “what’s your point of view?” and in Britain it’s like I wanted to do this and this and this, and they’d do it immediately and if it’s not good it’s your fault.

Was that very jarring for you then, going from Sweden to this? Did it really change the style of your directing? Or not style, but the way you operate a set? Did it make you rethink things?

No, but as I said if you haven’t done your homework properly you would see it right in front of your eyes. Even the best actors in the world it’s like “Ok, I think we’ll have to change this and that” and you could ask for help and you could ask them what their opinion is and that’s fine, but it’s quite different.


Can you talk a little bit about the visual style of the film because in the same way the you tell the story, like the big flash in the Bond movies, in this film it’s the same way, very muted colors. Can you talk a little bit about coming up with and deciding on the visual?

Our approach was, me and Hoytema, the director of photography, was to sort of create a voyeur in all the scenes that everything is sort of peeked in upon, like outside windows, through the keyhole feeling, and also to create such a -how should you say?- uh, bubbles, where these people are captured in bubbles. And one way we thought to create that was to work with very long lenses to sort of squeeze everything together. So everything is done in locations where we actually could get far away with the camera in order to use very long lenses to make everything squeeze together. That was one thing. And then also we tried to recall our own memories and images from that period and the beginning of the 70’s and the smelliness of post war England.

Has there been any discussion of adapting the other books?

Yes, there has, and I think everyone involved would love to do it but I think we should do it one step at a time and see what happens with this and mature it properly, the project, and do it for the right reasons. But I think as a spontaneous idea, everyone would like to be involved.

I hope so, as fan of the books and the series I would love to see another Gary Oldman performance as Smiley.

Yeah, you would like to see him get Karla.

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