During an awards season where there seem to be no sure things, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is yet another film proving to be quite divisive. Initially touted for Oscar after a few magnificent teaser trailers, buzz on the picture seemed to cool a bit after its U.K. debut back in September. It’s been doing quite well at the box office overseas and got a rave review from our own U.K. corresdpondent Oli Lyttleton but has left some on the staff a little bit cold. Based on the book by spy-turned-novelist John le Carré and previously adapted into an acclaimed miniseries starring Alec Guinness, the story centers on former British Intelligence agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) who is brought out of retirement to investigate a possible mole among the highest ranks of MI6. Oldman leads an all-star cast of British performers including Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Stephen Graham and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Condensing a 400 page novel — which was itself turned into a 290 minute miniseries — into a 2 hour film is an extremely ambitious undertaking for even the most seasoned filmmaker so credit to Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson for deciding to tackle the project as the follow-up to his 2008 international hit “Let The Right One In.” Did we mention it’s also his first English language film? At an early screening of the film last week at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, Alfredson spoke about the film, getting the author’s approval and what it’s like working with the actor who used to be “Sid Vicious.”
1. After his coming-of-age vampire film became an international hit Alfredson says he was paralyzed by indecision as to what he should make as his follow-up.
“The film I did before this, ‘Let The Right One In,’ was my first international success, and it was quite overwhelming to experience that,” the director explained. Previously having only directed Swedish language films, Alfredson was now getting offers to direct films in Hollywood and beyond. “[I was] getting proposals from all over the world, so I was a little paralyzed by that. I didn’t really know what to do. But someone told me Working Title, the [British] production company that produced this film, that they retrieved the rights for ‘Tinker Tailor’ and it felt like something totally impossible to do. And therefore very tempting.” Many directors would have been too daunted by the challenges of such an adaptation, but Alfredson was game. “The complexity of setting it up, it’s a gigantic crossword [puzzle] to boil this down to 2 hours from this gigantic [400 page] novel but it was also a lot of fun.”
Alfredson said his memories of the original miniseries were of watching it with his father as a child and he said he had no idea what was going on. As an adult however he found a more personal connection to the material. “I suppose I felt related to the characters in the book. It’s something very interesting with people who the inside and the outside are different. Which is great material to make a film from.” Though it’s unclear how ‘Tinker’ will be received in America, it’s already a hit in the U.K. where it was number 1 at the box office for several weeks in a row and as Gary Oldman has mentioned, they’re already thinking about a sequel. “We have discussed it and there is at least one great film in…‘The Honourable Schoolboy.’ [It focuses] on Jerry Westerby [Stephen Graham] so we have discussed making maybe a compilation of those two [along with the third novel ‘Smiley’s People’]. But we have to wait for the right moment and wait for the right reasons.”
2. Alfredson says the author of the original novel, John le Carré, was a pleasure to collaborate with thanks to his laissez faire attitude about adaptations of his work.
Unlike “Let The Right One In” which was adapted from the novel by the original author John Ajvide Lindqvist, for ‘Tinker’ Alfredson only consulted with author John le Carré. “[le Carré] was very involved in the process and he was fantastic.” Alfredson described. “I remember our first meeting he said, ‘Please don’t do the book. It already exists and it’s a great book and if you make a lousy film it will still be a great book. So please do something new with it and turn it upside down and add new stuff and let’s discuss.’ And we did that and he was very helpful during the whole process and very useful because he was a spy himself in the 60s.” To write the picture, he brought on husband-wife screenwriters Peter Straughan (“The Debt”) and Bridget O’Connor, an especially interesting move considering the film features an almost exclusively male cast.
“Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor wrote it together. I thought when we started it that it would be a very good thing to have a female writer onboard. This is in many ways a very male world and it would be good to get the female eye. Their take on the book is a very emotional one which was very interesting. They cut the right filet out of it.” O’Connor passed away from cancer before the film was completed and it is dedicated to her memory. Cutting right to the meat meant forgoing any attempts to Hollywood-ize the material and turn it into James Bond comes out of retirement. “For me this isn’t a spy thriller, it’s a film about loyalty and what you can sacrifice in the name of loyalty among friends. These are all people that know each other very well and I thought that was the most interesting layer.”
3. Despite how visually stunning the picture is, Alfredson says his least favorite aspect of making a film is the actual filming.
After just a few feature films the Swedish director is already being hailed for his visual aesthetic as well as the performances he’s been able to get from actors both seasoned and novice. We were pretty surprised to learn that the actual filming is Alfredson’s least favorite aspect of the filmmaking process. “Planning for it and working with the script and storyboarding and editing, that’s the fun part. The rest is war. And it’s exhausting,” Alfredson expained. “It can be a lot of fun of course. But you find out this image, you want this car to drive from here to here and you want these 4 people to be moving in this and that direction and you want it to rain and you want this and that. You try to squeeze reality into your idea and if reality doesn’t want to fit in that idea, it’s exhausting. And it’s not as fun as designing it.”
For ‘Tinker’ the director worked with production designer Maria Djurkovich (“Billy Elliot”) to use practical locations as a building block for the 1970s-set story. “Detail is a lot of fun and if you get the details right it travels through the bigger picture. We shot this in an old military barracks in Northern London which had like 80 or 70 old houses from different eras and these houses themselves were very useful and inspiring. Well, we have this house so let’s do Smiley’s in here and let’s do the office in this big hall. So the buildings themselves gave a lot of atmosphere to our ideas and of course the designer Maria Djurkovich did a fantastic job on this.”
4. Alfredson once again employed his “Let The Right One In” cinematographer Hoyt Van Hoytema for the beautifully restrained visuals in ‘Tinker Tailor.’
“We tried to not refer too much to other films when we work, me and Hoyt [Van Hoytema], the DP [Director of Photography]. We try to refer to sense or paintings or music. The scent we used for this film was damp tweed. And you can feel that [in the film].” Alfredson continued, “The main idea [from the style of shooting] was to try to create the feeling that the camera is a voyeur, so there is always a third eye in the room. So almost all the scenes are made with very long lenses and shooting through [panes of glass] and it’s also a lot of smoke in all the sets to create that milky grayness. It creates the distance of a voyeur.”
5. It took the filmmakers a long time to find their George Smiley. Though Oldman is able to slip into every role from Dracula to Commissioner Gordon, he wasn’t necessarily the first name you’d think of for this buttoned-up character.
Alfredson believes strongly that choosing the right actors is “70% of the work” and said that finding the lead to fill Alec Guinness’ shoes was no easy task. “It was quite hard to find the right [actor] for George Smiley because there is this ghost of Smiley as Alec Guinness. I wanted to find a different silhouette, a different energy, but at the same time do Smiley. We didn’t get the right [actor] for like 6 months or something and then someone came up with this great idea for Gary Oldman.” And it ended up as quite a stroke of genius with Oldman clearly taking a shine to the character, having already gotten excited about the idea of continuing to play Smiley in future installments. Alfredson admits that even Oldman didn’t take the transition so easily going from some of his wilder performances to this retired introvert.
The director explained, “In the opening montage where we try to depict Smiley in different short moments in his new life, we put Ann’s apron on him and I asked him to fry an egg on a gray day. And we did this scene and it’s quite long, [he’s cooking the egg], turning it slowly, looking out the window, turning it again, cutting the gas off, putting it on a plate. Sits down, eats the egg, listens to the bird outside the window and then, [I said] ‘Okay, Cut. Thank you.’ And Gary came around to my monitor and said, ‘Can I have a look?’ And we did the playback and he was looking at himself and he said [incredulously], ‘I used to be Sid Vicious.’”