A little like being told not to think of an elephant, when the small group of press who got to meet Tomas Alfredson at the Marrakech Film Festival was asked in advance not to ask about his next project, it was pretty much all any of us could think about. The “Let the Right One In” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” director has long been attached to an adaptation of “The Brothers Lionheart,” a children’s fantasy story by beloved Swedish author Astrid Lindgren (who also created Pippi Longstocking), and the version of the film that he was putting together was at one point rumored to have the highest ever budget for a Scandinavian film. Which is perhaps why Alfredson is a little gunshy about talking about it—in fact he told us that he doesn’t like to speak about projects before they are 100% financed and set in stone, so perhaps there’s still a question mark hovering there?
In any case, despite the elephant in the room we enjoyed our time with the affable and seemingly unflappable Alfredson whose droll, dry take on the very idea of a “Scandinavian tribute” (for which he, along with other luminaries like Noomi Rapace, Nicolas Winding Refn, Mads Mikkelsen and Tobias Lindholm were all in attendance) was refreshingly down-to-earth and honest. Here is that highlight, among others from our talk including Alfredson’s working practices, his attitude to Hollywood and nothing, not one single word, zilch, zippo, nada on “The Brothers Lionheart,” no matter how coyly we assayed the subject.
Life has changed for Alfredson since “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
[It’s more stressful] … in a very practical sense; you just have to handle more mail and letters and incoming phone calls. You have to cope with that in some ways, and not feeling stressed over it; create some kind of machine around it to handle it. I suppose it’s a very luxurious problem. You have to have an idea of how to handle it.
While Oldman has said he’d love to do ‘Tinker’ follow-up “Smiley’s People,” and it may all happen, Alfredson believes time needs to elapse.
The whole group that was involved in ‘Tinker Tailor’ said, “We want to do the next story in that trilogy.” But I don’t think I, or anyone else, should do a sequel directly. I believe in … [he casts around for the translation of a Swedish word which is something similar to allowing a field to go fallow during crop rotation]. And Smiley has to get older, too.
So if his pace seems unhurried, it is.
I’ve done some theater work in between, which is good because you’re working with grounded things and you cannot cut or make different versions; it’s the fundamental way of directing. It’s good to have ground contact. I’m very slow in my processes; I do one thing at a time. Slow cooking.
Which is not to say his choice of projects is dispassionate.
It’s very important to get some kind of physical reaction when you read something or hear about something; it could be an article, a book, or someone telling you a story. If it makes you shiver or laugh or get romantic that is usually a very good thing. The technical stuff you can always craft or change. If the material lacks that, it’s very hard to commit.
He also works frequently in television which has its own challenges and strengths.
The obvious difference is tempo and how to frame. Television has a few things that, I think, are much stronger than a feature film has. You can get into very long and deep discussions between two people in a room and television is better in that sense. If one episode is weaker than the other you can live with that. Or you can say “Okay, I didn’t get this question or theme in part 2. Maybe I’ll get the message in part 4” and I’m fine with that, it’s a different creature.
The complexity of the ‘Tinker’ source material was a challenge, but also one of the things that attracted him to it, and a reason to make it in the U.K.
The complexity of the book was kaleidoscopic to get your head around it. Many people complained about that being too complicated and hard; they haven’t read the book then! To try to unfold it for the film, that was driving us crazy, how to reduce it to 120 minutes. In the U.K., the story is something everyone knows about it. It’s part of their history so [complexity] was never something people complained about there.
[Asked if he could have made it in the U.S.] I suppose not. I usually get quite interested if someone says, “This is complicated.” But especially in the American culture, complication is something people are afraid of and think is something threatening. I think it’s a good thing.
Alfredson does not really feel himself part of a “Scandinavian cinema,” if there even is such a thing.
It’s a weird concept to think, just because you were born in a region; it’s like you invited 100 hunchbacks to a party and see if they like each other. You could be a part of any group—people with sleeping problems—there’s so many ways of grouping people. Making films from a certain region … I wouldn’t be the judge. You guys, that watch film more than I do, you have a clearer view to see if there are actually regional tastes.
And if he is primarily interested in making films from home (Sweden), the reasons are personal and pragmatic.
It’s actually a very personal thing. It’s quite a demanding thing to be responsible for a film production and a very chaotic thing. Everything that reminds you of any kind of order, you stick to. Not because it’s comfortable but because you need it; sleeping in your own bed, meeting with your friends, quarreling with a grumpy woman at the co-op. All the ordinary stuff is very, very important to make the comfort to be in that chaos. And [international recognition] happened to me when I was in my mid-40s so it would be too much of a change, from a personal side, to move abroad … I want to do what I do and I want to do what I do when I can do it the best I can. I’m not a gun for hire in that way.
Also, the language barrier is an issue.
I thought I was good at English [before ‘Tinker’]. I wasn’t. It was a nightmare, I tell you. All the nuances and balance in the language which is what you use everyday with people, and not being able to be very specific. The trick for me was to be very open with it and say, “I will be asking you for words that you might think were very obvious that anyone knew. I will ask all the silly questions so bear that with me.” People, in general, are very generous when they know that. They start talking. To. You. Like. Your. Old. Grandmother.
And so his advice on that level to his brother Daniel, who directed the two Swedish ‘Dragon Tattoo’ sequels and is going Hollywood to direct “Kidnapping Freddy Heineken” with Anthony Hopkins and Sam Worthington?
Present yourself as an idiot!