2009’s vampire tale “Let the Right One In,” an adaptation of the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, was the polar opposite of the current vampire craze, a quiet, atmospheric and beautifully shot piece of cinema. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s chilling take bears no resemblance to the likes of “Twilight” or “True Blood,” comparing favorably instead with cinematic classics “Rosemary’s Baby” or “The Shining.”
For the director’s first English language film, he’s gone a similarly unconventional route with another genre. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is set in London in the early ‘70s during the height of the Cold War. Based on the novel by John Le Carré, ‘TTSS’ shares little with the spy and espionage genre audiences are most used to. The story’s hero, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), is the anti-Bond — cold, calculated and meticulous as he wades through a world of constant paranoia filled with moles, double crosses and shifting agendas.
Featuring a terrific ensemble cast that includes the aforementioned Oldman alongside Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy and Toby Jones, ‘TTSS’ has been very well-received by audiences as well as by Le Carré himself. And talk of a sequel, possibly based on two of the Smiley books, is already starting to brew.
The Playlist sat down with Alfredson this week to discuss “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” the possibility of returning to the world of George Smiley and what he thought about the Matt Reeves’ “Let Me In,” his remake of “Let the Right One In.”
The Look of TTSS
The first thing that will strike film-savvy viewers of ‘TTSS’ is the unique look of the film itself, a sort of grainy, aged, muted color palette that looks much like British cinema of the early 1970s. “When it comes to colors, I tried to refer as much as possible to my early memories of going to London in the early ‘70s,” Alfredson tells The Playlist. “It was quite different, cold and dirty. You could still feel the presence of the war. Lousy food. It was a very different place from what you see today.”
John Le Carré’s involvement
Fans of writer John Le Carré will be happy to know that the spy-turned-novelist gave the script the stamp of approval and has since seen and praised the finished film. “He was involved from the very beginning,” says Alfredson. “He had nothing to fear. He said, ‘If you make a crappy film, the book will still be great. And if you make a great film, we will have two.’ He was very interested in the dynamic and helpful and always a phone call away. He was just a great source of inspiration.”
Even with Le Carré’s help, Alfredson had to focus on pleasing the audience first. “The film is not for him. The film is for an audience. But I’m still very happy that he loves it. You have to make the decision of what is your feeling reading the book and try to be true to that feeling. It’s better to show big chunks of things you’ve chosen than small pieces of everything. I thought we should do a very emotional take on this. For me this is not so much about the spy world or the Cold War, it’s much more about the soldiers in it and their relations.”
If James Bond was a nerd
When Tomas Alfredson was pitching his take on ‘TTSS,’ he told producers he didn’t see these spies as dashing, gun-toting men of action, but rather more like, well, nerds. “I think Le Carré’s books about this are very truthful about how it was in those days,” says the director. “He was a spy himself. It wasn’t car chases or gunfights. It was very slow and thorough investigations and a lot of paranoia. A lot of time passed and it was very lonely for the people who were involved. There was never an intention to make a popcorn film. Those are great too, but this is something different. It’s not a documentary, but it’s very true to the world as it was.”
Assembling TTSS’s stellar ensemble
Considering the cast that was ultimately assembled, it’s surprising to learn that the bulk of the casting was done at the zero hour just before production began. “I refused to do any casting before we had George because everything starts with him,” says Alfredson. “After six months, our casting director came up with Gary and it was like, yes, how the hell didn’t we think about him? He is wonderful and he has something different than Alec Guinness, but you can clearly see him as this person. I met with him and we set down and after five minutes it was like, yes, this is totally right. Then it was really easy and joyful to cast the rest. It was easy to get people in the room and I think 90 percent of the cast is first choices. Everybody wanted to join.”
Once Oldman was aboard, the creation of the character was an amalgam of influences. “I suppose he read the book many times and he’s very truthful to what’s in the book and Le Carré’s description of him,” says Alfredson of Oldman. “Then I had a few visual ideas of how I saw him. I found an old image of Graham Greene taken I think in the ‘50s with the macintosh. That is very much like Gary looks in the film. For the voice, he listened to how Le Carré sounds. He has a very noble and old fashioned way of expressing himself. Very exact, clear and subtle. We met with him several times and Gary sort of sampled him.”
As we’ve previously reported, talk of Alfredson directing a sequel further exploring the world of George Smiley surfaced shortly after the first viewing of the film at the Venice Film Festival. For the time being, Alfredson tells us he is focusing seeing this release through before he decides what’s next. “I can answer that when there’s a script,” he says. “But it’s possible. That would be great. If you do the film for the right reasons, because we have a great script and great cast and a great idea how to do it…Why not? But not because the first one was a good one. That’s not a great reason to do a film. John Le Carré has said he thinks there is one film out of the two books, ‘The Honourable Schoolboy‘ and ‘Smiley’s People,’ that he could combine. It would be interesting to listen to his ideas.”
Matt Reeves’ “Let Me In”
Just as Alfredson’s breakout work, “Let the Right One In” was being released in 2008, news of an American remake was already beginning to surface. We asked Alfredson about his feelings on the similarly well-received “Let Me In.” “I haven’t seen it,” Alfredson tells The Playlist. “It was a little disturbing when I first heard about it because I think I was still working on marketing my own version. So it was a little quick. It’s a very personal thing to be working with a book for several years. You think it’s your own and you fight for it a lot and then to be hearing about someone else dancing with your girlfriend, it’s strange. But I heard that it’s a good film and that they did a great job, so it’s no hard feelings. I will see it.
“Larklight” and English Language films
Alfredson has been tied to a few potential projects aside from the ‘TTSS’ sequel. Particularly intriguing is an adaptation of the Phillip Reeves fantasy novel, “Larklight.” “There are a lot of things in the future now that I really haven’t decided about,” says Alfredson. “I have to do the marketing for this film and sit down and clear my mind before deciding what to do next.”
As for whether he plans to direct another English language film or return to Swedish cinema, Alfredson tells us his ideal would be to have the best of both worlds. “I think the most important thing is to have a nice project. The address is not that important. For practical reasons, it would be very nice to be in Sweden doing something and it would be very nice to do something in the English language with English or American actors, but made back home because of family reasons.”
“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” opens in limited release December 9th, 2011.