As a general rule of thumb, acclaimed directors from non-English speaking countries have found the transition to English speaking films to be difficult and laborious. Tomas Alfredson is an exception to that rule.
After receiving international acclaim for his moody vampire movie Let the Right One In, Swedish born Alfredson has assembled an all-star cast for his adaptation of John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy an espionage thriller with emphasis on mood and character rather than action and sex.
Set during the Cold War, the film focuses on George Smiley (Gary Oldman) a semi-retired spy who is asked to investigate whether a Soviet agent has infiltrated MI6. Smiley finds himself navigating a murky labyrinth of treachery and danger in his path to the truth.
Co-starring Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt and a host of other premiere British talent, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has proven itself to be one of the best films of 2011 and showcases a director able to weave tightly woven suspense and character depth into an engrossing movie experience.
Thomas Alfredson spoke to Matt’s Movie Reviews about making Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, working with Gary Oldman and his career thus far.
After the success of Let the Right One In, you must have received a tonne of directing offers. What made you choose Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as your follow up?
It’s hard to answer, but it’s right as you describe…Let the Right One In was my first international success and I was a little paralysed by that and I didn’t know what to do for my next film. So I read scripts for almost two years before I decided to go with this.
I tried to read books and scripts with my body rather than with my brain. It’s a very physical thing if you see images, if you cry and laugh or get upset or something when you read it. It’s something you react physically on and when I first heard this project was on the market (so to say), I was very excited when I heard about it.
I saw the TV series a long time ago in the mid ‘70s on Swedish television and I remember it very vividly even though I was too young to understand it. Then in my early 20’s I read the Le Carre trilogy and I was a big fan of it. So the books and the world had always attracted me.
John le Carre gave you a piece of advice, which was not to shoot the book or remake the miniseries but to make this material your own. With that in mind what kind of rules or boundaries did you give yourself to make sure that this version of Tinker Tailor… would be different to the others but faithful to the source material?
Well you know, when you think of it there are so many ways to look upon the same thing depending on where you stand in the room. If you and I were interrogated tomorrow about our phone call we’re having now, and if I were to describe the feeling I would describe a sunny day in London in a cosy hotel and it’s noon, and you would describe it totally different. But we have shared this moment in two very different positions.
It’s the same when you read something. You get very different images and I think shooting a book is not for the author, it’s for a possible audience and John le Carre said it’s meaningless if you do the book, because the book already exists and if you make a crappy film the book will still be good. So he really encouraged us to be personal with it and have a different view.
I think it’s impossible to do 360 pages like this book is. You have to sort of cut out a filet or pick a side, and I think we have tried to do a very emotional take on this and on what the personal costs were for the soldiers of the cold war rather than trying to be philosophical about the east/west political situation, or the details of the cold war, or the factors behind it. So we decided to do something about the human costs.
"I was looking for an actor that you wouldn’t...associate with the kind of character he plays in this film and if you see what Gary has done through the year’s it’s very, very different portrait of people, and I thought he is the perfect guy for the part ." - Tomas Alfredson
It’s funny you say that because my reaction to Tinker Tailor… was that I felt really sorry for these men and what they had to go through. Were you also very sympathetic to these characters?
Yes. You have to love your characters even if you do things you don’t sympathise with and I suppose there lives must have been awful in many ways. Someone told me a story, I think it was John le Carre, that some of these spy’s were actually decorated. They were invited to a small ceremony in Buckingham Palace and the Queen would give them a medal and they could wear it for 10 minutes and someone would take the medal and put it away in a cupboard because the whole thing was a secret.
The silence and the secrecy that these people had to live in must have been horrifying in many ways, and a lot of them must be still alive walking the streets around us, but we don’t know what they’ve done or what they’ve experienced and they’re not allowed to discuss it with anyone. So it must have been a very strange thing to be a spy.
You’ve ensemble a terrific cast. Were you amazed about the number of quality actors who wanted to star in this movie?
I was! But to be honest it was quite easy. Everyone we asked wanted to participate. I think 90% of the cast were out first choices and the other 10% couldn’t be because of practical reasons. But everyone wanted to be in this project and it was fantastic to have the opportunity to work with the finest actors there is in this country.
I must say it was easy as well to direct it, because it’s easy to direct great talent. It’s just to let them do what they’re good at, so it that way it was very joyful.
The first person cast in the movie was Gary Oldman. He is known more for his ability to play extroverted characters. What made you think he would be perfect for someone as introverted as George Smiley?
Well, I was looking for an actor that you wouldn’t, how do you say…. associate with the kind of character he plays in this film. So he should be not connected to other Smiley-esque types and if you see what Gary has done through the year’s it’s very, very different portrait of people, and I thought he is the perfect guy for the part because he’s also a very different choice than Alec Guinness and that was good because Alec Guinness portrait of Smiley is so famous and well done. So we really needed to come up with something different for this interpretation.
"The silence and the secrecy that these people had to live in must have been horrifying in many ways, and a lot of them must be still alive walking the streets around us, but we don’t know what they’ve done or what they’ve experienced and they’re not allowed to discuss it with anyone." - Tomas Alfredson
Gary Oldman has said that he wants to play Smiley again. Can you foresee you two reunite on another Le Carre novel? Perhaps something like Smiley’s Affair?
We have discussed it and it would be great to do that. We just have to find the right timing for it and John le Carre has said that he has an idea on how to combine The Honorary Schoolboy and Smiley’s People into one film adaptation. I would be happy to participate and I think that the rest of the creative team behind this one are more than interested in doing it.
You worked on a lot of comedic films in Sweden before Let the Right One In. Can you see yourself return to comedy in the future?
Yes. I try to…genres I think are for marketing people. To label things whether they’re tragic or funny or scary or dramatic, it’s not for me to decide. I try to do as different things as possible and as hard things as possible for me to do. So if it would be something that makes you laugh or cry, it doesn’t matter really.
You come from a movie family, with your father an actor and director. Was directing something you always envisioned you would do?
Yes, and my brother to. He’s actually done part two and part three of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series in the Swedish version. So we’re three directors in the family.
I think maybe it’s…my father was doing films since he started in the early ‘60s so I was really born into this and all of my summer holidays I spent on different movie sets. So I had the opportunity to learn a lot just watching and participating. I never considered doing anything else really, because it’s been such an important part of my family life.