Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Tomas Alfredson and Peter Straughan interview

With Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in cinemas, we were caught up with director Tomas Alfredson and writer Peter Straughan to talk about the film’s making...

With Tomas Alfredson’s chill retelling of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy out in cinemas today, we spoke to its Swedish director Alfredson, whose previous movie was the excellent Let The Right One In, and British screenwriter Peter Straughan, who penned the screenplay for The Men Who Stare At Goats, about John le Carré, the Cold War, Swedish melancholy, what they would do if the chance to do a Bond film ever came their way, and why Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy isn’t a spy thriller…

Why now for a second adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy? Is there a sense that a modern feeling of betrayal in government might make this the perfect time for a story about treachery and double-crossing?

Peter Straughan: If I’m honest, it wasn’t something that was in either Bridget’s [O’Connor, co-screenwriter] or my head as we did the adaptation, and I don’t think it was something we ever discussed, that kind of topicality.

A case could certainly be made if we think of our world now, particularly in relation to the secret service. If you’re thinking of things like extraordinary rendition, collusion in torture and a lack of faith in the justice or the efficacy of the wars being fought, cynicism about politicians and a general loss, maybe, of moral certainties, if those things characterise where we are now, well, that sounds like the world of Tinker, Tailor, which was written post-Watergate, post-Vietnam – but I didn’t think of any of those things when we were making it.

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Tomas Alfredson: I thought that the fact that we have a historical distance to this period makes us a little more sober when we talk about it. We can understand that there were people on both sides with their different history trying to survive or protect themselves.

I remember at least in Sweden, it became very animated and people got very emotional when they started talking about East and West and right or left, all these things were so emotional and I felt like…

My daughter and her friends came home from Berlin a year ago or something and she said, “Daddy, did you know there was this wall dividing this city into two pieces, it’s so weird”, and I said, “Yes, yes I know all about it,” and she was so upset and it felt like, well, it’s an interesting world. It’s a very black and white, easy-to-read backdrop when you just have a glimpse, but the more you look into it, the more nuances and shades of grey between black and white there are.

But I think this film is about eternal questions and eternal themes, and it’s not so important what context they are put in. Then of course, it’s great to look into this world which is so low-tech compared to modern times, when you have to have two people in a room talking to one another, you can’t just pick up your phone and call, like I just did, my son in a shopping mall in Stockholm wanting money [laughs].

I wonder if there’s nostalgia for that now. How do you feel about the idea of nostalgia in the film? Nostalgia for the certainties and idealism of WWII is a theme in the novel, could there be a sense that we’re now nostalgic for the so-called certainties of the Cold War?

PS: It’s funny, I was going to mention that before, because I read something about Tinker, Tailor having nostalgia for the simplicities of the Cold War, and I thought that was a terrible misreading of the book, let alone the film.

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If anything, it’s about those certainties which, I think you’re right, are attached to the Second World War and that Smiley’s generation have, in the sense that they were born to empire, and born to the sense that they were right in that war, that those things have been burned away, that the Cold War’s like an acid bath that’s burned all the certainties away so…

TA: Nostalgia doesn’t ask questions, nostalgia doesn’t complicate something…

PS: But nostalgia for the simplicity of “We knew who the enemy was”, I think that’s a misreading. If you’ve got nostalgia for the 70s, then I think that’s fair enough, but it’s not something that’s in the book itself, or the film I don’t think.

For the 1970s Wimpy perhaps, and the old-fashioned Trebor Mints [both of which are featured in the film] then, but not…

PS: Oh absolutely, we all feel it for the Wimpy [laughs].

This is really a question for Tomas. We’re hearing a lot about Scandinavian melancholy at the moment, it seems to quite in vogue, with television series like The Killing. Does it exist as far as you’re concerned? Is it your trade as a director?

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TA: Well, I suppose the Scandinavians are more melancholic, or at least I think so. I’ve now been here for two years, so I think I could see some clear differences. You’re a very verbal breed.

The British?

TA: Yeah, and Scandinavians or Swedes are much quieter, and we also communicate in silence, and that silence can sometimes be interpreted or misinterpreted as melancholy.

I think silence is something that is very useful on film, because it can sort of start or ignite your imagination. For instance, if I ask you a question and you don’t answer, that is also an answer, and that silence starts my imagination running around in different places: why didn’t she answer?  Don’t you like me? Or did I say something wrong? Or maybe she didn’t hear? Or was it a secret? It… activates. So it’s a very useful element in filmmaking, silence.

On the subject of secrecy, David Hare said he had MI5 access while researching his recent contemporary-set MI5 television film written for the BBC, Page Eight. Did either of you have similar access while making the film?

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TA: We had access to John le Carré, who is obviously an old spy himself, and he was able to give us all the answers we needed to anything.

Smiley’s been described as the anti-Bond in terms of character. If either of you received the call for Bond 24, how would you answer?

TA: A melancholic, boring [laughing], silent James Bond…

PS: The miserable Bond!

TA: [laughing] Bond: the later years…

After the success of Let The Right One In, you must have had a number of Hollywood projects offered to you though, was there anything prominent you turned down that you felt wasn’t right for you?

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TA: Yes, but I think it’s… You don’t mention that, if you turn something down.

It’s not polite?

TA: I don’t know why but yes, it’s not polite to mention the projects, but I’ve been offered quite a few big and interesting things but it was like… I’m not the horror guy you might think I am because that film [Let The Right One In] wasn’t a horror film for me, it was a love story. This film is not a spy movie or a thriller for me, it’s about betrayal and friendship and those things.

PS: When are you finally going to make a genre film?

TA: I don’t know [laughs].

PS: [laughing] Let’s do a western!

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[We were also lucky enough to chat to the pair in a round table interview, where strangely, the subject of 1970s Wimpy’s reared its head again…]We’ve just been extolling the virtues of Wimpy… [laughter]

Peter Straughan: A much-underrated franchise!

How much did you, Tomas, have to immerse yourself in British culture to make this film?

Tomas Alfredson: Well, I’ve been here quite a lot since I was a kid, I think the first time was ’72 or ’73, and I spent a lot of time over the years here since then, so I’m quite well acquainted. We’re sort of breast-fed with British television in Sweden so, you remember those… [hums the theme tune to the old Thames TV ident] Thames Television, Anglia, London Weekend Television… all those things we’ve seen, so I think we’re quite learned that way.

Did you see the Alec Guinness version of Tinker, Tailor in Sweden at the time?

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TA: I did, yes. I said before that that was the kind of show where all the fathers would say “Shut up! I want to see this. You get out, or you shut up” and we did, and I don’t think I understood it at all, because I was eight or nine or something, but I watched it later on and it’s a great series.

Was that part of the appeal of the project, the love of the series? Or did you mean you watched it after you knew you were going to make this one?

TA: No, I watched it later and then it was quite useful for research for this, of course, because it’s so complicated to remember all the faces and the construction of it all, it has been quite helpful for that reason.

When you approach something iconic like this, both of you, what is the story about in your minds? Because you have to find some way into it, to put your own spin on it.

PS: I remember I’d read it years ago and I enjoyed it, and when I read it again, I had forgotten that it starts in the book with Jim Prideaux, arriving at this school as a broken man, and he strikes up a friendship with a lonely boy there, and it struck me as such an unusual opening of a spy novel…

TA: It starts with the boy, I think. It’s through his eyes?

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PS: I can’t remember.

TA: I remember.

PS: But it certainly is Prideaux arriving with the caravan, and that seemed straight away the key to it, that it was not going to be about the kind of power politics, that it was going to be about the human relationships and the victims of that war, and the human cost. So that’s what we kind of used as the guiding light, really. We always tried to not get lost in the complexity of the plot, but always to relate things back to, you know, what does this mean to individual humans, and to people who’ve suffered in that war?

So that’s why, for example, we had the idea that, in the opening scene, there would be the mother and the baby, who’s actually an agent, as it turns out, but to have her shot – it’s quite a sort of strong image, we thought, of her being killed with the baby suckling, just to sort of set that up straight away that this is what the film is really about.

Tomas, is there anything else that struck you about this story?

TA: Well, I think one thing that interested me very early was the kind of, ‘Who were the soldiers of the Cold War, compared to the soldiers in a Hot War?’ It’s quite different, and in many ways, a quite female world.

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If you compare the alpha males of the Hot War, that was very interesting, and it was like… relating to the imagination.  A spy has to work with imagination – is it her? Is it him? Is he the Russian guy or is she the Russian guy? I have to relay it to my imagination about that, and at the same time, I can’t let the imagination take over, because then I will be totally paranoid or do things that aren’t right.

So, those elements, and of course as Peter mentioned, the human cost, the personal relations between those people much more than the actual… I mean, this is not a documentary, even though it is very accurate in many ways, it’s not a documentary and that’s not why we wanted to do it.

Can I ask about your process of adaptation? How long the first draft was, how long the first cut was, and in terms of being able to cut things out and still keep it together, how was it for both of you?

PS: Well, script-wise the first draft was longer, and closer to the book structurally probably, but it was never that long, it was maybe about 140 pages, or 140 minutes it would have been.

It was never really about just getting the page count down, but we just found that by restructuring and trying different configurations, you could get over as much of the story as possible in less and less time. We couldn’t do a lot of… you know, the TV series had the ability to just build the story step by step, but we couldn’t do that, so we knew we had to do a lot of things through allusion, or with a look, or compressing moments down.

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TA: The biggest structural difference is, I think, the Ricki Tarr story, which is on top in the book and in the TV series as well, and we felt it was like, kind of clumsy to start the film with a twenty minute flashback…

PS: Because you’d only just have met Smiley and hardly got to know him, and suddenly, you’d be off with another set of characters, so we knew we had to move that, and that took a little while to work out exactly how to do that, and where we’d put that that would still work hopefully.

This movie seems to have started a kind of depressing debate about how audiences are too stupid to follow a convoluted or a complicated story. What do you think about that? Is it something you were conscious of when making the movie?

PS: No. I just loved the book and it is complicated, but I don’t personally feel you need to worry that much about being able to follow every twist and turn. I was just saying before, it’s maybe a bit of a facile comparison, but if you think of The West Wing or that kind of ER, that thing where the plot can be zipped along quite quickly and you don’t always feel you’re on top of it, but it sort of doesn’t matter, as long as you’re going with the characters and caring about the characters, and I think this has maybe got that quality as well. The spy plot is complicated, the human story is actually quite straightforward, I think.

Could you talk a little about the casting process, because it’s quite remarkable and that’s going to be a huge draw in itself? Did you audition or was it just a case of asking people, meeting people and chatting to them?

TA: It was easy and it was hard. I said to myself I won’t do any casting until we have George Smiley and that took quite a while to get that idea. It was the producer Tim Bevan who came up one day after I think eight months or something, with ‘Why don’t we ask Gary?’ and [clicks fingers] ah! It was the perfect choice, I thought.

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A totally different soul and face than Alec Guinness, but at the same time I could clearly see him doing the part. We met and we fell in love immediately and we thought that this will be fantastic to work together, and then it was quite easy to get the other characters in place and I think the source material and the project itself sort of attracted actors so it was quite easy to get them. I think 99 per cent are our first choices.

Was John le Carré always on board with a remake or did he take some convincing? Did you have to sell it to him?

PS: No, I mean one of the things that calmed us down, because we were nervous at the idea of it, and apart from knowing that Tomas was going to do it, was when we found out that le Carré was already on board, and had given it his blessing, and we met him and he was lovely, very kind and generous and we thought, well, if he’s happy for us to give it a try, that’s okay then.

TA: And we used him a lot as well, because he said that if you want to, you can call him anytime, and we used that possibility a lot. He’s been updated all through the process, and I think he likes it.

He’s in one of the scenes isn’t he?

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TA: Yeah [laughs] briefly, for a few seconds.

He liked it that much?

TA: Yeah [laughs].

What sort of notes did he give you? Was there anything he objected to and said, oh, well actually, it’s more like this…?

PS: He never gave script notes. He never said, “I don’t think you should do that”. It was more if we went to him and said, “We’re thinking about doing this, does that feel right?” then he would comment, and he usually was very supportive. I’m trying to think if there was anything he said I don’t think so about…

TA: No, he could be on details, he could be like, “There would never be a red carpet in that kind of corridor”, or you know, something like that, very specific notes on details, he was really useful on that, and he could be really like, “Oh, you would never write your name on a paper” or, “You would never do this or that”.

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Speaking of red carpets in corridors, can you talk about the production design in the film, which is extraordinary; I just wondered what your approach to that was?

TA: Well, it’s like when you start doing a film, for me, it’s as if you’re expecting a baby, you see babies everywhere, or if you’re going to buy a car you see cars everywhere. So, okay, I’m doing a film about Britain in the early 70s, your eye starts picking up stuff everywhere, and it could be anything, just colours, stills, TV shows, a car on the street, whatever, and you start collecting it in your head, and then we had the fantastic Maria Djurkovic, the designer who has done a magnificent job.

I had a few very interesting meetings with Paul Smith, the fashion designer, who is a fantastic and very generous person. I just sat down with him for a few meetings, and we were just spitballing about those years and had his ideas and input, and then, of course, we had the fantastic cinematographer who did Let The Right One In as well, so we know each other very well.

I don’t think we had any mantra, but ‘wet tweed’, that was the mantra [laughter], and it’s wet tweed-y, I think [laughs].

Yeah, I think you pulled that off! [laughter].

Can I ask a question about one particular scene – the reveal of the spy. Everything’s leading up to it, it’s done in a very slow way, and the reveal is just a camera movement, and it’s very unfussy, very un-sensational, but it seems to fit it perfectly. Can you just talk briefly about the decision to unmask the mole in that way, and the general pacing of the film?

TA: Well, the complication of the whole ending of the film is quite subtle, because it’s two false finales and one real finale. The first one is revealing the mole, and the second is the confrontation between Smiley and the mole, and the third one is when the mole meets the eyes of his best friend, let’s say that. To have the proper, how do you say…?

PS: Escalation.

TA: Escalation there, we couldn’t put too much energy into the first part, the revelation of the mole, because if that would be too thriller-ish or fantastic, it would sort of devalue the next parts. So we pushed the emotions later and later and people are on their way [mimes getting up out of his seat] and they think the film is over and then, “Oh, there’s more” and then they try to [mimes getting out of seat a second time]…

PS: That doesn’t sound good, Tomas, when you tell it that way! [laughter] It’s also, I think, true of the scene in the book, because in the book, Peter Guillam’s  been waiting outside, and he runs in, and he’s kind of really hyped up with adrenalin and energy, and he goes in and sees who it is, and it all drains away, and I think it says something like, “He was just left feeling ashamed,” and it’s almost the anti-climactic nature. It’s sort of that they all knew who it was all along, it’s almost that they wanted it to be this great Russian bogeyman in the corner, and they go in, and they knew it was him, so it’s sort of an anti-climax.

On a similar note, what was behind the decision not to cast or show somebody as Smiley’s wife and Karla?

TA: Well [to PS] you have a good answer on that.

PS: It’s sort of prompted by the book really, I mean Ann [Smiley’s wife] is a very important character in the book, but who doesn’t take up many pages, and we thought that if we had just one or two scenes with her that might actually be weaker than keeping her hidden from the audience altogether, which makes her more mysterious and a more present character in a strange kind of way, and the same with Karla.

We liked the idea that the two most important characters in Smiley’s life are Karla and Ann, and if we hide them from the audience, then they would take on a kind of magnetic power then. Actually, in the series as well, they don’t show Ann until the very last episode, so it was sort of in keeping with the book.

Can both of you sit back and enjoy the finished product, when you’re there with the audience? Can you enjoy your work?

PS: No, I can’t sit back and enjoy it.

TA: No. No.

PS: I think we’re still sort of in work mode almost. I think it’ll take a while to…

TA: I think so too, yeah. That period in the old days there was a longer period of time between the final cut and the opening, which is now like four weeks or something. It’s so recent. I was sitting alone with the editor in a small room and no one had seen it, and now, like, you have to sort of meet everyone who sees it. It takes a while for it to sink in.

PS: I’ll watch it on DVD.

Have you both read the subsequent Smiley novels and spoken to John le Carré about future adaptations?

TA: No, we haven’t really, but I’ve read them.

PS: I’ve read them.

TA: And they’re great.

PS: But I think probably people will wait and see how this one goes.

Do either of you have a favourite scene from the film?

TA: I love the break-in, Peter Guillam breaking in with the George Formby tune travelling, that’s a nice one, and when when Smiley describes his meeting with Karla, that’s a nice one.

PS: I’d agree with both of those, and I like the last between Smiley and the mole, I liked that very much as well.

Can you tell us something about the music choices you made? Why George Formby? That’s not exactly 1970s…

TA: One big mistake a lot of filmmakers make when they do period, let’s say we do a film that is set in 1985, everything is 1985 in the film, which is not true. 1985 is everything and backwards in history. So you need, like, things to reflect the year everything is set, so I was looking for stuff that made you remember World War II or the resistance, or that time, something just like a taste from that time, and something that would reflect Smiley’s younger age or Control’s younger age, so it happened to be that one.

Tomas, do you have your next project lined up? What kind of scripts are being sent your way now, with two breakthrough movies behind you?

TA: I don’t know really. I haven’t decided what to do yet. I’m doing some theatre in Sweden, and that’s the only thing I know, but I haven’t decided on any film projects yet.

Tomas Alfredson and Peter Straughan, thank you very much.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is on general release now in the UK.

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