The Director of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy': 'It's a Demanding Film'

An interview with Tomas Alfredson about his adaptation of John le Carré’s best-selling novel

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Jack English

The new adaptation of espionage author John le Carré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an unhurried, elliptical work that stands out in this age of frenzied thrillers.

It’s been helmed by Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson, whose similarly subdued adolescent vampire romance Let the Right One In (2008) earned major accolades while inspiring an acclaimed American remake. So it’s no surprise that the story of George Smiley (Gary Oldman) investigating a Soviet mole at the top of MI6 is rendered in pauses and close-up shots: It explores the burdens of silence and the mysteries in what’s left unsaid.

Gone from this adaptation, written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, are the genre’s usual propulsive narrative techniques, like the fast-moving action scene. Instead, there’s a general sense that the filmmaker wants you to do the work, to make the connections that foster an understanding of the combustible shared history of Smiley and his cohorts.

Here, Alfredson speaks about his attraction to the material, the process of assembling his all-star cast (Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hardy are among the many notables) and more. The film opens in Los Angeles and New York today, and heads to wider release in the weeks to come.

What drew you to the material, especially given that the novel already had been brought to the screen in an acclaimed miniseries?

It was the book itself, of course. And also I remember the miniseries, when I must have been 10, 11-years old, seeing it. I didn’t understand much of it, but it was a very intriguing and interesting world to watch. It was also the people that wanted to do it with me, the production company and Mr. le Carré himself.

What about the draw of making a quiet, subtle spy thriller?

I don’t consider this a spy thriller, really. It’s much more about the victims of the Cold War and the sacrifices they made. That was what interested me the most — to actually try to understand what they suffered, these people. For instance, there was a very gripping detail John le Carré described for me: Some of the spies were decorated by the Queen. She would put a medal on their chests and ten minutes afterwards someone would take it away and hide it in a cupboard. I thought that was so, so touching and cruel, and really interesting, what they had to carry.

There is a lot of interesting stuff to explore in silence. If I would, for instance, ask you a question and you don’t answer me, that is also an answer. Silence between people is a very useful cinematic element.

What would you say to the possibility that some audience members might expect something more conventional and leave the film feeling perplexed?

A lot of people involved in the making of films are obsessed with clarity. I think it’s much more interesting to invite the audience to be an active partner in creating the experience. I really love the idea of trusting the audience to look upon them as adults that can have ideas themselves of what’s happening.

It is a demanding film. I want it to be demanding. And it’s quite true to the book as well. If you compare, there are so many films that decide for you what to feel and what to think and what you see. Film can be very decisive for you, but I believe that the more open you get the more the viewer can participate. But it’s not an easy film to watch. We haven’t promised anything else.

Smiley is a tough part to cast for a lot of reasons. What led you to Gary Oldman?

It was very hard to come up with the right idea of who to play Smiley. We struggled with it for six months or something. We almost said, “Let’s not do this. We can’t find the right one to do it.” And Jina Jay, the casting director, came up with this idea and I thought it was a brilliant one, to ask Gary for it.

He is like a chameleon. He has done so many and so different kinds of portraits in his career. It would take a lot of courage to stand in front of the camera and have so much screen time without saying so much. And he really knows how to express himself with subtle moves and using his body language to communicate this.

We thought that the camera should be like George’s mirror. He’s communicating with the camera. He shows stuff to the camera that he doesn’t show to the other characters around him. So the camera is like his mirror, or his little megaphone.

How hard was it to corral so many gifted actors into the same movie?

It was quite easy after we found Gary and he accepted. It was quite easy to get people on board or into a room for a meeting. I think 95 percent of the cast are first choices. It was easy to get them into the project.

In what sense do you think the film is informed by your outsider perspective, as a Scandinavian making a movie set in ’70s Britain?

I don’t think I know exactly what I see or what I don’t see. Maybe it’s a good thing that I’m a foreigner and that I maybe see stuff that people from the same country don’t see, because they get blind to a lot of stuff that is specific to that culture. I’d seen a lot, as a kid, of British television and I visited England for the first time when I was 7 or 8, in the beginning of the ’70s and I tried to recall my memories from that. [Britain] was quite different from what it is today.

When you make a hit like Let the Right One In, you must be presented with all sorts of offers. In a general sense, what’s your process for choosing a project?

I don’t know. It’s a very emotional thing to choose material to work with. It’s not so important where it’s done or what the budget is. I think a film should have its proper budget and it should be interesting. You should try to see if you can do something with it and deliver something that’s interesting. Otherwise you shouldn’t. So I tried to finalize the work with this film and promote it now and then sit down and have a nice cup of tea and see what’s on the table.