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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Tomas Alfredson and Peter Straughan interview

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Interview by Rob Carnevale

TOMAS Alfredson and Peter Straughan talk about some of the challenges of directing and adapting Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for the big screen.

Tomas also talks about finding his George Smiley in Gary Oldman and Peter discusses the notion of a great spy being a failed human being.

Q. How big an undertaking was it to adapt John Le Carre’s novel and how important was it to have him on board?
Peter Straughan: It was a difficult adaptation. We knew it was going to be tricky and I have to say that Bridget O’Connor and I were very nervous about the idea of taking it on because it’s such an iconic book involving such an iconic character. So, it calmed our nerves hugely that John was on board and supportive of the project and was so helpful throughout the whole process.

Q. And Tomas?
Tomas Alfredson: To be honest, if you do an adaptation of a book the film is not about pleasing the author of the book. But it’s fantastic to have an author of that magnitude with you in the process and he’s been so helpful and supportive and enthusiastic. Also, he’s never been intrusive and he’s never put up any hindrance or limits for us. So, he has been the dream author to me when it comes to collaborating with someone.

Q. I gather the search for a new Smiley was exhaustive and it took some time to come to Gary Oldman?
Tomas Alfredson: Yes, it was a hard one to solve… who to play George Smiley and I think we struggled for six to eight months before Tim Bevan, the producer of the film, came up with the idea of Gary. For some reason it just felt 100% right and Gary said ‘yes’ immediately. He wanted to do it.

Q. Given that so much is unsaid and conveyed through looks, how difficult is that for a writer to convey?
Peter Straughan: It’s sort of always the way moving from a book to a film – you’re always going to use less dialogue usually, and particularly with this. But with Tinker, Tailor… you could sort of trust in the novel and forward project trusting in the performances. And because Bridget and I worked so closely with Tomas and John Le Carre we sort of all knew what each scene had to get out of the performances. We knew how little we could get away with and where we could just say it with a look.

Q. Tomas, you enjoy communicating through silence in your work – Let The Right One In also relied on sparse dialogue. What appeals to you about that style of direction?
Tomas Alfredson: Well, I believe it’s about what people do and not what they say… that is the most powerful way to express yourself on film. And that’s the beauty of Peter and Bridget’s screenplay here. When they talk and when they say stuff, it’s really condensed and joyful to listen to the dialogue. I think silence on film is very useful because it starts a dialogue with the audience if you have a lot of it, because as an audience you will fill in a lot about what the character is thinking, or might be thinking. So, it’s a very useful engine.

Q. How easy was it to assemble such a dream cast?
Tomas Alfredson: It was surprisingly easy! We had a fantastic book, a fantastic screenplay of that book and an idiot from Sweden who could easily control it all [laughs].

Q. Peter, can you disguise the way you explored the idea of a great spy being a failed human being?
Peter Straughan: It’s sort of what the book is about in a way. Smiley’s private life is a mess and all of these men are damaged goods, in a way, and they’re all victims in a way. They’re a generation born to empires, I think it says in the book, and they’re born to certainties like the Second World War, where there was a definite sense of being on the side of right. But then they’re had to go through this sort of acid bath of the Cold War where all of those things are burnt away. Smiley has I think taken a lot of wounds in that process. But what makes him such a fascinating character is that he holds onto that humanity, even when he has to do dark things. You know that he doesn’t do them glibly and he ever gives into cynicism. He pays the price and he holds onto his humanity and I think that’s what makes him such an attractive character.

Q. How much did you both enjoy working together?
Tomas Alfredson: It was fantastic. It was a team effort with Peter and Bridget at the rudder of the script and with John Le Carre as a satellite and myself as a satellite. It was a fantastic project to see. I think it’s quite an accomplishment to have been able to do this in such a short amount of time. It’s two years since we started on it, so it’s been quite fast.

Read our interview with Colin Firth