Director Tomas Alfredson on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: becoming “voyeurs to a filthy game.”
By Richard von Busack
Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson follows up the best vampire movie of the last few years with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s about a different breed of parasites: justifiable (sometimes self-justifiable) as Britain’s last line of defense, these men are in the business of looking for weaknesses. In person, the stocky Alfredson has the placid demeanor and buttoned-down otherworldliness of David Lynch. He brings to this adaptation of John Le Carre’s twisty book a sense of the cruelty of 1970s England, in which personal and political betrayals are everywhere.
A dark film of human treachery, TTSS is also surprisingly humorous…as when the inner vault of secrets at British Intelligence, guarded like a dragon’s hoard, comes to life, thanks to a BBC broadcast of George Formby’s 1939 novelty tune “Mr. Wu’s A Window Cleaner Now.” And among these habitual traitors we have someone to root for: an indomitable old spymaster named George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman.
METRO: How did you feel about being hired to direct this?
ALFREDSON: I was a little lost. To be honest, I didn’t know what to do. At the same time I was curious exploring the possibility of doing an English language film. I refused a lot of stuff. One day my manager had heard Working Title had retrieved the rights to Tinker Tailor…I thought it was a fantastic book, and I’d read it, and seen the TV version. I’d arranged to meet with Tim Bevan and John le Carre, and it felt 100% right. They said the right things, and made me comfortable to do this very complicated thing. If I was going to have a failure, why not with something like this?
METRO: Failure? This seemed to me a particularly foolproof matchup of director and material, maybe the most foolproof I’d heard of since the Coen Brothers announced their version of True Grit. Your version is very different than the BBC’s version of the late 1970s: we don’t just see the scheming, we see the outcome of the scheming: the blood and the pain. One aspect that seemed different in your version is the way civilians are excluded from this world of spies.
ALFREDSON: There’s two levels to that. The spies here are very personal with each other. Without giving anything away here, Smiley knows who the mole is from the beginning, even as he tells the mole. He just needed to get the evidence. It’s a game between people who know each other, and so it’s about civilians in that sense.
METRO: Can you describe the England in TTSS?
ALFREDSON: It’s post-war England. My first impressions of England were in 1973. Those memories are still very strong. It was very poor, very cold, very damp and dirty, with crappy food. They were still struggling a lot with the wounds from the war. If you remember Piccadilly Circus from those days, it was like an ashtray: grey and dirty. Today London is shiny…and all this greyness is gone.
METRO: Where did you film?
ALFREDSON: We found this military barracks in Mill Hill in north London, which was about to be torn down. They had 60-70 houses we could do anything with, and we shot 80 percent of the film there. Here and there we used CGI to dull down some of the cityscapes.
We tried to create a few key words to let the director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema know what we were trying to accomplish with the visuals. We were trying to create the feeling the camera was a voyeur.
METRO: So much of the film seems to be taking place under glass, as if shot in aquariums or in vitrines.
ALFREDSON: A key word we used was “the smell of damp tweed.” We wanted images that had that look.
METRO: What are the similarities between Scandinavian and British culture?
ALFREDSON: There is a stiffness in British culture which we share. The British are more polite than the Swedes, there is more of a stiffness in the social game. We laugh at the same stuff, though. Sweden in the 1970s was half-way behind the Iron Curtain, very dependent on what the Russians bought and sold. The foreign TV we got was BBC, so we were quite breast-fed on all those TV series, that must have had sort of inspired us. It acquainted us with the Brits.
METRO: Did you and Gary Oldman harmonize on this film, or did you have disagreements?
ALFREDSON: I can’t think of any disagreements. Gary was very concentrated and focused…
METRO: He was essentially playing a character who was one big eye…
ALFREDSON: Yes. It takes a lot of courage from one actor to do such a quiet person, and also to depict someone who was described in the book as “someone you immediately forget”. There’s a big difference between actually being uninteresting and playing a person who is uninteresting. I felt he trusted me a lot: “Are you sure we’re going to do this scene where you’re just showing the back of my neck?”. I’d tell him I thought it would do the job. When you trust each other, great things happen.
METRO: There are scenes here that must have looked risky on paper: the scene where George tells the story about the time he interrogated the Soviet Intelligence chief “Karla,” using an empty chair to tell the story. Was that in the script?
ALFREDSON: It was originally. In the book and in the TV series we see Karla. I wasn’t that keen on showing George as a young person, and for that matter I didn’t want to show Karla either. I had this idea that it would be great to create a ghost out of Karla. I thought a great actor can do theater on screen if the actor is good enough. And I think that scene is a wonderful performance.
METRO: I wondered if the scene of Smiley getting fitted with new glasses is a tribute to a similar moment of Paul Newman getting back into the game in Scorsese’s The Color of Money…
ALFREDSON: I love that film, but it’s been a long time I saw it. Maybe it’s in there—actually the idea with Smiley’s new glasses is to give a little help to the audience to navigate the difference between the flashbacks and the present.
Smiley is preparing for his new life. It’s quite touching to see an old man creating a new life…and the new life he creates is so sad when you compare it to his colleague Connie; she has a house where young people go in and out. We see the difference between a very male and a very female way of how to treat your retirement.
METRO: It’s been a while since I read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I don’t remember if the killing of a bystander, at the beginning of your film, was in the book.
ALFREDSON: It’s not. We added it. A great image, like an inverted Piéta. It’s supposed to look like everyone in that Budapest galleria is involved in that operation. Kids are like a theme in this film—they become voyeurs to this filthy game.
METRO: Is there hope for a film of the book’s sequel, Smiley’s People?
ALFREDSON:We’ve discussed it, but we want to do it for the right reasons. Le Carre said he had an idea of combining Smiley’s People and The Honorable Schoolboy into one script. They could be a great film in there—I think we’d have to settle back a little—you’d hate to have a sequel done too fast.