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Tomas Alfredson talks “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

Tomas Alfredson talks “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (photo)

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Swedish director Tomas Alfredson first got noticed in the United States with his film “Let the Right One In,” a brilliant and boldly original take on the vampire genre (the film was remade, not quite as brilliantly or boldly originally, as “Let Me In” — you can read Alfredson’s thoughts on that film here). He’s followed that breakthrough up with a bold take on another genre, the spy film, in his adaptation of John le Carré’s classic novel, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” But all this genre reinvention doesn’t mean Alfredson’s a “genre filmmaker.” For all he knows, Alfredson says, his next movie might be a romantic comedy.

“I never think of what label they end up having in the video store,” Alfredson told me about his taste in projects. “If it’s action or drama or comedy or whatever, it’s the same for me, the same kind of work. I wouldn’t be against a romantic comedy as long as it interests me. It doesn’t matter really.”

What matters right now is “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a labyrinthian espionage tale set in England’s Secret Intelligence Service (nicknamed “The Circus”) in the 1970s. At its center is an enigmatic man named George Smiley (Gary Oldman). As the film begins, Smiley and the Circus’ top man, Control (John Hurt), are forced into early retirement, casualties of a botched operation in Hungary. When Control dies sometime later, Smiley is recruited to resume his old boss’ final mission: uncovering the identity of a mole in the upper ranks of The Circus. There are four main suspects, each with their own code name: Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciarán Hinds), and Poorman (David Dencik). Smiley must figure out which one’s the mole before they can do any further damage. But when you’re hunting former friends and co-workers, who do you trust?

For Alfredson, making a film that tries to answer those sorts of questions was much more personally intriguing than reinventing a genre. During our conversation, we talked more about what draws him to projects in general and to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in particular. We also discussed the film’s poker-faced star and what Alfredson would choose as his own le Carré-style nickname. It’s a good one.

I love spy films. Do you have any favorite spy films?

I’m not as educated as you in those matters but I think “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” is a very beautiful and well-done film.

Can you tell me first what attracted you to the material?

I was approached about two years ago. Of course, I had a relationship to the material for a long time because I read many of John le Carré’s books and, like almost everyone in Sweden, I had seen the “Tinker Tailor” TV miniseries from the ’70s. I thought it was a very moving piece about loyalty and friendship and the human cost that the soldiers of the Cold War had to pay.

In the press notes for the film, you’re quoted as saying you “understand” George Smiley’s soul in some way. What about his soul did you connect with?

The loneliness, the idea that whatever you say and whatever you do, people will misinterpret you, and what’s on your outside doesn’t reflect what’s on your inside. I might have a little dash of George in me there, because he doesn’t really reflect what’s inside of him. As an artist or musician or painter, one of the strongest forces that you have is feeling misinterpreted by the outside world. It forces you to find a different way of expressing yourself through what you do.

“Let the Right One In” was another film about loneliness.

Yeah.

There’s other comparisons you can draw between “Let the Right One In” and “Tinker Tailor.” They both strike me as films about what people will or will not do for love. Are those themes you’re particularly drawn to?

They could be themes or feelings I react very strongly to, but when you choose material, it’s not that intellectual. If you react in a visceral way when reading a script, if you see a lot of images; if you laugh, cry, or shiver, then it’s probably something you should do.

I was a huge “Let the Right One In” fan. What’s the transition been like from smaller Swedish films to this much bigger English language production? Was it a big adjustment?

The hardest thing to adjust to is the language. I thought my English was pretty good but when I started working, I realized it’s not. You don’t have all the nuances or the details you’re used to having within reach when it’s a language you really know. So that was really frustrating. You get so slow; you have to reach out for each and every word every time you want to say something precisely. And directing, you want to be very precise. So that was a big step, not working in my own language.

The sets are bigger and the responsibility is bigger. Everything is bigger than I’m used to, but at the same time it’s just the same stuff in a larger scale. As someone once said, a drummer is always a drummer and a bass player is always a bass player. It’s the same with movie people.

I loved the look of the film, and I know you worked with Hoyte Van Hoytema, your “Let the Right One In” cinematographer, on “Tinker Tailor.” What directions did you give him and your team about how you wanted the film to look?

We tried to find ways of expressing paranoia through images and to make the audience feel like there is always a third person in the room; that the camera is a voyeur, an uninvited stranger looking at things. Another keyword we used to say was if we could create images with the scent of damp tweed, that would be a good guideline for what we were looking for.

I didn’t time it, but it feel like a lot of scenes go by before Smiley says his first line of dialogue. It’s got to be at least fifteen minutes.


Yeah, it’s about fifteen minutes.

So was it a challenge making a movie about a protagonist who is so reticent, especially in the early scenes?

Well if you look at the expressions of George throughout the movie, it’s like turning on a lava lamp. It takes two hours for him to even slightly raise his voice in the final scene.

[laughs]

I think if someone is secretive and doesn’t express himself too much that is interesting. You want to create the feeling in the audience where they want to try to look around the corner, to get into his mind or soul. It’s a strange equation, but the less he gives the more you get interested. That’s the anti-force of Smiley.

How did you work to develop that “anti-force” with Gary?

I said to him I wanted to do a very subtle Smiley and that we had to play with very subtle ways of expressing his feelings. A younger actor couldn’t or wouldn’t dare to do as little as Gary does. It takes a lot of courage and experience to come to that decision to stand still and do almost nothing. He’s in total control of his instrument, masterfully using his abilities as an actor. George and the camera have a secret connection. The camera is George’s mirror or something.

The flashback to the Christmas party that we see pieces of throughout the film wasn’t in le Carré’s original novel. Why did you add it?

I wanted to see all the people we meet in the film when they were actually friends, and show that they could be together and do something other than what they usually do. I asked John le Carré if they would have had a Christmas party, and he said “Yes, we had pretty wild ones, with people throwing bottles out the windows and police turning up.” I thought that would be a great platform to show the characters interacting in a more private way.

Given that you’re working with a large novel, one that had previously been adapted into an entire miniseries, was condensing the source material to fit the runtime of a feature difficult?

It was. Since the book is like a maze, and it jumps back and forth in time, we had to distribute it in a different way. Luckily, Mr. le Carré was very open to us doing that. He said, “Play around with it and if you come up with new ideas I will support you.” The hardest part was creating images to replace dialogue that refers to people and faces, to see stuff happening instead of describing it.

Do you want to do more English language projects?



I’d be happy to if I find something that I feel comfortable with and that makes me react strongly. It’s not important what language it’s in, it’s just important that it feels right. So, yes, I’m open to it.

There are plenty of other Smiley books by le Carré. Would you want to make more of them into films?

We have discussed the rest of the Karla trilogy — “Smiley’s People” and “The Honorary Schoolboy” — to see if we could do something, but we haven’t set when or where.

Most of le Carré’s characters have code names like “Tinker” or “Tailor.” If you were giving yourself a spy code name, what name would you chose?

Do you know how they got these names?

Most of the ones in the movie are based on the old nursery rhyme.

Every time MI6 started a new operation, they called this certain woman who had a dictionary, and she just randomly chose a word from that dictionary so there would be absolutely no connection between the operation and the word. So Operation: Witchcraft, for example, is just something chosen from the dictionary by this woman. So I think I would choose some totally random name: Sven. [laughs]

[laughs] I love it. The perfect spy code name.

Yeah, the Swedish spy Sven.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” opens tomorrow. If you see it, let us know what you think. Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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