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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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