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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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.