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.
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.
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.