A Roundtable Chat with Peter Straughan and Tomas Alfredson (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”)

When Focus Features drops you a line and asks you if you’d like to head to New York City for an overnight stay at the Waldorf Astoria in order to attend a screening and press junket for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” based on the novel by John le Carré, you don’t think about it. You just say, “Yes.” And so I did. After catching a screening of the film on a Friday night, I got up on Saturday morning to begin the interviews of the day. First up: director Tomas Alfredson and one of the film’s screenwriters, Peter Straughan. (Alas, Straughan’s co-writer, Bridget O’Connor, who was also his wife, died of cancer in September 2010.)

One word of warning: the potential for spoilers exists within the piece. But, look, given that the original novel was published in 1974, followed by the TV miniseries in 1979, it’s not as if you haven’t had plenty of time to absorb this information already…

Journalist: How liberating was it for you to be told (by John le Carré), “Don’t reshoot the book?”

Peter Straughan: Very. [Laughs.]

Tomas Alfredson: Yes, very. I was much more so, I think. Peter wasn’t too worried, but I was very reverential about the book and was very nervous about taking a foot off the path. So it was just very good that John le Carré was there to push us off the path and tell us to do something different.

J: Can you each tell us about your first encounter with the book, if you had read it a long time ago? Did either of you?

PS: I’d read it, yeah. And Bridget had read it years earlier and loved it. In the UK, it’s considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, let alone spy novels. And then we read it again when we were asked to come in to discuss adapting it. Which made us quite nervous. [Laughs.] You read it, and…it’s quite a difficult book to adapt!

J: Because it’s so well known, or because of the complexity…?

PS: Because of the complexity. Because it’s quite an interior story. So much of it takes place in Smiley’s mind and Smiley’s memory. And also because, in the UK, it’s a holy cow. As is the TV series. So there was a sense of…I think we were maybe the only writers who rushed in and said, “Okay, we’ll do it!” Everyone else would say, “No, we don’t want to do it!” [Laughs.] Fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.

TA: I think it’s…very much about not deciding, “Okay, I want to do this,” but it’s about, “I want to start working on this, to start the process.” And early on, it was…I remembered the old TV series and the reading of the book, but also meeting with the actual persons, with Peter and Bridget and le Carré and the producers, who are very nice people. To do a scary thing like this, you need to be encouraged, and if you’re surrounded by encouraging people who you trust, it’s much easier.

J: The press does mention that you actually made the phone call. “I want to make this movie.” Is that true?

TA: Well, it was…one of my managers had heard that Working Title had retrieved the rights to the book. And then I had been looking quite awhile for my next project after “Let the Right One In,” and for some reason I couldn’t come to a decision. And then I heard about this, and it just felt, “Yes! The timing is right!” It just felt like the right thing to do. And I think…then they set up a meeting for us, and then it just started. I think it was the vulnerability and loneliness of the soldiers of the Cold War that was sort of my first thing that made me want to do this. How they work and what soldiers were needed in that war in comparison to a hot war, which is very different.

J: I think in the book one of the characters – I don’t remember which one – says that the secret service would reflect the subconscious of a country. Do you think that it was true then, and is it true now?

PS: Yes, I think there’s some truth in that. I think that was a valid idea, that the disguise that a person chooses sometimes reveals exactly who we are, in fact.

TA: Yeah.

J: Also, during that time, they were all living with a sense of doom because of the Cold War, and now we’re living with another sense of doom…a different one, but one with economic uncertainty. I wondered if that was something you had in mind when you tried to not adapt the book.

TA: Not me.

PS: Not me.

J: Because we kind of identify with the pessimism of the characters and this kind of betrayal.

TA: I think that films and literature, they work differently in different times, depending on in what era it’s made, and also in what context you’re looking at the film. I don’t think that you…it’s very dangerous to be a philosopher on film. The philosophy, I think, is something that happens in you when you look at it, when you sort of put the pieces together. For me, this film is much more about human values and betrayal of friendship and loyalty rather than a documentary about the Cold War. Maybe it wouldn’t have been possible to do this film this way back then. Maybe people would have thought it would be too emotional, or they wouldn’t understand it if it was made in ’73. People might would’ve wanted something more true to reality.

PS: I agree. I think it probably would be dangerous…I think it’s always probably dangerous to try and draw out contemporary relevance from a project. I think it becomes then too self-conscious, and you’re going to trip up over that. I think you owe it to yourself to respond emotionally to the piece itself and don’t worry about anything else. They’re always reflecting the times they’re made in, anyway. In hindsight, you can always see it. But I think you can’t see it when you’re doing it, and you shouldn’t be trying to see it when you’re doing it.

J: What is it about George Smiley in particular that’s made him such an enduring creation for le Carré fans? Just as a main character, he’s very reactive, very restrained, he’s not as dynamic as some supporting characters. What’s his attraction?

PS: I mean, he’s described as a person you would immediately forget. Anyone’s uncle. Like a piece of the wallpaper. And that is his great talent: that he makes people talk. [Turns to Tomas.] That sounded like a commercial, didn’t it? “He makes people talk.” [Laughs.] But that’s his great talent, and he doesn’t send any signals at all. And as we learn during the film, he is carrying a big cross, this man, and must be extremely lonely. But he never complains. He’s never whining. And he is the most loyal person you could ever imagine. He is beyond every limit that I could imagine doing myself. And I think that is sympathetic. He is a sympathetic character.

TA: I think there’s a kind of method at work which always works with an audience. That’s the kind of Clark Kent mechanism, where he’s sort of looked over, but we realize that he isn’t Clark Kent but, rather, he’s wearing blue tights under his suit. [Laughs.]

J: We so often see Gary Oldman in very different roles than this. Why Gary Oldman? How did his name even originally come up?

TA: It was quite hard, to be honest, to find the right name. We didn’t get the right idea for a very long time. I think over six months we discussed different names, because we needed some kind of a chameleon. And if you look at Gary’s work, what he’s done is very different personalities. He’s almost never type-casted. And I thought he would be ideal for the part when that came up. We almost gave up. And I said, “I don’t want to do anything casting before we have George.” So I flew over to Los Angeles to meet him, and…I didn’t have a list. I just had one name on the list, and it was him. And we connected very well, and I’m very happy he did it. He’s the kind of an actor…he’s so experienced that he dared not to do too much. You have to have done so many portraits, as he has done before, to dare to be this quiet and silent.

J: How was working with Alberto Iglesias? And who came up with the idea of the Julio Iglesias song at the end, the version of “La Mer”?

TA: The two Iglesiases… [Laughs.] People often ask Alberto if they’re related, and he said, “Yes,” but, of course, they’re not. Alberto is…I have been a big fan of his for 20 years or something. I think he’s one of the greatest contemporary composers there is, so it was indeed a dream come true when he said “yes” to do the score, and it turned out to be the perfect choice. The way he…I don’t know if you thought of that, but the way he finds the cues is exceptional. I haven’t heard that before, the way he’s not using the very obvious points in the film, where the music starts or stops. So he has a very unique way of cueing the music. And the story about Julio Iglesias was that we wanted to give a little glimpse of George’s personality when he’s by himself, so I wanted to see him listening to his favorite record. [Laughs.] And we were, like, “What kind of music would George listen to? We can’t have him listen to opera, that’s too easy.” So I thought, “Why not Julio Iglesias?” Because he’s everything this world is not. He’s the dream of the sun, the Mediterranean, the easy life. And we did the scene, but…it was too strange. [Laughs.] It was a little too much. But when I was listening to music to find the right song, for that scene, I found this very rare live recording of him singing “La Mer,” and we used it for the very end sequence instead, which was great.

PS: But that happened very early on. Tomas was already thinking of pieces of music very early on.

J: Lastly, where was John le Carré in the film?

TA: He’s in the second Christmas party sequence, where we see the Lenin Santa. When they start singing the Soviet national anthem, he’s in the front, singing. [Laughs.]

P.S. Don’t forget to check out our roundtable interview with Colin Firth!