Interview: Tomas Alfredson & Peter Straughan on TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

We spoke yesterday to the director & writer of the Cold War thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that can be expected to dominate next year's BAFTAs with a cast that brings together a plethora of probable future knights of the realm.

Billed as a "best of British" ensemble, Cold War thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy can be expected to dominate next year's BAFTAs with a cast that brings together a plethora of probable future knights of the realm. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Graham and Kathy Burke are part of a stellar line-up who bring this adaptation of the John le Carré novel to life. The 70s set movie is replete with locally specific detail too, as Oldman's protagonist, semi-retired intelligence officer George Smiley, sucks down on a pack of Trebor mints and dines at a local branch of unfashionable burger chain Wimpy (knife and fork and all). Officially the film is a French co-production, with StudioCanal stumping up the cash, but it's an unmistakably British enterprise. So how does a director born on the small island of Lidingö, Sweden, get so much of this detail so exactly right? It must have helped that Tomas Alfredson, the acclaimed filmmaker behind Let the Right One In, worked closely with an English screenwriter: Peter Straughan. Yet, as the director explained, he was never too far away from a Wimpy or an episode of Fawlty Towers growing up. "I've been here quite a lot since I was a kid, I think the first time was '72-73, and I've spent a lot of time over the years here so I'm quite well acquainted", he recalls warmly, before excitedly miming British television company stings of the era, humming the theme tunes. "We're sort of breast fed British television in Sweden. I remember Thames Television, Anglia, London Weekend - all those things we've seen, so I think we're quite learned that way." It was during his childhood Anglophile years that Alfredson first encountered Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, via the celebrated 1979 BBC series starring Alec Guinness (below, right) and Ian Richardson. "It was the sort of show where the fathers would say "shut up. I want to see this. You get out or you shut up". And we did and we looked at it and I don't think I understood it at all because I was eight or nine." "But I watched it later on and it's a great series... it was quite useful for research because so complicated to remember all the bases and the construction of it all." But if the director had some trace of childhood nostalgia behind his motive for adapting the material as cinema, Straughan (writer of film adaptations of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People and The Men Who Stare At Goats) was attracted to the text by its emphasis on character over typical pot boiler plotting. "I remember the book starts with Jim Prideaux arriving at this school, a broken man, and striking up this friendship with a lonely boy. It struck me as an unusual opening of a spy novel... And that seemed straight away the key to it: it was not going to be about the power politics, but about human relations and the victims of that war. That was the guiding light really, we always tried to not get lost in the complexity of the plot but to relate it back to what does this mean to individual humans who've suffered in that war." It's a reading of the text Alfredson seemingly developed equal enthusiasm for, with his film looking at a sad gallery of disillusioned, isolated and repressed men fighting a very different kind of war than the sort we usually see. "One thing that interested me very early was who were the soldiers in the Cold War compared to the soldiers in hot war? It's quite different and, in many ways, a quite female world - if you compare the sort of Alpha males of a hot war." The duo hope that this emphasis on characterisation will transcend what, they concede, could be an otherwise complicated story in terms of plot. "I personally think you don't have to worry about following every twist and turn" suggests Straughan. "If you think of The West Wing - or ER - where the plot can be zipped on quite quickly and you don't always feel like you're on top of it, but it sort of doesn't matter as long as you're going with the characters and caring about the characters. I think this has that quality as well: the spy plot is complicated, the human story is quite straightforward." It's an approach which comes very much from the book and, as such, seems to have been given the original author's blessing, with le Carré (above) signing off on the filmmakers' ideas during regular consultation (and also taking a small cameo role in the film). "We used him a lot" Alfredson recalls. "He said "if you want to, call me any time" and we used that possibility a lot. He's been updated all through the process and I think he likes it." But the veteran author didn't offer many specific script notes so much as contributing to the production's overall feeling of authenticity. "On details he could "there would never be a red carpet in that kind of corridor". Very specific notes on details which were very useful." These notes no doubt informed part of the film's bleak, cold look which the director describes, with a smile, as "wet tweed": "That was the mantra. And it's wet tweedy I think!" What he didn't want to do was fill this 1970s period piece with knowing references to the era, using the music of pre-war favourite George Formby over that of contemporary icons David Bowie or Elton John. "One big mistake a lot of filmmakers make when they do period is, let's say we do a film set in 1985: everything is 1985. Which is not true. 1985 is everything and backwards... I was looking for stuff that made you remember WWII, like a taste from that time and something that would reflect Smiley or Control's younger age." So what's next for the director? First, he's returning to Sweden to do some theatre work, but he's coy on the subject of sequels, admitting an admiration for the subsequent George Smiley novels: "I've read them and they're great." Straughan is equally pragmatic, but he's ruling nothing out at this point: "I think we'll wait and see how this does first." Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is released in the UK from Friday 16th September. It's very good, as you can read in glowing reviews from our Adam Whyte and Shaun Munro.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.