I recently had a chance to sit down with the director and star of the upcoming movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (read our review Friday), Tomas Alfredson and Gary Oldman, while they were in DC doing press. Tomas Alfredson is mainly known for his film Let The Right One In, while Gary Oldman has been in everything you already like. Although the interview was brief, both Oldman and Alfredson provided insights about the film, the spy genre, and how it fits in the modern era of storytelling:
Thanks for your time today. First question: Sir Alec Guinness played the George Smiley role originally (in the 1979 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy miniseries). Do you feel like you took any cues or inspiration from his portrayal or did you prefer to take it in a more original direction — or maybe some combination of the two?
Gary Oldman: Well I’m old enough to remember the TV series so I — have you seen the series?
I’m afraid not.
GO: I remember when the series first came out in the 70’s and I think I probably remember it better than I do, but I didn’t want to revisit it and get contaminated by it. And then you end up winding up with a sort of half-assed impersonation or whatever. But you are mining the same material, so there will be certain destinations that you arrive at. James Mason also played Smiley, and Sir Anthony Hopkins, and an actor named Denholm Elliott, so there have been many interpretations and I’m sure we all at some point come to the same point.
But it’s forty years ago and I’m a different being — you bring your instincts and intuitions to it. You know, there are certain little clues along the way, it’s almost like a map. A path that you’re following and there’ll be certain pegs that you hang things on that are the same, but Guinness and I were working from this one source material. But the shadow of him loomed large — that was the obstacle for me to try and not be to be fearful of the inevitable comparisons that were going to be. So that was a dragon to slay, because he was so revered and so loved and such a part of British establishment of great acting — but [Tomas Alfredson, the director], he thought I could do it.
Tomas Alfredson: Yeah.
GO: So this is all voices in my head.
TA: The paranoia.
GO: Yes, the paranoia, the insecurity — you know, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it, you still have those doubts that you can pull something off. That’s what’s exciting about the work as well. You don’t always know — you hope that what I call the “Cloak of Inspiration” will fall. And that you will be able to pull it off. [To Tomas] Do you feel a bit like that when you go into — I mean you’ve done your work, but do you feel you ever have a little voice that sometimes says, “I hope I can do this.”
TA: Of course. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be standing on my toes — it’s memento mori, you create if you don’t have it, the memento mori and to get up on your toes.
On the subject of timeliness — the original books and miniseries were kind of a product of that era, the 1970’s and the Cold War feeling. Is there still a place for that kind of story, the retelling of the Cold War story in modern times?
TA: For me, this story is very much about loyalty and friendship and betrayal. And those subjects are eternal, I think, and therefore it’s meaningful to have as a main theme in a film. So the spy world and the Cold War is a backdrop, a very interesting backdrop, but at the same time I think you wouldn’t do this take on a film in those days. People might have thought it was strange or were just much more dogmatic about the East and West conflict or the philosophical or political sides.
So people really would just have had a black and white perspective back then?
TA: I think so and it’s much more sensitive when you’re in it. Imagine a film about the War on Terror today and choosing not to go into the subject but to talk about something else, put something else in the spotlight…
GO: The casualties of it.
GO: I mean, there are things happening in the world today — I look at it and think, has it really changed? It’s just the faces or enemy has changed, of course we can’t call them “enemies” due to political correctness — they are “opponents” now. But we have a sort of serious threat in recent times, not just so recently — a place like Iran, when we lived in the Cold War I felt exposed because we were closer — in Europe. And you did wonder sometimes, where were those missiles pointed? And we soldiered on … continued dealing with it, but the enemy changes. The world’s a mess and it’s perfect. Always has been.
One final question. Did you feel that there was a need to worry about people unfamiliar with the material or who couldn’t keep up? I know we’re running short on time, so for those people who may not be familiar with the books or miniseries, what’s the most important thing to get out of this film?
TA: I think you shouldn’t fear insecurity or if you don’t understand. Some stuff might come slow to you and turn up in your head two days later. And why not? It’s okay, and this particular genre should be complicated and should be hard. I think you be would be disappointed if you were sitting in front of your favorite crossword and it was too easy to solve.
Three-letter word for feline … or canine.
GO: But it’s just by it’s nature. I’m fine — you don’t have all the answers when watching the film, you’re watching as George Smiley is also on this investigation. It’s difficult with this type of movie — it’s a tightrope you walk. You don’t want the audience to be ahead of you, so there’s always a bit of confusion and catching up to do. But you don’t want them so confused in a way that they don’t know what’s going on at all. With this sort of material — [to Tomas] you said that later in the editing room it was a very delicate process piecing it together. But… [to me] could you follow it?
Eventually. Slow start, strong finish — that’s what I felt about it.
TA: Great, great.
Thanks again to both of you for your time.