Following a special screening of their new film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, director Tomas Alfredson and star Gary Oldman took time to answer questions from the audience, who were there as part of AFI Silver’s European Film Showcase. The film, based on the seminal novel by John le Carré, focuses on ex-British intelligence officer George Smiley (Oldman) as he attempts to discover the identity of a mole in the SIS, referred to by those in the know as ‘The Circus.’
Foremost in the minds of those who asked questions of the star and director were the challenges of adaptation and the manner in which the film – with its Cold War setting – could be made relevant to the modern era.
Alfredson introduced the film by relating an anecdote centered on his meeting with the novel’s author. According to Alfredson, le Carré told him, “Please don’t do this book; it already exists… please play around with it. Be loyal to the soul and spirit of the book.”
In this vein, Oldman expressed his admiration for the director and screenwriters, and their ability to distill the heart of the novel into a visual medium. “He would reduce a scene to an image or a composition and two lines,” said Oldman.
“I believe in crafting a dialogue with the audience… rather than a monologue,” Alfredson said of this stylistic choice – a reliance on silences and tableau distilled from the source material. “We fought a lot to… create those silences.”
Of course, in spite of the blessing and entreating of le Carré, there was still the question of the original British miniseries, which starred Alec Guinness in the role now assumed by Oldman. Guinness rightly won praise for the part, and Oldman found this level of awareness a draw and a challenge, stating that it was “a big dragon to slay.”
However, Oldman saw “other shades” to Smiley, whom he described as “a bit of a sadist,” which he wanted to exploit and bring forth. He acknowledged that in “mining the same material..there are places that Guinness and I will meet,“ but that his intention was to create a more dark, cruel Smiley as opposed to Guinness’s “huggable” portrayal.
Likewise, Alfredson felt a pull to the material that went beyond simple ambition. “It’s quite hard to explain why you accept to start working on a project,” he said, though he cited an emotional connection to the story, one that conjures images and scenes in an audience’s mind. “If you react physically – crying or laughing or if your heart starts beating – for me that is the impulse I needed.”
In keeping with their similar reasons for approaching the material to begin with, both men agreed that the act of working together was a nearly wordless, fluid collaboration. “It’s rare, it’s very rare,” Oldman said of their connection, “it felt harmonic.”
It came as no surprise, then, that when asked about the chances of a sequel (le Carré wrote a number of books with George Smiley as a protagonist) both actor and director seemed optimistic. “Yes, we have discussed sequels,” said Alfredson, though he jokingly added, “we have to release this first.” The film has already been released abroad, though, and has seen returns of $21 million dollars thus far – putting it on track for a successful, profitable run.
As for using the miniseries as a reference, Alfredson said he revisited it at first to get started writing with the screenwriters, but only as a slight frame of reference. “You have to make a decision… ‘this is mine now,’” he said.
As for the bridge between his last film, Let The Right One In, a well regarded Swedish vampire film that inspired its own American remake, Let Me In, and this film, a spy thriller, Alfredson was pragmatic, viewing each story in human terms.
“[Let The Right One In] was not a vampire film to me,” he said, “it was the story of a young kid.” Likewise, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was about “the soldiers of the Cold War – it was a very personal and emotional.”
Oldman expressed an equally human viewpoint when asked about parallels between the film’s tale of Cold War espionage and modern intelligence gathering and the current state of the world. At first Oldman drew a connection between the nuclear suspicious related to Russian then with the similar concerns facing Iran today, but then dug deeper.
Oldman remembered watching news related to the Cold War and relations with Russia as a child. “I get the same kind of reaction watching the news [today] as I did when I was fifteen,” said Oldman.
Yet in spite of that seemingly continued strand of paranoia and worry and mystery, he expressed no pessimism about the state of world affairs. “The world is a mess,” Oldman said, “and it’s perfect.”