Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Interview with Director Tomas Alfredson

Based on the classic novel of the same name, the international thriller is set at the height of the Cold War years of the mid-20th Century. George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a disgraced British spy, is rehired in secret by his government – which fears that the British Secret Intelligence Service, a.k.a. MI-6, has been compromised by a double agent working for the Soviets. Opens in Theaters: Dec 9, 2011 to a limited  release.

Trailer: www.emanuellevy.com/?attachment_id=47402

The Script


“I’m unpredictable with my career moves; something comes up and I’ll feel, ‘This is the right thing to do next. This picture is certainly a big step for me. I’ve been doing films and television for almost 30 years, so it was a big change to work in a different language. But everyone was so helpful.”

Particularly so, he says, were the eyes and ears of the female half of the screenwriting team, Bridget O’Connor, who passed away just as filming began and to whom the finished film is dedicated. Alfredson reflects, “Since I wasn’t interested in doing it like the usual thriller, talking with Bridget about her interpretation and having her female eye on it was important. These men had to make use of their feminine sides and abilities. I needed that different perspective, and she helped me get it.”

Researching the Era

Alfredson remembered the 1979 miniseries, which he had watched growing up in Sweden. He recalls, “When it aired, streets were empty; everybody was watching it. The story concerned something going on that was involving and affecting the whole world, but it had nothing of the 007 style about it — it was quite different from that, almost everyday, which made it extremely interesting.”

The director’s subsequent research into the era only intrigued him all the more. He elaborates, “What many people don’t now realize is that, as a spy, you did your assignment and that was all you knew. It could be, working in a shop in Vienna for a year and writing down who goes in and who goes out of a door on the other side of the street; to do that, you would have had to learn German for months prior.

“Then you would get back and never know what it meant, but you had served your country. All you could say to family and friends was that you had been on a business trip. If you’re in such an existence too long, you can fall prey to lies and paranoia. What does it do to your morale?”

The director concedes that because le Carré’s novel “is such a cornerstone of British literature”, he did feel some pressure in taking on the assignment. “It’s scary to handle material of this magnitude,” he admits.

“But you have to put that aside. If you are daring to do the job, you need to have strong connections to the material. I suppose I understand George Smiley’s soul in some way. When I first met John le Carré, there was a very strong personal connection. It felt like I understood what he was expecting from a film, and I was very surprised that was so generous and open. Not only in terms of sharing information and details with us for hours at a time, but also in terms of how he said, ‘Make interesting reflections of yourself.’ So I set out to try to make the images I saw in the book, and the humanity of the characters, come to the screen.”

In his research, Alfredson was fascinated to learn that “there was a lot of homosexuality in this world. At that time in Britain, it was not accepted, and there were spies and agents who could not be open about their sexuality because they could then be blackmailed. So Bridget and Peter were able to delve into this in the adaptation.”

Connection to the Story

To the director, the story particularly resonates and reverberates with “eternal and dramatic questions of friendship, betrayal, and loyalty.

“Also, as we’ve now reached a little distance from the Cold War era, we can look at what happened; were the bad guys truly the bad guys? We should know about our shared history, especially this piece that still echoes today.”

Alfredson muses, “There’s also the factor of, ‘I know something that you don’t know.’ Say that, or hint that, to someone, and you’ve got their attention and are getting into their head.”