Sleuth 2007: Remake or Revamping of Old Play

Nobel Prize-winner Harold Pinter has adapted the new script of Kenneth Branagh’s “Sleuth,” based on Anthony Shaffer’s play.

The Text

A great deal is written about the inviolable nature of the Harold Pinter text, and even more about the author’s refusal to analyze or explain his work. Many of the stories are undoubtedly apocryphal, although it may be true that the young Alan Ayckbourn, then an actor appearing in The Birthday Party, asked Pinter for pointers about his character and received the reply: “Mind your own f***ing business. Just say the lines.”

“What’s extraordinary about Harold’s writing is the ambiguity, he cements something in reality by turn of phrase, in the disjointed nature of conversation, and at the same time, he allow gaps within that for anything to mean anything,” says Jude Law. “As an actor, you can deliver Harold’s lines in any which way. We had so much fun but also such a challenge ahead of us when we realized that 90 per cent of the script could be performed in two, three, sometimes four different ways. Each one worked and each one gave a completely different slant to the scene individually and to the piece as a whole.”

Law continues: “Harold finds something beautiful, eloquent and absolutely descriptive in shorthand and in a very contemporary, at times almost ineloquent style through the mouths of people who don’t know they are being eloquent. I think one of the big surprises about Sleuth will be how funny it is. The humor comes out of the ambiguity and the cruel, sparring quality of the exchanges. There’s also a real under-use of words, playing a situation off understatement.”

“There is something very primal and atavistic about it,” adds Branagh, “A kind of visceral quality of combat. There’s a strong sense of the sexual passion of these two men, of their physical strength channeled through this superficial attempt to be civilized. It’s conversational sparring laced with such charged meaning and cruelty that it makes it riveting. Pinter often has characters say the thing that one would never say, the remark that would end the dinner party or the retirement gathering. You watch, jaw on the floor, embarrassed and hypnotized. It’s very compelling.”

“Harold’s words look very natural and ordinary, almost like Cockney slang, some of them,” says Michael Caine. “They are like little clichd phrases that you heard your mum or dad say, especially if you’re a Londoner, and none of them mean anything until you get to the end of the sentence and suddenly, the menace comes in. It’s extraordinarily difficult to do Pinter and get it right. You look at it and it’s all very ordinary and then it’s very, very, menacing, and very funny in a weird way. When you think of the original play, you think, how could this be rewritten And then you read Pinter, and you say, that’s how it could be rewritten! Why didn’t I think of that!”

“With Sleuth, Harold really seems to have embraced the idea of frightening people,” says Branagh. “With that level of tension running all the way through, he loves tripping you up and offering the odd conversational banana skin for audience and characters. You know you’re in safe hands in terms of his artistic mastery but you’re not remotely in safe hands when it comes to the idea of a comfortable evening’s viewing.”

Power Struggle

“The two men are both in charge at different times; it’s a power struggle, really, and power goes like that–it’s up and down, in and out,” says Pinter. “The point about the film really is that you never know who’s in charge. Sometimes one is in charge, or appears to be in charge, the next time the other fellow appears to be in charge, and is in charge. And then it turns out he’s not in charge. Finally, it is about two men who play a lot of games and pretty sinister ones they are, too. I think they’re quite funny as well. So it’s a question of being both sinister and funny.”

Actors and Characters

Pinter describes the casting of Michael Caine in the role of Andrew as “spot on.” As a producer, Jude Law recognized the many ways in which Caine’s participation was vital to the project. All of the filmmakers immediately appreciated the remarkable appropriateness of Caine taking on the role of Andrew Wyke but initially, only Caine and Pinter knew that the actor had appeared in the author’s first play, The Room, at the Royal Court 50 years earlier (coincidentally, both Pinter and Caine had been students at the Eton of the East End and Hackney Downs Grammar School.

“Caine performing Pinter is a match made in heaven,” says Law. “There’s something incredibly powerful about both men, something humorous, something cutting, something vulnerable. They match each other on many, many levels. Let’s not forget that Michael is the reason a lot of British actors don’t have to hide their accents. His voice, apart from its own tonality, is iconic. And that voice speaking those words is really something very sumptuous and special.”

“Both Michael and Harold have a great gift for this material,” says Branagh. “They have a natural ear for this sort of super-natural dialogue and this almost literally supernatural world. As a screen actor, Michael has infinite layers of subtlety. He’s got great sensitivity as to how to play a line, a word and, most especially, a reaction. His technical awareness of light, camera, shot size and physical geography is pretty impressive. As a piece of acting machinery, Caine is a very sensitive mechanism in the best possible way. You only need tiny variations and the impact is instant.”

Caine is more practical and offhand about his gifts as an actor: “You’ve got to be absolutely relaxed in front of a camera,” he says. “Otherwise, the camera will find you out.” Both Law and Caine appreciated that Pinter began his career as an actor in repertory and has continued to perform on stage and screen (the writer has a cameo in “Sleuth”) and that their director has long been recognized as a brilliant
actor in his own right. “Ken is a marvelous actor so he knows, and he can explain to you in very few words exactly what he wants,” says Caine. “He can even demonstrate if you want him to”


Jude Law

I’ll do a little wager that this is the best performance Jude’s ever given,” says Caine. “We’ve been friends for a while in spite of our age difference and I’ve always liked him as an actor but he’s really surprised even me.”

Branagh concurs: “Jude is a terrific actor with an extremely wide range–think of his performance as Dickie Greenleaf in ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ alongside his performance in ‘Road to Perdition.’ But this script demanded, and got, something new from him that we haven’t seen before. I’m a big fan of him as an actor and also as a person–he’s a generous spirit and a real delight to work with.”

Asked what it was like to watch Caine and Law performing his script on one of his visits during the shoot, Pinter said: “It’s very gratifying and very, very pleasing, particularly when they’re so good and so imaginative and so inventive themselves. They both possess such extraordinary relish which is what I want always in actors who do my stuff.”

Two Guys in a Room

“On one level, you could say Sleuth is two guys in a room–it’s not really, but it might seem that way–says Branagh. “I wasn’t thrown by the limitations of the interiors. I did a piece on television called Conspiracy about the Wannsee Conference where a small group of Nazis began the Holocaust. That was 10 or 15 guys around a table and it was a very riveting drama. So I had recent experience of thinking that it depends who’s written it and what the story is. You have to find the natural way to let the drama unfold and not to say, We must cut! We must do something! The audience will get bored! If you believe in the text, which we all did, you know that you are always going to find a way to enhance or express or amplify it.”

Ken was unshaken by the tiny amount of time we had allowed ourselves, financially, in which to make the film,” says Law. “He didn’t see it as a hurdle but rather as a guideline by which he made incredibly bold and ultimately inspiring decisions very early on about how we were going to shoot the film and how the speed at which we had to shoot it would bring out the energy of the piece. He recognized that the film would benefit from pulling back and letting the performances tell the story. It’s a style of filmmaking I love and one that, unfortunately, we’re moving more and more away from.”

“The original film was shot in 16 weeks so it was quite a lackadaisical affair,” recalls Caine. “This one we shot in under five weeks and the pressure was tremendous. I must say, I think that Ken is the most prepared and inventive director I’ve ever worked with.”
The director welcomed the change of scale from the martial logistics of “The Magic Flute” opera company, orchestra, extras and special effects to Sleuth’s virtual two-hander. “With Sleuth there was an intensity of gaze, an intensity of
focus,” Branagh says. “There was already a very strong energy at work when I signed on. They understood that, across the script and rehearsals and the way to stage it, there was some sort of macro surgery to be done with how we assembled things. It was very different from the broader sweeps of The Magic Flute and a very enjoyable thing to do with people who are at the top of their game.”

“We shot the picture at Twickenham on the same sound stage where I shot Zulu and Alfie, so I was very familiar with the area,” jokes Caine. Branagh credits his collaboration with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos for making the interiors seem like many, many different spaces. They took their cue from Andrew’s love of gadgets (the filmmakers had decided that Wyke would be devoted to the latest digital technology in keeping with the ruthlessly modernized interior of the Georgian mansion that Pinter had specified in one of the very few screen directions in the script).

“We all felt that he was the kind of man who would have hi-tech devices by which his household appliances might be run, doors might open, lights might shift and that this would offer a few things,” says Branagh. “First of all, it offered huge opportunities for the sound scape of the film: the noises that go with the shifting of surveillance cameras, doors opening and closing, elevators moving up and down. Secondly, it would allow for the interior of the house to have a sort of changing installation of light, almost as if Andrew is living in a little version of the Tate Modern and very proud of it. This allowed visually for an enormous amount of variety.”

The impression that Andrew lives in his own private gallery was enhanced by the works of celebrated British contemporary artists Anthony Gormley and Gary Hume which were loaned to the production from Jay Jopling’s White Cube Gallery in London and several unique pieces of furniture, prototypes loaned by the designer, Ron Arad. Production designer Tim Harvey, himself a fine artist, painted several massive canvases for Andrew’s walls and also provided the smaller paintings that Milo vandalises at his host’s urging.

Cinematographer Zambarloukos used LED lighting to support the idea of an ever-changing art installation. “When a great explosion of jealousy occurs, green bursts as a color. When a great explosion of revenge occurs, a great wash of red completely changes things. Suddenly you’re in a hellish, Don Giovanni kind of world,” says Branagh. “We discovered that in a piece like this where you are focusing mainly on two characters (although Harold both presented and implied others) everything counts. Every prop counts, every frame counts. In the first Sleuth, my character lived in a lovely old English country house; you went inside and there was a lovely English country interior, all chintz curtains and cushions and sofas and flowers,” says Caine. “Here it’s a lovely old English country house but you go inside and it’s steel, glass, marble and concrete. Now you’re in Pinter country.”

“Nothing that Pinter does is casual,” says Branagh. “In the script, he makes a very bold assertion about the outside and the inside of the house and how they contrast but I found that the real job in discovering the visual theme was to listen to the text and have that do it for you. There’s a kind of prologue–the first 10 or 12 minutes seemed to me to speak of very wide shots. We were shooting anamorphic so we were in scope, as wide as you can get, and we let the shots play very long. Shakespeare talks all the time about hearing the play and I couldn’t hear a close-up until about 12 minutes into the picture when Michael Caine’s character says, So I understand you’re f***ing my wife. We kept trying to hear moments like that, moments that said, Now this is a close-up or now the camera moves.”

“Ken instinctively understood that we needed to allow this incredible dialogue to remain uninterrupted, maintaining a sense of ambiguity says Jude Law. “He understood how to use the house as another character and the effects in that house as a guide to mood and change of atmosphere. He came to rehearsals incredibly well-prepared, already filled with a sense of how we were going to physically work our way around this mansion. “The whole thing has an Escher quality; hence Tim Harvey’s design which so beautifully physicalizes this world of staircases leading to nowhere, trompe ‘oeil doors, lifts appearing out of thin air. All that gives the sense of a world where you don’t quite know what’s going on, a world in which every corner offers a surprise – there could be something pleasant or there could be something nasty – just like in the brain. There are quite a few half-truths in it and you never quite know where you stand. I think that’s what makes it intoxicating.”