It wasn’t until the film was actually a hit that the filmmakers of 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy could accept they’d succeeded in their mission to make John Le Carre’s classic novel into a movie.
“When we got the final edit, it was like, ‘I think this is great, but I don’t think anyone else is going to go and see it because it’s supposed to be a spy thriller and it’s just people talking all the time’,” says screenwriter Peter Straughan, who co-wrote the movie with the late Bridget O’Connor.
“I remember it was quite tough to polish it,” adds director Tomas Alfredson, who as a Swede had a useful outsider’s perspective on this very British of stories.
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“It was a big, rough, grey block of stone quite late into the process until we got it shining. I think it was a very happy process, the prepping and the shooting. But the editing was bumpier.”
Luckily, the film was an award-winning smash and we’re talking to the writer and director as it celebrates its 10th anniversary with its first ever release on 4K (available now). But back in 2011, cynicism was high when it was announced a cinematic version of the thriller was being made. It had a dense, exposition-heavy plot about a mole inside the secret service (known in Le Carré’s books as ‘The Circus’) and had already been turned into an iconic Seventies miniseries starring Sir Alec Guinness.
“We did feel the scariness of that, because everyone kept telling us that!” laughs Straughan. “The bar was 'don’t besmirch the family name'.”
“I think I was quite open with everyone involved that this was not my special interest or my special area,” says Alfredson, who at the time was best known for his innovative vampire movie Let The Right One In.
“But I think when I read the book I saw it was a lot about a lonely man carrying secrets and the lonely mess that goes with it. That was the emotional value that I felt I could connect with. The rest I had very good help with, filling in the blank spots.”
Casting was key and the filmmakers assembled a stellar line-up of British and European talent including Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch. But casting the lead — the owlish, low-key hero George Smiley — proved tricky.
“He’s supposed to be a very anonymous character and that is a bit problematic for a movie star,” says Alfredson. “He is supposed to be anonymous, but you cannot have a boring actor or a boring face. I remember it took quite a while to come up with this idea [of Gary Oldman as Smiley].”
“My memory of it is there was a big pause while we tried to think who Smiley was,” continues Straughan. “But we weren’t going out to lots of people. I think Gary was the only person we went out to. I think it’s like ‘who the hell’s it going to be?’ and scratching of heads and once Gary’s name came up, everyone’s like, ‘oh yeah that’s going to work’.”
Oldman did face one barrier – he was a bit too slim. But that was easily fixed.
“He ate a lot of puddings. Called it his Smiley belly,” says Straughan.
Getting the spycraft right was one of the main challenges of the production and for help, Alfredson turned to the source.
“We did meet a couple of people who would help us out with details, like Mr Cornwell, also known as Monsieur Le Carré,” he says. “He helped us out a lot, like how letterheads would look like and what offices would be. But we didn’t want to bother him too much.”
And if you thought something like a Royal premiere was high-pressure, imagine what it must have been like to show Tinker Tailor… to a group full of ex-spooks.
“We had a screening before the [film opened] at MI6,” says Alfredson. “It was quite moving to see those old guys because there were a lot of veterans there to watch the film and they were in tears afterwards, remembering the years of the Cold War. That was quite a cool thing to have done.”
Released in September 2011, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy quickly gathered awards momentum. It was nominated for three Oscars and won two BAFTAS, for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best British Film. Inevitably, with a series of books at their disposal, the producers’ thoughts immediately turned to sequels.
“They did ask me quite close after we released the first film to do the next one and I said I was very interested to do that but I needed to do something else in between,” says Alfredson.
Straughan even got as far as writing a script for follow-up Smiley’s People.
“Yeah, there is [a script],” he reveals. “But because of timing things it ended up getting caught in a legal question mark.”
A decade on however, in the era of IP, there is a plan to delve further into the Smiley universe.
“They’re considering launching a great big 10-year, multiple drama series version of Smiley with all the books,” says Straughan. “And I think I’ll be involved in some way with that. That would be TV – I suspect the window of opportunity for a film version of Smiley’s People may have passed now.”
But talking about Tinker Tailor… ten years later, does it feel like there is some kind of vindication from that initial scepticism? Like they knew they were right all along?
“I don’t think we knew that we were correct all the way along,” admits Straughan.
“It’s so sensitive this kind of film,” adds Alfredson. “There’s thousands of small pieces you have to understand and piece together. It was a bit surprising.”
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is available digitally from 6 December and then available to own on 4K UHD (for the first time ever) on 20 December.