Director Tomas Alfredson on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The director of Let the Right One In talks about his latest film, the slow-burn espionage thriller starring Gary Oldman as John le Carré's iconic spy.

by | December 8, 2011 | Comments

Though he’s been directing films in his home country since the early ’90s, Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson came to the attention of mainstream genre audiences with 2008’s Let the Right One In, an exquisitely pitched coming-of-age horror piece that also happened to be one of the finest films of the decade. For his follow-up, Alfredson has — somewhat curiously — directed an adaptation of John le Carré’s classic espionage novel Tinker Tailor Solder Spy, about a retired British operative (Gary Oldman) called back into the clandestine world of MI6 to flush out a Soviet double-agent. Like his previous film, Alfredson’s latest is another chilling evocation of period — this time an oppressively drab London in 1973 — and features a performance by Oldman so meticulously insular it’s quite unlike anything the actor’s done before. We spoke to Alfredson recently about the film.

How did you arrive at Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? I’m guessing you would have been offered a lot of horror films after the success of Let the Right One In.

Tomas Alfredson: Yes — and I can’t blame people for that, because they don’t know about my previous work. It was a little strange, the situation, because I’ve been directing films and stage plays and television for 20 years before that, and suddenly to experience this change quite late in my career was confusing — and I wasn’t sure if that was a dream come true. I didn’t know, really, in what direction to turn. So I decided to work with theater for a while, and do something else. The making of Let the Right One In was very demanding, and in many ways very unhappy, because back home it was a film that nobody would touch when it was finalized. The distributor wasn’t interested; the theater owners didn’t believe in it; the financiers disappeared. It was sort of put away in a cupboard for 10 months, so it was like… I thought I did a flop. And I loved it; I had invested so much time and love into it, so I was so disappointed about that. And then it started — before it actually opened in Sweden — it was shown in festivals here and there, and the success story of it started.

So I was very confused by that. I read hundreds of scripts [afterwards], but they didn’t really interest me. Then one day, this. I think it was my manager that heard that Working Title, the production company, had retrieved the rights to Tinker Tailor and, oh, I remember those gray men [laughs] from the TV series from the ’70s — I thought, “Yeah, that sounds interesting.” And I met with them, and Mr. le Carré himself, and I think that those meetings made me want to do it — and the material, of course.

Is it true that John le Carré saw Let the Right One In and said “Hire this guy”?

Maybe! I have to ask. John le Carré is a very open-minded person, and he’s very updated. I don’t know any 80-year-old guy who is so updated with everything. He reads everything. He’s informed. He has the telephone number to anyone. And he sees everything that’s presented in theaters and on television. But I haven’t asked him.

There’s a similarity to the secretive, almost suffocating worlds of the main characters in Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor — is that a dimension of stories that appeals to you?

I think it’s people who look differently on the outside to how they look on the inside — that’s what interests me; and I think, maybe, that is a description of myself in many ways. It’s quite hard to describe why you want to do something. It’s just something that happens. The less you know about those things the better, I think; you can peek into that too much, your inner mechanisms. I think filmmaking is 95 per cent exactly the same for any filmmaker — it’s that last five per cent that you shouldn’t investigate too much.

What’s your personal relationship to this British espionage world? You were growing up in Sweden at the time the movie is set. What are your memories of the Cold War?

Well the espionage world I don’t know anything about, except the things you’ve seen on TV, but we were very close to the Cold War and we lived even closer to the Iron Curtain. Sweden was a very strange mixture of this social democratic rule and old feudal monarchy, so there are a lot of cultural connections to the British in many ways, in what kind of history we had in the feudal system — which is very unmodern, but still, it’s there. On television there were two state-controlled channels and sometimes there was some import from England or the US. From America it was something tinsel, in color and very glittery, promising a lot; and then there would be something gray, and brown, from the BBC. [Laughs]

You seem to have a gift for capturing the essence of time periods without drawing attention to them. What’s the trick? Not emphasizing very obvious period details?

Yes. It’s like, it’s too easy to put sideburns on everyone and play hit records, you know — all those cheap ways into the hearts of people. I think the period was so much about, not ’73, as this is set in, it’s about the ’60s and ’50s and ’40s — all the periods before that. Because if you would visit someone in a home in 1973 there would be one chair that was bought last year and the rest would be stuff from the ’40s or the ’50s. Too often people always sort of push the volume to 10 when they’re doing period stuff. But, it’s of course a lot of fun to do it, and revisit — especially if you have experienced it yourself. I have very clear memories myself. I visited London for the first time when I was seven or eight, in exactly those years.

And it looked that dreary, huh?

Yeah. [Laughs] I think so.

There’s quite a distinctive shot in the film with graffiti on a wall reading “The Future is Female,” which stood out for me in the context of the movie. Was it a reference to anything?

Yeah, it was Maria [Djurkovic], the production designer, who’s a fantastic person and a fantastic designer. We had this big wall down there and we wanted to do something with it, and she made some graffiti. [Laughs] I thought the line was beautiful; a very nice statement. I know that the art department people were quarreling about it.

Really? It was great because the film is so entrenched in this hermetic, masculine world and then all of the sudden there’s this weird flash of lighting from the future.

Yes! I love it. I thought it was brilliant. [Laughs]

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens in limited release this week, and expands wider next week. Look for our interview with Gary Oldman next week.

Tag Cloud

TBS nfl Arrowverse YouTube cars Podcast royal family Tomatazos cartoon Travel Channel mockumentary Image Comics Music dc tv talk Pop TV Winners LGBT Turner Classic Movies The Walt Disney Company Oscars godzilla renewed TV shows hollywood Showtime football GIFs composers witnail comic ABC Family unscripted quibi BBC streaming movies reboot AMC new zealand Cannes laika ABC Signature IMDb TV zombies Awards Amazon Studios Pixar versus BAFTA thriller criterion documentary ratings spy thriller worst movies Fox Searchlight NBC Marvel Studios Endgame Pet Sematary SXSW The Academy 73rd Emmy Awards streaming CMT President Writers Guild of America Opinion boxoffice Disney+ Disney Plus Nickelodeon Action Tumblr target GLAAD rt labs critics edition WarnerMedia reviews Film Festival Grammys Set visit Exclusive Video 2021 films kaiju Comedy Central Watching Series independent Mystery Black History Month Certified Fresh 71st Emmy Awards Paramount Network Universal Pictures monster movies south america dreamworks telelvision Sci-Fi video CBS All Access Film universal monsters The Arrangement Chernobyl FXX DC streaming service Amazon Prime franchise Drama Crackle E3 Star Trek rotten Britbox Cosplay Esquire TLC critics Year in Review Schedule CNN elevated horror true crime dramedy DC Universe concert harry potter Mindy Kaling ITV legend Spectrum Originals indiana jones zombie 45 child's play Kids & Family Comedy historical drama X-Men VH1 suspense ID jurassic park remakes NBA slashers YouTube Red HBO Go Columbia Pictures die hard nature war Pacific Islander live event wonder woman Horror Peacock Character Guide HBO Max transformers basketball Reality anthology politics vampires ViacomCBS Ovation Food Network ESPN justice league Amazon Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt cancelled TV series hispanic heritage month scorecard Creative Arts Emmys superhero Spring TV Musical Tubi biography Star Wars Disney streaming service Heroines canceled Chilling Adventures of Sabrina RT21 movie TV renewals 1990s TIFF dexter Polls and Games Lifetime best Extras travel American Society of Cinematographers Instagram Live spider-verse classics directors E! psycho Epix pirates of the caribbean HBO cults technology screen actors guild hispanic news Women's History Month spanish Syfy social media Reality Competition kong Infographic comedies archives nbcuniversal Broadway revenge 007 SundanceTV Ghostbusters women canceled TV shows screenings Quiz Cartoon Network hist Summer First Reviews First Look festivals Mudbound Premiere Dates Sundance TV stand-up comedy BBC America FX National Geographic Baby Yoda jamie lee curtis Western Anna Paquin Walt Disney Pictures PaleyFest Christmas rom-coms space razzies cancelled Stephen King 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Amazon Prime Video mutant talk show sitcom Vudu posters TCA Awards theme song Best and Worst Superheroes Fall TV Emmys children's TV The Purge 2019 Nominations diversity 2018 The Walking Dead robots Sundance Now Black Mirror psychological thriller 93rd Oscars Video Games Tarantino WGN international San Diego Comic-Con Disney Channel scary movies RT History DirecTV breaking bad 2020 Musicals parents Holidays name the review worst lord of the rings festival comiccon animated hidden camera TruTV adventure A&E 21st Century Fox Hulu action-comedy Brie Larson Martial Arts The Witch Pop Starz trailers 99% Rom-Com halloween tv Comic Book Disney Plus Interview OneApp MCU Netflix book based on movie IFC Films werewolf feel good cinemax Sneak Peek natural history free movies Tokyo Olympics Apple 2017 sequels popular cancelled TV shows TNT singing competition period drama Elton John DGA french book adaptation james bond indie Lucasfilm Nat Geo Shondaland video on demand Wes Anderson mcc Apple TV Plus series sequel crime thriller dceu police drama italian Spike Avengers new star wars movies toronto game of thrones scene in color crime disaster MTV sag awards spain Turner Super Bowl biopic Rocky Alien finale Teen king kong australia Family boxing Warner Bros. Marvel Television spinoff USA Network Freeform 24 frames IFC binge YA ghosts Paramount Plus History SDCC MSNBC comic books obituary marvel cinematic universe rt archives mob stoner new york Fox News Television Academy medical drama art house Superheroe USA king arthur dogs Holiday game show Animation Comic-Con@Home 2021 spanish language FOX VOD adaptation Binge Guide crossover Mary Poppins Returns romantic comedy debate high school New York Comic Con Bravo Netflix Christmas movies Fantasy what to watch Red Carpet genre 4/20 adenture anime sopranos gangster award winner TV discovery asian-american Ellie Kemper Calendar Masterpiece 90s green book fresh TCA 2017 GoT dragons japanese twilight foreign See It Skip It blaxploitation OWN Shudder Academy Awards 72 Emmy Awards science fiction black black comedy 2015 japan CBS television serial killer docudrama latino stop motion Photos Hear Us Out TCA Disney documentaries El Rey DC Comics joker satire venice superman mission: impossible facebook halloween young adult movies Lifetime Christmas movies Paramount prank Trailer Sony Pictures golden globe awards YouTube Premium fast and furious LGBTQ cops PBS Song of Ice and Fire emmy awards saw Hallmark Christmas movies Television Critics Association Rock Election APB VICE Hallmark PlayStation cancelled television slasher richard e. Grant TV Land Apple TV+ NYCC marvel comics aliens Emmy Nominations 20th Century Fox heist movie ABC political drama Adult Swim Countdown olympics spider-man TCA Winter 2020 Toys critic resources Valentine's Day Lionsgate Comics on TV Mary poppins teaser Pride Month Marathons BET Awards 2016 cats know your critic Sundance Pirates Classic Film strong female leads cooking comics Marvel rotten movies we love Universal Country BBC One Logo crime drama Mary Tyler Moore Rocketman romance Thanksgiving Box Office live action supernatural A24 TV movies BET comic book movies Biopics TCM FX on Hulu Neflix Legendary Trivia batman blockbuster docuseries Awards Tour zero dark thirty vs. Funimation Winter TV The CW Crunchyroll aapi TV One dark chucky rt labs toy story Discovery Channel CW Seed Acorn TV sports Captain marvel Trophy Talk casting a nightmare on elm street christmas movies miniseries Dark Horse Comics comic book movie scary doctor who AMC Plus deadpool kids golden globes blockbusters all-time