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

Spring TV sopranos Mystery Television Academy TruTV ratings dragons Rock Drama VH1 PBS prank Sundance Winter TV rotten movies we love Baby Yoda WarnerMedia Spike Lifetime Christmas movies Hallmark Christmas movies Black Mirror technology comics strong female leads Comic-Con@Home 2021 Universal Toys target RT21 Best Picture joker History Television Critics Association HBO rt labs sequels miniseries Nominations 24 frames Amazon Prime Tarantino summer preview Starz Legendary SXSW nfl disaster golden globe awards directors Alien RT History historical drama ID game of thrones justice league See It Skip It VICE cancelled TV shows black comedy breaking bad psycho obituary period drama YouTube Red spy thriller parents composers facebook The Walt Disney Company Creative Arts Emmys DirecTV rom-coms worst movies Cartoon Network worst Pop TV feel good Marvel live action Masterpiece Image Comics italian Emmys harry potter The Walking Dead hidden camera dark Mary Poppins Returns Acorn TV Set visit Women's History Month MTV batman 90s marvel comics NYCC jamie lee curtis Awards Tour TV Land BET indiana jones Epix crime thriller canceled TV shows YA Rom-Com child's play 72 Emmy Awards reviews Best Actress Premiere Dates Tomatazos Podcast New York Comic Con BBC Fargo USA Network Song of Ice and Fire universal monsters streaming Spectrum Originals teaser Holiday IMDb TV classics ABC Family TV movies halloween political drama mcc theme song Paramount Pictures Dark Horse Comics romance dc politics Oscar Disney+ Disney Plus animated Stephen King rotten Apple TV+ Disney Plus rt archives royal family Star Trek true crime Anna Paquin DC Comics Nat Geo Heroines HBO Go HFPA natural history sequel toronto reboot Brie Larson Musicals remakes A24 comic quibi critics Chernobyl legend canceled laika french Amazon TV criterion obi wan action-comedy Elton John FX on Hulu Thanksgiving franchise heist movie zero dark thirty stoner Ellie Kemper Turner Classic Movies ESPN FOX olympics APB christmas movies satire aliens richard e. Grant hollywood telelvision Funimation golden globes Fall TV vampires Best Director Rocketman Musical spider-man Columbia Pictures ABC Marathons adenture binge Lionsgate streaming movies robots talk show posters Mudbound book adaptation The Witch Awards pirates of the caribbean suspense Pop SXSW 2022 movies festivals versus war MSNBC Netflix Christmas movies jurassic park cancelled television news nbcuniversal cinemax comiccon Western Election wonder woman Superheroe name the review marvel cinematic universe serial killer sitcom Tumblr archives cars james bond 73rd Emmy Awards 007 new star wars movies aapi USA E3 sag awards Ovation TCM Wes Anderson toy story japanese Schedule comic book movie fresh psychological thriller Showtime spanish language streamig Music dogs documentary Nickelodeon TBS NBA TNT superhero trailers adventure President The Academy cancelled TV series travel Video Games BBC One TV One 2015 screenings superman 71st Emmy Awards Sundance Now Crackle based on movie PlayStation hispanic anthology discovery Trivia monster movies debate DC Universe CBS All Access die hard children's TV AMC Plus Martial Arts Extras basketball adaptation summer TV football Family Bravo supernatural Paramount Plus women cops Avengers trophy social media Focus Features Apple TV Plus genre Exclusive Video comic books godzilla Sundance TV TCA 2017 slashers 2016 45 broadcast Pacific Islander MCU Year in Review Opinion Film Disney Oscars anime Holidays Endgame spain SundanceTV Classic Film chucky VOD foreign spinoff dexter Interview festival PaleyFest Hulu GIFs GLAAD art house Fox News Comic Book transformers docudrama Christmas twilight Certified Fresh king arthur TCA Hallmark Mary poppins Marvel Studios Travel Channel slasher blockbuster finale summer TV preview Syfy dceu hist FX video unscripted series El Rey book Red Carpet new york elevated horror Lifetime LGBTQ Peacock Ghostbusters FXX Teen DGA Hollywood Foreign Press Association boxoffice 2018 Arrowverse black high school cooking Warner Bros. Quiz scary movies 2019 TIFF international Biopics biography independent Country tv talk video on demand doctor who Discovery Channel Photos cancelled American Society of Cinematographers mission: impossible crime drama Academy Awards Sneak Peek documentaries Pride Month Apple television DC streaming service diversity Tokyo Olympics free movies Best and Worst Britbox renewed TV shows hispanic heritage month dreamworks Esquire halloween tv OneApp movie Instagram Live Reality Best Actor singing competition Trailer HBO Max Black History Month casting Disney streaming service CMT Summer Mindy Kaling Character Guide Tubi boxing screen actors guild TLC Captain marvel Mary Tyler Moore Action TCA Awards cartoon Prime Video IFC Films 99% asian-american Turner live event Kids & Family 2020 werewolf Pixar Amazon Studios Universal Pictures Logo Winners 79th Golden Globes Awards mutant zombies scene in color South by Southwest Film Festival 4/20 Shudder new zealand ITV gangster San Diego Comic-Con Emmy Nominations docuseries what to watch science fiction medical drama Reality Competition saw romantic comedy BAFTA 93rd Oscars National Geographic Food Network know your critic Shondaland concert 21st Century Fox Cannes Trophy Talk Vudu The CW young adult Animation Comics on TV Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Fantasy razzies ViacomCBS IFC kids GoT blockbusters leaderboard Super Bowl indie BET Awards Infographic a nightmare on elm street vs. Pirates scary MGM Superheroes Calendar kong comic book movies police drama australia E! sports scorecard Watching Series Amazon Prime Video green book Disney Channel Countdown award winner critic resources kaiju popular 1990s spanish cats witnail Horror Comedy Central Comedy Paramount YouTube Premium crime nature Sony Pictures deadpool blaxploitation zombie comedies Valentine's Day SDCC The Arrangement Tags: Comedy mob films Marvel Television BBC America Polls and Games Crunchyroll OWN CBS Fox Searchlight latino venice emmy awards A&E space crossover Cosplay WGN king kong Broadway lord of the rings First Reviews fast and furious CW Seed Pet Sematary YouTube stop motion First Look NBC Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt dramedy Writers Guild of America all-time 2021 Paramount Network Lucasfilm Adult Swim cults 2017 Box Office rt labs critics edition Binge Guide ghosts AMC 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards X-Men CNN Rocky best Sci-Fi stand-up comedy The Purge Hear Us Out Film Festival LGBT revenge Grammys south america mockumentary 94th Oscars game show TCA Winter 2020 ABC Signature Walt Disney Pictures 20th Century Fox Freeform thriller Neflix TV renewals japan spider-verse biopic Netflix Star Wars