The wintry, weary world of the cold war is revisited with a fresh aesthetic in Tomas Alfredson’s interpretation of the John LeCarre classic novel TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. From the details of the Circus, code name for MI6, British Intelligence headquarters...such as the use of glass desk pads so writing indentations couldn’t be revealed...to the strong, yet underplayed graphic quality of this spy world...the cubicles, square desks, huge recording disks, acoustic foam walls...the period is subtlely referenced, as the cold war goes on both within and without.
Alfredson sums it up with his description of the film’s color palette as ‘smelling of damp tweed’. The Swedish director talks with SET DECOR about this extraordinary film.
Would you tell us about your method, your process of working with the production designer, Maria Djurkovic, and the set decorators, the key set decorator Tatiana MacDonald in the UK, plus Jillie Azis in Turkey and Zsuzsa Mihalek in Hungary?
Well, I’m extremely interested in the individuals and in the sets.
I think you should be open to what comes to you. In this case, we made much of the film in an old military barracks [Inglis Barracks in Mill Hill, North London]. Maria and I went through all the 60-70 buildings there and discovered the possibilities. We said, ‘Maybe this could be an apartment for him, or her…or maybe this could be George’s office, or the hotel room’…or whatever it was, and we sort of tried to go with the flow and not try to change what was there, but to actually use it.
And of course we collected a lot of images, color palettes, situations, stills…1000s of them! We had a huge room dedicated for images that we put up.
For inspiration, for reference, for directions in which to go?
Yes! And if we found something, we put it up on the wall. We sat together all the different people discussing stuff and it was really an open and collaborating process. And we had a team that did 3-dimensional models…of even the existing rooms. So I could play around with them at home. And I like to be economical…I want to put as much money as possible in front of the camera, so if we just needed one direction, I asked them just to do that.
To dress just the one wall, or two walls as opposed to all four?
Yes. So we really used that place very economically and in interesting ways. And I think real people’s houses and real locations can give you stuff that you couldn’t imagine yourself. So I always try to be as open as possible to what will happen by coincidence.
Gary Oldman, who plays George Smiley, mentioned how real George’s house felt, which helped him enormously.
That’s a set, completely onstage. We found the exterior first and that sort of established for us where he lived. It was so well made and I was so impressed how much attention and love was put into that set.
You feel it. It looks like a place where someone lives, not visits, and has lived there for a long time.
Yes. That is something you really have to relate to when you do period pieces. This is set in 1973, and in ’73 a gentleman his age would have one or two pieces in his home that are contemporary. Everything else is much older. When they established their home…it might have been late 50s, early 60s when George and Ann built their home. So, especially in those days when people were much poorer, they would keep things longer.
And of the new, there are a couple of abstract pieces…and Bill Haydon [Colin Firth] brings in a small painting…they’re very controlled abstracts, so was there anything symbolic about these particular pieces?
Well there is. As Bill refers to it, the ‘daub’ that he gives to Ann Smiley…he painted it. And at the beginning of the film, in the opening title sequence, you see Smiley looking at it, and that pays off later…even though Ann’s left the home with a new lover, he is hard enough not to throw it out of the house, because it would show him as weak.
Production Designer Maria Djurkovic says, “Tomas is so visually literate…and what he likes is generally not the obvious.”
Well, I like the audience to be given respect, to be treated like grownups. I think you should present suggestions. Maybe there is a woman living in this house, you see in the beginning. There are letters delivered that are put on the mantelpiece. There are a couple of shoes. There are a few make-up things in the mirror in the bedroom, an empty space in the bed. So you create the presence of a person…Is she dead? Or is she at work? Or has she disappeared? What is it about this situation? And you start wondering, ‘What has happened here?’ And you engage. You get into the story. And you get concentrated, and you get on your toes. And I think that is so much more interesting than just everything is decided for you. But, it takes a lot, you know. People have said, ‘I was exhausted after looking at it!’
Yes, there is a contained density. If we jump over to Control’s flat, where he has obviously been working on this tangled conundrum…working intensely, furiously…you get that intensity from the set.
Yes! That was a hard thing to determine at first. We discussed, is this the place Control lives? Would he have all these secrets at home? Or is it a flat that he rents? We decided that this is a secret flat he has. And we wanted to show a person that is almost hysterical in his struggle to find the mole in his organization. And I think he struggles a lot. You can see in [actor] John Hurt’s face that Control is almost drinking himself to death, because I think he is so sad that one of his disciples is a traitor.
And even George is one of the suspects. It’s so heart-breaking to see him see himself.
Oh yes, for George to see the photo of himself when he turns the chess piece around is heart-rending.
The idea about the chess pieces came from me because I hated the idea of having this…the usual board on the wall, with the…you know…And so we tried to do something 3-dimensional of it. And also so that, in the event that he would die, no one else would understand what exactly he was doing there in his little den.
And then, of course, the metaphor with chess.
Yeah, it worked quite well, I thought.
And talking about secret places, there was the hotel room that Smiley had, overlooking the tracks and the coming and going of things.
Yes. We wanted to create a lighthouse. Smiley in the lighthouse looking down.
And then the metaphor, of course, with the tracks, when there is this eureka moment when George clicks, the tracks clicking, changing direction when he understands. We don’t understand, but we could see that George understands something. We called it ‘The Lighthouse’…that he should be a lonely man high up above to have the bird’s eye on the world below.
And it is shot as if he were the lighthouse keeper, a long view looking up at him through the small window…another wrenchingly compelling moment. Colin Firth says, ‘Tomas is very good at nuance. In keeping the camera moving from, say, the other side of a piece of glass, you get the sense that this is a world where someone is always looking in.’
Well, I wanted to sort of pervert the connection, the audio-visual connection, because it’s shot from very long distances and compressed with the long lens as if it were like someone peeping. But at the same time, you hear the voices totally clearly, as if you were actually in the room. It’s quite worrying to look at that. Most people today, they understand that, okay this is CGI or this is tricks, but those kind of tricks people aren’t especially aware of, and they work really effectively. And they are quite easy to accomplish if you know what you’re aiming for. We tried to create the camera as if it were a third person in the room…more of a voyeur.
That certainly applied to the hotel interiors in Turkey. We’re watching the windows across the street…a full action scene framed through different windows…was this actually filmed on location?
The interior of the hotel in Turkey was a composite. We staged the whole scene, because I wanted it to be a little like a filmstrip. So it was totally created. It was shot in London, but the surroundings are from Istanbul. That was a lot of fun to create, that panorama.
And then there’s the intricate world of the Circus, MI6 headquarters.
The actual MI6 in those days was, as described to me, a closed building in so many ways. Corridors with closed doors. People sitting behind those closed doors. I knew that wouldn’t be very interesting on film.
So what we needed to do was to create an interpretation of the functions of the building, the different levels of hierarchy, and make it believable…take the audience through a low-tech world, yet also rendering enough mechanical advances to be modern for the time period.
On the top floor of the Circus building it is quieter. That’s where the barons sit. We’ve created these soundproof cubes standing in this ‘open’ landscape, where they have their secret meetings. The lower you get in the building, the more crowded it is, including with the filing. All the way, the windows are blocked.
As John LeCarre said, ‘It’s a secret world within a world.’
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 he 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.