OUR KIND OF TRAITOR, based on a John Le Carré novel, couldn’t have a more timely arrival. With Brexit giving focus on the British economy, here is a spy-thriller centered on the stakes of high finance and those complicit in international money laundering. That’s what propels the plot, but the deepest story is of two men, and a deeply rooted sense of honor…
While on holiday in Marrakech to repair their marriage, an English couple, Perry [Ewan McGregor] and Gail [Naomie Harris], befriend a flamboyant and charismatic Russian, Dima [Stellan Skarsgård], who unbeknownst to them is a kingpin money launderer for the Russian mafia.
When Dima asks for their help to deliver classified information to the British Secret Services in order to save his family, Perry and Gail get caught in a dangerous world of international espionage, financial exploitation and dirty politics. The couple is propelled on a perilous journey through Paris, Switzerland and the French Alps, to the murky corners of the City of London and an alliance with the British Government via a ruthless and determined MI6 agent [Damian Lewis].
Helmed by acclaimed director Susanna White, this taut thriller twists and turns its way around the world with dramatic consequences.
“Visually it is an incredible world in terms of location, and intellectually it is very challenging,” she says. “I was very lucky that I got this incredible team with whom to explore those incredible ideas. The great thing about doing le Carré is that everyone wants to work on it, so we were able to get real A-listers in terms of heads of departments to come on board.” Those A-listers are Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle, Production Designer Sarah Greenwood, Set Decorator Katie Spencer SDSA and Costume Designer Julian Day.
The rich textural world of OUR KIND OF TRAITOR is established from the outset and keeps building deep contrasts throughout, which White talks about in conversation with SET DECOR.
SET DECOR: Congratulations on this very modern, sumptuous approach to a Le Carré tale. It’s a fast-paced, adrenalin-pumping, gorgeous film!
Director Susanna White: Thank you! Shooting in 5 countries like that was equally fast-paced and physically challenging at times because of it!
SET DECOR: You were wise to choose Sarah and Katie as collaborators – they’re so creative, and courageous in their creativity, and they have a great sense of fun!
SW: They’re the best, aren’t they? They’re an inspiring pair.
SET DECOR: Would you tell us a little about your method of working with them in bringing all this about?
SW: Absolutely. I wanted to make the movie very contemporary. Other than the film THE CONSTANT GARDENER, the depiction of Le Carre’s books tend to be very much in the world of the past, the Cold War world. The thing that drew me to this script originally was that it felt like it was telling such a modern story of a couple who are in crisis…because they both had careers and the wife was more successful than the husband…and also a very contemporary story of the international money laundering, a very modern Russia, as opposed to Cold War Russia. So it was important to me that the movie was in a different space from those other Le Carre’s, that it felt very contemporary, very of this time.
And when I met with Sarah, she completely identified with that, and I knew she could take it to a really exciting place. Also, whereas in the past the Le Carré movies tended to be very much in a world of dark periods and alleyways, I wanted this to feel like this was out in the world in huge landscapes. And the first thing Sarah said to me was that she thought that most of the budget should go into the locations, that the locations should be stars of the film.
So we did huge amounts of location scouting and shooting. Technically that was very complicated, just because of the distances, and because of the availability of the DP Anthony Mantle in the early stages. He’s a phenomenal DP, but he was just coming off another movie, which made it very challenging in practical terms, because often we would find a location and immediately be into the tech recce, and then shooting without a lot of time to plan. It’s not like shooting in a studio space where you can kind of wander around, look at your shots and weigh things up. We were always moving! If we got on a train to go to Paris, we would shoot a scene. If we got on a train to go to Switzerland, we would shoot a scene. It was quite demanding in that sense.
So it was very important that we were all clear and very much on the same page about what we wanted the look of the film to be, because often some decisions had to be taken on trust.
For example, I’d been up in the mountains in France shooting the big helicopter scene…we had to wait for the dawn light to shoot that...and then we had to immediately come off the mountain and drive about 200 miles to Marseilles to catch a plane to fly to Morocco. The first AD wanted to keep us on the nights schedule, because we’d been shooting nights in France and we were going to be on a week of nights in Morocco. And as I came off the mountain at like 7:00 in the morning, the AD said to me, “Um, I‘ve just had a call from Sarah Greenwood, and we’ve lost the location in Morocco for the restaurant. So when we land at 1:00 in the morning in Marrakesh, we need to go on a tech scout.”
We were so tired, and we were looking at the restaurant where Ewan McGregor as Perry meets Stellan Skarsgaard as Dima, a key scene. We actually ended up with a better location, but I was having to make those instant choices like at 2:00 in the morning, having just come off a massive shoot in France, about how I was going to shoot a scene a couple of days later. Thankfully, Sarah and Katie were, as always, on top of it.
It was a very challenging shoot, technically, for those reasons – things were so widespread, you know. And I had to just believe in the talent I had.
SET DECOR: Well, you had the right ones!
SW: I certainly did, didn’t I? I think they gave it a very strong look.
SET DECOR: Absolutely. The contrasts were wonderful and there was a richness, no matter where it was. As you said, it’s not the greys of the previous films. It has that very modern feel, even with the scenes set in old world opulence. Sarah and Katie are great about bringing about the gold-leafed baroque look, but they’re equally great at creating an avant-garde Brutalism and very crisp, modern look as well.
SW: Exactly. And I knew that’s what I’d get from them. I love what they did in the decadent party house in Morocco. The lighting effects in there are fabulous. And just in the very basic choices like the right lamp, the right chair, everything. Their taste is impeccable.
Another one I really, really love is the signing scene in Bern at the Swiss bank, where Stellan Skarsgard/Dima has to sign away the money…and perhaps his life. They constructed a table for that, a long glass table with a long brass lamp down the center. I thought they did such a fabulous job with that and utilizing the presence of those illuminated elevators in the scene. It’s very subtle. It doesn’t shout out, “Look at me. Look at my set.” It’s just incredibly stylish and exciting, their choices.
SET DECOR: A perfect contrast to the signing scene in Russia in style, and yet they’re both exuding power and wealth.
SW: Yes! And we talked about getting as you say, the baroque look with all this gold for the Russian ballet/opera house sets where the signing and parties take place. Those scenes were shot at the Foreign Office in London, and the ballet stage was actually in a theater in London, the Drury Lane Theatre Royal, where they’re staging CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.
We had this small amount of space in that theater. I knew I wanted to start the movie on that very strong image of Carlos Acosta, the dancer. I felt it just needed to be about him suspended in the air, this image of masculinity suspended.
SET DECOR: It was exquisite.
SW: Thank you! You know, although the daughter and wife of Dima’s friend are in the box seats watching the ballet dancer, that shot is from a dancer’s point of view, because it’s all about him, what he represents. I wanted the sense of a theater and the dancer in a pure, abstract way. And Sarah completely got that. She totally understood where I was coming from there. Because we had only a tiny amount of space in front of the CHARLIE set, we built just those snowy trees [as a screen]. And I knew that was enough, since I wanted that sequence to be very abstract.
So it’s just a suggest of these snowy wastes of Russia, which we then go into quite soon afterwards when the girl is murdered in the snow, which we shot in the deep snow in Finland. The producers wanted us to just shoot that south of London with some fake snow, but I said, “I’ve got to have these vast expanses of snow and ice lakes, because it’s selling Russia.” And Sarah was a huge ally in supporting going to Finland, which admittedly was expensive, but we both strongly felt was essential to the film.
SET DECOR: Two of their films that we covered, ANNA KARENINA and HANNA have incredible snow scenes, so she does have that eye for it.
SW: Yes she does! And that was one of the things I knew. I loved what she did on HANNA and that was another reason I wanted her, because I knew she would get my whole idea of doing Russia. In truth, anything Sarah does is going to be pretty brilliant, because she’s so clever.
SET DECOR: Yes, and Katie’s going to fill in amazing details, that fit perfectly…and then there’s always that bit of an extra twist that doesn’t take your mind out of the film but adds a depth.
SW: Exactly. Like little things like in the first signing, in the top of the film in that gold space, just the detail of the blotter, the stuff on the table. It said “Russia,” it said “opulence” in a very graphic way. Even things like the detail of the pens or the gun, the pearl-handled gun, which becomes very important in the movie as a symbol. She’d bring me choices, but I would almost always identify with the first thing she brought, because her instincts were always so good.
SET DECOR: Well, to go back to your budget, Katie did mention, “Budget meetings in the back of a small, low-budget aircraft seem to be an abiding memory…”!
SW: [Laughing] We did! There was no luxury on this, I can tell you. Every dollar ended up on screen. On screen, we were having that gleaming luxurious, private airport with private jets. That was the opposite to the experience of making the movie, which I think looks more expensive than it was.
SET DECOR: Katie also mentioned that one of her favorite sets was the contemporary interior of the Russian bad boys’ lair in Paris, the towers projects.
SW: And that was a build, because it was so dangerous, the real place.
SET DECOR: That’s a Paris we don’t know at all. It was quite revealing.
SW: We fell in love with it driving around on a scout. We were taken to look at places that were much more generic, and I think Sarah and I spotted it at the same moment, these round towers with multi-colored camo on them—they’re like camouflage-print apartment blocks. They’re extraordinary, like somebody had an idea in a very French way that you could make housing projects a work of art and it would improve people’s lives by living in them. But, actually, sadly, the lives of those people living there were not great. We went to scout an apartment, to use as our reference for what we would build, and when we looked out the window, there was like a crystal meth factory in the next apartment. So we constructed our version in London!
I loved what they did with that set—those white leather sofas and the wallpaper. And all the detail, that’s another Katie thing…the detail of those toys in the windowsill, the weirdness about it and that giant TV. It was so truthful, they just hit it.
SET DECOR: Absolutely. You mentioned details—how can we not talk about the crystal tent/pavilion at the party at the Marrakech villa!
SW: Oh my god, that was so wonderful! Yeah, because the thing I think I had said to Sarah early on was, “I want a real sense of the opulence of the oligarchs and gold and sparkle.” And they took that note in a huge way! [Laughter] I think that they hand built all those things…
SET DECOR: Yes, we understand that Katie arranged with Swarovski to obtain the crystal drapes elements used in the Oscars®ceremony staging and they created the double-peaked tent from those…
SW: And the camel! I’d already come up with the idea of the girl on the horse for the first party, the one were Perry does the cocaine…I just wanted all of these sort of surreal over-the-top images of the oligarchs, and I had a reference photo I had found of this girl in hot pants on a horse.
So at one point, I said, “Oh! What if Dima gives Natasha a camel for her birthday?” And then they came up with this incredible harness, which, again, they made.
It looks fantastic, doesn’t it? Fantasy-fantastic, that party with all of the sparkle and the detail!
SET DECOR: Speaking of Marrakech, Sarah had mentioned that it was great to do Marrakech for Marrakech, modern-day. Usually, it’s period pieces shot there.
SW: Yes, and we were so excited to discover the contemporary house for the first party. However, there were some problems accessing it because it actually was used for real crazy parties, overtly rich people’s crazy parties. We always had a nightmare trying to scout it because whenever we arrived, there were still people in there partying. So, it was tough that one, but somehow, we achieved it, and the look they created there was perfect!
SET DECOR: And then you have the busy, teeming street scenes as well that were very contemporary, very real.
SW: And you know the assistant directors had their work cut out, managing crowds! But those were the choices that we made, that we didn’t want some kind of sealed off, hermetic Marrakech. We wanted the real thing. And so we were, yeah, we were right in the thick of it. It was crazy!
SET DECOR: Wow. Then you had the opposite sort of thing, the use of these large, even cavernous spaces for meetings between just a few people, like the shuttered Bloomsbury windowed chamber, or that contemporary huge square/oblong conference table in a huge empty room with nothing but the table and a portrait of the Queen…
SW: That was shot at the Trades Union Congress in London, which is a beautiful building, and, again, we wanted this sense of the scale of the establishment. This idea in the story, really, is that Britain had lost its way in many aspects since the loss of its empire, and it’s trying to find, to negotiate its position in the world. And the Russians are wielding a lot more power than the British, and Britain needs that Russian money to keep the City of London ticking over. So it was sort of a retro choice there, you know, with that picture of the Queen, the only detail in the entire room is that picture of the Queen on the wall…
SET DECOR: Here are just a few people trying to do the right thing, and the symbolism of it being in the cavernous, almost overpowering world…
SW: Exactly, exactly. So, as you say, we deliberately chose huge spaces of people being overpowered by the situation, really.
SET DECOR: In contrast, peoples’ homes give us insight into those characters. So we have MI6 spy Hector’s nemesis the corrupt and very successful MPAubrey Longrigg’s house …
SW: Right, which is grand on a huge British, Georgian scale—very wealthy, very elegant…
SET DECOR: Hector’s flat, with the floor to ceiling windows – interesting that his character, a secret service agent, would have this open, windowed space…
SW: Exactly! And again, Katie brought in lots of great detail…his vinyl collection, the stuff he reads, a great lamp…all in sort of a mid-century modern look, but with a warmth to it.
The other really important space is the Alpine cabin. I had a lot of Tarkovsky references for that section of the film when they flee to the mountains. I wanted it to feel really pastoral. Even though they’re in the most danger, it’s actually the moment the family is happiest, because they’re rid of all their material wealth and they’re back to a very simple way of life in the mountains.
We found an ideal cabin in the mountains in France, but the interior was completely wrong, so we built an interior in London. We wanted the cabin to feel very simple—simple lines, rustic, all of the set dressing, even the food on the table, almost a still life in some ways. It’s like here are a few very simple pleasures. Now Dima has time to play with those children, even though things are closing in on them.
Again, there’s a kind of pastoral beauty that looks back to Tarkovksy films and that influenced the lighting choices and the composition and little things, like the mirror on the wall when Luke answers the phone.
And the other thing that was important to us was the presence of these overhanging mountains. I loved the way that scene between Natasha and Dima plays against the mountains. And you feel the way these big clouds, big sky and big mountains are kind of closing in on people’s fate. So I think nature is very important to the film, too, in that sense.
SET DECOR: Yes, just as the early scenes in the snow. And speaking of nature and snow, how was weather for you? We noticed a few scenes with rain, but they certainly worked.
SW: Well, we were a little unlucky with snow, because we planned to film in this particular area in Finland where there was this amazing very, very heavy snow that hung on the trees, and then the night before we shot, that snow blew away, in the way that happens in movies. [She laughs.] So we had to go with the other location we had, which I also loved. It looks huge and beautiful and we did find one section of birch trees where there were drifts of snow, where the murder happens. But, not too unkind, the weather. I mean, obviously, just massive contrasts—we’re going from Artic snow and cold Alpine mountains to blistering heat in Morocco and then English rain, fairly reliable English rain. [She says wryly.]
SET DECOR: Were there any surprises in the sets that just really worked for you? Or have we already talked about them?
SW: Basically, to be honest, just about every set I walked onto, I went, “Wow.” Particularly with the dressing, I think, because you go in and you scout a space and then it’s totally transformed.
In this situation, it wasn’t like the sets were up a few days before, so I would walk on to the set the day/night of the shoot and would be discovering things! I must say, there were times on this movie when I was thankful that I had originally a background in documentaries, because there were a lot of times where I was responding to what I was seeing and immediately incorporating into the shot or the characterizations.
I think the most wow set to me was that very beautiful set we already talked about where the signing is at the bank in Switzerland. I thought that was really sensational, what Katie brought to that with Sarah. And we talked about the weird flat in Paris, which, again, the detailing was so brilliant.
And the other one that really took my breath away was the opening… that gilded huge signing in Russia that we filmed in the UK. When I walked in there, I was amazed, because they’d taken a space that was a kind of stuffy London space and just transformed it into Russia. And that’s so exciting to see.
You know, you discuss things in the abstract, and you look at all the reference photos, and you agree on something. But those two are so clever that they just gave us breathtaking sets to work on. That’s what I loved about them, because I would have ideas and they would just elevate them. And whatever angle you shot from, it worked somehow. They were very joyful spaces to work in.