Screen examines the production of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — a British spy story, directed by a Swede and financed by StudioCanal.

Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish director of vampire movie Let The Right One In, was not the obvious choice to make Tinker Tailor Solider Spy for Working Title Films. John le Carré’s spy novel about the hunt for a double-agent at the heart of the British secret service during the grey, chilly days of the Cold War in the early 1970s seemed a very British proposition. Perhaps more of a challenge was that it had already been adapted by the BBC into a much-loved BBC TV series starring Alec Guinness in 1979. The project would be Alfredson’s first time working in English.

But nothing about Alfredson is obvious. “When Tomas came in, I was expecting some sort of young and trendy Swedish guy and in walked a rather portly, big man, not too much younger than myself,” recalls Working Title’s co-founder and one of the film’s producers, Tim Bevan. “He didn’t say too much as one of the things he learned to do through the course of the movie is to talk English. We had a fairly monosyllabic conversation and I really liked him.”

What’s more, the book is rather talky: “There is a lot of yakking in it,” Bevan says cheerfully. Alfredson suggested taking most of the dialogue out, thus making the film very much its own piece, set apart from both the popular novel and the iconic TV series.

The challenge of adaptation

The husband-and-wife writing team of Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan came on board to write the script, at the same time the very experienced Robyn Slovo, whose career includes roles at BBC Films and Company Pictures, joined Bevan and his Working Title partner Eric Fellner as the third of the film’s three main producers.

Peter Morgan, whose original idea it had been to make Tinker Tailor as a film, had delivered an early version of the script. But Working Title decided it was not the way it wanted to go with the film. Morgan retains an executive producer credit.

“Peter had flattened the story out quite a lot and what Tinker Tailor is about is these elliptical stories going on and being rather confusing and then coming together to make some sort of sense in the end,” says Bevan, who knows John le Carré (real name, David Cornwell) a little through one of his sons and recalls staying at the Cornwell house around the time le Carré was writing Tinker Tailor in 1975.

The team wanted to try to make the film as similar an experience to reading the book as they possibly could. 

“The truth about Tinker Tailor is that if you extract just the plot, it loses a lot of power,” suggests Slovo of the novel and the process of adaptation. “Though it’s described as a thriller, it’s not really. It’s a character-based piece. The plot is not phenomenal. It’s the way it’s told that is phenomenal.”

O’Connor and Straughan delivered half a draft within three months. “It doesn’t happen that often but sometimes you just read something and know there’s a film there,” says Slovo, whose diverse credits include Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar for BBC Films and Phillip Noyce’s Catch A Fire, written by her sister Shawn Slovo and also produced by Working Title. “Even though that first half of the draft has been completely changed in the film, you can just feel it’s going to work.”

Alfredson’s Let The Right One In — not heavy on dialogue either — is the kind of film widely admired by actors which meant Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor was an easy film to cast.

“Tomas was in the very, very fortunate position of having made a film that most actors had seen and they wanted to meet him,” Bevan explains. “It doesn’t half make life easier when you’ve got a director in that position. The only person we told what part we were considering them for before meeting him was Gary [Oldman]. [And then] when you have Gary as honey pot, the book as honey pot and Tomas, everyone else is going to fall into line. And everyone fell into line magnificently. Jina Jay, the casting director did a fantastic job of understanding Tomas.”

Gary Oldman plays the spy George Smiley who is retired out of the intelligence service only to be brought back in under the radar by his former boss, played by John Hurt, who is certain someone in the service’s inner circle is in the pay of the Russians.

“I’ve never witnessed in quite that way an actor [Oldman] who actually loves coming to work and who would get miserable if he wasn’t working,” says Slovo. “It affected all the other actors and all of the crew.”

The supporting actors include Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Hardy, Kathy Burke and Stephen Graham.

“The other thing is,” says Bevan, “the crew absolutely loved Tomas, loved him. It means everybody does whatever they are doing just a little bit better.”

“Tomas doesn’t talk a lot,” agrees Slovo. “There was a real communication going on [between the director and his actors] but not a lot of talking. He’ll do a hand movement, ‘bring it up’, ‘bring it down’.”

The $21m Tinker Tailor is fully financed by StudioCanal. “It all came together pretty quickly and then there was a glitch because most of our films are funded by [Working Title’s parent company] Universal but for various reasons they decided this was not one for them,” Bevan explains. “StudioCanal have been involved in all our films since 1998 as a sort of sleeping partner so they became the live partner on this one and picked the whole thing up. For a European film at a modest price, it is a fairly attractive package.”

Universal later picked up US rights and Focus will release on Dec 9.

The project started shooting in a disused army barracks in Mill Hill, north London, in autumn 2010. A few other films had used the buildings previously but this was the first time a production had taken it over entirely. It was used as both studio and location, as the setting for the imposing and Byzantine interior of British Intelligence, known in the film as the Circus. The production had managed to find the building when it was between demolition and property developer which meant they could pay a weekly fee to keep the sets standing. This was important as the scheduling proved challenging with many of the cast, apart from Oldman, working on other projects simultaneously.

The project also shot for five days in Budapest, shooting Hungary for Hungary. In le Carré’s novel, the action takes place in the former Czechoslovakia; for the film, the producers switched the setting to take advantage of Hungary’s 20% production rebate.

They also travelled to Istanbul for nine days just before Christmas.

“It’s actually a fairly impractical place to shoot,” says Bevan of the Turkish city. “The crazy thing about Istanbul is it is a city built for 3 million people and there are about 25 million people living there and there is no public transport system apart from buses. So to get anywhere takes about two-and-a-half hours.”

The production’s stately solution was to travel down the city’s Bosphorus river by boat.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy made its world premiere at the Venice film festival where it played in competition. StudioCanal opened the film in the UK on September 16 where it has grossed $21.7m (£13.9m). StudioCanal is also releasing it in France and Germany in February 2012.

“It’s a very European movie,” says Bevan. “It doesn’t feel like a British movie because of Tomas and the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s sensibility.”

“Tomas, Tim and I went to Paris for the greenlight meetings and we took two of the tracks that are in the film, including La Mer, the track right at the end,” Slovo recalls. “The music has always been part of the film. There is something so European about that.”