Making of 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'

Jack English/Focus Features

A Swedish director, an ensemble of Britain's leading actors and a meticulous re-creation of the Cold War bring a classic espionage tale to life.

It was in Old Focals, a vintage eyewear shop in Pasadena, that Gary Oldman first began to slip into the character of George Smiley, the quietly nondescript yet doggedly persistent British intelligence officer who unravels a series of betrayals in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the new film adaptation of John le Carre's 1974 novel about plots and counterplots in MI6, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service.

To the old boys who operated within its shadowy confines, MI6 was known as the Circus, which was deeply ironic, since it was anything but colorful. And as he set out to re-create a world rife with Cold War paranoia, director Tomas Alfredson, 46, instructed his creative team that the movie "should have the scent of damp tweed and the color of an old man's foreskin."

Smiley, who is charged with rooting out a high-level mole who has been funneling secrets to the Russians, is the grayest of a group of gray men accustomed to fading into the shadows rather than standing out in a crowd. As they discussed the role -- for the movie's first 18 minutes, Smiley doesn't even speak, just listens and observes -- Alfredson and Oldman knew every detail would be telling. So one day before the shoot began in the fall of 2010, Oldman, 53, found himself rummaging through the spectacle shop, which he'd sought out because it was the source of the distinctive black specs that his friend and Tinker co-star Colin Firth had worn in A Single Man. It took trying on a couple of hundred pairs before he found exactly the right type of oversized glasses. "I drove Tomas insane, but those glasses are so iconic to Smiley, they are the equivalent of his Aston Martin," Oldman says. "I saw him as a wise old owl who sees everything and hears everything."

This Tinker, of course, does not mark the first time that Smiley has appeared on film. Although he figures in a number of le Carre's books and their subsequent screen adaptations, he was most famously embodied by Alec Guinness, who put his indelible stamp on the role in a masterful BBC miniseries in 1979. That version was produced while the Cold War was still raging. It was Peter Morgan, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Queen and Frost/Nixon, who first suggested to Working Title Films co-chairmen Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner that the time was ripe for a new adaptation of le Carre's spy tale now that the Cold War has faded into history.

As Bevan recalls it, Working Title had in fact been looking for a project set during the Cold War, since enough time had passed to provide the right distance to reexamine the era and all its heightened tensions. "But Tinker Tailor hadn't occurred to me, probably because of the TV series," Bevan says. "But then we went off and saw le Carre and he said, 'Yeah, why not? But you need to reinvent it, you need to make it a movie.' "

As it happens, Alfredson, the Swedish director who created something of an international sensation (at least on the art house circuit) with Let the Right One In, his chilly 2008 movie about a young vampire, had spent the years since looking for the right follow-up film, with no success. When his reps at Cinetic Management told him of the Tinker adaptation, he asked for a meeting. "I remembered the miniseries, of course," he says. "And I remembered the book, which was fantastic source material, and it just felt like great timing. It's been 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. We have a historic distance on those years now, so we can talk about them not just in a polemical way, but in an emotional way." Hiring a non-Brit to helm the project also made sense, Bevan says, since he could serve as an audience surrogate, decoding the murky dealings of the Intelligence Service.

By then, Morgan, who had written an initial draft, had moved on to other commitments. Producers Bevan, Fellner and Robyn Slovo decided to bring in new writers, the husband-and-wife team of Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor who'd written Sixty Six, a coming-of-age film set against the 1966 World Cup final for Working Title. The writers began by returning to the book and, a bit to their surprise, discovered that le Carre was happy to make himself available to answer any of their questions -- right down to the color of memo paper used at the Circus.

"I said right from the start I would be a passive resource," says le Carre, who unlike many other novelists did not view the prospect of a film with automatic suspicion. "If anyone wanted to talk to me, they could call me, but I didn't want to be a backseat driver. I could never have written the screenplay, and I thought the screenwriters did an extraordinary job."

Working closely with Alfredson, the writers freely restructured the material. They invented a Christmas party scene in which key information about the office's treacherous politics is gradually revealed. Out went any scenes with Karla, the Soviet agent who is Smiley's nemesis and who appears in flashback in the novel; instead, Smiley recalls a key meeting in their past in a riveting monologue. They also decided to offer only a few glimpses of Smiley's wandering wife, Anne, in order to emphasize Smiley's isolation. "He's about as lonely a main character as you can begin with," Straughan says. "And yet, he's got that Clark Kent trick of everyone being wrong about him -- he's the smartest man in the room by a long shot."

Smiley might be an iconic character, but Oldman still spent a week pondering whether to take on the challenge. "I viewed it with some trepidation," says the actor, who can lay claim to such signature characters as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films and police chief Jim Gordon in the Dark Knight franchise. "One is walking in the shadow of Alec Guinness, and inevitable comparisons would be made. That was a bit of a dragon to be slain -- in my head, as dragons often are."

But other actors leaped at the chance to take part in the spy game. Meeting Alfredson at a New York Critics Circle event, John Hurt dropped a few hints that he wouldn't mind playing Smiley himself. He was instead offered the part of Control, whose machinations set the plot in motion. "At first, I thought the part was maybe a bit small," says Hurt. "I don't normally worry about those things, but I just thought maybe there was a scene missing, but then I reread it and called up Tomas and said, 'Forget about that.' I've dubbed it now the shortest leading part I've ever played, but the point is, it's a truly ensemble piece."

Casting some of the other roles was not unlike lining up the chess pieces that Control toys with while trying to unearth the mole. Michael Fassbender had been cast as the operative Ricki Tarr, but when his schedule for X-Men: First Class overlapped, Tom Hardy was recruited. Similarly, Toby Jones was brought in to play the power-hungry Percy Alleline when Jared Harris had to drop out because of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, in which he plays the villain Moriarty.

On the set of the $20 million production, on which Working Title partnered with Studio Canal, the atmosphere couldn't have been gloomier, but that was by design. "Our very first conversations were about childhood memories of London in the '70s," says production designer Maria Djurkovic of her discussions with the director, who first visited England during that period. "What we remembered was that whole sense of gloom. So we set out to create a world that's completely gone and completely disappeared, though we can still remember it. And we were quite meticulous -- like the people at MI6 writing on glass plates on their desks so that their writing wouldn't leave any indentations."

While the film ventured to Budapest and Istanbul, the Circus was re-created in a mini-studio in North London, where Djurkovic used soundproofing foam to create an ominous, honeycomb-covered conference room where the spy masters gather. The atmosphere there was quiet and concentrated, each actor weighing his character's words carefully since the movie is as much about what is not said as what is said.

"I've laughingly said it's a sitting-down role, because a great deal of it I do from a chair," says Oldman. "Smiley will lean back, just a few degrees to the right -- and that's one of the details I picked up from John le Carre. When she saw the film, his granddaughter said to me, 'Oh, I love the way you captured Grandpa.' "

Tinker, tightly edited by Dino Jonsater to convey a maximum amount of information with a minimum number of words, does demand that movie-goers pay close attention as Smiley uncovers clues. But so far, it's found a receptive audience: It has grossed more than $23 million in Great Britain since its September release, and as Focus rolled it out stateside, it was greeted with more than $310,000 in just four theaters on its opening weekend Dec. 9.

Le Carre himself is among those applauding. Complimenting the filmmakers, he told them they'd accomplished the nearly impossible task of "reducing an ox to a bouillon cube."


Bridget O'Connor: 1961-2010

The end credits of tinker Tailor Soldier Spy carry a simple and bittersweet dedication: For Bridget O'Connor. The film's co-screenwriter (with her husband, Peter Straughan), died of cancer at age 49 on Sept. 22, 2010, just as the film was beginning production. Although a few of her colleagues knew she was ill while working on the screenplay -- she and her husband completed three drafts over the course of just five months -- few knew how serious the illness was. "It was, of course, a shocking thing, since although she'd been ill,  she and Peter chose not to involve us," says director Tomas Alfredson. "They were very, very brave, and their work was very brave."

Born in London to Irish parents, O'Connor had built an impressive résumé, authoring the prize-winning play The Flags, about two lifeguards on an Irish beach, as well as several short-story collections before she began collaborating on screenplays with her husband. The longtime couple, who married in 2008, had one daughter, Connie, now 11.

"I don't want to go into it too much,  it's still so painful," says Straughan. "But we knew. Bridget had been diagnosed with cancer. But we thought we'd have longer. And it just accelerated.  But rather than trying to get a film done being a terrible burden while Bridget was ill, it was a very positive thing. It was probably the happiest work experience we've had together."