Share & Connect
The majority of Academy Award nominee ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ unfolds as Gary Oldman’s George Smiley makes his moves in and around London; in addition to U.K. location shooting, Inglis Barracks in Mill Hill, North London was a mini-studio, dressed for the interiors of ‘the Circus’ offices and other interiors as well.
The field activities for the characters Jim Prideaux and Ricki Tarr were filmed in Budapest, Hungary, and Istanbul, Turkey – where Ricki falls in love with the unhappily married Irina. Producer Robyn Slovo remarks, “This isolated some of our actors from the main ensemble – at least temporarily. Mark Strong played out Jim’s mission over four days of location filming in Budapest; it’s a major set piece.”
Strong marvels, “Working in Budapest, you had instant access to the gray, concrete world of the story. There’s a lot over there that dates back to the 1970s. The opening sequence looks amazing on-screen, and it did while we were over there filming it, too.” Elsewhere, Slovo notes, “Tom Hardy, as Ricki, and Svetlanta Khodchenkova, as Irina, had all their romantic and dramatic scenes opposite each other in Istanbul. We also had Tom for a few days in the U.K. But Gary Oldman never left the U.K., since Smiley does not.”
Oldman points out that, no matter what the location, much of the film’s “tension and atmosphere come to life through [director] Tomas Alfredson’s vision of the movie – and of its editing, soundscape, and music. We would discuss the sense of paranoia and the tightening of the screw.” Alfredson enlisted his ‘Let the Right One In’ cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to shoot the movie; he notes, “You get good ideas when you’re close to Hoyte. He’s like a muse in that way.
“We have a constant dialogue about imagery, but we try to avoid referencing other films – and copying other filmmakers. I’m also not a director who likes a lot of takes, so when we’re on the set everyone is on their toes.” Actor Benedict Cumberbatch feels that the duo’s approach benefited the material enormously, citing their mapping out of “a different sort of geography than what you’d expect. In this film, you’ll rarely see two men talking in a car in profile, like in so much of the spy genre.
All conversations feel exposed, out in the open. There’s a continual tension with the camera angles.” Colin Firth concurs, noting, “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. He also is aware that spaces don’t have to be filled up with noise.”
Accordingly, producer Tim Bevan confides that “it was a quiet set – quite like a Coen Brothers set, really; Hoyte and Tomas were very close on the set. But everyone on the cast and crew was focused.”
The director had pre-planned how to visualize the intricate world of the Circus, with its rabbit warren of corridors and staircases. He notes, “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.” The solution? “Taking the audience through a low-tech world, yet also rendering enough mechanical advances to be modern for the time period,” reveals the director.
“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.”
Firth muses, “Seeing this technology in its raw form has a beauty to it, an aesthetic appeal; the recording devices that have spools, for instance. What you see is the human application that was required to record voices, to reproduce documents, to photograph things.” Slovo says, “Beginning in development and pre-production and then certainly on any given day of the shoot, here was a film which was looking and feeling like it was being made in the 1970s.”
To that end, Alfredson enlisted production designer Maria Djurkovic. She remembers, “The art department walls got covered from floor to ceiling in references. Tomas is so visually literate; it’s quite extraordinary, and what he likes is generally not the obvious. He is so bold that I was able to push things.
“For example, there is a grim scene in a prison cell. The set dresser and I found this wallpaper which was pink and pale blue squares with little gold flowers. I showed it to Tomas, and he said, ‘I love it!’” Together, Alfredson and Djurkovic outlined what they didn’t want as much as what they did. The monochromatic and saturated palette Djurkovic and her department executed may be distinctive, but her main objective was to create “atmosphere and authenticity.
There were so many details that we got from research, like that everybody had a glass pad on their desk so that the indentation from writing in a notebook could not be revealed. I don’t think I’ve ever had such pleasant feedback from actors on a shoot, and when you hear them speaking in slightly clipped cadences in our settings, hopefully you are straightaway taken back to the 1970s.”
Even so, she cautions that “what we absolutely wanted to avoid were those loud, overt bits of clichéd 1970s-ness that we’ve all seen too much of – the great big wallpaper with brown-and-orange geometric designs. Given this story and its characters, we went for something comparatively low-key and subtle; their conference room is completely lined with acoustic foam, not wallpaper.
“So there is still a certain heightened quality, but it was all about setting the dial to a certain volume – and Jacqueline Durran’s costumes were perfectly in tune, from the first day.”