Of the 23 novels John Le Carré has penned eight have made the jump to the silver screen, the most recent of which was the critically acclaimed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The ninth novel to get the treatment is A Most Wanted Man, a slow-burn thriller which features a must-watch performance by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Were you familiar with Le Carré before you were approached?
I knew the name and I had seen some of the films that were based on his books but I had never read one of his books. Le Carré came on set twice. I think he’s very protective of his legacy so there’s that element to it. I think it’s hard for a writer to see a film being made of your own book because it’s always different.
When I read a book, I often visualise what’s going on in the pages in my head. How close was what you were visualising to the final product?
It’s quite a big difference actually. I’m not so good at visualising when I’m reading. When I did my first ever music videos, I found it really difficult. As a photographer I’m very intuitive, so I go somewhere, I find something and I don’t plan much. With music videos you had to start planning stuff and I found it very hard, mainly because I’m so precise about it. I don’t want to force myself into one way of looking at something. I like to keep some options open. But the one thing I knew quite quickly is that I wanted to have an autumnal feel to the film, and that’s definitely there.
What attributes does a passage in the book have to have for you to decide not to include it?
I think you have to look at what advances the story and what complicates the story. It’s so layered and so dense that you could make it a six hour TV series out of it, so you had to let things go. The big thing that we let go from the book was the British Secret Service, and the whole role of the banker was different. There’s no real protagonist in the book and I liked Backmann. Carré agreed with me that he could be the protagonist.
You mentioned there how dense the book is. Could you see the film coming together whilst you were filming or was it only when you were in post-production that you got a sense of what the final product might look like?
You think you’ve got it all together with the script but then some things don’t work the way you imagined it would so you have to find another way. It was hard editing this film, it took a long time to keep the story coherent and understandable for people.
The film is set in a post 9/11 world, and a lot of the characters make quick judgements about people. What were your first thoughts on Hoffman when you met him, and how different was your opinion of him after you had finished work on the film?
Phil can come across as a guy that doesn’t take any prisoners, and for the characters he plays I think that’s right because he gives everything to the character and nothing ever stands in his way, there’s no bullshit. But he’s a very warm human being, and unlike some Hollywood actors he’s a very honest man. That honesty is always in the characters he plays. So my first meeting with Phil was funnily enough on the same day as I was doing a Vogue shoot with him, and they had somehow planned these things on the same day. The people who had planned my meeting with him to talk about the film didn’t realise I was also a photographer so they kept saying “You can’t meet him anymore. He’s doing a photoshoot!” [laughs] When we started the photoshoot, we tried some clothes on and one of the trousers had to be remade by the Vogue people so we had some downtime, and Philip says let’s talk about this film. So he’s sitting in his underpants and that’s how the conversation started. It was quite surreal.
Whilst were talking about Philip, is there any particular moment that stands out to you making this film with him?
I have so many incredible memories of Phil both on and off set. We kept in touch socially so there’s always that as well. One of the big end scenes was the first take and the only take. To see an actor like that exploding with such ferocity was just incredible. With Philip, I could watch him smoking a cigarette as the Backmann character for an hour because Philip acts with every inch of his body and there’s so much detail and nuance in his performance.
In the film there are no antagonists, but there are lots of people who all believe they are doing the right thing even though their reasons are different. As the director who is in charge of a number of people all working to the same goal in different ways, how do you go about appeasing and listening to everyone when you’re making the film?
It’s a lot of manoeuvring and keeping things on track because every day there are things that happen that threaten to push your ship off course. It’s your job to find solutions to make it go in the direction you want it to go. I listen to my actors because I think they have more experience than me, but at the same time if I feel they’re wrong then we’ll do it how I imagined it. With the various characters, there was plenty decided beforehand so that when we started shooting these characters were already fully formed. Every day there were line changes because you only find out when you’re filming that sometimes things don’t work so well. But I also like it when people don’t say anything, because that also says a lot. I found that out when I did my first film Control, how you frame something and then how you let non-dialogue space exist has significance.
In what ways has your background in photography and music videos served you well in making feature films?
One thing I learned from photography is that you have to have patients, because if you don’t have patients you probably don’t get your moments. It’s not a logical development to go from still photography into film. I suppose it depends also on how you operate as a photographer but I’m a very down to earth photographer. I go out with my camera on my own, I have no lights, I meet people and I take their photograph. So it’s quite a different approach to being on set with 200-300 people and planning everything. Also to work on something for a year, because with photography I can do it in less than an hour. When I’m telling a story with visuals, the compositions are second nature to me and I find it incredibly easy. I also design, so a bit of choreography comes into that I guess. But the actors and the dialogue, that is something that really doesn’t come into play when you do any of the other things, so that’s all new to me, and the duration of something like a two hour film is also new to me. If you do film and you go into a tunnel and come back out again, the blackness of the tunnel makes sense becomes you come out of it. In a photograph, it’s nothing. So there are really nice things when you let it linger and it comes to something. I found it hard when I did my first film, I thought it would be easier.
A Most Wanted Man is a slow-burn thriller. Were you ever conscious of pace at all, and how much do you have to trust that audiences will keep up?
I’m a guy who doesn’t think too much about the audience, for better or worse. If a film interests me at the pace it’s going then that is how it should go. There’s a misunderstanding I think about spy thrillers that it has to look like Jason Bourne or James Bond. Those are fantasy films. The real spy world, and John Le Carré emphasises this, is quite mundane and a lot of people in an old fashioned way watch and wait so that’s what happened in this film. But there’s a tension that racks up all the time.
Next up for you is Life. What can audiences expect from that?
I made a film about a photographer and its subject matter. The photographer is a guy called Dennis Stock and the subject is James Dean. It plays in the first few months of 1955, and it deals with the influence each one has over the other’s lives.
A Most Wanted Man is out in UK cinemas this Friday.