Without warning, Tomas Alfredson jumps up and starts wading about the room like a water bird treading over lily pads. ‘There’s a famous sketch by a Swedish comedian,’ he explains by way of a voiceover, ‘in which he’s walking through a meadow of tall grass. He’s walking, struggling through this grass that reaches up above his waist.’ Alfredson pushes out at imaginary foliage around his midriff. ‘Then he steps out into a road and you realise that — all that time — he wasn’t wearing any trousers. Completely naked from the waist down.’ The mime stops as suddenly as it started. ‘That is the cinema of paranoia!’
And that is also the sensibility that Alfredson hopes to bring to his forthcoming film of John le Carré’s classic spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Worry not, though. This Swedish director isn’t planning to inject trouserless high jinks into the plot. Instead, he clarifies himself by tracing rectangles in the air: ‘It’s all about what you don’t see, what’s outside the frame. You understand?’ And anyone who has read the book, or seen the famous BBC adaptation, surely will understand. Inside the frame is a tale of conspiracy, murder and betrayal. Outside the frame is the labyrinthine spread of the Cold War. Welcome back to Mutually Assured Destruction.
Alfredson is masterminding his operation from an office in the old Inglis Barracks in Mill Hill, north London. A candle smoulders atop an Ikea table where he has arranged some pre-production artwork — but, in spite of these homely touches, the place has a chill that matches le Carré’s text. Some years ago, a local housing programme was postponed because of low-level radiation in the soil. And, in 1988, an IRA bomb detonated at the barracks, killing one soldier and injuring another nine. We don’t mention this to Alfredson. He says that the building will be demolished soon, in any case.
For now, production photographs clutter the walls, and storyboard sequences are sprayed across the desks. One image stands out from the rest: a black-and-white shot of the actor Gary Oldman, his eyes alive with a ferocious kind of charm. He will play Smiley, the lead character in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and a role famously occupied by Sir Alec Guinness in the television adaptation. Alfredson has no doubt that he has made the right choice. ‘What a great face,’ he shudders in the direction of Oldman’s mugshot. ‘Gary is just perfect for the part. He’s got the quiet intensity and intelligence that’s needed.’
Alfredson speaks knowing that principal photography is only days away, and that Oldman is the only lead actor to have been completely nailed down. It is a curious situation for the director. Everyone from Ralph Fiennes to Colin Firth to television’s latest Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, has been connected with the film (and, happily, some have now been cast) — but, for whatever reason, pens have been avoiding dotted lines. Yet there is not a hint of fluster on Alfredson’s part. ‘Am I the right person to do this?’ he wonders aloud. ‘I can’t be the judge of that, but somehow I thought I could.’ His thick-rimmed glasses nod slightly, as if in agreement.
‘Unflappable’ is the word you might use to describe Alfredson — at least, on this showing. When he’s not stalking around the room providing easy copy for journalists, he sits crisp and upright in a white shirt and black jeans, smiling generously at our questions. Yet there are occasional shifts in mood. When we discuss the impressive legacy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, his voice slips into a minor key. ‘Of course, I know what a British treasure this is,’ he sighs. ‘The book, the BBC adaptation...you can only dwell on these for two minutes, and then you have to work with it. You have to move on.’ And, with that, he moves on.
Really, Alfredson has every right to feel bullish about his own take on le Carré’s material. He landed this job on the strength of his only previous feature film, a Swedish vampire flick called Let the Right One In — and it is easy to see why. Although it has recently been remade by Hammer, Let the Right One In is no cheap schlock-fest. Rather, it is a maudlin tale of friendship between a young boy and a bloodsucking girl on a Swedish housing estate. From its snowy backdrops to its bursts of violence, the film has a deep coldness to it that seems predesigned for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Indeed, Alfredson believes that the two films share a horror that has nothing to do with monsters or gore. ‘The horror is 90 per cent inside people. The gap between reality and what’s happening in their mind — that’s what creates the horror,’ he says. ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a horror precisely because you do not know how far the conspiracies and lies stretch — it could be much worse than you think. I want to recreate that doubt and fear even for those who know the book already.’
Alfredson’s family has form when it comes to these things. His brother, Daniel, is also a director, and has adapted two books from Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally popular Millennium Trilogy (The Girl who Played with Fire, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) for the screen. Their father is a famous film and television personality in Sweden. But despite their shared success, Tomas is downbeat about the family business. ‘Swedish cinema is in trouble. It’s all the piracy. So many people in Sweden just download their movies for free that it’s draining the money from the industry. It’s becoming more difficult to get anything made. That’s one of the main reasons why I came to London.’
So here he is, in Mill Hill: an advert for a British film industry that has life in it yet. And, the signs are, he is fitting in. ‘I really like it here. I’ve got into the music of, you know...Ken Dodd.’ Yes, you read that right: Ken Dodd.
As we prepare to leave Alfredson to his Cold War and his tickling sticks, he leans in with one final scrap of evidence. ‘I always have an individual song that inspires me when I make a movie. I had one for Let the Right One In, and I’ve got one now. I listen to it a lot. It puts me in the right mood.’ Great, so what is it? ‘Ah, I don’t tell anyone,’ he deadpans, and leaves it at that. How very apt. It is, in the end as at the beginning, all about what we don’t know — what lies outside the frame.