Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Tomas Alfredson

The fifteen missing pages

leave a comment »

In 1972, after the massive success of The Godfather, the director Francis Ford Coppola announced that his next project would be an original screenplay that he had been trying to make for years. It was a curious blend of paranoid thriller and character study—Coppola would later describe it as a cross between Blow-Up and Steppenwolf—about a surveillance expert named Harry Caul. Paramount was anxious for him to get to work on the sequel to his first big hit, but Coppola optimistically hoped to squeeze in this more personal project between the two Godfather films. As the editor Walter Murch told the novelist Michael Ondaatje in their great book The Conversations, that isn’t quite how it worked out:

A good ten days of material [on The Conversation] was never filmed—Francis and the production team just ran out of time and money to shoot the entire script, and he had to go off to do preproduction on Godfather II. His advice to me at that point was, Well, let’s just cut what we have together and see if we can find a way to compensate for that missing footage. So from the beginning we couldn’t structure it the way the screenplay called for. I’d say there were about fifteen pages of script material that were not shot.

To make matters even more fraught, with Coppola effectively gone, the film was left in the hands of Murch and his assistant editor Richard Chew, neither of whom had ever edited a movie before. In Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman describes their unlikely plan: “Coppola would show up every month or so…The three of them would screen [the film], spend a couple of days together going over ideas and making lists of things to try out. Then Coppola would disappear for another month.” It went on like this for an entire year.

More recently, another movie found itself in much the same situation, complete with a protagonist with a trademark raincoat and an oddly similar name. This time, it was the adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s thriller The Snowman, about the Oslo police detective Harry Hole. On paper, it looked great: the leads were Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson, Martin Scorsese was the executive producer, and Tomas Alfredson of the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was directing. Even before its release, however, there were rumors of trouble, capped off by a remarkable interview that Alfredson gave to Norwegian public broadcasting, which was quickly picked up by the Independent. For a film that has been in development for most of the decade—Scorsese was announced as the director way back in 2011, only to be replaced by Alfredson three years later—its actual production seems to have been untidy and rushed. As Alfredson revealed:

Our shoot time in Norway was way too short. We didn’t get the whole story with us and when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing…It’s like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture…[The reshoots] happened very abruptly. Suddenly we got notice that we had the money and could start the shoot in London.

Alfredson estimated that “ten to fifteen percent” of the script was never shot. And while it isn’t clear how this happened, if we’re talking about a screenplay of average length, the unshot material amounted to more or less what it was for The Conversation. Postproduction is always an exhausting, stressful stage, and both films went into it with fifteen missing pages.

Faced with this sort of situation, an editor has no choice but to be a genius, creating structure, connections, and entirely new scenes from the footage that he or she has available. As Murch says drily to Ondaatje, with considerable understatement: “We had to be pretty inventive.” He provides one example:

For instance, in one scene Harry pursues Ann—the young woman who was his surveillance “target”—to a park, where he reveals to her who he is and what her concerns for her are. Francis shot the park material, but the material leading up to it, including a chase on electric buses, was never shot…Since we had no fabric with which to knit it into the reality of the film, it floated for a while, like a wild card, until we got the idea of making it a dream of Harry’s, which seemed to be the way to preserve it within the film…When you have restricted material you’re going to have to restructure things from the original intent, with sometimes felicitous juxtapositions.

Much and Chew were novices, working independently, by trial and error, which was extraordinary even in the early seventies and would be utterly unthinkable today. With The Snowman, Universal did the obvious thing and brought in a ringer—they already had editor Claire Simpson, a veteran of such films as Platoon and The Constant Gardener, and to supplement her work, they hired none other than Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s longtime collaborator and arguably the most acclaimed editor of her generation. (Murch himself was recruited to do similar duty for the remake of The Wolf Man, which implies that this sort of repair work is a good side gig for legendary editors in their twilight years.) The result, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have been as inspired as it was for its predecessor. As Den of Geek writes of the opening of The Snowman: “The scene’s editing is full of jolts and strange elisions. Was the sequence originally much longer, but later cut down? Why does it all feel so disjointed?”

In the end, after seven years in development, The Snowman was dumped into theaters over the weekend to negative reviews and poor box office, and it seems likely to endure as one of those fascinating case studies that never get told in the full detail that they deserve. You could argue that it came down to the underlying material—The Conversation emerged from the creative peak of the most important American director since Orson Welles, while The Snowman, despite its elegant veneer of Nordic noir, was ultimately just another serial killer movie. But I think that the more accurate takeaway is that you never can tell. I’ve argued before that it doesn’t make sense to talk about a movie as being saved in the editing room, because every movie is saved in the editing room, but the conditions under which The Conversation and The Snowman were made certainly tested their editors’ ingenuity to the limit. It’s a situation that can produce great inventiveness and brilliant technical solutions, but a lot of it depends on luck, and we naturally remember the successes and forget the failures. At one point, Coppola considered halting work on The Conversation entirely, which prompted Murch to recall to Koppelman: “If we had postponed, The Conversation would have probably come out in late 1975, but with a cloud over it which would have been blamed on me—a rerecording mixer who had never edited a feature before.” Murch might well have never edited a movie again, and the history of film would be subtly different. Everyone involved with The Snowman seems likely to emerge unscathed, while the movie itself will live on as a cautionary tale of how all the skill in the world might not be enough to turn Harry Hole into Harry Caul. As Boris Lermontov says in my favorite movie by Michael Powell, Schoonmaker’s late husband and the idol of both Scorsese and Coppola: “Not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.”

Better late than never: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

leave a comment »

It’s taken me a long time to get around to le Carré. As I noted in my review of the recent movie adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, my interest in his great subject—the psychology and culture of spycraft—has always been limited at best, so his books can seem forbiddingly hermetic to a reader like me. A writer like Frederick Forsyth, whom I admire enormously, does a nice job of balancing esoteric detail with narrative thrills, while le Carré, although he’s an ingenious plotter, deliberately holds back from the release of action for its own sake. The difference, perhaps, is that Forsyth was a journalist, while le Carré worked in intelligence himself, which accounts for much of the contrast in their work—one is a great explainer and popularizer, so that his books read like a men’s adventure novel and intelligence briefing rolled into one, while the other is all implication. As a result, while I’ve devoured most of Forsyth’s novels, I’ve tried and failed to get into le Carré more than once, and it’s only recently that I decided to remedy this situation once and for all.

Because there’s an important point to be made about le Carré’s reticence, which is that it ultimately feels more convincing, and lives more intriguingly in the imagination, than the paragraph-level thrills of other books. In interviews, le Carré has noted that many of the terms of spycraft that fill his novels were invented by himself, and weren’t actually used within MI6. This hardly matters, because a reader encountering this language for the first time—the lamplighters, the scalphunters, the janitors—has no doubt that this world is authentic. Forsyth, by contrast, stuffs his books with detail, nearly all of it compelling, but always with the sense that much of this information comes secondhand: we applaud the research, but don’t quite believe in the world. With le Carré, we feel as though we’re being ushered into a real place, sometimes tedious, often opaque, with major players glimpsed only in passing. And even if he’s inventing most of it, it’s still utterly persuasive.

This is the great strength of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I finished reading this week. Le Carré is the strongest stylist in suspense fiction, and this book is a master class in the slow accumulation of detail and atmosphere. Sometimes we aren’t quite sure what is taking place, either because of the language of spycraft or the density of Britishisms—”a lonely queer in a trilby exercising his Sealyham”—but there’s never any break in the fictional dream. It’s a book that demands sustained engagement, that resolutely refuses to spell out its conclusions, and that always leaves us scrambling to catch up with the unassuming but formidable Smiley. In this respect, Tomas Alfredson’s movie is an inspired adaptation: it visualizes a few moments that the novel leaves offstage, but for the most part, it leave us to swim for ourselves in le Carré’s ocean of names, dates, and faces. (I haven’t seen the classic Alec Guinness version, which I’m saving for when the details of the plot have faded.)

And yet the overall impact is somewhat unsatisfying. Tinker, Tailor is a brilliantly written and constructed novel, but it’s an intellectual experience, not a visceral one. By the end of the book, we’ve come to know Smiley and a handful of others, but the rest are left enigmatic by design, so that the book’s key moment—the revelation of the mole’s identity—feels almost like an afterthought, with no real sense of pain or of betrayal. (The film has many of the same issues, and as I’ve noted before, it gives the game away with some injudicious casting.) This isn’t a flaw, precisely: it’s totally consistent with the book’s tone, which distrusts outbursts of emotion and buries feeling as deep as possible. That air of reserve can be fascinating, but it also leads to what James Wood, for somewhat different reasons, calls le Carré’s “clever coffin”—a narrowness of tone that limits the range of feeling that the work can express, which is often true of even the best suspense fiction. Le Carré’s talent is so great that it inadvertently exposes the limitations of the entire genre, and it’s a problem that we’re all still trying to solve.

Written by nevalalee

September 7, 2012 at 9:21 am

Tinker, Tailor, and how to spot a murderer

leave a comment »

Any review I write of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will inevitably be brought up against the fact that I don’t know much about John le Carré. For various reasons, I’ve never been able to get into his work, despite trying and failing several times. This may seem like a strange admission from someone who, rather to his own surprise, has found himself making a living as a suspense novelist, but my own interests are considerably removed from le Carré’s: I’m not necessarily fascinated by spycraft or the Cold War for its own sake, so whenever I open one of his meticulously crafted novels, I feel a greater cultural shock upon entering this world than I do with, say, Fredrick Forsyth, who is probably the lesser artist, but who has a greater journalistic interest in keeping the lay reader engaged. All the same, I do intend to take the plunge into le Carré one of these days—there’s just no avoiding him if you have any interest at all in the history of the thriller—but it hasn’t happened yet.

Perhaps fortunately, then, I was able to approach the chilly new adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with something close to an open mind. (I also haven’t seen the famous television adaptation with Alec Guinness as George Smiley.) And while I’m obviously unable to judge its faithfulness to the source material, it certainly captures my idea of le Carré: tense, reserved, hermetic. As other reviewers have noted, it plunges you at once into a world of names, tradecraft, and technical language, to an extent that, refreshingly, gives the audience almost too much credit. It’s a testament to the quality of the cast, especially Gary Oldman’s restrained but powerful turn as Smiley, and director Tomas Alfredson, who creates a nice, faintly rotting atmosphere, that we’re interested and engaged the entire time, assuming that we can make the leap into the world that the movie has created. The film certainly doesn’t go out of its way to pull us in: it’s a mole hunt, revolving around the search for a traitor at the highest levels of British intelligence, but the stakes are less about the loss of real secrets than a sense of clubby betrayal, which we can only regard from a distance.

This refusal to hold the audience’s hand can be intriguing, but there are also times when it works against the story that the movie is trying to tell. For example, while I love its avoidance of the chronological chryons (“Four years earlier,” “Present day”) that clutter up so many of our suspense films, there’s also a crucial moment when we’re confused about whether or not a certain scene is a flashback, which diffuses the impact of an important surprise. More damagingly, for the mole hunt to have any weight at all, we need to know something about the men under suspicion, but for the most part, we know them only at sight, with their relationships expressed by a veiled exchange of glances, or not at all. As someone who has come down more than once against backstory, I applaud the decision to leave much of this material to implication, but I can’t help feeling that the movie takes it slightly too far, with at least one major character so thinly developed that it’s impossible, and rightly so, to take him as a suspect.

This reluctance to spell things out can be addressed, to a point, by thoughtful casting, and indeed, the actors—Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, John Hurt, and a very winning Benedict Cumberbatch—tell us far more about their characters than is conveyed by the script itself. In at least one respect, however, the casting is a bit too clever, leading to the movie’s one real flaw, also shared by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (Spoilers for both movies follow, at least by implication.) I’ve long since learned that the easiest way to spot a murderer, or a mole, is to look for a famous actor cast in what seems, at first, to be an insignificant supporting part, or at least a part with nothing obvious to attract a well-known name. Because actors of a certain caliber generally won’t take such small roles, at least not without good reason, the observant viewer suspects that there’s more to this character than meets the eye. It’s always possible, of course, that a really clever movie will employ a famous face as a deliberate distraction…but in the end, the casting in both Tinker, Tailor and Dragon Tattoo gives away the game. I doubt that Smiley would approve.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2012 at 10:17 am

%d bloggers like this: