Tense Circus: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

By Walter Fernandez Jr

When the Swedish horror film Let the Right One In emerged stateside in 2008, its quiet ferocity and fresh take on the vampire subgenre made it a crossover hit in the American foreign film market. Director Tomas Alfredson co-edited the film with editor Dino Jonsäter, SFK, and their celebrated work steered them toward their first English-language feature Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).

Based on the John le Carré novel, Spy is the serpentine story of international intrigue amid the ‘70s Cold War and the hunt for a mole within the Circus, codename for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). The book had been adapted previously for British television in 1979 as a miniseries staring Alec Guinness. When Alfredson met the author prior to production, he noted, “le Carré was very clear about his wishes regarding the film version of his novel.” “Please don’t shoot the book or remake the TV miniseries. They already exist. I’m not going to interfere, but you can call me any time if there is anything you wonder about,” exclaimed the author. “I think we have obeyed him to the letter,” asserts Alfredson.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy centers on retired SIS lieutenant George Smiley (Gary Oldman) who is summoned back to the Circus to secretly investigate whether there is a double agent in their midst working for the Soviets. The pursuit seems doomed until a rogue agent (Tom Hardy) resurfaces with crucial intelligence that leads them to narrow their search to five agents: Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciarán Hinds), Poor Man (David Dencik), and Smiley himself.

For this initial foray outside Scandinavia, Alfredson focused on direction and Jonsäter on editing. “We started editing during shooting, which was a first for me,” confides Jonsäter. “Editing during shooting is more like assembly work. We started during production in 2010 and went straight for nine months until the end of June [in 2011].”

Carrying the film to term proved to be a hefty endeavor. Bridget O’Connor (who passed away just as filming began) and Peter Straughan adapted the dense novel for the screen and imported its many subplots and characters, whilst adding their own layers to the Red Menace-era conspiracy. “The script was so complicated it was actually necessary to take all that time [during production] to get a full understanding of the story,” remarked Jonsäter. “Even though I read the book twice and [various iterations of] the script, you really need to see the images to get the ins and outs of the complexity. In order to maintain the story’s eloquent intricacy, Jill Bilcock, A.C.E, came on board to help with some additional editing because “we were overwhelmed with work,” admitted Jonsäter. “She very much took back some scenes that I’d done before and presented them in fresh ways that helped me put them into a different context.”

What changed most from the typed page to the Avid was the setup of the film. Jonsäter explains, “Getting the film’s backstory started so that it moves without heavy explanation was one of the most challenging parts. We wanted to tell the story dramatically rather than using newsreels to convey time and situation.” Spy starts out quite dramatically when an SIS mission in Budapest goes pear-shaped signaling to British intelligence that their security has been compromised from within. Rather than go too into all the players, the movie focuses on Smiley and his emotional journey as an agent among dubious colleagues. Smiley’s only internal support is agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), a younger agent who puts himself in harm’s way to protect the Circus. Yet, it is through Smiley’s spectacles that the audience investigates the duplicity of the aforementioned quintet and susses out the maverick agent in hiding.

With the emphasis on Smiley, there were a few scenes that didn’t make the final edit. “The sad part about working with such great actors and great dialogue is when you have to cut out some great moments,” shares Jonsäter. “We had to cut out two or three good scenes for time and to preserve the balance of film. It’s part of the job.” Fortunately, Jonsäter and Alfredson share a very similar sensibility so when those tough decisions have to be made there is little to no disagreement in the editing quite.

Jonsäter and Alfredson knew each other socially in Stockholm and met up professionally to discuss collaborating on Let the Right One In. That successful experience led Alfredson to request Jonsäter’s adept hands at editing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Jonsäter says, “Tomas’s knowledge of editing is very high and you can talk to him like an editor. It’s very rewarding to work with a director who knows editing because he or she totally understands that certain scenes need time to put together. Most directors have limited knowledge of editing.” Alfredson’s background as an editor, and perhaps as an actor and writer, in Sweden has given him a depth few film professionals possess. “We get on quite well and organically,” shares Jonsäter. “He puts a lot of confidence [in] and gives a lot of freedom to the editing process. Editing between an editor and director is about sharing a taste. More than how skilled you are as an editor, if you don’t understand or share [a director’s] taste, it’s really hard to transcribe his or her thoughts and ideas into something beautiful. You have to share the same values of what is important and what is beautiful and that informs what you leave in and what you leave out in regard to details, dialogue and performance.”

Jonsäter spent most of production cutting just a stone’s throw from the Spy set in England. Most of the scenes that didn’t take place in Hungary or Turkey were shot at an abandoned military barracks in North London, which certainly added to the ambiance of the film. Jonsäter describes, “We had a proper room set up for editorial. It was ideal to be close to set to communicate with Tom right away and see how scenes were constructed and offer my input. It meant a lot to be right there.” While Jonsäter is quite fluent in English, his first assistant, Mark Trend, was able to fill in some of the gaps with jargon, culture and knowledge of the time period. “Mark was something more to the project,” confesses Jonsäter. “He was a brilliant first assistant and his help was invaluable to the process.”

In fully understanding the story and its many nuances, Jonsäter is curious to see how the Swedish-language dubbing of the film will reflect the performances and the narrative. He’s interested in how the translators will accommodate for the actors’ use of language. Not even just for the spy lingo but for those nuances and idiomatic expressions that the actors and writers brought to the narrative. “I found the experience with working with such acts quite satisfying,” explains Jonsäter.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may come across like historical fiction about a time now defunct, but the themes and situations are just as timely. In 2010, 10 Russian spies living in the United States were exposed by the FBI in an echo of our old Cold War days. One of the spies was a Peruvian-born naturalized U.S. citizen. Instead of being tried for treason, this spy and nine other operatives were traded for four Russian prisoners in a spy swap that felt right out of a movie. On a dusty tarmac in Vienna, Austria (a neutral country during the Cold War and now) the 14 people were escorted off of their respective planes and exchanged without incident. Still, despite the histrionics of that situation, Jonsäter feels that Spy’s story “is about friendship and betrayal, which is universal. A lot of people with double lives are drawn to this business, and they are usually ordinary people with secrets.”

During the winter of 2011, Jonsäter and Alfredson returned to Stockholm to work on the picture but were back in the U.K. in April to finish up the film. “Tomas puts a lot of effort into detail. All the actors speaking Hungarian or Russian are actually Hungarian and Russian actors. It was a very well researched script and production,” and le Carré had given him carte blanche to make it his own. John le Carré even had a cameo as a Christmas party guest at SIS headquarters—an honor much like that of Hitchcock appearing ever so briefly in his own films.

After a limited release in early December to positive reviews from critics, Focus Features widened the release of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on January 6th. Jonsäter garnered a BAFTA® nomination for his delicate editing. The film has a slow burn and operates like a thinking man’s espionage thriller. The performances are restrained and many scenes are filled with muted terror. Jonsäter’s delicate hand ensures all of this and more. Currently, he is taking things easy but eager to get back to the editing room with another interesting story to tell in Swedish or English.