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Immersed in Movies: Soaking Up the Tweedy Atmospherics of 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'

Thompson on Hollywood By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 20, 2012 at 11:25AM

The BAFTA-nominated "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is all about atmosphere. Not only in conveying the lies, betrayal, and silences of the Cold War spy game back in the '70s, but also in the look of gritty, rain-sodden, strip-lighted London of the period.
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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The BAFTA-nominated "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is all about atmosphere. Not only in conveying the lies, betrayal, and silences of the Cold War spy game back in the '70s, but also in the look of gritty, rain-sodden, strip-lighted London of the period. 

In fact, the buzzword was tweed, especially in the way it relates to the quiet and introspective George Smiley (played by Oscar contender Gary Oldman), who's a lot smarter than he looks.

At least that's what director Tomas Alfredson instilled among his crew, including cinematographer Hoyte Van Houtema, production designer Maria Djurkovic, and composer Alberto Iglesias.

"Tomas referenced music, paintings, literature, smells, and sounds," explained Van Houtema, who previously worked with the director on his acclaimed "Let the Right One In." They started looking at documentary photographs from the '70s, and then they studied textures. 

"On a certain level, you know what you want atmospherically and psychologically, but how it's exactly going to look you never really know, so it's a search," the cinematographer suggests. "Tomas and Maria often talk about tweed. Well, what does that mean? It doesn't make any statement of color or light, but, still, you're surrounded by some sort of an atmosphere or a state of mind."

Van Houtema says he and Alfredson were like little schoolboys from Sweden going to England pretending to be spies. They tried to create a credible, multi-strand world that you could get immersed in. "I think the atmosphere is important in portraying the paranoia," he adds. "Who are they fighting against? It's an enemy that you never see. You also have to feel how serious and how real that war is by portraying those little rooms."

They shot on film because they wanted to recreate the look of the photographs they referenced. "I wanted this film to feel texturized and to feel scruffy," the cinematographer explains. "This is a very scruffy world and we wanted it to look like it came out the Cold War period. A lot of smoke and nicotine make the strong colors fade away a little bit until it has a mustard look."

The look therefore came from a psychological point of view as well as a historical one. This was important to production designer Djurkovic as well. The Brit's familiarity with London and Eastern Europe was invaluable."London was a very different city then," she recalls, "and Tomas and I talked about our childhood memories. He came as a child for holidays here, and he talked about his first Wimpy, and we just had to have it. The Wimpy bar was a real London institution where you went for hamburgers in the pre-McDonald's days.

There were also subliminal atmospherics thrown in to enhance authenticity, including a logo in a café of a kid eating an ice cream that was typical of the era, or the design of table cloths in the café inspired by her memories of being in Yugoslavia. 

And speaking of design, the most surprising can be found in the MI6 conference room. Djurkovic figured that the room would be soundproofed because of its need for secrecy, so after coming across the soundproofing foam that she liked, Djurkovic decided to paint it orange to make it more striking. Wouldn't you know that the design has become the film's most iconic image?

The very location of the MI6 exterior building was a happy accident. It just happens to be across the street from where the production designer attends Yoga class on Saturday mornings. 

But leave it to composer Alberto Iglesias to complete the claustrophobic atmosphere with his meditative score. "Tomas wanted to focus the idea of the music on the main character: his loneliness and the gray life of the spies more than on the complexities of the plot.

"There is a kind of slow motion in Tomas' approach to this time in the '70s when the world was in a real war: a war not on the battlefield but with the threat of nuclear bombs and widespread paranoia. Music works not only for battlefields with machine guns or horses, but also for a man in a corner, alone, thinking."

Iglesias says there is one theme that has more presence than the others. "It's very simple and builds a pedal on a fifth E-A, an isorythmic pattern that less by less acquires the meaning of persistence. The music that in the beginning is part of the solitude of Smiley serves to connect him with the reality. I don't know if this is evident when you watch the film, but for me it was part of the idea for the structure."

It's all part of the fun of tinkering with John le Carré's espionage classic.

This article is related to: Production , Sound and Score, Tomas Alfredson, Awards, Academy Awards, Awards


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.