Circus World

In re-imagining the seventies of the Cold War, director Tomas Alfredson and his production team constructed a visually elegant and original take on the architecture and atmosphere of the period.

The majority of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy unfolds as Smiley makes his moves in and around London; in addition to U.K. location shooting, Inglis Barracks in Mill Hill, North London was a mini-studio, dressed for the interiors of the Circus offices and other interiors as well. The field activities for Jim Prideaux and Ricki Tarr were filmed in Budapest, Hungary, and Istanbul, Turkey - where Ricki falls in love with the unhappily married Irina.

Robyn Slovo remarks, "This isolated some of our actors from the main ensemble - at least temporarily. Mark Strong played out Jim's mission over four days of location filming in Budapest; it's a major set piece."

Strong marvels, "Working in Budapest, you had instant access to the gray, concrete world of the story. There's a lot over there that dates back to the 1970s. The opening sequence looks amazing on-screen, and it did while we were over there filming it, too."

Elsewhere, Slovo notes, "Tom Hardy, as Ricki, and Svetlana Khodchenkova, as Irina, had all their romantic and dramatic scenes opposite each other in Istanbul. We also had Tom for a few days in the U.K. But Gary Oldman never left the U.K., since Smiley does not."

Oldman points out that, no matter what the location, much of the film's "tension and atmosphere come to life through Tomas Alfredson's vision of the movie - and of its editing, soundscape, and music. We would discuss the sense of paranoia and the tightening of the screw."

Alfredson enlisted his Let the Right One In cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to shoot the movie; he notes, "You get good ideas when you're close to Hoyte. He's like a muse in that way.

"We have a constant dialogue about imagery, but we try to avoid referencing other films - and copying other filmmakers. I'm also not a director who likes a lot of takes, so when we're on the set everyone is on their toes."

Benedict Cumberbatch feels that the duo's approach benefited the material enormously, citing their mapping out of "a different sort of geography than what you'd expect. In this film, you'll rarely see two men talking in a car in profile, like in so much of the spy genre. All conversations feel exposed, out in the open. There's a continual tension with the camera angles."

Colin Firth concurs, noting, "Tomas is very good at nuance. In keeping the camera moving from, say, the other side of a piece of glass, you get the sense that this is a world where someone is always looking in. He also is aware that spaces don't have to be filled up with noise."

Accordingly, Tim Bevan confides that "it was a quiet set - quite like a Coen Brothers set, really; Hoyte and Tomas were very close on the set. But everyone on the cast and crew was focused."

The director had pre-planned how to visualize the intricate world of the Circus, with its rabbit warren of corridors and staircases. He notes, "The actual MI6 in those days was, as described to me, a closed building in so many ways. Corridors with closed doors; people sitting behind those closed doors. I knew that wouldn't be very interesting on film...!

"So what we needed to do was to create an interpretation of the functions of the building, the different levels of hierarchy, and make it believable."

The solution? "Taking the audience through a low-tech world, yet also rendering enough mechanical advances to be modern for the time period," reveals the director. "On the top floor of the Circus building it is quieter. That's where the barons sit. We've created these soundproof cubes standing in this 'open' landscape, where they have their secret meetings. The lower you get in the building, the more crowded it is, including with the filing. All the way, the windows are blocked."

Firth muses, "Seeing this technology in its raw form has a beauty to it, an aesthetic appeal; the recording devices that have spools, for instance. What you see is the human application that was required to record voices, to reproduce documents, to photograph things."

Slovo says, "Beginning in development and pre-production and then certainly on any given day of the shoot, here was a film which was looking and feeling like it was being made in the 1970s."

To that end, Alfredson enlisted production designer Maria Djurkovic. She remembers, "The art department walls got covered from floor to ceiling in references. Tomas is so visually literate; it's quite extraordinary, and what he likes is generally not the obvious. He is so bold that I was able to push things.

"For example, there is a grim scene in a prison cell. The set dresser and I found this wallpaper which was pink and pale blue squares with little gold flowers. I showed it to Tomas, and he said, 'I love it!'"

Together, Alfredson and Djurkovic outlined what they didn't want as much as what they did. The monochromatic and saturated palette Djurkovic and her department executed may be distinctive, but her main objective was to create "atmosphere and authenticity. There were so many details that we got from research, like that everybody had a glass pad on their desk so that the indentation from writing in a notebook could not be revealed. I don't think I've ever had such pleasant feedback from actors on a shoot, and when you hear them speaking in slightly clipped cadences in our settings, hopefully you are straightaway taken back to the 1970s."

Even so, she cautions that "what we absolutely wanted to avoid were those loud, overt bits of clich'ed 1970s-ness that we've all seen too much of - the great big wallpaper with brown-and-orange geometric designs. Given this story and its characters, we went for something comparatively low-key and subtle; their conference room is completely lined with acoustic foam, not wallpaper.

"So there is still a certain heightened quality, but it was all about setting the dial to a certain volume - and Jacqueline Durran's costumes were perfectly in tune, from the first day."

Coordinating with Djurkovic, Durran had to thread into her designs each character's idiosyncrasy, while trying to illuminate their secretive natures. Yet the basic outfits of the Circus players remained straightforward, and so Durran's team veered even farther away from 1970s clich'es than Djurkovic's. As the costume designer explains, "Because the main characters in the story are middle-aged and upper-middle-class, they dress not all that far removed from how they would have for the past 10-15 years. They would have chosen the style of their suits as younger men, and probably stuck with it.

"We accessed all the different colors of suiting available to men of that period, but not even a sharp dresser like Haydon or a younger agent like Guillam would be sporting something strange and outlandish. It was also about, what set of associations do the men want to promote to their colleagues and peers? These MI6 men were not going to [the U.K.'s famed 1960s fashion mecca] Carnaby Street, they were going to [the more traditional tailors' locus] Savile Row as they always have."

Durran cites Smiley's costume as an example of Alfredson's attention to detail, pointing out that "Tomas always said from the beginning that he wanted Gary to wear a gray suit. So we had an ex-Savile Row tailor create a plain dark gray three-piece in the style of the 1950s.

"Tomas' initial thought was that Gary wouldn't change costume at all from scene to scene, that Smiley would wear that one suit every day. But Tomas, Gary, and I then figured we would probably benefit from the one change. So I found the darkest gray, most plain tweed available, and we made a sports jacket - in exactly the same pattern as the suit. The viewer might not even notice, but we realized that we needed to do it for ourselves."

That realization soon impacted her and Alfredson's approach to the other characters. Given that numerous scenes would feature what she calls "a sea of suits," Durran reveals that "we chose a telling detail for each person and saw that they were constant. Most of the characters have two suits; some only have one. Visually, it would have been more confusing if they were constantly changing clothes, so it was clearer to keep everyone consistent. It helps peg the players in this game, just as Control has. For example, Esterhase - beyond his two suits - has his pipe, which Tomas suggested.

"With the hard work and creativity everyone has put in, the film looks and feels authentic. I think it gave the actors confidence."

"It was a joy to come to work," affirms Oldman. "The cast and the crew were all great people who were good at their jobs."

Stephen Graham adds, "This was like getting picked to play for England. You're in drama school, eating beans on toast, and you never dream that you're going to be working with people like Gary Oldman and John Hurt. Then you do, and it gives you even more inspiration."

Mark Strong states, "This shoot was a revelation, and not only because of playing scenes from a brilliant script with these actors. There was a director who was guiding you towards the kind of character details and extra layers that you're always hoping to discover, and who comes at everything from different angles that would often astonish."

Alfredson remembers one day as being especially ideal. "We were shooting the Circus holiday party sequence over two days, with 100 extras. I'd worked out the shots with Hoyte, and Maria and Jacqueline's teams had everything right.

"John le Carr'e came to the set the second day, and all the cast and crew crowded to see him. We knew we had to keep working, and Robyn Slovo had told his wife that we'd put him into the scene, so now he was going to be part of his own story."

The author muses, "I had to imagine who I was, at my great age, sitting in that Circus community. I decided that I was an elderly gay librarian who'd been brought in for love of old times, and was given license to get plastered."

Bevan notes, "He had a good time. I think those were the only two days that all of the principal actors are in the same scene; this is because the sequence takes place in the past, significantly, back when everything was fine at the Circus - or at least seemed fine.

"In fact, it's a scene that's not in the book."