Screenwriter Peter Straughan had previously written comedies like The Men Who Stare at Goats and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and a thriller like The Debt when he was tapped to co-write the screenplay for the famed John le Carré Cold War spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This was something of a daunting task, as the film proved to be one of the more complicated screenplays in recent memory. It was so impeccably put-together, Straughan (along with his screenwriting partner, his late wife, Bridget O'Connor) were nominated for many awards including an Academy Award, and won several more, including the Chicago Film Critics Association award, and a BAFTA film award.
CraveOnline was granted the opportunity to sit with Mr. Straughan recently, allowing us to discuss his screenplay, his writing process, the accusations of the screenplays opacity, the film's casting, and his indie rock band Cactusman.
CraveOnline: So, here's my first question for you: What the Hell is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy about?
Peter Straughan: [laughter] I think you're asking the wrong person.
It's just that a popular criticism of your film is that it's kind of an opaque screenplay. I was wondering what your comment is to that.
I guess it is a tricky plot. It is a bit of a labyrinth. I did read the books too, and the idea for the plot starts where Smiley finds himself in a bad place, and we have to find a way to get both him and you out of there. But we always thought part of what marks it out and makes it so distinctive was the difficult and complicated world that we thought you'd want to get through.
I haven't read the original John le Carré book yet, but I was wondering how many times you had to go over that material. Did you have to read the book a lot? Were you a fan of it ahead of time?
I was a fan of the book ahead of time, but I didn't know it that well. I had read years earlier, y'know? So we had to read it a lot. It was a bit like, y'know, if you play the piano, and you run into a complex movement. You have to read it and learn it and learn it, and eventually you kind of have it in your head. The music. It was a bit like that. Kind of learn it and learn the structure.
Whose idea was it to pursue this material? You've adapted a few comedic books before. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is much more mature, and much more mannered.
We got the phone call with the title, saying they had decided they wanted to do it. We got a phone call telling us to come in. There had been an existing draft, but they decided they wanted to start again. To this day, I have no real idea why they called Bridget [O'Connor] and I. We had worked on several screenplays together before, but, as you said, they were all comedies. I really don't know. I think probably a lot of bigger writers said “no” to be quite honest [laughs].
This film is amazingly complicated. What sort of organizational methods did you employ to writing such a complicated screenplay. Often you'll see screenwriters or storyboard artists laying out the story on a bulletin board. What was your process for keeping track?
The only things we did in terms storyboarding and things like that, was we did write out the plan of the novel. The structure of the novel. Which was literally in small portions, and then see how they stick together. Chronologically, like that. And we'd go to the book again and again, and lop out sections; figure out what we'd be able to use, highlight certain areas. But after that is was more internal. Finding what's good and what's boring within those areas. And it went through several drafts. The original studio draft was, of course, much closer to the book. And we begrudgingly moved away from the book with Tomas [Alfredsson] the director. So it wasn't like we got to shove all the pops in one go. We had to focus on making it more of a movie.
I really loved the film, by the way. I did have to watch it twice to really grasp it (and I'm still not sure I get it), but I did love it. What struck me most was how mature it was. It's a film decidedly for grownups, which is rare in a film climate that caters to teenage boys. Was this an intent of yours? Did you want to do something more sophisticated?
You just don't get sent good books very often! You get a project perchance that's exciting from time to time, so when someone else, y'know… I think you can't really make a good spine or anything sophisticated unless you have great literature to start with. So it was something from the book, really. Plus we knew Tomas was in production, and we love Let the Right One In, so we were eager to work with him. We had worries and doubts going in, though, as they might want a dumbed down version of it. Y'know, the James Bond sexed-up version of Smiley. But it was obvious Tomas wasn't joking. We all wanted to make the book. We were never pressured by or hassled by any one of the producers. Or even the studio now or the studio then, such as it was. We never got that kind of pressure to make it less complex.
When you were writing the screenplay, did you have any actors in mind? I thought the casting was impeccable, but was it what you imagined?
Y'know, I'm really bad at that. I'm really bad at that casting sort of mentality. And it wasn't easy to cast Smiley. We took about six months thinking of actors, and eventually settled on the one we wanted. But we never even auditioned anyone during the writing. The script was pretty much finished before Jina Jay, the casting director, said “what about Gary [Oldman]?” And we all thought “Yeah, that's good. He's right.” And then we went to Gary who agreed. And then we didn't come up with the rest of the casting until we found Smiley. So we didn't have any actors in mind when we wrote the script. And to be honest, I don't know how helpful that would be when writing, because you kind of have to make the character your own. Your own version. And I think if you already know who's going to be saying the lines might effect how you write it.
Were you pleased with what the actors did?
Oh definitely. One by one as the actor's names came in, we got more and more thrilled. We had to take some statistics early on, particularly with Smiley. Because he doesn't say a lot. All the things he has to say in the book, we were going to leave in the film, and he was the center of the film. It was a little bit scary. We knew that the fates in charge wanted a big actor to play Smiley, and we just closed our eyes and prayed. Let it be Gary. Please, let it be Gary. And we were lucky to get him.
Your last four feature films (not counting your most recent short) have been adaptations of books. Are you drawn toward adaptation as a screenwriting style, or has that been the luck of the draw?
It's just kind of what you get offered, y'know? I have a bunch of projects and they're all adaptations. Adaptations is what I've been offered the most, pretty much. But, and I think just to prevent yourself from going nuts, every now and again, you have to do an original. The one I'm finishing up at the moment, which is a fun one, is an original. The next one after that will be based on an old Irish myth, but will essentially be an original. So it's good to get a few in there. But I do love doing adaptations.
What is the best Cactusman song?
[pause] [chuckle] Well, I'd be hard-pressed to name any good Cactusman song, but I did write one called “I Could Have Been a Killer.” So it was my own song. So I'll choose that one as my favorite Cactusman song.
What was the first record you bought with your own money?
Hm… It was I can't remember I bought it with my own money, or if I was given it, but it was “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”
Ah. good one.