13-HOUR DEIGHTON SPY TRILOGY : SHOOTING FOR 3 MINUTES OF FILM A DAY
“What we try for,” said Brian Armstrong, “is three minutes of film a day.” He grinned. “Sometimes we make it.
“Or,” he said, “as Mr. Micawber would put it, ‘If your goal be three minutes a day and you produce two minutes, 45 seconds--result: Misery. But if your goal be three minutes and you produce three minutes, 15 seconds--result: Happiness!’ ”
We’re at the Charro del Pedregal, a posh equestrian center built a couple of decades ago for the Olympic Games. Below us, the intricate and sometimes tedious business of making film is stalled in one of those interminable technical delays while lights are adjusted, cameras loaded, angles aligned.
Vaqueros in broad-brimmed sombreros and glittery suits idly work their horses in the ring beyond. Diners for a fashionable comida on the pavilion above the ring wait patiently. Waiters hover around sideboards groaning with food--mountains of guacamole, chickens swimming in inky black mole sauce, tubs of frijoles, a tower of tortillas.
The food is stone-cold. So are the actors. Costumed for sunny Mexico, they shiver in a gray, damp chill of a day. They stamp their feet on the concrete flooring for warmth, wrap themselves in woven serapes and rebozos.
Periodically, a young woman with a bright, brittle, British accent calls out, “This is a take. Coats off, chaps.”
At three minutes of film a day, Armstrong would seem to have his work cut out for him. He is producing for Britain’s Granada Television a 13-hour dramatization of the best-selling trilogy of novels by an acknowledged master of the spy thriller, Len Deighton: “Berlin Game,” “Mexico Set” and “London Match,” a continuing tale of spies and counterspies, defectors, betrayals, casual sex and casual murder, even a Soviet spy at the very core of British intelligence (not so wild an idea, as recent events have shown).
But even with the 50-minute hour of British TV, this adds up to some 650 minutes of film, which, at this rate, would take at least 200 days to film, plus the time involved in changing locations in Mexico, Germany and Britain, technical and mechanical delays, the weather, various other factors such as half the British crew out with Montezuma’s Revenge, plus, of course, the odd day off.
Which would seem to make Armstrong optimistic with his schedule of completing photography within a year, adding nine months for post-production and having the film, its title shortened to “Game, Set, Match,” on the air simultaneously in Britain and America in the fall of 1988. (In the United States, it will be serialized on the PBS program “Mystery!”; the production is underwritten, in part, by Mobil Oil.)
“Around the shop they do say I am proceeding with unseemly haste,” Armstrong admitted. He knocked wood.
Ian Holm, who plays the central role of Bernard Samson, a British agent whose wife was unveiled as trafficking with the Soviets, said: “Why do these things always begin in the middle? Here we’re shooting Episode 6 while they’re rewriting Episode 1 back in England.”
Armstrong shrugged. “It’s an old military maxim of mine that when you start off on something huge like this, you go for the biggest enemy first, leaving the weaker ones for later. Our biggest problem, obviously, was to bring all these people and equipment to Mexico, so I chose to do the Mexican sequences first.”
“It’s disconcerting, though,” said Holm, “to be doing a scene when you’re not sure what went before it. Flying by the seat of your pants.”
He was called back to the set by director Ken Grieve to do a scene with Michael Degan, a well-known German actor in his first British film, who plays Samson’s boyhood friend Werner Volkmann, and Austrian actress Brigette Karner, who plays Volkmann’s sharp-tongued young wife, Zena. In the scene, Zena is demanding money from Samson, lots of money, for identifying a Soviet agent in Mexico. It’s a nasty little scene from which Samson wearily walks away.
Holm, an international star--the Royal Shakespeare, the West End, a Tony Award on Broadway for “The Homecoming,” an Oscar nomination for “Chariots of Fire"--is the most prominent of the six actors Armstrong brought to Mexico. However, towering Michael Culver, who plays Samson’s boss, may have proved the most valuable with crowds: “The Mexicans think he’s Clint Eastwood,” Armstrong reports.
It’s not the actors but what Armstrong calls “the tail of the comet” he finds mind-boggling: “We brought two directors, a crew of 47 from England, plus a dozen or so Mexican technicians hired here. We have 14 vehicles, two catering trucks, a squad of officers guarding the equipment--the damnedest caravan you ever saw. I remember my days with ‘The World in Action’ where all I took on stories from Suez to Selma were a toothbrush and a cameraman.”
Ken Grieve, lately of the “Sherlock Holmes” series, is directing eight of the 13 episodes; Patrick Lau, a young Chinese director from Hong Kong, is doing the other five. The problem: Their episodes overlap. While Grieve is at work here, Lau has Michael Culver in a scene he’s shooting in the Alameda in the center of Mexico City.
“Cooperation from the Mexicans--the bureaucracy, the police, government officials, ordinary people--it’s the best I’ve had in 30 years of producing,” Armstrong said. “One problem: Extras. We hire 50 extras to be on the set the next day and they simply don’t appear. We’ve had to use the crew moonlighting as extras. We pay them the going extra rate: 8,000 pesos a day (about $10) but they usually contribute it back to our fund for earthquake relief. We have over 200,000 pesos in the fund.”
For Armstrong, the major coup of this production was getting the rights from Deighton to do it. Feature films have been made from Deighton novels (notably “The Ipcress File”), and there were lucrative Hollywood offers on the trilogy. A dedicated Deighton fan, not only of his thrillers but of his books on the air war of World War II (“Bomber,” “Fighter,” “Goodbye, Mickey Mouse”), Armstrong flew to the south of France where the author was completing “London Match.” He read the book in manuscript and presented an offer from Granada Television.
“Deighton immediately said yes, he wanted Granada to do this,” Armstrong said. “It seems he was a fan of work at Granada--'Jewel in the Crown,’ ‘Brideshead Revisited'--and he wanted us to do his books.
“He’s an astonishing writer. His research is incredible. He knows every street in Berlin, East and West.
“In ‘Bomber,’ which may be his best book--and what a film it would make!--he wrote that a Luftwaffe 55-millimeter shell adapted to anti-aircraft explodes into 1,480 pieces. I asked how he knew. He said he went to the factory that manufactured the shell and studied their records, including experiments of exploding the shell in a casing and counting the holes. Exactly 1,480 every time.”
Holm, once a celebrated stage actor and a memorable Henry V, has in the last decade devoted himself totally to films and TV, but he has never before done anything “of this size and magnitude.” As Samson, he is involved in every aspect of this mammoth drama--"there are 711 scenes and I think I’m in 709!”
Committing himself to this film for a solid year was not an easy decision to make--"my agent is very unhappy about it!"--but the character of Samson fascinated him.
“He’s very well written--Deighton and John le Carre are the best we have at this sort of story--introspective, vulnerable, an anti-Establishment figure, yet he does his job quietly, efficiently. Though I do think spying these days is more involved with microchips and industrial espionage than the Cold War. The deeper I got into him, the more I studied him psychologically, the more I realized he was a great deal the way I am.
“An actor can never play himself, and yet this part is the nearest I’ve ever come to playing myself. I can wear my own clothes. Yet it’s frightening, a whole year playing the same part with the knowledge in the back of your head: It could go wrong, could go wrong, could go wrong. . . .”