Tomas Alfredson moves into spy territory with 'Tinker Tailor'

Make a list of those who've had a hand in the entertainment world's vampire vogue and you'll probably put Tomas Alfredson near the top. The Swedish filmmaker directed "Let the Right One In," the 2008 hit about a relationship between a bullied boy and the young-looking vampire Eli that turned even skeptics into believers.

Yet ask the 46-year-old about his influence on, or interest in, the bloodsucker bonanza and you'll get a shrug. "I haven't really seen any vampire movies, except maybe a few Bela Lugosi movies when I was a kid," Alfredson said. "I haven't seen any of the 'Twilight' films or read any of the books."

In fact, in what may come as a surprise to many fans, he averred that "I don't really see Eli as a vampire."

As he cuts neatly into an omelet at breakfast on a recent Sunday, Alfredson wears a pensive expression. It was in this city, exactly 31/2 years ago, that his career took a dramatic turn: He went from unknown and slightly depressive Scandinavian director to a global (though perhaps still slightly depressive) filmmaking hero. "Let the Right One In" burst on the American scene when it played New York's Tribeca Film Festival and won its top prize. The movie went on to appear on many U.S. critics' year-end lists and was named the best horror film of the decade by a top blog. English-language remake rights were hotly auctioned off, with a film eventually made by J.J. Abrams' creative partner Matt Reeves.

Now the director has made a rare trip to the U.S. to promote his new movie, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," his first in the English language. Based on John le Carré's complex Cold War novel from nearly four decades ago and starring British stalwarts Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy, the film, which comes out Friday, is Alfredson's carefully chosen follow-up to "Let the Right One In" and the next of what you might term his don't-call-it-a-genre-film genre films.

"For me 'Tinker Tailor' is not really a spy movie," the director said. "It's a film about friendship and loyalty, and the personal costs for soldiers in the Cold War."

In a time when a certain kind of high-end director likes to take a familiar genre and turn it on its head — witness Christopher Nolan's reinvention of the superhero film — Alfredson fits right in. He's also a particular sort of moody auteur — while most directors just want to stay busy (and many look to jump to Hollywood films after an independent success), Alfredson is willing to wait years for what he thinks is the right film, and wants to make that film how, when and where he wants. (He pretty much knows that he doesn't want to shoot a movie in or near Los Angeles. "You get used to your favorite chair and slippers," he said, perhaps only half-kidding.)

"Tinker Tailor" may be one of the more difficult spy movies ever made, an elliptical story told with a throwback visual sensibility, extreme quiet and a storyline that is more allusive than linear. Faced with an overly familiar genre (and a classic 1979 miniseries based on the same book, which starred Alec Guinness in a spectacular performance), Alfredson decided to make a sharp left turn, creating a movie that can feel like an abstract painting.

The 1973-set narrative tells of George Smiley (played by Oldman with a furrowed, world-weary brow), an agent called out of retirement to help track down a mole in the British secret intelligent service. Hopping from London to Istanbul to Budapest, as well as jumping back and forth in time, the movie shows men in a drab, colorless world who harbor rich secrets and quietly shifting loyalties. There's nary a woman to be found. Dialogue is measured out carefully, as though with a beaker. Compared with "The Bourne Ultimatum," the pace verges on the somnolent.

It would be hard not to admire the ambition of this "Tinker Tailor." It might also be hard for some to understand it. After a recent press screening, several journalists stood in the parking structure and tried to puzzle it out, while others gave up and fled to their cars.

"There are people who will say 'I didn't understand it, I didn't get it.' And that's fine," Alfredson said of the film, which was made by the upscale British company Working Title and is being released in this country by Focus Features. "We tried to give as little information as possible. When you create music or theater or film that fits everyone, the quality and the personal touch can get lost.

"I'm really happy that I'm surrounded by [producers] who are very" — he paused — "brave."

Although he says that the Cold War setting was secondary to the movie's themes of loyalty and friendship, Alfredson wanted to give "Tinker Tailor" a distinct period look. He hoped to evoke his first trip to London, which also occurred in 1973. The director got producers to agree, and they all sat down to watch Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," that touchstone of 1970s paranoia.

"We didn't want to make a film that was just [set] in the 1970s but one that felt like the 1970s," said producer Robyn Slovo, adding that even though the movie is a throwback, she too believes its themes are timeless. "'Tinker Tailor' is a very nondigital film, lots of texture, lots of grays. It's an analog movie in a lot of ways, really."

The director can seem like a bit of an analog man himself; even his casual comments have a certain old-school quality. Oldman said that at a recent panel discussion someone asked the director about his film's palette. Recalled the actor: "He said he wanted to capture 'the smell of damp tweed.' When do you hear a director talk like that?"

With his broad face and pale complexion, Alfredson resembles a younger Michael Moore, only with angular glasses and a sweep of brown hair. His laugh can be deep and jovial, and he can crack a wry joke, but he also can go quiet on subjects that seem too personal or are not sufficiently interesting to him. "You have to get to know Tomas," Oldman said. "He's not the sort of person who will let you in immediately."

A son of a well-known Swedish comedy director, Alfredson first made his mark in Stockholm's entertainment industry directing television and films aimed primarily at children and adolescents. He gained acclaim for his work on a series called "Bert," an adaptation of popular teen novels, before moving on to comedic films and plays. Among them: "Screwed in Tallinn," a mockumentary about Swedes who cross the Baltic Sea on a misguided quest for Estonian women.

About five years ago, Alfredson undertook "Let the Right One In" because he thought the book was a tender coming-of-age story in which the bullied boy, Oskar, was "not afraid Eli would kill him but … would leave him."

Yet he immediately found himself in a dark place. "It was slightly uphill all the way. It was very hard to get financed, and very hard to shoot. It was extremely low-budget, so there were very few [shooting] days. There were kids in the main role, and it was extremely cold. Even the camera would break," he said.

But getting to the finish line helped, right? "After I made it, the slow uphill feeling continued. People didn't believe in it. Even the Swedish distributor didn't believe in it. They put it in the cupboard for 10 months." As the movie languished, Alfredson contemplated retirement. "It was just lonely," he said. "Everyone can relate to that, no?"

Then the accolades came pouring in. Critics and festival juries recognized the movie for its poignant exploration of loneliness, its depiction of a snowy Stockholm suburb and its humanist spin on the vampire genre. But he said none of that really put him at ease. All the attention in fact slowed him down.

"[Hollywood producers] would ask me if I wanted 'The Mass Murderer Strikes Back 14.' And I thought, 'Did you watch my movie?'"

He turned down all the films he was offered and chose to direct a play on the Stockholm stage instead.

"There's this wonderful little passage in the novel 'Perfume' where [the hero] describes himself as a leech sitting on a branch that is above a road in the countryside," he said. "The leech is waiting for the right moment for a horse to pass so he can let go of the branch. He'll wait for weeks. If he lets go a second too early, he'll die." He reflected on this for a moment. "I'm a little like that."

When his representatives called with the possibility of the "Tinker Tailor" gig — the script would end up being written by respected screenwriters Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor — Alfredson said he had some reservations. But he thought it finally could be time to let go of the branch, even if it meant taking on a language, locations and storytelling conventions he wasn't entirely familiar with.

"It was a very weird idea to hire Tomas," acknowledged Slovo. But she and her partners were convinced that his foreign sensibility could be an advantage. "We make so much period stuff in the U.K. that a lot of it looks the same — they're well-made heritage films. And Tomas was coming in with an outsider's perspective."

Conversations with Le Carré ensued, in which the author told the director not to feel too faithful to the book. Alfredson added some scenes, particularly a running set of flashbacks to a holiday party that binds together various agents. Still, Alfredson preserved the demanding qualities of Le Carré's prose, in which connections aren't always explained and plot turns are rarely signposted.

He also decided to limit the film's edits and keep the camera trained on certain elements, especially faces (and especially Oldman's). The actor said he was stunned that, in a critical scene as a Smiley nemesis closes in, Alfredson chose to keep the camera on Oldman's mug and depict the arrival of the agent only with sound effects. "I said 'Wouldn't you at least shoot that just to have it?' And he said 'Why would I do that?'"

Alfredson took particular care in crafting the character of Smiley. After all, there was a parallel between the director and the character who, as a matter of either survival or pride, keeps things bottled up.

"I've [often] felt like my outside doesn't match my insides," Alfredson said of his preoccupation with his character. "Silence and loneliness and people carrying secrets, like Smiley does, really interests me."

Alfredson said directing has been a salve because it helps him communicate in a way that ordinary life doesn't. Many directors are that way, he said. And even though they, and he, would sometimes like to change, he's not sure that's possible.

"I'd love to be able to do a film a little faster and a little bit easier and not be so serious," he said. "But it's not the way I am." He paused. "Now I'm going to climb back on the branch, very slowly."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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