One of my best friends from high school, who lives in Istanbul, and I, who live in the US, make a decision to meet somewhere in between and choose London as sort of a mid-point. We buy our tickets in February for our very anticipated London trip in May. And now that I am back from the trip, I just can’t help congratulate myself for randomly choosing the BEST week in May to be in London!
First: The weather. Four consecutive days of sunny, summer-y weather!
Second: The Tube. My friend and I take the Tube everywhere. And, at some point, we just cannot stop giggling since one certain ginger greets you everywhere, and I am not exaggerating a bit, everywhere you go! The Tube door opens and here is Damian looking at you either from an Our Kind of Traitor poster or a Billions poster. You sort of feel he is following you everywhere you go. FUN!
And it is not just limited to the Tube. The pic on the upper right hand side is from Camden Town. Bobby Axelrod lets you know Billions is coming to Sky Atlantic May 12 at 9pm.
Third: Damian Lewis is reading le Carré. Time Out London teams up with Studio Canal to bring Londoners a “spy weekend” at Hornsey Town Hall Arts Centre. The weekend includes screenings of some of the popular films based on John le Carré books, namely The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), the first le Carré adaptation to the big screen, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) as well as of some other classic spy movies like Notorious (1946) and The Third Man (1949) and an exclusive special screening of Our Kind of Traitor followed by a spy-themed party as well as a discussion panel on “Bringing le Carré to the screen” with The Night Manager producer Stephen Cornwell (who is also John le Carré’s son), the producer Gail Egan (The Constant Gardener, Our Kind of Traitor) and Our Kind of Traitor director Susanna White plus readings from John le Carré’s work by celebrated fans including one certain ginger!
Bringing John le Carré to the Screen
The panel moderator opens the program asking the audience whether they have read Our Kind of Traitor. It turns out only two people, me being one of them, in the room have read the book. He also asks whether we have seen some of the earlier le Carré adaptations such as The Constant Gardener and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Now we see many more hands, which, once again, shows people get into the work mostly through movies, not through books. It is sad at some level, but also the reality of our times. And this certainly does not apply only to le Carré but also to other brilliant literature adapted for screen.
Stephen Cornwell tells us his father trusts different levels of production in adapting his books to the screen. They are huge books with complex characters that it is obvious you cannot do it all on the screen. Thus, every director brings her own voice, her own sensibilities, her own distinct point of view, in short, a piece of herself, to the final product, as she keeps the essence of the book.
Gail Egan, the producer of Constant Gardener (2005) as well as Our Kind of Traitor (2016), read all le Carré books and really wanted to produce one. She jumped on the opportunity when The Constant Gardener was coming out as a book and her production company became the first independent one to adapt le Carré’s work for the screen. Egan talks about her deep admiration for the author’s extraordinary research for his books including a stay in the most unsafe parts of Congo.
Susanna White, the director of Our Kind of Traitor, who, in fact, also directed Damian Lewis in Billions Season 1 Episode 9, talks about her understanding of the book and her approach to direct Our Kind of Traitor.
A successful couple, Perry (Ewan McGregor), a tutor at Oxford, and Gail (Naomie Harris), a high end barrister, go on vacation in Morocco (it is Antigua in the book) to rediscover and rebalance their relationship. They meet a charismatic Russian man Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) who credits himself as the number one money launderer in the world. He convinces Perry to help him broker a deal with Britain’s MI6 — he will share valuable information with them about how the money he laundered went into some very prominent pockets in Britain — in return for good British education for his kids. And, Hector Meredith (Damian Lewis), a high up British intelligence officer comes into the picture to mastermind the deal. White points out that the book has a very modern, very contemporary view of Russia, and the money laundering bit feels even more real after the world has recently found out about Panama Papers.
Discussion now turns to the contemporary urgency Our Kind of Traitor has. The book, written in the wake of 2008 financial crisis, takes a close look at the intimate relationship between big business and government which I believe le Carré sees as a new kind of traitor, an issue which we also have at the center of the US elections this year. This conversation about business and government going hand in hand reminds me of Damian Lewis talking about London changing at Our Kind of Traitor premiere last week. The heart of the city being “inhabited by people with second, third, fourth homes, these super-rich, the class of people most of us do not come across or know” and their residency is being facilitated by the politicians.
The panelists then talk about Dima, the world’s number one money launderer in Our Kind of Traitor. Susanna White knew that she had to cast a very charismatic actor for the part and she tried hard to have Stellan Skarsgård on board. And the moderator lets us know Dima is a character based on a real-life man le Carré met years ago in Russia and Damian Lewis will read about that meeting from le Carré’s upcoming memoir The Pigeon Tunnel in the second part of the event. Oh, I am even more excited now!
The next question is if there is a character in the movie who is different from that character in the book. Susanna White says Damian’s character Hector Meredith is physically quite different since Hector is much older with gray hair and all in the book but Damian has worked hard on the heart and essence of who Hector is. She says: “Damian always carried a copy of the novel with him on set.” It turns out Damian was figuring out pieces from the book that would reflect on who Hector really is and asking White about whether he could do this bit or that bit.
White mentions a scene that Damian believed he had to do: The opening lines between Perry and Hector in their first conversation.
Yep. That’s Hector. He is very much invested in getting the work done and has done his homework about Perry. Having read the book two times, I can confidently say that Hector is the Dowager Countess of Our Kind of Traitor, if you will 🙂 I have no clue about if the film sticks to original conversation from the book, but Hector has the best lines and is the smartest man in the room in the book. He’s also an idealistic character that is defined in the book as some kind of “Savanorola” — “fanatical about reforming the service knowing that he will lose the battle even if he wins it.”
Susanna White talking about Damian working on his character makes me think of another bit from Times Talks London in 2014. Here is Damian talking about the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski and his essay “Is God Happy?” in the context of playing the complex characters he plays.
Fast forward. I am reading Our Kind of Traitor and finding out Damian’s character Hector Meredith is quoting Kolakowski puts a big smile on my face! His essay “Is God Happy?” should be a part of Damian’s preparation for the role. You are what you read. And understanding what Hector reads may well unlock the character for Damian.
Finally, Susanna White tells us, now that it’s become a tradition, Mr. le Carré will make a cameo in Our Kind of Traitor as a Swiss-German museum guide. She says le Carré is a fantastic mimic who studies and understands his character. For one, he insisted on choosing the right shoes for the part since he believes his character would walk to work!
We have a 10 minute break and resume with Damian Lewis joining us in the room to read from The Pigeon Tunnel.
Now that we know Dima is based on a real-life Russian mafia guy who le Carré met in 1990s Russia, the extract Damian reads from the memoir on his iPad is all the more interesting.
John le Carré is in Russia with his 20 year old son in 1993. He is looking to have a feel of the new order in the country. He asks a former KGB friend about how he can meet a top mafia chief. His friend calls back:
Be at so and so night club at 1 o’clock Thursday morning and Dima will receive you. Your son? Bring him along. He’ll be welcome. And if he’s got a girl, bring her too.
Damian stops reading to say:
That’s a different story. 😀
They arrive at the night club. People are dancing to 60’s music. The club manager tells them Mr. Dima may be late. He may have business to attend to. Soon enough two young men that look like special forces soldiers appear followed by Dima.
For Moscow’s newly rich, former special forces soldiers are the bodyguard of choice.
Dima seems to style himself after Kojak in the TV series:
right down to the Ray Ban shades, shiny bald head, very big shoulders, single-breasted suit, arms lifted ape style from the sides , clean shaven face frozen in a half sneer.
Dima has an extremely pretty girl in jewels on his right and an expressionless man on his left. They shake hands. Dima orders the music down and takes off his glasses. They speak via le Carré’s interpreter.
I understand you are a gangster. Is that correct?
The interpreter translates Dima’s answer:
In this country, everyone is a gangster. Everything is rotten. All businessmen are gangsters, all businesses are crime syndicates.
May I inquire what line of business he’s actually engaged in?
Dima is engaged in import – export and the interpreter begs le Carré not to go there. But le Carré does not know where else to go. He asks about the kind of import-export Dima is engaged in but does not get an answer.
Dima puts on his Ray-Bans implying like the conversation is over. le Carréinquires if Dima could see a time coming, maybe in 10-15 years, where he starts building hospitals, schools and art museums as an act of philantrophy.
Dima gives his answer, puts his hands together and waits for his message to be relayed. The interpreter translates:
I regret to tell you Mr. Dima says ‘Fuck off.’
Stephen Cornwell takes the stage after Damian to read extracts from The Spy that Came in from the Cold, a 1963 book whose plot is set in Berlin in the shadow of the newly erected Berlin Wall. He gives the book to Damian when he is done, I guess, as a gift. Then Susanna White reads from Our Kind of Traitor: She first tells us about how they needed to move the scene that takes place at Roland Garros men’s final match between Federer and Soderling in the book to a Paris fashion show thanks to budget issues. Then she reads extracts from that scene in the book .
And it turns out even though they removed Roland Garros from the movie, they kept the tennis match between Perry and Dima, a scene that is central to how the two meet in Our Kind of Traitor. And it is absolutely hilarious to find out Stellan Skarsgård asked for a “closed set” for that scene!
The event closes with a 10 minute movie from 2011 in which le Carré himself reads from The Spy Who Came from the Cold in Berlin. Well, the movie did not work properly first but we had a super talented ginger in the room to fix it for us!
Big thanks go to Damian not just for fixing the movie so we have a proper closing but also for taking this selfie 🙂 I am grateful that he made a bit of time for me after the event and for his very kind words for the work we do.
Our Kind of Traitor is opening in the UK on May 13 and in the US on July 1. You can see the release dates for other countries as well as couple of screenings at US film festivals here.
John le Carré’s new memoir The Pigeon Tunnel is coming out on September 6 and it is available for pre-order on Amazon.