Following our recent review of Sailcloth, we caught up writer/director Elfar Adalsteins and star John Hurt to discuss this tremendous and emotional short film.
Elfar, can you tell us about the inspiration for the film?
I was raised by my Grandparents and the original idea came to me two years after my Grandfather died.
He spent the last six years of his life in a nursing home so the idea was born out of the sheets that were holding him down being turned into the thing that set him free, and I spun the rest from that very central idea.
I wrote him an alternative exit I guess.
How did you get John Hurt involved with the project?
I sent the script to his agent!
I sent it with a personalised note stating my reasons for making it and telling John why I though he’d be the perfect candidate for the part.
Much to my surprise, a week later his agent called and said ‘John wants to meet you for a chat’ and at the end of our meeting he said ‘let’s go make a film’.
John, can you tell us what your thoughts were when you first read the script?
I felt that if this was going to succeed, that it would be pure cinema, which is getting away from having to take things from literature and try and do some magical act to get it into another language called ‘cinema’ which is doubling all our difficulties.
Here was someone writing something completely original, for the cinema, intended for the cinema, with the image on screen being all your information. It was just thrilling working on it.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which you made after Sailcloth, was a very glorious translation of a book for the cinema. Are you saying you prefer original stories to books on the big screen?
Yes, I much prefer.
All the difficulties with Tinker Tailor, all the difficulties that have been spoken of [elsewhere] are in that translation from literature to cinema.
The one marvellous thing with Tomas Alfredson is that he seems to be a master of that. I think he was fantastically successful in making it but it does, by 50%, make it more difficult than if you were making a film which was conceived as film.
If it’s written as cinema, conceived as cinema it has to cut out really what is the spurious commerciality…some kind of an idea that if you have a successful book it will therefore be a successful film.
It is not true, we know it’s not true.
If you’re trying to get money for a film, ‘what book is it from’ is always the first question and if you say it isn’t from a book, immediately there is a feeling of suspicion.
I would like to smash that concept. Even though film is the youngest of the arts I think it is well old enough to stand on its own two feet and deal with its own commerciality.
Therein lies a certain amount of risk but no more risk than trying to make something which is successful as a piece of literature into something that is successful as a piece of cinema.
This is a film with no dialogue, where the only voice we hear is the music, can you tell us a little about how the score was developed?
Richard Cottle [the composer] and I sat down and discussed what I wanted to achieve with the music and for it to be almost old fashioned, not easy to pin down.
It evolved from that, we knew we wanted to use an accordion and strings and I had the images so he had that to work from.
John, you have a very distinctive voice. With this being a silent film did you have to modify or alter your approach?
I don’t think I’ve ever had something completely without words before, though I’ve done several films which had very few words.
We have to keep reminding ourselves what cinema is, cinema is not a story with pictures. It is something in which the information and its content is described by the image, pushed forward by the image, that is the be all and end all of your information.
No, it doesn’t really make any difference. The fact that one is either blessed or cursed with a voice which is recognisable is really of no consequence at all.
I’d be in poor shape if I relied on that!
You must get sent a lot of scripts, what do you look for in a part?
My criteria that I try to keep to is, reading the script it should stand a chance of succeeding on the level it is intended to succeed on.
That means it doesn’t matter what genre it is…it must stand a chance of succeeding on the level it has chosen to try and succeed on. After that I ask ‘is there anything I can do with this part that’s personal?”
You’ve played a couple of real life people, most famously Quentin Crisp, do you apply the same criteria to those roles?
I don’t think I treat them very much differently than if they’re fiction.
I certainly don’t think that fact is synonymous with the truth, if fact were synonymous with the truth, where would the poets be? I don’t start at that level, there are certain limitations in there that you have to use not as a limitation.
The fact that Quentin knew what he was going to say, how he was going to say, when he was going to say is a very good starting point to be able to use dramatically, it leads you to his reality.
How important is it that actors of your experience support films which lack the marketing budget and machinery of a film like Tinker Tailor?
For me it’s important.
If you look at the things I’ve done over the years I’ve made quite a few short films and student films. I really enjoy doing it.
It’s a fantastic breeding ground, we don’t have B films anymore where directors can start off so I think the more shorts we make the better, and the more that they’re properly appreciated the better.
EA: It’s a great generosity that artists of John’s stature give back and it’s a great springboard, not just for me as a director but for everybody on set.
JH: I don’t consider it an act of generosity at all, I really don’t.
It’s part and parcel of being in the business of making cinema. I don’t think I’m lording it over him, saying (adopts very mock superior accent) “I’ll lend my massive talent to this little film”.
I don’t think of it like that. It’s part of what I do and I’m thrilled to be a part.