The BFI Radio Times Festival hosted key members of The Night Manager’s cast and crew last month, with Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier, executive producer Simon Cornwell and cast members Alistair Petrie and Tom Hiddleston sharing backstage secrets on this magnificent edge-of-the-seat spy thriller.
There will be some paraphrasing – you try deciphering my notes a month later! And apologies to any of the speakers if I attribute a quote wrongly or misquote.
Radio 4’s Front Row presenter Samira Ahmed was on hand to chivvy the info out of them.
What made you want to do it?
AP: The scale – even though it was the BBC – the settings, the budget to make it happen. Thanks to Tom and Hugh’s involvement, AMC and others got on board. The budget worked without being gratuitous.
SB: I come from low budget film, so I’m used to expanding small into something worth looking at.
SC: The budget was bigger than many films, we were free to do stuff we wouldn’t normally do.
SB: The story is about being drawn into the world of lavishness. You can’t do that without it being rich. Crucial was Roper’s location. That would set the bar for everything else.
TH: The crew make it look more expensive than it was. The interior of the Alps hotel was inside tents! It’s a testament to an impeccable crew.
SC: When we found the Majorca location – originally Greece in the script – we had to rewrite.
AP: The private jet was a cardboard loo roll.
SB: It was a private jet!
AP: There was a guy with a light pretending to be the shining sun. Secrets revealed!
(At this point, Susanne’s reactions made it unclear whether AP was making this up!)
We revisited the clip of Danny’s attempted abduction, closing in on Pine’s eye through the hole in the door. Remembering how the tenseness set in almost immediately, you could almost taste the IMAX audience relive the original moment. The panel discussed how that frantic scene came together.
SB: Whenever you direct a scene you have one single idea. We had this leisurely, relaxed scene completely turned over.
AP: Susanne’s method is to go straight into rehearsal, thrust straight onto set. The crew can get nervous when cameras aren’t turning and you’ve nothing in the can. There are so many elements of the story to fit in but endless rehearsal means everyone knows where they should be. Being in the middle of it is a privilege.
SB: You have an idea, you collect material. You know this particular moment is going to be there. There needs to be real emotion. You don’t see the actors acting, you’re in the emotion. And child actors are just as ambitious as adults.
TH: The casting of Hugh Laurie was genius. His presence, his casting presented a conflict, so affable and likeable (in comparison with evil Roper) he (Roper) is charming, funny, loves his family but is responsible for awful things – all the stuff is paid for by arms.
SC: That scene was a Masterclass in acting and directing. A brilliant piece of construction. It’s in the book but came alive on screen.
AP: The nanny was the director’s daughter, Alice, just 19. I felt like a creepy old man but she put me at my ease: no, we’ll have a dance, no worries.
They moved onto the fire alarm test scene, where Pine breaks into Roper’s office looking for evidence.
SB: This shows why Tom is so brilliant. What he does, he thinks, “Who is Roper? Where would he put stuff?” Not many actors can do things just with their face like Tom.
TH: It’s my favourite scene in the book and a testament to Le Carre. You read it with a propulsive momentum. The internal compulsion within Pine is active even when he’s still. It’s classic suspense, a ticking clock time window. The props were chosen carefully: Churchillian. Boxing. Stalingrad. Roper’s fantasy of powerful statesmen yet rough enough for a boxing ring.
We took a moment to appreciate the glory of Tom Hollander in the restaurant scene where Corky loses it.
TH (jokingly): The manhandling was improvised. He didn’t ask permission. I’m scarred for life.
SC: John le Carre loved the whole experience on set. The scene is in the book but not so bold and exciting.
SB: Tom Hollander went way more extreme than we’d all anticipated.
TH: It was such a pivotal scene and so exciting. The moment of Corky’s demise and Pine’s elevation to the top rank. JLC was magnificent in that scene. Pine settles him quite quickly in the book but JLC refused to be settled – like any great actor, he forced me to achieve more.
SB: I had to direct him to accept the apologies! He was: “What about her? What about him? (being brought their correct food). Well, I think this is very shoddy.”
AP: We’re on the coffee and mints by now on the next table.
Pine v Roper
TH: The whole character was an exploration of the malleability of identity. There is something broken and unique about Pine. All his grief curled up inside. It’s why he’s a night manager, he hides behind darkness. Burr identifies that Pine is able to slide between characters. He had to embrace the side of himself that is quite like Roper. They’re looking in a mirror divided by a moral red line.
AP: My dad was an RAF pilot who came across interesting people. One guy became a good family friend. Great company – but he was a legit arms dealer. There was a disconnect between the job he did and what it led to, and the human being. You start with the human being, before the ‘what do you do?’ They do normal things and you layer in everything else.
We’re reminded how Roper likes to show off his arsenal – and then Pine blowing it all skyward.
SB: You need the scale and the drama of the explosions but it was a metaphor of the shoot out between two men. Roper doesn’t know how powerful Pine is until then.
AP: Looks bloody good on IMAX!
TH: There could only be one attempt at the explosion, everything after that had to be shot very fast while we had the smoke and flames. Hugh is magnificent. He realises he may have lost and loses his cool.
AP: Dr. House, put the gun down! Sometimes, when you’re pressed for time, magical things can happen. Tempers can get frayed. Then it crackles and Hugh grabs the gun, unscripted. An extraordinary thing captured under time pressure. We were blessed with catching lighting in a bottle moments.
SB: In a way, limitations can be advantageous. It forces you to be accurate and push the boundaries.
Twitter got a bit shirty over Pine having sex with the women he rescued after they were tortured – apparently, even Bond doesn’t do that.
SB: That’s not true – Jed is rescued by Olivia Colman. I don’t think they had sex.
TH: He’s in love with Sophie. She awakens his moral duty and he’s motivated partly by guilt.
Any scenes that took you to the brink?
SB: Every day! There’s always an element of not knowing what’ll happen, it’s part of the creative process.
TH: Fight scenes always look violent but have to be very safe. I love shooting action, it’s choreographic, like dance.
How do you feel, watching it now?
SB: It was a heart in mouth process but now I can sit down and enjoy! It was so much fun to do – none of us anticipated the impact . We showed it at the Berlin Film Festival and everyone loved it. So rewarding.
AP: If you’re really lucky as an actor you get something that strikes a chord. I’m genuinely bonded to the people involved. You share something very special. A special little gang. You’ve no idea the emails I’ve been sending with ideas for Series 2.
SB: It’s a privilege. I’m also sending emails. JLC doesn’t respond – I’m joking – I’m really scared of saying anything!
TH: I’m really proud of the team effort. The commitment and detail of every department adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It’s like a 1000 piece jigsaw landed intact. I couldn’t possibly comment on my email correspondence.
Having raised the bar for TV drama, is there a green light for Series 2?
SC: We are working on a story for Series 2. There’s no book and no Le Carre adaptation without a book. We’d love to see it happen. There’s an unspoken contract with each other but we have to come up with something really great.
It’s the greatest export in British cinema! (Audience member)
AP: Aw, shucks!
If you think Hiddleston a bit of a charmer (yes, yes, me too) it has to be noted I did leave the room with a bit of a crush on the very funny Alistair Petrie. You might say he’s now my … Petrie Dish. #sorrynotsorry