The production of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy had the blessings of author John Le Carre, but the challenge of staying faithful to the intent of the original 349-page novel with its intricate details while adapting it into a two-hour feature fell not only upon the screenwriters, but also on editor Dino Jonsäter.
“It’s one of those books that you have to take notes on while reading,” says Jonsäter. “The scriptwriters had a fantastic achievement, being brave enough to take things away, while treating the story with enormous respect. They did the first big job. That fact that we could fight this beast of a story and get it to work is something I think we are all proud of.”
Jonsäter first worked with Swedish director Tomas Alfredson on Let the Right One In and “found that they shared the same esthetics and ideas of rhythm and editing.” For Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy they were of the mind that the emotion of the story was based upon the complexity – the twists in the subject matter of who you can trust, who you cannot trust, and the paranoia that mistrust creates. “The emotional life is at least as important as the ‘who-done-it’ story,” claims Jonsäter. “Creating that sense of paranoia is the key element in the film. That’s something else than just straight tension. I’d say, that is the biggest achievement of the film.”
The director and editor determined a course of action for telling the story. “One of the things we decided to get on board with was the complexity. That is the foundation of such a story,” says Jonsäter. “And number two, we wanted to make a slow-paced movie. When you have so much to tell and so little time you have to be careful to not speed things up. You have to be able to let the scenes rest, instead of making everything choppy by taking elements out.”
With high caliber of actors such as Gary Oldham (George Smiley), John Hurt (Control), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline) and Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), an important consideration in editing the film was the overall quality of the acting. Jonsäter was especially impressed with how Oldham took on the character of Smiley. “Smiley is extremely smart, extremely hard, but also a very fragile character,” says Jonsäter. “When you have a character like that, you have to take care of it.”
Although the film moves back and forth in time, the filmmakers were very careful not to have any in-your-face legends or newsreels onscreen that would set-up the time or place. Instead they relied on subtle details, such as the different eyeglasses Smiley wears during different time periods, to get the audience to understand. “That’s Tomas,” reveals Jonsäter. “That’s one of the things I appreciate along with Tomas, that working with detail and authenticity. The sense that this is how it would happen.”
Although the movie was never formally tested, the filmmakers were aware of the confusion that such a complex tale might create with an audience, so they listened carefully to those who saw the picture. The edits were adjusted based on the comments. They also had to be sensitive about what might be perceived as a problem in an unfinished edit, which ultimately might not be an issue. “Filmmaking, and editing, is not about answering questions,” explains Jonsäter. “It is about creating questions. Questions are what thrill us.”