Bringing The Conspiracy To The Small Screen
♦ Simon and Stephen Cornwell, executive producers of the BBC John LeCarre drama adaptation The Little Drummer Girl, just spoke to AMC about bringing their father’s vision to television as it is being shown on AMC from 19 November and here’s their chat with them…
Q: How did The Little Drummer Girl come about?
Simon Cornwell: After The Night Manager we were looking for something from le Carré’s work that had the same scope, scale and ambition, but was at the same time very different. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves. The Little Drummer Girl has always stood out because it is a fantastic story. The six-hour adaptation format was ideal for it. It means you can spend time with the characters, really build relationships and explore corners of the story that you can never do in a feature film.
Q: What did you learn from the success of The Night Manager that you were able to bring to this project?
Simon Cornwell: I think if there’s a secret to understanding le Carré’s work, and maybe therefore to adapting it, it’s knowing that his stories are often love stories as much as they are political. They’re set in the real world, they have a ring of authenticity to them and they are intricately crafted thrillers. Of course, they’re also very human stories. They explore relationships — it may be love between a man and a woman, two men, a father and a son, or a mother and a daughter. It may be a love that is fulfilled; it may be repressed. But there is always love, and humanity, at the core. The Little Drummer Girl is a more political story than The Night Manager, and more engaged with the world landscape. It’s dealing with themes that are very contemporary in terms of their political context, even if the story is set 40 years ago.
Q: What else about this story, set in the 1970s, speaks to the present day?
Simon Cornwell: Charlie is an extraordinarily contemporary character. The Little Drummer Girl is alone among le Carré’s books in terms of having a strong female protagonist, and in today’s world that is something that is extremely relevant. The piece is beautifully in period, but at the same time I think you’ll recognize in Charlie someone who feels very modern and very fresh and whose dilemmas and passions are things that you can relate to.
Q: Did you consider updating it to the present day?
Stephen Cornwell: We felt two things balanced out the decision to do it in period. One is that the story is organically connected to that period, in terms of the cast of characters. Secondly, despite being in period or even in a sense because it is in period, it is a way to look at a character through a very contemporary lens. Who Charlie is and how she evolves as a character is especially relevant today.
Q: How did Park Chan-wook come on board?
Simon Cornwell: The search for the director in this case was a very short one. We’d already gotten to know Director Park a little from discussing other projects. He and I had spoken two and a half years ago in Cannes about The Little Drummer Girl because the book had just been translated into Korean and Director Park had read it for the first time. It clearly resonated with him.
Director Park found that the themes of the book, the character of Charlie, the multiple identities that she takes on through the story, were things that very much spoke to him. He thought it was le Carré’s greatest novel, and he was passionate about adapting it. He’d never done television before, but he thought very carefully about it, and in the end, he threw his hat into the ring and we were thrilled.
Stephen Cornwell: We have found that you want to bring a director with strong opinions onto projects like these. Someone who brings a different perspective into the world and the characters. On a practical level, Director Park is a passionate reader and admirer of le Carré. I think if you look at his work, it makes a whole lot of sense that he would be very drawn to The Little Drummer Girl. He is consistently interested in the nature of love and revenge, and their impact on character. The other thing about him, which I think speaks of le Carré in the broad sense and the story specifically, is that Korea is a divided country. They have a divided identity of people with common interests, effectively sharing a divided land.
Q: And does it have any bearing that he has not directed a television series before?
Stephen Cornwell: No — Susanne Bier hadn’t done any television before The Night Manager. Television increasingly needs to have a grander cinematic scale and ambition and to use cinematic language. So naturally you tend to lean toward directors who have worked in features because they think in those ways.
Q: How did you come to cast Florence Pugh in the role of Charlie?
Simon Cornwell: It was a very happy combination of circumstances, because when we were talking with Director Park about casting, he said, “Well you may not even have heard of her because she’s very early in her career, but there’s really only one actress who I can see in this role and that’s a woman called Florence Pugh.” At that point our faces lit up because we’d actually just finished shooting a feature film with Florence in the lead. We all agreed that she is an extraordinary emerging talent and she brings something thrilling to the role. Florence has a cheeky humor and irreverence that is incredibly refreshing.
Q: How did you come to cast Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgård as Kurtz and Becker, respectively?
Stephen Cornwell: Kurtz is an interestingly complex character. He is enormously intelligent and hugely sophisticated, and he has an insight and understanding of both his own side and the opposition. He lives in a very human way, in that he is both blessed and cursed with this capacity to understand. So you’re dealing with an actor who needs to deliver that intelligence, that humane perspective and understanding, and Michael Shannon, well, when you watch his work you immediately see that in him. He has the perfect combination of intelligence, humanity, vulnerability, and at the same time an inherent danger.
Alex is a wonderful choice for Becker because Becker is intelligent, strong and has the potential for violence, but there’s also a quiet internalization to him. Becker has doubt as well as conviction. When you look at the reality of Alex’s character, as a Scandinavian who grew up with his father traveling all over the world and who becomes different characters as a profession, you can see a lot of Becker in him. He’s perfect for this role.
Q: What were the main challenges in bringing this story to the screen?
Simon Cornwell: It’s a huge, sprawling story, set in Tel Aviv, Southern Lebanon, Greece, Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany and, in the U.K., London and Somerset. We were incredibly lucky with the support that we received from the Greek government for shooting on the Acropolis — I think we’re the first production ever to have shot there at night, and one of only three or four to have shot there at all. It’s a thrilling experience. Also in Greece, we were able to find some very large locations that were untouched since the 1970s. For instance, in our show you will see the Beirut airport. That’s actually the old main international airport in Athens that was closed down in 1983. A new airport opened, and the old one stands untouched to this day. We were able to have a 40-acre set, perfectly in period, and it was brilliant.
Q: Any story involving Israel or Palestine is endlessly contentious. What’s been your approach to that?
Simon Cornwell: We hope that the drama presents complex, three-dimensional portraits of characters in highly difficult situations. We have characters who are Israelis, we have characters who are Palestinians, we have characters who are Brits, Germans… everybody in this piece has a point of view. I think the story takes you on a journey and makes you question whatever your assumptions or position were on the politics. Hopefully, you’ll ask yourself questions in the same way that our characters ask themselves. The only thing you can be confident of is that if you reach for the easy answers, you’re wrong.
Q: To what extent has le Carré himself been involved in this project?
Simon Cornwell: He is, as he is with all of his productions, involved and interested — and you might even spot him briefly on screen. But at the same time, his general approach to an adaptation of his work is to look to empower the filmmakers to reinterpret his story for the screen.
Q: John le Carré appears again in a cameo role?
Stephen Cornwall: Yes. Ironically, I think one of his first cameos, and one of his larger ones, was in the original movie of The Little Drummer Girl. It has now just become a wonderful moment of connectivity for everybody involved that he has these brief cameos in the projects based on his books. They’re sort of “Where’s Waldo?” moments. You have to find him. I don’t think he’ll be after a leading role, but he enjoys it every time.