Dressed in a leather jacket and tight black pants, Susanne Bier is slim and vital and much happier than when she was promoting her previous disappointing feature films, Serena and A Second Chance.
The Danish director of Oscar winner In a Better World and the Oscar-nominated After the Wedding has turned her hand to television where she is experiencing enormous success. The Night Manager, based on John Le Carré’s first post-Cold War espionage novel, was in fact the biggest budget series ever commissioned by the BBC at a reported cost of £20 million. The gamble was worth it as the six-part series, which was executive produced by Le Carré’s sons, Simon and Stephen Cornwell, has been a huge success.
Based on a screenplay by John Farr, the action has been updated – with Le Carré’s full approval – so that instead of selling arms to Colombian drugs cartels, Hugh Laurie’s charming villain, Richard Roper, is supplying a deadly arsenal to opponents of the Arab Spring in Egypt in 2011. We meet him via Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), a suave night manager at a swish Cairo hotel, who goes undercover for British Intelligence.
As in Ben Wheatley’s disappointing High-Rise, Hiddleston seems to take every opportunity to remove his shirt and is very much the leading man. UK critics have commended the performances of Laurie and Australian Elizabeth Debicki, whose role as Roper’s mistress, Jed, becomes more significant in the later episodes.
How was it doing a television series for the first time?
I enjoyed it. The satisfying thing is you get the opportunity for substantial storytelling. It’s really thrilling doing six hours when it’s shot like one long feature film. You treat the characters differently. You can allow minor characters to become significant and to give them space in a different manner than in a feature film.
"When I saw John Le Carré’s name, I knew I had to do this."
Why did you want to do TV?
There’s a lot of the great writing in television right now and there are so many series I enjoy watching. I’d been looking for something to do in television for a while and when I saw John Le Carré’s name, I knew I had to do this.
Hugh Laurie had cherished the project since Le Carré’s book was published in 1993.
Hugh had wanted to buy the rights to the book when it came out. [Sidney Pollock got in first.] So he was somehow always in contact with Le Carré and was meant to be part of this. I found that triangle irresistible.
What is it about the story that attracted you?
The essence of the piece is that you have the worst man in the world and he’s also the most charming man in the world. He has the most lavish lifestyle, a beautiful girlfriend, a fantastic house, and he lives in a very attractive and sexy world. Then this agent played by Tom Hiddleston, who is sort of controlled by Angela Burr (A scene-stealing Olivia Colman in a role Le Carré wrote for a man) is brought into his world to bring him down. But the real question is, does he get seduced? Is he corruptible as we are as an audience, because when we look at Richard Roper we want to be next to him. He’s the guy you want to be seated beside at a dinner. That is so interesting to me and that is the core of the book and it's the core of the series, and it's the main reason I wanted to do it.
"My characters have always had secrets and that’s part of what fascinated me with Le Carré. His stories always have a moral complexity."
You’re known for sensitive dramas. How did you approach a spy series that’s a bit James Bond?
I’ve always loved spies and I don't think what I’m doing is tied to a specific storyline. What I’m doing is tied to a certain human sensibility. My characters have always had secrets and that’s part of what fascinated me with Le Carré. His stories always have a moral complexity.
You had more money than you’re used to having for a movie.
For audiences to believe that Jonathan Pine is going to be seduced, that world has to be lavish and it has to be real.
Where did filming take place?
In Marrakech, which stands in for Cairo, in London, at the Swiss ski resort of Zermatt – I saw the producers’ eyes sort of flicker when I asked if we could go there for a couple of days! And Majorca for Roper's luxurious villa, which has elements of a fortress and is surrounded by the sea.
Why did you cast Elizabeth Debicki?
She’s really interesting and beautiful. She has an agelessness, which I thought was right for Roper. Yes, he has a girlfriend who’s younger than him, but she’s not your conventional trophy girlfriend. Far from it! She’s very intelligent.
I’ve read that Le Carré was an adviser regarding the arms dealing world.
He has an incredibly well developed network of experts and people I can’t mention who are involved in the dealing.