Producer Stephen Garrett discusses the hot miniseries The Night Manager and its path from novel to film
If you’re not watching the critically acclaimed miniseries The Night Manager, then AMC is where you need to be spending your Tuesday nights. Starring Tom Hiddleston (I Saw the Light) and Hugh Laurie (House), The Night Manager is based on the John Le Carré novel. It deals with an undercover agent’s (Hiddleston) attempts to bring down an arms dealer (Laurie). Directed by Susanne Bier (In a Better World), the 6-part miniseries has received widespread praise for its direction, timely adaptation of the source material, and memorable lead performance by Hiddleston.
I recently caught up with executive producer Stephen Garrett to discuss casting and the challenges of modernizing The Night Manager.
ADTV: It’s a pleasure speaking to you! A fellow Brit is always fun. I want to congratulate you on a great miniseries. I saw the billboard a few months ago on Fairfax and I was so excited. Were you always a fan of [John] Le Carré and his work?
SG: I don’t know how much you know, if anything, about my career. There’s no reason why you should know anything [laughs], but back in the UK, I founded a company called Kudos and the first series with which we had a huge hit was with a show that played in the UK called Spooks but played here as MI-5. That show was my idea and it was inspired, absolutely, by my love of Le Carré novels. That idea I had goes back to 1970 and since I was a teenager I’ve been a fan of Le Carré. When I got a call from The Ink Factory, which is the company founded by Le Carré’s son, telling me they’d read I was leaving the company I’d founded and was in the process of reinventing myself, they told me they were in the very early stages of developing The Night Manager with the BBC. They had the first draft of the first two episodes and they had Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston attached and they asked if I would like to join the project and sort of take the lead executive role on it. It was like I’d died and gone to heaven, quite frankly. Yes, is the long answer to that question, I have always been a fan of Le Carré.
ADTV: I remember Spooks. I used to love watching it. It’s crazy that that was actually inspired by him. I learn something new every day.
SG: Completely! What’s interesting is, as you know, TV and movies are full of spy stories, but at that time when we started Spooks, television on both sides of the Atlantic was full of cop shows and doc shows, essentially. That time, to go into a spy show was really quite rare in TV. Now, you can’t turn on a channel without bumping into a spy so it’s harder to make a great spy story sing. But, Le Carré is the granddaddy of them all. He invented the modern spy story and, in a way, also invented the sort of anti-hero lead. If you go back to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold he has these fabulously morally ambiguous central characters. He was way ahead of his time with a slightly bleaker, cynical, realistic view of what it meant to be a hero. He’s responsible for what we take for granted in 21st century storytelling, but he was way ahead of the game.
ADTV: Speaking of the antihero, Hugh Laurie was absolutely perfect in the casting, and he’s also obsessed with Le Carré, which is perfect. He had a history with this, didn’t he?
SG: That’s right. By his own admission, he is an obsessive Le Carré fan. When the book came out, he tried to buy the rights and somebody, Sydney Pollack in fact, got there ahead of him. He wanted to play the part that Tom Hiddleston played, but 25 or so years later he had no option but to be Roper. In a way, you sort of thank God for that because I can’t imagine anyone better than Hugh playing Roper and I can’t imagine anyone better than Tom playing Pine. Sometimes, failure and rejection can work to your advantage, and it did in that case.
ADTV: Tom was perfect for his role as Jonathan Pine.
SG: He’s had, rightly, a lot of praise for, I think, what is so hard to do proper justice to in terms of the quality of his performance. There’s so much silence and so much space between words and, with a lesser actor, that would just feel blank and dead and dull, but there’s so much going on inside his head, behind his eyes that you really can watch him, for huge periods of time, seemingly without him doing anything. That’s why what he’s doing is so extraordinary.
ADTV: I can’t say it enough how perfectly they worked together. You struck gold with this one.
SG: It was thrilling. Again, I think one can’t underestimate the role our director Susanne Bier played. If you’re familiar with her work, you know she’s won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and was nominated another time. She is just a masterful magician with human alchemy. She does her best work in the space between words and the way in which bodies react to one another so that heady mix of Susanne, Tom, and Hugh just created something special that you can only dream of really and then stand back and admire when it happens in front of your eyes.
ADTV: What were the challenges in basically recalibrating the novel? The book came out in 1993. The series was modernized and you changed the end of the book, which worked out incredibly. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but in this case, it really did.
SG: I think the three big changes were, as you said, modernizing it, and that’s where the credit should go in large part to David Farr, our adapter, who had the idea because Le Carré’s original story starts in Cairo. If you do bring it up to date and you’ve got the Cairo story happening four or five years before you get to finding Pine in the Zermatt hotel actually coinciding perfectly with Arab Spring so it all fit. It also combined with the feelings that when Le Carré was writing in the early nineties the whole thing about Mexican drug cartels felt very fresh and, yet, now TV and movies are full of that. It felt more contemporary and resonant to be talking about illicit arms dealings in the Middle Eastern context. All that fit it beautifully and that was a stroke of genius on David Barr’s part.
Then, I think, what happened with the other big change up of turning the character of Burr, who is a man in the book, into a woman, was something I, when I came on board, had in conversations with my partners and Susanne Bier. It was clear that Le Carré had created, which was true to the time, a very male world, but suddenly in a 21st century context, that didn’t feel right. The obvious person to have go through a sex change was Burr. Susanne said there’s only one actor that [she] wanted to work with and that was Olivia Colman. In their first conversation, there was good news and bad news when Olivia said, “Yes, I’d love to do it, but by the way, I’m pregnant.” We then had to navigate our way through the insurance and, needless to say, we weren’t terribly excited to send, by then, a very heavily pregnant woman to Morocco with quite intense filming of running down corridors and guns to her head or whatever. Anyway, we were so excited by the possibility, from a story and character point of view, of not just having a woman in that role, but a pregnant woman that even if the insurance had vetoed Olivia, which they came close to doing, we wrote the part to be pregnant. It seemed, to us, to add so much value and vulnerability and tension to the story as it unfolded.
With the ending, there are some endings that are very satisfying in a novel, but they just don’t work as well on screen. It’s quite hard to articulate, but it’s partly because you can get inside the heads of characters very easily in a novel. In terms of, externalizing satisfying endings, there are some things you have to reinvent. I think we were true to the spirit of the ending of the book but just handled it in a different way. At the end, as you’ve probably read or heard, Le Carré, himself, is really thrilled with how this one’s turned out. We all are such fans of Le Carré so if we made him unhappy, however successful the show had been, that would have been pretty devastating. The fact that it worked as well as it did and he’s delighted is as thrilling as it gets.
ADTV: This is a TV production, but if you were to make a movie of it, you’d have probably two hours. However, TV gives you more hours to get your adaptation across. How did that work for you?
SG: Here’s the thing, and this goes back to why it took so long for the story to come to screen, Hollywood generally has this slightly knee-jerk response when a book, particularly a thriller, appears to just get bought from the assumption that if it’s a good thriller you can turn it into a movie. The truth is, particularly with Le Carré, you can’t condense the story into two hours because if you reduce The Night Manager just to the plot, then you actually lose everything that makes your skin tingle about it, which is that slow burn of the cat and mouse game played out between Pine and Roper. There are some stories that just need more space. Some novels are great at 200 pages and some are great at 600 pages and this happens to be one that works at 600 pages.
The truth is, also, having one director and one writer tell that story over six hours essentially makes it a six hour movie. It just so happens that movie theaters can’t cope with six hour stories [laughs] so it’s perfectly suited for this new golden age of television. You’ve got audiences who want cinematic quality and cinematic complexity and cinematic ambition, but they want to watch it at home with their increasingly growing screens. As multiplex screens get smaller, home screens get bigger so the fusion between the two worlds is actually creating exciting possibilities. I think that there’s no better place for this story to be told than in ways that allow people to consume it at home.
ADTV: When you watch it, it is like a movie. The production values are so incredible and you’re filming in all these great locations. Did you have any challenges when filming in Morocco or wherever?
SG: It’s always a challenge, particularly because of the Roper character being clearly a kind of oligarch, you obviously have to find locations, in particular a villa kind of fortress that reflects his status in the world. When briefing our location scout, someone had done a bit of research and pulled out pictures of houses that were the sort of thing that would work, and someone had actually found a picture of the very house we used. We needed to find the perfect house and base everything around that and our location scout found the very house that we’d used as a comp saying to find something like that and he found that! That house in Majorca, which is owned by a British hedge-fund guy, just couldn’t have been better. Historically, it had been a fortress. It’s exactly the place that someone like Roper would hang out. We sort of extrapolated from that and used Majorca to provide locations, so, when you saw captions that said Morocco or Istanbul or Madrid, that was all in Majorca. We had a second unit camera man go to Cairo and Istanbul and create those scene-setting shots, but the details of it was all in Majorca.
In terms of challenges, we had a great Moroccan crew in Morocco and Spanish crew in Spain and our physical production team did an amazing job navigating their way through different cultures. This is sort of a long winded answer to your question about some of the challenges, but you see in the credits on movies things like ‘best boy’ and ‘grip’ and all those terms the public aren’t familiar with, but the Moroccans had this standard member of their crew who turned up every day when we were filming on location who was a snake charmer. He was there to make sure that we were not invaded by snakes. Susanne adopted him and he stood by Susanne for every waking second of every day and night that we were shooting outside in Marrakech. We had no snakes so either he did a brilliant job or there were no snakes, but I loved the idea that we had our own snake charmer.
ADTV:When you’re watching it, and I can’t remember it from the book but, there’s almost a homoerotic connection between Pine and Roper. What do you think draws them to each other?
SG: I think it is in the book and it’s something that happens quite a lot in Le Carré. I think he is very drawn to the idea of good looking men being drawn to one another, and I think that underpins a lot of the key relationships in his storytelling. That’s very much there. They are, in a way, diametrically opposed but sort of two sides of the same coin. That’s a very important part of their relationship and, in terms of the storytelling, it really only works if you’re constantly uncertain as to whether Pine might be seduced by Roper in a way; not sexually seduced, but seduced into his world. That attraction and a kind of admiration of one another’s minds and approaches to the world is part of the appeal and, I think, what also elevates this from being a conventional thriller into something that has great emotion and psychological depth, which is what makes it so satisfying. It’s never overstated, but I think there’s always just so much going on. That homoerotic attraction between those two men is a very important part of it.
ADTV: So, what’s next for you?
SG: As usual, [laughs] one always has three or four things at various stages of development so you never quite know what’s going to pop up next. There’s a project I’ve been developing with Lionsgate and Stephenie Meyer’s company Fickle Fish. Stephenie has optioned a novel called The Rook, which is a supernatural spy story set in London. We’re developing that for Hulu. It’s developed, but that doesn’t mean it’ll happen first but that could be next. At the moment, it’s just incredibly enjoyable and satisfying basking in the glow of The Night Manager going out and that will disappear soon and once it becomes last year’s news then we move on.
The Night Manager airs Tuesday nights on AMC at 10pm ET. The series wraps May 24.