Q: Did you have any misgivings about The Little Drummer Girl being a television series when you are known as a feature filmmaker?
A: I could tell by simply holding up the book and feeling the weight of it that I would never be able to condense it into two hours. In adapting The Little Drummer Girl, not only did I tell myself that I had made the right choice in doing it for television, but I was also actually thinking this should have been 10 episodes rather than six!
Q: Is there any material difference in making television as opposed to making feature films, in your view?
A: We all went into this thinking that we were making a six-hour film because it was all shot together. But it was a challenge from my perspective in terms of physical strength and strength of mind. It tests the limits of a filmmaker — directing all the episodes of a television series. It wasn’t an easy thing to handle, especially as this is a very complex psychological thriller, in six parts, and to be on top of everything, both intellectually and in terms of how I could manage it in my head, was a challenge for sure.
Q: Did you ever feel like Kurtz in the novel — the mastermind trying to maneuver all of the actors to construct a compelling fiction?
A: Any filmmaker who works as writer, director and producer of their own productions will probably feel some affinity with a character like Kurtz. It was quite deliberate that I purposely wrote in some dialogue when Kurtz introduces himself to Charlie for the first time: He says, “I am the writer, producer and director of this little show.”
Q: You are renowned as a very visual director. Can you talk about how you wanted the piece to look and what clichés you wanted to avoid?
A: Even though this is set in the late ’70s, I didn’t want to go down the road of making it look too dark or dull or go for a desaturated look. Rather, I wanted just to go with a livelier look, more vivid. You see a lot of material that showcases the flower power movement or the revolutionary period around that time, but you don’t see many films that take place in the late 1970s particularly. In terms of thinking about how it would look, what kind of energy we wanted to bring to it, I deliberately wanted to avoid the hippie look.
Q: How were Becker and Kurtz cast?
A: In all of Jeff Nichols’ films, every time I saw Michael Shannon I was amazed by his great performances. He’s superb and he was unforgettable in Revolutionary Road. I went straight to him for the role of Kurtz.
Although I knew of Alexander Skarsgård’s work before seeing Big Little Lies, I felt I rediscovered him. I was astonished by how, without exaggerating, Alexander was able to deliver such subtlety and nuance — with such a long body! Delivering those delicate, refined performances, he just looks so elegant.
Q: Do you think that being a Korean gives you a deeper understanding of the conflict in The Little Drummer Girl?
A: As human beings, regardless of nationality, anyone who has intellect, the ability to sympathize and empathize would be able to make this story work. But if there is a level of understanding that I am able to bring to this story, it has perhaps to do with the fact that I have lived my whole life on the Korean peninsula when it was in a perpetual state of conflict. In terms of this idea of a seemingly endless conflict, I am somewhat familiar with that notion.
Q: Where was your favorite location for The Little Drummer Girl and why?
A: The location that I loved the most is this currently unoccupied little roadside motel near Karlovy Vary called The Trans Motel. It’s the room where you see Kurtz and Becker together. It’s just somewhere that the production designer spotted while she was on a scout, traveling along the motorway. It’s one room painted with very distinct colors with a big divider in the middle hanging down from the ceiling; it’s a very particular, weird place, and I loved shooting there the most.
Q: What was it like to meet John le Carré and what sort of discussions did you have?
A: I went to see him all fanboy-like, but I couldn’t stay like that because there was work to do! In the limited amount of time, I focused my questions on specific material, but the one thing I was amazed by was his incredible memory. I also loved his sense of perspective — he is not someone who is entrenched in a certain point of view. Sometimes if you are left-wing you tend to try and not see the negative sides of that particular perspective, but with le Carré he is able to see both the good and bad while maintaining that perspective.
The Little Drummer Girl premieres in a 3-night event beginning Monday, November 19 at 9/8c on AMC.
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