In a year full of remakes, the upcoming thriller Sleuth might only be deemed one by the fact that it has the same title and it is inspired by the same Anthony Shaffer play that was the source material for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1972 film. It also stars Michael Caine, nearly 35 years after appearing with Sir Laurence Olivier in the original movie. Here, he takes the older role opposite Jude Law, playing Caine’s part in an ironic turn, considering that the younger actor dared to reprise another classic Caine role in the failed 2004 remake of Alfie. In this case, Law also produced the film, which is mainly differentiated from the 1972 take on Shaffer’s play by the new screenplay written by noted playwright Harold Pinter.
Law plays Milo Tindle, an actor who has been sleeping with the wife of obscenely wealthy mystery novelist Andrew Wyke (Caine), and over the course of two nights in Wyke’s luxurious mansion, they play a game of cat ‘n’ mouse to see who deserves to have the woman.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, ComingSoon.net joined a handful of journalists to talk to two generations of British actors, Caine being joined by director Kenneth Branagh for his round of interviews.
ComingSoon.net: Jude, although this “Sleuth” isn’t really being considered a remake, did you watch the original movie?
Jude Law: It was about ten years ago. That wasn’t the motivation at all. I have a company called Riff Raff films and we brainstorm and talk about ideas and you always try out a few to see which one sticks. This is about five years ago. Someone mentioned that at the core of this original was a really great kind of timeless story, a dramatic scenario; two men fight over a woman you never meet and it reminded me of Pinter. It was really just when he agreed to do it that it just started to become important, and as a producer I suddenly felt the responsibility to support this guy’s process. We worked together for about two and a half years and then he stopped writing. He says, “I’ll write and then I’ll stop”. And he stops and he doesn’t write again. You don’t ask him to do rewrites because he’s right, and that was what it really was. It was an exercise to re-investigate this timeless scenario, or question, what is it that drives men to fight and lose sight even of the object that they’re fighting over?
CS: Did you pick Kenneth Branagh to direct this and was it based on something he’d done before?
Law: I’ll tell you what it was. He was someone who I knew wouldn’t be intimidated by the lack of direction on the page because Harold just writes verse really. I needed someone that could embrace the theatricality of it, which I kinda liked. Like a Fellini or a Bergman. It had to be someone who also was going to be un-intimidated by the fact that it was performance-driven piece. I had never met Ken. We sat down and he just loved that we got to fill-in all the gaps. He loved the space that Harold left for us to interpret and he loved that we only had four weeks to shoot it. He was motivated by that. He was like, “Let’s use that. Let’s embrace that and shoot it quickly and rehearse it like a play. And I’ll capture it. We’ll do long takes.” He’s just a really intelligent, instinctive, and yet hard-working individual. On top of that, he’s probably a better actor than both me and Michael. He understands the process and he leads you very generously as an actor. He fills in details that if you politely ask him you’re like, well he’s an actor. But he also knows when you’re trying to be brave and if you feel a little insecure to go somewhere he’s like, “I know what you’re thinking. Go for it. Go there. Do it.” He was just the right guy for the job, and there was just something cool about the four of us being these Brits. It just felt right. It was an interesting quartet.
CS: Sir Michael, what was it like revisiting this movie over three decades later, playing the Laurence Olivier role with the alterations made by Harold Pinter?
Michael Caine: The alterations in the adaptation by Pinter were so great. For instance, there isn’t a single line of dialogue that was in the first (movie). There was never any feeling of doing a remake for me. In actual fact, I never would have remade the Schaeffer script, because I thought Joe Mankiewicz had done a perfectly good job of that and you couldn’t improve on it. There was no point. It was Jude who got Pinter to write the script, but Pinter had never seen the movie. He just took him the play and said, “Make a screenplay out of that” which is what Pinter did, which is what I saw. I never had any sense of having a remake or having been there before, ’cause I hadn’t. It was so completely different, as to be unrecognizable. I always regarded it as if we’d stolen the plot and title and made a film. I remember I was having lunch with Ken in London long before the movie started, and a guy came by, a friend of his, and said, “I know what you two are talking about, the remake of ‘Sleuth'” and (Ken) said “We’re not remaking ‘Sleuth,’ we’re doing a completely different movie” and that was the first time I heard that, and that’s when it occurred to me we weren’t. Also, for me, when Jude brought me the script by Harold Pinter, that changed my mind, because I have a long history with Harold. I used to be an actor with Harold when he used to be David Barron, and he wrote a play, his first play was called “The Room,” a one-act, and he wrote it under his real name, which was “Harold Pinter” and I did it at the Royal Court in London 50 years ago and I loved his writing, and it was a success. Then for 50 years, I never got offered a part in a Pinter play. I’m going, “Wait a minute, I started all this. I was the first one to do it!” And then suddenly Jude turns up and he says, “I’ve got an adaptation of ‘Sleuth’ by Pinter.” I almost didn’t bother to read it, I almost said that I’ll do it. It seemed like finally I did Pinter, because I love his work.
CS: What is it about Pinter’s writing that makes it so appealing to actors and audiences?
Caine: The secret with Pinter is that you have to play it absolutely naturally. It’s like being a straight man with a comedian. If you’re the straight man, and you try to be funny, you screw the comedian up. He’s not funny and neither are you. If you stay straight, the comedian looks funny because everybody is looking at you and going, “They’re just like me and the comedian isn’t.” That’s why it’s funny. That’s what Pinter is like except it’s not comedy. Sometimes it’s violence, sometimes it’s mystery.
CS: Was Pinter’s involvement before or after his illness?
Law: During. He’s had a bad time and is quite sick. He had throat surgery and got another bout while we were working.
CS: Having sent Michael the script and asked him to do it, if he hadn’t agreed to do it, would you still have made the movie with someone else?
Law: Possibly, yeah, but that would’ve been a whole different story. There was something very satisfying and also apt about Michael returning. There’s a sort of immediate cyclical kind of mirrored quirk to the story, do you know what I mean? And it kind of added to that. There’s a kind of repetition, which I quite liked.
Caine: When you cast a movie, if you get Brad Pitt, that’s a powerful marketing ploy. He could play Old Mother Hubbard, you’d still get Brad Pitt. He could do it, don’t worry. What you do is cast in the best possible way and if you get an extra advantage like you’re obviously going to get publicity for Jude Law doing a picture WITH Michael Caine, instead of “Alfie” or something. It is a marketing ploy but it wasn’t done for that.
CS: The original “Sleuth” was shot in 16 weeks, but you shot this in a quarter of the time. What was that like?
Caine: The whole movie was shot on a kind of adrenaline rush. We at first thought, “Why can’t we have 16 weeks to shoot it?” And if we had had 16 weeks to shoot it, we’d have screwed it all up, because we’d have had time to have second thoughts about everything. But also, we only had about five days rehearsal on the first one. We had three weeks of very intensive, long rehearsals. We both knew the whole of our dialogue before we even started the rehearsal, let alone the movie. It’s based on the Stanislavsky principle, which I espouse, which is the basis of all my acting, which is the rehearsal is the work, the performance is the relaxation. Now if you think in terms of movies. In theatre you’re working hard, but in movies, you gotta look like you’re doing nothing. You gotta be like a real person. You can’t do acting with that stuff, you gotta do behavior.
Kenneth Branagh: So the rehearsal is about all the effort to make it look effortless, so you work very hard to take that away and that’s what we did. The preparation is about being as spontaneous as you can on the day. If you really work hard, you can change things at the last minute and the boys can roll with it, because ultimately, my goal with the rehearsals was to get the boys to a part where they feel like there’s a completely improvised quality to something they’ve prepared so well, that they can surprise each other in the moment, and it’s not about setting anything, its not about repeating, it’s about recreating in the moment, as Michael says, through behavior and naturalism. To get to that point, I watched these boys work very, very hard.
Caine: But it’s also very good to have a director who’s a good or better actor than you are. (laughs) If things start to go wrong, he knows how to tell you, because he knows how he would like to be treated if he was… and he has been… in that position. To have a great actor directing what is essentially an acting piece.
Branagh: It was very interesting for me, especially with Michael but it applied to Jude also, to understand as you went on how little you needed to say, because the rehearsals had gotten the shorthand going. That’s how we could shoot it in four weeks, because that wasn’t a lot of time. We didn’t start the day going “How are we going to do this?” it was all the fine brushwork. It was getting reality, then what are the details from take to take?
CS: Having played two of the roles previously played by Michael, you’ve taken up the mantle to introduce the material to a younger generation, so do you feel you’re reigniting British cinema like Michael did in the ’60s?
Law: Well, it’s sad. There’s nothing I can really do about it exactly. There is no session or strategy to become the new Michael Caine. I wouldn’t dare. I’m Jude, and Michael Caine is Michael Caine and no one does it better. The reason I came about doing this is there was no motivation like, “Oh yeah that was a great Michael Caine role”, and I feel now looking back doing the two, I feel I made a bit of a mistake, and everyone is probably thinking, “Oh God. Jude do you need to do another Michael Caine movie?” In “Alfie” I do a bit more than that. I’ve written a good story there. “Alfie” was a challenge really. When they asked me I was quite scared by it, and then I was intrigued as to why I was scared, and then I thought, “Go and confront it. Go and do it. Take the challenge and see what happens.” And you know; you take challenges you don’t always triumph. Sometimes you take challenges and you fall flat on your face.
CS: Will we be seeing you play Michael’s part in another version of “Sleuth” in thirty years?
Law: We’ve been talking about that a lot for the last few days. The funny thing is that the guy who plays Milo isn’t born yet. ‘Cause I’m 35, he’s 7, you see what I mean? It’s kind of weird. I was born the year they made the original in ’72.
CS: Did you and Mike have any conversations about “Alfie”?
Law: We talked about it a little bit because he knew I wasn’t really happy with it. You see my take in the middle of making it was that this should be a woman. That’s how you modernize “Alfie.” Because it was a film of it’s time. The moral landscape was so different it just didn’t hold up.
CS: Do think that one of the reasons “Alfie” might not have worked was because it was produced by American companies rather than being a British production like this one?
Law: Possibly. I think also it cost too much money and put too much pressure on itself. The wonderful thing about making a film like this for this much cash is that there’s no pressure. We can do what we want.
CS: What about pressure on you? Because Jude Law’s “Alfie” didn’t make money for the studios, they might assume that you’re not a leading man who attracts people to theatres.
Law: Exactly. That’s the pressure. You learn from your mistakes and you don’t get involved in something with that kind of pressure again. You look at the budget, you look at the script, and you look at the likelihood of success. You choose more carefully.
CS: Sir Michael, have you finished doing “The Dark Knight” yet?
Caine: I’ve done that. I’ve finished the “Batman” but they haven’t. I finished two weeks ago in Chicago. They continue until October in Hong Kong. Tell you what will be the revelation of the “Batman” I can tell you now, Heath Ledger as the Joker. Wooo. He is fantastic!
CS: What are you doing next, Jude?
Law: I’m about to start a film with Forest Whitaker and it’s a very witty kind of action-thriller called “Repossession Mambo,” and it takes place in Toronto in about twenty years’ time. We play two ex-servicemen who fought in a war in Africa who both come back rather disturbed. And we work for a union company that makes artificial organs, and if you can’t pay for them, we come and repossess them. Did you see the Monty Python sketch? “We’ve come for your pancreas. It’s alright, it won’t hurt!” That’s the kind of wit of it, it’s quite funny.
CS: So this is going to be a sort of dark science-fiction comedy?
Law: Yeah, well put. I’m going to remember that. I’ve been trying to come up with a very succinct way of describing it, and you just got it. A dark science-fiction comedy. Bingo. A first time filmmaker called Miguel Sapochnik who’s from England, which makes me laugh. He’s great, a real talent.
CS: What was your experience like working with Wong Kar-Wai on “Blueberry Nights”?
Law: It was extraordinary. It was a real turning point in my experience of making films because you just throw the rulebook out the window. He gave me a vague idea over lunch of what he wanted to make the film about. He planted all these ideas of this character in my head and we didn’t use any of them. I arrived in New York and said, “Is there something I could read?” and he said, “No just come along tomorrow.” I turned up… and I decided I was going to do it as a Northerner because I knew I was going to be improvising and I didn’t want it to be me. I wanted to separate myself slightly. We just talked about ideas and ran the scenes he had a rough script on and improvised around it. It’s like he’s making the film as he goes along. He looks at what he’s got, goes to the editing room and sees what he’s got out of it. It’s really refreshing, relaxed and organic. And yeah, intriguing. You realize you hold onto so many rules you think you need to apply for it to be a solid experience for you, but it’s not always the case. It’s amazing how inventive you can be. I only wish in a way we had more time because when he works in China, the unions are so different they just keep filming. It’s slightly different in America. I think once we hadn’t finished stuff and he wanted to come back and they’re like, “It’s Saturday” and he’s like, “What do you mean?” and they were like, “We don’t work tomorrow, mate.”
CS: It sounds like you’re dedicating yourself to producing as well.
Law: I always have. I’ve been doing it since “eXistenZ” which my company Nylon did the European financing for, and “Sky Captain” was the first film I did under Riff Raff and that was because of the relationship with Jon Avnet and I loved Kerry and I loved the imagination behind “Sky Captain.” This was the first time I germinated an original idea.
CS: Do you think Kerry Conran will make another movie? There seems to be a lot of visionary directors whose movies are so daring but they don’t do well because no one will give them a chance.
Law: What’s amazing is that everyone made a thing about all of the CGI, but now everyone does it. Zemeckis does it, Peter Jackson did most it. “300.” I really would like to do another one with Kerry. I like him. I also like that there’s sort of an innocence which I liked. It wasn’t violent or sexual, it was just innocent and it was fun, and it was witty, too. Yeah, I’d like to do another one with him. I’ll have to call him.
CS: Do you have any other films you’re producing?
Law: Not at the moment. I’m working with a couple of writers on an idea I have, and there is another script that has been dormant for the last five years. This took up so much time and the old acting jobs keep coming.
CS: Do you have any plans to direct? And if so, are you looking for a script or will it be something that will just happen?
Law: I’d love to if the right piece came along. I’m not dedicating my time to find the right script to direct, but if it comes, it just sort of comes my way.
CS: Would you try to act in it also if that happened?
Law: Probably not. I think I’d have my hands full.
Sleuth opens in New York and L.A. on Friday and after you’ve seen the movie (or if you’ve seen the original and know the second act twist), you might be interested in knowing more about a part of the movie that might be considered a major spoiler if you go into it not knowing it.
CS: Jude, you also play another character in this movie, that’s very different from how we normally see you, so when you did that, did you stay in character in between takes?
Law: I did. Not because of anything other than I just really enjoyed being him, and because it was so fucking uncomfortable. I had these huge things on my nose and teeth and an itchy bloody moustache. I was sweltering hot with this massive stomach and a big fake ass. We didn’t have lunch breaks that week. We just shot straight through because I wasn’t able to break in make up. We just shot really quickly and normally on me in the mornings so the makeup was fresh and then I could take a bit of it off for Michael. But I think to kind of stay in character. We all just got to quite like him. He was a fun guy. I based his accent on my granddad. He used to say the most stunning things, my granddad. He used to always say, “Come here and stand on that spot.” And I would stand there. He was a plumber. He’d say, “The men down my road are tough. The further down the road you go the tougher they get. And I live in the last house.”
CS: How did that look come about and what were you and Kenneth going for?
Law: Two things I thought were really important. One was that you believed that this chap could do that to himself. Like, where did he get the money for that? I always find that about “Mrs. Doubtfire” really funny, because I’m an actor and no actors could do major prosthetic work on their face. I know this friend who is a make-up artist, so we just knew that we had to do little bits. We photographed my face from every angle and we just tried to change every line. So I wore a little piece there to change my jaw, a piece there to change my chin, pieces there, and one piece there. I stuck these “baby’s dummies” and cut the top part so I could breathe and shoved them up my nose so my whole nose was like that. Then I wore fake teeth, wig, ‘tash, eye lenses, and the rest was all physical.
Caine: The most important thing for me was and I remember saying to Ken is I shouldn’t recognize him. If the audience is sitting there thinking, “Why doesn’t Michael Caine recognize that is Jude Law?” His performance and everything about the Inspector was so great that I eventually, when he got to where he was going to take it off, I took Ken asideI never said anything to JudeI said, “Listen, you better show him taking this off very closely. Otherwise, people are going to say it wasn’t him, it was another actor.” I thought it brilliant, but also cleverly in the writing. Pinter has written when I see him for the first time, “Aren’t you famous? Haven’t I seen you on television somewhere?” So there is a slight recognition, but you’ve got the excuse. He thinks he’s a famous detective and he’s seen him in the paper or on television. I don’t think it matters if the audience knows, so long as they know that I don’t know, then the picture holds up.
CS: Would you like to do more roles like this, where you don’t have to look like yourself?
Law: I’d love to do more roles like that. With “Road to Perdition” Sam (Mendes) and I wanted to invent this weird guy that was memorable and yet not memorable and intimidating and yet not in a different way to Tom Hanks who is a big guy and Dan Craig who looks like a boxer. Sometimes you can’t force out a character. I think you can tell when actors are turned up and they should be doing it like this, and they are trying to find some weird angle. You got to do what is right for the part. But I like parts like that, with transformation.
Sleuth opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, October 12.