ComingSoon Senior Editor Spencer Legacy spoke with See How They Run director Tom George about the appeal of whodunnit stories and casting real actors from the golden age of cinema. The film is available now digitally.
“In 1950s London, plans for a movie version of a smash-hit play come to an abrupt halt after a pivotal member of the crew is murdered,” reads the film’s synopsis. “When a world-weary inspector and an eager rookie constable take on the case, they find themselves thrown into a puzzling whodunit within the glamorously sordid world of underground theater, investigating the mysterious homicide at their own peril.”
Spencer Legacy: This is an age of huge franchises and action blockbusters everywhere, but what is it about making a whodunnit that really appealed to you?
Tom George: I love the idea of taking the whodunnit genre and doing something new with it, I suppose. The chance to make a film that was, on the one hand, a murder mystery, but also underneath, a character comedy about these two detectives felt like a challenge to hold the elements and the comedy elements in balance. But one that really excited me.
Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell are a great duo in this film. When in the creative process did you kind of decide that they were gonna be your choices?
Saoirse and Sam came on board pretty early in the process. Saoirse was the first person we approached to play the character of Constable Stalker and Sam followed soon afterward. It was obviously amazing to have them come on board because they’re so talented as actors, but also, I think it gave everyone else a sense of what we were trying to do with the film in terms of tone and the fact it was going to be rooted in great performances. They played a big part in bringing the whole project together.
You’ve mentioned before that some of the story was set when you came on the project. How much of a hand did you have in forming the final version of the plot?
By the time I came on board, there was a really great script. That’s what got me excited about the project, in the first place, that Mark Chappell had written. But there were also things that I could see could still be improved upon. Mark was really open to that. Actually, we’d never worked together before, but it ended up being a really great process. Working through a couple of further drafts and honing that script. I always loved being involved in that part of the process, so getting to collaborate with Mark was brilliant. It was just kind of continuing to finesse what was there in terms of story and structure and certain characters — seeing a little more of them or balancing them out a little better.
That’s the challenge when you have such a large ensemble, I think, is you need to feel like you’re seeing enough of everyone in that ensemble, so you don’t feel like you are shortchanged with them, I suppose. We continued to finesse it, and that process kind of happened right the way through filming and even into the edit. I always like to keep pushing and pulling things and finessing them as far as we can and fortunately Mark shares my appetite for that work.
There’s also a real reverence for this classic age of cinema and theater and mystery stories. How did this passion inform your work on the film?
I think it was really important to me that this was a period film on the one hand, and so it wanted to feel like a fully realized version of 1950s London. But at the same time, it was so clear from the first time I read the script that there was a tension there. It can only function from a kind of modern standpoint. There’s so much in there that speaks to a modern-day viewer. You need to know a little bit about the history of cinema and the history of theater and film noir and so on. So it was trying to find an approach that could honor those two things. Things that spring to mind that came from that classic period of cinema, and particularly not just murder mysteries for me. For me, it had a lot of echoes of some of the classic evening comedies, in terms of you’ve got this ensemble cast, a comedy, but with dark subject matter.
I re-watched some of my favorites, in particular Kind Hearts and Coronets. One thing that stood out to me is ensemble framing and framing people in looser shots. Framing them within their environment is a big part of those films. They’re not the kind of films where you have a close-up and then a tighter close-up and a tighter close-up, and then three sides of the other person’s close-up. They let the characters play, they let the actors play within the frame. That dovetailed with how I like to work from a performance point of view and felt like a good direction for this film.
There’s also a very unique mix of fiction with reality. You have people like Richard Attenborough and Agatha Christie in the story. What inspired you to fuse those two worlds together?
I suppose what interested me … one of the things that stood out from reading Mark’s script was that you had this unusual mix of real and imagined characters within the world. That presented its own challenge. Because the actors who were playing characters who were based on real-life people necessarily wanted to understand to what extent should their performance be a biographical one or influenced by that real-life person. So take Harris Dickinson, who plays Richard Attenborough — I was quite clear from the start, this isn’t an Attenborough biopic and what we’re seeing is quite a specific version of Richard in this role, who’s the actor who’s always looking for inspiration for his next great role.
We managed to find a balance, I think, between what, ultimately, Harris created [as a] character who feels like an authentic version of Attenborough but at the same time, it’s a particular character that appears in our world and serves that story. Given the subject matter of murder mysteries and the fact that The Mouse Trap is a real-life murder mystery on the West End still running to this day, that was the start point for having “real” elements within the story. It was then a matter of how many would be real, how authentic, and how much would take a creative license with some of those elements. Hopefully, it lands in a place that’s satisfying.
Was it difficult or did you feel any pressure when casting these real people?
I wouldn’t say I felt particular pressure from casting the real people. I mean, the cast as a whole is so overwhelming that that was the main source of anxiety for me. We ended up with this incredible ensemble where right the way down the cast list are incredible actors both from the world of cinema and also from British comedy. And bringing those two groups of talents together was something that was really exciting for me, personally. To be honest, the cast itself, in terms of the characters that Mark had created, were a total gift. It made casting the film a real pleasure because you had these really brilliant characters, really well drawn, and they kind of jumped off the page. When we shared it with actors, they had very much the same response. That was an amazing decision to be in, where we had this script that people couldn’t wait to be a part of. It’s not always that way, so that was lovely.
A good portion of the cast has to act out acting in the film. What kind of difficulties come with directing such a meta idea?
Actors acting is always a challenge, especially if it’s … not quite bad acting, but like a particular style of acting. It’s quite a stagey style of acting. That’s always kind of tricky because you can quite easily go too far and it becomes sort of unwatchable. Harris, who plays Richard Attenborough and Pearl Chanda, who plays Sheila Sim, fortunately, did a brilliant job. Pearl actually has a lot of experience as a theater actor. I think one thing that appealed to both of them about playing those roles was that chance to lightly send our actors and their sort of processes and slight vanities and to have some fun with that. Fortunately, they both pitched them in a really nice place where it feels just stagey enough, but always watchable and always characterful.
What has the difference in reception been like between the United States and the United Kingdom, if there’s been any?
I think the reception’s been pretty similar across the U.K. and the United States. If there is a difference, I’ve realized that the U.K. audiences are exposed to murder mysteries perhaps to a greater extent than American audiences. Of course, on both sides of the Atlantic, they’re familiar with the form and the tropes, so the film works for both audiences. But definitely there’s a thing like here, we have a whole series of Agatha Christie — barely a year goes by when there’s not some new production of an Agatha Christie novel. So I’ve definitely found that U.K. audiences, I suppose, respond to it on a granular level in a slightly different way, because it’s just sort of in our shared consciousness, I think. But at the same time, for an American audience, it’s hard to put myself in their shoes entirely, but I think that American audiences like love to dip into a take on period England or period London in this case. They have that outsider perspective on London and particularly London in the 1950s as this film presents. Hopefully, there’s a sort of special magic to that for U.S. audiences as well.
You previously directed This Country, which was a series. Do you have a preference between directing features or longer series?
I’ve always felt that the difference between film and TV really is in the shape of the story, certain stories demand to be told over two hours, and others are best told over multiple serial episodes. The chance to work on different shapes of stories is what will keep bringing me back to both film and television. The challenge with the film is, on the one hand, the gift is that you get to keep really living in the world of one story for an extended period of time. You get to finesse every element of that to the finest detail. The challenge is that it’s an endurance test. You never have enough time on a TV series — in the edit in particular. You’re always working as quickly as you can and are on a tight deadline.
There are deadlines in film, but you have more time in post — certainly per minute. Then the real challenge is staying fresh to it and trying to always put yourself in the shoes of a first-time viewer or first-time audience member, even though you’ve been working on in the edit for five or six months. So yeah, it was my first time making a feature, and I really loved the whole process I’m excited to do more work, hopefully, in both disciplines
You’ve also said before that you were working with Mike Chappell again on a project. Are you able to give any updates on that project at this time?
What can I tell you about the project that Mark and I working on? I can tell you that it’s still early days, and I can tell you that it’s about local corruption, police corruption, in a very small English town. In some ways, I suppose some similar themes to See How They Run, but also very, very different and a much darker story — but always with funny bones at the center of it. Mark’s the kind of guy who can’t go 30 seconds without making a joke, so there’ll be plenty of those in there too.