The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Courier.
What was your approach to developing the look of the film? The 1960’s is an era we all know so well, but this felt different somehow.
Dominic Cook: In the early ’60’s in the UK, you might as well have been in the Edwardian era. Things simply had not changed! They changed politically in some ways after the second World War of course: they built the welfare state and the National Health Service; there were these big structural changes. But on the surface, life hadn’t changed at all. And the culture was still obsessed with sort of upper-middle-class, formal, domestic concerns. And that model, the sort of “empire” model of behavior, was absolutely the norm. And then within two or three years, The Beatles started, there was a huge amount of social legislation and upheaval, political protest… the world really started to shift. But in the early ’60’s, you could really have been at any time in the 20th century. So that was useful, because it told you where people’s values were, how they behaved, etc. I mean, we were just really hoping, with the aesthetic of the film, to avoid the obvious clichés. And the obvious cliché would be, “isn’t the West lovely, isn’t the Soviet Union horrible.” And we absolutely weren’t interested in doing that. I mean, I’m extremely critical of the Soviet System, but even as a huge critic of the Soviet system, there were many great things about it and what it delivered for the people. Equally, the Britain of that time was incredibly class orientated, it was very excluding… So, you know, we wanted to show, really, in the way we made the film, that what the film is really about two individuals who are completely outside of their own systems. Both systems were quite rigid, both systems both didn’t like people behaving in unorthodox ways. So therefore we made certain aesthetic choices… we used the same colors, the same sort of ideas in how we were shooting both the Soviet Union and the UK. The architecture speaks for itself, because obviously the buildings and the spaces look different. But that was the way we went. That conditioned our decisions. And the other thing was that I wanted it to feel more textured and rough than films depicting the time often do. It’s very hard not to make European movies look sort of appetizing and sentimental! Like, “wouldn’t it be good if we all lived in that time,” and I didn’t want that, I wanted it feel a bit edgier than that. So we restricted the pallet very harshly, we had very strict rules: there was to be absolutely no nature in the film (in fact we broke that rule twice: there’s a golf outing and there’s a camping holiday), but other than that, there are absolutely no trees at all. And I kept saying, “we’re not going to any locations with trees!” Because it’s really about these two guys caught in these systems. And we wanted to reflect that in the visuals. We made some rules, and we tried to stick by those rules.
The people were being trained not to feel, and if they did feel, not to show feeling
You have a background is in theater, but the film editing here is really incredible. It feels like there is no cutting at all. Can you discuss how you approached the edit?
DC: We actually had two totally brilliant editors working on this film. It was a long process— it took an entire year. It took a year because it was really about how much do you show, and how much do you not show. If you give the audience too much, you make them passive. And audiences are quick these days, and they’re smart. And so you often don’t need to give them that much, but if you don’t give enough they sort of disconnect. So it was a strange process of withholding information lots of the time, but also sort of really clarifying what the genre was. So for example, there is something inherently funny about the opening situation, where you have this rookie guy who’s just going to lunch with someone and then he’s asked to be involved in an international espionage mission! Which is actually what happened. And it’s quite funny. And I was very keen on the fact that is should be funny, because I think that humor and comedy allow an audience to connect with characters, it makes them listen. It reveals the humanity of the situation. But we had to get it right, because it was like, “this is almost too funny now,” and then the audience can’t come back to the seriousness of the film. What’s at stake when he gets off the plane in Moscow— he’s suddenly in a very dangerous situation. So those issues of balance were very important, and it was a really interesting process honing that. And then testing it with audiences… which is sort of a bizarre thing in and of itself. The danger of testing with an audience is that you ask them specific questions and they’ll give you specific answers. So yo have to receive that information very carefully. But there was a lot of useful information we got from that process, and I had two brilliant editors who worked so well on the fine-tuning of it.
The scene between the protagonist and his wife, when she visits him in prison, is so quiet in spite of the tremendous underlying tension and emotion. Can you talk about your approach to there?
DC: I think Jessie Buckley is absolutely magnificent. If you’ve met her, you just can’t believe that she does what she does in this film, because she is the opposite of the character she plays. She’s so open, she’s so present… And available. And is quite young! And she totally understood both the extraordinary depth of feeling and the uptight upper-middle-class mentality that had to be shown simultaneously in that scene, and in general throughout her ordeal. Because she was quite a bit posher than her husband (who was from a working-class family). People in those days in Britain, they would change their actions, a lot, depending on their backgrounds and who they were speaking with. You were conditioned and bred and brought up not to show feeling. This comes from the empire. There is a really interesting interview with Rupert Everett in which he discussed his experience in the public school system. And he said that the public school system, the boarding school system, is designed to “cauterize emotion.” And that’s because the people that went there had to go off and run the empire. That’s why they were set up, those schools. And I thought that was quite revelatory. Because of course that passes down right through the whole of society. And it still exists now. The people were being trained not to feel, and if they did feel, not to show feeling. And that applied to women as well as men. So that’s a very long answer to your question, because the fact is that they were desperate in that scene: she thinks he’s going to die, and he wants to take away her pain, if you like. But they are trained to be unemotional. So those were the dynamics that were at play in that scene. And when we tested the film, interestingly, in the United States the demographics were really clear: women in the States didn’t get it, the first cut. They were like, “why the hell is she so cold?!” Women in Britain, on the other hand, didn’t say that! They sort of understood, you know, that this restraint she was showing was just social conditioning. So we actually went back and sort of “warmed it up” a bit in subsequent edits; we used takes where she showed slightly more vulnerability. It’s interesting, because it wasn’t the guys who split that way, in terms of US versus UK. So that’s an example of how the test-audience process turned out to be quite useful for us.