Magazine article Variety

Spy Games

Magazine article Variety

Spy Games

Article excerpt

Introducing the "worst mao in the world." That dubious honorific is bestowed on Hugh Laurie in AMC's new six-part limited series "The Night Manager," as he masterfully embodies Richard Onslow Roper, a charming yet cunningly ruthless international businessman.

Lifted straight from the 1993 John Le Carré novel on which the spy thriller is based, that line "is the sort of thing a child might say," concedes executive producer Stephen Garrett. "With the people around the world we read about in newspapers on a daily basis, that's quite a high bar."

Yet perhaps even more daunting was the idea of adapting a 20-year-old spy thriller for modern audiences. Two previous efforts at translating the novel to the screen had failed. But this time out, Le Carré's sons, Simon and Stephen Cornwell, with the help of screenwriter David Farr, tried a new approach: updating the Cold War action to the present day.

The narrative was transplanted from Central America to the Middle East. Roper's illicit deal was turned from drugs to weapons. And most crucially, a key character became a woman.

The sumptuously shot, $30 million series bowed earlier this year in the U.K. to rave reviews and record ratings, averaging 6 million viewers per episode. The hope, of course, is that American audiences will similarly swoon.

AMC had tried its hand in the spy game once before with the short-lived "Rubicon," an original concept, back in 2010, but when approached about partnering with the BBC for a co-production, the network eagerly jumped back in, hoping for more success this time out. "It just came from good old-fashioned shaking the tree and opening up dialogue with the right producers at the right time," says Joel Stillerman, AMC's president of original programming. "It's been a long ride and a lot of heavy lifting."

Laurie says he's been trying to get this project made since he first read the book in the early '90s. Three chapters in, he made a few calls hoping to option it, only to find out that Sydney Pollack had beaten him to it. After the legendary director's death, the rights reverted to the Cornwell family, and they reached out.

Unfortunately, the part they envisioned for Laurie meant a bit of an adjustment for the actor. "I'd imagined myself in the role of Jonathan Pine, the hero," he explains. "But time moves on, hair falls out, knees get creaky. So I had to move up to the veteran, older-50s division, and take on the role of the villain."

Tom Hiddleston was enlisted to play the titular character, a former British soldier driven by revenge to bring down Roper, but who inevitably must compromise himself along the way. And then there's the romantic complication of Roper's alluring girlfriend, Jed (Elizabeth Debicki) and his right-hand man, Corky (Tom Hollander), who's not quite as trusting of Pine's motives.

Producer Garrett ("Life on Mars," "Hunted") was recruited by the Cornwells to help turn "The Night Manager" into a high-end TV series. Garrett embraced their notion of putting a modern twist on the tale. "Telling these kinds of stories is massively complicated in a world with cell phones, internet and DNA [evidence]," he says. "But none of those factors informed the story that Le Carré was trying to tell."

Still, the author's world was very British and very male - and Garrett wanted to bring on a director who was neither of those to reimagine that world on screen. Enter Oscar winner Susanne Bier ("In a Better World"). "What distinguishes her work is the space between words," Garrett says. "It's as much what people don't say as what they do."

That's what made Bier particularly well suited to the milieu of espionage. Notes Garrett: "When you're a spy, you can't really confide in anyone. And if you do confide in people, you're not necessarily telling the truth. So to have a director at the heart of that storytelling process who seeks out these extraordinary subtleties of character felt like the right [way] to go. …

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