“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was the last script that Peter Straughan wrote with his wife, Bridget O’Connor, before her death at age 49 after a brief bout with cancer in September 2010, on the very day the film went into production.
A year later, Straughan is finally starting to write again. But he’s finding it hard to enjoy the acclaim and Oscar buzz around their critically acclaimed distillation of John Le Carre’s classic spy novel.
“It would have been great if the circumstances were different,” he says. “But I see this in a very strange light, because Bridget never saw the film. All I feel is relief that the film turned out well, because it would have been very difficult if people thought the last thing we did together wasn’t any good.”
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is dedicated to her memory. So is John Madden’s “The Debt,” which Straughan wrote a couple of years earlier , with uncredited help from O’Connor. Even when her name wasn’t actually on his scripts, he says, they wrote everything together.
“She had the downstairs office. I was always popping down and asking whether she’d like a cup of tea, and could she think of a line?”
O’Connor was an award-winning writer of plays and short stories. Aside from “Tinker Tailor,” her other shared feature credits with Straughan were “Sixty Six” (made by “Tinker Tailor” producer Working Title) and “Mrs. Ratcliffe’s Revolution.”
Straughan also wrote “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” and “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” That script, adapted from Jon Ronson’s nonfiction book about the CIA, made Straughan’s reputation in Hollywood long before the movie was made, even though the finished film didn’t quite live up to the promise of his screenplay.
He and O’Connor were hired to adapt the Le Carre novel after Working Title abandoned a previous attempt by Peter Morgan, who retains an exec producer credit. They started afresh, rewatching the iconic BBC TV series, and then digging back into the book, with the encouragement of Le Carre to alter whatever they felt necessary.
In fact, Le Carre helped them with some of the biggest changes. They invented a Christmas party scene, inspired by an anecdote Le Carre told them over lunch about an actual MI6 party that got so boisterous the police were called to shut it down. When Straughan and O’Connor decided to switch the opening ambush from a forest to a shopping arcade, Le Carre advised them on exactly how the KGB would have mounted such a sting.
“When the author is so free with his own material, it makes it much easier to adapt, but we tried to stay as faithful to the book as we could within a 120-page script,” Straughan says. “Most of the original material in this film came from Bridget. She was a very original and imaginative writer, whereas I’m much more the editor, the shaper.”
Perhaps the script’s greatest achievement is to keep the pacing unhurried for a story with so much plot and so many characters. “There were bad versions we didn’t want to make, with a lot of MTV editing speed to fit as much as possible in,” Straughan says. “We felt it was more important to keep the autumnal tone, to leave that space, that air in the script, than to pack all the plot in.”Asked how it feels to write without O’Connor, Straughan answers simply, “I don’t know how it will be. I’m just getting started. I didn’t do any work for a year. My whole life has changed on so many levels.”
He has recently resumed work on a couple of projects that have been waiting patiently for his return for the past year. “Frank,” a script co-written with Ronson, is loosely inspired by Ronson’s experience as a guitarist for cult comedy pop act Frank Sidebottom, who performed wearing a papier-mache head to make him look like a cartoon character. Backed by Film4, with Irish helmer Lenny Abrahamson onboard to direct, the project is casting to shoot next year. The script is reportedly sparking interest among Hollywood stars.
Straughan is also adapting John Crowley’s sci-fi novella “Great Work of Time” for Film4 and producer Stephen Woolley. After that, he has signed to adapt Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning historical novel “Wolf Hall” as a TV series for HBO and the BBC.
George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s Smokehouse is looking for a director for another Straughan script, “Our Brand Is Crisis,” based on the true story of the Washington spin doctors who worked on the Bolivian presidential campaign.
And Straughan also wants to direct.
In June 2010, just before O’Connor fell seriously ill, he directed a short, “Gee Gee,” which he adapted from a John Cheever story. He has an idea for an original screenplay that Film4 is encouraging him to direct. n