‘The Night Manager’s’ David Farr on Writing a Hit Series, Whether There Will Be a Sequel

Farr explains the ‘non-escapist’ escapist political thriller

David Farr, 'The Night Manager'
Courtesy: David Farr

Although he cut his teeth as a successful playwright and theatre director, 46-year-old David Farr is forging an equally interesting career in film and television. After his teenage assassin story “Hanna” was turned into an action-packed fairytale by Joe Wright in 2011, Farr went behind the camera for last year’s word-of-mouth festival hit “The Ones Below,” a Hitchcockian thriller in which the lives of a young mother-to-be and her partner are turned upside down after a mysterious couple move into the apartment downstairs.

Almost immediately, Farr’s profile was raised by the airing of the BBC/AMC series “The Night Manager,” directed by Danish Oscar winner Susanne Bier and starring Tom Hiddleston in the title role. Based on the 1993 novel by John Le Carré, whose espionage stories have successfully been adapted in such award-winning productions as “The Constant Gardener” (2005) and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011), “The Night Manager” debuted in the U.K. to over 8 million viewers, challenging ITV heavyweight “Downton Abbey” for ratings supremacy. Farr most recently scripted “HHhH”, directed by Cédric Jimenez, about Operation Antropoid ­– the World War II plot to kill SS General Reynhard Heydrich in Prague.

Variety: How did you get involved with “The Night Manager”?

Farr: I think it was 2013. I was contacted by Ink Factory, which is the production company that made the piece and, as everyone knows, they’re Le Carre’s family, really – it’s run by his two sons [Simon and Stephen Cornwell]. They got in touch because they’d read two or three screenplays of mine that they really liked and they essentially offered the project to me. It was quite a simple process. Then I had to go and meet Le Carré himself – that was the final bit.

Variety: How prepared were you?

Farr: By that point I’d re-read the book, which I’d read back in the ’90s, and had come up with the way I wanted to do it. I made it very clear that I wanted to update it, because I felt there was a very strong political urgency to the book that would be muted somewhat if you did it as a period piece. To be honest, I didn’t know if I wanted to do it unless that was something that was possible.

Variety: What was the next step?

Farr: I went to see him in a pub in North London and we had a meeting that was immediately very good. He was very positive about my idea [to update it]. The Arab Spring had happened two years before, and I made it very clear that I wanted to root the piece in the Arab Spring. The original book is set in the ’90s and is almost entirely set in Latin America, it’s about cocaine and arms trading and western governmental and criminal meddling in that world. So to shift it to the Arab world was quite a big shift. But by complete coincidence the book begins in Egypt. The root story that causes the lead character’s mission – gives his mission a backstory, if you like – was originally just a little clue. But in our version it happens right in the middle of the Arab Spring in Egypt, and that’s the root of absolutely everything. As soon as Le Carré heard that and accepted the idea, he then just let me get on with it, which was absolutely wonderful.

Variety: Was it always intended to be a mini-series or was there ever a thought of making a straight two-hour feature film?

Farr: Ink Factory had just got the rights back from America, because the Americans had been trying to make it as a movie for a while, but it failed. And there is a reason for that – it’s quite a big book and it travels. It’s also strangely character-based – it doesn’t have an incredibly urgent narrative. It’s essentially the story of a man – the night manager, Jonathan Pine, who in the past, in Egypt, has had something happen to him, through the influence of a guy called Richard Onslow Roper. And then, lo and behold, Richard Onslow Roper comes back into his life years later, and he is therefore sensing a chance for redemption and revenge. So it rewards longer viewing, it rewards the series format hugely. All I had to do then was work on the structure of the piece.

Variety: What kinds of challenges did you encounter?

Farr: It became quickly clear the last 150 pages of the book didn’t really work on film. So the last two episodes are almost entirely original. There’s obviously lots of Le Carré’s characters, but, narratively, the final episode is completely new, as is quite a lot of the second-to-last episode as well. I think that might have been the other issue with adapting it previously – maybe people hadn’t been as radical in approaching that last section. I just saw so clearly that it wasn’t going to work. The whole piece is essentially a three-hander. It goes over huge amounts of space and time, but essentially it’s a three-hander between Jonathan Pine, Tom Hiddleston’s character, and the two angels he has talking in his ear. There’s a Mephistophelian angel, which is Hugh Laurie’s character Roper, and then there’s the good angel, who in the book is a man, called Leonard Burr, who is Pine’s MI6 handler. In the series we changed that to a woman, Angela Burr [Olivia Coleman]. That was my decision, just to make it more contemporary.

Variety: Did you run these changes past Le Carré?

Farr: Yes, everything really. He read every script – of course he did. But he was most concerned about Burr. Burr is his favorite character in the book. He’s a descendant of George Smiley, a bit of Yorkshire Terrier. His heart’s in the right place, and Olivia captures that brilliantly. But Le Carré made sure that we kept that moral, that heartbeat, and that was the decision that took the longest. But he was very responsive – he understood what was needed.

Variety: Is this the first time you’ve worked in long-form drama?

Farr: Yes, absolutely. I’ve never come close to it before. I’d not really written much for television. I wrote some episodes of [BBC spy series] “Spooks”, which I felt was a kind of training regime, but that was a while ago. Actually, until recently, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t that interested in television. Then suddenly, in the last five years, the possibilities are back to being as fabulous as they were in the ’80s. Back then, I remember watching the Smiley shows with Alec Guinness, then seeing “Edge Of Darkness” with Bob Peck, a mini-series with real characters and big political themes.

Variety: What was your road map for writing the script?

Farr: In the TV series, which is very different, there’s a circular quality to Pine’s story – he sort of ends up where he began – and there’s obviously a lot of what you’d call conventional thriller plotting that has to go alongside that. But it’s the main arc of the character that dominates everything, and that’s what makes Pine such a great character. He literally does wake up in the night, go to bed in the day, and live this strange, shadowy existence in these hotels where he listens to guests and watches them – it’s perfect spy material. But there is a moral and emotional reason for his penumbrous life, so I followed that quite carefully. And the book does give you huge, wonderful charting precedents. Essentially, it’s a journey of a man’s infiltration into another man’s world, and the other man doesn’t realize who he is, fully. So there is a lovely progression into Roper’s world and back out of it. That’s how I structured it, over six episodes. Also, almost each episode has a different main location, and almost all of them move. Episode three, by contrast, basically stays entirely on Roper’s estate.

Variety: Was there one master script or six?

Farr: There were very much six scripts and I delivered them in that way. The way it works in television is that you write the first one and you’ve no idea if you’re ever going to be asked to write the second one! Then suddenly it was greenlit and they said, “Right, how many can you write and how quickly?” They wanted me to do all of them, which is not always the way. But it was such a clear, linear narrative, I wrote two, three and four reasonably quickly, then five and six a little bit later. Then, as is always the case, there were lots of rewrites and ideas being thrown in, then that slightly mad process of the last month before filming when things have to change for all sorts of reasons.

Variety: It’s been a big hit internationally. Were you aware of that potential when you were writing it?

Farr: Not at all. The book just has it all. It’s about international arms trading, it’s about a man who lives offshore because he can’t come back to England because he’s not sure he won’t be arrested if he does. I think the producers – canny as they are – noticed that. The clever thing about this series is that it has a quality of escapism and yet it’s absolutely not escapist at all. It’s a completely real political thriller. There are these rather luxurious locations, which are very fashionable these days, and there’s an enormous amount of stuff about offshore trading – which is also interesting, given what is going on. I think Panama is actually mentioned; Switzerland certainly is. I wasn’t thinking about those things in any conscious way, but it soon became clear. In fact, it’s quite weird. There have been articles in the newspapers saying, “Could ‘The Night Manager’ possibly change British policy on arms?” And then on the next page there are recommendations for holiday destinations, based on The Night Manager! It bridges these two very different worlds, and I suspect that’s why it has done so well.

Variety: Is there pressure for a sequel?

Farr: There is lots of pressure but I’m not keen. Personally, I liked the fact that the story ended where the story ended. But that’s entirely personal. Given the characters, there is a potential for something more to happen, and I’m sure someone could find the right idea. But for me it’s done. My simple feeling is that I wouldn’t be able to make the next one as good. But I would love to work with Le Carré again and we are talking about future projects.”