The murder mystery is one of the most well-trodden genres across a variety of mediums, but the challenge of doing something new is what led Tom George to direct See How They Run. Written by Mark Chappell, the film’s own murder mystery begins on the London West End stage of another murder mystery, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. The meta aspect of this ‘50s-set story not only includes Christie (Shirley Henderson) and Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) as characters, but it also comments on the genre’s tropes throughout the film.
After the success of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019) and the subsequent bidding war for its sequels, George is well aware that his film was green lit thanks to the newfound appetite for original murder mysteries in the States.
“What Knives Out proved is that there’s an audience for an original murder mystery. So it absolutely smoothed the way for our film to get a green light,” George tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Similar to Daniel Craig’s influence on the Knives Out casting process, George credits four-time Oscar nominee Saorise Ronan for being the first performer to sign on, resulting in a bevy of respected actors from the U.S. and the U.K. to follow suit, including a couple Oscar winners, Sam Rockwell and Adrien Brody, as well as David Oyelowo.
“It was one of those situations where you have a list of one, and so we took it out to Saoirse. And she loved the script. So it was definitely a domino effect. Quite soon afterwards, we had David Oyelowo and Sam Rockwell on board, and that’s when we felt we were really onto something,” George says.
In a recent conversation with THR, George also breaks down his fictional story’s relationship to actual history.
So in recent years, there’s been a bit of a resurgence for Agatha Christie-inspired whodunnits, courtesy of Rian Johnson, Kenneth Branagh and maybe even Adam Sandler. Do you think films like Knives Out made your green light a bit easier to come by?
Oh, it must have, surely. I’m certain it did. The thing about the murder mystery is that here in the U.K., I don’t think it has ever gone away. The ebbs and flows are more in the cinema world, I suppose. What Knives Out proved is that there’s an audience for an original murder mystery. So it absolutely smoothed the way for our film to get a green light.
Why do you think audiences enjoy this genre so much?
A murder mystery is an immersive watch for an audience. You, as an audience member, are trying to do the same thing that the detectives are trying to do; you’re trying to crack the case. And that’s a gift for a filmmaker because you are always trying to get the audience to be as close to the central experience of your one or two main characters in any film. And that’s sort of baked into the murder mystery.
You assembled quite an ensemble, and usually when this happens, there’s a domino effect as a result of one particular person. So which actor got the ball rolling for you?
Saoirse Ronan. Saoirse was the first person that we thought of for Constable Stalker. It was one of those situations where you have a list of one, and so we took it out to Saoirse. And she loved the script. We had one conversation, much like this, and then she came on board. So it was definitely a domino effect. Quite soon afterwards, we had David Oyelowo and Sam Rockwell on board, and that’s when we felt we were really onto something. It helped communicate what we were hoping to do with the film. There’s a version of this script where everything’s turned up to eleven and played incredibly arch and theatrical, but having Sam, David and Saoirse attached to it gave a really useful clue to the other people who were reading the script. All the way down the ensemble, there’s an exciting mix of big-screen film actors and British comedy talent, and it was very exciting to see them come together.
Was it daunting to cast real-life figures such as Sir Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda) and last but not least, Agatha Christie (Shirley Henderson)?
No, I didn’t find it particularly daunting, to be honest. We weren’t creating a sort of biopic. It didn’t feel like it needed to have an incredibly faithful portrait of those individualis, but at the same time, each of the actors, to varying degrees, did a lot of research and a lot of work to get it right, particularly Shirley Henson and Harris Dickinson. It was important for them to capture the essence of them without feeling like it had to be a faithful document. Mark Chappell created such clear characters so that was what led us, first and foremost. And then where it was possible, the actors would take elements from the real-life people to bring a little specificity to the performances.
Besides being an Agatha Christie-type whodunnit, you’re also playing with historical fiction, as the murder mystery revolves around Christie’s real-life West End stage play, The Mousetrap. As we just touched on, some of the real-life players are involved, too. So how would you describe the relationship between actual history and your fictional story?
The inciting idea was this real-life kernel of truth that when Christie signed a contract to approve the use of The Mousetrap’s film rights, it had a caveat that said that it can only happen once the original theatrical run comes to an end on the West End. And of course it never really has. So that led Mark to develop this idea of a murder mystery within a murder mystery.
Historically, Woolf certainly wanted to make a Mousetrap film, and he was under the impression that the [stage play] would run between eight-to-ten months. Peter Saunders, who was the real-life inspiration for Ruth Wilson’s character Petula Spencer, told Woolf that he thought it would run 10 months; Agatha thought it would run 8 months. So everyone entered into this agreement in good faith. It wasn’t an attempt to create a never-ending situation where Woolf’s film could never get made. It’s just that nobody anticipated that it would still be running 70 years later.
The play did shut down like everything else during the pandemic, although I wouldn’t count that since it wasn’t of its own accord. But I do wonder if someone tried to take advantage of that time period to finally make the film.
It’s a good question. When the play shut down during the pandemic, it was like, “Do we need to worry about this? Is the central premise of our film being damaged in some way?” Now, I suspect that a suspension due to force majeure, like a pandemic, doesn’t constitute the end of a run, but I don’t know for sure. I do know that there was a contraband Russian version made in the early ‘90s, an unapproved Russian film adaptation. It was tempting to insert that into our script or comment on it in the epilogue, but we were already spinning quite a lot of plates.
The film asks whether it’s wrong to turn real-life tragedy into entertainment. What’s your take on the subject?
I do think we have a responsibility to handle true crime stories carefully in fiction. For me, it’s really about who the story is serving. True crime documentaries are booming, and I think a lot of them are problematic. Many of them seem to just be in the business of sensationalizing murder. Others are mainly motivated by the journalist’s desire to crack a cold case and make a name for themselves. And I suppose you can say the same of a writer who uses contemporary crime stories as the basis for their own fiction, which is partly what our story is about. I think it’s important to ask why you are doing that. Do you have something to say about the case itself or the injustice of it? Or are you just using a real crime to aid your story in some way, to give it a thread of authenticity? If our story speaks to a true crime at all, I hope that we’re clearly on the side of the victim and engaged in a fantasy that places them at the heart of the story.
When Sam and Saoirse’s characters are talking at the bar, he tells her the story of when he was shot, and she replies that it sounded painful. Sam then began his response, only to abruptly start laughing. Did he genuinely break there? Or was that scripted improvisation of sorts?
That was a scripted moment played beautifully by Sam. We got on so well because we both like to have an element or spirit of improvisation in play throughout filming. Mark’s script was tightly wound and tightly honed, and a lot of it needed to be played exactly as written. When you get to take 8, 9, 10 and everything starts to feel well worn or a little too safe, you want to add a hint of danger to it. So I’m happy to have that little bit of latitude if it loosens the text.
[The following question and answer contains spoilers for See How They Run.]
Adrien Brody’s character shows some storyboards at a certain point. Did those function as your own storyboards, too?
(Laughs.) They did. In fact, they had to. I had one request of our first AD [Neil Wallace], who, together with the production team, scheduled the shoot. I said, “Can we please shoot the [final] sequence first and then shoot the storyboards that echo it? That’ll make my job really straightforward.” And of course, that proved completely impossible. So we had to know exactly what we were going to do at both ends of that piece of string. Our storyboard artists drew brilliant storyboards of that sequence, but then our art department took them and gave them that really beautiful, period-specific look for Leo Köpernick’s storyboards. They were inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s famous storyboards for the The Birds. It’s that pencil-drawn, almost charcoal look of the ‘40s and ‘50s. So it was a real collaboration between our storyboard artists and our art department to bring those to life. We definitely storyboarded both sides of the storyboard sequence.
“How do they kill the bad guys?” asked Brody’s character upon learning that police don’t carry guns in England. “They don’t! They ask them to stop in the name of the law,” replied Oyelowo’s character. As an American, that exchange really struck me. Was your intent to actually comment on law enforcement in the States?
There’s certainly a strong theme within the film about cultural differences between American tastes and British tastes in general. There are similarities that we share culturally, but at the same time, there are some quite key differences that set us apart. And Adrien’s character embodies so much of that as this brash, golden-era, blacklisted Hollywood director coming to London to adapt what he quite clearly thinks is a boring English play. So he’s looking to put his own unique Hollywood spin on it, and that runs through a lot of the film, particularly in the tension between Adrien’s character and David Oyelowo’s character. They symbolize those different tastes that span the Atlantic, and gun control is just part of that cultural difference, isn’t it?
What’s interesting about the relationship between the U.K. and the U.S. is we have so much in common that at times you feel like you are one and the same. And then there are those moments where you realize there are some certain key divisions or differences that really set us apart from each other. So it was fun to explore those in the film, and Adrien, in particular, was attracted to that part because it was a chance to send up some of those cultural differences.
Brody’s character opens the film with some critical words for the murder-mystery genre. He considers whodunnits formulaic, but I would argue that a good formula is a feature, not a bug. So do you mostly disagree with your own character? Or is he right to some degree?
I think Adrien’s character is half right. He’s right, to a certain extent, that if you’ve seen one murder mystery, you’ve seen them all. And so the challenge becomes about doing something new in a space where coming up with a completely original plot turn is probably not on the table simply because of the amount of stories that have been told already. So that challenge is what attracted me to the film itself. But I agree with you that part of the joy of the murder mystery is that they have an almost mathematical formula to them. They’re sort of like a music box that unlocks in a really satisfying way. So I think Adrien’s character is wrong to see the formula as the problem, but he’s right to see the challenge of making a murder mystery that genuinely surprises an audience.
Lastly, what genre would you like to explore next?
I always want to stay in the lines between genres. What excites me most is the challenge of bringing, as in this case, a thriller and a comedy together, and trying to deliver on both of those things. Specifically, Mark Chappell and I have started writing a film together about police corruption in a small English town. Living in England through the pandemic has brought a gold rush of elements with it, and it feels like the right time to tell a story about a very English type of corruption.
See How They Run is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.