Published: 29 Sep 2018
Kineta lies an hour west of Athens, on the south coast of the isthmus that connects the Peloponnese to the Greek mainland.
It’s a May morning and the Gulf of Megara shines in the late-spring sunshine, the islands of Egina and Agistri just visible in the hazy distance. Closer in, Alexander Skarsgård – Eric Northman in True Blood – and Florence Pugh – the breakout star of last year’s Lady Macbeth – are walking along the tideline. They’re deep in conversation, making their way slowly towards a bank of cameras. We are meant to be in Naxos, the scene an early meeting between the two principal characters in the BBC’s latest John le Carré adaptation, The Little Drummer Girl, a new six-part series.
As Pugh and Skarsgård finish their take and stroll back to the far end of the beach for a second run at the scene, the director, Park Chan-wook – the South Korean best known for his films Oldboy and Stoker – pores over the rushes in a specially constructed tent. Two things about Park (as he’s known by everyone on set) are immediately obvious.
Firstly, he’s sensitive to sunlight and directs in a kind of black cagoule, a series of umbrellas held above him at all times. Secondly, he doesn’t speak English, so all communication with the actors goes through his right-hand man, Wonjo Jeong.
‘Ever since I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold when I was in high school I was a big admirer of le Carré, but I only read The Little Drummer Girl in 2015,’ Park says. ‘I was immediately mesmerised by it and I thought it was his best work.’
He also found a more personal resonance in the story’s setting across the Israel/Palestine divide. ‘I have lived my whole life in the Korean peninsula where it seemed that the vicious cycle of mutual vilification, retaliations, and counter-retaliations would go on for ever, which is why The Little Drummer Girl didn’t at all seem like someone else’s problem.’
The little drummer girl of the title is Charlie (Pugh), a charismatic English woman at the end of the 1970s, airily left wing without much commitment to her politics. Her career as an actor hasn’t taken off and she spends her time following her boorish boyfriend, Al, around.
They’re on Naxos with a troupe of fellow thespians when Charlie meets a wounded, enigmatic figure on the beach. He offers her a part, one that will change her life for ever. She is enlisted by this man – Becker, a Mossad agent (Skarsgård) – and his Machiavellian superior, Kurtz (played by Michael Shannon), to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell and track down its ringleader, Khalil.Over the course of the tale, she finds herself tested again and again, perceives the shallowness of the political posturing of her youth, and discovers within herself extraordinary resilience and courage.
The Little Drummer Girl is produced by The Ink Factory, the company run by le Carré’s sons, Simon and Stephen Cornwell (le Carré’s real name is David Cornwell), who also made The Night Manager and hold the rights to all of their father’s novels.
I ask Simon, given the number of novels that their father has written, how they settled on The Little Drummer Girl. ‘It shared a lot with The Night Manager but at the same time was very different. The things that it shares are scale, scope, and creative ambition. It’s a great big book, 550 pages long, and full of extraordinary characters that muscle their way off the pages, so it was an enticing prospect from that perspective. At the same time it is very different as it’s the only one of le Carré’s novels that has a female protagonist at its core and feels incredibly contemporary, even though the book was written and is set almost 40 years ago.’
If the novel had not been so sensitive to both sides of the conflict I would not have dared adapt it
Le Carré is known for making cameo appearances in the films of his novels: he was an irate diner in The Night Manager; this time he plays a waiter in a restaurant scene.
I sit down with production designer Maria Djurkovic, in front of a stunning futurist villa, just up the beach from the filming. The beach house looks like it has been snatched straight out of the 1970s, and is meant to be the Tel Aviv hideaway to which Mossad spirits Charlie.
How did Djurkovic, who was the designer on the 2011 film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, approach Drummer Girl? ‘I read the novel on a beach in Paxos,’ she says. ‘I loved it, first because it was all over the place geographically, but also because of when it was set – 1979 – so on the cusp of the ’80s. I think there’s this tendency when something’s set in the ’70s to go for all those clichés, the floral prints, the browns. I always do a huge amount of research before I start something and I try to develop a visual language for it. For this, it was all about strong blocks of colour. So even where we’re sitting now, you’ll see orange chairs, bright-green chairs and not that idea that everything was olive and brown.’
The Little Drummer Girl is dizzyingly multi-national: Charlie’s journey takes her from England to Greece to Palestine to Tel Aviv, with various subplots unfolding in Yugoslavia, Germany and Austria. Filming had already taken place in the UK and Athens, with three weeks in the Czech Republic still to shoot. Greece has not only played itself but has also stood in for Palestinian refugee camps and an Israeli beach resort.
One of Djurkovic’s first tasks on joining the production was to address the question of locations. ‘The Ink Factory had had such a good experience of shooting in Morocco on The Night Manager that they were always intending to shoot all of the Middle Eastern stuff there. My first contribution was to say that I was pretty certain we could find a location in Greece. I’m really happy with how that’s worked out. Another thing I did was speak to a fantastic German location manager and he said that rather than shooting in Germany we needed to find a 1970s version of Germany in the Czech Republic.’
At this point, having finished filming, Florence Pugh walks up the steps to the villa towards us in a bright-orange dress. Her hair, which has been dyed auburn for the part, catches the light falling down between the pine trees. Pugh, 22, is a relative newcomer, after bursting on to the scene last year with a thrilling performance in William Oldroyd’s brutally compelling Lady Macbeth.
She has since appeared as Cordelia to Anthony Hopkins’ Lear in Richard Eyre’s film of the play, but The Little Drummer Girl represents a significant new chapter in her acting life: a role of complexity and subtlety across the broader canvas that six hours of television allows.
Pugh first met Park a year before she won the part. ‘It was at the London Film Festival, where he was screening his film The Handmaiden and he said that he’d watched my film [Lady Macbeth]. We had this last-minute meeting just before he was about to get on the plane home. It was an hour of eating eggs and talking. It was so surreal, and when he left he said he’d love to work with me one day. A year later I got the email saying that they wanted me as Charlie. It was so wonderful.’
One of the great challenges for Pugh, she tells me, was the fact that Charlie goes on such an extraordinary journey over the course of the tale. Portraying such change as it happens would be difficult, but the multi-location nature of the filming means that Pugh is called upon to play experience in the morning and innocence in the afternoon.
‘It’s very rare that you film in chronological order,’ Pugh tells me, ‘but this has been such a hard one to keep up with. It’s six episodes and in almost every single scene Charlie is in a completely different state. I don’t have a clue how I’m going to play it. You have to trust your instincts and trust everyone you’re working alongside. It has been really tricky.’
Le Carré’s story takes a very even-handed approach to the thorny politics of Palestine, refusing either to lionise its Mossad heroes or demonise its terrorists. Partly this was the result of a friendship.
Le Carré was taken to visit refugee camps in Palestine by the journalist Janet Lee Stevens, who was known as ‘the little drummer girl’. She’d witnessed the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon and wrote movingly about their plight. At the age of 32, only a few months before the publication of the novel that bore her nickname, she was among the 63 killed in the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, an atrocity now viewed as the first Islamic terrorist attack on a US target.
One of the ways in which The Little Drummer Girl has addressed the political complexities of its story is by using a mixture of Palestinian and Israeli actors to fill its minor roles, often having Palestinians playing Israelis and vice versa. During a pause between scenes, I speak with producer Laura Hastings-Smith about the exigencies of making a film with such a difficult political setting. Hastings-Smith, who produced Steve McQueen’s Hunger, about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, says, ‘It isn’t about pleasing one faction or the other, it’s about finding a middle course.’
It was important, she tells me, that the mixture of Israeli and Palestinian actors provided a continuous source of feedback on the political register of the production. ‘They keep us alert and awake. There’s been a lot of discussion on set as well as around the script. We’ve really been careful about how we’re portraying people and how we acknowledge the political backdrop and respond to it in a sensitive way.’
In the end, though, she says, there was one thing that they never lost sight of when it came to the conflict: ‘Ultimately it’s a tragedy, and it continues to be one. That’s the story.’ At the end of the day’s filming, the cameras are ranged up along the beach, the light golden, and Skarsgård is swimming a strong slow crawl through the sun-sparkled water. His character, Becker, has been brought back into the fold for a final mission. This swimming scene comes early on, as Charlie is falling for him.
I catch up with Skarsgård on the second floor of the villa. We sip iced coffee and I ask him how he got under the skin of such an enigmatic character. ‘With Becker,’ he says, ‘it was about figuring out where he comes from emotionally. What his background was, how he ended up leaving Mossad, the way that what was going on in that region geopolitically affected him so much that he left his career and his wife.
‘That sense of duty and guilt at the same time, that dichotomy created an inner conflict that I found really interesting. Wanting to do something but feeling helpless was core to finding out who he was.’ Skarsgård reminds me that his father, Stellan, starred in 2016’s My Kind of Traitor, another le Carré adaptation. ‘So I’m familiar with this cinematic universe.’ The highlight of this current project, though, he tells me, was the night they filmed at the Acropolis, the whole site opened just for them, the sense of having half a foot in the world of Socrates and Plato.
It’s again a scene early in the relationship between Becker and Charlie, where you feel she’s being seduced by the beauty of the landscape as much as by Becker himself. ‘It was just extraordinary,’ he says. ‘You could tell that for everyone this would be one of the most memorable nights of their life.’
What strikes you more than anything about The Little Drummer Girl is that the fundamental political backdrop has scarcely changed. Park Chan-wook sees it as a testimony to the brilliance of le Carré’s novel that it still speaks to us almost 40 years after it was first published. ‘If the original novel had not been as sensitive as it is to both sides of the conflict I would not have dared adapt it,’ he tells me.
‘In terms of the roots of the conflict never going anywhere, and the fundamental issues never having been resolved, one could say it’s the same now as it was back then. To put it another way, The Little Drummer Girl is a novel that remains profoundly relevant today.’
The Little Drummer Girl is on BBC One next month.