I want to talk about the two leaders. You have this odd couple, the experienced detective who is down on his luck and the eager junior constable. Can you talk about getting those actors on the same page? The tone they strike is specific, these sometimes tragic characters who are also silly in their situation.
I think casting does a lot of the work. You have to find actors who instinctively have a feel for the material and how it should be played. And in some, especially in Saoirse, they got it from pretty much day one. They understood how the show should work or could work best in this play because you have a world where it’s the world of the theater and it’s a period world and it’s a murder mystery. There is a danger that the performance can grow and become something theatrical in itself. That actors end up playing the period in some way or playing the idea of these past whodunits that they’ve seen. And I was very clear that I thought the performances should be part of the thread that made this film clearly a contemporary piece. That they should have a modern comic tone about them. And that’s where Sam and Saoirse’s instincts lie. I think in general, and especially in this play, to trust that their writing will be funny if it’s played straight and they don’t have to over-emphasize the comedy to get it.
The film has a foot in reality, as “The Mousetrap” is a real play and you have some characters who are real people, like young Richard Attenborough. But it tells its own story. Can you talk about walking the line between reality and fantasy? Is this an alternate reality?
That’s a great question. Part of the fun of the film, I think, is that it’s rooted in familiar elements of both the whodunit genre in terms of character tropes and the kind of devices that drive those stories. And also some real characters like [are] rooted in the time and place of London in 1953 and especially in the context of the West End theater land where the film is based. And I think the balance was not to be enslaved by … It’s not a faithful biography. I hope that we come to the characters who are real characters with love and respect.
And especially in the case of Dicky Attenborough, that was certainly our intention. And it was something like [actor] Harris Dickinson and I talked about at the top, to what extent should this be informed by his real life? It was clear that this version of Dicky that we presented here was quite a specific type as he is the type of actor who is always looking to inform his craft with observations of real people or the world around him. He is always looking to use something for his next great achievement. And I think that was that side of the character Harrison and I were both drawn to and not to get too caught up in trying to tell the story of Richard Attenborough, but hopefully present him in a loving light because he’s one of the greats.
There are a few obvious and not so obvious theatrical references in the dialogue. One character literally says “the acting is the thing” but worked into the dialogue. A character says “He’s a real dog, Inspector,” a Tom Stoppard reference. Are there other little references there?
[Writer Mark Chappell’s] the script was tight with them and from memory the ones you picked are definitely key. One of my favorites, although not a direct reference, is when Sheila says, how would Agatha Christie like it if someone took one of her stories and twisted it and manipulated it just for entertainment, which is largely just a kind of hands up on our part. But in terms of conscious or explicit references, when Mervyn says the unusual line when he first comes on stage, when he says, “Is that the idea? Let the crazy jade crawl? Round up all the suspects and then interrogate each of us in turn . until the mystery is solved?”
Well, “galled jade wince” is the line from “Hamlet,” and the play within the play in Hamlet is called “The Mousetrap.” That’s where the title of Christie comes into play [came from]. So you can see that it all started to eat itself over time, but at the same time it was important that you had the right things in the right balance. If there are too many, what feel like in-jokes, I think it pushes the audience away. You know what we wanted were these little easter eggs for true fans of the genre or of these plays and books, but that if you miss it, no judgement. There are many other fun things to engage in, if that makes sense.
“See how they run” is in cinemas now.