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What attracted you to this film?
The possibility of avoiding an Irish winter and going to Panama was my first attraction. I was also very fascinated by the notion of this evil, materialistic, anti-Bond figure descending on Panama and finding out this man who, it transpires, has completely invented himself.
Your last film, The General, was made independently. Did you have any apprehensions or misgivings about working with a studio again?
What The General did was to remind people I was alive and capable of actually making a movie. When John Calley at Columbia told me that he'd bought the rights to this book and asked me if I wanted to be involved, I was astonished that an American studio would be making this picture, because it didn't fit with the kind of films they normally make. It cannot be reduced to a slogan.
Myth underpins most of your films, but here you appear to actually be taking one apart.
In a sense I am deconstructing the Bond myth, yes. I'm very attached to the Arthurian legend and to the Grail myth; to me it's a kind of a guide or template. When I'm working on a film script, I always think, 'If this story was in the Arthurian legend, who would these characters be and what would they be doing?' For this one, I saw Harry [Geoffrey Rush's tailor] as Parsifal and Osnard [Brosnan's spy] as Gawain.
Parsifal has a kind of foolishness and he is wandering around not really understanding what is going on; Gawain is constantly seducing women and fighting, and he is completely self-involved, and they kind of become dependent on each other. Really it's just a way of looking at things and engaging with them. And it's a reliable guide, I think, the legend, because all the characters are archetypes that have survived the test of time.
Was the novel difficult to adapt?
I think LeCarre's books are very difficult to adapt because of their complexity. You have to start from scratch, and you have to throw a lot of good material overboard, which is hard. He had actually done a version of the script himself, which was full of vitality and marvellous ideas, and I sort of cut my way through that and the book. At every stage we worked very closely together. We had a very good fax relationship. Everything I wrote I faxed to him and he would write rude words on it and send it back. Many authors are very defensive about their work, but he has a very good sense of cinema.
Are you a fan of LeCarre's stories?
Yeah, I have always been an admirer of his. I think he's a major, major writer, who, I think, has been to some extent underestimated. Because he writes in the genre of spy novels, he's not thought of as literature. My Favourite is The Little Drummer Girl, which said more about the Israeli-Arab conflict than anything else I've ever read. I once wanted to film it but the rights had already been sold.
Tell me more about the film's genesis.
Well, it took place gradually and I think one of the things that surprised me, really, was in the relationship between Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush. Right from the beginning it sparked in a very interesting way, and it became much more amusing and comic than we anticipated. This affected the way we got to the end of the film. Originally, Geoffrey was going to shoot Pierce, and in fact we shot him shooting Pierce. Geoffrey enjoyed that a lot, and Pierce died very elegantly. It felt too heavy in relation to the rest of the film, though, so we changed that in order to create a consistent tone.
How did you hit upon the casting of Rush and Brosnan? Did you test them together?
My starting point was Geoffrey. Harry Pendle is a deceptively difficult part to play, because you have an actor playing someone who has invented this persona for himself and who is also playing a role. That could just seem like acting, which you're always trying to avoid, so what we had to do was find a way that you could feel the real Harry just poking through the invented character. It takes a highly technical actor to be able to do that, and there was a lot of work involved.
Later, Pierce's agent called me up and said, 'What do you think of Pierce to play Harry Pendle?' I said I couldn't see that but I'd meet Pierce for lunch anyway. When he started talking about Harry Pendle, I said, 'Actually, I was thinking of the other character'. It shocked him at first but when he started to think about it, he was terribly pleased to have the opportunity of playing an unsympathetic character.
Do you think Pierce would still have done the film if he were not so near the end of his tenure as Bond?
I'm sure the Bond people aren't going to be too happy about this, and the fact that he was contracted to do one more may have been in his mind. He said the problem with Bond is you can't have any real violence, you can't have any real lovemaking; it's all so sanitised and bland that it's not a test on an actor. So he was very happy to have a chance to extend himself in this way.