Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram Talk ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’
QUESTION: Can you talk about your approach to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in terms of how you wanted to set it apart from the traditional spy movie model?
GUY RITCHIE: The reason we were interested in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. initially was because we felt that we occupied a space that no one else was occupying. It felt like what we saw as the golden era of the thriller spy genre, if you will, but with retrospect, we could weed out the chaff and keep the weight in from our perspective. So it feels like it’s a revisionist diversion—what we like to say in a positive sense—of the amalgamation of the early genre. We felt we had a unique voice in that.
LIONEL WIGRAM: It was also set in the ‘60s, and one of the conditions we had of doing the movie was that it would be period. The other thing, which makes this completely different from any other spy title, is that there are two spies instead of a typical lone agent. And the idea of an American and a Russian, arch enemies at the height of the Cold War, is such fertile territory for storytelling. We couldn’t resist.
GUY RITCHIE: That was what I felt from it as well – what makes this different is that the two heroes really hate each other, as it were, for obvious reasons.
QUESTION: How did Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer approach playing that relationship between Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuraykin, respectively?
LIONEL WIGRAM: Much of that was taken care of in the casting process. The casting process is really a reduction of actors that were on the same frequency as us. So, by the time Henry and Armie were playing those roles, we knew that a casting session was a thousand words, if you will. We had done all the hard work, and then on the day, if we felt like riffing it a little, we could do that because we were all on the same page.
I think filmmaking is all about contrast. There was always going to be conflict between the characters; the question is, ‘Does that wear like a hand in glove, or does that wear like two hands?’ And we felt during the casting process that they were always going to understand the tone, and they did, so that was really taken care of.
QUESTION: Did you set some rules for the tone of the film in terms of injecting humor but not falling into parody or getting too cheeky?
GUY RITCHIE: Yeah, that’s a good point, actually. You want to take it up to the line, but once you cross that line, it’s hard to recover from it. So there was a non-stop conversation about how far you can push it before you lose the value of the stakes and before it turns into parody.
LIONEL WIGRAM: He’s a very big risk taker. He likes to push it. But he has very strong instincts about exactly where that line is, and I think you feel it on the day and in the performance. Guy will often look for a range of performances – ones that go slightly further over the top, and ones that play it straighter – and he finds the balance in the middle.
GUY RITCHIE: It’s comedy. To create that timing is always the hardest. Comedy can be on thin ice because you are playing with your stakes. Once you cross the line into parody then no longer do the stakes mean anything. At the same time, I like comedy and I don’t want to take ourselves too seriously. So, in the end, you’re entertainment. It’s somehow trying to keep the reins on a wild animal. If you relax those reins too quickly, gravity will just have its way.
LIONEL WIGRAM: Also, I think Guy’s very interested in the idea of the human comedy. In real life, real politics often verges on parody. Once the human factor comes into it, once you’re talking about two people and their match of posturing, it doesn’t matter anymore if they’re Russian or American, CIA or KGB. What matters is they’re two men, and they both want to prove that one’s better than the other.
So it’s the human part of it all, which I think we can all relate to. And I think it’s something we talk about a lot, and something he’s very keen on exploring.
QUESTION: You shot in Rome, and Italy has a real presence in your film, but rendered through the Guy Ritchie style. Can you talk about your references to Italian culture and cinema in the film?
LIONEL WIGRAM: I think Guy has an amazing instinct and taste, especially visually. We have an amazing costume designer, an amazing production designer, and we’re surrounded by a team of the best possible people who will come to him with ideas, and he’ll say, ‘Now that’s right, and that’s not.’ I think it’s based on his watching of those Italian films, and the feeling that they have. We’re very proud that in certain scenes, we felt like we were in one of those old movies, and that felt great to us.
QUESTION: You have always explored the idea of the male bonding in your films. What was it about this project in particular that made you feel you could peel away another layer of the male condition, as it were?
GUY RITCHIE: I think there are so many unconscious things that you’re motivated by when someone comes up with a title like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and asks what you can do with it. In about ten seconds you can cross reference, unconsciously, all the things that you find inspiring or interesting. And then you think, ‘Somehow I could make it work.’ You’re not quite sure how you can make it work, but you’ve got enough kernels of interest that you think, ‘Oh, I can cross-fertilize the things that I’m interested in.
So what does that look like when you throw all those ingredients in and stick that cake in the oven? Is that a cake that I could want to eat? And I think all of that takes place somewhere between ten and 30 seconds. Then you imagine the picture – imagine what the cake will taste like. Already, in the thirty seconds, you’ve seen all the ingredients. You don’t know where you’ve drawn them from, but you’ve just got to go on, ‘OK, one’s American, one’s Russian. We’re in the ‘60s. But then, how do you make it contemporary?’ And this all happens, I think, in thirty seconds. And before you know it, you’ve got that picture. So you really saw that picture two and a half or three years ago, when we set out on this project.
LIONEL WIGRAM: I think we both grew up so immersed in these movies and this world that it was unconscious. It was innate. There was a lot of knowledge that we had—which we didn’t realize we had—of that world. It felt very instinctive, a lot of it.
QUESTION: In reimagining the ‘60s TV series that inspired the movie, were you conscious of any elements from the show that you wanted to retain or include in the movie?
GUY RITCHIE: Not really. Because, again, the kernel of the idea came from my memory of the series. So, without getting too analytical, I remember liking it. You love all the ingredients and part of what you reference is your memory, which is quite judicious or particular. Your memory works in quite an efficient fashion—it gets rid of what it doesn’t like and puts in what it does like. And I just went on the basis of that. There were certain things I was stuck on – choreography had to be blocked. One needed to be blonde, one needed to be dark. One needed to be straight, one needed to be loose. There were just certain things that had to be that way. And outside of that, I didn’t care so much because then it just became about, ‘How am I going to make this work?
QUESTION: Even though Napoleon and Illya are not really buddies, there are buddy movie elements to this film as well as Sherlock Holmes. What is the appeal of that for you?
GUY RITCHIE: That’s just life. It’s people getting to know one another, and that’s such a pertinent subject for all of us. It feels just as pertinent.
LIONEL WIGRAM: Also, let’s not forget, they have a third buddy, who is a girl.
GUY RITCHIE: Who’s outsmarting all of them.
LIONEL WIGRAM: Exactly. All of them. We’re quite proud of that. Gaby [Alicia Vikander] adds a whole different perspective on things. We enjoyed that challenge as well.
QUESTION: You’ve got one franchise going with Sherlock Holmes. Did you see The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as the start of another possible franchise?
LIONEL WIGRAM: Sherlock came after The Man from U.N.C.L.E. But that would be great. Let’s hope.
GUY RITCHIE: It was just tremendous fun to make, and a small part because we spent six weeks gallivanting around Naples and Rome.
LIONEL WIGRAM: We loved it.