The family connections don’t end there. Simon’s partner in The Ink Factory is his younger brother Stephen, a former photojournalist and screenwriter. Simon, who has a background in finance, is based in London’s Covent Garden; Stephen, 59, lives and works in Los Angeles. Since setting up their independent studio in 2010, the siblings have made two le Carre movies – 2014’s A Most Wanted Man and 2016’s Our Kind of Traitor – as well as The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl.
The Ink Factory’s next big le Carre project is another six-part TV series based on The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and parts of the author’s 2017 novel A Legacy of Spies.
When it comes to adapting their father’s books the brothers have a distinct advantage over their rivals. Since 2014, they have had a formal agreement with him that gives them first refusal on any work in the le Carre oeuvre for which film and TV rights are available.
The keep-it-in-the-family arrangement raises some intriguing questions. Is it, perhaps, a kind of inheritance; a benevolent gift from the former spy who divorced their mother in 1971?
“I wish it were a gift, but it isn’t,” laughs Simon. “It’s an arms-length commercial agreement and genuinely so. It’s complicated in lots of ways because you’re dealing with your family, but it’s also great fun.”
One imagines Cornwell family dinners devolving quickly into heated discussions about film and TV. They do, says Simon, but that was always the case. In a family where everyone seems to be a writer, journalist or actor “you’re completely surrounded by conversations about the industry and the creative world. People are always asking what you’ve read or written. It’s always part of life”.
We probably have more licence to push the envelope than my father might assign to others.
He and Stephen didn’t set up The Ink Factory expecting it to be a conduit for their father’s work. “We started and when dad heard about it he got interested,” he says. “The rights to A Most Wanted Man became available and we partnered with the same production company that made The Constant Gardener (the well-reviewed 2005 movie starring Ralph Fiennes) to make what became our first film.”
Both brothers are eager to point out that The Ink Factory has made film and TV based on books written by people who aren’t John le Carre. Examples include Hotel Artemis, a dystopian sci-fi movie starring Jodie Foster and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, an adaptation of the novel by Ben Fountain directed by Oscar-winner Ang Lee. But when you have an exclusive deal with one of the biggest names in fiction – a writer who opened his account in 1961 with Call for the Dead and quickly transcended the spy genre to become a literary powerhouse and chronicler of his times – why wouldn’t you make the most of it?
Stephen, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, says the approach works because the author and his two eldest sons share a singular vision for adapting his writing for the screen.
“My father had had a lot of experience of films [based on his novels] that were under realised. They weren’t necessarily bad, but they weren’t good. Then The Constant Gardener came along and reinvigorated cinematic le Carre. And one of the reasons that film worked so well was that the talent was additive – the screenwriting, the producing and the directing all had a very distinct voice. [Director] Fernando Meirelles made it his own story – he made it a love story about a man who had lost his wife and a love story for Africa.”
Simon concurs. “My dad has learned that to make good films and TV the author has to allow the production to have its own authorship. Each of us knows that and where we have been successful with his adaptations is when we’ve been very bold in our choice of director and writer.
“We don’t want to be generic or take the easy path. We want to bring in talent and opinion that will be unsettling. Ironically, because all three of us acknowledge the importance of these things, we probably have more licence to push the envelope than my father might assign to others. There’s a high level of trust.”
A good example of this approach is the decision to hire Park Chan-wook to direct The Little Drummer Girl. The South Korean auteur, who made his name with a trio of bloody revenge movies including 2003’s Oldboy, might appear an odd choice given the relatively cerebral nature of le Carre’s narratives. But Park is a “massive le Carre fan,” says Simon. “He’s read everything my father has written and he became completely obsessed with The Little Drummer Girl.”
Given the global success of The Night Manager it must have been tempting to make another glossy, contemporary thriller jam-packed with big names. But Park’s Little Drummer Girl is a very different beast. Its protagonist is a young woman and the actor who plays her, Florence Pugh, is a relative newcomer, now best known as Amy in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. The series’ more established stars are Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgard as Israeli intelligence officers. Set in the late 1970s, the story of an English actress recruited by Israeli agents to infiltrate a Palestinian terror cell, features exquisite costumes and art direction that create a colour-saturated, deeply atavistic world, but which never succumbs to the ‘big flares and ABBA’ clichés.
Says Stephen: “We loved Little Drummer Girl for being a female-centred narrative, for being emotionally more complicated than The Night Manager and being politically dangerous in a way. We very consciously pushed the envelope with our choice of director, the art direction and the themes. In TV terms it’s a very disruptive approach.”
Interestingly, neither Simon nor Stephen will rule out a Night Manager sequel despite the fact there is no le Carre source material for another series. “If we were going to go in that direction we’d have to do it in the confidence that we were doing justice to the original novel,” says Simon. “Never say never, but it would have to be really good.”
It’s complicated in lots of ways because you’re dealing with your family, but it’s also great fun.
Le Carre visited the set of The Little Drummer Girl in Czechoslovakia and has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as a waiter in a café. It isn’t the first time he’s appeared in an adaptation of his work. There was a silent cameo in a party scene in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (he stood next to an MI6 operative dressed as Lenin) and a fleeting role in A Most Wanted Man. In The Night Manager, le Carre played an irate diner at a restaurant whose meal is disrupted by Tom Hollander’s drunken Major Lance ‘‘Corky’’ Corkoran.
When I suggest the author might be a bit of a ham, Simon demurs. “He does enjoy it and the flippant answer is that he’s a bit of a ham. The serious answer is that he’s a very talented man who could have been many things in life. His drawings are very impressive – he worked as a book illustrator early in his career – and I think he could have become an actor. Part of the reason he enjoys [the cameos] is because it could have been a life he had.”
Le Carre’s ability to distance himself from the day-to-day process of filmmaking doesn’t mean it isn’t nerve-wracking showing him a final cut, admits Simon. Would he speak up if he was genuinely disappointed by one of their adaptations? “Yes!” says Simon laughing. “But he hasn’t been disappointed so far and I hope he never is.”
The Little Drummer Girl screens on SBS from February 6.