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Q&A with Director Susanna White

By FF2 Senior Contributor Lesley Coffin

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Director Susanna Whites’s sophomore feature film, Our Kind of Traitor, has arrived in theaters as a smart, witty and action-filled alternative to the big box-office movies.

Based on one of John le Carre’s most recent novels, the film tells the story of a vacationing English couple who get wrapped up with a Russian money launderer. Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor play Gail and Perry, opposite Stellan Skarsgard as the charismatic Russian Dima. Like The Night Manager’s director Susanne Biers, Our Kind of Traitor is the all-too-rare example of an action thriller in the hands of a female director. White proves to have a skilled hand, juggling le Carre’s precision in the areas of espionage and politics and well-executed action, while maintaining focused on the relationship between Harris and McGregor. All culminating in a movie which proves to be a fun ride that manages to have a sincere interest in its characters.

I spoke with Susanna White about her new film and building her impressive and varied career as a director.

Q: How did you come to be attached to this film?

A: It came to me as a screenplay that I was sent by Gail Egan, one of the producer. Hossein Amini (the screenwriter) had been working on the script for a while before I read the screenplay, and then I read the book. What excited me about both the script and the book is, it’s a very contemporary story for le Carre. It’s really amazing that this man is still writing into his 80s and tells a story of a very modern relationship. They are two people struggling to have careers, and Ewan feels threatened that his wife has overtaken him in career terms. He’s lost his way a bit and he goes on this journey and has this curious relationship with Dima, and he rediscovers himself and re prioritizes what really matters in his life. It had emotional layers, which I honestly didn’t necessarily expect from le Carre. You expect the political dimensions, but there was more there as well.

Q: As a director, do you like to collaborate with a writer?

I really like working on the script development. At the moment, I’m doing a lot of script development with Steven Knight and I’m really enjoying that process. With this script, I went back to an earlier draft that Hossein had written, but that script didn’t go through any major changes, because I’d pretty much liked the template of what he’d done. And what he’s written is what attracted me to the project, because he changed a lot of what’s in the book that worked on the page but wouldn’t have worked as well on the screen. The biggest changes I made were to shift things. He’d written that we start at the ballet, seeing the pretty ballerinas dancing across the stage. And I thought, let’s start the movie with a man extended in the air. A very masculine image of a man to start the film. So I feel what I brought was a kind a visual poetry that I wanted to amplify, as well as really scrutinizes the emotional layers of the story. But I didn’t actually change that much of the script.

Q: When Naomie Harris was doing press for the film she mentioned really liking the process of working with yourself and Gail because she felt she had more opportunities to collaborate and voice her opinions about her character. What was she like to work with and what did the three of you add during production?

I think it’s true to say of the wives in the book that they aren’t dynamic character, although that’s even truer of Dima’s wife who’s almost a completely silent character in the book. Gail is an ex lawyer herself and has known John le Carre for a while, so we aren’t sure if her character was a nod to Gail. But like the Gail described in the book, Gail is tall and blonde. But compared to how she’s physically described in the book, I know it was considered an interesting choice to cast Naomie in the role. But Gail and I and Naomi were keen to make her feel more like the serious lawyer we thought she would logically be. Integrate her more into what’s happening to Gail and Perry. Through the conversations all three of us had, we changed her dialogue and made her stronger. Part of Perry’s situation is, he’s feeling lost and weak at the start of the movie, but as we developed that we had to build up Gail’s character so Perry’s had more to react to.

Q: When you spoke with Gail about coming on board to direct, did she mention the projects you’d done before that made her think of you?

I believe it was primarily Generation Kill, which showed I could direct action. It was an HBO series written by David Simon about the war. I also think this film was going to be built largely around performances and emotional depth, and I feel that comes through in all my work, whether Bleak House or Generation Kill or Jane Eyre. I always strive to have actors bring authenticity to their roles. I think she knew I had good relationships with actors and knew how to work with them. So having the ability to direct both action and actors were useful.

Q: Generation Kill is a pretty remarkable television series and the action filmed is very powerful and cinematic. Had you been looking for opportunities to film more stories with that action component?

Very much. It was actually ironic that the first film I was offered to direct after Generation Kill was Nanny McPhee Returns. And that was great opportunity and I was thrilled to get a chance to do it. But, I think that happens a lot to female directors. The first films they think of are either children’s films or family films. After Kathryn Bigelow’s win for Zero Dark Thirty and the praise she received for The Hurt Locker, you would think people would have started seeing things differently. But they haven’t. There’s a great director I know who also came up through TV and she just made her first movie this year. And despite all these incredible TV credits she already has, her first film’s also a children’s movie. So it was very exciting to finally get an opportunity to do a movie like this one. And it’s something like 3% of thrillers are directed by women, so I was excited have this chance. I love doing action, it excites me and was a refreshing opportunity.

Q: It seems every week we’re hearing about more blockbuster and comic book movies going into production, and there’s so much talk about the lack of diversity in that area of film directing. Would you be interested in taking on a big studio movie?

The next movie I’m directing, written by Steven Knight and starring Jessica Chastain, is an epic love story about a portrait painter who had a relationship with Sitting Bull. And that one’s also an independent film like this one. But I love a big canvas and it would be exciting to do a big blockbuster. It’s nice to have the big toys available to you, like the train on Nanny McPhee. I would be excited to have that kind of opportunity.

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Q: Another le Carre project, The Night Manager, just came out a few weeks ago on AMC television. The two projects couldn’t be less alike in terms of what they focus on and the scope. But after that series received such high praise, were you concerned that audiences would make too many comparisons?

We actually finished filming and were editing before The Night Manager went into production. So I was shocked when that series came out so quickly. The producers of The Night Manager rang me and asked if I could speak with Susanne Biers because she was concerned about shooting in Morocco, and I just called and said it was very straight-forward to film there. So the projects weren’t competitive, and I just hope having both of them out there adds to the appetite for his work. Both of these were contemporary examples of his work and they offer a nice parallel.

Q: John Le Carre is known for the methodical, precise detail in his work, and this film has a fast, fun, clipped pace. Did you always plan to take that approach to this project?

I really wanted people to be on the edge of their seats, and it also can make the film perhaps more accessible to audiences that wouldn’t ordinarily read one of his books. Audiences that perhaps like movies that are thrillers, even if they aren’t familiar with his work, will hopefully take an interest because they like that kind of movie.

Q: When you were starting out as a director, I read that you struggled to transition from documentary filmmaking to narrative filmmaking and it took years to make that career change. Why weren’t more doors opening to you?

To be fair, it’s hard for any filmmaker to make the transition, man or woman. It’s certainly a different skill set, not everyone’s good with actors. But I’ve just been involved with a study for Directors UK, the equivalency of the DGA, and we see that women coming out of film school experience a kind of funnel effect. About 50% of those graduating from film schools as directors are women, yet women directing features goes down to 11%, and the high budget films are down to 3%. It’s hard for everyone to go from documentary to narrative, but it’s even harder for women. But I was finally given an opportunity by a woman at BBC2, Jane Root, who gave me £200,000 to make a period drama. And while that isn’t much, we got it made and got Hugh Bonneville to star in it. So that proves we just all need patrons, people who will help us get our feet on the rung of the ladder. And my career’s been very dependent on those patrons, people like Jane or David Simon or Gail giving me opportunities.

Q: Have you worked with some younger directors as a mentor?

It’s something I’m trying to do more now. My job is so last minute, but I had someone shadow me when I worked on Boardwalk Empire. And I’ve worked with some DGA trainees. But I haven’t had someone I could work with and mentor in the UK yet, but I would like to and I’m setting it up to do it through Directors UK. We need to have a mentoring and training scheme in the UK because we need to help each other.

Q: One of the people I wanted to make sure to ask you about the casting of Stellan Skarsgard in this, who’s such a genius and I love seeing him play characters like this. How did you think of him for this part and what’s he like to work with?

I also love Stellan and he’s an actor I’ve wanted to work with for years. I worked with his son Alexander on Generation Kill and it is now my ambition to work with every member of the Skarsgard acting family. We approached him and I flew to Sweden to have lunch with him. And then he made me wait 24 hours while he thought about it, which was the most anxious 24 hours in my life. But then to made me completely and utterly joyful when he said yes. I knew I needed an actor that would bring a lot of warmth and humor to the role. Someone capable of extreme violence but could also show the emotional layers of Dima, and make it clear that he’s also a strong, devoted family man. And the joy of Stellan as an actor is, he brings so many layers to every character he plays, and makes them all so deep. And he had tremendous energy as an actor. He always wants to go again and try a different way. He’s just an utter joy to work with.

© Lesley Coffin FF2 Media (6/30/16)

Top Photo: Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris in Our Kind of Traitor

Bottom Photo: Director Susanna White

Photo Credits: Roadside Attractions & Jaap Buitendijk

More on Susanna White:

Director Susanna White has been an in-demand director since graduating for the UCLA Film School as a Fulbright scholar. She directed critically praised television documentaries for the BBC for 12 years before deciding she wanted to try her hand at narrative directing.

While it took some time to convince the higher-ups that she could succeed in the fiction world, she finally got her breakthrough opportunity in 2003 for the BBC2. She directed Love Again, starring Hugh Bonneville, Tara Fitzgerald and Amanda Root, which lead to a several high-profile projects on television.

She shared the Best Drama special BAFTA for directing half the miniseries Bleak House (also directed by Justin Chadwick) in 2006, and was nominated for the same honor as the director of the five-part miniseries Parade’s End six years later. She was also nominated for the Emmy award in 2007 and 2008 for Best Director of Jane Eyre and Generation Kill (which she directed four episodes). Her television work has continued, working more and more in cable television shows such as Boardwalk Empire, Masters of Sex and Billions. But the drive to work in film emerged in 2010 when she finally made her first feature film Nanny McPhee Returns.

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 LeslieSepiaAbout Lesley
Lesley Coffin is editor-in-chief of the online film journal Movies, Film, Cinema and host of the Chicago Industry Podcast From Lakeshore Drive to Hollywood. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances for a number of sites, including regular features and interviews for The Interrobang and The Young Folks, and previously worked as the film critic for The Mary Sue and features editor of Filmoria.