Primetime television drama has been proven to be an effective staging ground for Susanna White’s silver screen career; the veteran British director is best known for her work behind the camera on projects such as Jane Eyre and Generation Kill, both of which were nominated for Emmys.
White has since made the leap to feature films, helming the hugely popular family film Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang in 2010. This month, her second feature film arrives in cinemas; a sleek Euro thriller adapted from the works of renowned British spy novelist John le Carré (The Night Manager, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).
Titled Our Kind of Traitor, the film sees White knee-deep in rich espionage storytelling, navigating a conspiracy that concerns the Russian mafia, a high-value asset looking to defect and dirty money flowing into London banks.
When I sat down to discuss the movie, talk quickly turned to White’s burning interest to broaden the horizons of her fellow female filmmakers. Currently, White is considered a rare breed – but hopefully, that looks set to change.
RGD: What originally attracted you to the project – have spy movies always been an area you’ve wanted to explore?
SW: There were lots of things about it that interested me to begin with; I’ve always been a fan of le Carré going right the way back to movies like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) with Richard Burton and The Constant Gardener (2005).
I think what I loved about it (Our Kind of Traitor) initially was the screenplay; I actually read the full screenplay, written by Hossien Amini, before I read the book, and one of the things that really appealed to me about it was that it was a very modern le Carré. One tends to think of him in terms of Cold War dramas and this was different; it’s about a very modern Russia, a very modern Britain and a very modern marriage between Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomie Harris), positioned at the heart of the movie.
We start with this marriage in crisis, with two people struggling to work things out; they’ve both got careers, but Gail’s overtaken Perry and become a bit more successful. He’s dissatisfied and can’t really put his finger on what is missing in his life. So that’s when he falls under the spell of this very unlikely, very macho man, Dima (played by Stellan Skarsgard), who just so happens to be the main money launder for the Russian mafia.
So that’s what’s what drew me to it – I thought it was an interesting look at a modern world with really honest, grounded characters. To be honest, as a filmmaker, it was a chance for me to explore more complex themes. My only chance to make a feature before now was a family film, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, which was this huge opportunity, but the drama that I had done in the past had been much more complex, grown-up stuff, so to be given the chance to direct a thriller was a huge for me.
RGD: You make a good point about this being a huge opportunity for someone like yourself; I came across an eye-opening article that you wrote in May this year that examined the opportunities that are afforded to female filmmakers and it cited all these statistics that outline just how stark the imbalance in the industry is; as you listed in the article, only 16% of low-budget films are directed by women and that figure is considerably less for thrillers like Our Kind of Traitor (3.6%).
From a personal standpoint, how have found this has affected your career and limited the opportunities that are afforded to you?
SW: Well, I’ll start off by saying that for anyone to become a movie director is really hard, whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s something we dream of doing and only a few of us are lucky enough to go to film school and an even smaller proportion of people coming out of film school are ever going to ‘make it’, so I feel very lucky in some ways to have made it at all.
Having said that, it’s six times harder to make it if you’re a woman than if you’re a man. I think my career is pretty typical in that when I did get to direct a movie, it was a long time coming. After I’d won a BAFTA for my television work and received two Emmy nominations for Best Director, it took me a long while to get offered a movie, and when I did, it was a family film. Which was great, it was a big-budget movie with an incredible cast – but I think that’s very typical of how the industry works.
Another British television director who I really admire called Philippa Lowthorpe is currently making her first movie called Swallows and Amazons, and once again, that’s a children’s film – and yet if you look at Philippa’s body of work in TV, she’s done from very hard-hitting stuff.
Having directed something like Generation Kill, a miniseries about the American invasion of Iraq, you wouldn’t expect my first movie coming off of that to be Nanny McPhee – and yet, that was the opportunity I was given.
I think we do see this funnel effect where it becomes hard for women to move into genres like drama, where we see a massive drop-off in the number of directors who’re women. It diminishes even further when you get into feature films.
I guess the shape of my career is pretty typical for a lot of women, although I must say I’ve been very fortunate in being able to direct Our Kind of Traitor.
RGD: Absolutely. How can the industry move forward and work on resetting this imbalance?
I’m actually feeling very hopeful at the moment. I worked with Directors UK on commissioning that study with the hard figures, and it’s been very exciting for me because we’ve seen some really good results. We called on a range of publically funded bodies to set a target of 50% of publically funded films to be directed by women by 2020, and the British Film Institute have agreed to that target. We’ve seen that can be really effective; in fact, in Sweden, they achieved that in less than five years.
RGD: It can be done!
SW: (laughs) Exactly, it can be done! We see all these women going into film schools wanting to direct, they’ve got the skills – they just haven’t been getting the opportunity.
I feel like we’re at a really great moment because people have been sitting up and saying, “Wow, this isn’t right”. It’s not good for our culture to have such an imbalance where 50% of the population are women and yet only 11% of the storytellers are women. That doesn’t add up.
Hopefully the more of us who get out there and do it will encourage other people to come forward. So I’m actually feeling very good about the situation, very optimistic, unlike a lot of people in Britain what with Brexit – I’m not feeling optimistic about that! But I am positive about the film industry.
RGD: It’s interesting that you bring that up because Our Kind of Traitor is a very politically charged film. As you said, it takes a very modern look at modern Britain as well as commenting on things like organised crime and the ethics of modern espionage.
With all that in mind, what do you hope audiences come out of the film thinking and feeling?
SW: Everything with le Carré’s work is coloured with shades of grey. There is no black and white. Every character is flawed in their own different way.
Mostly, I want people to think about the state of contemporary Britain and its role in the global economy; to think about where the money flowing into the City comes from and about the ethical responsibility we all carry. Damian Lewis’ character in the film, Hector, is working to see justice done and is challenging the corruption that the establishment is sanctioning. That’s the overarching political theme behind the film.
None of us can control the circumstances that we’re born into, much like Stellan Skarsgard’s character Dima. He didn’t choose to work in the mafia; that was just the opportunity that was presented to him. He does his best within that moral framework. There’s a different a set of moral challenges that every character faces in the movie.
It’s complex. It stays with people and hopefully leaves them thinking about lots of things after they’ve left the cinema: modern relationships, masculinity and the state of the nation. But most importantly, I hope people have a really fun time with it!
RGD: Lastly, a lot of Our Kind of Traitor was shot-on location throughout Europe and North Africa, from Finland to Morocco – what challenges did this globe-trotting shoot present you with?
Oh my goodness, it was huge! We had two days in Finland where the menu was literally nothing but elk stew. We spent a lot of time in Paris, then on to the freezing cold Alps. It was very physically demanding shooting at such a high altitude. And then we flew on to Morocco where we were greeted with this intense heat! But it was great – what a nice problem to have! Not a bad day at the office to be honest.
Our Kind of Traitor is available in Australian cinemas from July 14
Image courtesy of StudioCanal