TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E. screened from 1964 to 1968, at the height of the Cold War, and played like a small screen counterpart to James Bond’s cinema outings. The series’ smart conceit – concocted by 007 creator Ian Fleming – was to have spies from both sides of the conflict collaborate. So the West had Robert Vaughn as CIA agent Napoleon Solo, and the East had David McCallum as KGB agent Illya Kuryakin.
The show was cool and hip and lasted more than 100 episodes, but it hasn't stood the test of time as well as the aforementioned Sean Connery flicks, with the series something of a foot-note in TV history. Now however, the mismatched spies might be ready to give Bond, Bourne and the like a run for their money on the silver screen, with Guy Richie directing a big-budget version that stars Henry Cavill as Solo and Armie Hammer as Kuryakin.
IGN visited the set early last year, and this is what we learned from the aforementioned triumvirate as well as co-writer/producer Lionel Wigram and female lead Alice Vikander...
1. It’s an Origin Story
Lionel Wigram: What cracked it for us, I think, was the idea of doing an origin story. In other words, this is really the story of how the U.N.C.L.E. organisation came together. The television story has not told that. U.N.C.L.E. is simply a sort of United Nations of spies. You have a Russian and American working together at the height of the Cold War, but it’s never explained why, so I thought, it could be really interesting if you actually start with Napolean Solo a CIA agent and Illya Kuryakin as a KGB agent who are on opposite sides. We’re talking mid ‘60s, early to mid ‘60s, the height of the Cold War. It’s not more than a year or two after the Cuban Missile Crisis. So, you’ve got these two sides who are completely at odds, the threat of nuclear war, mutual threat of destruction has never been higher, and that felt like a good place, a good context to put the story in, so now, the idea is that you start the film with these two enemies. They’re on opposite sides, and as a result of what happens in the first 20 minutes, their bosses decide, ‘you know what, there’s a third party threat that’s actually more dangerous right now than either of us, so in our mutual interests, rather than sabotaging each other’s efforts to stop this person, let’s team up.’ So that’s the idea, and both bosses hope that their little sneaky agenda... both hope to get one over on the other at the end of it, but at least for the time being, it’s a temporary alliance, and from that comes U.N.C.L.E.
2. The Actors Didn’t Know the TV Series
Henry Cavill: I didn’t ever watch it. It was before my time and what attracted me was Guy [Richie]. He’s a great director and the story was very cool and I thought if anyone can make this even cooler, it’s Guy and so that was the selling point for me.
Alicia Vikander: Now I’ve seen a couple of episodes, but mostly, I mean, I knew about it… I think my Dad knew about it. He got a bit excited when he heard I was going to do a remake of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but also back home in Sweden where I grew up, I remember it was one of those series that went on in the afternoon, over many years.
Armie Hamer: It was a little bit before my time. I never really caught any reruns or anything like that, so the only thing I knew about Man From U.N.C.L.E. was that Guy Richie was directing it, and that was good enough for me.
3. The Classic Spy Stories of the 1960s Are an Inspiration
Wigram: This is the story that Guy and I came up with, inspired by our love of Sean Connery, James Bond, Michael Caine, Harry Palmer, The Odessa File, all those classic ‘60s and ‘70s spy movies, the John le Carre movies. For us, it was an homage, if you like, to those films.
Guy Richie: It’s a nostalgic thing. I always thought it was a cool title. I always liked the tone of the TV series and I thought it would have legs and I thought I could do a good job on it.
Wigram: We thought there had been enough contemporary spy movies and that we couldn’t add anything new to that particular thing. The ‘60s has it’s own particular style, and I think setting it in a time period enables you to create your own reality that the audience can escape into.
4. As is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Richie: What I’m interested in is finding a tone like Butch Cassidy. It’s a funny thing about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - I remember it not being a very revered film. I remember the reason it wasn’t that revered at the time was that it was because it was a comedy. People tend to look slightly down their noses at comedies, thinking ‘oh, it’s a comedy, so I won’t take it that seriously’. But I think it’s that much harder to make a good comedy than it is to make something that’s straight and apparently serious, so I like that balance between finding it’s a real film, but it has a lightness of touch - and I think very few people can apply that lightness of touch and that’s a tone that I’m interested in generally. And I suppose Butch Cassidy is the greatest illustration of that, because I seem to remember at that time, no one else had done that, you know? It was that bromancy, 'we take ourselves seriously, but not too seriously' and it broke the pattern of a typical genre, so ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head’ pops up in the middle of a western, and that was the first time anyone had done that. A western was no longer a western as you’ve seen it, and I think it’s the conspiracy of the different creative juxtaposition - without sounding too preposterous about this - that I find stimulating creatively.
I don’t like the idea of agents in the typical form. The idea of an agent to me brings up the idea of a man in a very boring suit who is not very good looking and doesn’t have much attention to style and he just went to sort of… he was a policeman, then maybe he was in the army and then he’s good at that and he was promoted to some aspect of secret service. The reality of where agents come from is probably… obviously a lot more dour than how we create them in films, but I like that, you know? I like the idea of taking essentially what’s a sort of boring, officious job and turning it into something that is a fantasy to a degree. I like doing something to make that entertaining. I suppose there is a juxtaposition involved in that, because you do have to be a civil servant, but you’re doing a tremendously exciting job or potentially an exciting job or a glamourous job and there is a juxtaposition in there and with Butch Cassidy, there was a juxtaposition between taking a genre and putting ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ in it, so I suppose what you’re really looking for is to find your cross genres, to a degree.
5. As is Classic Italian Cinema
Wigram: The film mostly takes place in East Germany, West Germany and Italy. We chose East Germany because we felt that it was sort of the iconic, Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin Wall… East Germany was sort of the most embelmetic of the Cold war and we felt like you had to have it. And we chose Italy because of the world of La Dolce Vita; the world of Fellini and Antonioni and Mastroianni. We thought it was just a sexy, fun, glamorous time and we wanted to have that.
6. Tom Cruise Was Supposed to Star
Wigram: We were going to do it with Tom Cruise and for various reasons that didn’t work out. There was a moment just after that when we had been considering Henry for Kuryakin, as well as Armie, and we said – you know what? We talked about Henry at the beginning for Solo – why don’t we go back to that idea and the studio said ‘You know what? That’s a great idea!'
We chose them because honestly we felt they were among the best young actors of their generation. We feel that – and the girls as well – we feel that we have the next crop. The next generation of movie stars. We’ve been fans of Henry since The Tudors where I thought he stole a lot of the scenes he was in, and we’ve been fans of Armie since The Social Network.
7. David Beckham Might Appear
Richie: It’s just a rumour. You’ll just have to keep your eyes peeled. Put it that way.
8. Much is Staying the Same
Wigram: The personalities of Solo and Kuryakin are inspired by the show, clearly.
Cavill: My character is not a born CIA man. He was very much into the black market before that and got blackmailed into the CIA… he has learned some skills, but he’s not sort of born and bred by any means.
Hammer: Illya is a bit different and that kind of creates a duo dynamic between the two characters. He’s a born and bred spy. He is a KGB agent and that’s the only thing that’s important to him and that’s pretty much all his life is about and that does create a little bit of friction between the two of them.
Cavill: I’m more anti-establishment and sort of more self-serving, I would say, whereas Armie…
Hammer: …he’s a hardcore red communist, you know? It’s all about the establishment and it’s all about the aberration of sort of the sense of American entitlement, you know? So there’s a lot of that. It’s a very different way that we both approach our jobs and at different times it definitely bugs both of our characters… they’re just opposite ends of the spectrum really.
9. Though There Won’t Be Any Thrush
Wigram: In the show there’s an organisation called T.H.R.U.S.H., which is in inspired by S.M.E.R.S.H. in James Bond, and we decided we couldn’t really call it T.H.R.U.S.H.. But we did do our research and I think one of the early inspirations for the show was the idea that T.H.R.U.S.H. was a Neo-Nazi group based in South America. Sort of an international criminal organization, but based with a centre in South America, so we thought that was a good idea. Again, in terms of context, we were very interested by the idea that in a post-war world, we’re talking where 18-20 years after WWII – growing up here in England in that time – WWII was still a very significant part of all of our lives. There were still worries about Neo-Nazis in the ‘60s. So, we wanted to include that in our story, so that’s very much part of it. So the idea is that our bad guys, our group of bad guys involved, there is an ex-Nazi in there and there’s also a family of Italians, very sort of rich, industrial Italian family, whose father was clearly connected to the Nazis, Hitler, Mussolini, and the children, or the son has carried on the sort of neo-fascist tradition, and he has a wife who is actually an English girl, who is very clever and has come up from nowhere and has married him and is actually now running the show, played by Elizabeth Debicki, who does a great job.
10. Guy Richie Loves Doing Men-on-Men
Hammer: One of the things Guy does so well is sort of like male-on-male relationships; how he’s able to create these friends who have these great dynamics and all that stuff between them.
Richie: Clearly there’s a zone that I’m attracted to, that’s men-on-men so-to-speak, and you know, I like that world, starting back with Lock, Stock. So I’m interested in that world, so there’s nothing revolutionary in the fact that I’m attracted to that as a genre.
11. But There Will Also be a Female Character Kicking Ass
Vikander: I play Gaby. She is a car mechanic who lives and works in East Berlin and she’s stuck there at the moment and then Illya and Solo – who team up – help her escape. They think that she will be able to get in contact with her uncle, who knows where this scientist they need to get hold of is, so they take her out of Germany and bring her along on their mission to Italy.
12. The Script is Flexible
Cavill: We come in every morning, we run a scene, and when we’re in the room it’s a lot easier to work out which dialogue works better and so every morning, you know your lines, but expect them to change or be prepared for any kind of change. Some days they stay exactly as they are, and other days they change completely, and that’s quite refreshing. I quite like it, because there’s no opportunity for the scene to get too stale before you actually perform it – if you over-rehearse it for example. So you get in there and you do it and it feels fresh and very new and of the moment when you’re shooting it.
Vikander: I had heard from people that he [Guy] was very open to, like you said, improvising and stuff on the set and that has totally been true and we have ended up rewriting big scenes on the day. It’s amazing when it feels like every day when we’ve walked on set, we’ve done so much more than what was on the page.
13. Armie Hammer is the Ultimate Action Star
Cavill: There’s a lot of stunt work and I’ll pick on Armie, because I know he won’t do it himself. He’s been doing incredible motorbike stuff and incredible boat stuff as well. I had no idea he was so talented doing these things, but his stunt double, poor guy, hardly gets a chance to do anything, because he’s out there doing it all by himself.
14. The Tone Will be Light
Richie: What I remembered from the series is the tone, and I was interested in that I suppose.
Wigram: This is a piece of entertainment. We’re not trying to say anything important about the meaning of life or politics or anything like that. We’re trying to have fun, without insulting anyone’s intelligence, kind of like the show. So hopefully the audience will be amused, they’ll laugh, they’ll smile, they’ll have a good time.
15. Hugh Grant Might be the Film’s Secret Weapon
Wigram: The character of Waverly [the chief of U.N.C.L.E.] is played by Hugh Grant, who does a brilliant job. He’s an example of an actor who is absolutely brilliant… you’ll see some of the touches in his dialogue are brought by him. He’s just very, very clever. He’s much better at dialogue than I am, that’s for sure.
Cavill: He’s brought Hugh Grant to proceedings.
Hammer: It’s a trump card.
16. They’re Already Thinking About a Sequel
Wigram: We’d love it, you know? Hopefully, if you have good enough characters in a good enough context, and an interesting enough setting, and a group of bad guys, there’s room for more and the audience wants more, so let’s see. Let’s see if we manage to deliver.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is released on August 14. The new movie trailer is out tomorrow.