How do you convert a television show to the movie screen? It is a conundrum that has plagued movie studios for decades now. For every Mission: Impossible, The Fugitive or 21 Jump Street — movies that figure out how to extend the premise of the original program – there are far too many I Spy, Land of the Lost or Entourage adaptations out there. It’s a tricky line to balance, and one that many are going to try and figure out because TV shows will continue to inspire movies – and vice versa.
One of the latest attempts at reviving the past reaches theaters on August 14. Guy Ritchie, who recently energized Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, is applying his dry wit and stylish visuals to the 1960s Cold War spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., except instead of modernizing the story, he’s sending 2015 audiences into the past. Henry Cavill (Man of Steel), Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger) and Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) are adding sex appeal and gritty humor to the spy genre, turning the time-tested subsection of action thrillers on its head.
On a frigid day in 2014, I was lucky enough to join a handful of film journalists on the London set of Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to interview the cast and crew, watch them film scenes, and get a general sense of how they plan to recreate this sliver of Cold War history. Here, then, are the five most interesting things I found out!
The Stars’ Inspiration Is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
While it’s true that Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are playing classic Man From U.N.C.L.E. partners Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, respectively, we heard from numerous people on set that the vobe the duo keeps giving off mirrors that of Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You can pick this up in the banter they have in the most recent trailer (above), as well as in the first tease, which Warner Bros. released a few months back. Ritchie, in particular, talked to us at length about trying to find a tone that resembled Butch Cassidy, even while admitting that audiences initially dismissed George Roy Hill’s 1969 classic because it was a "comedy." Ritchie told us:
"People tend to look slightly down their noses at comedies, thinking that, ‘Oh, it’s a comedy, so I won’t take it that seriously.’ I think it’s 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. That’s a tone that I’m interested in, generally, in the work of film, and I suppose Butch Cassidy is the greatest illustration of that.
"It was that ‘bromancy.’ We take ourselves seriously, but not too seriously, and it broke the pattern of a typical genre. So it’s, ‘Raindrops keep falling on my head …’ pops up in the middle of a western. That was the first time anyone had done that. A western was no longer a western, as you’ve seen it."
Similar to how Ritchie feels Butch Cassidy changed the idea of a Western, he’s hoping U.N.C.L.E. can alter the idea of a secret agent movie. But how? Let’s keep exploring.
Obviously, James Bond Is An Influence For U.N.C.L.E.
It’s very hard to talk about the 1960s, the Cold War, handsome spies and beautiful double agents without thinking about 007 (and, yes, Austin Powers). And instead of shunning the comparison, the team behind Man from U.N.C.L.E. embraced it. When we interviewed Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, they admitted that they get "plenty of gadgets" to play with, though Cavill quickly pointed out that Hammer’s KGB agent is far more tech savvy than his Napoleon Solo.
When we spoke to producer Lionel Wigram about their approach to the material, he referenced Bond, the novels of John Le Carre, as well as Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock, as the balance they are trying to achieve. Wigram told us that the villain of the film isn’t THRUSH (which was the thrust of the television show, and a clone of SMERSH). But he said of the tone of U.N.C.L.E.:
"It’s Bondesque. In a way that Sean Connery’s Bonds were ‘Bondesque.’ And I would say that Guy has a very unique tone, which he brings to his films, and I think that that’s very much there. It’s very much a Guy Ritchie version of a ‘60s spy movie, and it does have some Bond in it. …As with Sherlock, which we made as fans of the books of Sherlock, we made this as fans of spy movies."
That means action, right? Let’s get in to some of the film’s major set pieces, and its practical effects.
The Film’s ‘Big Set’ Will Be An Actual Underground Lair
There were four major interiors that we toured as part of the set visit, and through these trips, we learned that Guy Ritchie was creating the 1960s, on every level, and not cheating through the use of green screen. We walked through the hallways and tunnels of an Italian castle (rebuilt on a soundstage outside of London). We stood on the bridge of an airplane carrier, pushing the buttons and turning the knobs of the actual control panels! And we visited the film’s benchmark set – an underground lab, where a massive bomb is being built.
In helping to sell the size and scope of this fun summer romp, Armie Hammer told us:
"There are big sequences. There are big sort of set pieces and stuff like that, and I mean, obviously, we can’t say too much. But I’ve been able to see things with my own eyes where I’m just like, ‘There’s no way they’re going to be able to work this out. Of course they’re going to do this CGI. Oh no? Oh, in fact, there it goes right now.' [Laughs]
"It’s just like, yeah, it’s big sort of action pieces and all that, I think that people are going to really dig, but done in a Guy Ritchie style, where it’s not just about the action piece. It’s all part and parcel."
But by physically recreating the time period, it helped the actors get (and stay) in character. Everyone we spoke to praised the work of costume designer Joanna Johnston, a frequent collaborator of Steven Spielberg who dressed characters in Saving Private Ryan, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, War Horse and Lincoln, to name just a few. Of her contributions, Hammer raved:
"She has such a great eye for material and shape and texture and all that, so we’ve gotten to play with some really great period costume stuff, and some of the stuff is actually old vintage clothing that we’re getting to wear."
But is it faithful to the TV show? Keep reading!
Yeah, The Cast Didn’t Really Grow Up On The TV Show
Though Ritchie and Wigram talked about how the show was a favorite growing up, Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and Alicia Vikander were really open about not being up-to-date on the original TV series. Vikander said she watched "a couple of episodes" and was aware of the property. It was a bigger deal to her father back home in Sweden when he heard that they were remaking the movie, and that his daughter would be a part of it.
Hammer said that after he landed the role of Illya Kuryakin, he rented the series on DVD to "see what all the fuss was about." Cavill said he never did, telling us:
"It was before my time, and what attracted me was Guy [Ritchie]. I mean, he’s a great director and the story was very cool, and I though if anyone can make this even cooler, it’s Guy, and so that was the selling point for me."
When we asked him if he ever went back and checked out old episodes, he said he hadn’t. Probably too busy brushing up on Superman comic books.
This Will Be A Guy Ritchie Action Picture, Through And Through
Yes, there will be humor. And yes, this is a period film, with elaborate costumes and sets that recreate luxurious, globetrotting locales of the 1960s. "We’ve been on speed boats together," said Hammer. "I’ve been on the back of [Cavill’s] Vespa, riding around Rome." But the draw of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., for both the cast and for the audience, is the approach Guy Ritchie has to all source material, which was on display in movies like Lock, Stock, Snatch, Revolver, RockNRolla and, most recently, the two Sherlock Holmes movies.
Said Henry Cavill:
"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 — he hardly gets a chance to do anything, because Armie’s out there doing it all by himself. But generally, yeah, there’s some cool stuff that we get to do. The really dangerous stuff, they’ll do, mostly for insurance reasons, but we do get to have a lot of fun."
Even though the director admitted to us that secret agents aren’t his bag. So he had to look at them differently, through his own unique lens. Said Ritchie:
"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 then he got, he was promoted to some aspect of secret service, you know. The reality of where agents come from is probably a lot, well, 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 about that in how 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 glamorous job and there is a juxtaposition in there."
How did the juxtaposition turn out? See for yourself when Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. opens in theaters on August 14.