See How They Run: Director Tom George and the Film’s Killer on Crafting an Original Murder Mystery

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The post See How They Run: Director Tom George and the Film’s Killer on Crafting an Original Murder Mystery appeared first on Consequence.

[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for See How They Run.]

So, as stated above, this article will reveal the “who” in the new Searchlight Pictures whodunnit See How They Run, which may or may not be sooner than director Tom George likes. “I strongly believe in no spoilers, but I believe that spoilers should have a statute of limitation, and we can discuss what that length is,” George tells Consequence. “I don’t think people can expect you not to hold on to a spoiler indefinitely throughout time. But yeah, don’t spoil the ending, you want people to have that same buzz you had the first time you watched it.”

George knows this from personal experience, after a friend of his spoiled The Sixth Sense for him. “We were watching the trailer on TV, he had seen the film, and I said, ‘What is Bruce Willis’s character?’ And the correct answer was, ‘He’s a social worker.’ But he went, ‘Oh, he’s a ghost.’ And I was like ‘That’s insane, that you would say that to me.’ So yeah, so I’ve been bitten, and it rather took a shine off The Sixth Sense.”

So hopefully you’re only reading this piece after watching the 1950s murder mystery See How They Run, in which Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) work to figure out who killed movie director Leo Köpernick (Adrian Brody) backstage at the Ambassadors Theater, where Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has just completed its 100th performance.

There are plenty of suspects surrounding the not-well-liked Köpernick, including producer Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) and screenwriter Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), but the true culprit turns out to be the extremely tall and everpresent usher Dennis (Charlie Cooper), who wants to shut down The Mousetrap because the plot of the play borrows directly from the tragic story of his own family.

For Cooper, whodunnits are a genre where “you don’t realize how much you love it until you’re involved in it. I grew up watching whodunnits on TV, and it’s such a part of British culture, you know, that Agatha Christie thing. It’s such a strong part of our makeup, I think we know a lot more about it than we think we do. And it’s just such a classic format, isn’t it? It’s something you can’t help but be absorbed by. It’s such a great thing to be a part of, actually.”

Cooper met George years before See How They Run, when he and his sister Daisy May Cooper were looking for a director to tackle the series they’d written together — George and the Coopers would go on to make three seasons of the hit U.K. comedy This Country together (an Americanized version of the show, Welcome to Flatch, is currently airing on Fox).

“We just hit it off straight away, really,” says Cooper about their first meeting. “We had completely the same ideas about comedy and humor and yeah, we didn’t need to see anyone else — sort of a match made in heaven, which is lovely. We had the best time doing the TV show, so it’s been lovely to transfer that over to this.”

Working on this project together was a big deal for both of them, Cooper says, because “This is my first big feature, and the same for him, really. But it was great, because we know how each other work. So that was really sort of special, because it eased the anxiety.”

George got the job of directing See How They Run after being sent the script, and getting the opportunity to pitch Searchlight Pictures on his ideas for the film. Early on, he says, “I thought, ‘There’s no way they’re going to hire me to make this movie. That would be crazy. But you know, do a good meeting, and maybe good things will come down the road.'”

But from that first meeting, he was on the same page with the producers, and after further rounds of pitching and George creating a “visual treatment, a suggestion of how I might approach the film in a stylistic, visual way,” he got the job, “against all likely odds.”

The next challenge was casting, which George noted would be especially important to the project because despite its ties to Agatha Christie, See How They Run is technically a original property. “It was clear that that would be really important in terms of making it viable,” George says. “But the brilliant thing about Searchlight is that it was always creative choices first, over and above commercial ones. That’s just the way they like to work, they want the right people first.”

However, the casting process ended up being “weirdly smooth,” because, according to George, “we were just very lucky that the people who we really wanted to play these parts had brought a certain audience with them, and coincidentally wanted to do the movie. Which led to this crazy ensemble cast with like, you know, a dozen or more people who in isolation I would have been unbelievably excited to work with.”

Cooper knew even before reading the script that he was going to be the killer: “I think that was the first thing that Tom said to really sell it to me, he said, ‘Hey, do you want to be in this murder mystery film and do you want to be the killer?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, please.'”

But he still enjoyed reading the script that first time, because “seeing the sequence of events that led to that and sort of working backwards was really nice.” Cooper didn’t actually think he’d ever play the answer to “whodunnit” during his career, but “I’ve always wanted to do it, in a weird way. It’s great, being a villain, it’s such a great part to be because it’s obviously something you can never do in real life. So it still gives you a chance to get a taste of what it might be like. Not that I would ever murder anyone, but, you know…”

As an actor, Cooper didn’t worry about overplaying his hand as the ultimate murderer, because, he says, “so much of that is in the writing and the scripts. Because murder mysteries are so formulaic to a sense where it’s sort of mathematical, isn’t it? You’ve got the structure, and the plot beats have to be perfect, you know, you don’t want to give stuff away too soon or too late. There’s got to be a satisfying ending. And so all of that was really done in the writing.”

Which meant that for Cooper, “it was just a case of putting on the costume and doing the lines, which was really nice.”

See How They Run Director Interview
See How They Run Director Interview

See How They Run (Searchlight Pictures)

Despite the fact that it’s been running in the West End the entire time they’ve been alive, neither Cooper or George have seen The Mousetrap, though in their defense, the project came about during the pandemic, the first time The Mousetrap had not been in production since 1952. “All the theaters were shot. So that’s my excuse,” Cooper says.

But George has read the script for The Mousetrap, which includes an iconic ending in which Detective Sergeant Trotter (the role originated by Richard Attenborough on stage, who played in See How They Run by Harris Dickinson) asks the audience not to reveal the true nature of the killer after they leave the theater. See How They Run also ends with a similar plea to the audience, delivered by Sam Rockwell directly to the camera (and my apologies now for not adhering to that request).

George says he was excited to include this bit, but that on a practical level, he wasn’t worried too much about spoilers getting out there, because “although the genre is referred to as a whodunnit. I actually think, in these films, who actually done it is not quite as important as [that term] makes out. Because the joy is being presented with the puzzle, I think… So of course, you want the reveal to be an exciting conclusion to the story. But I didn’t lose sleep thinking about shooting alternate endings or having decoys on set to make sure the story didn’t get out.”

He notes that “I suppose that’s one of the advantages of dealing with a new IP, a brand new story, is you don’t have a sort of ravenous fan base already in place, desperate to know what might happen next. You know, we were just a film unit making a new film that, at the time, nobody knew much about and so there weren’t Reddit groups, debating who the sort of who the killer might be in the in the film. It didn’t feel like there was a huge outside manhunt going on.”

George says that there was no question about breaking the fourth wall in the final moments — what was debated was whether or not Inspector Stoppard would get the last word. “I’m really glad that where we landed was this idea that Saoirse’s character would interrupt him,” George says. “In actually quite late drafts, maybe even as we first got to set, Sam basically got to say his piece. And that just felt wrong, because in lots of ways there’s at least a thread in this film, I hope, about undermining those male know-it-alls that you get in these sort of mystery stories, whether it be the chief of police or the experienced inspector.”

See How They Run Director Interview
See How They Run Director Interview

See How They Run (20th Century Studios)

As George continues, “What we come to see through the film is that Saoirse’s character is the most competent person involved in this investigation. So it felt wrong to then give some sort of authorial voice back to Sam’s character. I’m really pleased that we then had the idea that she should interrupt him, and not let him have that moment and slightly put a pin in this sort of dramatic conceit at that point. It felt like the appropriate way to end our film.”

Cooper sees the appeal of murder mysteries like this being inherent to its subject matter: “I mean, murder itself is just such a fascinating topic, because it’s so absurd to most of us. I think just getting your head around why anyone would do it is so interesting, plus also the format of a murder mystery, where it’s a vehicle where you can meet so many different interesting characters. I think it’s just a classic problem-solving thing. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle, isn’t it? I think that’s in our human nature to work stuff out, you know, problem solve, which is really nice. It’s satisfying.”

One last note: I interviewed Cooper before speaking with George, and at the end of my interview with Cooper, knowing the two were friends, I asked if there were any questions I should ask George. Cooper suggested I ask what it was like to work with Paul Chahidi, who plays Agatha Christie’s butler in See How They Run and also plays the role of Reverend Francis Seaton in This Country. “He will really, really enjoy that question, I know,” Cooper says, and the question did in fact make George laugh.

“I bet [Cooper] was like, ‘He’s a monster, Paul Chahidi,'” George says. “He basically told me, ‘We’ve really got to do a hatchet job on Chahidi in these interviews, got to take him down. He’s got too good a reputation, too good a public persona. He is unfortunately the nicest man in the world. He’s way nicer than the vicar in This Country. And on that show, he really lead the way for me and Charlie and Daisy, and was such a patient kind of presence on that show. He’s so funny.”

George continues, “Having Charlie and Paul along on this film was one of the biggest joys of doing it. Obviously, they’re both incredibly funny actors. But, you know, having been on that amazing journey with This Country together, being able to do something in some ways so different, but with some threads that still connected — it was just brilliant to have them both with me. As much as I’d like to say that Paul Chahidi’s a terrible person.”

See How They Run is in theaters now.

See How They Run: Director Tom George and the Film’s Killer on Crafting an Original Murder Mystery
Liz Shannon Miller

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