When director Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1960s TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was filming outside London, I got to visit the set with a few other reporters. As a big fan of what Ritchie did with his Sherlock Holmes movies, I was intrigued to see his take on the spy genre and to watch him work on set. If you’re not familiar with the story, the film is set during the height of the Cold War and stars Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill as a KGB agent and CIA agent, respectively, who are forced to team up in a joint mission to stop a mysterious criminal organization from proliferating nuclear weapons and technology. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. also stars Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, and Hugh Grant.
While Ritchie was incredibly busy that day on set, he came over during a break in filming to talk to us about why he wanted to take on the project, the tone of the film, how he’s always been attracted to “men on men”, and a lot more.
Before reading the interview, if you haven’t seen the trailer, I’d watch that first:
Why remake Man from U.N.C.L.E.?
GUY RITCHIE: It appealed to me, frankly. I wanted something to do after Sherlock, we looked at every project that was on the market and none of them tickled my fancy, really. It was just the title, I suppose it was a nostalgic thing, I always thought it was a cool title. I always liked the tone of the TV series. I thought it’d have legs and I thought I could do a good job with it, that’s really why.
Presumably you were a fan of the series, are you trying to hit some of the marks from the series in this?
RITCHIE: It’s funny, because what I remember of the series, as is so often the case, what you remember of the series, and on revisiting it it’s not what you remember it to be, but in a way that didn’t bother me. What I remembered in the series was the tone and I was interested in that, I suppose. What I remember it being, and what it was, are two different things, but I liked what I remembered, if you know what I mean, and that’s what inspired me to do something about it.
How are these characters different from what you’ve done recently, from what you’ve always done?
RITCHIE: They’re different in the sense that I think everything you do, characters I always find, have their own voices and once you establish who that character is you find a different voice. I think it’s just a question of establishing that character and the voice speaks through that character.
A lot of people really enjoyed the chemistry in the Sherlock movies, is that something you’re trying to, not mimic, but hit again?
RITCHIE: Clearly there’s a zone that I’m attracted to, and that’s men on men, so to speak [laughs]. I like that world, even going back to Lock, Stock. I’m interested in that world, so there’s nothing revolutionary that I’m attracted to that as a genre.
If you could talk about the tone, were there certain movies you were looking at?
RITCHIE: There were certain movies, I suppose it’s a tone more than movies that I’m attracted to, that can watch endlessly. If you find a TV series that you like, you like the tone of the TV series or the movie. In a way, it’s a better illustration as a TV series because it goes on for so long and you have to have a consistent tone, I think that’s what I’m interested in. A tone like Butch Cassidy. The funny thing about Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid is I remember it not being a very revered film, and the reason it wasn’t revered at the time was that it was a comedy, people tend to look slightly down their nose at a comedy. Thinking, ‘Oh that’s a comedy so we won’t take it that seriously,’ and I think it’s that much harder to make a good comedy than it is straight and apparently serious.
I like that balance between a real film, but with a lightness of touch. I think very few people can apply that lightness of touch and that’s a tone that I’m interested in, generally, in the work of film. I suppose Butch Cassidy is the greatest illustration of that because I seem to remember at that time no one else had done that. It was that bromance-y, we’ll take ourselves seriously but not too seriously, and it broke the pattern of a typical genre. ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ popped up in a Western, and that was the first time anyone had done that. The Western was no longer the Western as you’ve seen it, and it’s the conspiracy of the different creative juxtapositions, without sounding too preposterous about this, that I find stimulating creatively.
I don’t like the idea of agents in a typical form. The idea of agents, to me, brings up the idea of a man in a very boring suit who’s not very good looking and doesn’t have much attention to style. He was a policeman, maybe he was in the army and good at that, and then he was promoted to some aspect of secret service. The reality of where agents come from is obviously a lot more dour than how we create them in films, but I like that. I like the idea of taking what is essentially a boring, officious job and turning it into something that is a fantasy, to a degree. I like doing something about that, 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 glamourous job. There’s a juxtaposition in there. In Butch Cassidy there was a juxtaposition in there 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 cross genres to a degree.
As the female voice here, your cast is very pretty, and there’s a rumour that you’re going to have a friend of yours here, Mr. David Beckham. Is that true?
RITCHIE: That’s just a rumour.
Are you denying or confirming?
RITCHIE: Neither, you just have to keep your eyes peeled, put it that way.