Susanna White, the director of the latest spy thriller Our Kind of Traitor, was born in England and first became interested in films at 8 years old when she visited the set of the BBC children’s TV show Crackerjack and asked her parents to buy her a Super 8 film camera.
She spent 12 years making documentaries for BBC2. She won a BAFTA award for best drama serial for her work on the 2005 version of Bleak House, and directed the BBC mini-series Jane Eyre for which she was nominated for an Emmy award. She also directed four episodes of the HBO miniseries Generation Kill, and all five episodes of the 2012 series Parade’s End.
In the feature film genre, White directed Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang and most recently Our Kind of Traitor.
I asked Susanna to contrast the differences between directing a series and a feature film. She told me that directing a TV series is, “a collaboration with the author” and so she had some freedom to develop the characters. When directing a feature film she was able to establish a vision and had a real voice in shaping the script.
We then went on to Our Kind of Traitor and talked about the themes within the film. She explained that the film was full of “moral ambiguity” and “fate – the circumstances you are born in”. In the “complex moral world” of Our Kind of Traitor she felt the character of Hector was the closest to the original in John Le Carré’s novel.
We went on to discuss the lack of long car chases and gun shots that usually accompany a spy thriller (particularly an American spy thriller). Susanna felt this was largely due to the original novel by Le Carré. For her, the novel was full of complicated characters and had an overall melancholy tone. The characters had to make “moral choices” which meant there was only room for “low key action”.
She mentioned that the location choices were very important to the film. Our Kind of Traitor was filmed over five locations. The producers wanted four, but she was insistent so they stretched the budget. It was filmed in London, Marrakech, France, Russia and Switzerland. She also commented on Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography which was one of the things she felt “made the film special”.
I asked Suzanna what she wanted the audience to take away from this film. She said that she wanted to make people think and that it is also a film that deals with “modern people” and “modern marriages”.
When asked about memorable moments Suzanna commented that when we watch a film we make a lot of assumptions. In Our Kind of Traitor the assumption is that Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgård can play tennis well (particularly Skarsgård). She confessed to me that Skarsgård had to have lessons and some days the progress was better than others!
Having seen Our Kind of Traitor, I enjoyed getting to know the Director and understand why the film is as good as it is!
Interviewed by Barry Hill