Everyone loves a good murder mystery, and in recent years the whodunit genre has continued to kill at the box office – be that with Knives Out or Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile. However, a fresh cold-blooded case is now hitting Hollywood with Tom George’s feature directorial debut, See How They Run. To celebrate the big release of the new whodunit on everyone’s mind, we sat down with George to get the inside scoop on all the tips and tricks of the beloved genre.
Set in the 1950s on the streets of London’s West End, See How They Run follows the unravelling of a murder case that takes place during the 100th performance celebration of one of the most prolific mysteries in pop culture – Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. There is no denying that See How They Run follows the typical beats of the genre, but thanks to its charm, A-list cast, and meta-like awareness, it also delivers some unexpected twists and a unique viewing experience.
In our interview with George, we dive into the murder mystery genre, and discover what it was like working with huge Hollywood names and the Agatha Christie estate. Finally, we even get the inside scoop about what the director has planned next for his big screen career.
The Digital Fix: I’m a massive fan of whodunits. It is a genre that has always been popular but even more so in recent years with Death on the Nile and Only Murders in the Building. Why do you think people are so drawn to the genre, even after decades?
Tom George: There’s a couple of reasons. I think that firstly, they just make brilliant stories for an audience. And that’s because the audience is trying to do the same thing that detectives are trying to do – they’re trying to solve the mystery. So that means that as an audience member, you’re right in there with that lead character or characters.
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So it’s just a really immersive kind of story that you’re pulled into very easily. And then I also think that there’s something reassuring about the familiarity of the genre to a certain extent. The fact that you have this puzzle that you know, is going to eventually click into place. That’s a satisfying thing.
The challenge then becomes, as a filmmaker, how do you put your twist on the genre? How do you do something new with it? When it is so familiar to audiences?
Jumping off that thought, how do you think See How They Run subverts expectations of a typical whodunit, then?
I think that See How They Run is a film for fans of the whodunit, but also for people who might not usually go and see a whodunit. Who might even look down their nose at the whodunits a little bit.
Because it, hopefully, functions as a whodunit in its own right. And that was something that was really important to us from the start. It was like, ‘this has to feel like a really exciting murder mystery.’
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But at the same time, it’s also a film about murder mysteries. And it’s aware of the things that the audience themselves bring to it, what they already know about the genre, and the tropes or the way that these stories function. So it has this kind of meta layer of awareness to the bones of the story and the comedy, I think, that hopefully makes it feel familiar. But also like something you haven’t quite seen before.
So you’re a writer as well as a director.
What was your reaction when you first read Mark Chappell’s script?
Really annoyed. Because when you’re a writer, and you read scripts as good as the one Mark has written, swearing might help get over not being someone who’s able to do that. Because it was not something I ever thought I could pull off myself.
But no, I was excited from the first time I read his scripts, and although we went on to work on the script together for a number of months after I came on board, so much of it was already in place. And I thought that the really smart thing when I first read it was that he had a murder mystery that was also sending up murder mysteries to an extent, but it wasn’t a spoof. It hadn’t just drifted into a sort of pastiche of murder mysteries. It was really driven by characters and story first, you know?
And that’s something that Mark and I agreed on from the start was that it had to be a great story in its own right with great characters at the heart of it. The added layer of awareness of the genre and tropes that are at play. That can only be the added detail and goodness that’s on the top for an audience. It’s like everything is really rooted in story, character and comedy, and that was the start point for everything.
I really loved all the characters in See How They Run, especially Constable Stalker, played by Saoirse Ronan. Would you ever consider doing a spin-off with her character, or could we look forward to a sequel in the future?
I would love that! I mean, it’s funny you say that because what I said from the very start, when I was first talking about the possibility of making this film, was whether there was going to be a sequel or not. As an audience member, you should get to the end of the film and feel like you want there to be more stories, right?
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You feel like this story is really about a partnership, and whether Sam (Rockwell) and Saoirse’s characters can come together and crack this case. And I think if we’ve done it right, you should get to the end and feel like: ‘I want more adventures for these two’. And then whether that happens or not, we will have to wait and see.
You know, Saoirse and Sam together were just a total joy. Sort of watching them work together and bring those characters to life. And particularly seeing Saoirse do something that we hadn’t really seen her do before, as in and out and out comedy, It was like, really exciting. And in her own accent, it was just really wonderful.
Yeah, it was really nice to hear her accent. You had some really big names on your cast alongside Saoirse. And one of them that stood out to me was Adrien Brody as the Hollywood director Leo Köpernick. I wanted to know, what was your favourite moment working on set with him?
Ah, I loved working with Adrien, so there are quite a lot of favourite moments. I think the scene that stood out for me was one that we filmed relatively early in his time with us, which is the scene with Leo – Adrien’s character – David Oyelowo’s character Mervyn and John Wolf, played by Reece Shearsmith in Mervyn’s apartment late at night, and Leo is pitching the end of his version of The Mousetrap movie.
He’s storyboarded it; he’s gone to a lot of effort. And Adrien works so hard. The scene was actually much harder than it looks on screen, but he makes it look so easy. He’s basically doing a monologue as he is pitching them, but he’s also got some business to do with these giant cards as he does his pitch. It’s sort of like Bob Dylan style; he’s throwing away these cards over his shoulders while he speaks. And he had just done so much work to rehearse it, and kind of make that scene as slick as possible.
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The minute he stepped on camera and started doing that, it was funny, and it was clear; that it was going to be a brilliant scene. But to be honest, every time Adrien stepped onto the floor, and came on camera, it was just, you know, he came alive. I think the whole set came alive, too, because I think he really enjoyed playing the character he played. And it just felt like he was a really great match for the part.
In See How They Run, we hear about the notorious troubles around the movie rights for The Mousetrap, which said no film could be made until the play’s run on The West End ended.
And we all know that the Agatha Christie estate is still, to this day, very protective over The Mousetrap and its story. Did you guys have any problems with crafting the script for See How They Run while keeping the estate happy? Were there any challenges?
No huge challenges. They, the Christie Estate, were aware that we were making this film. There were a few things that we had to be sensitive around; you know, Christie herself and the estate are very protective of the twist ending of The Mousetrap. So we had to be careful that we weren’t undoing 70 years of good work by keeping that under wraps.
We don’t reveal that in our film, you know? So, for example, although we see little bits of The Mousetrap play in See How They Run, those scenes are not verbatim the text from The Mousetrap. They were created by Mark to sort of get a sense of The Mousetrap and the way that it works. So hopefully, they [the Christie estate] read the script, and I think hopefully they saw that it was done in an affectionate way, with a sort of love for the genre of the whodunit.
Do you have anything coming up that you can tell us about?
Actually, Mark Chappell and I are writing a new thing together. Very exciting. We’ve never worked together before See How They Run, but from very early on, we realised we were on the same page and kind of hit it off. And I just loved the process of making this film. So we’re currently in the early days of writing a new film.
Not a whodunit, but it’s about small-town police corruption.
Yeah! I haven’t told anyone else that yet.
Well, I’m honoured!
See How They Run hits theatres on September 9, 2022 in the UK, and is set to release in the US on September 16, 2022.