See How They Run Director Tom George Wants To Make A New Kind Of Whodunit [Exclusive Interview]

"See How They Run" is a whodunit about whodunits, a murder mystery movie about a murder behind the scenes of a murder mystery play. And that's just the beginning of the movie's meta touches, which involve fictional detectives trying to solve a fictional crime committed during the staging of a very real show — the adaptation of Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap," which is still running to this day in London's West End. And that's before you get to the inside jokes about William Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard. 

But you don't need to be a theater nerd to enjoy the basic pleasures of "See How They Run," which understands that casting Sam Rockwell as a down-on-his-luck detective and Saoirse Ronan as his eager, inexperienced protege is a recipe for a good time. The movie's drawl wit and compelling characters do their fair share of the heavy lifting.

I recently sat down with director Tom George over Zoom to talk about the new film, what drew him to it, the story's blend of the real and the fantastical, and what kinds of Easter eggs viewers should be looking for. 

'So it was very special to be able to make this kind of film over here'

This is your debut feature after years in television. What about this project drew you to it? 

I just was wrapping up a comedy series that I'd worked on for a number of years over here in the UK when I first read the script that Searchlight sent to me. I think from 10, 15 pages into the script, I was excited about it and it felt like something that, on the one hand, was totally different from the work I'd done before, but at its core was a great character comedy beneath a whodunit. And also it's a movie that's a whodunit, but also it's a film that's about whodunits. So the challenge of telling that story got me excited.

I got a real Ealing Studios vibe from the movie, the same sort of dark, dry comedy. What were you thinking about when you made it?

Yeah, that's a great ... I mean totally. "Kind Hearts and Coronets" was the big one for me. Not that it's a murder mystery. You know who the murderer is and it's whether they're going to get caught, I suppose, or get away with it. But you're totally right, I think it's the kind of film with a big ensemble cast, a kind of dark crime story, but strong comedy element to it as well. That was the stock and trade of Ealing Studios and the kind of film that we used to make a lot of in the UK. So it was very special to be able to make this kind of film over here.

Your camera likes to find prosceniums. You're always finding the angles of rooms. Even in the pub scene, the glasses create an arch around the characters. It feels like you're intentionally trying to create the feeling of stage blocking on camera.

I think that's very well observed. That was this kind of guiding principle. We have this story that is within this theatrical setting. How can that inform the visual style of the piece? I suppose in tandem with that was a desire to quite deliberately frame the characters within their environment. And it felt like that came from the core of the story, you've got these two police detectives entering this world of London's West End theater scene, where they are completely out of their depth. And so to be able to show those two characters surrounded by this some rich, vibrant textured world that's completely unfamiliar to them felt like a natural direction in terms of the storytelling.

'What we wanted were these little Easter eggs for real fans of the genre or of these plays and books'

I want to talk about the two leads. You have this odd couple, the experienced detective who's down on his luck and the eager younger constable. Can you talk about getting those actors on the same page? The tone they strike is specific, these sometimes tragic characters who are also goofballs by nature of their situation.

I think casting does a lot of the work. You need to find actors who instinctively have a sense for the material and how it should be played. And in some, in Saoirse in particular, they got that from pretty much day one. They understood how performance should function or could best function in this piece because you've got a world where it's the world of the theater and it's a period world, and it's a murder mystery. There's a danger that the performance can grow and becomes something theatrical in its own right. That actors end up playing the period in some way or playing the idea of these past whodunits that they've seen. And I was really clear that I thought the performances should be part of the thread that made this film clearly a contemporary piece. That they should have a contemporary comic tone to them. And that's where Sam and Saoirse's instincts lie. I think in general, and particularly in this piece, to trust that their writing will be funny if it's played dead straight and they don't need to excessively highlight the comedy in order to land it.

The movie has one foot in reality, since "The Mousetrap" is a real play and you have some characters who are actual people, like young Richard Attenborough. But it's telling its own story. Can you talk about walking the line between reality and fantasy? Is this an alternate reality? 

That's a great question. Part of the fun of the film, I think, is that it's rooted in familiar elements of both the genre of the whodunit in terms of character tropes and the kind of devices that drive those stories. And also some real-life characters who [are] rooted in that time and place of 1953 London and specifically in the context of the West End theater land where the film's based. And I think the balance was to not become a slave to ... It's not a faithful biopic. I hope that we're coming to the characters who are real-life characters with love and respect.

And particularly in the case of Dicky Attenborough, that was certainly our intention. And it was something that [actor] Harris Dickinson and I talked about at the top, to what extent should this be informed by his real life? It was clear that this version of Dicky that we were presenting here was a quite specific type in as much as he's the kind of actor who is always looking to inform his craft with observations of real people or the world that's around him. He's always looking to use a thing for his next great performance. And I think it was that side of the character that Harrison and I were both drawn to and to not get too bogged down in trying to tell the Richard Attenborough story, but hopefully presenting him in an affectionate light because he's one of the greats.

There are a few obvious and not-so-obvious theatrical references in the dialogue. One character literally says "the play is the thing," but worked into the dialogue. One character says "He's a real hound, inspector," a Tom Stoppard reference. Are there other little references in there?

[Writer Mark Chappell's] script was dense with them and from memory, those ones you picked out are definitely key. One of my favorites, although not a direct reference, is when Sheila says, how would Agatha Christie-like it if someone took one of her stories and twisted it and manipulated it just for entertainment, which is very much just sort of hands up on our part. But in terms of deliberate or explicit references, when Mervyn says that unusual line when he is first on stage, when he says, "Is that the idea? Let the galled jade wince? Gather all the suspects and then interrogate each of us in turn until the mystery is solved?"

Well, the "galled jade wince" is the line from "Hamlet" and the play within the play in Hamlet is called "The Mousetrap." That's where the title for the Christie play [came from]. So you can see it all started to kind of eat of itself over time, but at the same time, it was important that you have those right things in the right balance. If there are too many, what feel like in-jokes, I think that pushes the audience away. You know what we wanted were these little Easter eggs for real fans of the genre or of these plays and books, but that if you miss it, no judgment. There's plenty of other fun stuff to get involved in, if that makes sense.

"See How They Run" is in theaters now.