The backstory of See How They Run, the new film from Tom George, is as twisty as an Agatha Christie novel.
Christie’s play The Mousetrap opened at London’s Ambassadors Theatre in 1952 and has played ever since, except for a brief pause caused by the pandemic. Movie producers wanted to adapt the play immediately, but Christie wrote a tricky clause into the property’s contract: the play couldn’t be adapted until six months after the show closed. (Christie wrote the clause because she didn’t like TV movie adaptations of her work.)
Because the show never really closed, we haven’t seen The Mousetrap: The Movie until now… well, kind of. See How They Run avoids the scorn of her spirit by focusing on Christie’s real-life contract stipulations, and the true story that inspired The Mousetrap.
The film, out today, follows the murder investigation of a Hollywood director. When grizzled Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and rookie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) are assigned to the whodunnit, they explore the glamorously sordid theater underground of London’s 1950s West End. Together they discover the murderer’s motive for stopping the movie.
MovieMaker spoke with director Tom George about the odd timing of his film’s British release, how he cast Hollywood heavyweights Ronan and Rockwell for his first movie, and and why he isn’t worried about what Agatha Christie would think of his “adaptation.”
Joshua Encinias: How does it feel that your loving sendup of English culture opened in England the day after Queen Elizabeth II passed?
Tom George: What’s interesting in terms of the film, is that See How They Run is set in 1953, the year of the Queen’s coronation. It’s incredible to think how much history she’s lived through in that time. So much of that history is an important part of See How They Run in terms of the history of theatre, film, and culture, and the difference between English culture and American culture.
Joshua Encinias: How did it come about that See How They Run became a legal workaround to adapt Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap for the screen?
Tom George: I believe one of our producers, Damian Jones, was inquiring about The Mousetrap and seeing whether it’d be possible to adapt it. He found there was this unusual clause in the contract that made it impossible. And then wondered whether that might be the kernel of something more original. He then gave writer Mark Chappell the task of exploring that. And where we ended up was with a murder mystery that’s set within a murder mystery in which that strange clause in the contract is perhaps even a possible motive for murder.
Joshua Encinias: How far along was production when you signed on?
Tom George: When I came aboard in 2020, there was a script and no cast. Mark and myself used most of the rest of 2020, through various lockdowns, to work on the script. It was already in really good shape when I first read it, but I had some ideas nonetheless about how it could move forward. And fortunately, Mark and I hit it off right away and had a lot of fun continuing to finesse the script from then on. And during that time, we got into early casting as well.
Joshua Encinias: Saoirse Ronan, Sam Rockwell, and your entire ensemble is impressive casting for your first movie. Was there a common reason why everyone signed on?
Tom George: Saoirse was the first person we approached to play Constable Stalker, and she really was the dream person to play it. The person who you think, “Let’s ask, but let’s be prepared for the fact that she probably won’t be available to do it.” She read the script and enjoyed it, and then we had a conversation. She came on board soon afterwards. It was amazing and felt like, “God, it’s really easy casting films.” And to be honest, that kind of continued. It was amazing the way that soon after Saoirse, Sam Rockwell and David Oyelowo came on board. Everyone universally loved the script. I think it’s a testament to Mark’s writing that the story jumps off the page for people reading it.
Joshua Encinias: How does it feel knowing that even if your movie were incredible, Agatha Christie probably wouldn’t like it?
Tom George: [Laughs.] It feels absolutely fine. I hope that Agatha Christie would appreciate that it’s a film that’s a murder mystery, but it’s also about murder mysteries. And it’s actually not just about her murder mysteries, although of course, they are a big part of it. It’s also about the history of cinema, film noir, and genre more generally. I hope there’d be some things that would tickle her nonetheless. After all, The Mousetrap is as a comedy thriller in its own right. It’s not just a straight ahead murder mystery. It has comic elements.
Joshua Encinias: You brilliantly use split screens to show shot/reverse shot at the same time.
Tom George: The split screens are something that we built on in the edits. One of my editors, Gary Dollner, felt it could capture the split points of view that you’re given within a mystery film with detectives and suspects. Also, it would be a way to… create something on the one hand that is familiar, and feels, at first glance, like a traditional murder mystery world, but then find ways to slightly unseat that, or twist it a little, to satisfy and challenge the audience. It isn’t the stuffy, straight-ahead, British drawing room comedy murder mystery, as you might first imagine. And the split screens played a big part in that.
Joshua Encinias: See How The Run is set in 1953, but how you use split screens feels very 1970s, very Brian De Palma.
Tom George: My first reaction to using them was to say no. It felt like the wrong era to me when I think of split screens. I think of films like Bullet. I think about the ’60s and’70s, and imagine them used in a really high-octane, dynamic way, entering and whizzing out of frame. It was only when we started to explore them in this slightly more theatrical way that it felt like it worked for our film. The fact that we’d filmed a lot of shot/reverse shots, two sides of the same coin, meant they were really visually satisfying to put them next to each other. It allows you to enjoy being able to see two things at once. It sounds so obvious, but there are times where you want to be on a single, but you also really want to see the reaction to a line of dialogue. So it created an extra storytelling device for us to comment.
Joshua Encinias: Everyone talks about the limitations of filming during COVID lockdowns. Can you think of one benefit?
Tom George: The huge benefit for us was the ability to film in some incredible locations in and around London, which under normal circumstances, we would never have been able to get into. Certainly not for the length of time that we did. Our theater within the film is a composite of two or three different theaters around London. Places like the Old Vic and Dominion theaters. It was bittersweet, particularly in the case of the theaters, because these are spaces that were closed to the public, and they didn’t know when they would be able to open their doors again. The silver lining was that we hopefully helped them out in a small way, financially. While they were closed, it gave us an incredible opportunity to put some of these iconic London locations on the big screen.
See How They Run is now in theaters, from Searchlight Pictures.
Main image: Sam Rockwell an Saoirse Ronan in See How They Run, directed by Tom George. Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.