International Intrigue: Production on the BBC/AMC Miniseries 'The Night Manager'

"I was immediately drawn to the huge ambition portrayed," says DP Michael Snyman. "The images going through my head were spectacular and I knew I had to do it."
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British author and former spymaster John le Carré’s thrilling novels have been the source material for several critically acclaimed films, most recently A Most Wanted Man (2014), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and The Constant Gardener (2005)—all of them multi-award winners. But it’s been awhile since le Carré’s talents have found a home on the smaller screen: A Murder of Quality aired in 1991 and A Perfect Spy in 1987.

That’s about to change when, on April 19, AMC debuts the six-part series The Night Manager, a contemporary interpretation of le Carré’s 1993 espionage novel. (Before its AMC debut, the film premiered on BBC One on Feb. 21. The Night Manager is a co-production partnership of BBC One, The Ink Factory and AMC.)

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Elizabeth Debicki as Jed Marshall, Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper and Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine. Photo by Des Willie/The Ink Factory/AMC.

Directed by Susanne Bier (whose Danish/Swedish feature In a Better World won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011), The Night Manager tells the story of former British soldier Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), now a night manager at luxury hotels, who is recruited by an intelligence operative (Olivia Colman) to infiltrate the inner circle of an international businessman (Hugh Laurie) and expose the alliance between the intelligence community and the arms trade.

Cinematographer Michael Snyman (Of Kings and Prophets, The Red Tent, The British), who worked with Bier in 2014 on the feature A Second Chance, joined her again to shoot The Night Manager. Here, he speaks about working with Bier on the le Carré miniseries, which was shot and will be broadcast in 4K.

Snyman says that when Bier called him about the six-part series, he worried a bit about what they were getting themselves into. But then he read the scripts. “I was immediately drawn to the huge ambition portrayed,” he says. “The images going through my head were spectacular and I knew I had to do it.”

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Tom Hiddleston. Photo by Des Willie/The Ink Factory/AMC.

The script demanded numerous locations all over Europe and the Middle East. “It was really important for me to go see the locations and get a taste of what Susanne was driving at and where she wanted to take it,” says Snyman, who traveled to locations with production designer Tom Burton for more than six weeks. “Tom and I would conceptualize and brainstorm ideas and then go back to Susanne for consensus.”

Bier gave her first “note” to Snyman and Burton before they went on their location trip. “She said that the important thing was to not be contrived,” Snyman says. “We don’t want to see flashy cars, labels and so on. There is a lot of subtlety in the show, and all the creatives were on board with that.”

Locations were so key to the look of the series that, says Snyman, he and Bier had “absolutely no references at all on the look. We sourced all our materials at the hotels—which are all real hotels. It’s such a huge, ambitious script, and it’s my job to service that ambition. So Tom and I went in with some huge ideas and came up trumps.”

Although the series would be seen on TV, the scale and the feel is like a feature film, says Snyman. “Absolutely we were going for that,” he says. “I felt that it needed to look epic.” And so it does.

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Photo by Des Willie/The Ink Factory/AMC.

The first location is in the upscale resort city of Zermatt in the Swiss Alps. Snyman notes that the producers didn’t think they had the budget to shoot there, “but we took a very small crew, a few people and a few cameras and did it.” The series also shot in London, Morocco (which doubled for Cairo), Mallorca (which doubled for Istanbul), and Devon, England.

Because of the number of locations, rather than shooting episodes, the production block-shot all the scenes in each episode. “That was tricky for Susanne and the actors, but I think it went well,” says Snyman, who reports that the production shot for ten weeks, with about 11 days per episode. “Yes, it was a logistical feat and very challenging to move all those people around. We didn’t have a huge crew, but we’d leave the country and shoot two days later. The schedule was mad.”

What saved the day was the nearly 10 weeks of prep. “Tom and I hit the road and spent a lot of time prepping, flying from Morocco to Spain and then back to London to be with Susanne, and then back on the road,” says Snyman. “When we were shooting, there was no time to re-conceptualize, redesign or reorganize. Once we hit the sets, we were ready to shoot.”

Shooting on film was never an option; Snyman says he didn’t even broach the subject. “I wanted to treat this like a feature film, but that’s as far as I got,” he says. “For TV, in this day and age, film isn’t an option.”

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Hugh Laurie and Elizabeth Debicki. Photo by Mitch Jenkins/AMC.

He chose to work with the RED Dragon, using two cameras at all times, outfitted with Panavision Primo lenses. “The RED is light and small, and we shot a lot of handheld on the show,” he says. “I know how far to push the RED because I’ve used it a lot. The Panavision glass gave us more of a cinematic look as well.” Camera and grip rental was from Panavision London and, for the lighting kit, ARRI Media London.

In addition to lighting and photographing The Night Manager, Snyman operated A-camera. “I had my concerns that I could manage with such a complex script,” he admits. “I was very aware of the pitfalls of compromising the look and feel of the show. In hindsight, however, it put me inside the story.”

Among the more challenging scenes in the movie are those that took place in Zermatt, a remote resort just below the Matterhorn. “We were up in the mountains at night, with no lights,” he says. “We couldn’t logistically get the lights up there. And we couldn’t physically close down the hotel. Susanne threw that curve at me, but it turned out really well. That’s when I had to put my faith in the RED.”

“Susanne structured the scene, and I massaged the process into some kind of available light, to get closer to a building and use all the practicals available to me,” he continues. “We pulled it off, and that’s what started the show. We all got to know each other really, really quickly.”

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Tom Hiddleston. Photo by Mitch Jenkins/AMC.

Snyman says he discussed with Bier what he’d like to do with each scene, but that “she left most of that to me.

“We had to find some sort of camera language to create that tension and then keep it there,” he adds, reiterating that “there was a substantial amount that was handheld.”

Traveling to the film’s locales, he found that “the chaos in those locations was kind of beautiful.” For that reason, he chose to use “toys” like cranes very selectively. “I feel it takes the audience out of the show. You remove yourself from that tension, and it’s often not the right thing to do. That sort of equipment can make people very aware of the camera.”

He did use a crane—just twice—and the production had two dollies, but the camera was never on legs. Snyman recalls shooting a particular scene in the hills near Morocco: “We laid the dolly down and shot it a few times, and then I took it off. It didn’t work for me. I turned to Susanne and asked if it was working for her. We looked at each other and decided it was not. So I put the camera on my shoulder, and the whole scene came to life.”

Lighting was also a challenge, given that the schedule was always in flux. “We really could not plan where we were going to be on the next week Thursday,” he says. “We knew what country, but the script would change quite a lot and we had to be ready for it.” Time constraints also meant that each set needed to be pre-lit for the following day’s shoot. The solution, says Snyman, who notes that ARRI Media gave the production a lot of support, was to have two electrical teams. “That way, all the prep came to the fore,” he says.

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Hugh Laurie and Elizabeth Debicki. Photo by Des Willie/The Ink Factory/AMC.

Snyman says he hopes audiences are “blown away” by the amazing cast and “acting that is out of this world. I think The Night Manager looks great, is very well directed and is hugely entertaining. It was satisfying personally to see my relationship with Susanne grow and to work with such a caliber of people.”

That superlative most certainly includes the crew. “It was a tough schedule,” says Snyman. “I don’t think any of us, including the cast and producers, will forget their dedication and professionalism. Everyone was so committed, which elevated the show and made it a magical journey.”

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