Janus Metz Pedersen is a director of some range. His work in documentaries Ticket to Paradise and Armadillo garnered him great critical plaudits, his feature film Borg McEnroe had one of the career best performances from Shia LaBeouf and recently his work on television series ZeroZeroZero was well received for being both stylish and uncommonly clever. His latest film, the Prime Video backed All the Old Knives follows two CIA agents and former lovers played Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton who over dinner talk about a botched job from some years back that haunts the agency to this day.
As a thriller, this film feels like a throwback to the style of the 70s, almost like a Cold War film, what were your inspirations when directing?
Well, with the spy movies that I really like – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy those are the kind of films I guess you’re referring to when you say there’s a throwback feel. I like those classical types of filmmaking that they aspire to. But, I guess what I thought was interesting about the story was the constant duplicity, the secrets, the double crossing and how these people, these agents that work in the same office, the atmosphere between them that is permeated by this constant sense of paranoia and mistrust. I think that type of storytelling leads us into the type of territory of these movies.
There wasn’t a particular effort to make a classic spy movie but I thought it was a whodunnit, a find-a-mole story that lives in that world rather than the more action driven spy movies out there. What I liked about it, though, was there was this new element in it with this restaurant setting and these two people – they’re ex-lovers, and it’s almost like a chamber play. Essentially an interrogation where we find out what went wrong in the past and how everything is connected to, and unravels, the love story between the two. That was an exciting, interesting piece of material that I had never seen before in big classical spy movies.
You were saying about the setting in the present is a restaurant, how do you go about directing that so that it doesn’t become a stage play and stays dynamic?
It was one of the more fun challenges of making this film. How do we make a movie that is fifty percent of the time taking place across a dinner conversation. How do we make that cinematic? For me, the camera is always a narrator and how the camera is used either to create tension or create symbolic meaning in images. I think if you go back and watch my other movies it’s something that’s there. With this one, my collaboration with Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who’s the amazing director of photography, we talked a lot about how we go deeper and deeper into the head space of Henry (Pine) and Celia (Newton) and see the trauma and secrets and deep longing of their personality. So, the film becomes increasingly more claustrophobic as it goes along, and there’s a light journey also in that restaurant that leads us from end of day to night. The darker the story goes the darker the film goes until it ends up as this very film noir-type rich atmosphere. That’s part of it.
Then we worked with making sure people looking in, the paranoia, a sense of mistrust was constantly present on screen. Even to the effect that Henry and Celia are sort of lost souls in the present because of what they have lived through. I like to think of it as two people meeting at the end of the world, at the end of their journey, to have their stories and destinies settled and the truth be told. So, there’s this longing for a closure at the end of the road. Having this restaurant that is out on a cliff by the Pacific Ocean where you can’t go any further, it’s here. This is where the buck stops and it’s the end of the road. That’s where the masks drop and the secrets are told.
When handling subject matter of this nature – especially dealing with international relations and acts of terror on planes – how do you strike the balance between making a thriller which is to be enjoyable and being respectful to parallels in the real world?
Everyone that’s in this story, the people portraying the hijackers, I think we create a sense of understanding for where they’re coming from and how they ended up in the situation they’re in. I think it’s very important for me to tell that story because All the Old Knives, as much as it’s a character play about ex-agents and lovers and the intimacy of their story. There’s also all of Henry’s past – it’s difficult to talk about because you end up revealing a lot of the story! But it’s really important for me that you create an understanding of how people ended up where they did, the world history around that underpins and works as an undercurrent so you’re not demonising or pointing fingers. You’re creating an understanding. I think it’s respectful of that.
On a practical level how do you go about getting a film like this made? As you said it’s not like spy thrillers today, was there a pressure to make it more action packed or to do it this way?
The people that came together for this film really loved it for what it was and there was a great communal understanding from all the various producers, the talent, even the Amazon Studios side that this was an intelligent spy story. It didn’t need a lot of overt action. That’s not what’s driving the story, it’s really about the pleasure of finding out the ins and outs of this spy game. I never experienced any pressure to make it a different movie, everyone came together to make what the script promised, and try to make the best film.
This film is going to Prime Video, where it will probably get a bigger audiences than in cinemas where it would be up against blockbusters. Where do you stand on the streaming vs cinema debate, especially as the world opens up after Covid?
I think it’s a really interesting moment. On the one hand, as a filmmaker and a film lover, I love to go to the cinema and see movies there. I would do that any day, even if I have access to it at home. With All the Old Knives it’s out simultaneously in cinemas and streaming, and it’s interesting to see who chooses to go to the cinema and get that rich experience of the big canvas and the immersive sound. Which is ultimately where movies should be seen for the greatest impact. But, at the same time you have such a great outreach with streaming platforms. You get a much higher number of audiences watching your movie. That’s interesting. Just from a production financial stand point, the streamers make certain films possible that even ten years ago were difficult to get made and those mid-range, mid-budget, big dramatic movies which this film is part of. If we were in a world where it was theatre alone, it probably would have been harder to get this film made. It sits really beautifully in a combination of theatre and streaming.
All The Old Knives Is Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video Now