See How They Run is, in multiple ways, a movie out of time. Murder mysteries are experiencing a mini revival, with Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot movies and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, but like westerns or sword and sandal dramas, they are largely relics of the past. Mid-sized movies have also been shrinking in number recently, a reality exacerbated by the fact Disney seemed to feel lumbered with See How They Run after the acquisition of Searchlight that came with scooping up Fox. Most pointedly, See How They Run is literally of a different era, with the plot taking place in the 1950s. However, as director Tom George explains, certain presentational choices highlight the movie’s displaced nature, taking cues from modern cinema and ’60s capers to give See How They Run a unique tone all of its own.
“The split screen came from this idea of split points of view, which are built into the story,” Tom George tells me when I ask about the choice to have multiple shots on screen at once. “You always have the detectives interrogating or questioning a suspect and trying to get that read on them. It’s about people watching each other, in both a dramatic and a comic sense, so it felt like that motivated the sort of use of split screen. For me, I kind of initially thought of [split screen] more as being out of the period, so more of in the ’60s films like Bullit came to mind.”
Bullit hits the mark of what I saw in the flick, as do the likes of Charade, which was my own first thought for the technique. It’s not just a jazzy piece of stylisation though, but a more pointed and deliberate choice to draw audiences in. “It starts in quite a simple way that we use it and then it becomes slightly more embellished the deeper into the film we get as Leo Köpenick’s film [the director within the movie, played by Adrien Brody] starts to insert itself and effect our own film a lot more and, it becomes a little more stylized in the way that we use them.”
As well as playing with eras, See How They Run plays with genres, acting as a mystery, crime drama, and comedy all at once. This, George says, required a tricky balancing act. “I think the most difficult thing to balance was the tone of the pieces, like keeping the dramatic elements that really you want to feel like an exciting thriller, and at the same time, this character comedy that you really want to play as a laugh out loud comedy. Keeping those two things in the right balance was the biggest challenge. It was about trying to make sure that as much as possible things were pulling in the same direction. With every head of department I had the discussion about this as a period thing, but it only works from a modern viewpoint, contemporary view on this period world. What can we do with costume, production design, with editing, with lighting, and camera to reflect that in an interesting way? Hopefully, although there are different stylistic elements going on, they all feel like they’ve got a common purpose, I suppose.”
Despite the movie being billed as a comedy and providing some good chuckles, few of the cast are comedians. A decision, despite his experience with This Country, that George says is deliberate. “I like to work with actors who’ve got funny bones or a sense of humour, but I don’t think that necessarily means they need to be a comic performer known for doing broad comedy roles,” he says. “In fact, the style of comedy that I like to work in generally benefits from the actor not being aware of the joke. When it goes wrong is when you have an actor being too helpful and showing you ‘look here’s the joke I know was funny’. Stylistically I much prefer comedy that takes a backseat and just presents the things as real, essentially, and trusts that they’re funny enough that played dead straight, they’ll land.”
In my review, which drops on Friday alongside the film itself, I single out Saoirse Ronan as the best performance, and George is similarly keen to highlight her talents. “Saoirse Ronan falls into both those categories, [she’s] naturally funny, but also such a brilliantly skilled actor,” he says. “It’s nice to have a model where it feels like people from different backgrounds in terms of their acting work and can come together. Plus, I’m always excited to see people who haven’t done a comic role before. David Oyelowo is the one for me who really stood out in that vein. I had seen him in his brilliant dramatic roles, but always felt from his chat show appearances that he was naturally funny and playful, and that as soon as we had this part of Mervyn he was the first person I thought of and it’s great to see him doing something that I think will be new to audiences.”
See How They Run is in cinemas from September 9