On London’s West End, the long-running play The Mousetrap is a hit and Hollywood comes knocking at the stage door. Arrogant American director, Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody), blacklisted in the U.S., gets the job to adapt the murder mystery to the screen with a script by Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo).
However, anticipating all eventualities, that shrewd matriarch of mystery known here only as the Dame (Shirley Henderson) has inserted a caveat in her contract: the producers can’t film the play until six months after its theatrical run ends.
As actual corpses begin piling up backstage, a cynical Scotland Yard detective Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), and an enthusiastic newbie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) have to reconcile their personal differences on the way to identifying the killer. Turning adversity into opportunity.
Director Tom George, writer Mark Chappell and the production team shot the movie in the theaters and hotels abandoned during the city’s pandemic shutdown, and set a playful tone as an antidote to dark times and to celebrate the life of the theater.
The Original Murder Mystery
See How They Run is a bonified Murder Mystery with deliciously smart humor set against the backdrop of arguably the world’s most famous murder mystery. It is quite simply a gem of an idea that plays enticingly between fact and fiction.
Producer Damian Jones started thinking about plays that have been on the West End for years that might be worth exploring as a movie. Running for 68 years, The Mousetrap stood out. Jones looked and researched the rights and then discovered why it had never been made into a film.
A very successful Oscar winning producer at the time, John Woolf, who produced The African Queen, Day of the Jackal, and Olivier!, optioned the rights. Jones explains, “There was one clause in the contract which said, ‘you can make the movie six months after the play closes’, and of course, it never closed. I thought you could do a ‘whodunnit’ and sabotage the play of a ‘whodunnit’. We then hired Mark Chappell, our wonderful screenwriter, and turned it into something way beyond my imaginings and something very, very special.”
Chappell says, “What is so great about this type of mystery story is that you feel you know this world without having seen it all. You can rely on an audience coming to the table with the knowledge to properly enjoy a murder mystery”.
One of the guiding principles was that however irreverent, however playful: the team had to pull off a satisfying whodunit. “The script came off the page as funny, super smart and witty and had all the kind of the range of comic elements that I love,” says Tom George. The production wanted to do something more modern but still set in that period, and make it a meta-comedy. Chappell achieved that.
Zany, Playful and Beautifully Written
“It’s a pretty zany plot with some poignant moments,” says Sam Rockwell, who plays the curmudgeon of a lead detective Stoppard, the name a hat-tip to playwright Tom Stoppard. Adrien Brody adds, “Chappell used to do stand-up comedy and he’ll just have an amazing one-liner or remark. The dialogue is fantastic in the movie, and the script is beautifully written.”
Playfulness sets the tone in SEE HOW THEY RUN, about making a film about a play. “The balance for us,” says David Oyelowo, “is making sure we’re not having so much fun doing that, that we’re not serving the characters and the story, but making sure there’s enough fun that the audience feels very much in on it, as it were.” Adds Wilson, “It’s a satirical and farcical look at the murder mystery genre. I hope audiences will love the play on the theatre world, that’s what Britain is known for.”
For BAFTA-winning director George, who found success with the contemporary comic TV show “This Country”, it was a big leap to take on this kind of period project about a British literary icon. About the transition from TV to film, George said, “The surprising but reassuring thing for me was finding that it’s the same thing, it’s the same job. You’re just doing it on a slightly bigger scale, with more experts in their field. This film’s got a beautiful, high-end look to it while “This Country” was deliberately low-fi. But, really, you’re making all the same decisions and you’re relying on, as always, your team of experts.”
The Constable and the Detective
Odd-couple investigative pairings appear frequently in mysteries – the crime fighters at the movie’s center are opposites who ultimately must surmount their differences to catch the culprit.
Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell team up as Constable Stalker and Inspector Stoppard and drive everything with wit and skilled sleuthing.
At its heart, the story of Stoppard and Striker is one about partnership and the teamwork required to achieve something. “Neither of them anticipates that they might work well together at the start, but it feels like it could be an exciting thing by the end and it’s very funny along the way,” says George.
Rockwell describes his character as “a drunk, sexist Inspector from Scotland Yard who has post-traumatic stress from the war and his wife has left him. He’s sort of a tragic, dark character in a comic arena.”
“Stoppard is pretty broken when we meet him,” says co-star Ronan. She describes her character as “very, very green, new to the job and eager, that’s really where the story begins.” The audience follows Stoppard and Stalker as they try to figure out who is running around killing people in the West End.
Over the course of their investigation, through theaters, posh hotels, and country homes, the pair take a journey. Despite himself, Stoppard finds a bit of redemption, learning from his cohort. “They change each other unexpectedly, he helps her grow up a little bit, and she helps him find some of his vivacity and the energy he used to have.” Says Ronan.
Stoppard has no intention of rolling over, and Rockwell revels in his grumpiness. “I was never old enough to do these kinds of characters until now. I think I’ve been preparing all my life to play a character like this. I’ve always been an old soul.” He recognises some of the great performances he grew up on from Walter Matthau in Bad News Bears or Richard Pryor in Bustin’ Loose.
They’re classic over-the-hill characters that have this redemption arc.” Agrees Ruth Wilson, “One of the main pulls of this job was to work with Sam and Saoirse.” Of Rockwell and Ronan, Oyelowo says, “there’s a real chemistry that is necessary for those roles to work because they have a kind of a funny, quirky relationship that undergirds the rest of the film.”
See How They Run is in Cinemas now.