The lights go out, a woman screams, and a loud thud breaks the silence. When the lights come on again, a dead body is revealed and a room full of shocked witnesses eye each other warily. Which one of them did it? That’s the premise of pretty much every murder mystery in the 20th century, and See How They Run, a new film starring Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan, doesn’t stray too far from that formula. Its most appealing quality is how lovingly retro it all feels: the ne’er-do-well victim, the shady suspects, and the dark mansion where all secrets are revealed.
In an interview with Digital Trends, director Tom George and co-star Charlie Cooper discuss the eternal appeal of the murder mystery genre, how a cast of veteran American and British actors was eventually cast, and why films like this are best experienced in a crowded theater full of moviegoers eager to solve the case.
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: What made you two decide to make See How They Run?
Tom George: I think what appealed to me was the chance to make a film that was a thriller, a murder mystery, and a comedy. I liked the challenge of threading those elements together, because I think there’s a risk that, you know, you overplay the comedy elements, and you lose the stakes in your thriller, and you play too much emphasis on the darker elements and the comedy tone drifts away.
Charlie Cooper: I’ve always loved murder mysteries, and the fact that it’s that, but also a comedy was what really drew me to the film, because it’s a hard thing to get right. We see a lot of straight-forward murder mysteries, but to have that suspense and combine it with laughs is just really appealing. And then having read the script, it was just superb — the whole tone of it and the colorful characters. Yeah, it was perfect.
The movie is sort of a love letter to Agatha Christie, with her famous play The Mousetrap being a pivotal plot device and an old-fashioned murder mystery genre. What do you like about the genre in particular, and what are some of your favorite mysteries?
George: I wasn’t a huge mystery fan before See How They Run. I think, certainly in England, we’ve all grown up with them, whether it be murder mystery books or TV adaptations or films. The challenge then is how do you do something new in that space?
On the one hand, this is a film set in 1953. It wants to feel like a fully realized version of 1950s London, but it also only works from a sort of modern viewpoint. It was clear there’s this contemporary thread running through the whole film tonally.
My first engagement with murder mysteries would have been Poirot, the Agatha Christie character who was played by David Suchet in a series from the ‘80s and ‘90s. That was a staple for me and my brother, and we’d sit there and try to write down notes to crack the case. But, of course, Christie’s mysteries don’t work quite like that.
Cooper: It’s that sort of inherent human trait of working out a mystery in your imagination that’s so lovely. It’s such a part of British culture, you know, in stories and plays.
Had you seen The Mousetrap before making this film?
George No, I hadn’t seen The Mousetrap before making this film. I was due to go and see it, but then there was a global pandemic, which made that trickier. But in the end, I read the play, and I was familiar with it by the time we shot the film. I see that as a positive, because I think it’s important that the audience can come to this movie not having seen that play and still enjoy it.
I wanted to have this layer of awareness about the genre and the tropes of the genre and the way that these kinds of stories function, but that all needs to be built on solid foundations with relatable characters and a good story. It needed to work in its own right. Hopefully, that extra layer is exciting for fans of the genre or for people on a second watch-through.
Cooper: No, I hadn’t, actually. I didn’t know that much about Agatha Christie before I joined the cast. It’s one of those things you don’t realize how much you know until you sort of go back and look at it properly, and we shot it during the pandemic, so we weren’t able to see the play.
The movie features an eclectic cast. How did you assemble such a motley crew of actors?
George: You know, the great thing about a whodunit is you get to have a large ensemble of potential suspects and victims. And Mark Chappell [the writer] had written these brilliant characters so that then the process of putting actors in those parts was actually one of the most fun parts of the production.
It certainly started with Saoirse Ronan, who was the first person we thought of for Constable Stalker. We had a couple of conversations with her, and she came on board, and it really kind of built out from there. Sam Rockwell joined us, then David Oyelowo, and then the rest of the cast followed. They not only were brilliant people in their own right, but also it gave a clear direction to the project. People could see or get more of a sense tonally of what we were trying to do.
Charlie, how did you approach playing your character Dennis the theater usher? Like everybody else in the cast, you must be believable as both a potential suspect or victim.
Cooper: Yeah, I knew that from the beginning, and I think that what really appealed to me was doing something challenging and completely outside my comfort zone. It was so much fun to play Dennis. I would definitely do it again.
What should audiences expect from this movie?
George: I think audiences should expect a whodunnit that is both for fans of mysteries but also for people who wouldn’t usually go and see this type of film. And above all, I think it’s a film to watch with groups of people, whether that’s at home or preferably in the theater. It’s so easy to forget that joy of laughing with an audience. I think it’s an essential social thing that we’ve missed these last two years. And this kind of film used to get made here in the UK quite a lot: dark crime dramas with overtones of comedy.
Cooper: See How They Run is just an hour and a half of pure escapism. It’s a chance to get really get absorbed into that world of West End London in the 1950s, which is so lovely because the cinematography is so good. The costumes are amazing, and the sets are unreal. So, it’s just going to be one of those movies where I think you’re looking at the cinema and just thinking, “I really want to go back into that world for a couple more hours,” which is really nice. I love it when that happens. And again, you know, in its purest form, it’s a classic murder mystery that everyone will love to watch.
See How They Run is currently playing in select theaters.