In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election in the United States, scriptwriter Tom O’Connor was very curious about the history of Russian American espionage. “I started reading history books,” says O’Connor. “Oleg Penkovsky is a legendary source that the Americans had in the Soviet Union. One line of one book said Oleg Penkovsky’s contact was a British civilian called Greville Wynne. At that point, my screenwriter cap popped on.”
Piecing the story together from various sources, O’Connor wrote the draft on spec and sent it out to production companies. It landed on the desk of 42’s Ben Pugh, who immediately knew he wanted 42 to produce The Courier.
“I wanted to make a movie like this for a long time,” says Pugh. “I love that period. I loved the idea of an everyday guy in the centre of that world with all these thrilling elements and this massive global political backdrop while it’s about him and his family, and he ends up trying to save the world.
SunnyMarch producer Adam Ackland was excited to be working on an espionage tale. “We were not looking to make a spy thriller,” Ackland says. “We just happened to find a great story in that genre featuring good characters, gravitas, and humanity.
“There’s a long history of successful great Cold War thrillers, the difference here is that rather than being about inscrutable people with inscrutable motives it has a clear emotional heart, and it’s essentially about a relationship between two men who did something extraordinary,” says Ben Browning, President of Production and Acquisitions at FilmNation.
The Courier tells the true-life story of an unassuming British businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) recruited into one of the greatest international conflicts in history. At the behest of the UK’s MI-6 and a CIA operative (Rachel Brosnahan), he forms a covert, dangerous partnership with Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) in an effort to provide crucial intelligence needed to prevent a nuclear confrontation and defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Crafting the Screenplay
Los Angeles based Tom O’Connor’s screenwriting career began with his spec script The Hitman’s Bodyguard, which was made into the hit 2017 film. A former advertising writer, O’Connor’s The Courier, which began as a spec script, marks Tom’s first credit as a producer.
During his research for the screenplay, O’Connor found out as much as he could about Wynne and Penkovsky. Their relationship is mentioned in several books but only in fragments. “There’s enough to understand the basics,” states O’Connor. “A lot of the events were and remain classified, and so sometimes, finding out what exactly happened was a challenge because there is active misinformation being put out by both sides. People don’t necessarily want everything on-the-record.”
Also, Wynne had written an autobiography in 1967 titled, The Man From Moscow: The Story of Wynne and Penkovsky. However, O’Connor was aware that the reliability of this book had been questioned: “I read a few people who did a point-by-point discrediting of the things that Wynne claimed happened arguing that they couldn’t possibly be real.”
When O’Connor was writing the screenplay, he had an idea of whom he would cast to play Wynne; “Benedict was always the dream. During the writing process, I was trying hard not to get my hopes up. I didn’t want to get fixated on Benedict because I thought he would never do it.”
“Benedict Cumberbatch has a great history of playing indelible tortured geniuses,” says FilmNation’s Browning on the actor nominated for a Best Lead Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.
“But in The Courier, playing Wynne, he starts off as an everyman who then gets dragged into the spy game. That allows Benedict to bring a lot of different shades to this character.”
From Page To Screen
When Pugh sent the script to director Dominic Cooke, who had been Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Royal Court Theatre 2006-2009, and directed On Chesil Beach, Cooke responded favorably.
“The script jumped out at me,” says Cooke. “It was such a well-written and gripping piece about a brilliant story that I didn’t know much about.”
As he read the script, Cooke imagined Cumberbatch playing Wynne. They had worked together several times in the theatre and BBC TV’s The Hollow Crown, based on Shakespeare’s history plays, in which Cumberbatch played Richard III.
Pugh says, “When Dominic came on board he did a little pass of the script with Tom and then it went straight to Benedict.”
“Cooke came to meet me about the part and the project. Obviously, I was very keen to work with him again,” says Cumberbatch, who was fascinated by Wynne. “I was intrigued by the arc the character went on. As our discussions continued, I said I’d love to augment the process by helping to produce it with SunnyMarch alongside my producing partner Adam Ackland.”
Cumberbatch was also attracted to Wynne’s personality. Reading the script, he says he was hooked by Wynne’s “sense of humour, his doggedness, and his unexpected strength. This idea that he was a salesman selling a version of himself.”
“This guy goes on an extraordinary journey,” continues Cumberbatch. “From being an ordinary businessman, one who is quite severely dyslexic, almost to the point of illiteracy, to being a conduit for the West to get the most important bit of secret information during the Cold War and The Cuban Missile Crisis.”
The British actor has always been intrigued by tales of espionage. Cumberbatch adds; “Spies are interesting meat and drink for actors because there’s always mask play and role play and the shifts are very sudden and quick.”
The search to find the actor to play Penkovsky started soon after Cooke and Cumberbatch joined the project. World-renowned casting agent Nina Gold was employed, and they went to Moscow in their search to find someone who could bring the requisite gravitas to the role’.
“Because there’s a lot of Russian dialogue I wanted to have a Russian speaker in the role. We went to Moscow and looked at a bunch of amazing actors,” says Cooke. “I’d seen Merab Ninidze in MCMAFIA and thought he was sensational in it. Of course, he’s Georgian, but he had lived in Russia, so he understood the world of it.”
Once cast, Ninidze immersed himself into learning as much about the culture, attitudes and style of the period as possible.
“I started re-watching Soviet films made during that time. I grew up with these movies and they contain a lot of information about Soviet society from the time: how people behaved, what their ideals were, and what they believed.”
Ninidze felt that he could understand the mindset of Penkovsky by studying his family history. “He had to hide parts of his past because he was related to a man who was the enemy of the Communists,” says Ninidze. “He had to carry this on his back.”