John Madden - Featured

John Madden on the Politics of Miss Sloane, Toronto as Washington, and Meaningless Oscars

With a lead performance by Jessica Chastain that’s creating loads of awards buzz, Miss Sloane has become one of the more talked about films as awards season truly gets underway. It’s the story of a feisty, ruthless Washington Lobbyist fighting for gun control legislation, the film’s overt political messaging set within a thriller context feeds off recent political events in the US.

Director John Madden is better known for the Oscar-winning Shakespeare In Love and audience favourites such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, yet the Brit director has spanned everything from Elmore Leonard works like Killshot to straight dramas like Mrs Brown

In an extended mountainside conversation during the Whistler International Film Festival Madden spoke to Dork Shelf about directing Chastain (with whom he had previously worked in 2010’s The Debt), on finding the balance for flawed characters, the differences between television and cinematic narratives and, of course, what he has on his own shelf of collectibles.

Since you completed it the messaging of the film has shifted a lot given Trump’s recent win.

You mean shifted in terms of the environment in which people are viewing it? Yes, totally.

Even prior to the election how did your own views on the subject of lobbying and the gun debate change as you worked on the phases of the film’s production?

Well, it was a strange trajectory. It’s not an accident that it came out when it did [just post-election], meaning that I suppose it could have come out some time next year. We finished shooting the film at the end of April, and I saw an assembly [cut] about 3 weeks after that or something. Sometimes you struggle to get a movie into shape, but I thought the movie knew where it was going at that point and we could get there by the end of the year, [which] meant for me somewhere around the point where we imagined the particular preoccupations of the film having to do with gun legislation would be a strikingly prominent part of the political discourse. 

Obviously the movie makes the assumption that nothing ever changes legislatively in that area, but we didn’t want to get to a point where we were somehow way out of sync with that. Lo and behold as the election unfolded, that issue became buried, there was no policy issue anywhere that you could observe beyond character assassination and outrageous claims of one sort or another. Yet suddenly, something else that is central to the film, gender politics and the political process itself, suddenly leapt to the fore. 

Suddenly what became the subject of the film was the political process. 

MISS SLOANE

Would you say your film is ideological?

No, it’s not. It was never constructed as a polemic and it would not be a useful place for me to be, to come and rap the knuckles of a country and political system that I’m not actually part of, no matter how interested I may be in it. But the broad realities of politics with a small “p”? Yes, it’s definitely examining that. 

The film is a slightly unusual genre because it’s taking a political subject which makes some people’s eyes glaze over because it’s the last thing at this time of the year they want to go anywhere near. But, and I make no apology for this, it’s a political thriller, and it’s intended to be a very good, gripping and surprising watch. 

Here’s a glib answer to your question about a movie that actually is about the ability to surprise – That’s the modus operandi of the central character and the way the movie is constructed. [At the same time] we found ourselves in the middle of a political surprise [with Trump’s win] that sort of made us look like such small potatoes. 

Nevertheless, I think it’s potentially therapeutic because I think the film is quite cathartic. When I’m around and amongst people as I have been recently who are very much affected by the issue of gun violence, the people whose lives have been blighted by it with their sense of constant frustration, [for them] to see something that actually has a sort of radicalized centre to the story they’ve all responded quite strongly to that.

There’s surely a universal message here, not strictly about the American political process. But it’s a uniquely American phenomenon to have this form of overt dynamic, this sort of political dichotomy, essentially that everything becomes a competition, everything becomes almost like a sport, you’re changing sides, you’re changing teams, it’s binary. It’s a binary system in a way that few are.

Yes, it is. That’s absolutely true. It’s about races, it’s about winning. It’s about who’s on the winning side and who’s on the losing side. It was a little strange, I have to say, to watch the film come into its landing zone alongside a political process in which that was writ so large.

Putting this film together there are two directions you didn’t take – There’s a completely jingoistic cut where she goes to jail, they pass the law, everything’s fine and gun violence is taken care of and everybody has a “kumbaya” moment. Or there’s equally the very cynical, dare I say more European tack for this, whereas absolutely nothing has changed, she would not have been punished because it would simply have been the same as usual, and you would not have had any sense of closure but simply exposing the detritus of democracy. That’s what David Simon lays out in something like The Wire, with his look at institutions that by their very nature create banality and stasis.

I think that is true. 

I guess this is what I’m getting at – Can you actually do that sort of anti-cathartic mode in a feature film, or is that luxury of long form television?

Well I think the answer is yeah, you can, but at the same time, good luck with that! [Laughs] 

It’s a perfectly fair point. I suppose I would place myself somewhere in the middle of that – Let’s face it, in the movie, all we’re talking about specifically is the introduction of or the extension of background checks. It’s hardly the most radical thing in the world to suggest that we might do something. I keep saying “we”, I can’t avoid saying that! 

Something might be done to try and ensure that these lethal machines don’t get in to hands that are not equipped to make proper judgments about how to use them. This is not even getting into the whole constitutional issue which is fascinating from the outside to me. As Sloane’s attorney says to her, “well, congrats, what’s changed, really? All that’s changed is that you’ve completely pulled the system down on top of your head.” 

So I’m sympathetic to as you say the more European conclusion of the film. In television you’re able to be a little bit more I suppose “realistic” because there’s not a simple requirement of resolution. It’s a very odd thing I’ve thought a lot about in terms of this kind of longer form material. I did a pilot a while ago and it was for Masters of Sex and I heard a comment from an executive that they were very into it and actually thought it was terrific, but they were saying I don’t understand what the protagonist’s problem is. I thought, well, there’s a movie orthodoxy at work! If we don’t after 20 minutes max. understand what his problem is and have defined in a necessarily reductive form then you haven’t got a story because you can’t get to a resolution. Surely [in a pilot] it should be the other way around – all you’re doing is opening up the story at that point and investigating everything and you find lo and behold audiences are very happy to go there and take a long time trying to figure out for themselves what the sides of an issue or a person are.

You can’t do that in a movie.  

They’re always talk about the golden age of television but this again points out that compared to cinema they remain two completely different things. On the one hand, films are absolutely constrained by time and by a particular presentation, the whole notion of the orthodoxy of feature length and the need for some sort of closure. Television has the ability to as you say meander, but the problem is, most television simply sets “world build” but then have nowhere to go. 

Yeah, where it never resolves and the commercial rope runs out in some way. They simply stop without ever having approached any kind of resolution.

Or you have something like like J.J. Abrams and co. which is simply throw a whole bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks.

Creatively, it’s tempting and enjoyable. There has [to be] a sort of discipline involved. I suppose we are being too glib about it – it’s like the long, sprawling novel which still must resolve itself in some way. Movies are much more akin to the short story in finding a shape that is satisfying that doesn’t feel reductive and doesn’t feel overly simplified. 

You’re always going to be subject to those pressures. The bigger the subject you take on, the more those pressures are going to manifest themselves. With Sloane I felt that because of the shape of the story, which is a spring trap in a way, it felt a very satisfying weight for a movie to me.

And frankly, I’m not sure that Chastain’s character could be sustained over that many episodes because you simply would be exhausted by her machinations. 

Exactly. 

That being said, she has to be both bitchy and sympathetic, no easy feat. You are drawn to her even when she repels. 

I completely agree.

That must have been incredibly challenging, to not only find your Sloane, but also to make sure during performance and more importantly during editing that you’re finding that balance.

Well, it wasn’t such a huge challenge for me, assuming that I’m completely endorsing the way it’s landed, because I think that it’s the perfect match of actor and part. While I was reading the script in the very early stages of it I thought this is a perfect role for Jessica. I’d worked with her before and we’d been trading material since then, so it’s not as if my mind wasn’t already open to that.

But the more specific answer to your question is that in the script and the iteration of that I read, it was already architecturally quite similar to what it is now. But crucially, there was no change in that character at all – she was clever, and by the time you got to the end of the movie, I don’t know that she was materially different except in circumstantial terms. That was an early observation about the script, which was a first time writer, with the notion of where do you find the “relatability” of a character like that (to use a ridiculous term). I had a very specific view about that – I said the question here is she’s only going to be someone who’s unavailable to the audience as long as she behaves in a way that they can’t understand or reach. The moment she starts to slip up or make mistakes, she doesn’t necessarily become likable, though I believe she does, she becomes human. That’s actually the key to the whole thing. 

I think Jessica has a quality so unlike that character – there’s a certain fragility there and a femininity and a sort of vulnerability and that is something she never completely erases, even though she can take no prisoners and step into that zone and has the verbal dexterity and the coloration to be able to master that.

But you’re absolutely correct, that is the key to the movie as far as I’m concerned. 

She’s not only the title of the film, it’s got to be your biggest special effect. If it doesn’t work, it all falls.

Totally. It’s going to rise or fall on that, but I felt very comfortable with that. Obviously we have history, so I didn’t think we were going to get into a place where we were pulling in opposite directions or she would not respond. She accepted completely that it’s the outside view that she needed in that situation.

As somebody who watches too many movies perhaps, I thought Alison Pill’s performance was particularly elegant because she has in some ways an incredibly difficult role for telegraphing, of playing [right down the middle] but not playing meek.

I think you have to believe there’s a sort of a two-step at the beginning really where you have to feel a bit of tension there so that when she is rising to a place and actually there’s a competitive edge there. It’s as if Sloane has kind of cultivated her as a kind of figure to become a version of herself. 

I think it’s a very well judged performance. We had to obviously consider that very carefully. When she makes a phone call, in the original script, you didn’t see who was on the other end of the phone. I said that is a total giveaway and also a failure. We have to be able to see exactly who she’s talking to on the other end of the phone, and if that works and plays, then we’ve sort of got it right.

She happened to be in my favourite Canadian film of all time, I think Goon is the most magnificent Canadian film, it’s delightful.

I haven’t seen it. One of the things that’s pretty interesting was about half, maybe more, maybe 2/3 of that movie is Canadian cast.

Well, and as they’re walking outside the Shangri-La in Toronto. 

I know! Everybody in Toronto is going to know where this movie is shot from that sculpture of course. 

I know there are lots of reasons to shoot there but as a Brit comes to North America to shoot this film how did you end up in Toronto?

You always start with wanting to authenticate everything, so I held on to the notion for two seconds that surely we could shoot this in Washington, D.C. But actually, that’s a non-starter really. I’ve been in that situation before with the other film I did with Jessica, The Debt, I thought we have to shoot this in East Berlin and so forth. Until you see what’s happened to East Berlin and you think, forget that! Suddenly you find something that provides a completely different kind of authenticity. It’s part of the business. 

I had a really terrific production designer who is very used to the particular challenges of taking aspects of the Toronto world and tilting it in to places you wanted to go. It wasn’t a massive challenge because obviously much of the film is interior but we tried to make that happen. 

I found it a really good experience, to be honest with you. I mean, it was tricky, there weren’t infinite numbers of choices for things, but the crews are fantastic. 

The sense of place doesn’t mean familiar landmarks, it just means the kind of smell, the feel, the kind of quality, and I’m very happy with the way that’s turned out. As a matter of fact, visually, I’m very happy with the film. The film doesn’t look as if it has much to offer in that zone nevertheless feels visually distinctive to me and atmospheric, actually. 

THE DEBT

You managed to capture Toronto’s mendacity and bureaucratic nature beautifully. 

Thank you so much! [Laughs]

So, what’s on your Dork Shelf? Do you collect spoons or something along your travels? 

I’m an indiscriminate hoarder of completely irrelevant things like restaurant bills that I fold up into a small thing or keys to hotel rooms that end up in my pocket. This will give armchair psychologists something to talk about, I’m very loathe to throw those things away. They become carry-around talismans with absolutely no meaning whatsoever. That’s not really the answer to your question. I like to take the things that I accumulate around me through in my life, not that they’re necessarily relevant but they’re part of my experience.

So your ephemera forms a ring, sort of like around a planet.

Yes, sort of, exactly. It’s floating out there in space, the Saturnine ring I suppose. Yeah, I’ve never, I often wondered about that actually. I kind of think do I want to throw this away? I won’t throw it away yet, and meaningless things. 

And the Shakespeare in Love Oscar? Did the producers who took it home get you a copy for yourself? 

That’s actually meaningless to me, to be honest with you. There’s things that are kind of nice to have, the physical things, but no, that, I’d much rather have the script. Those things I absolutely don’t let go, but the physical manifestation of those things is not particularly significant to me, I suppose, there’ll come a point where I don’t remember them, I suppose.

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