Interview: Director John Madden Discusses Our Fascination With “Miss Sloane”
Leading up to the release of the new political thriller, “Miss Sloane” this December 9th, we had the opportunity to sit down with Director John Madden and discuss his latest film. You may recognize Madden from his previous movies such as “The Debt”, “Proof”, and “Shakespeare in Love.”
We talked about his collaboration process with the writer on this brilliant script, and what makes the title character so fascinating (as portrayed by Jessica Chastain)
TCF: This is a brilliant film. The script is amazing, razor sharp, and I loved all the verbal sparring. What I was impressed to learn is this is the screenwriter’s, Jonathan Perera‘s, first feature script!
John Madden: Yes, yes. Well, I think he has a couple of other pieces in his bottom drawer which he wouldn’t show to anybody. He’s is a very unusual guy. Very, very disciplined, and self-taught in many ways. He went to a university and worked in a law firm. No particular interest in law except that he thought that would be a very quick way to pay off his college debt. Which he achieved and then thought, “Well, what do I really want to do? I think I might want to try and write, particularly for film or television.”
And so he sort of taught himself how to do it. And it’s something to do with his extreme discipline and he’s a very smart guy. But he’s also extremely approachable. He wrote this script in South Korea, where he was teaching in an elementary school by a way of giving himself the time to concentrate on it. So you know, he does his homework meticulously. He’s got a tremendous skill. I think it’s a very well-constructed script.
When I started working on “Miss Sloane” I said, “We have to be together. We have to be in the same room, and in the same head space or one another’s head space for two weeks minimum before we can start talking about this. Then we can conduct it over Skype. But I have to know him and he has to know me.”
So he came over and I was the first hand he shook basically in this business or this world at all. And we had an incredible fruitful six months getting the script to where it now is. Even though structurally, it was already terrific.
Was that the kind of procedure you would normally go through?
Always. I think I’m unusual in this regard, which is that my writer is my chief collaborator. Always on the film. Then the cinematographer and the editor and finally the composer. But I’m very involved in all aspects of that. Many directors seem to want to take the writing credit themselves. I don’t believe in that. I want the writer to have that credit. I want them to be perceived as what they are which the original author of the material.
But my view is the director needs to make the film on the page before you can start shooting. Therefore, that’s why I need to be in the same space as them because the writer’s got to trust me so that we work out together how the film will articulate itself. How it will look, how the scenes will work, how the structure will work. And most particularly how the characters will work. And that was the main area we were working on.
So yes, I always work that way. Even with Tom Stoppard with my heart in my mouth.
Would you say that that approach is kind of rare in Hollywood?
You know, I can’t tell. I certainly think that some directors can be quite high-handed with writers. It’s axiomatic isn’t it that a film has got one writing credit is quite a rare thing these days? And that says everything. It’s like, “Oh well that person has got has far as they can get. Let’s get somebody else in to do this” as if it’s a sort of set of instructions. I don’t believe in that. I think a piece of writing that has a voice and a sense of authorship is to be protected and nurtured and expanded. I think that it’s a precious thing, a voice. And although you can’t say that Elizabeth Sloane is his
[Jonathan Perera‘s] voice, nevertheless that character is something that’s his initially, and he didn’t have to make it a woman. If you switch the gender it’s perhaps a slightly more familiar kind of character. The kind of rogue, maverick figure, the obsessive, the rule-breaker, the cauterised emotional life. But it’s very unusual in a woman.
Have you ever experienced pressure to change a lead female character to male? Was there ever any mention of that on this?
Absolutely not in this case. It hasn’t been completely by design but I’ve done an enormous number of films where the key character, the lead character, is a woman, and so it’s my natural territory. But I’ve never heard of that. I have occasionally heard of an analogous film in a slightly analogous world where the character was changed from a man to a woman which was called “Our Brand is Crisis” that Sandra Bullock played the lead and that was originally a man. Actually by the guy who wrote “The Debt” worked on the Debt with me.
But no, we had no pressure on that, whatsoever. I mean its extraordinary isn’t it? Now suddenly as we approach this perennial moment where everybody is saying, “Oh okay, so who is going to be the front runner for this side or the other?” There’s a clutch of really powerful female performances this year, which has to be a terrific thing. These roles are not the sort of roles that women have traditionally had. They’re empowered, powerful people, who were not defined by their feminine qualities necessarily. They’re just people in a situation and above all not defined by their emotional lives, or their sexual lives, or their maternal lives or whatever they may be.
Jessica Chastain did an amazing job. From the opening scene, her monologue, you immediately know what her character is like.
Total, total command. Even though, at the very beginning of the film she’s actually at her lowest ebb possibly. But she is still utterly fascinating. To me, it’s also about just the power of a simple close up. Particularly right at the beginning of the film it’s so striking and intriguing because you can’t quite understand what her mood is or what her state of mind is.
Would you characterize her as a Sociopath? There are a few scenes where she expresses emotion but is she behaving that way to manipulate the situation or for selfish reasons?
I think that question is bound to be asked without there being an obvious answer. My own view is that there are a handful of moments in the film which I think are strangely completely genuine. But they are moments of discovery for her because she is somebody who has completely severed any connection to a spiritual or emotional life or any life outside the pursuit of what she does and the exercise of those particular skills designed to bring about the results she wants. I think she is sociopathic in a sense because she pays no heed to the collateral damage and is ruthlessabout her pursuit of that objective until suddenly she is confronted with that damage in a way that makes a claim on her significantly.
But the moments with Esme, my view is the paradox and marvelousness of that scene and that circumstance is that Esme would never believe the sincerity of her apology, though I think it is sincere. I think she is starting to unravel. And is unraveling from the beginning of the movie actually, while paradoxically, you’re watching her total control apparently of everything.
I also think she’s totally genuine with her outburst in the debate, even though actually that is itself a manipulation as we later discover. But what she is saying is what she believes, I think she’s totally connected at that point. And again I think at the very end when she has finally come to actually believe in the value of what she is fighting for, which up until that point I didn’t think she’s given it a second thought. It’s about winning. So I think again probably, actually when she bursts out laughing I proposal at the very beginning, those are all very real moments.
I think to me the interesting part of the journey is how she reclaims a certain humanity that she has almost forsaken. It enables her just to have a little gem of something to build on when you see her in the last frame of the movie. I mean talk about a stranger in a strange land, I mean she’s like an alien. She doesn’t know how to behave even. She has to learn it all from scratch, to do something genuinely as opposed to doing something for an ulterior motive. It’s just not a language she has spoken for so long. She doesn’t know what it is.
I think there are moments also in the climactic scene with the escort where suddenly something comes out of her and is ripped open. She’s also ripped open by the Mark Strong character. She is a piece of work and she knows it.
“Miss Sloane” opens in theaters across the US on Friday, December 9th