Yes, John Madden directed Oscar-winning Best Picture Shakespeare in Love, but his diverse output also includes serving as artistic director for the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company, directing radio dramas for National Public Radio (including adaptations of the original Star Wars trilogy) and helming the Broadway premieres of Arthur Kopit's Wings, Jules Feiffer's Grown Ups and Christopher Durang's Beyond Therapy. Madden's extensive work for British television includes Prime Suspect: The Lost Child with Helen Mirren and installments of The Return of Sherlock Holmes and The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett. His films include Ethan Frome; Golden Gate; Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown; Captain Corelli's Mandolin; Killshot; and Proof, the film adaptation of David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Madden recently reunited with Mirren for The Debt, a remake of an Israeli thriller about three Mossad agents and their haunting encounter with a Nazi war criminal. Madden discussed The Debt (and Shakespeare in Love) with me at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: Somebody could mistake this for a documentary about the state of the American economy.
John Madden: Tell me about it! I've been in a number of conversations about renaming this movie...
Groucho: It can be sometimes a trap for an actor and, I would assume, a director as well to see a previous version of a play or a role or a film—
John Madden: Yes.
G: When one is about to embark on making a version of it. But I think you, quite sensibly, early in the process, watched the original film.
G: To, sort of, know what you're to be compared against, and then set it aside.
JM: Yes. That's pretty much exactly what I did. There was no way I could not see this film because the first script I saw was an interpretation of that film by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, and I felt that we all knew that if I was going to take the film on, probably because of the kind of film it is and the subject matter, a director—somebody has to make the film in the way they see the material. It's very provocative material, and I had to know what the resources were that I had to work with.
JM: So I saw the film, not out of the corner of my eye. I sat squarely and watched it and was very gripped by it. And I thought the film very strong.
G: I wonder, were there particular beats that you were determined to replicate...?
JM: Interestingly there were. There was one—the film has a particularly beautiful ending, I think, in the original form. Something I fully intended to do my own homage to and use, and in fact I didn't in the end. I didn't in the film, the way I thought I might when I was shooting it. I mean, not in terms of what happens, but actually in terms of a particular visual idea. But to be honest with you, the film receded in my mind—I don't mean receded because it wasn't a strong film, but the actual images and the way they unfolded became opaque to me very quickly as Peter Straughan and I started to work on this version of the film.
G: Right. Because you immediately began to see it through your perspective, your take on it—
JM: Because the material is so strong. And we started to develop ideas in it that probably weren't in the original film. It may have been in the original film, but were given a very different emphasis in this film. I think it's fair to say this film deals much more with the effect on their lives—the lives of the three central characters, of the circumstance they experienced in the mid-sixties.
G: Specifically I wanted to talk about that: how the film obviously takes the life of a spy very seriously, and particularly the weight, the consequences it has for how they continue to try to live their lives, even outside of that context. Did you do research for yourself, or did you rely on your imagination in terms of the toll of the job of a spy?
JM: I think I relied on my imagination. Of course, you know espionage literature and the history of espionage in films is so pervasive...
JM: That, you know, you have already incorporated, I suppose, a large number of preconceptions about what must be involved in that. It didn't seem to me to be particularly helpful to research that, and I certainly was not in the business of referencing my sources in the film. I wanted the film to get under people's defenses. You know, I think and hope the film is very cinematic, but I did not want, as I say, to pay homage or to reference in any recognizable way moments in other movies.
JM: I think that's quite a common thing these days. And I wanted the film, as far as possible, to feel, sort of almost, documentary, if I could make that happen, but I—no. Peter Straughan and I just used our own instincts about how to tell that story, and sniffing out what seemed the true human reaction to a given moment—to the circumstances. The circumstance is so extreme and so provocative, it felt—we sort of let that question answer itself as we went along. Also, an unusual thing about the film is that it seemed—the way I talked about it at the time has come back to me this morning—is that the film sort of pulls against itself in a really interesting sort of way. Normally you're trying to—you develop things—you can sort of lead yourself out of the story if you start to look at character in a certain way. In this circumstance, everything you did about character pushed you more into the narrative of the film.
G: Yeah. Though it's probably being marketed, I suspect, as a spy thriller, it's really a psychological thriller.
JM: It's a psychological thriller—a psychological drama, in some respects, although whisper that word!
JM: I'm not allowed to mention it in any movie contexts, 'cause it tends to make people think, "Ew, that's not for me." But no, it absolutely—I think the character, emotionally, psychologically, and morally, the film is really interesting and complex, but at the same time it's also a fantastically gripping narrative. It's just—
G: There's obviously crossover there. You know, Hitchcock was so conscious of every beat that the audience would experience
G: Based on the film he was constructing, and I had this sort of moment of realization watching the film when—without giving anything away—there's a moment in the film when we revisit a crucial scene that we've seen at the beginning of the film...
G: And my first feeling was dread that we were going to have to see that again because it's so intense. And then, of course, later I realized, well, that's exactly what Helen Mirren is experiencing. That dread of having to relive these past—
JM: That's precisely right. Yes. I mean, actually, the film has quite a complex structure in terms of its chronology. Again, "flashbacks" is a word you want to beware of.
JM: I don't think it is really. It's the sort of flashbacks and flashforwards—it's more that—you know, in simple terms, the narrative dynamic of the film is that something very surprising and shocking happens very near the beginning of the film, which is inexplicable to us, but also to the character that Helen Mirren plays. Somebody she knows very, very well. And understanding that circumstance and what led to it is what governs the narrative of the film to some extent, and—
G: It's sort of a very carefully laid booby-trap in the film, that when you revisit that moment, you learn so much more about what was really going on than you were aware of at first.
JM: Yes. Yes, and I think one of the—the film begins and ends with the same image, and there's something very satisfying, I think, about arriving at that image at the end of the film and understanding the circumstance completely, which at the beginning of the film is inexplicable and not understandable, but clearly very pregnant and very interesting. So it's got that sort of pleasure, I think, the film.
G: Yeah. One of the key elements of the film is—because it does have two storylines: one past, one present—is the dovetailing of the casting: casting the older and younger versions of the same self. I assume you cast one at a time, rather than two at a time. But could you talk about how it was you matched up the actors?
JM: Yes. A strange thing—kind of mathematical, actually, but it wasn't intended to be that way. It's just the way it felt right to do it. I started with Helen, who is the central character. It's two men and a woman. Two agents—two male agents and a woman who is coopted to the mission for reasons that will become apparent when people see the film. And she is almost literally suspended between those two characters, but Helen, as the older half of that character, as it were, looking back at that circumstance is the key point of departure for the film. The sense of what is going on inside her heart and her head. You need an actor of great power, and an actress who can embody the sense of a national heroine, which is what she is in the story, effortlessly. Her ethnicity seemed absolutely perfect for the part, so—and I knew her very well. I'd worked with her as an actress, so that seemed the perfect piece of casting. Then I wanted to find who would play the younger version of her. And I wanted to cast an unknown actress, which was a little bit of a struggle with the studio, cause really the younger version of Helen's character has more screen time than anybody else, and certainly, I think they'd have appreciated the ballast of a better-known actress, but I did not want to get into that agenda, because it seemed to me it would dominate the discussion of that film, about how, you know, this well-known actress turned into Helen Mirren, and it seemed not helpful. And actually would get in the way of the way I wanted to tell the story, so—or the way I felt the story needed to be told. So I sought out and—well, I didn't know her—but luckily my search led me to this amazing young actress, Jessica Chastain, who was completely unknown at that point, though she'd made Terrence Malick's film, which was in the third or fourth year of its gestation at that point. (Laughs.) And I spoke to Terrence Malick on the phone, at great length, about her, having met her but before I worked with her on the material. And he could not have been more effusive about how extraordinary her talents were, and he was completely correct about that, but she had, as it happened, an absolutely wonderful physical affinity with Helen.
JM: So there's a sort of symbiosis between the two of them, and that's something the film exploits at certain points. I then cast the two boys...in other words, the two younger versions of the two men. And that—Marton Csokas was an actor I was aware of. He's done a lot of theatre and at various points in his career being based in the U.K. Very interesting quality. He's actually part-Hungarian, part-New Zealand, but has an ethnicity that, again, felt very, very right and a quality that—he's a fantastic actor; he's not widely known. Sam Worthington was also an unknown quantity at the point I cast him. I'd seen him in a small, Australian, independent film—
JM: Somersault, which he really struck me in. Even though Abbie Cornish, who was also extraordinary in the film, was the person whose career immediately took off as a result of it, but he had a very unusual quality, a very powerful, masculine presence, which obviously was necessary given the nature of the characters they were playing, but a strange kind of, very damaged, hidden kind of vulnerability, that you haven't seen much, except in perhaps the non-Avatar part of Avatar, which you could see it there, too, I think. But of course he's subsequently become a very well-known actor, but wasn't at the time. And then I cast the two older versions of those two, with two very, very brilliant film veterans: Tom Wilkinson, who I've worked with a lot, and Ciarán Hinds. And alongside all of that, the search was going on for the key piece of casting, which was the casting of the doctor. And again, I was very insistent upon casting an actor who brought little or no baggage for a Western audience, or an English-speaking audience, let's say. I initially wanted to cast a German actor, but actually, in the process of that search, I came across Jesper Christensen who is a Danish—a brilliant Danish actor.
JM: And hugely respected, and something of a legend, I think, in Denmark as a stage actor and a film actor. Who, not only is fluent in English, making the film a little easier, but completely fluent in German. And the film would never have worked if that performance was not there and not what it was. And because—
G: So well-calibrated.
JM: Very, very well-calibrated. He's a strangely, synthetic man, which I think really makes—I mean, he was completely successful in realizing that character in three dimensions with the kind of part that could so easily have remained in two, if he hadn't had the skills he had.
G: Yeah. Obviously you have a lot of stage experience, more than I realized when I started to research. So many classic Broadway premieres of shows that are extremely, highly regarded, obviously. But your stage experience has really bled into your film career in very interesting ways. And it seems that you are successfully insistent on getting rehearsal time for your actors. Does that usually work out for you?
JM: Yes. Yes it has. I mean, it depends on the project, to be honest with you. I think what it does do—a life in the theatre has given me one thing, which is a profound respect for the people who have to stand in front of the camera and do it. I have no interest in manipulating a performance. I want to unleash a performance. And I want to witness a performance. And obviously use my camera as tellingly as I can to capture that. But, so, I think for me the job is about casting accurately, and casting in such a way that the part expands its possibilities through what the actor is able to bring, more than I might have been able to foresee in the piece itself. That's something that happens when you work on a play, and therefore I'm familiar with and comfortable with that process. I don't always believe that rehearsal is right for a film, to be completely honest. It depends very much on the film. In this case we did rehearse with the three young characters because I felt I needed to bring them into a world where the level of trust and symbiosis between them was sufficient, that it was believable. And that I could shoot quickly because, you know, all these kind of movies, you're making them under extraordinary time pressures. And I simply wanted to get a lot of things out of the way first. And I shot the film chronologically, though as we said, the film is not constructed chronologically. And I shot the core of the film first...the parts of the film that take place at a safe house where the four characters are confined together. But I—no I think, all of my films, I suppose, are character-driven, that ridiculous expression that's always used in Hollywood. (Laughs.) As if they could be anything else, or should be anything else. Films, it seems to me, have to be about behavior. And I think that's very important to me. You know, the spell that is cast by just watching people behaving with one another is the fundamental spell that we enjoy, I think, in films. And I believe the ability for a film to live in one's head, you know, beyond the point where you're reaching for your car keys is entirely commensurate with the depth and surprising-ness of the characterization within the story, so whether that be comic or, in this case, dramatic. So that's—I'm always after that in the story: the more complex, the more interesting, the more profound, the better.
G: The safe house set: I would love to have more time to talk about it. It's a fascinating, 360-degree, very detailed set, but I want to shift gears slightly because I'm almost out of time—
G: To talk just a little bit about Shakespeare in Love, which is such a great film. And, you know, Harry Potter: they have an amusement park that recreates the Harry Potter world, but I think it would have been wonderful to take that Shepperton studio set and make an amusement park out of it, because it was such an amazing set.
JM: Well, famously, Judi Dench bought the set.
G: Oh is that right?
JM: Yes. With a view-she wanted to use it as, sort of, an educational tool to give people the experience of acting in that space. I mean, obviously there is the Globe Theatre, which is a much bigger version of our set, but it was one of the great discoveries of doing that film—was to realize how amazingly, cleverly conceived that space was. I mean, you've got the audience almost on 360 degrees around you. Something it proved, actually, to make it rich in cinematic possibility because, as you just mentioned, a camera can do that. It can explore, you know, all dimensions with it.
JM: No, she was thwarted in her plan, unfortunately, because it was not-it would never have passed health and safety regulations, either in its original form, of course, or in the form that we made it with—with scaffolding, and there were no emergency exits, or anything like that.
JM: So it never did, but yeah. That's a world that is absolutely fascinating.
G: I just always thought, you know, it certainly must have been—for Shakespeare nerds, it would be the ideal, you know, sort of amusement. And I wondered, you know, if Shakespeare scholars were getting wind of this production going on and wanting to get on the set and just wander about.
JM: Well, it was-it was pretty—you know, I grew up with Shakespeare. And Shakespeare had—
G: Well, you were an artistic director of a Shakespeare company.
JM: I was. And I taught it, slightly fraudulently I felt, at Yale for a period of time in the Drama School. And studied it, and so on and so forth. And it-nothing quite prepared me for the experience of walking out on that stage and feeling what it must have been like, both to watch and to perform. Very, very, very intimate and very powerful at the same time. Very visual with very, you know, poor means, as it were, in modern technological terms. But yeah, it was pretty extraordinary. Great—it gave me great insight into the way the plays worked.
G: Well, I wish we had more time, but it's been a great pleasure to talk to you.
JM: You too. Thanks.
G: Hopefully you'll come back with the next film.
JM: Yes! The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. How's that for a sequel to The Debt? (Laughs.) Actually, a film that has, I felt, uncanny parallels with Shakespeare in Love, as I was working on it. It felt strange. It's quite similar in many ways.