My interview with “Miss Sloane” director John Madden

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“★★★★★!” “A political masterpiece!” 

“Miss Sloane” is an edgy, fast-paced political thriller with several surprising twists and turns. 

– Patrick King, REEL BRIEF.com

Last Friday I had the pleasure of interviewing Academy Award-nominated director John Madden about his newest film, “Miss Sloane” (starring Jessica Chastain), which gets released in limited theaters this week.  Madden’s 1998 film “Shakespeare in Love” won the Oscar for Best Picture, beating out Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”.

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With the success of Netflix’s House of Cards, how do you feel moviegoers will respond to “Miss Sloane” coming off the recent presidential election?

John Madden: The reason we chose to accelerate the post-production of the film was because we wanted the political media, specifically the gun legislation aspect of the film.  The political climate surrounding that issue looked as if it was a very strong issue on the Democratic agenda at least.  But as it turned out, it was completely pushed to the sidelines.  And just about everything else but maybe the political process itself is what came to the fore…which is the subject of the film. Its thrown up some very interesting reflections on the political processes and how Washington functions–which was a big issue in the campaigns. Particularly the whole idea of women in politics. It remains to be seen how much of an appetite the audience has after this election (laughter) and for the political process!  My experience is that people are very, very interested and will sort of lean into the film when they see it. Seems that there’s quite a strong interest in it for that reason alone.

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Jonathan Perera’s tremendous script is lightning-quick, really shaping the film’s fast-paced storyline.  It reminded me of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay from last year’s “Steve Jobs”.

JM: Yes, yes.

From a director’s perspective, how impressive is it to watch Jessica Chastain deliver her lines with such rapid-fire precision?

JM: Clearly, that was in the utmost part of mind when I sent her the script.  I knew she had the verbal dexterity to be able to handle that extraordinary challenge.  Not just the number of words she had to say and the colorization she gives those words. But she had the necessary skills to portray that character in all its complexity.  An extraordinary character. Very extreme.  Excessive. Deeply flawed with a buried emotional life that she’s not really in contact with herself.  That takes quite a lot of extraordinary skills to bring that out and to portray that.

The momentum. The speed at which (the story) unfolds was its most striking characteristic. That, and, the fact that it constantly develops in a way that you’re not expecting. A reflection of the character’s modus operandi, really.  That was the biggest challenge in making it into a compelling film, just finding a way of articulating that cinematically. The key to it all, is that character and Jessica’s performance.  Even though, paradoxically, it’s an ensemble film and a network of characters around her.

You and Jessica Chastain go back a few years, working together in “The Debt” (2010).  After half a dozen years, how has Jessica changed as an actress and an artist in your eyes?

JM: I think she has consolidated a reputation that I would’ve predicted when we made the film. We made “The Debt” in 2008. When I made that film with Jessica she was an unknown actress.  I had to mount a campaign to persuade the studio that she was the person the part belonged to.  It was very clear to me–even back in 2008–that she was in that very, very small company of actors who was extraordinary. I think just terms of the skill, the intelligence, the instinct, the ability to inhabit a part completely. But also as an actor who had a very clear sense of what she was doing.

Jessica Chastain stars in EuropaCorp's "Miss Sloane". Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes © 2016 EuropaCorp Ð France 2 Cinema

  Jessica Chastain in “Miss Sloane” (Photo by Kerry Hayes)

Meticulous in her research and very hardworking before she even came to the set and the film. She had a very clear idea about what the part was and what she could bring to it. But at the same time, she was incredibly wide open to what the director might want out of that (role).

In the meantime, she’s demonstrated a determination to seek out parts that are interesting and challenging, across a very wide range. Even in the 2 years between us making “The Debt” and it coming out, she’d already demonstrated that range in about 4 movies that came out before ours did.

She’s a very admired actress within the industry and in the world at large.  But she’s not sought fame for its own sake or made movies for the size of the part. She’s driven by the material.  She goes after the parts she’s interested in…and doesn’t matter if they’re big films or small films.  She’s become very clear about how she would like to make a difference in the industry, specifically, women in the industry.  She’s really trying to create a climate in which more challenging roles reflect modern women in society.  At the same time she hasn’t lost any of her sort of innocence.  She’s totally open—it’s wonderful to watch.

You just remarked on her preparation for her roles.  What did she do to prepare for the political animal Elizabeth Sloane role?  Did you separate her from the rest of the cast during shooting?

JM: No, no, no.  Absolutely, not.  The only separation was that after we shot her angles, she (Jessica) wanted to retreat to the corner of the set–not go off the set–to rehearse the following day’s lines…because the shear line load in this script was so overwhelming.  She really had to, like a train going down the track, sort of offload the baggage of today’s work so that she could clear her head and get ahead for the following morning’s work.  She was very much as the center of the ensemble, always there for everyone else’s angle.  She’s completely collaborative in that respect, but also relied upon all the people around her, from top to bottom.

But to answer your question about the research, she went and spent time in D.C., specifically with female lobbyists and honed in on that. Women make up only about 10% of the lobbying community in D.C., so she tried to look at all the different angles.  She tested her assumptions about the script, the accuracy of the very things that happen in it, against these people’s experiences.

I think she started off by reading the Jack Abramoff autobiography (“Capital Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist”).  She just buries herself (into her roles) and wants to know that she’s put her foot down in the right place. That she can rely on the authenticity of what she’s doing–the way she’s behaving, the ways she’s dressing.  That frees up her imagination after that.

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“Miss Sloane” is a vastly rich and talented ensemble. I felt every cast member, young or old, whether a big or small part, really shaped and changed this plotline as the movie progressed.

JM: It’s true and I think that’s exactly right.  As I was editing the film, I was just struck by how almost every character in the film holds the movie in their hands at one point. Even the smallest part. I cast very, very carefully across the board and I auditioned for a long time in New York and Toronto to cast this.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw was sensational in last year’s “Concussion” with Will Smith.  I think she’s fantastic in “Miss Sloane”.  I suspect she’s going to have an Academy Award nomination within 5 years.  What can you tell us something that my readers may not know about her?

JM: She’s got a very solid grounding in theater.  I tend to be attracted to any actor whose done their time in that world.  And she certainly has.  She’s been blessed, obviously, with a tremendous charisma on screen—very striking looks, a striking presence, in which she makes an enormous impact without making very much noise.  The camera just sees right into her, which is a skill that you need to make an impact in cinema.  She’s extremely good and riveting to watch.  She’s emotionally completely available, and has a tremendous range.

misssloanguguJessica (Chastain) has a huge regard for her.  I think she’s got an amazing future ahead. She’s very careful about what she does. I’m sure she’s been offered a lot of roles that she’s decided to turn away.  She’s led by the script and the material.  Which I think is the key to an actor–shaping their own career.

You’ve had tremendous success in theater, television and obviously, filmmaking.  I’m a firm believer that people create their own luck through hard work, talent and taking chances.  Is there one event, or person, early in your life—before your Oscar fame—that you can look back at and go “Hey, that was the turning point” where my filmmaking career took off from?

JM: Well, although he’s a controversial figure, I suppose my life has intersected, departed and then re-intersected with Harvey Weinstein.  I’ve benefited hugely from his instinct.  He released the first film I ever made; “Ethan Frome” (1993) with Liam Neeson, Patricia Arquette and Joan Allen. That was an absolutely text-book Harvey experience! (laughter) With long periods in the editing room.  Casting the film.  And then still casting the film.  I barely knew of the film’s release by the end of it!

He (Weinstein) came back into my life again when he saw “Mrs. Brown”, the first film I made with Judi Dench. Harvey wanted to buy the film and I said “Only if you repent for your sins to me earlier”. That started a longer relationship—which, of course, the next film he offered me was “Shakespeare in Love”. Clearly, that was a complete game-changer to my career. It was absolutely on his instinct that he offered me that film. Mind you, I wasn’t the first director to be offered it.  A lot of people shied away from it I think—well, I know.  I would say he’s been an extraordinary figure, but also a very influential figure for cinema in the U.S.

Although it’s a bumpy ride with him–he’s quite a volatile presence. At the same time, I salute him for having faith in me at the point he did.  It’s obviously made a big difference to me.

There’s a legion of fans from “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” film.  Is there going to be a third film, and will you be a part of it? 

JM: There was such a chord that was struck with that film…so far and wide all over the world.  It was thrilling and surprising. And very rewarding in terms of the studio.  The second film is the completion of the story, a companion piece, to the first one.  Both films were predicated on the reality of where those people were at that point in their lives.  Mortality hung over that world.

I feel that a third film would need to be truthful to the characters. Really when people talk about it (a third film), they really want the same film again–but in slightly different clothes.  And you don’t want to be in a cul-de-sac creatively with something like that. It’s an odd enough idea to franchise people at that stage in life (laughter).  I wouldn’t rule it out completely, but I think you’re caught in a paradox and if you want to be true to the characters and their circumstances.  Somebody is going to die and we can’t go on forever. One of the things the films were saying is to enjoy and seize your life while you still can.  We found a comedic expression for that which was the key to its success.  My hesitation is that I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest to have the nature of the film change somewhat as people get older.

That’s why I made something radically different (“Miss Sloane”).

“Miss Sloane” is an edgy, fast-paced political thriller with several surprising twists and turns.  I think it’s going to do very well at the box office and I hope my readers will go out and see this political masterpiece!

JM: Oh, that’s great.  I’m so happy you had that response to it.  Obviously, what you want when you make a film like this is, is to make sure an audience goes to see it.  It’s coming out at a very competitive time of the year with a lot of people vying for the available oxygen…the available audiences.  But we’re having a very good reaction to it from audiences and it has that nice quality to it where you potentially can say to your friends “I’m not going to tell you anything about it but you have to go see it!”  That’s the phrase, I think, that feels appropriate.

It sure does.

“Miss Sloane” is rated “R” for language and some strong sexuality.  Its running time is 2 hours and 12 minutes.  The film gets a limited release on Nov. 25 and hits theaters nationwide on Dec. 9th.

© 2016, Patrick. All rights reserved.



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