(This review was originally published on August 30, 2011 at The Rogers Revue)
For an Oscar nominated director, John Madden is a modest man. From theatre and radio to television and eventually feature films, he is also a Jury Member at Filmaka, a studio that harnesses up-and-coming talent in the filmmaking industry. Perhaps best known for directing “Shakespeare in Love” which won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1998, John has developed his craft through every medium imaginable. His newest film, “The Debt”, is an adaptation of an Israeli film that follows three Mossad agents attempting to smuggle a Nazi war criminal out of East Germany to face trial in 1965. I was able to sit down with Mr. Madden to talk about his newest project which stars Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain. “The Debt” opens in theaters August 31st.
Michael Parsons: How have your rounds been?
John Madden: A little bit of a brutal start this morning. We didn’t get in until 3 AM from the west coast but it’s fine… and I’m very happy to come and try to raise awareness for my film. It’s a tough world out there letting people know what’s going on.
MP: I’ve seen the “The Debt” and it was fantastic. One of the things that I feel about your films, particularly “The Debt”, is that they have a very organic, raw feel about them from the actors to the environment. I’m curious about the re-creation of East Berlin that you shot in Budapest. What kind of challenges did you face to get that realistic gritty atmosphere?
JM: Well, you’re very accurate, and its gratifying to hear you say that the film has that quality. It’s very important to me, and I felt that in this story somehow I wanted to authenticate the material in the world as much as I could. One of the pleasures of this film for me is the fact that it’s familiar genre, but we’re so used used to a sort of hi-tech gloss in the thriller world nowadays. This movie is so low tech, so much about standing around in the cold, waiting, listening and watching – all those things that don’t seem very cinematic. But I also very much value a sense of place in a film, the other side of the green door sort of thing where the audience is taken into another world. And I think it’s part of my job to utilize what cinema can do by using texture and atmosphere and a visual sort of newness to envelope the audience in the mood of a film.
I therefore intended to shoot the film in East Berlin and set about doing that, but a rather dismaying three day scout there told me there was no way I as going to do it without boxing myself in or spending money that we didn’t have. The place has exploded since the wall came down, sort of an exponential development. Though I got a feel for what it was there was no way I could get what I needed out of it. So we went to Budapest which was also dismaying for awhile because it’s a very strange, multifaceted city which apart from everything else is almost drowning in graffiti. I thought I was never going to be able to get control of it because it’s quite a chaotic city. Then I stumbled on a street where we have the clinic[in the movie]and suddenly found what I needed in a configuration of streets and a square where we made the checkpoint and so forth… and the textures of that environment – it’s old Budapest and it bares the scars of the 1956 invasion. There are bullet holes in the walls the balconies are crumbling.
MP: So it looks pretty close in time period…
JM: Very close in time period. It felt curiously post war which is exactly what East Germany did 20 years after the war – because it was held in a time warp. There was no money put into the infrastructure of the city other than these grand boulevards for military parades to show off the Soviet military preeminence and so forth. It was very atmospheric, the street where the trams are started to come together and gave the piece an atmosphere. It was very cold and wet.
MP: I read something about it being a brutal winter.
JM: It was a brutal winter. In one sequence when Jessica [Chastain] goes to the clinic for the first time we tried to clear all the snow out of the road frantically for the 3 hours before we started filming. The snow never came back, but it sort of lent an atmosphere – you could see people’s breath and it gave a feel to it. I wanted the experience of the film to be unmediated so that it made you feel like you were in the midst of something that was happening rather than watching a performance.
MP: That’s what got me, really the subtlety and texture of it. There is violence in the film but only where necessary and I think it punctuates the real tension which is in the quieter moments.
JM: Absolutely right. I used to think of it as sort of an alternation between sound and action, usually in panic and moments of very tense apprehensive calm at which point the soundtrack shrinks down to a minimal dynamic. You’re very in tune to the slightest sound – a bristol flicking against a razor blade or the ticking of a clock. When you’re directing a thriller, one where the atmosphere is as heightened as this one, you need music everywhere to keep everything notched up because nothing is forgivable if the ball gets dropped or the audience gets ahead of you… or it stops what it’s doing in order to fill you in on something….
This film is unusual because it has a really potent drama at the core of its configuration that has emotional, psychological and moral implications which are shifting constantly but are intrinsically bound in the plot. There’s the pursuit of the Nazi war criminal in the inner story, but why the suicide that the story begins with actually happens and what that means is a different kind of pursuit. The more you explore the implications that are going on at the level of the character, the more it feeds the narrative and the more you tighten the narrative the more engaging the emotional complexities of the story become.
MP: The complexities really seem like they’re within the characters instead of the plot… I felt like there wasn’t an overblown and complicated story like a lot of the espionage types.
JM: (Laughing)Usually there’s some creaking explanation that has to be wheeled out in the last reel to explain all the things that have happened….
MP: You’ve worked with Helen Mirren before, I believe it was in…
JM: “Prime Suspect”…
MP: Did you have Helen or other actors in mind when you took on this project?
JM: Yes. “The Debt” first came to me in the form of a script, the first script by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman and that was an adaptation of an Israeli movie of the same name, though slightly different in tone and feeling. I took the project on but I think everybody knew – particularly Matthew who I think had written the story initially with the expectation that he would direct himself – that there was no way a director could take on this material himself without having to find his own way of articulating it. So I worked with Peter Straughan and we set about essentially deconstructing the material completely and building it up again. By that point I knew Helen was going do it. I did not know about any of the other casting yet.
MP: I was wondering about your experience in theatre and your career in the mid ’80s when you first started directing film and television. What inspired you to….
JM: To switch horses? Everyone in one way or another grew up on movies. I grew up on movies more than I did theatre, although theatre became a big part of my life once I went to university. And theatre was a pretty exciting world…. there was a lot going on in the UK. But American movies I’m afraid – and after a while European movies – were the things that one gravitated to if you were a director. I don’t care what anybody says, I don’t know a single stage director that wouldn’t like to make a movie. And more and more are doing it. There’s a crop of British people from my era – Danny Boyle, Sam Mendes, Roger Michell, Stephen Daldry… all theater directors, many of them still pursuing both sides of it.
But to be honest it was economics in the end. I was making a living as a theatre director largely in this country, working on Broadway and various regional theaters. By that time my family had moved back to England, I was living here when I started directing, and I just couldn’t take that anymore, having a professional life in one place and family in another. I figured I’d go back and learn how to make movies, so I went back and got a break making a television film… it was a very rich time in British television. They were single films that were writer led and there was no commercial obligation in casting or anything else. It was a very, very free time. We were essentially making small independent films and it was a fantastic place to learn your craft.
We also had very good episodic television. I cut my teeth on a couple shows, and then police procedurals which have since engulfed television like “Prime Suspect” and “Inspector Morse”, those kinds of things. So I just started to do that more and more. I didn’t give up theatre completely, but it was just an economic thing. It’s hard to make a living directing theatre if you’re bringing up a family [laughing]unless you have a successful musical or something that’s been running forever…
MP: I would imagine that directing theatre would be more exhausting than film.
JM: It isn’t really. Theatre is just a different rhythm. The cycle of making a movie is different. Depending on the size of the film it’s two, sometimes three years out of your life. Conception, casting, execution, post and release. I had finished shooting “The Debt” in early 2009…
MP: Because it was meant for a 2010 release date wasn’t it?
JM: It was. That’s the sort of hurdle you have to get over because people wonder why it’s been on the shelf for so long. It’s simply because of a bizarre realignment of studios. Miramax, who we made it for, was closed down by Disney right after we delivered the film. Then Disney sort of adopted the film since they were the parent company and were going to release it at the end of the last year – we had played in Toronto and were on kind of a festival program. Halfway through that, around October, they concluded a sale of Miramax – the back catalog and label – to a new buyer and our film went with it with no explanation whatsoever. Which wouldn’t have mattered, but the new consortium was not a film company. They wanted to set up as a film company but had no distribution. To our great relief and good fortune Universal and Focus bought the movie, who ended up being a much better distributor than Disney would have been.
MP: So ultimately it worked out… just initially bad timing.
JM: It was sort of bad timing, but one has to be fatalistic about these kinds of things. Suddenly Jessica [Chastain], who I insisted I should cast – I told the studio I wanted to cast an unknown as the younger Helen Mirren – so that the agenda didn’t take over the movie. And to go back to your very first question not what I wanted at all in terms of the way the movie worked. Helen’s an iconic character in the story and I felt like that was appropriate in terms of casting, everything about her played into that role. In the meantime Jessica has become much better known, and when you’re fighting for visibility it doesn’t hurt us at all. She’s doesn’t carry enough baggage yet for that to be a problem.
MP: What a perfect casting decision that turned out to be.
JM: She’s a very bright girl and so careful in the way she prepares so she’s utterly relaxed and clear when she comes to do it…. and free.
MP: And you have people coming in with different accents trying to have the same accent.
JM: Yeah, which is sort of what Israel is in some ways. There’s strange convention at work there, in a sense. Which is that I suppose the presumption is that they’re speaking Hebrew in the context of the movie. But there are a number of conventions in the story that I think don’t bother an audience, they simply accept them. I believe in that kind of storytelling.
MP: When you are looking for a specific reaction, how do you extract some of those emotions from your actors?
JM: It’s about trusting what they’re doing. I think that you’re looking for something extraordinary, something revealing, just a nuance you hadn’t expected. It’s more about discovering things rather than saying “I want you to do it like this”. The most exciting and productive process is to create a script or write a character in such a way that the actor’s imagination is released by it. And that’s when the sparks start to fly, when you’re actually shooting and you can then harness and articulate the story. The actors nevertheless own the moment.