Interview: John Madden on Miss Sloane
The director of Shakespeare in Love says casting Jessica Chastain as a shrewd, morally ambiguous D.C. lobbyist was the best way to expose the ugliness of modern politics
By Katherine Monk
WHISTLER, BC – John Madden doesn’t want to get bogged down by the F-word: Feminism has so much ancillary luggage, too many awkward hard edges to cram into the narrative anchovy tin called a feature film.
Yet, Miss Sloane, the latest film from the Academy Award-nominated director of Shakespeare in Love points a laser beam at the modern female experience. A D.C.-set (Toronto-shot) thriller starring Jessica Chastain as the title character, Miss Sloane offers a close-up view of the lobbyist’s reality.
Watching from a slightly distanced perspective, the viewer picks up the trail of professional lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane just as she embarks on a career move that will change her life forever.
Madden was reluctant to give away too many details about his latest creation, but he was happy to talk broad strokes politics as he sat down for a fireside chat with The Ex-Press.com at the recent Whistler Film Festival, where Miss Sloane made its Canadian bow in early December.
Ex-Press: You picked this table because you don’t want to be distracted… are you easily distracted?
John Madden: Yes!
EP: By what sorts of things? What tends to grab your imagination?
JM: Goodness! I don’t know… you suddenly hear something that sets off a train of thought and it can get very odd. I can’t tell you off the top of my head.
EP: Do you like to let your mind ramble? Or are you more comfortable with linear?
JM: I don’t try to be linear with this job. It is so immersive. As a director you have to get inside what you are doing and you have to inhabit it, and live inside it, and if you are really focused on the whole thing, you can let it go and free associate. That’s when it gets interesting.
EP: What is your creative process? Do you trust it? Do things start falling into place?
JM: I think once you decide where you are going, it all starts to make sense. But you can have the experience of not knowing what you want until you see it. I’ve had that happen with casting. You don’t know what you want until you see them in a taxi… and say, there it is! That’s what we need. That’s happened to me. But the person didn’t get the part.
EP: What about casting Jessica Chastain as Miss Sloane? She seems entirely counter-intuitive. I’ve met Chastain. She is probably one of the nicest, kindest, genuine human beings on the planet. She said she doesn’t want to contribute to the “cruelty of life on this planet,” which is why she is vegan. I totally respect her commitment to kindness. Or is that all an act for a gullible journalist?
JM: Yes. She really is that kind. And it was counter-intuitive but you don’t cast someone for who they are. But for what they can be. She’s a consummate actress and very smart. So when you see the film, you get the impression she is five-ten and dominating. But she is short and delicate, yet very strong…. So no, she is very unusual. She has an astonishing range and versatility. She was always my first choice because she and I did another film together seven years ago [The Debt] … she was unknown when I cast her in that and she was fantastically good in that. We were looking for something to do together ever since.
EP: And she wanted to do this?
JM: Yes, she did.
EP: Why? What conversations did you have?
JM: Well, I sent her the script and said this may be the one we’ve been looking for. Which was an understatement really. I thought the moment I started the script that it was absolutely perfect for her. I know what her skill set is. She is a politicized person. She is very fearless and likes to go out and take on the world, especially on issues of gender politics, which sits right at the centre of this film. And she has the contradictory qualities you need for that role. In other words, a fragility and vulnerability beneath all that sort of fearsome bravado the character displays most of the time.
EP: What about it interested you?
JM: It’s a fascinating subject. You see, as an outsider — and I don’t have to explain this to you because you count as an outsider, too — but outside the United States the issue of reasonable gun regulation doesn’t sound too difficult a thing to understand. Most people think it’s reasonable to limit access to lethal weapons, and not allowing guns to get into the hands of the wrong people. It’s completely incomprehensible about why that situation never changes in any legislative sense. I’m also kind of a nut for American politics… But to be honest with you, it’s just a very good story. It’s unusual to come across a story that has the potential to wear the armature of a thriller but is actually about intelligent conversation. The chief thing is it had an extraordinary character at its core. You’re able to tell the story in terms of a complex and very flawed anti-heroine, and that’s quite an unusual combination. To me, it was very intriguing.
It’s unusual to come across a story that has the potential to wear the armature of a thriller but is actually about intelligent conversation.
EP: She is an anti-heroine. In movies, we want to like the heroine. And she’s ambiguous.
JM: Completely. At least for a certain part of the movie you will be drawn away from her with some concern and dismay about the way she goes about what she’s doing. I can’t speak for all audiences, only the ones that have seen it thus far, but I think — strangely — you start to root for her. I don’t want to offer any spoilers but you start to see the humanity that is buried so far down in that character. A very unusual thing to watch. And Jessica has that quality. She has that human quality; she never loses that. To me, it’s more interesting to have a character that is more contradictory.
EP: Does an ambiguous heroine make it harder to find financing?
JM: We found our financing, so it’s hard to say… Certainly, I accept there are pressures that Hollywood orthodoxy demands in the way characters should be… and that is “likeable.” But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. What matters is that someone is human. That is the journey. And here, she seems almost inhuman. She seems out of touch. She is not demonstrating the typical human qualities: moral consideration, sweetness, a sense of humour. But nevertheless, she is riveting as a character because of the sheer level of conviction and the fact she is so many steps ahead of everyone else. It pulls you along viscerally.
EP: Yeah. We do want someone ahead of us… even if that comes with moral compromise. It makes you wonder what we value more: morality or intelligence?
JM: Well, I think we know the answer to that one now… You do want to watch someone who is ahead of the others. I think that anybody who reads the script recognizes that. And yet, she has a journey. She is not the same person at the beginning as at the end.
EP: Why was it important for this character to be a woman?
JM: It was never: is this going to be a man or a woman? The writer had a very particular source in his head. It was always going to be a woman in his head. Nevertheless, female lobbyists hardly represent the majority in that field. And yet, it’s not unnoticeable that all the key characters in the movie are women… that was something we did deliberately, and we moved in that direction.
JM: Because that’s where the story lived, to be honest.
EP: Why do you think that?
JM: You tell me…
EP: I think we look to women to represent all things natural and nurturing. So it feels like a violation to see a woman abandon her moral compass. It delaminates our understanding of the political world.
JM: Yes, you said exactly what I would have said. You know I think the film would not have been as interesting were there not an emotional, moral, spiritual transaction involved in the story. And even that is virtually related to the women in the story. I don’t want to suggest for a second we were writing it in that direction. We wrote the film and started to do post on the film in the middle of you know…. the most epic struggle of a woman in the midst of a kind of completely diseased, dysfunctional political process… That’s extremely interesting. It’s also right in Jessica’s wheelhouse, even the surrounding issues… for instance at the beginning, when she is asked to develop a caucus of women on this one hot-button issue. Everything about this film is about women in a political environment, but it’s not a flat-out feminist movie. She is defined by who she is, not by her gender. It passes the Bechdel* test — in a weird way. It’s interesting to see women working in a professional environment with those particular sets of concerns, but you know there is a kind of inverse journey.
Everything about this film is about women in a political environment, but it’s not a flat-out feminist movie.
EP: It all seems to be a violation of natural law. And there is a growing number of these characters on screen: I kept thinking of Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton, and how she sold her soul in a bid to be one of the boys.
JM: Certainly, Michael Clayton stood there as an obvious reference point in a number of ways. But I don’t think of it as anything other than the particular story I am telling. It’s only when you pull away from it that you see the film in a wider context. And the context is now all around us. One thing that is extraordinary is how much this year turned out to be about women in a political circumstance. I haven’t seen a bunch of the other films because I haven’t had a single night to see a movie. I’ve been doing everything for this film since all of these others came out. I know that it is a very different world: it’s not unsual to find a woman at the centre of a story not defined by romantic or even emotional qualification. I like the fact women are going to be in these roles… The more women that are there, the better chance they have of changing the job instead of the job changing them.
EP: Wouldn’t it be nice?
JM: Yes. We might all be less victimized by expectation.
EP: Have you ever felt it? How are you feeling about your work? Where are you with your miss Sloane?
JM: I think I have managed to evade that feeling. I have been able to make films where the financial pressures aren’t so large that I have no freedom. There is a certain place I would never go, in choice of esthetic and where the story lives… just in terms of the material I tend to select. Obviously, it’s not from the same pot or genre. The prerequisite is that I can find a truth in the story. Then it’s a matter of defending that truth and resisting the pressures there are to make the movie move towards the largest possible audience. If you are not spending a lot, just a manageable amount, you can get yourself into a situation where the people are broadly in synch with what you want to do. And my job is to convince them that I want to do is what they want to do.
EP: Are you good at that?
EP: It seems film has a harder time with ambiguous characters now.
JM: Yes, television is far more adept at bringing interesting characters to the fore because they are not forced into this cocked hat of problem resolution in a short time.
EP: They can do the layers.
JM: Well, finding the perfect weight of a given story is something I am grappling with now. The idea of gravity, what the ideal weight of a film is so you don’t feel it’s being pushed into a pipe pot or worse: That it’s overextended. It’s like a short story I suppose: There’s a need to establish a world. That is not forced but realized and resolve something to get to the other side of it. It’s a tricky thing to find. Everyone is groping around for material that finds that singularity, that makes that satisfying experience in the movies. And that world has shifted quote a bit…
EP: How so?
JM: I suppose it’s polarized. You have the movie theatres taken up with a certain kind of spectacle that dominates everything. But I don’t think we should be bleating about it because it’s driving the ability to make movies for other people.
EP: But a whole generation of people don’t really know what the cinema can be.
EP: So what do we lose?
JM: We will never lose it completely. But one is talking about the difference between complexity of narrative. It’s easier to be complex in a longer iteration of long form drama. Perhaps it’s clarifying what the space in film actually is. I did feel that with this film and wondered if it shouldn’t be on a small screen, given it’s people talking…
EP: Talking isn’t spectacle. It doesn’t explode in three dimensions.
JM: But its narrative has a perfect weight and shape for film. I wasn’t struggling to get it into a box. I just felt a natural weight and momentum to the story.
EP: If finding the weight was easy, what was the hardest part?
JM: It wasn’t a difficult project. Sometimes you can have a very difficult project and it comes out okay, and a very easy project that doesn’t. But this was a film that I was able to make with no money, and to attract the actors I wanted. I didn’t have interference with any studio. It has found its place for the time being and despite it being a crowded marketplace, it has been an exhilarating experience and somewhat explosive because it came out in a political circumstance we could have had no way of imagining.
EP: I don’t think many imagined the political circumstance we’re currently witnessing. It seems to go far beyond matters of gender now.
JM: Yes, well, it’s not an accident we came out when we did. Only because the particular political circumstance the movie imagines might become a very real conversation…. But as it turned out, that particular issue was not even on the map. It was overtaken by other things, also central to the film. And that is the nature of the whole political discourse itself…
EP: The animosity of the discourse. That’s a big bucket o’worms… but I think the film does a nice job navigating around it without being declarative.
JM: Yes. Thank goodness. That wouldn’t have gone over well, especially from a Brit. But it was important for me to not demonize either side.
EP: Which, I guess, makes you a perfect Brit.
*The Bechdel Test (from http://bechdeltest.com): The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule is a simple test which names the following three criteria: (1) It has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. The test was popularized by Alison Bechdel‘s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a 1985 strip called The Rule. For a nice video introduction to the subject please check out The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies on feministfrequency.com.
Miss Sloane is now open in select markets and expands throughout December.
Photo Above: John Madden photographed at Chateau Whistler during the Whistler Film Festival. Katherine Monk photo.
THE EX-PRESS, December 13, 2016