To most, John Madden will always be the director of such period classics as Mrs. Brown and Shakespeare in Love. Oscar-nominated for Best Director on the latter, he steered the film to a staggering 13 Academy Award nominations and seven wins, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Dame Judi Dench. Since then, he's branched out, adapting Louis de Bernières's best-selling novel Captain Corelli's Mandoli, David Auburn's play Proof and Elmore Leonard's book Killshot for the big screen. Yet, with his latest movie, Madden takes on a different type of source material – that of the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov, directed and co-written by Assaf Bernstein.
Remaking it as The Debt, it tells a complex story about secrets, lies, history and guilt, starting in East Berlin in the 1960s and continuing in Tel Aviv in 2007. Cutting back and forth between the two, the story sees three Mossad agents (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) sent to kidnap a Nazi doctor and bring him to trial in Israel. Over forty years later, the former agents (now played by Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds and Tom Wilkinson) must contend with a secret they've kept about the operation for all this time. Below, Madden talks about what drew him to the film, why he loves working with Helen Mirren and his next film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Q: The Debt has been a long time coming. Can you explain why?
A: We filmed in January, February and March of 2009. We ended up finishing the film later because I wanted Tom Newman to do the score and I couldn't get access to him until September of that year. So we finally finished the film at the beginning of 2010.
Q: What appealed to you about The Debt?
A: Well, it's extraordinarily compelling and challenging material. It's thematically weighty. It's an extraordinary opportunity to tell a story that in one sense is a very pure cinematic genre – the genre of the thriller. But also one that allows a very complex emotional and psychological drama to unfold at the same time. Usually those things pull against each other in a project and you have to stop the thriller for a moment in order to fill in the character and catch up on who they really are. And this film is very different in that way. You understand who these people are through the story that's unfolding. It all pulls against itself in a really interesting way. An amazing challenge in terms of the material, but a great opportunity as well.
Q: How did you come across the Israeli film, Ha-Hov, that The Debt is based on?
A: Well, I can't take credit for that. What happened was that somebody who was involved in the original Israeli film, as an executive producer, brought it to the attention of somebody at the agency that represents Matthew. And Matthew Vaughn and Kris Thykier had a company and they essentially saw the completed film and thought it deserved a wider platform. The original film was made in Hebrew and it received quite a limited release inside Israel so not many people in Israel saw it, which I didn't realise until I got there to film. I thought it would be very well known, but it wasn't. But it's such a compelling story and so powerful and very challenging to tell that story in the form of a thriller, without selling the material short. It also frankly evoked a movie that I really like, which is the kind of movie that used to be made in the Seventies, where the thrillers were about psychology and behaviour and character was an essential part of what was going on. Those films are still being made but there's a definite tendency for certain kinds of thrillers to move off into the total immersion zone. And the psychology is very reduced and very simple, if provocative. So the fact it's a character story and a human drama…
Q: But do you think we've gone through the Bourne phase to return to something more realistic?
A: I think so. It's funny, one imposes those constructions in retrospect, but the impulse is probably the same. Meaning the impulse to get back to something that is a contrasting colour from what we're used to seeing now.
Q: What films were you thinking of that inspired The Debt?
A: The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor. Those sort of movies that had political complexity to them. China Syndrome is a different kind of thriller, but had something to say. So much of modern film has been hijacked by the visceral experience, the fairground ride. The most extreme manifestation is 3D, obviously. It's about how can you bazooka somebody into a really trippy experience. The satisfactions of a film that works with tension and fear and intrigue and mystery and suspense that is also about character has been forgotten along the way. Then you see something like Tinker, Tailor and you go ‘Wow, that's a different kind of experience.'.
Q: Did Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman originally intend for The Debt to be a project for Matthew to direct?
A: Yes, in the first instance. Matthew being Matthew, he thought ‘This is a good one for me to direct', and Jane is his writing partner and does most of the actual writing. The script that I first encountered was very tailored towards being a Matthew Vaughn film. But he understood and acknowledged immediately that a director would have to make the film that he or she saw.
Q: Did you ever have any discussions with Matthew and Jane?
A: Yeah, there were some talks. I talked to Jane at considerable length, but it was fairly obvious that, because they were already engaged on Kick-Ass, which they were about to start shooting and which they'd been writing at the same time, it was not going to work out in terms of the time frame. So Peter Straughan came onto the film and we worked very, very closely on deconstructing and reconstructing.
Q: Given you made this two-and-a-half years ago and you have Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain in the cast, you must be a good talent-spotter…
A: Well, with Jessica, I was very lucky to find her. I absolutely wanted to cast an actress who was little known. I didn't want ‘How did she turn into Helen Mirren?' to become the agenda that dominated the film. If it had been another famous actress, that would've been the case. But directors are often credited with discovering somebody…
Q: Who else were you considering?
A: It would be invidious to say that! But there were other actresses that I didn't know, that I was interested in investigating. But to be honest with you, I didn't get so far with that. Helen was my given. That's where the casting started. Once I had her committed to the film, the film then became a viable film. That's the way it works. Obviously there was consideration about finding an actress who had a physical affinity with her. Though I have to say, having worked with Jessica, even if her physical affinity had not been as good as it was, I'm sure I would still have cast her.
Q: And Sam?
A: Sam I knew only from one film. Avatar had been shot but it hadn't come out. I wasn't even aware that he'd done these things. Strangely then, as now, people aren't quite sure who he is. He was in a film called Somersault and I remembered the performance very strongly. It made an impact on me and he just lodged in my mind, as soon as I came across the material. It's an unusual part. He's the bespectacled boy in Lord of the Flies; that character – he's wounded, and damaged, and hidden, but equally he has to have a heroic masculine presence. He just seemed like a very good fit. I went and pitched the film to him in Albuquerque once I had traced where he was (he was there shooting Terminator: Salvation). So I thought, ‘If I think he's right I'll pitch it really well and, if I think he's not right, I won't pitch it so well!'. So I pitched it as well as I could – he has a very distinctive presence. As it happens, the time-span has probably not hurt us. It's certainly not hurt us with Jessica. Actually, when it was originally supposed to come out, Sam would've been known then. But you know what? People see the movie because of Helen.
Q: Is that down to her success with The Queen?
A: Of course it is, but those of us who live in this country knew her as an iconic figure well before that. That's unquestionably what has put her in that position internationally though, just as – nothing to do with me – Mrs Brown did for Judi Dench, who did not have a film career of any significance particularly in the industry before that. It's where they suddenly click with a role – often a royal as it turns out! You could say the same of Colin [Firth], I guess. But Helen is one of those actors, and Judi Dench is another one, that audiences just connect with because of something to do with their being immediately available. An audience finds it very easy to engage.
Q: And you've made another movie with Tom Wilkinson and Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. What's that about?
A: What would I call it? It's a comedy but it's a melancholy comedy about a constituency that is ignored in life and in movies frequently - older people, the grey pound. That's a line in the film! It's about the grey pound and the grey opportunities, or lack of opportunities. It's about people who find themselves at some dead end, either through lack of money or bereavement or physical infirmity or a wrong marriage. And none of these people know each other and they get pointed to a website which is advertising a crumbling Indian palace as a hotel where people can go and retire and outsource their retirement. It's a very funny idea, and a very good idea, that the character in the film has. That character is played by Dev Patel. They arrive and of course the place is not what it purports to be, as nothing in India really is. And it's about them colliding with India and with one another. It's a very unusual piece.
Thank you John.
The Debt arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on January 23rd.