A Candid Conversation with Miss Sloane Director John Madden
Before the AFI Premiere of Miss Sloane, I was lucky enough to attend an early screening, press conference, and partake in a few 1:1 interviews. Jessica Chastain and Gugu Mbatha-Raw briefly discussed their roles and career with me while Alison Pill and I had a great conversation about her role in the film, females in film, and becoming a mom. While talking to all these beautiful and talented ladies was a real treat, I also enjoyed sitting down and shooting the breeze with the film’s director John Madden. This is our entire candid conversation where we discussed everything from the story to the marketing.
Scott Menzel: How are you? How are you enjoying doing press?
John Madden: It’s fine. I think it’s always so much. Well, perhaps this film’s a bit unusual in this respect actually, but it’s always easier being a director because you’ve got more to talk about.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, yeah.
John Madden: Actually this film has so much to talk about, that I think for the actors it’s interesting as well, probably.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I think this movie came as a complete and total surprise to be perfectly honest.
John Madden: I’m really fascinated in this actually. I want to know what you were expecting and what you thought ?
Scott Menzel: Let’s be honest. Outside of you guys premiering at AFI, there was really no buzz. There was nothing about this on the internet. It was literally just like, “Okay. We’re gonna drop a trailer. Miss Sloane. Here it is. Jessica Chastain. She’s lobbyist.” That’s it. When they announced AFI, even then, there wasn’t that much buzz.
I went into the movie, and I was just blown away. I was just blown away by this movie because I was telling Allison that I just recently saw the Michael Moore movie, that Trumpland one, and he makes this argument about we live in a world where the old white man is becoming the dinosaur. He’s becoming extinct. Now the females are taking charge, and the people who voted for Trump are the people who are afraid of the females, “Oh my god. Save us, save us, save us,” and I just see this movie, and I’m like “Oh my god, it’s exactly like that.”
You just have that whole set up in the beginning like it’s like Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, they’re like the villainous white guys with the cigars.
Then you just have Jessica, and I understand why Jessica was upset at that press conference when that guy’s like, “Oh, it’s like, you have to man up.” It’s like, no, “My white guy should be a strong fucking woman.” Why is that a problem?
John Madden: No, I mean it’s interesting. When we came to make the trailer of the film, the guys did a sort of valiant job of trying to kind of sum up the movie, and I kept looking at this trailer and going, “Wow. No. We’re not going here.” I just said, “Let’s not tell anybody anything about it.” The one thing that characterizes this movie is surprise. That’s the way she works. It’s the way the movie works. The whole idea of that is sown into the whole process of the film. I said, “Why don’t we just work with that?”
I suggested a logline, which is the one that’s there now, and I said, “That’s the way to preserve what the movie is,” The best thing is you make a set of assumptions when you go to this movie. You’re gonna think, “It’s gonna be an earnest political drama and my eyes are gonna glaze over and it will be very worthy and she’ll make a big speech at the end,” and all of that stuff.
It’s so not that. If the movie’s gonna have a chance of saying what it’s gonna say, and being a kind of persuasive and exciting experience in the cinema, then preserve that quality. It’s dismaying when your movie suddenly pops out there, and because of a weird sort of circumstances that have nothing to do with the film, the weather, or the competitive environment, when it comes out or whatever, it just disappears.
You want the movie to be seen by an audience. The best word of mouth I could imagine is for somebody to say, “I’m not gonna tell you what the movie is about. You just have to go see it.” That’s what I hope we might be able to get because the experience of the film is really really strong, and it’s got a lot going on and a lot to talk about, and a lot to think about.
It’s certainly got something to say about current political process, but it’s not said in a way, it’s not hectoring, it’s not lecturing, it’s not telling you what to think or what to do. Chiefly, let’s face it, those three people sitting on my right are the movie right there. That’s unusual in and of itself. I mean that’s cool.
I like the fact that in this very, very crowded time of year, that the movie is coming out, there’s a sort of weird, you could describe as a disadvantage, “But nobody’s every heard of it. Well, how the hell is it gonna make an impact?” If you come out late in that circumstance, I’ve had that experience once before with Shakespeare in Love where people did perhaps, I’m not, by the way, putting it in the same category, but that came out really late, like December was when the press first saw it.
There’s something kind of rather exciting about that when it suddenly pops out there. We just weren’t ready to go to any of the festivals.
Scott Menzel: You’re very right. I mean everything that’s getting buzz, minus like two or three movies, are out already. I feel like I saw them either at Toronto or saw them at Sundance, and they’re in my mind, and they’re forgotten, so you’re right. I think that’s why this movie stands out so much because it’s like I saw those movies months ago at this point. Here we are almost crossing the doorway into that award season, and then I see this movie, and I agree with you. I think it’s definitely gonna be up there. I hope, as I told Jessica, I hope that people see this like I saw it.
Not only from your direction, but just every character is so nuanced and there’s so much detail to them, it’s just it’s fascinating.
John Madden: No, it is. It’s very rich. I mean for a movie that’s called Miss Sloane, you think, “Oh, it’s gonna be about one character” ’cause it is to a large extent, but that character is, of course focused on all the other characters around her. The pleasures of the ensemble is a huge part of what it is. I’ve gotten to watch it many, many times as I fashioned it to what it now is, and the sort of vividness of all of the characters in this is really striking and telling I think.
They all carry the movie at a certain point, so that part of it is really nice. It’s really kind of fresh. When I first saw the assembly, the word that came into my head is not a particularly kind of fancy word, but I thought, wow, this is very engrossing this film. Actually I really like that word. It’s like it just folds you into a focus that’s so tight on something and keeps you very tense. It keeps you, so that should be a pleasurable experience in the movies, I don’t know, but it is. It’s just very gripping. It’s gripping.
Scott Menzel: Was this a hard movie to sell to people?
John Madden: It’s hard to say because we got a bid that we were very happy with. I got the script 18 months ago and I got the gig 18 months ago, but read the script about three or four weeks before that, and Johnny and I worked on it for sort of six months on our own. Then we put it up to market at that point. I think there was a sort of slight, it’s hard to say, but I think there was a slight not quite sure what to make of this highly contentious issue at the center of it, which might have made some of the big players uncomfortable.
I think it was another aspect to it, which I think it’s one of its strengths now, which is that this kind of movie, these days, needs to be based on a true story. It needs to be suggested or authenticated in some way by having something. A lot of people who read the script said, “Well, this must be real. Is it?” The fact is I hope it is real from a point of view of human behavior and truth in that sense. It floats free of a constricting circumstance which has to do with well we can’t bend that ’cause that didn’t actually happen.
But the same time, authenticated itself in a different way. I think which is its true to the political environment that it operates in, but it allows you to observe the rules of a story rather than the rules of a transposition. I have a feeling that made some people nervous. It’s weird, really, if you think about it. The movie is made by two Englishmen and financed by a French studio.
Scott Menzel: It’s about Washington D.C.
John Madden: It’s about Washington D.C. …
Scott Menzel: And the lobby
John Madden: … but it’s not made from any lofty perspective. It’s made by fantastically curious people about this issue and about political process in America, which the movie isn’t damning. It’s just unfolding as I think in a way, but that’s to talk about its political aspects. Obviously its character and aspects are crucial to the way the whole thing plays and unfolds.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I have to say, but then you said about the based on a true story, what do you think the first thing I did when I got home? Check if it was based on a true story.
John Madden: I know. It’s just what you do. It’s just what you do.
Scott Menzel: It becomes so used to that Hollywood movies, I feel like, it’s like, “This is just a point per point story. It’s like it’s got the strong theme of character.” It’s gotta be like Erin Brockovich. It has to be like that.
John Madden: I know.
Scott Menzel: Then when you go home, and you Google it, and you’re like, “Holy shit. It’s actually a realistic, original concept. Who would have thought it?”
John Madden: I know and it stands out as being unusual for that reason I think. Speaking of somebody who’s frequently wrestling with that kind of thing as you are, it’s just very nice to be free of those kind of constraints. We can’t say that because, I mean, with Shakespeare in Love, there was no question of the boy and the girl getting together at the end. The guy was married. That didn’t stop the studio wanting it to be, but anyway.
It’s interesting from that point of view, and kind of liberating.
Scott Menzel: Right, and one last question, because I have to ask about this.
What was it like working with Jessica? How did this movie change since she was part of it?
John Madden: It’s not a sound bite when I say, of course I instantly thought of her in the role because we have history and we’ve made another film together before anybody knew who Jessica was, even Jessica didn’t know who she was at that point other than she was an actress and even then who was really really really interested in challenging material. That’s really what defines her.
You find out very quickly that was a very challenging role and she’s spectacularly skilled. I mean really spectacularly skilled with a very unusual quality of being able to be very fragile and vulnerable and equally, in this film, ferocious and formidable. It’s very unusual combination that, and she manages it pretty brilliantly.
Over and above that, she’s a very, very intelligent actress. Very, very forensically questioning of all the assumptions in a role that she’s playing. She’s a famous researcher. This is just this line that she has in the movie, which I quoted yesterday, as she put her hand prints in the Hollywood Walk of Fame or whatever, she has think moment in the film where she says, “Know your subject people. Failure to do so may result in a loss of a golden opportunity,” and she’s ferocious when she says it.
It sort of sums her up to me. She knows her subject. She doesn’t know anything about lobbying when she took on the movie, but she made sure she did by the time she started playing it.
She has the intelligence to be able to handle the sheer line load of it to navigate the ideas in a way that they’re instantly understandable and recognizable. To find music in long speeches. There’s some formidably long speeches on the page. Her last day of shooting was the debate scene, which is just phenomenal amount of words and ideas to unpack in a very short space of time. Shot it all in one day. I mean all of their end of it anyway the television studio.
To do all of that and have the energy each morning to come back in and do it again ’cause like we can press all of her shooting into one period because she had to get out before the end of the movie, and we had to pull the movie forward anyway to get her dates to work. That’s pretty amazing. She and I have a very, very intuitive understanding. Almost a sort of umbilical cord, I think, I would say between us because we have a shorthand in terms of the way we work, and she’s completely bulletproof. No danger of giving her a note that’s gonna throw her. She’s able to separate the sheer comprehension or direction from the moment she’s doing it.
Scott Menzel: They’re pulling me away, so-
John Madden: Okay.
Scott Menzel: … thank you so very much …
John Madden: You’re welcome.
Scott Menzel: … I really appreciate it. Congratulations on this film.
John Madden: Thank you.
Scott Menzel: Thank you and I love Shakespeare in Love by the way, so thank you.