John Madden’s latest is more relevant than planned

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

There’s something relatable about British filmmakers of certain age. Based on my experience interviewing the likes of Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh, I can tell you their approach to moviemaking is workmanlike. No matter how many awards they get, they see their craft as a job they happen to be good at. They keep their artistic aspirations close to the chest, and rather let the work do the talking.

John Madden fits the profile. The director of Shakespeare in Love and unlikely franchise The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is quick to laugh and share the minutiae of making a movie, even when the conversation is over the phone with someone he has never met.

Madden is back in the saddle with Miss Sloane, a sharp, timely drama about lobbyists going to war over gun control (see review, page 16).

Madden shot Miss Sloane in Toronto (standing in for Washington) with a limited budget and in a hurry: the movie was shot, cut and shown within a calendar year, unusual by Hollywood standards. In order to solve the problem of a film enclosed in four walls (most of the action takes place in strategy meetings and conference rooms), the filmmaker, alongside cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov, used glass to open up the settings and alter the predictable visuals.

If there is a concept that encapsulates Miss Sloane it’s forward momentum. There’s no time for contemplation or room to breathe. Only movement.

Miss Sloane is the kind of movie that rewards a second sit-through. What kind of challenges does making a film that rich in details present?

It was a very exacting process. One of the pleasures of the film is the sense of being upended, having your expectations defied. That’s not a pleasant experience in life, but it is in movies, for some reason. To achieve this, I have very specific rules: you can’t cheat and you need to be open-handed in the way you’re telling the story. There are three narratives running through Miss Sloane: the surface one, the second viewing — in which you know the outcome — and the most interesting one, the buried narrative. What happens to the main character, her transformation and the reclamation of her humanity?

Was there anything about the lobbying industry that surprised you?

A lot of things. I expected it to be more ideologically organized and that lobbyists would only offer their services to one side of the argument. In fact, most firms are bipartisan in nature. To a degree, you could regard them as apolitical, even though they are the bloodstream of how politics get done in America. We presented a very extreme version of that in the film.

Or so you thought.

[Laughs] Of course, the circumstances in which the film unfolded made us look very modest by comparison.

There is an element of zeitgeist in Miss Sloane. You have a candidate that promises to “drain the swamp” and eliminate all the lobbyists and the first thing he does when elected is hire them.

Exactly. In almost every respect he has contradicted completely what the promised, which is straight from the playbook of this particular film.

Looking at your body of work, you come across as a very efficient storyteller. There’s no freewheeling in your movies. Is this an approach you purportedly chose?

If you’re going to ask people to sit in one space for a while, they deserve to be told a story as persuasively as possible. If you’re not being led somewhere or you’re presented with a lot of bluster that has no story at all, it’s something you sense early on. I pay enormous amount of attention to that. There’s nothing more annoying than an audience waiting for a story to catch up with their expectations.

Do you imagine a Trump presidency or Brexit shaping your future output?

It’s hard to know. Am I more politicized as a result of what has happened in the course of 2016? Unquestionably. It’s a massive wake-up call. The rise of demagoguery, gross oversimplifications and flat-out falsehoods in the political narrative are very worrying, and seem to be replicated across the spectrum. Therefore, it’s incumbent in all of us to be more politically engaged.