Alex Moreland chats with director John Madden about his latest film, Miss Sloane (slight spoilers throughout)…
So, let’s talk about Miss Sloane. It’s a very dialogue heavy movie, which is in turn realised by the performances – where do you see your directorial voice shine through?
Well, it’s an interesting challenge to film, because it’s a thriller, I suppose if you’re going to try and look for a genre to place it in, with a very unusual profile that you just referenced, which is that it’s profile is very verbal – which I thought was a challenge in and of itself. It’s about competing political narratives, which sounds dry as a bone, but it’s anything but dry as a bone when you experience it. I think arguments well deployed and articulacy is not necessarily an enemy of cinema. The particular challenge for me was creating something that exercises a really powerful grip, a really powerful narrative grip, without them realising what was happening – which is, anecdotally, what happened.
With regard to the character herself, do you consider Miss Sloane – if not a traditional protagonist – more of an antihero?
She is, I think. I think if you make a sort of putative gender switch in your head, that character becomes a fairly classic movie prototype: the outsider, the person with little interference from her personal life – if she has a personal life – and so forth. I think the kind of iconoclast, the person who goes against the system, is a fairly classic figure – but not a classic figure if it’s a woman. So, yeah, of course she’s an antihero, because of the methods by which she goes about her particular business are not ones that necessarily, at least initially, are likely to endear her to an audience. Or the people she’s working with either!
Which makes it even more interesting I think, because again you don’t normally see that in a woman. I think it’s one of the interesting challenges of the film – how do you pull an audience into a relationship with this character? How do you bring an audience in and engage them – which, again, I do think happens by the end of the movie.
On that note, how important is it to have a likeable protagonist?
I don’t think… I think there’s a whole lot of stuff about “likeability” and “being sympathetic”; these terms are something where studios are terrified of having a character that isn’t that. I think what a character needs to be is human, which is a different thing. I actually think the character is sympathetic by the end, even if she doesn’t appear to be at the beginning, because there is a hidden narrative in the story about what is happening to her.
But I think to be human is to be fallible, and she’s a complex creature. I think she’s fascinating and riveting, and finally she arrives fully formed as a different human being at the end. I think that’s an interesting journey. But I think it’s essential for an audience to be engaged with a character, that is without question, and I think if you haven’t got an audience which is engaged with the central character then the movie’s obviously going to have a hard time making an impact or pulling an audience towards it. But this character is completely fascinating, and ultimately human, even if as I said she doesn’t initially – and that, as I said, is what gives it a journey.
I’m reminded of something Kubrick said, that the best way to get an audience to connect with a character is to show them doing their job, and doing it well – do you think that plays into things here?
Yeah, yes, completely. I mean, she leaves everybody standing. She’s so on top of her game; her arguments are powerful, her tactics are extraordinary and surprising, she wins every situation she’s in and leaves everybody gasping in her wake. All of which would be interesting, but it’s twice as interesting because you’re not used to seeing it on screen – this is not a job category we see very much on screen, despite it being so ubiquitous in Washington. Yeah, that’s absolutely the case.
I would add to Kubrick’s maxim as well to say that I think the other thing that makes an audience is engage is when a character like that begins to make mistakes; that’s when an audience locks on to a character. I think that describes exactly what happens in this story; you’re exhilarated and impressed, and no doubt sometimes appalled as well, recoiling and some of the tactics and collateral damage she’s able to create without much concern, but gradually that starts to crack open. Then, I think, that becomes a deeper level of engagement.
Would you say the movie is critical of her, ultimately?
I think it’s very even-handed with her; I don’t this movie, and this is very much a choice with the writer and myself, provides easy handles to explain why she is the way she is. It felt to me very important without the film to just evaluate who she is and why she does what she does in these circumstances; unusually for a female heroine or anti-heroine, you have very little extraneous information. You can intuit quite a lot, but actual hard information? There would normally be the obligatory scene where we see some episode from her childhood that has made her the way she is or what have you.
It’s not a movie’s responsibility to judge a character I think, simply to show a character and describe a narrative. I think the only obligation is for that character to be interesting, and that character to undergo change in the course of the story; it’s not terribly interesting if they end the story in the same place they began. That’s all I would say; I was lucky enough to have an actor who was completely unperturbed by the idea of how much an audience might be on her side, she was just very interested in getting to play her. Though I think by the end everyone is on her side, actually.
How do you develop a strong character like this? Do you find that it’s different when developing a female character, in comparison to a male one?
Well, look. There aren’t that many roles around – there are more now, thankfully – that give a woman a chance to define herself by something other than her relationship with a man, as we know famously. Or even to define herself necessarily in a professional sphere. Again, this film is unusual in that way, because she is a woman who is completely in control of her situation. I think when you set about making a woman powerful, the script is already doing that – because her skills are on display, her strategies are on display. In a sense, you simply just need a really intelligent, smart, empowered actress to step into that and own it – and bring a massive skillset to the table, which Jessica certainly does.
As I said before, this might be a less interesting story if it were a man, but it’s not a man. I mean, I still think it would be an interesting story actually, but certainly what makes it fascinating is that the character is a woman in a predominantly male environment, carving her way through – but it’s not a feminist film in the narrow sense, because she doesn’t choose to define herself as a woman, she just defines herself as a professional, and that’s interesting too.
It’s interesting you say that, because it leads nicely onto my next question. There’s a lot of strong female characters in this movie, and it had passed the Bechdel test within the first five minutes or so – would you personally consider yourself a feminist filmmaker?
Well, I’d certainly consider myself a filmmaker who specialises in stories about women, I’ve done a lot of them. I’ve told a lot of stories about women who are in positions of power, and I think that’s fascinating. To me, that gives you the whole package really, because women are just simply more interesting than men anyway, simply because of the qualities they possess, that the gender possess, in my view anyway. You’re always going to have something – if you have a powerful male character, you’re going to be struggling to find some element of vulnerability. If it is there, it’s usually connected to his love for a good woman; with women, you get all of that rolled up into one. You get humanity, you get sexuality, you get power, you get judgement, you get intelligence – you get everything, without the more preposterous aspects of male supremacy.
So, I’m not trying to bang the drum – it would be presumptuous anyway to say that I’m a feminist director, that’s not my domain. I don’t have a political axe to grind; I find that gender fascinating. I’m very drawn to stories about women, and about powerful women too.
Do you think what you’re saying about movies about women being more interesting – do you think that’s the case because there are comparatively fewer movies about women?
Well, yes, it is historically so, at least with women who are given the focus of the film, as opposed to being a necessary component of the essentially male perspective of the film. I think that is changing, and I think that’s partly because we’re waking up to the fact that the female demographic, long ignored by blockbusters, is a very significant one.
I think one of the things that’s very interesting is that when you look at the most significant purveyors of mass entertainment in movies, which is the Disney company, you’ll notice that many of their heroes are now women, particularly in the animated field. That’s incredibly significant, because that’s presenting a totally different matrix to young women growing up, because they’re presented with powerful role models. Moana is no shrinking violet, is she? That’s very significant, that change in that situation, and I think it’s beginning to happen across the board now.
Moving on to the other big aspect of the movie – the issue of gun control – I found it interesting that there is a certain ambiguity to the discussion. There’s that pivotal scene where one of the characters is saved by a legal gun owner. Why was that an important scene to include?
Well, I think that the film would be empty, an empty polemic, if one didn’t present the issue in its fully rounded form, because it’s a simple fact that there are vast numbers of gun owners in America who don’t see any issue, and believe in a non-aggressive way that it’s their constitutional right to own a weapon. To simply demonize every gun owner as someone with potentially lethal intent is obviously nonsense. I think it’s really important – it’s a very interesting thing, that character existed in the script initially, and I was very firmly of the view with Johnny, the writer [Jonathan Perera], that that character had to be flawless.
It was essential to the argument – and I’m not going to go into spoilers here – that we might not want to see that circumstance develop in such a way, and it’s averted by someone who would in any normal circumstances emerge as a hero, and indeed is a hero, but happens to be a hero who’s wielding a gun, then I think that’s very good for the argument of the film. It’s much more interesting; these were ideas that came up organically as we were developing, but I think it’s really good, and it invites a proper consideration of it. If we were pushing hard on an issue, then everything fell over because we neatly arranged it to be so, it wouldn’t be interesting.
The thing is, the gun issue is not the key issue in the film; the film is really about political process, I think, and the character study – a fascinating character study. But it would be foolish not to admit that it’s a very divisive issue, so you’re under an obligation deal with it even-handedly.
I’d also like to ask you about your work with Filmaka, a platform for undiscovered filmmakers to show their work to industry professionals. Could you tell us a little bit about what you do with them, and why you think it’s important?
Well, that’s slightly dormant at the moment; it’s interesting you should raise it, because we haven’t been in touch recently, or they haven’t been in touch with me recently. So, I’m not quite sure if I can give you an up to date estimation of what’s going on there. This is a totally different landscape to the one which existed when I entered the business; you’ve now got an absolute flood of products that is available to everybody, and it helps if you have systems of selection that bring the outstanding, the unusual, the innovative, the original pieces to people’s attention. That’s what the Filmaka project was originally; I can’t speak to where it is now, like I said.
As a final question, then – what is the most important thing you’d like an audience member to take away from your work?
I think you want… film is a fantastically immersive medium, and by immersive I don’t just mean that that idea can be expressed in any number of ways, or achieved in any numbers of ways I suppose is what I mean. I think it’s unique in its power to involve someone in a story, just because of the number of weapons that you have at your disposal. I think an engagement with human behaviour would be the thing that – it sounds a little dry – but in my book, as Ian Bergman famously said “the close up is still the best special effect”. I think getting inside another person’s experience and watching them change as a result of the story that you’re pulled through is still one of the most thrilling experience. That’s the most important thing in a film for me, and I’m always looking for those stories and those characters that are not obvious, I suppose, in that department.
John Madden, thank you very much!
Miss Sloane is available on Digital Download now and DVD and Blu-ray 18th September.