'The Swamp Has Risen': John Madden Talks 'Miss Sloane'

Jessica Chastain stars in Miss Sloane.
Courtesy VVS Films
Academy Award nominated director John Madden (Shakespeare in LoveThe Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) returns in top form with Miss Sloane. Miss Sloane is an explosively topical thriller that stars Jessica Chastain as a cutthroat lobbyist named Madeline Elizabeth Sloane who takes on the unlikeliest competitor of all—the gun lobby—in the case that will define her career. Coming out on the heels of the upset defeat of Hillary Clinton in this year’s American presidential election, Miss Sloane is an ironically cutting look at how women must fight to survive in an environment traditionally dominated by men.

Cinemablographer recently sat down with Madden, who was on hand for the Toronto premiere of Miss Sloane, to discuss his taut new thriller, the nightmare of American politics, the magic of Jessica Chastain, and the lobbying game of awards campaigning.

PM: Pat Mullen, Cinemablographer
JM: John Madden

PM: You first worked with Jessica Chastain on The Debt quite early in her film career.

JM: Yes, very early!

PM: Did you imagine she’d be one of Hollywood’s top stars within a few years?

JM: I did, but I don’t want to claim any special insight. [Laughs] When you see that kind of talent, you just know where that’s going to end up. There’s an awful lot of guff talked up to the “magic” of somebody, but she’s exactly the same person she is on camera as she is off-camera. This is not to say she’s anything like the character she portrays in this film, but there’s no division in the way she behaves. She comes across the camera so vividly.

PM: That’s true. She certainly seems to have that genuine sense of character.

JM: The strange things is that with the first film I worked on with her, for various reasons with the studio being closed down and the film moving from one place to another, it came out two years after we made it.

PM: Right.

JM: During that whole time this body of work suddenly appeared! [Laughs] She made, subsequently—except for Tree of Life had been made before she did our film—The Help, Take Shelter, Coriolanus, Texas Killing Fields. Incredible work.

PM: Many, if not all you films, feature a female lead who is unconventional, messy or just something we don’t see often in films—like Gwyneth Paltrow’s psychologically complex mathematician in Proof, or Judi Dench as an elderly romantic lead in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies or Diane Lane as the heroine of Killshot. What draws you to these characters? Or is just coincidental?

JM: It’s both a coincidence and not a coincidence. I don’t sit down and say, ‘This one has a strong unconventional female lead,’ but it’s a legitimate observation. As I look back at all of I’ve done, it seems to be true of most films. I think I’m just an admirer of women and I think they have it all in a way that male characters don’t. Male characters sometimes struggle along and try to get their egos under control. It’s more interesting watching what women do, especially now watching women move into their natural destiny.
Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane.
Courtesy VVS Films

PM: It’s interesting. I actually saw the film before the election and then had to re-write the review after Hillary lost, but the film—I don’t want to say it changed, but I think it gains an extra resonance.

JM: I think it does. I’ve been in North America during the whole playing out of that and the result. It was quite bizarre watching that because, in simple terms, we went for this period of time to release the film this year because, not that we expected any major change on gun legislation, but we wondered if we might find ourselves out of sync with the political environment because it promised to be a very big topic. Of course, there was no policy debate whatsoever. It turned into a slinging match and a dismaying descent into the gutter. Paradoxically, what came out of that election process was a focus on the political process itself and the politics of gender in ways that we couldn’t have imagined. Obviously the film reflects back different things, but it’s smack on target.

PM: Especially with the end-note about how rotten the whole system is.

JM: Exactly. It is. One wondered if it seemed slightly overstated when we were doing that  It could not possibly seem overstated now. It’s like “the swamp” has risen up around the film!


PM: Yes, that’s true.

JM: The concern is that there’s so much consternation, constipation, and frustration about politics and what it has become and what it means. It’s worth saying, though, that this film is unexpected in that it’s a thriller and a study of an unusual character and those elements make it a surprising ride with the topical circumstances.

Jessica Chastain and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in Miss Sloane.
 Courtesy VVS Films
PM: It’s interesting: both Miss Sloane and Hell or High Water are two films that tackle America’s problem with gun violence quite shrewdly, yet they’re both directed by Brits.

JM: Yes, where we have the inalienable right to bear truncheons! [Laughs.] It is a topic that is fascinating to us overseas. Until recently, police weren’t allowed to carry weapons. It’s only in the post-terrorist world, and even then, it’s only the “terrorist police”—so people at airports, guarding political figures, and so forth. The idea that guns can be freely bought by anybody in giant numbers—and we’re talking about semi-automatic weapons—at the local Wal-Mart is so shocking and incompressible when you stand away from it. I would accept and agree that most people outside it don’t understand the constitutional significance of that right, but the fact that there is never any legislative response to these horrible situations. It’s hard to imagine something worse than Sandy Hook—first graders being mown down by a maniac with a semi-automatic weapon. You think, “How is that right?” “How is there no appropriate government response?” There’s a simple reason for that and the film makes it pretty clear what that is. It’s to do with grotesque misapplication of special interests and the falsification of the narrative.

PM: It’s always so interesting and troubling to see the difference in coverage for shootings and gun-violence between here and the States.

JM: Yes.

PM: I like the way Miss Sloane plays with the idea of the gunslinger with the way Miss Sloane uses her Blackberry like a revolver and slings it in her holster. Was that something you and Jessica worked out together?

JM: Yes. First of all, that tool is absolutely essential in that world. It’s one of the places where the Blackberry obstinately exists. [Laughs.]  Texts, email, and so for are the natural media in Washington. However, it takes on a completely iconic significance where in another world it might be a gun. In our case it also had to do with multitasking. She’s working across multiple platforms at the same time, responding to emails while barking orders at her crew. That aspect to her character is very interesting.

PM: Yes, and that aspect of the film is one of its strengths. Liz Sloane isn’t an instantly likable character—

JM: Far from it—

PM: But I found that I always respected her for how good she was at her job. A lot like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.

JM: I think any young person would want to be on her team because she’s an astonishing leader. There is a narrative that’s going on in which it’s hard to perceive any signs of humanity in her because she’s refined herself as a political machine who intends to win and who doesn’t give much thought to the collateral damage she might create along the way. The film is ultimately the reclamation of humanity and of principle and moral direction because she is to some extent disintegrating throughout the course of the film.

PM: And we always hear about the power and influence that lobbyists have, but we rarely hear about what they do. What sort of access to this world did you have in pre-production?

JM: It’s true. I was in the same boat. I didn’t know much about this other than the job description. I don’t think many people do. One knows that it’s about advocacy and that’s interesting in the legal framework where we set up our democratic institutions where one side argues for something and the other side argues against it, and then we reach a conclusion. Unfortunately, in Washington politics, lobbyists often represent special vested interests and argue their positions, sometimes with unorthodox methods, to achieve their goals. The corrupting influence is money. Too much of it, which has invaded the political process so much that most politicians in the USA, it seems, are about keeping themselves in office, but what they’re there to do, which is to respond to laws for social needs, isn’t done. This is why people are frustrated.

Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane.
Courtesy VVS Films.
PM: Since Miss Sloane is about a lobbyist and the film opens in the thick of award season, I was wondering if we could talk a little about awards lobbying. What role does a director play in the awards campaign?

JM: I think the main campaign for a film is to open as many avenues into the film to develop an appetite for the film. That’s my main job—telling that film’s story. Afterwards, when people start handicapping who’s in the race and who isn’t, that’s a completely different ballgame that I’ve been in and it’s mind-boggling. But we aren’t quite yet at that point. I take quite seriously the idea of making the story seem enticing to people. It’s tricky with this one because it’s a movie you don’t actually want to say too much about the film.

PM: I can see how that would be difficult.

JM: Surprise is one of its main modes of communication and the MO of the main character. But, clearly, Jessica’s performance is an outstanding aspect to the film. She is the movie in the sense, although there’s an amazing ensemble we should note. To be honest with you, the reason the movie is coming out now is not so much for awards but to ensure that the conversation doesn’t become stale. All you want to be at this point is in a conversation. If something’s being talked about, then more people want to see it.

Miss Sloane opens in theatres on Friday, Dec. 9 from VVS Films.