Miss Sloane – Director John Madden

You are a British director helming a film about a deeply controversial subject – gun control and the Second Amendment – what do you think having an outsider’s perspective brought to the project?

If you are outside of a subject like this there is an advantage. While it is not quite non-prejudicial (because there would be no prizes for what side of the argument I would come down on) there is the gift of curiosity. That issue is so baffling and confounding to people outside that it makes you ask how it is possible. I don’t come at it with a polemical bent.

Many people in the USA didn’t think that an American could direct this film. If it had been directed by an American it would immediately become a very political issue and that would risk knocking the film off track. While the context of the film is about gun control, it is primarily a character study of this very unusual woman – Elizabeth Sloane. I think being an outsider was probably not a bad thing.

Lobbying and the American political system is very different to our own. While we may read about it in the newspapers and see it represented in TV shows and films it remains quite baffling. How did you find crafting a story about this world?

It is a completely different system to our own, and I didn’t understand what a lobbyist did except in the most theoretical sense. The key to why this complex system is such a mess is, unsurprisingly, money. Not in a nefarious way, but money distorts the system in a dramatic way. The special interest groups that control this issue are powerful, meaning that they make their narrative hold to a very powerful degree. This group is very smart about how they deploy those advantages. To some extent it could be about any controversial issue, because this film is also about the political process. There are also gender issues that are relevant to contemporary America.

You mention that this is a character study. There is something very classical about this story, like a combination of House of Cards and I, Claudius. How would you describe the world of the film?

It is a little House of Cards, with a touch of Game of Thrones, and there are many archetypal qualities. But it is also about an individual against a powerful system. It is a very hard film to sum up. It’s a film that isn’t easy to label. Someone asked me if I was making a political drama, and I said “no, not really, God forbid.” It is almost a political thriller, but even then that isn’t quite right, because of the character study at the heart of it. I really liked this about the film. The human dimension is what makes this film register with audiences.

You worked with Jessica Chastain on The Debt, what made you want to work with her again to play Elizabeth Sloane?

She has a very unusual presence of tremendous strength and ferocity which is then capable of switching to a sense of fragility. The film and script evolved from when I read it initially. In the first draft, she remained the same character throughout and didn’t really change. Gradually I dislodged that and then the hidden narrative of the film emerged from that. All the great female actresses working today possess this similar quality, be it Nicole Kidman or Cate Blanchett. There are plenty of people who have those skills. But Jessica [Chastain] can convey a quick intelligence in a very unusual way. This film demanded incredible verbal dexterity and to deliver the material at break-neck speed, and that was very important to me. This film had to move like a bat out of hell. I knew that Jessica could do that.

How do you balance the momentum of the script with audience attention?

For the first ten or fifteen minutes, I think it is fair to say there’s an adjustment period for audiences where they are trying to work out what is going on. Then the movie slows enough and you can work out the world and what is going on. The film continues at this rapid-fire speed up to the end, and you might not be exhaling as much as you should, and it is tense, but it is great that you can have that in a film. Jessica is technically incredibly skilled, but she is also very free. You don’t see the wheels turning with her. I could give her slight adjustments, and she would never repeat a performance in another take. Each time there would be these beautiful nuances to her performance. She is physically completely natural, it is thought about but not considered and that is the vital difference.

There is something about her appearance, and the decisions you made in how she would appear on screen. Tell me about the evolution of her on-screen appearance.

Her costume is very much armour. We made certain colour choices as well. One of the greatest gifts with Jessica Chastain is her colouring, and we made very careful choices there. This was also the case with casting Gugu Mbatha-Raw who is beautiful, soft and rounded, whereas Jessica is more classical and angular. The red hair, red lipstick and monochromatic clothing, is very interesting. Almost all the clothes were bought, some were designed, but there is a marvellous store called Hudson Bay where we would go and try outfits on for the film. We didn’t want to fall into traps of dressing her like a man. Bu she never uses her femininity to win, which is important for a film like this.

The sexual politics of the film are fascinating, but how did you navigate them within the context of this politically charged environment?

I would argue this film consummately passes the Bechdel test. People have asked me whether it is a feminist film. It is in the sense that it shows women with the power, respect and equality that women should have, but it isn’t feminist in the sense that only a woman could do this. Elizabeth’s argument is that she can do what she does as well as anyone else, it has nothing to do with her gender. Elizabeth Sloane is not a feminist.

You have a strong trio of female actors, with Jessica Chastain, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Alison Brie. What was it like working with them?

The film is triangulated around these three women. The movie moves forward with everything that the women do and that is unusual. Let’s take this little gender inversion for starters. The character that Mark Strong plays is wonderful, partly because for once he is not cast as a Middle Eastern villain, but to see him as a quiet core of humanity, which is normally the role a woman plays. For me that was incredibly refreshing.

Given the context of the film, were you at all worried about how it would be received in the USA?

We never imagined that the Republican/Trump/NRA side of the argument would go anywhere near the film, and if they did they would vilify it. I was careful not to make a polemic and make the film as balanced as possible. The film premiered right after the American election of Trump and the natural audience for the film was understandably stupefied by the result, and they were depressed and heartbroken (and I am not exaggerating). America was in deep shock.

The idea of a film set within a political context would be the last thing that they would want to see. Although [in fact] it was very well received. More than most films, the film changes to the context you watch it in. I think that there is a sharp and vivid interest in American politics in the UK right now.

Miss Sloane is out now on Digital Download, Blu-ray and DVD.