John Madden – Character Traits
As Shakespeare in Love director John Madden makes his return to the big screen with The Debt and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, he reveals why character is crucial to anything he does.
An artistic director for the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company straight out of university, John Madden cut his teeth directing classic BBC dramas Prime Suspect, The Return of Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Morse. His feature breakthrough came with Mrs Brown (1997), after which he received global attention for the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love (1998). Next came the universally awful Captain Corelli’s Mandolin—complete with Nicolas Cage doing that Italian accent—which began a period of steady decline with the little seen Proof (2005) and straight-to-DVD Elmore Leonard adaption Killshot(released in 2009, after three years of revisions).Last year, however, Madden returned to the fold with The Debt, a taut, coiled thriller from the writers of Kick-Ass. Before he can catch his breath, he’s doing press for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, starring Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith. Here, he talks to movieScopeabout the lessons of his career, how he composes a shot and the trick behind directing such renowned British talent…
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the films you’re best known for—The Debt, Shakespeare in Love, Mrs Brown—are all ensemble dramas. Why is that?
I’ve always gravitated towards character and towards narratives that have a strong sense of character, so I’ve done a lot of work that relies on densely realised characters interacting. I enjoy that process because it creates a sense of entropy—you can’t completely predict what the results are going to be. A movie commonly follows one character and one particular point of view; Shakespeare in Lovewas the apotheosis of that.
You’re regarded as a character director; what does that mean, in practical terms?
Character can be subservient to story, as in they are required to do things because the story requires them, rather than the story developing because of who the characters are. Sometimes the concept or the story or the acting is the thing that drives the film, and that’s higher up the priority list than what’s actually going on with people. A certain density or complexity of characterisation is a minimum requirement for me, even if the genre is melancholy comedy, as is the case with Marigold Hotel, or a very intense thriller, as is the case with The Debt.
You worked with Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson on this film. Considering their calibre, how did you make it a John Madden picture?
When you have that kind of talent, the movie always exceeds your expectations because they have so much to bring to the table. The writer and I knew who we were writing for, so we were able to direct the script very specifically. So if the script is right and there is a sense that what’s happening to the characters is truthful and based on something real, then sometimes it can fall into place. With any kind of drama, the script is always where you start. It needs to be a persuasive and articulate indicator of the mood of the film. Then everyone knows where they are and what they’re doing.
In that case, is it tempting to just shout ‘action’ and turn the camera on?
Yes, it is [laughs]! It’s my job to orchestrate all of that so that the stories spark off each other and create a combustion of one sort or another, be it comic or emotional, before gathering towards some sort of resonance beyond each individual story. If you gave an orchestra a score they would play it, but it’s a conductor’s job to pull that into some kind of a statement about what that piece of music means or what it feels like. In the Marigold Hotel, the characters are stranded in some way. Their lives have gone wrong somehow, and they’ve ended up in the wrong place. The film is about a correction of that.
How do you sustain an atmosphere on set that allows your actors to be at their best, take after take?
This film is about people of a certain age, and India is not an easy place to work in, so it was difficult. The temperature is overwhelming and the noise is deafening and you take your life in your hands when you travel anywhere, so there were some tricky things to deal with. But one of the main characters in the film was the eponymous hero, which is the hotel itself. It was a real hotel, a shabby and chaotic one, but it had a very persuasive and powerful and enticing atmosphere of its own.
You are part of a generation of actors that had a long pupilage in the BBC. Do you think the BBC offers the same sort of opportunities to young directors today?
You look at the directors of my generation and their schooling at the Beeb is still apparent. Paul Greengrass, for example, came from a documentary background, and a lot of his early dramatic excursions come out of that world and that sensibility. Peter Kosminsky is the same, and they’re still doing some very interesting work. They still champion new ideas and embrace talent and innovation, as they always have. I think the dramatic envelope has become narrower these days though. There’s a tendency nowadays to insist upon known faces to launch things, which didn’t use to be the case.
The BBC is an unbelievably precious commodity because, just by being there, it keeps everyone else up to the same mark. I would be a champion of it in every circumstance; I think its license fee is the best value for money around, I think it should continue to rise to enable them to do what they do, and I deplore the idea that its wings might be clipped.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel contains some beautiful single shots; Tom Wilkinson’s death scene stands out. How do you compose a shot like that?
Storytelling in film is about point of view and articulating an emotion or part of a character through a shot, and often motion and silence and all sorts of things come together in a particular way that feels right. If you get a shot right, it allows an emotion.
When Tom Wilkinson’s character Graham dies, the whole story is inverted and you realise what was just off stage throughout the film. But in the script, it simply said [that] Graham is dead. That is a difficult thing to animate because, clearly, it’s not an animate shot, it’s a static shot. The conventional way of telling that shot would be to cut to the shock on someone’s face and then cut back to what they were seeing. That shot would have no interest at all. It might as well be a still. There was this huge tree in a garden by a hotel that I saw when we were scouting, and I asked for a seat that would hang down from the branches and swing round by itself. So, by giving the shot motion and keeping Judi [Dench’s] character Evelyn perfectly still, it became about articulating Judi’s character going through a particular emotional experience that is referred to earlier in the film, because the way that Tom’s character died exactly evokes the way her husband died in the film.
You take advantage of Judi Dench’s voice with a lot of voice-over that knits the film’s narrative together. Voice-over is often frowned upon in screenwriting circles…
You’re right, the voice-over is considered a short cut or a cheat, but in this film Judi’s character is an observer and that’s what makes her the central point of the film, but she doesn’t have as dramatic an arc as some of the other characters in the film. The voice-over allowed us to control time—that was important in a film like this—and, speaking completely vulgarly, the instrument that Judi Dench has is one of the most amazing instruments that we as British filmmakers have at our disposal. Her voice and her expressions are extraordinary, and a huge part of how she manages to convey emotion.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opens on February 24. The Debt is available on DVD and Blu-ray from January 23
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 26 (Jan/Feb 2012) – OUT NOW