John Madden's debt to Israel

The famed director discusses the universalities of the dilemmas portrayed in his latest film, 'The Debt' and why he chose such a complex project.

John Madden 521 (photo credit: Gustavo Hochman)
John Madden 521
(photo credit: Gustavo Hochman)
‘It was an act of massive presumption for me to tackle this subject in the first place,’ said John Madden, director of the thriller The Debt, a remake of an Israeli film of the same title, during a visit to the recently concluded 27th Haifa International Film Festival.
Referring to the fact that he is neither Jewish nor Israeli, Madden said in an interview following a packed press conference at the festival, “I’ve learned more today about what it means to be Jewish than I ever knew before.”
Questions of identity haunt the film, which tells the story of three Mossad agents who are sent to Berlin in the ’60s to murder a notorious Nazi and the fallout this has on their lives 30 years later. The star-studded film, which has been a commercial and critical success around the world, stars Helen Mirren as the female agent in the ’90s, while Jessica Chastain, who can currently be seen in The Help and The Tree of Life, plays the younger version of the character. Veteran character actors Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds play Mirren’s counterparts, while Marton Csokas (who will appear in the upcoming Dream House with Daniel Craig) and Sam Worthington, who starred in Avatar, complete the younger trio.
Madden, who was, by turns, jovial and thoughtful throughout the interview, said he was mindful that he was an outsider making a film about a subject sensitive to Jews in general and to Israelis in particular: targeted assassinations by Israeli secret service agents, committed in an atmosphere of secrecy and, sometimes, deceit.
Asked why he chose such a complex project, Madden said, “It’s a universal story,” in spite of its historical background. On the question of deceit among the agents (a plot point that should not be revealed here), Madden reflected that lying about mistakes “is a human point of entry into the story. Anyone seeing it could think, ‘This could be about me.’ Who you are morally has to do with little arrangements you make with yourself.”
He acknowledged that despite the universality of the characters’ dilemmas, “It is daunting subject matter… and extremely challenging from a director’s standpoint because I felt that the narrative of the film wanted to be told as a thriller, which is a tricky form if you intend to honor the subject matter with a proper complexity and proper consideration, because it is a form that is associated with manipulation and visceral effects. I felt strongly that the film needed to get under an audience’s defenses, but it had a kind of built-in moral complexity.”
Madden relished the challenge of making this moral complexity accessible to international audiences without dumbing down a very dark story.
“The fact that it deals with moral accountability from multiple perspectives was what was attractive to me about the film. It’s unapologetically a throwback to a different era of cinema, the ’70s. [The thrillers] I grew up on, where emotional, moral and psychological complexity were part of the story that you are telling. Given the long shadow of the Holocaust, which is the environment that the film takes place in, that’s a special responsibility.”
When asked what ’70s thrillers in particular had inspired The Debt thematically and stylistically, Madden named The Conversation, The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor.
Madden and his collaborators, including producer Kris Thykier, who accompanied him to Haifa as part of a delegation of British filmmakers who announced a coproduction deal with Israel, didn’t feel the need to slavishly imitate the original film.
“I only saw it once,” said Madden of the 2007 Israeli film written by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum and directed by Bernstein, which, ironically, was not particularly well received here.
Regarding the high-profile cast of the remake, Madden admitted it wasn’t easy to find someone to play Helen Mirren as a younger woman. “I was hoping to cast an actress with very little baggage for an audience. I don’t want to say unknown, though relatively speaking Jessica was unknown when we cast her. I didn’t think it useful for an audience to be preoccupied with the notion of how Jessica became Helen Mirren.”
A colleague who had worked with Chastain on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, which won the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, raved about her work to Madden.
“I met her and auditioned her on tape so that I would have something to persuade the studio of the candidacy, because the studio would have hoped to have a promotable entity. As it turned out they had a promotable entity by the time the film appeared. She’s pretty extraordinary.”
As directors go, Madden is a quite promotable entity himself. While he projects a self-deprecating persona, Madden is one of the most distinguished directors in Hollywood. His best-known film, Shakespeare in Love, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1999. Madden himself would most likely have won Best Director that year if he had been up against anyone other than Steven Spielberg, who won for Saving Private Ryan.
Asked whether a film such as Shakespeare in Love, which demanded that its audience understand the literary, theatrical and royal politics of England in the late 1500s, could be a success today, Madden said, “That film was a result of the chutzpah of Harvey Weinstein,” the famously contrary and dictatorial head of Miramax, the company that produced it.
“It was a brilliant screenplay,” which was co-written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, Madden recalled. He added that Julia Roberts had been interested in starring in it. It was difficult to find the right actor to play Shakespeare, and meanwhile Roberts went on to other films. “But Harvey said if you could make it for a third of its budget, he would do it.”
Both Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench won Oscars for their roles in the film.
Talking about the current movie-making climate, Madden acknowledged that “It’s hard to make a film with half an ounce of complexity.”
Madden began his career in show business directing radio dramas, then moved to television. “It was kind of a Golden Age of British television,” he said. “I started out in television with a bunch of other British directors: Stephen Frears, Roger Michell and Danny Boyle.”
Growing up in Portsmouth, Madden did not come from a show-business background. His father was a solicitor and his mother kept house. “There was no British film industry to speak of then. It was a dull patch. There were just the Carry On [comedy] films,” he said.
But when he went to university, he was introduced to a very different film culture. While he enjoyed the films of Truffaut and Bergman, the movie that had the biggest impact on him was Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde.
“I saw it nine times in a week,” he said. “I wanted to learn every line, every shot. That was my cinematic education.”
While his mother died when he was only 18, his father lived to see his son’s success, and was “thrilled to bits by it.”
Madden's next project will be considerably different in tone from the weighty Debt. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is based on a novel by Deborah Moggach and once again stars Tom Wilkinson, along with such distinguished British thespians as Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy, alongside Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel.
Madden described it as the story of “people at a point in life where the world stops paying attention to them – old people, or older people let’s say, and I include myself in that constituency. I call it a ‘melancholy comedy’ about a disconnected group of Brits, people who find themselves sort of stuck in their lives for one reason or another – financial difficulty, or bereavement, or physical infirmity or loneliness or whatever it may be.”
These pensioners see an ad online for a recently refurbished hotel in India and head for it, seeking a second chance.
Although it might seem as though no film could be further from the heroism and tragedy of The Debt, Madden doesn’t see the films as so dramatically different.
“I suppose the pleasure of suddenly being able to look at something from a completely different perspective is cathartic in some extraordinary kind of way,” and the sets of characters in both of the films get the opportunity to do that, he said.
When the subject of participating in the boycott against Israel and not working or visiting here was raised, Madden was unequivocal.
“I don’t share that view. [Not coming to Israel] never crossed my mind... And it was a pleasure working here,” said Madden.