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The Debt - John Madden interview

The Debt

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOHN Madden talks about the appeal of directing The Debt, a big budget remake of a little seen Israeli film, and why he had to be careful to remain sensitive to the film’s complex issues.

He also talks about being able to shoot on location in Tel Aviv and why he decided on the narrative structure of the film.

Q. What was the appeal for you?
John Madden: Well, it’s extraordinarily compelling and challenging material. It’s thematically weighty. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to tell a story that is in one sense a very pure cinematic genre, the genre of thriller, but also one that actually allows a very complex emotional and psychological drama to unfold at the same time. Usually those things pull against each other in a project and you have to stop the thriller for a moment in order to fill in the character and catch up on who they really are. This film is very different in that way, you understand who these people are through the story that’s unfolding and it all pulls against itself in a very interesting way. So, an amazing challenge in terms of the material but a great opportunity as well.

Q. Did you have to be aware of the sensitivities in dealing with this kind of subject matter?
John Madden: Well it’s a big responsibility, it’s the biggest theme in terms of recent modern history, and you owe a debt to take that seriously – particularly when you’re dealing with a story in a genre which is not famous for moral complexity. We were very, very concerned and vigilant about not reducing things to simple dimensions and just using the Holocaust or its aftermath or the pain engendered by it as a sort of useful hook to make people jump in the cinema. The chief way, I think, in which you can honour that material is by making the people real and making what they do truthful, in so far as you can judge the psychology and the emotional truth of it. We used to boot out any idea that was led by narrative or narrative requirements that didn’t feel true. As I said earlier, this film is unusual in the sense that character is story really, and mapping the vulnerabilities and fragilities in those characters is what produces the circumstance that is the centre of the film. So, you just need to be very serious about what you’re doing to make sure that you’re not doing anything cheap or gratuitous, or unnecessarily manipulative.

Q. What were your experiences in Tel Aviv like, both from a political and practical point of view, and were the locals at all upset that you were remaking a well regarded movie of theirs?
John Madden: Well, first of all the movie, though it’s a very good movie, did not receive a very big distribution even in Israel. It was not on for very long, and it was one of the big surprises to find that not that many people knew of it or had seen it actually. There was some surprise among the producers and financiers and so forth, that I should want to go to Israel to film it which I felt adamant that I did. As indeed I wanted to go to East Berlin, which proved way beyond our resources, to take it back to the 1960s, so we did that in Budapest. But I didn’t know what to expect politically, I didn’t know what the view would be of the film. Perhaps we’ll find that out, because we’re going to Haifa, to the Film Festival there next month. Obviously there are sensitive issues about the way Israel sees itself, and so forth. So, I can imagine feelings will run high, maybe.

But in terms of an experience of working there, everybody said it will be very difficult, ‘you’ll never be able to get access to what you’ll need’. For example, it was considered absolutely axiomatic that we couldn’t have filmed the sequence on the aeroplane, that the movie begins and ends with, in Israel thought that was what I wanted to do, because we’d never get airside given the security you have to go through. Which proved not to be the case at all, we sort of wandered onto the airport that we were shooting Helen departing in. The film crews there are fantastic, sophisticated, experienced and very relaxed. There’s a great spectrum of political opinion about Israel, about what Israel is and what it’s doing and how it goes about doing what it’s doing. So, I actually loved being there, I found it really stimulating, really interesting, Tel Aviv is an incredible city and the people are damned interesting.

Q. Tell us about the narrative structure of the movie? Were you involved in deciding that?
John Madden: Yes, I was involved in developing that structure. It’s not structured the same way as the Israeli film is, which actually cross cuts constantly between the present day and the past. And in particular because the movie begins with a very big question mark, which is this event that is pretty shattering when you see it, and surprising. Explaining and understanding how and why that has happened, and what that means, is the structural principle of the film, and governs Helen’s character’s journey through the film. I really like films that have that sort of acrostic quality, demanding that your brain works at the same time as your heart, and in this case your guts are working too. But it wasn’t a gratuitous thing, it just seemed to want to be told in a particular way. Obviously, one of the pleasures in a film, though not in life perhaps, is having the rug pulled out from underneath you. That structural principle was an important discovery in the film, and that doesn’t happen that way in the other film either. And actually that was a jump that Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman made in the first instance which was very crucial to the way that the story was told.

Read our review of The Debt

Read our interview with Helen Mirren