At the JIO-MAMI film festival 2017

Transcending the Bechdel test

Director John Madden talks to Namrata Joshi about his love for various dramatic mediums, his women centric filmography and the fall of Harvey Weinstein

He has worked on much loved TV series like Prime Suspect 4 and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. But Shakespeare In Love (1998), that won the Best Film Oscar as well as the Silver Bear at the Berlinale, remains John Madden’s most celebrated work. His recent successes include The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011 and 2015) film series and Miss Sloane (2016). The British TV, radio, theatre and film director is chairperson of the international competition jury at the 19th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival With Star. We caught up with him the day before the fest’s finale.

Going back to the beginning… There’s a pattern there for you — theatre to radio to television to film…

Radio, theatre, TV, films… I started with theatre at the university. I ran a theatre company. Then I went to BBC on a series of contracts. For some reason, I found myself in radio drama which is a very vivid and alive form. From there I went on to run a fledgling drama project in America. Publicly funded, it used to be very active. When radio got commercialised it was music everywhere. It was an amazing opportunity and I found a really large number of good writers who were interested in doing that [radio drama]. One of the plays I commissioned and directed won an international prize and we were asked to adapt it. The play went to Broadway, National in London and then I started directing in theatre. I made a couple of short films for the BBC and then a long one with the BBC, and then I moved sideways into films. It was a very very good writer-led film culture at the BBC.

It seems to be just the right way to go isn’t it?

There wasn’t a plan in particular, I just followed my nose. Most of the material I deal with in films is very strongly character-based. I wouldn’t know anyone in my profession who wouldn’t be interested in or drawn to films. The means of articulation of an idea are so rich. I am a kind of technology nut, what a camera does and how it does it, the rhythm of narrative. There are so many things at your disposal in film. Visually, of course, it is an astonishing medium to work in.

So, of all the four mediums that’s what excites you the most?

These things are so mutually exclusive. There is a thrill of working in theatre that is about, strangely enough, an absence of control. It flares into life in a way that the director can only sit back and watch. But a film is a pinnacle of it for me. And I also think that each one of those disciplines informs the other. For example, the lesson I learnt in radio is about rhythm and film is all about rhythm of narrative — acceleration, deceleration and silence… These sound like obvious elements but you learn about it when you shrink everything down to a small set of elements.

You were talking about actors, how you like to work with them… And you have some amazing names there, be it Judi Dench or Gwyneth Paltrow or Maggie Smith…

All my films have been about women.

What gives?

To be able to work with people of that calibre is like if you were playing a symphony and there was a Stradivarius, then that’s the instrument you are going to go for. The kind of command and following they have and an extraordinary transcendental set of skills. Judi Dench is, perhaps, the clearest example of that. She is an actress whose appeal travels across every cultural boundary there is. There is something in her that makes the audience lean towards her. Luckily I have found material to offer to these actors. That’s good fortune but there are many many many brilliant actors I have not had the opportunity to work with as yet. Of all the kind of razzmatazz and fireworks that cinema is now capable of there is still nothing that quite matches the human face in a close up. It’s the biggest special effect that really is. Even the Marigold films I did here [in India] you get to look at old age very close up. Old age that hasn’t been interfered with (laughs) as it is so much of the time.

Talking about women-oriented subjects and women actors with transcendental skills, as you put it… Of late, be it in India or abroad there is new assertion we are finding in the film industry when it comes to women. Whether it’s an Oscar speech or Jessica Chastain at the Cannes jury. Whether it’s to talk about the parity of pay scale or the kind of roles that are offered to women. Women are talking. How do you respond to it? What do you ascribe this surge to?

Women are more interesting basically. I am more interested in the complexity of the female experience. The male thing is more about power and masculinity. That is less interesting to me. I love women, I like being with women, I like working with women. They are the superior gender. I would agree with Barack Obama who made that observation and you can understand why, given his wife.

It’s an ancient pendulum swing that is finally coming back in the direction of women who have, from a number of different perspectives, been infuriatingly under-served. Empowered women, who have control of the point of view of film, is something you are seeing more and more and more now. Even in the selection of films that I have been adjudicating [at MAMI] in the jury of the international selection, it’s quite striking how many female perspectives are at work. Even if there are five women directors and eight male directors. I don’t know why it’s happening now particularly. I think it’s just a natural balance. I am talking about film than television (where there is a much greater balance). There are still shamefully few women directors operating in film in the West. It is ridiculous but even that is beginning to shift now.

The dark side of that, the way in which women have been routinely abused, is also coming to light and that is upsetting but I feel it’s going to have a very very strong effect.

The voices that are speaking out will help set the balance right?

I hope so. The film I made with Jessica Chastain the year before last [Miss Sloane], we came out amongst a raft of female stories and narratives. Most of them transcended the Bechdel test. In my case the woman was absolutely at the centre of a male world and beating the shit out of it. It was very enjoyable, interesting perspective to be involved in. I think it is shifting definitely.

Now there is the whole Weinstein scandal coming to light and growing bigger by the day… WasShakespeare in Loveyour first association with him?

Well he distributed two films that I made before that. Ethan Frome and Mrs Brown. Shakespeare In Love was the first I made with him.

You have been a close associate. Did you feel it, hear about it. EvenGwynethPaltrow has spoken about it…

No. I have worked with Gwyneth three times — ShakespeareProof and we worked on stage on Proof. I think it’s fair to say there was a reputation that people were aware of. He would show up at Cannes with someone who had just been in a film [produced by him] on his arm and you’d say OK. What did we think, was he a philanderer? I don’t know. Yes, but there was no inkling whatsoever of the horror story that has unfolded. He has utterly utterly disgraced himself and disgraced the profession. It causes some heartache looking back at the collaboration. It’s been bubbling for a while now. In the end it’s about power and it’s about too much power and that’s what distorted the landscape completely.

These are supposedly more empowered women and yet you find such incidents…

This story is significant only in respect of the women’s point of view. That perspective is the one we need to pay attention to. Harvey is history. He probably brought it all on himself but the damage he has done, the people who have come through that experience. Some have climbed up on top of it and taken control of it. Some have been beaten by it and moved out of the film world all together. Now possibly some good thing will come out of it which is that people are not going to turn their heads away and make assumptions any more. That will result in an empowerment I think. We will all be more vigilant about it. It is time to look beyond that. Instead of spending too much time looking back at him. It is a fall from grace, if grace is ever the right word. It is a fall of such dimension and size, its fascinating to look at that. A big political figure kind of just upended. Like [the toppling of] Saddam Hussain statue you know. It’s very startling to behold that but it’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is what happened to people who were his victims. That’s what we should be paying attention to.

Coming to the Marigoldfilms, centred on senior citizens. Not always the best subject to make money…

It’s not the kind of subject that you would imagine will resonate with a larger audience, while they are all splendid [in the cast]. Surprise is that how much that film connected with the audience, made the industry aware of a demographic that not so necessarily existed in film going terms. There was also universality in that story which resulted partly in the idea of old people coming together. A serendipitous companionship out of the depravations of old age. There is also cultural collision and assimilation and more crucially the backdrop of India. It was fresh and interesting and uplifting for many people. The experience of the characters is tremendously cathartic. And it reached out to far wider demographic than the audience we had anticipated. People in their 30s and 40s because they are looking at it like ‘that’s where we are going’.

Films that are multi-stranded stories I tend to enjoy those. So many films follow one individual character and story. Here there is a synthesis of so many points of view.

Do you intend to revisit it again?

We will explore it in television terms. But I think you can’t take that group of people and try and spin that story again. The two films belong together, they describe an arc and it’s all, in an implicit way, about mortality. That underlies everything in the story. I like the fact that an audience wants to see more of that story but they would probably not like the film that we will then have to make, Both the audience and the studio pretty much want the same film again, without articulating it. The film that we would have to make would have to start ticking some more melancholy tones. It would inevitably involve someone dying. Otherwise it’d be false. But the audience, perhaps, wouldn’t want to see the film in the same way, nor would the studio. We have all talked about it. The actors, everyone, would want to come back. But we realise that it would become about commerce than about story-telling. It’s a franchisee that involves people in their very very late years. You have to embrace that, make that part of the story. The answer is I can’t make that story for the rest of my life. A film takes at least two years, whatever you do. We have been asked and we have said politely that that’s where it should stay.

What’s next that you are working on?

We are working on a couple of films. I am working on one with Tom Stoppard after Shakespeare In Love. It’s a much more niche project. An adaptation of one of his plays that I have always loved. It’s a challenge. There is one American project, sort of in a political sphere but not in the way Miss Sloane is. There is a very unusual World War II project that I may get to make.

People are talking about TV now being the more exciting medium…

It’s a fantastic medium and the most exciting in the area that has now become so pronounced in terms of audience interest, which is long form story-telling. I wouldn’t argue with that for a second. Telling a story over a longer period of time with an audience becoming involved with characters. It allows you so much more latitude. It can get too simplistic in films if they try to compress too much in too short a span of time. I would jump at that [TV] if the right project came along. I have been involved with TV material and am constantly considering that.

Digital is the zone where most cinema is said to be heading towards…

I am not a purist. There is no question that there is a quality to celluloid and film. As a medium it’s very special. There might be some stories that would benefit from that. But I have just been watching 13 films from around the world [at MAMI]. I think every single one of them is digitally shot. Some of them quite frankly would not have been shot on film quite simply because of the scale involved. The more lightweight, the more mobile, the less obstacles there are in the way of how you tell a story. That’s only a good thing, it expands the medium.

Going back to your TV days, you have worked with some of our most beloved detectives. There was the classic, definitive Sherlock that Jeremy Brett represented and now we see Sherlock in a completely different mode…

It’s a timeless form, isn’t it? It’s just simply based on the idea of a puzzle in need of a solution. That’s a very very very ancient story model. The piece I am doing with Tom Stoppard is a sort of a detective story but in an unusual form. Sherlock Holmes is a very particular one. There’s something gloriously cinematic about those stories. The character is so stylised and such an extraordinary distillation. He is like a movie hero which is why there are so many cinematic manifestations.

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Printable version | Jul 9, 2020 6:39:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/transcending-the-bechdel-test/article19877137.ece

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