At the coffee shop of JW Marriott, Mumbai, British filmmaker John Madden is hurriedly finishing a quick breakfast. The past week has been particularly exhausting — as jury president for the International Competition at the Mumbai Film Festival, Madden has been immersed in back-to-back screenings, mulling and deliberating over them with other jury members, including Alexis Zabe (he shot Pharrell Williams' Happy), Celina Jade, and Konkona Sen Sharma.
Madden, who attained global spotlight with the Oscar-winning drama, Shakespeare in Love (for which he was nominated in the Best Director category), went on to direct several films, some of which were produced by the Harvey Weinstein-led company, Miramax. Madden also directed the commercially successfully and critically-adored The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
In a nearly hour-long interview, Madden spoke passionately about making films in India, Hollywood, and ensuring safety of women in the film industry.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
There's nearly unprecedented global outrage after stories of Harvey Weinstein's transgressions were exposed by The New York Times and The New Yorker. While this has led to a lot of conversation around the very serious issue of exploitation of women within the industry, a lot of talk has also been directed around how this isn't an aberration but it's probably the norm...
It's alarming to think that this could possibly be the norm. I feel a profound sense of dismay for not having known this. We just slept at the wheel. This was happening all through the time when I was associated with that company. What we should be paying attention to is what was happening to women and what probably still is. We should recognise that very seriously. I would lock horns with him whenever I did meet him but that was more about creative differences over films. He wields a lot of power and the instances that have come out are about his abuse of it. I assume it's happening elsewhere too. Luckily, this has opened some floodgates where a lot of people must be shifting uncomfortably on their seats. Power is routinely abused by people who are in the position to do so. We all experience it in different ways. This happened in a much greater degree in Harvey's case. It's shocking.
Have you heard any such instances within the British film community?
Honestly, I can't imagine it is. I am sorry. I am really not aware of that. My film career has been entirely associated with American finance so I am probably not the right person to know about it, but even then, I don't believe it is. Irrespective of that, I do think women are compartmentalised not only by film content but even in their access to the director's chair. Slightly less in the UK than in America, but it exists. Television, I feel, has tried to correct that balance to a certain extent.
As a filmmaker, what would you do to ensure a safe work culture for women on your film sets and even beyond?
Everybody has to look at things very differently now. I tend to have a lot of women on my crew. My films happen to be about women. They are often at the centre of the story that I tell. Gender diversity is the most important thing one can do and one has to keep that issue at the forefront just to correct the balance. I am not in a position of awarding jobs, except to my own crew so within that capacity I will of course try everything to ensure a sense of safety.
This is perhaps your fifth or the sixth trip to India. You've shot two major movies here — The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Is there an aspect of the country or the culture that you took home and which changed the way you view your own reality?
Oh, definitely. At the heart of both the Marigold movies is a very interesting idea: what happens to people when they get old? What happens when their options narrow down? Not everybody can afford to do what they did. What the film really is about is cultural collision and cultural stimulation. The great thing about India is how accepting and inclusive the culture really is — that was really my big takeaway. It's a culture shock at first. But you eventually blend in beautifully.
There is some synergy between the specific reality and the fictional content. In a way, the film mirrors the experience of the actors, who probably also discovered the idea of India for the first time...
Absolutely. So what you take back is this holistic experience which keeps you with this longing urge to come back. There are a few characters in the film that are too overwhelmed. One says, "Oh, I cannot cope with this, it's too much to take in." But eventually the warmth of the country makes everyone feel belonged. There's this wonderful energy that I was responding to. This sense of calmness.
The calmness, I feel, is a bit exoticised by foreigners, as the country is also full of contradictions. Along with the calm, there's maddening chaos too. What I found great about both films is the representation it offers to a demographic (elderly people) that's largely ignored not just by Hollywood but by industries across the world.
Yes, the demographic was sitting there but nobody was looking at it. It's an existing force which largely gets ignored, unlike say, millennials or the slightly older ones or whatever the current grouping is. But these are people who've lived their lives watching cinema and probably now have the time to actually go and watch a movie in a cinema as opposed to the youngsters who are consuming films on all sorts of online platforms. But the films aren't telling their stories. So we were quite surprised by all the heartfelt reactions. Not just old people, everybody loved it.
As a British filmmaker venturing into a different culture, more specifically Indian, the obvious challenge would be to avoid whitewashing stories set in that context. How do you navigate that thin line of being sincere without coming across as patronising?
That's a really, really big concern. The key to it is to respect the culture you are dealing with. You need to write it sensitively. In the Marigold series, it didn't really work against us as the whole film deals with the idea of outsiders coming into an unfamiliar culture. As a filmmaker I go into different cultures all the time — I have dabbled into cultures as varied as American and Greek. An outsider's view is always refreshing. The reverse is also true — Ritesh Batra, an Indian director, has made a British film (The Sense of an Ending) and now an American film (Our Souls at Night). The freshness of a story when told from an outsider's perspective is always unique.
The foreigner perspective is particularly relevant in your last film, Miss Sloane. In the film you take on the powerful gun-lobby in America and talk about gun violence, a problem that is uniquely American. For outsiders, like you or even me, the very issue — of Americans having easy access to weapons — and its seemingly intransigent status in itself is baffling, simply because of the alienness of it.
It absolutely is. It's as baffling to me as it is to you. How does a sensible, evolved, democratic nation even embrace this idea as something important? But once you look at it carefully, you understand its nuances and get a better perspective although that obviously doesn't change the side of political argument I stand for.
What perspective does it leave you with? If you take away the politics and the lobbying power of the NRA, is there any way you are able to rationalise it from a humanist point of view?
Well, you have to make an effort to understand how the situation is to a large number of law-abiding, decent citizens who otherwise display all the characteristics of human behaviour that you and I can recognise and identify with. And then there is this. You dig a bit deeper and you realise this notion (of possessing guns) is built into the framework of American individuality and comes from a deep mistrust of the government.
The Second Amendment was famously framed in way that allows American citizens to arm themselves. It has been wholly misappropriated and distorted by a big, special-interest business, which is the armaments industry. The narrative is entirely controlled to make sure that no infringement happens on those rights. The situation has become even more screwed-up thanks to the disruptive presence of Trump who wants to break the system apart and run it his own way. The horrors of gun-possession were particularly revealing in the most recent catastrophe in Vegas. It is inexplicable that this man had access to 47 semi-automatic weapons. What are you going to do with those other than cause havoc and carnage? There's no ideology, it's just someone flipping out.
What happens next is the whole nation goes into mourning but nothing ever changes because the NRA creates this atmosphere where any conversation about gun-control is equated with gun-confiscation.
Miss Sloane didn't quite do well. Do you believe it has to do with how contentious the issue is in America, in the sense that people aren't too comfortable addressing it? Or was it just that people needed time to recover from the trauma of Trump being elected as President?
We opened days after the election results. There was, yes, post-traumatic stress, depression, and a general sense of dismay. I was surprised that anyone even showed up. It's hard to overestimate the effect it had, kind of similar to the Brexit situation back in the UK. It had a seismic effect on people. It was an odd moment for the film to come out and didn't help us commercially. The film was immediately leapt upon by the Alt Right, assuming that we were out to get them, bleeding with our liberal point of view. Post Trump, everything has just become so much worse. Unfortunately, it's not restricted to the US but it's happening everywhere in the world. The growing nationalism is polarising everyone around the world. It's alarming and I feel technology hasn't helped. People are sitting in echo chambers where they see and read views that mirror theirs, ideas that reinforce their own beliefs. There's this intolerance towards an opposing point of view. I was very anxious about not demonising the other side but to just put forth a perspective.
The Second Amendment was famously framed in way that allows American citizens to arm themselves. It has been wholly misappropriated and distorted by a big, special-interest business, which is the armaments industry. The narrative is entirely controlled to make sure that no infringement happens on those rights
From Columbine to Sandy Hook, from Colorado to the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando to now, the Vegas massacre, things have gotten progressively worse. Every shooting is the 'worst shooting in modern American history' until the next one, which is often worse than the previous. As an artiste who has engaged with the issue, do you believe films can act as a tool of social change?
To a certain degree, yes. I still do believe in that thought. For me, films are a way through which people connect with each other. When it comes to cinema, I have a humanist perspective. I make a Miss Sloane because it offers me the chance to examine one character of a country. There are other filmmakers who are more socialist in their approach. Ken Loach, for example, focuses on the marginalised folk of a community and I think that is incredibly valuable. As far as politics is concerned, I am a political filmmaker with a small 'p.' The issue of gun violence is a scandal. But the issue is also simple — it's the easy accessibility to weapons. And I think there isn't enough political will in America to change that. It's really shaming. At the same time, it's easy for me to point a finger because I am not even a part of that world.
Fair. But the sense that I get is that Hollywood isn't all that interested in addressing gun violence at all. The passion with which they produce movies and TV shows on, say, external Islamic terror, I don't think they do so when it comes to home-grown terror involving the abuse of guns.
Oh, there are very, very few movies on that. An American friend of mine told me that no American could make this film (Miss Sloane was largely financed by European production companies). I think the topic is too hot an issue for America. I am amazed that it hasn't been taken on. In any case, film is a very hard needle to thread when it comes to politics. Television, on the other hand, isn't. You have House of Cards, Veep etc but films on politics, like All The President's Men, are relatively lesser. Even with the star power of George Clooney, The Ides of March couldn't command an audience.
We live in times of great social and political uncertainty and I mean not just Trump and Brexit, but across countries, barring Canada perhaps. You've made romantic dramas and comedies in the past, but as time changes, does that also change the way you choose your subjects? Are you more tempted to focus on issues that have a stronger social resonance? After all, chronicling the times is an important function of cinema.
It certainly very much is. Most of my films are character-driven dramas because that's what I like the most. There is politics, yes, because I am interested in it. As a filmmaker, I am always looking for complex stories, ones which somewhere have a relation between the private and the public. While I do get your point that as a filmmaker one should definitely engage as much as one can, I don't think film is a political medium.
As the most accessible medium, films can dramatically sway public opinion.
They are but they aren't terribly successful at conveying messages. What films can do though is make people examine aspects of their own behaviour and look at situations differently.
I think that's an important function of cinema as well.
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