A Filmmaker On The Complexities Of 'Debt'

Originally published on August 29, 2011 8:53 am

English movie director John Madden has made a name for himself with quirky literary history (Shakespeare in Love) and mathematical intrigue (Proof). But his latest, The Debt, is a very different kind of film — an intense thriller about a group of young Israeli Mossad agents in the 1960s whose mission is to track down and capture a Nazi war criminal.

"It's a fantastically compelling story — a really, really powerful thriller — but it's also got an incredibly complex drama at its core," Madden tells NPR's Laura Sullivan. "It gives you a lot to think about after you've finally relaxed."

The Debt is a remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name. Madden says it was the intricate nature of the story that first attracted him to it. The movie follows three former Mossad agents as they grapple with the morality of their past actions. Their struggle harks back to the notion of "debt" — a phrase that expands in meaning throughout the film.

"In Israel, 'the debt' has a much more specific resonance, having to do with the debt the nation owes to the 6 million dead," Madden explains. "But it has more meanings and other meanings as the film unfolds."

Searching For The Right Words

Still, Madden and his team worried that the title's unintended connotations might steer viewers away from the film, especially after Congress' heated debate over the federal debt ceiling.

"If you Googled [the title] you had to wade through page after page after page of articles that nobody wanted to read or even think about," Madden says.

Madden and his team toyed with naming the film something else, and even enlisted the services of a company that specializes in movie naming. But nothing else seemed to work.

"I cannot begin to tell you how bizarre some of [the suggestions] were," Madden says. "They offered about 50 possibilities, 20 likelies, 10 that they really felt they could support and one that they thought was the absolute slam-dunk."

That recommendation was Divulgence — a title that Madden nixed.

"[Divulgence] starts to sound like it's not even a word when you say it to yourself several times," Madden says, laughing. "Certainly not a word that trips off the tongue."

Taking The Rhythms Of Radio To The Big Screen

Before making movies, Madden directed for theater and television. He also developed radio dramas for the NPR project Earplay. Madden says his radio experience definitely informs his filmmaking.

"It's an extraordinary way to learn how to tell a story," he says. "You have sound and silence; you have words and music and that's about it. And so it focuses you on some very important things."

Madden says working in radio helped him develop his sense of rhythm, which he calls "crucial" to the way a movie is told: "It has to do with how you control the narrative in a story and when things want to accelerate and when the pulse starts to race and when it wants to slow down and when it becomes still," he explains.

He also appreciates the demands that a radio narrative makes on its listening audience. "It requires the audience's engagement — the contribution that the audience is making in imagining the world that you're creating," Madden says. "And you know I like films that require you to do a little bit of work. ... I think audiences don't like to be told."

Madden gets frustrated that so many major players in Hollywood think the opposite is true. "When we test movies, there's always this infuriating question that they ask [viewers] on the cards, you know, 'Were you confused by anything?' " Madden says. "And the studio has a tendency to come back and say, 'They're really confused by the beginning.' And I'm saying, 'Well, of course they are, because they're beginning to be told a story and they want to figure something out.' "

With films like The Debt, Madden continues to resist the notion that audiences should know what they're going to get from a film. "Frankly, the films that find a life and become celebrated are films that don't do that," he says. "I don't understand why that lesson is never learned."

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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: John Madden made his name as a movie director with the quirky literary history of "Shakespeare in Love" and the mathematical intrigue of "Proof." But his latest, "The Debt," is a very different kind of film, an intense thriller about a group of young Israeli Mossad agents in the 1960s whose mission is to track down and capture a Nazi war criminal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE DEBT")

CIARAN HINDS: (As David Peretz) We'll show the world what he did.

JESPER CHRISTENSEN: (As Doktor Bernhardt) You're trembling? I think you're the one who's afraid, David, afraid of the monster.

SULLIVAN: "The Debt" opens this week. And director John Madden is with me here in the studio. Welcome to the program.

JOHN MADDEN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

SULLIVAN: "The Debt" is a remake of an Israeli film from 2007. What drew you to it?

MADDEN: It's a fantastically compelling story, a really, really powerful thriller, but it's also got an incredibly complex drama at its core that gives you a lot to think about after you're - you finally relax, because it's a movie that keeps you very, very tense, I think.

SULLIVAN: Definitely on the edge. A lot of the questions that this film raised were about morality. And there's one scene in particular where Helen Mirren's character Rachel Singer is talking to her husband - ex-husband, Stephan, played by Tom Wilkinson, about their past.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE DEBT")

HELEN MIRREN: (As Rachel Singer) I knew this would happen. I knew we'd be punished. I knew we'd have to pay.

TOM WILKINSON: (As Stephan Gold) I thought I'd been punished already.

SULLIVAN: This all sort of harkens back to the idea of the debt. Is the title purposefully vague?

MADDEN: Hopefully, a good title expands in meaning as a film unfolds. In Israel, "The Debt" has a much more specific resonance having to do with the debt the nation owes to the six million dead, and therefore, that idea is probably first and foremost what the title evokes. But it has more meanings and other meanings as the film unfolds.

SULLIVAN: It seems like there are a lot of debts throughout the movie. There's...

MADDEN: There are. And there was different discussions over time about whether that word was too much of a negative indicator for people, signifier, I guess, is the word, and that they would swerve away from anything that connoted something they were trying to forget in their own lives.

SULLIVAN: I mean, are you talking about right now especially with the national debt or the...

MADDEN: Indeed. Indeed. No. If you Googled it, you had to wade through page after page after page of articles that nobody wanted to read or even think about. And I always took the position that if somebody came up with a better title I would be more than happy to embrace it. And it was sent to - you know, there are organizations that specialize in this, and I cannot begin to tell you how...

SULLIVAN: There are companies...

MADDEN: ...bizarre some of them were.

SULLIVAN: Wait, wait, wait. There are companies that specialize in creating...

MADDEN: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: That's their job, to create a movie title?

MADDEN: Yeah. I mean, I remember one title that come up, which I think was their highly recommended. They offered about 50 possibilities...

SULLIVAN: Fifty?

MADDEN: ...20 likelies, 10 that they really felt they could support and one that they thought was the absolute slam-dunk. And that title was "Divulgence."

SULLIVAN: Divulgence. I think...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MADDEN: Which I see - it starts to sound like it's not even a word when you say it to yourself several times, certainly not a word that trips off the tongue, so...

SULLIVAN: Yeah, divulgence.

MADDEN: So I said I think "The Debt" is a better title than that.

SULLIVAN: You have to cover the characters in their older life and their younger life, and you didn't use the same actors...

MADDEN: No.

SULLIVAN: ...and either dress them up old or dress them up young. You did six different actors.

MADDEN: Yes. Two sets of actors. That's true. So each character is played...

SULLIVAN: For each character...

MADDEN: ...by a pair of actors. And the film is unusual in that respect because it concerns people looking back and reevaluating their younger selves, trying to understand what happened at that time and how it has made them into the people they've now become.

SULLIVAN: Do you have to cast specifically somebody who kind of looks like a younger Helen Mirren and somebody who looks like an older Sam Worthington?

MADDEN: Well, in the case of the former, I think it was very - it was important. And she's the prism through which we experience the story, and I definitely wanted to achieve a kind of symbiosis between the elder and the younger actor and cast a then-unknown actress of considerable brilliance.

SULLIVAN: Jessica Chastain is from "Tree of Life" and "The Help."

MADDEN: Yes. But there is a great physical affinity between them.

SULLIVAN: You've worked in television. You've worked in theater.

MADDEN: Yes.

SULLIVAN: You've worked in movies. But - and you started, actually, on an NPR program called Earplay.

MADDEN: A title I could never quite get my head around, if that's an appropriate metaphor, but, yes, Earplay, I remember was...

SULLIVAN: Earplay.

MADDEN: ...the way it was always announced.

SULLIVAN: Does that help or hurt?

MADDEN: At what?

SULLIVAN: At making movies?

MADDEN: It helps enormously. I can't tell you. I'm not just saying that because I'm sitting in a radio studio and talking to somebody who's made their career in front of a microphone. No. It's an extraordinary way to learn how to tell a story because what do you have? You have sound and silence. You have words and music and that's about it. And the other thing that I have never forgotten from that is the demands that a radio narrative, a radio drama makes on an audience.

In other words, it requires the audience's engagement. And, you know, I like films that require you to do a little bit of work...

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

MADDEN: ...because I think an audience enjoys that. I think audiences don't like to be told. And unfortunately, there's an orthodoxy in mainstream moviemaking that thinks the opposite is true. When we test movies, there's always this infuriating question that they ask on the cards. You know, were you confused by anything? And the studio has a tendency to come back and say, they're really confused by the beginning.

And I'm saying, well, of course they are...

SULLIVAN: Shouldn't they?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MADDEN: ...because they're beginning to be told a story, and they want to figure something out.

SULLIVAN: The pressure is sort of to create a simple structure then.

MADDEN: Yes. And I think it's based on the notion that, you know, the audience wants to know what it's going to get. You know, frankly, the films that find a life and become celebrated are films that don't do that. And I don't understand why that lesson is never learned.

SULLIVAN: Do you think you'll ever come back to radio?

MADDEN: I'm sure, I would. You know, and/or television and/or stage, all of which I've spent periods of my life in. And, yes, you become very nostalgic for certain...

SULLIVAN: Come back to us. Come back.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: The door is never closed.

MADDEN: It may be a smaller train set, but it's just as good a one.

SULLIVAN: That's director John Madden. His new film, "The Debt," opens in theaters this week. John, thanks so much for coming.

MADDEN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.