Interview: John Madden Talks Depressed Spies, a Questionable War Criminal, and The Moral Uncertainty of ‘The Debt’
Why are spies so sad and mopey now? Where are the cool, suave, and untouchable secret agents? Lately, nowhere to be found on the big screen. Director John Madden certainly is not bringing back the era of smooth heroes with his latest film, The Debt. The director’s small, claustrophobic remake focuses on lost individuals who display more heartache and moral uncertainty than your typical heroics.
Madden did not make a film about a secret mission gone awry, but a film about regret and the power of lies.
A few years ago director Matthew Vaughn was attached to helm the thriller, and if he ended up behind the camera, The Debt would be a very different film. Instead of going for a stylish and poppy feel, the Shakespeare in Love filmmaker went with something far more claustrophobic and full of moral uncertainty. As a result, Madden made something many, many notches above Kill Shot in the quality department.
Here is what director John Madden had to say about his three damaged Mossad agents, taking a serious matter seriously, and the power of regret:
Are you enjoying your press day?
Yes, absolutely. It’s easier for a director because you just get to talk about the movie, and not how much you’re like the part you’re playing [Laughs].
[Laughs] How much are you like The Debt?
[Laughs] Where do I start?
[Laughs] I’ll start by saying I heard you say that a director has to be more disciplined while making a thriller, with the rules of the genre specifically. Would you mind elaborating on that?
Well, I think the thriller is a pure cinematic form. It’s one that presents a number of challenges and puts you on your mettle as a director. It’s very exacting. You need to play with a straight back ‐ to use a cricket metaphor ‐ in terms of the way the story unfolds, and not gratuitously withhold information or unnecessarily manipulate the audience. I’m a believer in being honest about the material you’re dealing with. At the same time, I think there’s an obligation that I take very seriously, which is to maximize the tension, and give the most visceral experience you can with the tools you have. That’s quite an interesting thing, with how you organize a narrative, and in this place, how you integrate a psychologically, emotionally, and morally complex character drama into the fabric of a thriller, without there being alternating strands. Like, “I’m going to stop being a thriller for a moment, and explain this!”
This film was wonderful in the sense it pulled against itself in very interesting ways. The more you investigate a character, the tighter the thriller it became. The more you pressed on the tension of what was happening in the various pursuits of the story, the more complicating that was in terms of character. That’s what I mean by that, but I don’t know about “discipline”. I know that more than any film I’ve done I felt one had to really wrestle this one down in script form. The blueprint was very precise. It kept on responding to the circumstances of the film itself in somewhat to casting character, and to the environment. For example, the sequence that entails them trying to get their captive out of East Berlin was written completely around the physical circumstances, which I found suited it. In that way, you have to be on your toes.
You mentioned how upfront the film is, and did Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman establish that structure early on in their draft?
It had a funny evolution in those terms. As you know, it is an adaptation of an Israeli film of the same name. Matthew and Jane took the first pass at it with the view of Matthew directing it, so it was very much fashioned as the film Matthew wanted to make. At the same time, they were writing and subsequently shooting Kick-Ass, and Matthew felt he shouldn’t keep the project waiting [Laughs]. He offered the film to me, and he knew I would essentially need to adjust the script. With material as strong and as challenging as this, you have to take a particular point of view. They had already done some very good things, structurally, with the story. [co-writer] Peter Straghan and I reconstructed it again. As good scripts in this genre usually do, it went through a few iterations before we got it working properly.
I imagine Matthew would have handled the story in a more heightened style, unlike your approach. Was it important to have that grounded, non-sensationalistic tone?
I think that would have been my take, but I wouldn’t speak to the film Matthew would’ve been interested in making. I suspect that’s probably true, though. I felt there was a responsibility on me in terms of making the film, not to use very, very provocative circumstances. The film exists in the shadow of the Holocaust, and that’s a very sensitive subject to many, many people. I didn’t want to be hitching a ride on that to make a revenge thriller. I’m not saying Matthew would have taken that view, and I’m sure he would have had his own way through it.
For me, that meant authenticating the world as much as I could in the film’s conclusion. That’s the challenge of having two people who aren’t as capable of lethal behavior as they were in their younger years confronting each other. They barely got the strength to throw a punch, and that’s a very interesting conundrum. I can only imagine what Matthew would’ve done with that sequence [Laughs]! It’s the opposite of what a fight needs to be in a Hollywood movie, which is so fast, so kinetic, loud, and protracted that you don’t really have a clue of what’s going on.
That harsh reality takes a major toll on the three characters. There’s nothing cool about them; they’re very damaged.
They are damaged and regretful. Of course, damage and regret is the subject of the story. They contaminate their own lives through a choice of political expedience. I failed unless the audience understands partially why that happens. Out of the intensity of what they experienced, it was a fatal choice. At the beginning of the movie they could go back from it, but they walk down from that airplane and enter a false world at that point. That has mentally damaging effects on all of them. That’s quite a dark place, but a fascinating and illuminating place. I think the movie concludes with a redemptive gesture, even though more immediate damage might ensue with Rachel’s decision.
Their regret also makes Dieter Vogel a more frightening character, because he seems to have no remorse for his actions. Was that relationship trait from the original film?
Well, it’s a challenge with a character like that because of the enormity of the crimes for which he was responsible. On some level, those doctors must have had their own justification for what they were doing. I was certainly very interested, as was Jesper [Christensen], who was interested in how he rationalized what he did. Now, he’s pursuing a medical calling that enabled life rather than disabled it, and that’s a fascinating place. To answer your question, there’s a danger with those characters, because of the way that we feel about them. They can diminish into a two-dimensional portrait very easily, because their villainy is so inarguable. They can be made just a plot-device, and it felt utterly inappropriate in this story for that to be the case.
This is a man who’s in fear for his life most of the way, and that makes people behave in a particular way. Strangely, in a film context that will evoke sympathy from an audience, because that’s just the way you feel towards someone chained to a radiator. It’s a visceral human response to root for the underdog. Your moral responses to these characters are shifting around all the time, and that’s interesting. One doesn’t technically know in the story if he feels remorse. Even when he says some of the utterly appalling things that he says, it does still contextualize in an urge to save his own life. It’s an urge to open up some possible weakness in the circumstance that keeps him chained. People do extraordinary things in that circumstance. I’m not exonerating him in any away, because he is the man they thought he was. Like an animal, he will do anything to avoid justice and capture.
Vogel has a wife and is a respected doctor, which adds an uncomfortable humility to him. Is that something you and Jesper talked about when it came to adding shades of grey to the character?
That is true. That’s well documented in the [Adolf] Eichmann kidnapping, which is the point of departure for the story. That man exhibited a relentless concern for his family, and what was happening with his family. He accepted his own fate, but was haunted by the notion his family was going to suffer. Now, how does a person like that compartmentalize behavior in that way? Of course, it’s human to do that. When we do something reprehensible in our own lives, we put that somewhere to allow us to live with it, so we don’t feel overwhelmed with guilt. At every level, I feel that’s true of human behavior, and that’s what’s going on throughout the film to an extent. By the end of the story, they all have something to regret.
There’s a short line about how David searched for Vogel for 20-years, which is a sad concept that could make for its own movie. Considering David’s the one who’s seemed to experience the most, was there discussions about his past and the places he would go to when hunting down Vogel?
It is sad. David, in some sense, has the most interesting and most tragic journey in this story. He has the deeper and more profound motivation to see this man brought to justice; he lost his entire family in the Holocaust, and is the only survivor. Of course, he finds himself to be the person who falls grotesquely short of his own standards of moral behavior. It plunges him into a self-loathing that engulfs him, and completely disables him. He finds his own way of fighting out of that, which is to try to find Vogel, and bring him to justice. He does find him, but before he can do anything about that he has to deal with the other failed strand of his life: his love for this woman, and not being able to accept her love for him. He won’t live with false heroism, and that leaves him with one route only, since he’s not going to kill the man. That is a very interesting journey, and it’s redemptive in a sense. That aspiration eventually inspires her to do the unthinkable at the end of the film, which is to confess and atone their crime against truth. David was always the moral compass, but failed halfway through the film… I don’t know how you’re going to use this in the interview! [Laughs]
[Laughs] I will use a spoiler warning.
Please don’t reveal all of this! It’s better once the movie comes out. On the other hand, I want you to get people to go see it. It’s a very tricky film to talk about before you have seen it. Ideally, this a film where you have one experience when you first see it, and then have a completely different experience the next viewing. You know where it’s going, but I think it has a lot to offer at that point.
The Debt is now in theaters.