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article imageDirector John Madden & actress Jessica Chastain pay 'The Debt' Special

By Earl Dittman     Nov 20, 2011 in Entertainment
John Madden, the film maker behind Shakespeare In Love, discusses his Middle East spy thriller The Debt (starring Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Worthington and newcomer Jessica Chastain). It's an action/adventure film about the dangers of a debt.
In director John Madden' s (Shakespeare In Love) latest espionage thriller The Debt begins in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) about their former colleague David (Ciarán Hinds). All three have been venerated for decades by their country because of the mission that they undertook back in 1966, when the trio (portrayed, respectively, by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington tracked down Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen) in East Berlin. At great risk, and at considerable personal cost, the team's mission was accomplished -- or was it? The suspense builds in and across two different time periods, with startling action and surprising revelations. John Madden and Jessica Chastain sat with the press earlier this fall to talk about the making of The Debt.
John Madden
John Madden
Universal/Focus
How did this project come about?
JOHN: "What happened was that as you know, the film is based on an Israeli film called "Halo," which means "The Debt," and it was made in Hebrew so it had a limited reach. It was only released in Israel. So I think via Air Emanuel, who is Matthew's agent, the project was brought to his attention as something that might be worth bringing to a wider audience. So Matthew and Jane Goldman wrote an adaptation of it I think initially with the idea that Matthew would direct it, but they were also writing "Kick-Ass" at the same time, so he sent the script to me and I responded very strongly to the material. But they couldn't work on it because they were doing "Kick-Ass" so I then deconstructed the thing and put it back together again with Peter Strongman, the writer. So that's how it came about, and we started casting it then."
How did you make it more globally appealing? I haven't seen the Israeli version actually. Did they shoot as well in Berlin?
JOHN: "No, the film is very good, but it was made on a very limited budget so it's more of a chamber piece. The piece is expanded in terms of a sense of place. There were very, very few exteriors basically, and if there were the camera was pointing here because it didn't have enough money to point there or there. But it was none the worse for that because obviously the core of the film is these four people inside this place. But the sense of place was very, very important to me. Also the emphasis of the film is different inevitably because you have to take a point of view as a director about what you think is important, and this film is much more about the unraveling of their lives as a result of what's happened than the original is."
Jessica, obviously the physical scenes were challenging, but what were the challenges of the Nazi feeding scenes? Because you had to walk a very fine line between being attentive and not seeming nurturing. What was it like to be a Nazi?
JESSICA: "Oh gosh. What was so wonderful about working with Jesper is he's such a great man and he's so kind, and I was kind of hoping actually when I would meet him that he wouldn't be, so maybe kind of a son of a bitch. But he's actually really lovely and because he's a brilliant actor he could just switch it on and off. And he brought I thought so much complexity and humanity to the character that it really creates bits of doubt in Rachel whether or not he is a monster or if they're treating him as an animal, those questions. But during those scenes I just tried to think the thought that the character would think. There's so much going on, so a lot of it would be "Don't talk to him. Don't listen to him, don't talk to him. But then as you're taking a lot in then you have moments where you think "I'm not afraid of you." That there's so much of what that scene was just having a great scene partner and reacting to how wonderful Jesper is. I had worked so hard on my back-story of where Rachel had come from and what she brings into the picture that I was able then to just be present in the moment for what was happening between us".
Jessica Chastain
Jessica Chastain
Universal/Focus
Jessica, you do a lot of physical scenes but then you do a lot of scenes where you're speaking with just your eyes and your face. Which one is more difficult? Is it doing the physical stuff or is it just trying to portray an emotion without even saying anything?
JESSICA: "I'm an actor who loves so much when I'm given the opportunity to try and convey something without dialog. I love that because it means that I have to be present and I have to be really in the moment. It has to be real is what the circumstances are. And nothing forces me to be absolutely present than when I don't have dialog to convey how I feel. So I guess I would say that the fight scenes were more challenging, because in my personal life I'm not a fighter. I've never thrown a punch, so I went through four months of training and actually learned how to punch someone without hurting my wrist, and to be honest I became a bit of a monster at home. Whenever I would come back from training all my friends I'd be like "Come on! Come at me! I'll take you down!" So yeah, that would be the most challenging."
John, could you talk about the process of casting?
JOHN: "I'm a believer in a role belonging to a person. We started with Helen in the casting of this, and Helen made the movie possible as well as being a perfect piece of casting. And then the next task was to cast the younger version of her, and I told the studio that it was my conviction that I should cast a relative unknown, not that Jessica didn't exist before we cast her in this, but she was pretty unknown, but obviously I knew and could see what the track record was and particularly the Julliard training, so I thought we're going to be off to a good start. But anyway, I met Jessica and worked with her and famously spoke to Terry Malice about her for a considerable length of time because I needed really to have something I could go to the studio with and say okay, this is who it should be. Ironically, because the film because of various studio realignments has taken much longer to come to the screen than we had imagined, and now Jessica is not unknown."
JESSICA: "I'm still an unknown."
JOHN: "But that's actually fine. It was not so much an unknown as somebody who didn't carry a lot of baggage, because it didn't seem to be a useful agenda for the film to figure out how actress A turned into Helen Mirren, and that would have totally dominated the press agenda I'm sure if we had done it that way. But Jessica, she's a proper actress and she has the training to put her right at the center of what she's doing. It's not about, as you can see from the work of hers that you would already have seen that she's just totally about the part and she immerses herself completely in the part. So she's my kind of actress; I don't know what to tell you. She's brilliant and you'll hear so much more of her. But I felt very, very, very lucky the moment we started shooting it. I knew I would actually, to be honest with you, because Jessica and I worked on it and I put her on tape and I could see. And she taught me about the role, and the writer as well."
Jessica, didn't you work with Sam Worthington again in Texas Killing Fields?
JESSICA: "Yeah, we became great friends on this set. He was like my action coach and he nicknamed me Tommy Cruise. There's a scene where I'm running and he was teasing me when I first ran I ran like Gumby, like I had my arms by my side. And he mentioned Tom Cruise, you have to really pump your arms, and there's no one who runs better than Tom Cruise. He runs in every movie and he's fantastic, but now after working with Sam I have a run that rivals Tom Cruise."
Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson
Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson
Universal/Focus
John, how was it having movies coming out back to back -- with The Debt and Tree Of Life?
JESSICA: "It's wonderful that people are seeing my films, but it's really scary at the same time. Normally it's a slower introduction into this part of the business. But I know that needless to say I'm not an unknown anymore, but really I don't think the public knows I'm an actress at all. I don't think they recognize me. I've only been recognized a couple times in the past three or four months, even since Tree of Life came out. It's a very rare thing for me. I'm not photographed a lot unless I'm at an event for work, so I still think that the public will go and not make the connection."
JOHN: "Jessica can't say it, but she's very unusual as an American actress I think because it's precisely that versatility which is what marks her out. You can't quite pin down who she is, and long may that last in a way, because it's great not to have to deal with an audience's expectations of who you are all the time but just to be able to disappear into a role, and she's quite amazing in that way. And there's a certain in my mind class of actor who can do that even though they're very big stars now, which Jessica will be as well, I'm sure. But I completely understand on her part it's like "My god; I've got seven movies coming out this year. They're all going to be fed up with me by Christmas." They won't be because you look at these three movies, it's like holy smoke; how do you draw a line between them?"
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Universal/Focus
Do you think theater training as a lot to do with it?
JESSICA: Yes, because theater training is about transformation. If you train properly to be an actor it's not about "How do I make the role me?" it's about "How do I make myself into the part I'm playing?" and I think that's a very, very distinct difference. And you look at the actors who can accomplish that out in the world, Meryl and Cater Blanched and all these people; they're people who have that training and it's not about who they are, it's about the role they play."
JOHN: But you do need a good leader and director to be able to do that, and I knew when first meeting with John that this was absolutely something that I wanted to do because he would give me the support and lead me in the right direction to be able to do that. And also, John directs both theater and film and he lives in that world as well. I think if I played this role it would have been a very different Rachel had another director directed. It would have been more action; it wouldn't have been I think the human story that he's created." Bonus Features: BD-Live; A Look Inside The Debt; Every Secret Has A Price: Helen Mirren in The Debt; The Berlin Affair: The Triangle At The Center Of The Debt and Feature Commentary with Director John Madden and Producer Kris Thykier. (The Debt will be released December 6 on Universal/Focus)
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