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'Miss Sloane' Director John Madden and Writer Jonathan Perera on Making a Film About U.S. Politics

Jessica Chastain in "Miss Sloane"
Photo: Kerry Hayes, © EuropaCorp 2016

The KCET Cinema Series continued its winter series on Tuesday, November 15 with a screening of "Miss Sloane" at ArcLight Cinemas, Sherman Oaks. The film stars Jessica Chastain as a Washington D.C. lobbyist prepared for the biggest fight of her career when she goes up against the gun lobby. 

Following the film, KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond led a Q&A session with director John Madden and first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera about "Miss Sloane." An edited portion of the interview appears below.

The KCET Cinema Series is generously sponsored by the E. Hofert Dailey Trust. The winter season runs on Tuesdays through December 13. 

On how the U.S.'s recent election impacted "Miss Sloane."

John Madden: We finished shooting the movie in April. We actually only finished the movie three weeks ago, but when I saw the first assembly of the film, I thought, OK, it sort of shaped up into what we hoped and intended it to be, although that doesn't always happen, as you know. It doesn't mean the film isn't going to work, but it may mean the editing process is a longer process. I thought, we should press to get it out now. It was slightly connected to the election, but not in any sense other than we thought the milieu of the film, the circumstances it deals with, which is responsible gun regulation, would be a very prominent topic in the presidential discourse as it were. 

As it turned out, of course, other topics pushed that out of the way and the ones that were left seemed to have even more relevance to what the film actually is... the political process itself and to do with women in politics, in particular. 

It's not accidental that it came out now. We weren't trying to cash in on it, we just didn't want to get behind the politics. But, we had no sense at all that it was going to become such an extraordinary and epochal event, which I think it is. 

On the genesis of the script.

Jonathan Perera: Ironically, this is a script I wrote without the intention to show to anyone. I was living in South Korea. I was working as an elementary school teacher and I had some vague intention of being a screenwriter at some point in the future. I thought, this is a subject that really interests me. I wanted to write this not because I thought it would get made. I didn't even think I would get representation for the script. I wrote it simply as an experience, as an exercise. 

The genesis of it was an interview I saw on BBC News because a man I had never heard of before called Jack Abramoff... I had not a clue who he was. For those of you who don't know, he was a very high-powered D.C. lobbyist who spent time in jail for various corrupt lobbying practices and he was on TV promoting his book. By the end of the 13-minute interview segment, I was glued to the screen, thinking what a fascinating world in which to set a screenplay because we've seen both on the small screen and the big screen, dramatizations of the president and the politicians who are front and center. We've never seen or, perhaps in a movie called "Thank You For Smoking" you've seen lobbyists — but [they're] the people behind politicians trading their influence, pulling the strings. And that world felt inherently interesting to me and one that I didn't fully understand at the time. It was my excuse to go off and do research and learn more about it. 

Pete Hammond, John Madden and Jonathan Perera talk "Miss Sloane" at the KCET Cinema Series.
Pete Hammond, John Madden and Jonathan Perera talk "Miss Sloane" at the KCET Cinema Series. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian

On women in "Miss Sloane."

JM: It's not an accident that the three crucial characters, in terms of moving a narrative forward, are all women in this. You're absolutely correct in saying that if you flipped the gender, this would be a hero or an anti-hero that we would be much more familiar with because the outsider, the maverick, the rule-breaker, the obsessive, the person whose got no inner life, all those things are quite familiar. Well, not that familiar, but more familiar, let's say, in cinematic literature, but a woman is not. 

To be honest with you, that's what set the movie apart for me. I'm completely fascinated by this world. I love the idea that you could make a thriller around intelligent conversation rather than the more familiar tropes that are involved in a thriller. But, the thing that raised it above of the material, to me, aside from being extremely well-written, was that factor. When Jonny and I met and started working on this in March of last year, [that] was really all the work that we did on it, because the structure was pretty much already in place. [The work] was evolving what is happening to that character. There's one surface narrative. There's one hidden narrative, which you witness, and there's also a buried narrative that has to do with what is happening to her and the emotional evolution of that character from someone who does not realize, or, does not choose to have an emotional life of any sort whatsoever. And she buys this relationship, whereby we understand a little bit about what might be going on under the surface. But, actually, that evolves over the course of the story, in particular, in terms of the human price that she starts to see is being paid in order for her to achieve this goal.

That was just a very interesting story to tell in terms of the woman at the center of it. To me, that's what makes it a really strong movie. I know that sounds odd because the narrative is so good, but, actually, it's the underneath of it, the way she becomes a human being by the end and finally connects with the cause that she's fighting for, which, at the beginning she doesn't. She just wants to win it. 

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On Miss Sloane in comparison to lead female characters of golden age films.

JM: They tended to be defined by elements that have nothing to do with this story, which is really interesting. She's not a mother. She's not a lover. She's not a sex object. She maybe passes the Bechdel test in spades because nobody is in that world.

On lobbying and the issue of gun control. 

JP: This was conceived as a movie about lobbying before it had any connection to the issue of guns, so lobbying is essentially about advocating for an issue. It's a kind of advocacy. So, I figured that if I was going to write a movie set in the lobbying industry, I need an issue at the heart of it. I actually made a list of personal issues in contemporary American politics. Part of that list was women's rights and abortion. Part of it was same sex marriage and the environmental issues, a reasonably long list, but the one that jumped out to me as being incredibly immediate and tragically never far from the headlines was the issue of gun regulation. It was probably at the forefront of my mind because you would see three or four headlines a year about some mass shooting that happened somewhere in the United States or elsewhere in the world, so it's an issue that hasn't really gone away, although there have been attempts to pass legislation comparable to the fictional Heaton-Harris Bill that you saw in the movie. None of them had ever gone through the senate and become law. It seemed to me the obvious choice, not least, because it's probably the least likely to change of all the issues. 

miss_sloane_film_image_jessica_chastain_3.jpg
Photo: Kerry Hayes, © EuropaCorp 2016

On a British writer and director making a movie about American politics.

JM: I come at it with some humility because it's not my country, even though I've lived here for part of my life and my children are American, and I've long had a fascination with the American political process. I think I didn't feel that I had to qualify myself by being in the midst of this debate. I have to say the gun debate, in particular, is one that exercises an extraordinary amount of fascination. The word I would tend to use is "bafflement" outside of this country because of how that really works and why it's such a passionately held issue. I think you can understand the passion of people who would like to control them and limit people's access to them. You have to remember that I came from a country, Jonny came from a country, where we have the right to bear truncheons but not much more than that. Guns are still very invisible in our culture. They're more visible now with anti-terrorism police, and so forth, at airports. All the time I was growing up, I never saw a gun unless it was in the hands of a hunter. Guns are registered, controlled, inspected, and so forth. So, understanding that vast proportions of the population posses guns and fought for the right to possess guns, that's obviously focuses on the constitutional entitlement and right. To me that was a huge magnet, in trying to understand that. Bafflement is a good, it entails curiosity and curiosity is a very good spur to make a movie. Equally, the film is not a polemic about that issue. I know that the producers approached a number of directors, all of whom I'm glad to say didn't get the job. But what I mean by that is, many of those were American and I think a lot of those said, "Right. Now is the time to fight back on the gun issue." That's not for me to say... [My views] are not imposed on the film and the film is not a polemic... It's an examination of a process that focuses on that issue.

miss_sloane_film_image_jessica_chastain_2.jpg
Photo: Kerry Hayes, © EuropaCorp 2016

On the film's cast.

JM: It's a paradox in the film that even though it's completely about one character, it's an ensemble movie. That's the strange thing about it. I could see immediately that we needed to create this mesh of performances around her and we paid, Jonny writes very, very vividly for people, down to the smallest part. And it's very important in a movie like this that all of those parts are realized and fleshed out to the minutest degree to what they're doing because the texture of the movie thickens as it goes along. It's absolutely essential. Jessica drives the entire thing and dominates the entire thing, but she's able to do so because she has this extraordinary A-team around her.

On Jonathan Perera's motivation for the story.

JP: First and foremost, I really just wanted it to be entertaining. I understand that it's very subjective and some people will be, hopefully, wildly entertained by it and others will be rolling their eyes thinking, "I saw that coming," or "that's absurd." I grew up on movies. I love movies because they entertain me. I think that's ultimately what I wanted the script to be and I think John was in complete agreement with that.

Pete Hammond, John Madden and Jonathan Perera pose for a photo following the screening of "Miss Sloane" at the KCET Cinema Series.
Pete Hammond, John Madden and Jonathan Perera pose for a photo following the screening of "Miss Sloane" at the KCET Cinema Series.​ | Photo: Michele Garza

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