John Madden interview: The Debt, and making Star Wars audio dramas

We chat to John Madden, the director of The Debt, as he talks us through his previous life, when he made audio dramas of the Star Wars films...

John Madden

John Madden might be best known to you for directing acclaimed period films such as Mrs Brown or Shakespeare In Love, but his latest, The Debt, is about as wildly different as you can get from those projects. Even before all of those, though, he was also the man charged with making radio dramas out of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Here, he chats to us about The Debt, and bringing Star Wars to the airwaves…

Can you take us through the casting process for The Debt firstly? You’re reuniting with Helen Mirren here, and we thought Jessica Chastain was just wonderful. At what stage did she become involved?

Well, Helen was the starting point. You couldn’t even embark on this film if you didn’t have somebody of her stature playing that part. Rachel Singer, the female character, is the centre of the story. So I started with Helen, and proceeded mathematically, to cast a younger version of Helen first.

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And I was on record saying I wanted to cast a relatively unknown actress, if I could. So that we didn’t get caught up in an agenda not useful to the film. When such and such a famous actress becomes Helen Mirren, and whether that’s plausible for the film.

It’s easer, in order to let the audience disappear into the film, if the younger version of [the character] doesn’t carry a lot of baggage for them. So that was the task I set myself. And I was pointed, luckily, by somebody I trust a lot, towards Jessica. Although this person did not know Jessica at the time. He had heard about her because she had shot the Terrence Malick film by then [The Tree Of Life].

That’s not a film that you’re going to hear a lot about, because he’s famously very quiet about his film. But I spoke to him, because I know him somewhat, for a very long time. And he was happy to talk about her.

I met her, and worked with her, and frankly, I’d have cast her on the basis of her skill and insight in the role, even if there hadn’t been a physical affinity. Which there turned out to be, which I saw as a bonus. Even though that was a definite criterion in the first place.

So that was the next one. And then I cast Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas, the two younger agents, because that triumvirate is the core of the film, really.

I knew Sam only from an Australian independent film that I’d seen him in, called Somersault. And he absolutely lodged in my mind as the right actor for the role of David. But none of his much more famous films had emerged at that point. Avatar and Terminator were yet to come.

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Marton I knew somewhat, and he came in and read, and just landed it. And then I cast the two older ones, Tom [Wilkinson] and Ciaran [Hinds].

Had you watched the 2007 Israeli original before getting on board?Yes.

Did you watch it again afterwards?No. I watched it once, because it’s the source material, and because the film I suppose is an adaptation of that film. I wanted to honour Assaif Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum, who wrote the original script, and Assaif directed it.

I thought it was really strong. It didn’t get a wider audience, because it was made in Hebrew. But thereafter, I thought I might feel trapped by that experience, either feeling that I had to reproduce it, or avoid reproducing it. Each of them different, each of them with difficulties.

In fact, I didn’t have that problem at all. I figured out how to tell the story myself, and the story expanded geographically a little bit, in terms of characters. It just evolved, into something that has the same narrative, but is different in the storytelling. Structurally different, and thematically different, too.

Slightly off topic, because we are from Den Of Geek. Can we ask about the Star Wars radio dramas you did once upon a time…[Laughs] You’re bringing out my geek past aren’t you!

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Exactly.Well that was a terrific thing to do. I was working in public radio in America, and in particular working with a drama project, because they’d had no drama projects since radio was commercialised. And national public radio developed this little drama project. That was one part of the story.

The other part of the story was that the radio drama network in America is all bound up in the university system, and George Lucas had left the radio rights to Star Wars to the University of Southern California, which is the radio station known as KUSC in Los Angeles. For one dollar. Somebody at KUSC said we should do these, a radio adaptation, and I was the go-to guy, because nobody else was doing radio drama there.

Was there any question of you staying with Star Wars?Well, I did a thirteen part adaptation of Star Wars, a twelve part adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back, and a ten part adaptation of Return Of The Jedi. But I did those over a span of time, and I was working by then as a theatre director, and a little bit in film.

Did you have George Lucas’ blessing?Yeah, we did, totally. We had access to the sound library, to the John Williams score, to several of the same actors, Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels, and various people. They were very involved, and he was very happy, apparently. And they still sell!

John Madden, thank you very much!

The Debt is out in UK cinemas now.

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