The city of Toronto is used to having celebrities walk their streets every September during the Toronto International Film Festival. This year, one star shone above even the Clooneys or the Brad and Angelinas. Madonna impressed even the festival veterans with her worldwide celebrity of several decades surrounding her.
Madonna’s second feature film, W.E., played as one of the festival’s Gala screenings. The film tells the story of England’s King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) and his love affair with Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), seen through the eyes of a modern day New Yorker (Abbie Cornish). Madonna gave a press conference to discuss her filmmaking endeavor, as the city of Toronto hung on every word.
Q: Do you feel pressure to present a movie versus the pressure to present an album, since you’ve had more success in music than as a filmmaker?
Madonna: Of course I do because it’s new. I had the same kind of pressure when I began my music career. I was nervous and I didn’t know what to expect and people didn’t know what to expect. I had to earn my way in the world of being taken seriously in the music department. Now I’m well aware that I have to do the same in the world of film.
Q: Do you care what the critics think?
M: Well, I do when I think it’s a fair criticism. I can tell when people are reviewing my film and when they’re reviewing me personally. I welcome criticisms of my film when it’s viewed as an artistic form and not when people are mentioning things about my personal life or my achievements in any other field because they’re irrelevant to the film. So when they stick to the film, then I do care. I mean, I pay attention to it.
Q: You had this idea before Filth and Wisdom. Why did it take this long for you to feel ready to make W.E.?
M: Well, this film is a much more complicated story. Two different eras, two different time periods, much more complex and I felt like I needed to tackle something much simpler and really understand that technical aspects of filmmaking before I took it under hand.
Q: Where did the idea of the dual stories come from?
M: Well, I was always fascinated with the story of Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII’s decision to abdicate the throne for the woman he loved. I wanted to investigate that story and his reasons and try to understand what it was about this woman that would lead this man to make such a big sacrifice, but I was never interested in making a straightforward biopic. So I created the modern day story and the modern day character of Wally Winthrop so that I could have a point of view in which to tell this story. I think in the end truth is subjective. We can all read the same history book and have a different point of view and get something different from it. So it was important for me to not present the story and say, “This is the one and only story” but rather to say “This is the story that moved me and inspired me.” So that’s how the two love stories were created.
Q: What was your interest in Wallis Simpson and telling her story?
M: Well, she was and is a very provocative character in the history of world politics and the world of fashion and the decision that King Edward VIII made to leave the throne. I don’t think it was ever done before. It changed the British Empire. It changed things enormously. And she is a mysterious, enigmatic creature. Not conventionally beautiful, not young, twice divorced, not anything fabulous about her background and somehow she managed to capture the heart of the man who at the time held the most important position in the world. That story intrigued me immensely and I wanted to understand it, but also what I was interested in was the idea or the concept of the cult of celebrity which we are all consumed with now and then. The idea is that there are so many rumors that are now believed to be true about Wallis Simpson. When I investigated her story, there were so many of them that I could find no empirical evidence stating that they were true. So I realized that we have always, since the time of Christ or Cleopatra, you can go back through history and name any iconic or historical figure, it’s like Chinese whispers. It starts off as one story and by the time it gets to us, it’s something completely different and we believe it to be true. We often reduce our historical figures or our iconic figures to a soundbite. It’s tremendously unfair and we forget that they are human beings. So what was important to me was to portray Wallis Simpson as a human being, with flaws, imperfections and a human side, a vulnerable side.
Q: How does it feel to be the boss on set?
M: I didn’t think of myself as the boss. I thought of myself as the storyteller, the person that was there to collaborate with a group of very talented people who were going to help me tell my story.
Q: Did you notice that all the women in the movie look like you?
M: Really? I never thought anyone looked like me. First of all, they’re all brunettes.
Q: You’ve been brunette.
M: I’m not a brunette. I’m not. I swear I’m not.
Q: Does this movie have a message about love and courage?
M: I do think it’s about love and having the courage to make difficult choices, which we all have to, men and women. But I think the message of the film is to realize that in the end, happiness lies in your own hand and that we are in fact in charge of our destiny. Even though we’re dealt a hand of cards from the day we’re born, we can change our destiny.
Q: Would you have singalongs on set?
M: Who said we did this? We did have singalongs but it wasn’t a trick. It was a way to pass time. When it was pouring down rain and you were shooting outside and you were stuck inside some gray, dirty shack waiting for the sun to come out, what can you do but make up a song?
Q: What songs would you sing?
M: Well, let’s see, “We’re makin’ a movie, isn’t it groovy, welcome to my house.” That was one of them.
Q: Why was the Russian security guard played by Latin American actor Oscar Isaac?
M: Well, funnily enough he originally was Latin, then I changed him to Russian because I wanted Eugene Hutz to play the part of the security guard. He was in my film Filth and Wisdom. I do happen to know a fair share of Russian intellectuals that I’m extremely charmed by so then he became Russian. Then Eugene decided to go on tour instead of be in my movie so I ended up with a Latin playing a Russian. Go figure.
Q: Did you have any rituals as a director to start the day?
M: One of my rituals, one of the most important rituals for me was to help finish dressing the actors or the actresses. I loved putting the finishing touches on them and feeling a connection with them before we began a day of shooting. Putting on their necklaces and their bracelets, fine tuning their hair and clothes and finding an excuse to touch them basically was my ritual.
Q: Why did you choose the Sex Pistols song and does Johnny Rotten know?
M: Of course he knows. I had to pay him. Because I thought that King Edward VIII was very punk rock. I thought he was quite rebellious and cutting edge in his point of view about life and how to run the empire. I thought that using the Sex Pistols was a perfect marriage between the monarchy at the time and what they were doing, drinking Benzedrine cocktails while watching a Charlie Chaplin film.
Q: What was your approach cinematically to this story?
M: Of course I was inspired by many films. First of all, it was important to me to underline and express the world of luxury that these characters came from, the royal family, the world that Wallis Simpson lived in. She was very much a presentational character that cared very deeply about the rooms she was in, the lighting, the flowers, her dress. Then of course Wally’s character. She lives on Park Ave. She also lives in a world of good taste, refinement and luxury. I wanted to express that in the film. Also the Sotheby’s auction aspect of the film was very much about objects, objects being used as a device to go back and forth in time, objects that had a very tactile sensibility about them so you needed to see that shiny, gleamingness of the martini shaker or the pill box or the linen, the tactile quality of touching a linen tablecloth. So it was important to pick up on those details and nuances. Then because a lot of the movies that I referenced or that inspired me were movies where there are a lot of tracking shots or steadicam, I like a lot of movement with cameras, not locked off shots. I like the magic that is created, I like the lyricism and the dance that the movie becomes with the camera moving and following. It’s like a living, breathing creature that has to be choreographed. I equate a dolly tracking shot and a woman walking down the street as something extremely feminine and mysterious. So those were some of the millions of ideas I had.
Q: How did you get that W.E. necklace?
M: It was actually my birthday gift from my staff. I love it.
Q: How much do you tell your actors and how much freedom do you give them?
M: I just think it was important for me to give all of my actors as much information as possible so that they could create their character. With Wallis Simpson obviously it was easier because she was a real historical person that lived and walked on this planet, so there is an enormous amount of information to hand over to Andrea, books and documentary films, hundreds of millions of photographs, interviews with people who had known her. There was an enormous amount of research that went into her character but the important thing is that once you have all that information, once Andrea digested all that information, we come back to the idea of freedom. You take all of that information and then you forget it. You throw it away. It becomes part of your DNA and you’re not thinking about it, you’re not conscious of it anymore and then you create that character. It is a perfect marriage of who you are and who they were. I would say the same for Abbie’s character. I had more freedom to create her character but I had an idea and she was mostly inspired by a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, Tender is the Night, which was an important book for Wally to read and for Abbie to read. That combined with various other heroines in films and literature, we created her character and then once again the idea was to take all that information and then digest it and throw it away.
Q: How do you feel about positioning the film for December in Oscar season?
M: My legs and my fingers are crossed.