During an era when so many new directors come from the worlds of advertising and music video, catering to increasingly shorter attention spans and relying on gaudy visuals to engage audiences for seconds at a time, Oscar nominee John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” not “Monday Night Football”) is a throwback to a time when dramas drew their strength from the spoken word.
The English-born auteur, whose taut new thriller “The Debt” opened this week, got his professional start running a theater company before an unexpected detour with the BBC led him to radio.
It was there, he says, directing entirely oral adaptations of classic stories including “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” that he learned the discipline to craft cerebral narratives for a more visual medium.
“It taught me about the importance of engaging the audience’s imagination, and, not least — certainly very crucial to ‘The Debt’ — playing with the rhythm of the vocabulary,” says Madden, 62. “You have to give your actors the freedom to find the truth in the material, and the rhythm that lets a story breathe.”
Madden admits that the actors he assembled for “The Debt” — a remake of the 2007 Israeli drama about three Mossad agents whose well-documented heroism is based on a lie — did not require much coercion from behind the camera.
Considering the collective experience of screen veterans such as Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds, that comes as little surprise.
But what about the younger actors — Sam Worthington (“Avatar”) and Jessica Chastain (“The Help”), whom Madden fortuitously cast before their meteoric rises to stardom?
“I didn’t behave with them any differently,” says Madden, who was struck by Worthington’s performance as a sexually uncertain country boy in the 2004 Australian indie “Somersault.”
In the case of Northern California native Chastain, whose 2011 offerings also include Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” “Coriolanus” and the upcoming apocalyptic drama “Take Shelter,” Madden was seeking an actor unburdened by fame to play a younger version of Mirren’s character. On Malick’s recommendation, he gave her a look.
The rest, Madden says, is a history of studio changes and delayed release dates that ultimately put “The Debt” in the best position to succeed. “If I can cast an unknown, all the better,” he says. “I didn’t think Jessica’s role would have benefited from a big star coming in and doing their thing.
“And when we started, Jessica might have been unknown, but now she is so visible. If the publicity suddenly surrounding her gets more people to see ‘The Debt,’ and her tremendous work in it, I can only view that as a blessing.”
Starring Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington
Written by Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Peter Straughan
Directed by John Madden
Running time 1 hour 44 minutes