Interview with ‘The Debt’ director John Madden

Director John Madden (left), Jessica Chastain (center) and Sam Worthington (right) on the set of ‘The Debt.’ Photo: Laurie Sparham

By Cate Marquis, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov” (“The Debt”), a drama about three Mossad agents long hailed as national heroes who in middle-age are forced to confront a long-held secret, was a gripping drama that played here at the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival. The film has now been re-made as a spy thriller in English. “The Debt” stars Oscar-winner Helen Mirren and is directed by John Madden, who also directed “Shakespeare in Love.” The English-born director spoke recently with the Jewish Light by phone.

Are you Jewish?

My wife is Jewish but I’m not.

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The film is based on the Israeli film “Ha-Hov.” Why did you decide to remake this film?

The original film was made in Hebrew and made for quite a limited budget, but the film is really good. The fact that it was made in Hebrew probably meant that it was going to be very hard to get distribution beyond Israel. It is a really, in my view, fantastically compelling story, a really unusual combination of gripping narrative but a dramatic core to the film that is provocative, interesting and complex. So I felt – we all felt – the film deserved a wider audience if it could get one.

The film has a very strong cast. Tell me about your decision to cast Helen Mirren and the then relatively unknown Jessica Chastain.

Helen Mirren seemed like a no-brainer. I knew her very well. I had worked with her some 15-odd years ago on a “Prime Suspect” film. We had a fantastic time working on that. To repeat a truism, she’s an extraordinary actress. I felt that there was a certain iconic quality to her as an actress at this point, which was a very good overlap and fit with the iconic character she’s playing, someone who is a national hero.

Jessica (who plays Mirren’s character as a young woman) was a different kind of a challenge because having cast Helen, it was my predisposition to want to cast somebody unknown – which she was at that point. I wanted to cast somebody who was not carrying a lot of baggage (with audiences). Jessica was a fantastic find, frankly.

I have seen both films and while the scripts are very similar, I noticed some differences. Can you talk about your decision to go in some different directions?

I watched the (original) film once and sort of put it aside – what happened in the original was not on my mind. I was simply pursuing my own version and vision of it. I felt that there was a mixture in those characters of professionalism on the one hand and not being ready for the kind of emotional pressures that would land on them once they were in that situation. I knew that this film would spend more time on the logistics of how the kidnapping would occur and how they would get him out, because that does not happen at all in the original film. The structure of the two films is completely different. I felt like the story wanted to be told as a thriller. (The original) is very rich material, very provocative material. (My film) was like a second draft, as it were.

Have you shown the film in Israel?

No, but we have been invited to the Haifa Film Festival.

How is the film being received elsewhere?

Very well, I am glad to say. I have been on a publicity tour for it for the last 10 days or so and it is getting a fantastic reception.