The Debt - Director John Madden, Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington
Director John Madden, Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington on the set © 2011 Focus Features

British director, John Madden, is best known for his movies Mrs Brown, Proof and Shakespeare in Love,which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1999.

His new movie The Debt tells the complex story of an Israeli mission in 1966, to capture a Nazi war criminal and bring him to justice, gone wrong. The story takes place in two time periods, 1997 and 1966, with two actors playing the main roles of Rachel, (Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain), Stephen (Tom Wilkinson and Marton Cscokas) and David (Ciaran Hinds and Sam Worthington).

John Madden talked about the challenges of casting the movie at the press junket for the film.

What was it about this project that interested you?

The Debt - Helen Mirren
Retired secret agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) © 2011 Focus Features

It had a visceral narrative in which both the emotional and moral stakes were very high, coupled with depth in the characterizations. One’s engagement in the material deepened as the story became more complex and began to exercise more of a grip. I was transfixed.

I hadn’t seen the Israeli film, Ha-Hov, when I read the script. I felt I needed to watch it – and I’m glad I did, but then I didn’t look at it again. But it was a completely engrossing experience.

How did you get Helen Mirren for the role of Rachel?

[I had done Prime Suspect with her] which was a fantastic experience for me. Helen is an actress at the top of her game, and she likes to test herself. She’s fearless. Helen responded immediately to the challenge of this material.

Here’s a role which required her to intimate the wounds and the corrosive effect of events suppressed over 30 years. The tension and pain of a decision made long ago are evident; she literally bears a scar from what happened back then. All this has to come across amidst the pace and excitement of a thriller.

Is this the hardest thing you’ve ever had to cast? Helen and Jessica really looked like they could have been the same person.

The Debt - Director John Madden and Helen Mirren
Director John Madden and Academy Award winner Helen Mirren on the set © 2011 Focus Features

Yes, it was a pretty good match. I wanted to cast somebody who was not well-known [as the young Rachel] and who had no baggage at all. I had no idea that the movie was going to take a year and half to come out, by which time Jessica’s profile has become much higher now.

I didn’t want the movie to become about how does actor A turn into Helen Mirren? That’s an agenda I didn’t think the film would need or want.

The funny thing about the film is you couldn’t really say that Tom Wilkinson is necessarily Marton Csokas grown up or that Ciaran Hinds is Sam Worthington grown up. The point is I embraced that in the movie. That it asked the audience to do some of that work rather than my trying to pass these people off as replicas of one another.

To some extent, it might sound obvious but it’s about people looking back at their younger selves and trying to figure out how that person became this person, and this massive event in their lives and how it has affected who they are and what they’ve become as a result.

I think if you present that convention open-handedly, an audience, as they always do in any other circumstance, particularly a theatre circumstance, simply engages with the story at that level.

Sam said you wanted him for the movie and you flew to Albuquerque to meet with him.

The Debt - Sam Worthington
Secret agent David Peretz (Sam Worthington) © 2011 Focus Features

It suits him very well to tell that story! It’s true though. You have to remember, Avatar had not come out, Terminator Salvation hadn’t come out, none of these movies were around, but I’d seen him in a little Australian movie he did called Somersault, I’d noticed him in that film and he popped into my head when I thought about this.

I think he has this unusual quality which you don’t see very much in the movies that he’s made since, which is he’s very masculine, he’s got a very powerful presence, quite a heroic presence, but he’s also got this hidden emotional fragility about him, which he’s not noted for particularly. It’s definitely there and was the thing I noticed immediately in that film.

I thought you needed both of that for the character of David, you can’t have a sensitive soul as a Mossad agent, that simply doesn’t work, not in the circumstances we were looking for. So he just seemed like a good, accurate piece of casting.

At this stage of your career are you doing a lot of directing or are you getting the right people together and letting things happen?

The Debt - Director John Madden
Director John Madden on the set of his espionage thriller © 2011 Focus Features

Hopefully they go together. Directing is not about pointing and giving orders, it’s about creating an environment where you can let things happen, you can let sparks fly, but you’ve got to do that within a scripted environment and a physical environment that you’re shooting in that you know where you’re going and you know what you’re doing with it.

There’s no value to be had in simply giving people a set of instructions and having them enact them. What you are hoping to see is what you hadn’t foreseen and what they might discover.

What was your biggest challenge doing this movie?

I think the challenge was just knowing whether you were striking a balance correctly between the genre, because this is a genre movie, it’s a thriller and it has an obligation to that.

At the same time telling a psychologically and morally story and keeping those ideas and that dialectic at the front of the story rather than pushing it aside when it was inconvenient to what was happening. So I think the script was the key.

Why has this film taken so long to come out?

Because Disney shut Miramax down right after we delivered the film. Disney then said they would take over the film and release it, and for all of last year that was our assumption.

Then I got word we’d been sold along with the Miramax label and two films went with the label, ours and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.

Both of those movies are about as far away from the Disney brand [as you can get], which was being consolidated into a family-based project.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.