While everyone weighs in on Madonna’s performance at last night’s Super Bowl (She was upstaged by M.I.A.’s finger! She was actually pretty good!), we must not forget that on Friday, her new movie W.E. was released in selected theaters. (You might actually be one of the people who contributed to the film’s $45,000 box office, but probably not). The historical romance marks Madonna’s second directorial effort, and chronicles the love affair between Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy). It’s common knowledge to Brits that Edward gave up the throne so he could marry Simpson, an American socialite, but other than its brief mention in last year’s The King’s Speech, W.E. will be people’s first introduction to the legendary scandal.
In December, Madonna just happened to be at the Waldorf Astoria to talk to reporters about her movie, and I just happened to be one of those reporters. And while I’d love to tell my grandkids that I was once alone, in a room, with Madonna, the truth is there were about ten other journalists there (and a giant bodyguard), each of them desperate to get a question in. Here’s a transcript of the conversation that was had, in which Madonna talks about writing and directing W.E., love, and her fascination with unconventional relationships.
When did you first hear about the story of Wallis and Edward?
I first heard about them in high school, so it was part of my English pre-war history. I didn’t then really think about it again until I moved to England and I was desperate to get to know the country I had just moved to, and I didn’t really want to feel like a foreigner. I was really intrigued by the royal family and the history of the monarchy, and I started reading about Henry VIII, all the way up to George V. Then with Edward VIII, I kind of got stuck there because up until that point, there weren’t any kings that gave up the throne. So that intrigued me, and I was struggling with the idea of that, of a man leaving his powerful position and trying to understand the nature of their love, their relationship, what they did for each other, what they gave to each other, and what she had that was so special and intriguing and magnetic and powerful. So that’s when the real deep research began.
Didn’t you also discover there was a lot of debate about it? It seems to be like people are polarized about her, especially in England.
Yes, especially in England. Here, not so much. People don’t have so much invested in kings and queens and who gave up what. If you did bring up her name at a social gathering, inevitably an argument would usually occur about whether she was a witch or not, a man or a woman, an ambitious person or a clever, witty human being.
It seems like you maybe felt akin to her because she was so controversial and she was a woman ahead of her time. She made the world angry, and others praised her. I feel like when you took on this project, I knew why you wanted to tell this story.
Well, that was obviously a big draw. When I read a lot of her letters, I felt like I could have written some of those letters like. I did and I think there was some kind of symbiotic connection to her character.
Did you feel more at home writing this or directing it?
Well, writing is simpler. There’s less people involved and you have a lot more freedom when writing, and obviously there’s not a lot of people giving you their two cents. When you’re on the set of a movie, there’s thousands of people around and there’s a clock ticking, and there’s a lot of things you have to get done in a short period of time. So I think freedom is really in the writing. In the directing, you have try to be in two places at the same time. One is in your practical shoes, which is you get a certain amount of time and a certain amount of work done, and the other part is to be in this dream-like state where I’m allowing myself to channel this energy and capture a dream. So that was always a challenging balance to strike.
Were you nervous about the perception of the film?
Well, perhaps I was when I went to the Venice Film Festival, but it’s been at many festivals now and I had a screening at the Museum of Modern Art and a lot of people have seen it and written about it, although I have not read anything anyone has written about it, so I’m not really thinking so much about nervousness. I think people will like it or not like it.
Somebody wrote that some people, regardless of the film, are going to hate it because it’s Madonna. What do they mean? Do people feel you’ve had enough success?
I don’t know what they mean. I can’t speak for them.
Why was it important for you to explore unconventional relationships?
Because that’s what the world’s made up of. I don’t know why everyone has bamboozled us all into thinking that conventional relationships actually exist. Do you know of any? Is anyone at this table involved in a conventional relationship? What I was interested in is what we’re all interested in.
Can you talk about the scene where Wallis is dancing to the Sex Pistols? It’s the only time you were deliberately anachronistic in the movie.
Well when I first started writing this script there were lots of different points of view and lots of different titles. My working title was The Punk Rock King, because I was really focused on him and his behavior, and how irreverent he was and how he broke all the rules and pushed away from convention. He didn’t dress the way he was supposed to dress and date the people he was supposed to date. He did drink Benzedrine cocktails and had parties and loved hanging out with Americans. He wanted to fight in the war, he wanted to effect change in the world around him. He wanted to get rid of the old guard and bring new energy to the to Windsor castle and to the world. I think so many things about him were unconventional.
Was it hard to get the rights to that Sex Pistols?
No, I just asked.
In the time you actually shot the movie, The King’s Speech came out and I personally had never known about Wallis until I saw that movie. Did that movie help this movie in some way?
It does because it introduces the idea, and it shows the other side of the story. It starts out with the guy who’s suddenly thrust into this role of king when he had no preparation for it whatsoever, and Edward was the dashing debonair who everyone loved, and the one who could speak in front of people. He was the people’s prince and his little brother was shy and he had a speech impediment and he didn’t want that part at all and neither did his wife. I think while I’m happy about The King’s Speech, because it really does set up my movie in so many ways and it gives people a reference point, the one thing that I didn’t like was the way Wallis was portrayed. They didn’t portray how close the brothers were. They really were very close, and it was a heartbreaking experience for both of them when he was exiled and they weren’t really allowed to communicate anymore. I felt bad about that because it wasn’t the truth. I thought the relationship between him and the speech therapist was the winning aspect of the film, but in terms of how it sets up my movie, I think it’s good because they see it and go, Oh right, that guy, that’s what happened before he became king, so that’s good.
You co-wrote this with Alek Keshishian who directed you in Truth or Dare twenty years ago. Did you ever, for a laugh, put on the old movie and watch it and relive that?
No, but we do play a lot when we’re writing.
Do you watch old videos of yourself?
I don’t really like to watch myself, and I certainly don’t want to watch any old videos. I’ve very much moved on. I don’t even want to see something I did last week.
You’ve been such a success as a musician, why direct movies?
Because I’m a storyteller and I love film. I’ve grown up around directors and I’ve been involved with directors. I’ve been very informed and inspired by film, so to me it’s not such a big leap.
Would you want to direct again?
Do you have a project in mind you’d like to tackle?
I have some stories and ideas and things that people have brought to me that I’m interested in, but I’m not committing to anything, just letting it stew in my brain right now.
Back in the ‘80s you worked with a lot of dance music pioneers. Can you talk about people you find to collaborate with in terms of dance music?
Well I have a lot of friends that are DJs and I have a lot of friends who are musicians, and I go out and listen to music and I dance. I say, What’s that? Who’s that? Who did that remix? And that’s how I ended up collaborating with Martin Solveig on this album and Benny Benassi. I also have a teenage daughter.
Do you consider yourself a romantic?
In what way?
I don’t know, I’m very romantic. I love the idea of love. And I love poetry and I love the idea of two people being inextricably intertwined with one another and informed and inspired and attached to one another.