First of all, he's not that John Madden. As a result of the elegant insights he offers about his line of work -- not to mention the locutions refined at Cambridge -- you are immediately aware that this is not the guy you turn to for an assessment of the Cincinnati Bengals' new place kicker, or for an opinion on whether Ace (as in Hardware) really is the place.
He seems quite content to be the other John Madden. The bloke who directs movies for the thinking person.
Know who he is now? No? If one were to refer to "Mrs. Brown" -- the warmly evocative period film with Judi Dench as a grieving Queen Victoria -- would that bring a specific person to mind? Or the austere "Ethan Frome" (1993) with Liam Neeson? Still no?
Hope Davis, who appears in his new film, "Proof" -- the screen adaptation of the hit Broadway play about a young woman's fear that she's inherited her father's madness on top of his genius for math -- gets the same sort of blank stares when she mentions him. Madden . . . Madden. Often, as people struggle to place him, Davis says, she is thinking to herself: "Hello? 'Shakespeare in Love'?"
Oh, yeah, that John Madden! The guy who directed the subversively literate comedy-in-tights that won the 1998 Oscar for Best Picture. "Shakespeare in Love" was indeed the movie that cemented Madden in the industry firmament, at least in those rarefied precincts of Hollywood where they care about subversively literate fare. The film (with a screenplay by the intimidatingly brilliant playwright Tom Stoppard) stamped Madden, an Englishman whose roots are in theater, as a director to seek out for material of substantial wit and subtle cerebration.
Now, his reputation, which remains intact despite the deeply disappointing "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" in 2001, is being put to a new test with "Proof," a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that didn't instantly suggest itself as a feature film, not even to Madden. "I thought, 'What a terrific play' -- end of story," he says over a long dinner at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown. "I found the material intriguing, but I wasn't sure it would be a movie."
The film, which opened in Washington yesterday, reunites the director and his "Shakespeare in Love" star, Gwyneth Paltrow, whom he also directed in the London stage debut of "Proof." The heavyweight movie cast includes Anthony Hopkins, in the role of the father; Davis as Paltrow's controlling sister; and dewy-eyed heartthrob Jake Gyllenhaal as a grad student who falls for Paltrow's troubled Catherine.
The Tony-winning "Proof" was a fluke in the modern theater: a serious new play by an unknown playwright, David Auburn, that earned critical huzzahs and surprising commercial success. After opening at the Manhattan Theatre Club, it transferred to Broadway in the fall of 2000, and ran there, astonishingly, for more than 900 performances -- about three times the normal life span of a hit play. (That is, when a new play even manages to reach Broadway these days.) The work's been a roaring stage phenomenon ever since, with regional theaters such as Arena Stage mounting their own well-received productions.
Although a migration to the big screen once seemed a logical next step in the life cycle of a Broadway play or musical, the synergy between theater and film has ebbed in recent years. Yes, there continue to be exceptions, especially in the case of musicals such as "Chicago" or "Rent." Television, however, is the likelier route nowadays for a straight play's transfer to the screen. Smaller gems ("Wit") and major jewels ("Angels in America") alike tend to find their audiences on the tube -- an indication of the less-than-dominant role the theater occupies in the pop culture marketplace.
So where does that leave "Proof"? A bit of an anomaly. Madden, 56, had never seen it onstage when he was first approached about making a movie. After reading it, he was impressed but not convinced. (Some critics have pointed out that the play, which revolves around the discovery of a groundbreaking mathematical proof in the room of Catherine's father after his death, is a bit facile, its tidiness an indication of something less than top-drawer talent.) In any event, the foundations of a good play don't necessarily support a good film, on the rare occasions when a play makes the transfer. It's a measure of how rare that Madden -- despite once commissioning a play from David Mamet and directing the Broadway debuts of plays by Jules Feiffer and Arthur Kopit -- had never shepherded an adaptation of a stage work to the big screen.
Madden's reluctance to make the movie changed, thanks to an odd coincidence. After expressing his reservations to the film's then-producers, he was invited to direct the stage version in London. The offer came from Sam Mendes, still in charge at the time of the highly regarded Donmar Warehouse. In his mind, Madden cast the play with Brits. But "I fell asleep and woke up thinking of Gwyneth," he says. She agreed to do it, and soon the stage production fell into place. Once the play was on its feet, he began to see cinematic potential, especially as it concerned the idea of Catherine's self-doubt, her growing uncertainty about her own sanity.
"I felt the real possibility that the film could hold the hidden narrative," he says. "Not madness, but the fear of being mad."
As usual, Madden was able to cast his production with top-flight talent. He's developed a reputation as an easy guy to work for on a set, the opposite of a martinet. He talks fluently, and without lapsing into jargon, about the process of making movies, how much he likes writers -- a screenplay on a Madden movie is often written by a playwright -- and how much he enjoys burrowing into a text.
"He really is an actor's director," says Davis, a stage-trained actress who played the quirky mate to Paul Giamatti's Harvey Pekar in the indie hit "American Splendor" and Jack Nicholson's daughter in "About Schmidt." "He's so relaxed and so excited, and so gentlemanly in his criticism, if you could call it that." During filming, she adds, "he learns the name of absolutely everybody. He knew the name of every guy on the catering truck."
Genial is the word. He professes a true kinship for those in front of the camera. "I love actors," he says. "I feel that's a major responsibility I have, to let them articulate the story." And helping them tell stories is what he's been doing for more than three decades. He first came to this country in the late '60s and early '70s with a Shakespeare troupe that toured schools -- Washington's St. Albans was on the circuit -- and stayed to develop radio plays for a public station in Madison, Wis. "I had this thing about America," he says. "But we all did." One of his commissions went to Mamet, who turned in "The Water Engine."
He had a penchant for being in the right place. "I did bump from one thing to another in America with some interesting people, I suppose," he says. An offer from Robert Brustein to teach at the Yale School of Drama. The opportunity to direct plays -- on Broadway -- like Feiffer's "Grownups" and Kopit's "Wings." Later, after moving back to England with his wife and children and turning to BBC television and film, he would come to the attention of such producers as Lindsay Law and Harvey Weinstein.
Madden had more early success in "quality" television -- he directed episodes of "Inspector Morse" and "Prime Suspect" -- than in movies. "Ethan Frome," adapted from the novel by playwright Richard Nelson, got appreciative reviews. "Golden Gate," set in San Francisco's Chinatown and written by playwright David Henry Hwang, did not. Madden can laugh -- now -- at the New York Times notice, which began: " 'Golden Gate' is not a quiet failure. It's a big, bright and flamboyant one."
"That was a big bump. There's no question about it," he says, nursing a glass of red wine. "And of course that must happen, and probably with good reason. I'd had bad reviews before. But with film it was slightly startling."
The turning point was the 1997 "Mrs. Brown," featuring Dench's touchingly brittle portrayal of Victoria's struggle to cope with the death of her husband, Albert. It was a movie breakthrough for Dench as well as Madden. "Harvey wanted to buy it," Madden says of Miramax's Weinstein, "as soon as he'd seen it."
And then, of course, "Shakespeare in Love." It had been developed for Julia Roberts, with another director attached. In the process of trying to find an actor to play Shakespeare, Madden says, the deal unraveled. Weinstein eventually acquired the property and gave Madden the screenplay, about a woman posing as a man in Elizabethan-era England so that she could perform in Shakespeare. "It was the best script I'd ever read," Madden recalls. "When I got to the line, 'That woman is . . . a woman,' I threw the script in the air."
Weinstein popped the question: "Do you want to do it?" Madden was blown away. "That was," he says, "the most extraordinary piece of luck." On the set, he sensed the stakes. "Every morning it was terrifying and every evening it was exhilarating." Paltrow, who would win an Oscar, was a dream to work with, and her chemistry with Joseph Fiennes's Shakespeare was very natural, he says. Madden, nominated that year for an Academy Award himself, still marvels that he was offered the big gig: "I can't imagine why I would be given 'Shakespeare in Love' on the basis of 'Mrs. Brown.' "
"Proof," with a screenplay by Auburn and Rebecca Miller (daughter of yet another playwright, the late Arthur Miller), was filmed in fall 2003 in London and on the campus of the University of Chicago at a cost, Madden says, of a little more than $20 million. It's about as faithful to a stage version as one could expect, though it also broadens the geography of the play, which took place entirely on the porch of Catherine's father just after his death. In the movie version, we actually go to her father's funeral, and a social gathering mentioned in the four-character drama becomes a full-fledged crowd scene on screen.
On one level, it's a mystery -- who wrote the proof? -- and on another, an exploration of our notion of who we are. "The thing you didn't want to open up," he says, "was the subjectivity of the material. There is the sense, even in the play, that who she is is under constant threat.
"To me, the piece is not about someone who appeared to the rest of the world to be mad, it's about someone who feared she was becoming mad. I tried to lift to the surface that fear and terror. Part of the question the movie asks is whether we believe she could do certain things. But the interesting part of that is, what does she believe? How do we know ourselves, and what do we know about ourselves?"
Madden, for his part, seems to know more and more about where his skills can take him. (His new project, in pre-production, is "Killshot," a thriller.) Anthony Hopkins, who worked with Madden for the first time on "Proof," calls him "one of the finest directors I've worked with" and "a man very much in control of his movie." Now, if people could just match the right face to the name.