How 'The Debt' Relates to Osama Bin Laden and the Ethics of Film Remakes

Director John Madden chats about his new film

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John Madden, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain on the set of 'The Debt' (credit: Focus Features)

The Debt, released this past weekend, delves into the complex world of Israeli collective memory, transposing a thriller template onto the age-old questions that are at the heart of the Jewish state.

Yet this remake of a 2007 Israeli film is no revisionist piece. The story of three Mossad agents trying to capture a Nazi war criminal in East Berlin circa 1966 and dealing with the present day (1997) ramifications of that assignment, The Debt is at once a portrait of three individuals under great duress and a carefully calibrated study of the righteousness of their revenge mission.

It's a thoughtful work with sharp performances from Jessica Chastain, Helen Mirren and others, imbued with an old-fashioned sense of character-driven action. Here, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) speaks about the project.

How do you approach doing a remake? Do you watch the original film or ignore it?

In this case, my first encounter with the material was via a script that had been adapted from the Israeli film, which I found very intriguing and provocative, just because the material is so strong. … Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman were responsible for that script, and Matthew, who's also one of the producers with Krys Thykier, said the million dollar question is, "Do you want to see the Israeli film?"

And I said, "Of course I want to see the Israeli film, because that's the source material." And I was actually very encouraged when I saw it because I thought it was a really strong film. So it sort of endorsed to me the notion that the material merited a wider audience than it was able to achieve, because obviously the film was made in Hebrew. That said, I didn't watch the film again because I didn't want to become locked into a, "What do I change, what do I not change" [dynamic].

Why is a thriller the right format for an exploration of these big themes?

[Co-writer] Peter Straughan and I were both very wary of not wanting to trivialize or exploit circumstances so loaded with emotional valence for people, [or] to trivialize the suffering or the pain or the very, very live memories [that people] have of [the Holocaust] for the purpose of telling a sort of whacking, revenge movie.

That was not where we were, nor, I hasten to add, were the original filmmakers who made Ha-Hov [The Debt's Hebrew title] in that world. The film then deserved to be told as a thriller, because of the nature of its central conceit—obviously the pursuit in the highly charged, jeopardized circumstances of East Berlin and those complications and dealing with a man who was so stigmatized and so forth, naturally you want to tell that story in a certain way. … The characters as a whole are teetering on the edge of panic almost all the time when you see them in the movie and that just suggests a certain way of telling it.

What about the attraction of a character-driven thriller? Movies made in the genre these days often sacrifice most character development.

It's I suppose slightly a throwback as a thriller, [a] throwback to the kind of '70s movies where psychological development, emotional complication and even, God forbid, moral complication were a necessary part of telling a story, telling a thriller. Nowadays, we tend to create divergent paths where thrillers these days are more about effects and a sort of distillation of the genre elements that make a thriller. You could elevate the notion of a chase right into an entire movie and do something quite brilliant with it, but the psychology is relatively simple.

In this case, I felt that to really pay attention to the human drama that was going on and just the reality of the way people behave together, yes it's about the Holocaust but it's also about four people [the agents and their Nazi target] stuck in a room together with violently opposing beliefs and values.

This is the year of Jessica Chastain. It seems like she's in a new movie [The Tree of Life, The Help etc.] every week. You shot The Debt awhile back, before she took off, so what led you to her?

That's a strange irony of time. She had made Terrence Malick's film [The Tree of Life] when I cast her in this, which I actually wasn't aware of initially. I simply went after an unknown because I wanted, and hence the irony, it wasn't a dogmatic thing, I just felt that it was probably better for the film if the discussion agenda for the film was not dominated by how what very well known actress A turned into very well known actress Helen Mirren. … I found my way to [Chastain] through a kind of accident, met her, worked with her, talked to Terrence Malick about her at great length, and he had nothing but wonderful things to say about her, understandably.

What do you think has made so many great filmmakers want to work with her?

In the meantime, Jessica has made a slew of other movies. The Tree of Life has now come out. The Help has come out. It's hard to draw a line between those two, and it's even harder to draw a line between those two and The Debt. The answer to your question is she's a very unusual actress. She's a properly trained theater actress, by which I would mean to imply that she's skilled at transformation, that's what theater acting is about, and I think she's clearly intelligent, emotionally intelligent, she knows where the core of a part lies. She's very, very diligent at doing her homework and really thinking her way through the center of what she does. As a result, something very unusual has happened, which is that she can transform herself into different parts. … [She] has an extraordinary versatility across genres, across age, across nationality and across period.

Is the film making any kind of a moral statement?

Obviously the film presents an argument and the argument is that a man like that deserves to be brought to justice. That's a point of view that I think is an understandable point of view. Clearly, the point of departure for the film is the idea of kidnapping. … It points at the notion [of] politically expedient means pursued toward an end that bleeds over to, "Does America have the right to assassinate Osama Bin Laden unilaterally given the magnitude of his crimes that America has suffered?" And that argument is made on the fact that they are at war at the terrorists and therefore this is an act of war. …

Obviously, it gets at some of those things but the point I would stress in terms of the film is that it's a human issue. It belongs to those three people [the Mossad agents]. It's not drawing conclusions about Israel's moral behavior or political behavior, but it's raising questions: "If we judge people by one moral standard can we consider ourselves [to be] from the same moral standards in the way we behave?" … The film isn't taking a point of view about those things. It's simply presenting a circumstance.