British film director John Madden, whose Captain Corelli's Mandolin opens this week, has, in recent years, had a solid career on the big screen. His last two films were Shakespeare in Love and Mrs. Brown. But before these successes, he spent three decades making creative transitions. His first work out of college was for the BBC, where he directed for both radio and television. A job offer in America brought him to National Public Radio, first in Madison, Wis., then Minneapolis, where he helped set up a script department for a radio drama project called Earplay. A couple of years later he found himself teaching drama at Yale and then directing theater in Boston.
But Madden wanted to make a couple of other jumps -- one was geographical, the other was to a different medium.
"I'd been doing plays in America for a long time," he says, "and then decided I really needed to be working where my family was, since we had two small children by then. I went back and thought I'd learn to make films in England. I kind of learned the craft by jumping straight in, never having made a film before."
His first feature was a 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton's bleak and depressing Ethan Frome, which didn't fare well with critics or moviegoers, followed by not much more success with the underrated Golden Gate. Then there were the two hits and now Captain Corelli, which opened in England almost three months ago. It's the story of a group of World War II Italian soldiers, who are allied with the Germans and stationed on a small Greek island on which the title character (Nicolas Cage) falls in love with a proud young woman (Penelope Cruz) who may or may not love another man (Christian Bale). Madden describes the film as "the biggest canvas I've worked with so far," the stunning look of which he credits to cinematographer John Toll (who won Oscars for Braveheart and Legends of the Fall).
"He is a master of natural light," says Madden of Toll. "We had a very particular wish; it was essential for us to convey the reality of the place. Although it's very beautiful, we didn't want the movie to become co-opted into a kind of travelogue look. The blues of the sea are so extravagant, almost preposterous on occasion. We wanted to make the place feel hot and dusty, which it really is and was. And we kept the color palette of the buildings as close to neutral earth tones as we could, which is exactly what they were then, rather than those heavily chromatic Mediterranean colors you tend to see in Greece nowadays. And we shaped the film around where the sun was. We were trying to capture that particular quality that the light has there which is absolutely unique."
But Madden didn't have a lot of time to think all of this through. He wasn't even the original director on the film. That was Roger Michell, who worked for almost three years with writer Shawn Slovo on adapting Louis de Berniere's novel. But Michell suffered a heart attack and was advised not to direct the film (he has since recovered and finished Changing Lanes).
"I knew Roger," recalls Madden. "He and the producers approached me before he had been advised medically that it wouldn't be wise for him to continue with it. They were feeling me out, finding out if I would respond to the material, would it be something I might be prepared to take on should the eventuality occur. And I did respond to it very strongly. But I said, 'Look, guys, if I'm to take it on, I've got to get back to square one and start again.' Because it's a particularly dense and complex novel, and you really have to fight your own way through the jungle in order to be sure of the path that you're taking."
Amazingly, with only five months left before the start date, he and Slovo sat down and completely rewrote the script.
"It was a very terrifying process for her," he says. "But I think an enlightening and stimulating one in the end."
In crafting the film, Madden takes responsibility for the myriad liberal changes made in the transition from book to screen. Characters who don't meet in the book, do in the film; other characters have had their parts clipped; the ending is very different. But Madden is not too concerned about the uproar that's already been heard by fans of the book who haven't yet seen the film.
"It's an immensely complicated book which weaves a very big story out of a number of different stories," he explains. "Louis was commendably open and relaxed about what the film might need to do in order to preserve the authenticity of the themes and characters in the book," he says of his early talks with the author. "But that did necessitate certain changes for which I certainly don't apologize. And in my experience, it hasn't worried the audiences who have seen the film and have also read the book. To be honest, you know that when you're taking on a book, you can't please everybody. And when you have a book that people have a very passionate attachment to, to an extent you're sort of damned if you do and damned if you don't."