What Madonna wants Madonna usually gets. So it came as something of a shock for the diva to be told she couldn’t do exactly what she wanted as she embarked on directing the film of a story that had fascinated her for years.
“I had to learn to deal with disappointment gracefully,” she recalls. “Every day I heard the word no a thousand times. ‘No, that can’t happen. No, we don’t have time for that. No, that’s too expensive. No, no, no.’ Trying to work with those kinds of restrictions and being creative too is a real challenge.”
She surmounted the challenge and the result is W.E., a lavish depiction of the love affair between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson set against the backdrop of the auction of items from their estate and told in conjunction with the story of Wally Winthrop, a contemporary New York woman who is obsessed with the life of the Duchess of Windsor, through whom she lives vicariously.
“I’ve long been intrigued by Wallis Simpson,” says Madonna, “but I didn’t want to make a straightforward biopic because I’m always disappointed when I watch movies about historical figures: they either don’t tell the whole story or they don’t tell the story I know. So I thought it was important to tell this story from the point of view of a contemporary woman who goes on her own journey in search of love and happiness.”
W.E. is Madonna’s second directorial effort; the first, 2008’s Filth and Wisdom, met with lukewarm reviews and had only a limited release. “I’m not sure what expectations people have of me as a director, but I think they are more critical of me because I’ve been successful in other areas if my life, and I feel the pressure.”
Madonna spent two years researching the life of Wallis Simpson and writing the script. She wallpapered an empty room in her house with pictures from auction catalogues and photographs of the Duke and Duchess throughout their lives.
“I was sitting in a room that was completely and utterly inundated with their images so I could soak up their energy. I was trying to understand the nature of their love story and trying to figure out for myself if there is such a thing as perfect love.”
Madonna, who has a daughter, Lourdes, by her former personal trainer Carlos Leon, a son Rocco by Guy Ritchie and an adopted son and daughter, last year ended a relationship with male model Jesus Luz and is currently involved romantically with Brahim Zaibat, a French break-dancer. “I know what it feels like to be loved a lot, but no one’s ever given up their kingdom for me,” she laughs.
For the role of Wallis Simpson Madonna saw scores of actresses before casting Andrea Riseborough, whom she had seen as the young Margaret Thatcher in the BBC film The Long Walk to Finchley. “I was looking for a certain quality: something fragile, androgynous and yet feminine in a really old-fashioned way. When I saw Andrea, I knew immediately she was the one.”
The Australian actress Abbie Cornish portrays Wally, whose obsession with the Duchess of Windsor leads her to question her own unhappy marriage. The British actor James D’Arcy plays Edward VIII.
Help and support came from Mohammad Fayed, who allowed Madonna to film on land in the Bois de Boulogne and gave his permission for his likeness to be used in the film.
“I also knew he was in possession of many of the letters between the Duke and Duchess, and he was extremely generous and forthcoming with them,” says Madonna. “As soon as I came into his office he opened up books and pages of letters for me to look at. I found them very insightful because people reveal a lot about themselves in a letter – things you don’t get from a book, like the way they speak to each other and the nicknames they gave each other.”
In return for Fayed’s assistance, Madonna helped his daughter’s charity for underprivileged and abused children. “It was a trade-off and I think it was a fair trade.”
Four bodyguards stand nearby as we talk in a hotel room. Wearing a red blouse and black pencil skirt by Yves Saint Laurent, the singer-cum-director is in a cheerful and upbeat mood. “He’s here? Excellent!” she declares when told that Antonio Banderas, whom she once expressed a desire for, was in the same hotel giving interviews. “I used to have a terrible crush on him, it’s true,” she laughs. “But I think he’s taken.”
She did, however, call on two previous husbands, Sean Penn and Guy Ritchie, both of whom have directed films, for help with W.E.
“I talked to Sean about making the film, and he’s always been supportive of me. I gave the screenplay to Guy and shared the concepts and the stories and the ideas with him because he was interested in it from a historical point of view.
“They never really gave me specific advice about telling the story, but Guy would give me technical advice about cameras or using digital versus film or one cinematographer being better than another – just technical things.”
Although W.E. has been taking up most of her time for the past three years, she has not abandoned her singing career, and her 12th studio album will be released early next year. She is also eager to make another film. “I’m thinking about possible subjects,” she says, “but I am a hopeless romantic, so I’m sure that romance and love will be part of the story.”