VAN SANT: So it’s set during which period?
MADONNA: It’s set mostly in pre-World War II England-like, 1936 to 1937-and then in New York in 1998. It goes back and forth in time. I use the Sotheby’s auction in 1998 of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s estate as a device to flash backward from.
VAN SANT: Oh, fantastic.
MADONNA: Fantastic and complicated. [laughs] I didn’t realize it when we were writing the script, but once I started casting and planning and working with my production designer, I went, “Oh, fuck. I wrote a script about a bunch of rich people. That’s going to be great for the budget.” The duchess has, like, 80 costume changes. She was dressed by Balenciaga and Christian Dior and Vionnet and Schiaparelli. Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels made most of her jewelry. A lot of the actual stuff is in museum archives. They’re not going to give it to me. But a lot of these couture houses have offered to make stuff for me. Do you know Arianne Phillips?
VAN SANT: I’ve never worked with her, but I know her work.
MADONNA: She’s doing my costumes. I mean, just the costumes alone are pretty daunting because the duke and the duchess were both real clotheshorses. And then there’s the auction itself-they auctioned off more than 40,000 items, a lot of which was clothes and jewelry and shoes and handbags and whatnot. So there’s a lot of fashion in my movie, although it’s not really about that.
VAN SANT: So you’ll have to make some things and cobble the rest together.
MADONNA: Yeah. It’ll be a combination of real vintage pieces, others we’ll get remade based on patterns that have been dragged out of the archives, and then new stuff we’ll make. Next time, I’m writing a movie about one person in one place who has no wardrobe. [laughs]
VAN SANT: When did you start writing W.E.?
MADONNA: I’ve been writing it for the last two and a half years, to tell you the truth. It’s been kind of an obsession of mine. I started writing it when I finished filming Filth and Wisdom. It was actually an idea I had before that, but I made Filth and Wisdom because I realized that I didn’t really have a right to make a bigger film until I made a smaller film-and learned how to make a film.
VAN SANT: And this new one is going to be bigger, obviously.
MADONNA: Well, it’s a bigger story. There are more characters, and three of them basically changed the course of English history. King Edward VIII abdicated the throne to be with an American woman, Wallis Simpson, and that’s part of my story, so I’ve had to do an enormous amount of research and interview people. So I have an enormous responsibility to that, and then I have a responsibility to the actual auction, which really happened. Then there’s the new story, the point of view, which is this girl who has this obsession and is going to the auctions and stuff. So it’s a much more layered, complicated piece than Filth and Wisdom.
VAN SANT: One of the interesting things that I’ve heard about King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson was their social circle. Will you have some of that in the film?
MADONNA: Yes, of course. They’re a very controversial couple. People have lots of different notions about them. I mean, the guy, Edward, gave up the most powerful position in the world for this woman. For the British, he was the most beloved prince and king in a very long time-he was called the People’s Prince. He was very popular. So the fact that he abdicated his throne left many people devastated, and of course they had to demonize Wallis. They said it was all her fault and blamed her for singlehandedly bringing down the British Empire, because, of course, the monarchy was never the same again, which actually had a lot to do with the fact that everything changed completely after World War II. But people have accused Wallis of all kinds of things. They’ve said that she put a spell on Edward. They’ve said that she was a hermaphrodite and that he was gay. They’ve said that they were Nazi sympathizers. It’s just the usual lynch-mob mentality that descends upon somebody who has something that lots of other people don’t have. They have to diminish you by saying there’s something wrong with you, or accuse you of something that they really don’t have the knowledge or the right to.
VAN SANT: So they made the decision to be a couple.
MADONNA: Yeah, but love isn’t enough, really. So it’s been an interesting journey, trying to find out about them. In England especially, I’ve found that if you bring up King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson at a dinner party or a social gathering, it’s like throwing a Molotov cocktail into the room. Everyone erupts into an argument about who they were. I mean, they were very controversial-and continue to be. So of course I’m very attracted to that.