As a woman once paired with such men as Warren Beatty and Sean Penn, Madonna is undoubtedly well equipped to direct a movie about a famous romance experienced from the inside. She researched and wrote the script for “W.E.” with Alek Keshishian, the director of her 1991 tour documentary, “Truth or Dare,” over three years, immersing herself in letters between Edward and Wallis and plastering the auction catalog pages of their belongings on the walls of her home in London.
“What they did was pretty controversial,” she said, explaining her interest in the couple. “I found her to be a very complex person, and I found his sacrifice to be unusual…. People don’t just get up and walk away from the most powerful position in the world. It’s kind of unheard of.”
Madonna said she supplied the bulk of the movie’s $15-million budget, as well as several of her own furnishings and pieces of jewelry. While filming one scene, she was unhappy with the curtains and sent an assistant to tear down some gray satin drapes from her home.
“Madonna’s work ethic is unrelenting,” said “W.E.” costume designer Arianne Phillips, who has been the singer’s stylist for 15 years as well as creating the costumes for such movies as “Walk the Line” and “A Single Man.” “She does whatever it takes to get the job done. She’s a multitasker creatively.”
“W.E.’s” 54-day shoot in 2010 spanned New York, London, the English countryside, Paris and the South of France. “It was hell,” Madonna said. “In a way, I was very naive. I wrote the script, and I let my imagination go, and I didn’t really think of the practicalities of all the different locations I had written and all the different places I was gonna have to go.”
Critics at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, where “W.E.” premiered last year, found the most to praise in the film’s look — its stylish re-creation of Wallis and Edward’s decadent lifestyle. They were less impressed, however, with Madonna’s period-bridging storytelling, with the Hollywood Reporter calling “W.E.” “as easy on the eyes and ears as it is embalmed from any dramatic point of view.” The Weinstein Co. acquired the film’s U.S. rights ahead of its festival premieres and will open “W.E.” in a limited release, beginning with four theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
Madonna said she hopes her movie will find its audience among women, who may relate to Wally’s naive fantasies about Wallis’ life, and the strength she draws from learning the more complex story. “There’s three love stories in the film: There’s Edward and Wallis, the blossoming love story between Wally and Evgeni, and there’s the love affair between the two women,” she said. “It’s an important mythological story to tell … of a woman helping another woman. I don’t think it’s something that we see very often in films. Mostly, we see women sabotaging other women.”
Film fan Madonna
Madonna’s film education started at an art-house theater near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which she attended for a year before moving to New York to become a dancer at age 19 in 1977. “My father was quite strict. We didn’t watch a lot of movies growing up,” she said. “When I went to the university, there was a foreign film cinema. Movies were playing every night, and it was like Pandora’s box for me to suddenly discover the world of Visconti, Pasolini, Antonioni and Fellini and Godard and Truffaut…. It was like walking into a world and suddenly feeling at home. There’s a dreamlike quality to a lot of them. They transported me and inspired me.”
In the 1980s, she was one of the earliest artists to exploit the cinematic potential of music videos, channeling Marilyn Monroe in 1985’s “Material Girl” and performing in a “Metropolis”-style dystopia in the David Fincher-directed 1989 video for “Express Yourself.” As an actor, she starred in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “A League of Their Own” and “Evita” but rarely enjoyed either the creative control or the critical approval she craved. Her directorial debut, “Filth and Wisdom,” a low-budget comedy about three London flatmates, garnered just a token theatrical release in 2008.