Madonna By Gus Van Sant
Photography Marcus Piggott, Mert Alas
GUS VAN SANT: Hey, Madonna.
MADONNA: Gus, is that you?
VAN SANT: Yes. I’m at my house in L.A., just reading the paper.
MADONNA: Are you living in L.A. now?
VAN SANT: I still live in Portland [Oregon], but I have a place in L.A., and I’m starting to work on this film down here.
MADONNA: You’re always working on a film.
VAN SANT: Usually.
MADONNA: But that’s what you do.
VAN SANT: It’s my habit. [laughs] I heard you’re going to Africa.
MADONNA: Yeah. I go to Malawi twice a year. It’s where two of my children were adopted from, and I have a lot of projects there that I go and check up on and children who I look after. It’s sort of a commitment that I’ve made to this country and the hundreds of thousands of children there who have been orphaned by AIDS. I made a documentary about it [I Am Because We Are, 2008], and it’s just become part of my life. I’m going to meet with Jeffrey Sachs [the economist]. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. He’s starting a global education initiative, and I’m going to be his Girl Friday, so to speak. We’re going to hold a press conference to talk about the school for girls that I’m building in Malawi. It’s kind of our way of making sure that every kid has a chance to have an education-more specifically girls, but boys as well. Girls, though, in a lot of developing countries don’t have the opportunity to go to school, nor are they encouraged to go to school, so what we’re doing is the beginning of a dream. But I’m going to Malawi for lots of reasons.
VAN SANT: You’ve done a lot of work with Jeffrey Sachs already, haven’t you?
MADONNA: Yeah. We’ve been supporting each other for years now. I’ve worked on some Millennium Villages with him. We have two Millennium Village sites in Malawi, and they’re both doing very well. He’s an incredible human being.
VAN SANT: I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard he’s very charismatic.
MADONNA: He’s extremely charismatic. Very well-spoken and charming. He’s one of the few people I know who talks the talk and also walks the walk. He thinks very big.
VAN SANT: What’s the economic theory behind the Millennium Villages?
MADONNA: Well, his work is primarily focused on ending poverty, but you know, there are lots of ways to skin the cat. Millennium Villages are an experiment that he has tried all over the world. It costs a certain amount of money, and it takes a certain number of years for them to work, but he’s got it down almost to a science, where for $1.5 million over a five-year period, you can make a series of interconnected villages self-sustainable through education and prepping and diversifying their crops and giving them agricultural tools and medicine and knowledge. Jeffrey has been really supportive of all the work I’ve done in Malawi. So, yeah, we’ll be drinking a gin and tonic and swatting away the mosquitoes down there. By the way, Milk  was such a brilliant film. I cried and cried. I loved it.
VAN SANT: Oh, great. Thanks.
MADONNA: Did you like working with my ex-husband? [laughs]
VAN SANT: I did. Sean [Penn] was amazing.
MADONNA: He is amazing.
VAN SANT: I haven’t really caught up with Sean since he’s been going to Haiti. I mean, it’s incredible, what he’s been doing.
MADONNA: Yup. He’s got a fire under his ass, that’s for sure. A bee in his bonnet.
VAN SANT: When I called him to see whether he would play the role in Milk, he took half a second to say yes. I guess he knew the elements were there.
MADONNA: I could see why he would be attracted to the role and be able to say yes in two seconds. Watching Milk was such a trip down memory lane for me.
VAN SANT: Yeah? Did you go to the Castro a lot?
MADONNA: I did when I was younger. But you know, what the movie triggered for me was all my early days in New York and the scene that I came up in-you know, with Andy Warhol and Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf. It was just so alive with art and politics and this wonderful spirit. So many of those people are dead now. I think that’s one of the reasons I cried. In fact, the character that Richard E. Grant plays in the film I directed, Filth And Wisdom, is this blind professor who was based on my ballet teacher, Christopher Flynn. Growing up in Michigan, I didn’t really know what a gay man was. He was the first man-the first human being-who made me feel good about myself and special. He was the first person who told me that I was beautiful or that I had something to offer the world, and he encouraged me to believe in my dreams, to go to New York. He was such an important person in my life. He died of AIDS, but he went blind toward the end of his life. He was such a lover of art, classical music, literature, opera. You know, I grew up in the Midwest, and it was really because of him that I was exposed to so many of those things. He brought me to my first gay club-it was this club in Detroit. I always felt like I was a freak when I was growing up and that there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t fit in anywhere. But when he took me to that club, he brought me to a place where I finally felt at home. So that character in Filth And Wisdom was dedicated to him and inspired by him. I don’t know why I’m bringing all this up, but I guess it’s just coming from that world in Michigan and the trajectory of my life: after going to New York and being a dancer when the whole AIDS epidemic started and nobody knew what it was. And then suddenly, all these beautiful men around me, people who I loved so dearly, were dying-just one after the next. It was just such a crazy time. And watching the world freak out-the gay community was so ostracized. But it was also when I was beginning my career. . . . I don’t know. Your movie really struck a chord for me and made me remember all that. It’s a time I don’t think many people have captured on film. It’s a time that people don’t talk about much. And even though there was so much death, for me, New York was so alive.
VAN SANT: It’s amazing that you had a person like that in your life who was such an influence.
MADONNA: Thank god! Otherwise, I don’t know if I would’ve gotten out of Michigan. I think it was Christopher and my Russian history teacher, Marilyn Fellows. The two of them, I think they were a conspiracy that god sent to me. The conspiracy of angels that gave me the confidence and helped me turn my lemons into lemonade, if you know what I’m saying. Because when you grow up in a really conservative place and you don’t fit in, it’s kind of hard. . . . You can go one way or the other.
VAN SANT: I had a chance to watch Filth And Wisdom. It’s a really intimate and contained piece of work. I was really surprised by it. I didn’t know what to expect.
MADONNA: Yeah, I’m sure. I guess it is intimate. I never thought of it like that. It’s kind of a small story. But really, if you break it down, it’s about the struggle of being an artist. I feel like the three main characters in the film are basically me.
VAN SANT: Are they?
MADONNA: Or aspects of me, yeah. I was fortunate enough to meet Eugene [Hütz], the Ukrainian who plays the lead. When I started writing Filth And Wisdom, I didn’t know him, and the character he eventually played was going to be a struggling actor who was cross-dressing to make ends meet. But then when I met Eugene after I saw him in another film, I found out he was in a band, Gogol Bordello. Then I started stalking him. [laughs] I was like, “Oh, god, he’s amazing. I’m going to make the character a struggling musician instead.” I thought it would be more interesting.
VAN SANT: What film did you see him in?
MADONNA: I saw him in a film that Liev Schreiber directed called Everything Is Illuminated [2005, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer]. Eugene was my favorite thing in the movie, and I became kind of obsessed with him. I wrote a part for him in my script for my new movie, in the part of a security guard who is a Russian immigrant living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan. Eugene inspired the part-in fact, the character’s name is Evgeni.
VAN SANT: Is that script W.E.?
MADONNA: Yeah, the movie everyone thinks I’m making that’s supposed to be a musical about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. I don’t know why that got in the newspapers. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor are in the movie, but it’s not going to be about them. It’s really about this other woman’s journey, and the duchess is kind of her spiritual guide.
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.
VAN SANT: That’s a fantastic subject.
MADONNA: Their lives were absolutely crazy. It’s as much about the search for love and the meaning of happiness as it is about the cult of celebrity, really. It’s all kind of mixed up in one big stew.
VAN SANT: You wrote the script with Alek Keshishian?
MADONNA: Yeah. I started writing it on my own, and then I realized that I needed help. It’s just too big a subject. I quite like the idea of collaborating in general. Not only is it lonely to do things on your own creatively, it’s also kind of arrogant. I guess some people are brilliant enough to be brilliant on their own and never doubt anything and come up with fabulous things. But I think it’s good to get into arguments with people and have them say, “That sucks” or “You’re crazy” or “That’s cheesy” or “What do you think of this?” If anything, it helps you understand what you believe in and what you’re passionate about and what is shit. I think it’s important to have a sounding board. I’ve known Alek for years, and we have a weird kind of brother-sister relationship. One minute we’re hugging each other and crying on each other’s shoulders, and the next minute we’re slamming the door in each other’s face and not speaking to each other for a month. [laughs]
VAN SANT: When you’re writing together, is it a situation where you’re actually in the same room?
MADONNA: Oh, yeah. I mean, we’ll be in the same room, but we also do chunks of things on our own and e-mail them to each other, or we do stuff over the phone, or sit together and take the computer off each other’s laps, or we’re disgusted with how slow the other person is typing. . . . So it works in a lot of different ways.
VAN SANT: When you’re actually writing, do you have any kind of regimen where you write during the day or at night?
MADONNA: I tend to write during the day so I can see my children at night. But if my kids aren’t with me and I have a chunk of time when I’m a single woman living in my house for a miraculous week, I will get to write at different hours. I mean, we’ve burned the candle. We’ve stayed up all night. We’ve done it every which way. But generally we schedule chunks of time to be together and work on it.
VAN SANT: You’re just starting to fill out the cast?
MADONNA: Yeah, I’m casting. When I get back from Africa, I will officially begin preproduction.
VAN SANT: To shoot this summer?
MADONNA: Yeah. Yikes.
VAN SANT: I know. It’s hard, isn’t it?
MADONNA: Very hard. I don’t know what it’s like for you, but for me, making a movie, before you start filming and you’re in the trenches, it just seems like this process of pushing-of working through all of these people saying no. It seems like the whole world is against you. I’ve never had that experience before, because making records and putting my shows together-except at the very beginning of my career-I’ve never really experienced much resistance. I just find the people I want to work with and put it all together, and it’s a lot of hard work and all kinds of catastrophes happen, but I don’t really get too much resistance. But when you make a movie, it seems like there’s nothing but resistance. It’s kind of a miracle that any movie ever gets made. Every other day, it’s like, “What am I doing? This is insane. I could be off gardening right now. This is too stressful. Who do I think I am? Why am I putting myself through all of this punishment?” That’s what it feels like-for me, anyway.
VAN SANT: I’ve told people who have just started to make a film that the one thing you might experience is this feeling that everybody is conspiring against you, because you’re not necessarily able to tell what’s real and what’s not. There are all of these messages that you get through third parties that say, “You can’t get that location. You can’t shoot at Yankee Stadium.”
MADONNA: “That actor is not really available except for these three weeks.”
VAN SANT: Yeah. And it’s too hard for you personally to take care of it because there are too many things going on at the same time. It’s almost like torture.
MADONNA: It’s torture for me, because I want to personally go to all the people who are saying no to me and say, “Can’t we just work something out? Why can’t I shoot at your castle? Why can’t you make 30 outfits for me and not charge me? Why do you want to work with Martin Scorsese when you can work with me?” [both laugh] It all seems to be an exercise in acceptance, doesn’t it? When do you give in? When do you let go and stop trying to control everything? Filmmaking is such a collaboration. At a certain point, I suppose you do have to let go and trust the people you’re working with. I look at movies like Wong Kar-Wai’s films, and they all have such a familylike feeling about them. He just keeps working with the same actors and art director and DP, and the stories don’t change that much. There seems to be this familiarity there that must be such a nice luxury.
VAN SANT: Wong Kar-Wai is a really great inspiration. He’s always referred to as the Jimi Hendrix of filmmaking.
MADONNA: What does that mean?
VAN SANT: It means that he’s so loose and familiar with his craft that he can sort of do anything.
MADONNA: I was actually watching In the Mood for Love  again last night because I love the music. And I mean, how overused is slow motion in film? But, for some reason, he gets away with it. Every time the characters pass each other on the stairs, there’s that same piece of music. It’s so beautiful. He has these two married couples living next door to each other, and you never see the wife of one couple or the husband of the other, but you always hear them talking. And it’s not so much of a story, but you’re so sucked into it. It’s something to be envied. While the stories seem simple, you really end up feeling kind of devastated and moved and melancholic every time you watch one of his movies-well, I do, anyway.
VAN SANT: I do too.
MADONNA: But maybe there’s something wrong with me. Maybe I’m just a sucker.
VAN SANT: No, I think they’re very strong films. Who are you using as a DP?
MADONNA: Hagen Bogdanski. He did The Lives of Others . Did you see that film?
VAN SANT: Oh, yeah. It’s amazing.
MADONNA: He also did The Young Victoria, so two different looks. But I think he’s brilliant.
VAN SANT: Because the DP who I’ve been using for many films is someone who has a connection to you. I was making a commercial for Levi’s several years ago, and the art director said that they had just worked with Harris Savides, and they were sort of pushing him on me. They said, “Madonna doesn’t work with anyone else.” So I went, “Well, shit. If Madonna won’t work with anyone else. . . .”
MADONNA: I worship Harris Savides. He’s too expensive for me. I adore him. I’ve worked with him a lot. He’s the best. It’s interesting, though, because my film is essentially an English production, and I’ve been instructed to use people who live there-or at least in Europe. We’ll film mostly in England, a bit in France, some in New York. My only indulgence is to bring my costume girl, because I’ve been working with her for so many years and costumes are such a big part of this movie. I just can’t start working with someone new. But Hagen seems brilliant and collaborative-so far, so good. Are you working with Harris on your next film?
VAN SANT: Well, there’s a film that I’m mixing right now. It’s called Restless. We shot it in November and December, and Harris was the DP. I’ve worked with him on a bunch of films now. Seymour Stein [the record executive] was somebody I got to know a teeny bit because he helped with the soundtrack for Even Cowgirls Get the Blues . Was he somebody-
MADONNA: Who was a really important, influential person in my life? Oh, my god. Yeah, of course. He believed in me. Seymour Stein is the person who signed me and gave me my first record deal, which was my only record deal I stayed at Warner Bros. until five minutes ago. He listened to my demo. He was in the hospital, and he had me come in to visit him. He was hooked up to all these weird devices-I don’t know what was wrong with him. But he made me bring my boom box and play my music for him. He was laying there in bed in his boxer shorts and a wife-beater. But he was always my champion during the first decade of my career. So he’s also a very important character. I mean, I guess we all have champions, but I feel blessed and lucky to have had the ones that I’ve had. I still run into Seymour Stein from time to time. I see him around. He’s still got that naughty twinkle in his eye.
VAN SANT: I remember that he’d start to talk about music or something and he’d start crying.
MADONNA: Oh, I know. He’s such a music lover-an art lover. I remember he had these insane paintings-this vast collection of art-and the pieces were all just sort of jumbled on top of one another and leaning against the walls in his labyrinthlike apartment. He’s a character. It’s curious, because it seems like those days are really over in the music business, where guys like that ran things, or where you could go and see a band and get so inspired and discover them and make records with them. It’s kind of sad.
VAN SANT: Now the music industry is sort of like a Craigslist venture, right? Where you’re making your own records and selling them online.
MADONNA: Yeah. It’s weird-that’s exactly what’s going on. I don’t have a record deal right now with anybody. I don’t know how I’m going to get my music out the next time I make a record.
VAN SANT: You have to rethink how to do it.
MADONNA: I’m going to have to reinvent the wheel. I haven’t really been focused as much as I should be on the music part of my career because this movie has just consumed every inch of me. Between that and my four children, I don’t have the time or the energy for anything else. For example, I do appreciate that lots of people worked long and hard putting together things like the DVD of the Sticky & Sweet tour that we just released, and I have seen the finished product, but I have got no idea how people are going to find out about it or how it’s going to be sold.
VAN SANT: They’ll find it. [laughs]
MADONNA: Hopefully. I think I have a fan club- well, that’s what they say.