After years of playing Roger Sterling on AMC’s “Mad Men,” John Slattery is comfortable with a drink in his hand. Sitting on a leather couch in Park City, Utah with a Bloody Mary by his side, Slattery talks less about the ad men of the 1960s and more about the first film that he directed, “God’s Pocket," which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
The dark comedy needs a better adjective than “dark,” because most of the film reveals deeply-rooted sadness, disappointment and failures –- carried out to perfection by a dream-team cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins and John Turturro. Slattery has directed five episodes of “Mad Men” but this is his first attempt at a feature. Based on the theater’s applause on opening night, his future as a director certainly looks bright.
The Huffington Post joined Slattery couch-side to find out why it took 10 years to make this happen, how surfing keeps him from getting “a little screwy” and why he refused to be in front of the camera this time.
[Warning: plot spoilers throughout]
When did you originally come across the material for “God’s Pocket”?
I read the book by Pete Dexter about 10 years ago and tried to get the rights to it. But it’s a good thing I didn’t get the rights, because I probably wouldn't be able to actually make a good movie then. I tried getting the rights but someone else owned them. So I let it go.
About five years later, someone reminded me of it and asked whatever happened to that book? Turns out the rights were then available. So I said, all right I’m going to outline this thing, because I had written a shitty screenplay in between and I didn’t want to do that again. I did an outline, about 100 pages long, and kind of just dumped everything from the book into it. I said, okay let’s go get the rights, and then they came back to us and said that they had made a mistake. The rights were not available. Same people still owned it.
After you had put all that time into it!
I was making “The Adjustment Bureau” at the time and was sitting in a trailer for a large chunk of the day. So it was like are you going to watch TV or do this? When I was told I couldn’t have it, I thought well if they have owned this thing for so long and haven’t done anything with it I’m just going to write it anyway. And if someone else makes it first, fine. Eventually Bob Gersh from The Gersh Agency worked out the deal.
Do you think it made the project that much more appealing because you couldn’t have it at first?
It sort of alleviated the pressure of a production deal or deadline in a way. When you’re sitting around, like actors do, and you start to go crazy because you need an outlet, I would do this. At the end of the day, I’d put in a few hours and crank it around a little bit and I wouldn’t feel crazy that day.
Do you have a different itch that’s satisfied by writing versus acting?
It’s the same if I were acting in a play or directing. Creative people go on vacation and four days in you’re like I gotta get out of here. I have a lot of energy, so I’m told. I surf a lot.
You live in L.A.?
Half the time. For “Mad Men” we’re in New York so I have a place I go surfing in Long Island.
Isn’t that freezing?
In the winter it is. But there’s all kinds of gear now, it’s like skiing almost. If I sit around and do nothing for a while, I get a little screwy.
What did you find most compelling about the material in “God’s Pocket”? What made you want to make this film?
It’s very visual, which appealed to me. I sort of see things in pictures -- I don’t know whether that makes me dumb or smart. Like a kid almost. And the dialogue, by which I mean the characters, just the way they expressed themselves was interesting. It was a simple, to the point way of saying things without saying everything.
The book is very interior. It takes place in Mickey’s head, which was difficult to do in a film. You have to show that, you can’t tell it. That was a challenge. Mickey’s state of mind and his anxiety in hanging on to this woman that he feels lucky to be with. He feels that if I lose this woman then I’ll never get anybody else like that. I think there’s a sentence that says he realized that would be the last woman he would ever get without paying for it. So even though she might not be in love with him anymore, he doesn’t really belong in this place, he has no affinity for this place, he just has this woman.
What I think you get from Christina’s performance is the disappointment she feels. He’s not picking up on the signals of what she needs, you see them having sex and obviously that’s not going very well. He can’t express himself. And she needs something. She needs to find out what happened to her son. She needs him to step up and do the right thing, and he’s trying but they’re missing each other.
Did you consider acting in the film?
No. I got asked if I was going to, and every time I said no, people were like, “good idea.” [laughs] Which I was like, “what the hell do you mean by that?”
I ask because you’ve directed a handful of “Mad Men” episodes.
That’s the least sort of fun of the whole thing -– being in it. Some moments where you get relaxed enough where you know the scene, have done your homework, know the lines, and you sit down and it can be really fun. Because you know what you’re doing on one side of the camera and know what you’re doing on the other.
Like Woody Allen, I mean I would never even put myself in the same stratosphere, but he is Woody Allen. He knows what he knows and he has the time he has. Ben Affleck -- I have to say, I admire the hell out of that guy with a move like “Argo.” To direct it and then give that kind of performance. I don’t know how the hell he dealt with that stress.
Another example of directors starring in movies is here at Sundance –- Zach Braff’s new film “Wish I Was Here.”
I’m interested in Zach taking 10 years to do this. I’m sure there are all kinds of reasons –- he was acting, he was being successful in all kinds of ways. I’d like to try it sometime, but you’d have to build in the assurance that you have the proper amount of time so you didn’t feel like “Oh I shouldn’t have done this.”
How did you cast this film? Did you just ask Christina Hendricks at the water cooler to come be in your movie?
I went to Phil [Seymour Hoffman] first. You go through the proper channels because you don’t want to burden anybody with “do me a favor.” That’s a drag. I sent him the script and I anticipated that he would let me down easy and say I like it but I don’t have time. I had sent it with an offer for the part of Shelburne. He called and said, “I love the script, but I want to play Mickey.” And it took me about two minutes to realize what a great idea that was. So I said all right, in.
Then I mentioned it to Christina because I was directing an episode of “Mad Men” and saw her through the monitor and just realized she was the perfect person. I hadn’t gotten Phil to officially commit yet so I said here’s the script, I’d love you to play this part and I hope to get Phil. She was thrilled. I sent it to Richard Jenkins who is represented by my agent. About 45 minutes later, he called and said he was in. And then John Turturro read it and called up and said he was busy doing a movie but that he wanted to do it too. I was just floored.
There’s a scene where Christina is up on a balcony and the men are below in the street looking up at her. She slowly walks inside and that quiet moment really illuminated how much power her character has in this film.
She condoned this guy being beaten to death because he took advantage of her. What I wanted to convey was that this is a woman who knows her currency. All these guys know their weight in the world -- whether it’s slapping somebody around or using the way you look to get what you want. She knows this guy wants to get in her pants and she wants to find something out. She realized in that scene in the field that the way to do that is to let him do what he wants. But then he doesn’t give her what she wants. And in the end she watches him getting beaten in the street and she just walks away, letting it happen. If she had said stop, they would have stopped.
You mentioned earlier that making this movie 10 years ago would have been very different. What do you think you bring to the table now?
I think just seeing more of everything. Life. You get to a point where you’re young and you’re an actor and everything is always about “if I could just get this,” “if I could only get that.” And then you start to realize this is my place in the food chain. This is what I do well. I don’t do everything well. I can’t play everything. I’m not a movie star. I don’t want to be a movie star. Your aspirations become more your own. And then it occurs to you to want to put your own foot forward creatively. You watch other people do their thing and you think, “I could do this. I can try at this.”
You also realize that there are sophisticated degrees of performing. There’s actor A, B, C and then there’s Phil Hoffman. And Richard Jenkins and Christina Hendricks and John Turturro. And the fact that they said yes.
That’s also a testament to you.
But when it really comes down to it, it’s because you recognize what they do. You really recognize what they’re capable of doing and I should be so lucky to be able to work with those guys.