John Slattery - The “Mad Men” Star on His Feature Directorial Debut, “God’s Pocket”

Learning to Adapt

May 09, 2014 Web Exclusive
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Actor John Slatterybest known for his role as accounts executive Roger Sterling on TV's Mad Menis acclimatizing to a new, second career as a filmmaker. His debut feature as a director, God's Pocket, is adapted from the Pete Dexter novel of the same name, and stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (in one of his last roles), John Turturro, Christina Hendricks, and Richard Jenkins. The film is centered in a grimy, working-class Philadelphia neighborhoodthe titular God's Pocketin the late 1970s. Two-bit criminal Mickey Scarpato's (Hoffman) mentally disturbed stepson is killed in a jobsite dispute, and it's covered up as an accident. Not believing that story, Mickey's wife (Hendricks) tasks her husband and an alcoholic newspaper columnist (Jenkins) with uncovering the truth about her son's death. In this Q&A, Slattery talks about the steps he took to get his first movie made, and about learning the directing ropes from a few of his Mad Men colleagues.

Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): When and how did you first come across Pete Dexter's novel?

John Slattery: I've been saying 10 years ago, but I can't remember exactly when the first time was. I read Paris Trout further back than that, and then found my way to God's Pocket through his other books. I read it, finished it, and it seemed very clear that it would make a good film. I'd never directed a film, and I don't know what possessed me, but I looked up the rights for it and was told it was unavailable. I tried to get the rights and almost actually succeeded, but ultimately didn't, and then I forgot about it.

Sometime after that, a friend who was trying to help me out asked me whatever happened to this book. I reinvestigated it and was told the rights were available. So I thought, let me just outline [God's Pocket] to make sure it works as well as I thought it would. By the time I'd finished that they called and said they'd made a mistake, and that the rights were still owned by the same people, who weren't willing to sell it. So I thought I'd write it anyway, because if they hadn't made it by now, chances are they won't. So, I kept working at it. I was [acting in] a movie called The Adjustment Bureau, sitting around in a trailer for long days, and just kept chipping away at it. Eventually, after I finished it, I got the rights to the book.

Once you had your script and the rights in place, what was your next step as to getting it made? How did you find your financing?

I sent it to a friend of mine who was involved with a production company who was looking to make films. They liked the script. Then I sent it to Phil Hoffman. I didn't send it to anyone else until I got an answer from Phil. His answer was that he liked it, but he wasn't sure about his schedule. We set a bunch of meetings. He was out of town, or I was out of town doing other things, and the meetings kept getting re-scheduled. I was beginning to think he was being polite, because we were friends and lived in the same neighborhood. I thought maybe he said he'd liked it but was too busy to do it because he wanted to let me down easy. And then finally at one of the meetings we were both able to make, he sat down and said to me, "My producing partners keep asking me what I want to do next, and the script I keep coming back to is this." That was a big surprise to me, because I was waiting to be let down gently. Then he started talking about specific scenes, and what he liked about it; about Mickey's struggle, and how it moved him. So we walked out of the meeting, and he said, "It does come down to scheduling. If you can figure out when, then I want to do it." Doing Mad Men, I only had about half a year available and that window was rapidly approaching. He wasn't able to commit to that, and that window came and went, but we weren't really ready to do it, anyway.

Later on we bumped into each other on the street, and I think he'd assumed I'd moved on. I'd had a little bit of pressure from the producers to investigate somebody else maybe playing the part. I said, "I don't want to make the movie without you." I think that surprised him, because he thought I was going to move on to someone else. So after that, it just became about finding a time to do it. Eventually, he found a slot.

I understand you'd initially sent him the script with another character in mind?

I sent him the script because I'd thought of him as Shelburne. [Note: This role was played by Richard Jenkins in the film.] He said he liked the script, but he wanted to play Mickey. It took me a minute to adjust my picture of Mickey, and that changed what everyone else looked like, too. That didn't take me very long. Mickey was someone who could traffic in the world of casual violence. He didn't have to fit a specific, physical type. Phil Hoffman had so much power that it took me only two minutes to see it and realize that it was a great idea.

Obviously, you've worked with Christina Hendricks [on Mad Men] for years now. Was it helpful having someone familiarparticularly, since you've directed her beforeon set for your first feature?

Working with the actors never gave me any pause. For me, the most daunting thing was the scheduling. Having directed Mad Men several times, it seemed less critical. You're shooting a show for six or seven months and if you don't get a shot, chances are you can find time in the schedule to go back and get it. The difficult thing about this was that it was a period movie on a 24-day schedule, with 40 people and 28 locations. Cars, clothes, extras. It was extremely ambitious. I knew that if we didn't get something, we weren't going to get it. Making good, sound, relaxed, exploratory creative decisions with that clamp of a schedule over your head is difficult.

To answer your question, though, working with the actors was for me the easiest part. Working with Phil, Richard, and ChristinaI never found that daunting at all. Working with Christina wasn't so much that I wanted a familiar face on set, but that she was so suited to that part, and she's so adaptive. She's great. 

As someone who works on both sides of the camera, were you ever tempted to put yourself in the film? It seems to me like that'd be something hard to resist.

I suppose I could have put myself in it, but I was never really tempted. Having directed and acted at the same time [on Mad Men] I knew that it takes twice as long and it's distracting. Maybe sometime in the future? This movie had a small story but a lot of moving parts, and I didn't want to compromise it by making myself one of those moving parts. 

Your directing experience, prior to this, was purely episodes of Mad Men. What did it take for you to convince the powers that be on that show to hand over the reins to a first-time director?

That's a good questionI don't know why they did. They knew that I knew the crew, that I knew the story and characters. I had asked to follow some of the directors around. I followed Phil Abraham, who was our original cinematographer and then had become a director. I did that for a few months, and they saw that I was serious about it. I think they figured, "He's so involved, how badly can he screw it up? We're here, and if anything goes afoul we can step in." So it was a controlled experiment for them, I think. But it was really a leap of faith, and a generosity of spirit that they wanted to hand it over. It was a huge, huge opportunity to be given a shot like that.

We were somewhere in the offseason, and I had said, "I guess it's no secret, but I'd like to direct." Basically, I wanted to throw my hat in the ring. Two months later they called out of the blue, and they said, "We're going to give you an episode, under two conditions. One is that you'll have to follow a director around for one more episode and learn everything that you can. And the other condition is that you have to do a really good job." [Laughs] Basically, "You can't fuck this up." I said I would do a really good job, and I worked my ass off.

[God's Pocket opens in select theaters today, May 9, and is available on VOD May 14. Pick up Under the Radar's next print issue to read more from our interview with Slattery.]

www.ifcfilms.com/films/gods-pocket

 



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