John Slattery on his Latest Directorial Feature “Maggie Moore(s)” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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John Slattery on his Latest Directorial Feature “Maggie Moore(s)”

Creative Control

Jun 15, 2023 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


On Mad Men he played the boss of 1960’s New York’s most swaggering ad exec. Nearly a decade after that hit series’ finale, John Slattery cast his former co-star, Jon Hamm, as the protagonist in the new film he was directing, Maggie Moore(s) (out June 16). But just because he got the chance to be Hamm’s director, that doesn’t mean the silver haired and silver-tongued talent (who brought us the beguilingly wily Mad Men character Roger Sterling) finally got to bring his leading man pal down a peg.

“You know, you don’t really tell him what to do. You just hope he’ll do what you ask him to do,” Slattery says, with a sly smile that doesn’t disappoint, during a recent Zoom call as part of Maggie Moore(s)’ promo junket. Rather than escalate the rapier banter that made he and Hamm prestige TV legends, Slattery embraces his current, more prudent indie filmmaker role, and goes on to tell Under the Radar: “I’m kidding. Jon and I get along great. We did from the moment we met. And I’ve directed a bunch of Mad Men [episodes] too, so we got used to shepherding each other through scenes. Besides, he knows what he’s doing.”

In an interview with Under the Radar, Slattery specifies just what Hamm knows so much about. The director also reveals how he handled objections from those affected by the real-life tragedies that Maggie Moore(s) was based upon, before dishing on the challenges of releasing a quirky murder mystery for grown-ups in this super-hero sequel saturated era, recollecting what it was like to reunite Hamm and Tina Fey onscreen years after their onscreen chemistry first sizzled on her indelible hit series 30 Rock, and much more.

(Kyle Mullin) Under the Radar: So, as a Bostonian and someone who’s lived in New York for years, did this movie’s dusty small town desert setting offer you anything aesthetically special?

John Slattery: We eventually changed the setting in the script to a fictional town in Arizona. Though we shot it in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Makes sense, because I kind of got a Raising Arizona, Coen Brothers vibe from it.

Yeah, a little bit. It was a desert story, so I was determined to not change that. I haven’t spent a lot of time in the southwest, but it always appealed to me, cinematically. It always looks great. And that’s where the real events that this story was based upon took place.

What are the challenges of making a movie based on real events?

It’s based on a real event that took place in Texas in the year 2000, where two women named Mary Morris were murdered. And they never solved the case. The writer of this script, Paul Bernbaum, read about it and just took that circumstance—two women with the same name, in the same town, in the same week, murdered—and he wrote an entirely fictional story about that.

But then Paul and I were contacted by the daughters of these two women, who were upset we had made a comedy about this. I called them to reassure them we hadn’t done that, and we never would. The circumstance was just a do that we just a jumping off point. None of these characters are real. But this is an open case in Texas, and the daughters were hoping that if someone saw this movie and did recognize anything from the circumstance, that they call Crime Stoppers and offer any information that they had. If we can be helpful in that way, that would be amazing.

So was that kind of in your mind as you were shooting certain scenes— that you wanted to handle things delicately?

We wanted to be respectful. And I mean, the comedy in the movie doesn’t come from people getting killed. The comedy comes from this buffoon making these decisions that result in dire circumstances. And it’s in the banter between Jon Hamm’s character and Nick Mohammed [of Ted Lasso fame] and Tina Fey. We wanted audiences to feel the weight of the tragedies, the reality of what that does to the people around the victims.

Not to spoil anything, but the ending certainly isn’t comedic. It’s quite brutal and thrilling, actually. How were those tonal changes fulfilling for you as a director?

The tonal changes are what drew me to the movie. Trying to balance all of that is my favorite sort of challenge. And finding people that could do those things, who could play both the comedy and the heavy moments, was also challenging. And then it was great when we were successful.

You did indeed find a versatile cast. Aside from Hamm and Fey, I was struck by Micah Stock as Jay Moore, the buffoon you mentioned. He really goes for it in this movie.

Yeah, he does go for it. I did a play with him four or five years ago. He was playing a German cop, and took these big swings, like you say. He put himself on tape for this part, and of course the producers being producers and the financiers being financiers, they wanted me to cast famous people in every part. Because they think it sells tickets. Micah was not the most famous, but he was the person who nailed that tone, and that specificity of of that guy. I didn’t want to cast someone who looked necessarily evil. It was a guy who just makes a series of ridiculously dumb choices. It needed comic sensitivity.

A moment ago you mentioned the financiers. How challenging is it to get a movie like this made in 2023?

I don’t mean to insinuate that all financiers aren’t sensitive to the script’s needs. They’re just trying to recoup their money. But, um, it’s challenging. Because movie watching has changed. The independent movie isn’t what it was. I mean, the movies might be, but the venues aren’t. And how people watch movies, and where, and what they pay for them—all of it’s changed. Selling them, buying them, producing them is completely different. Even in the two years from when I read this script to now putting the movie out.

I have friends that have movies in the Tribeca Film Festival who can’t sell them. Or they’ve been offered nothing for them, in a real way. “We’ll market the film. We’ll distribute it. But we’ll give you nothing for it.” I guess it’s all back end. But that’s the first time I’d heard of that.

But you’re still drawn to it? Or do you see yourself directing more television, going forward?

Well, the good thing about directing a movie of this size is that you have some semblance of creative control. I’ve worked on bigger movies. And I’ve worked on bigger television shows. And it wasn’t my show. And it wasn’t my call. I’d direct my episode of a TV show, hand it in, and then they might re-cut it, or add music that I might not have chosen.

In this instance I had a lot of control over what it looked like, and sounded like. The edit, the shoots, the casting, all the designers and editor, it was all my decision. That can be satisfying. And it can be daunting, because it’s on you if it doesn’t work. You have to be willing to go with that too.

How do you deal with it being daunting?

You just get through it. You’re nervous. You’re angry. You have anxiety and fear. And exhilaration. We shot for 30 days, and that’s pretty decent these days. And you try to get through the day, and leave yourself some breathing room to allow for anything that might happen. Which is what you want— to be able to give yourself enough time to put two people into a scene and allow things to change, and to occur.

So yeah, it has its practical challenges all over the place. Trying to maintain the excitement, the connection to the material from the start to the finish, and give that to the audience— that’s what I tried to do here.

When you talk about allowing things to happen— were there instances of that on set with, say, Jon and Tina?

Yeah sometimes people would add a line here or there. For example: Nick Mohammed was going to do his part with an American accent, but chose to do it British. And we had to account for that, because he’s an English guy as a deputy in this small desert town. And Tina’s a great writer and improviser, as is Hamm. And Nick and Micah too. I encouraged them to to come up with stuff. Not to change the script, because Paul did a terrific job with it, everybody really liked it and really understood it. His script is why we wanted to do it.

So Jon Hamm’s a great improviser? What’s it like to encourage that in him? Or to be his director and boss in general? Was it fun to boss him around, after putting up with him on Mad Men for all those years?

You know, you don’t really tell him what to do. You just hope he’ll do what you ask him to do. I’m kidding. Jon and I get along great. We did from the moment we met. And I’ve directed a bunch of Mad Men [episodes] too, so we got used to shepherding each other through scenes. Besides, he knows what he’s doing.

How so?

He has great instincts. We had to change one of our cameramen, and at one point he marveled: “This guy is always in the right place!” Meaning Hamm always knows where the light is, how high the camera is. He’s not restricting anybody, he just knows where it is and what that calls for technically while he’s playing a scene with somebody. That’s a gift, to have that kind of metabolism where you know calmly what needs to be done. It’s complicated, and he makes it look uncomplicated.

Is that something you have a flair for as well?

Someone once described acting as managing your nerves. Maybe more so when we used to shoot on film, because there’s a finite quality. The time is money. With digital, the director just walks in in the middle of the thing, and the camera’s still rolling. You’re filling up the card with data.

After directing a couple of times, I realized acting is just a piece of the puzzle. I don’t feel like, “Oh I gotta nail this thing, because the whole thing depends on this.” But if you get anywhere near what you want to achieve, in the editing process and with music and color timing, and all that stuff, the moment will be there if you can just get as close as possible. It doesn’t have to be like “you just nailed it on the head.” And that just frees you up as an actor to try things, and not feel like any take is a bad take. You get things out of that.

So it’s better not to be too rigid?

Yeah, I was directing a young actor once. And I said: “Okay try again, but this time when you apologize, act like it’s the last thing you want to do. Because you’re not really sorry.” And he said “But the reason I’m apologizing is because…” and I said “Yeah I know. But I want you to act the opposite of that.” And it occurred to me that he wanted to play it the same way again. Like he thought he had to nail that one thing. And that’s just a waste of time. We already have that one, so now give me some variety. They’re not reinventing the scene, just giving me variations.

Would you see that done really masterfully when you directed God’s Pocket with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro?

John is is someone who’s directed five films, at least, of his own. So he would just be acting in a scene, then offer to do it faster and insist “You’ll want a faster one.” And he was right.

And Phil… You know, I’ve rarely seen someone go to the depths that he could go to, and know exactly where the camera was as well. And then, two months later, he’s remember and go “Wait, there was another take that day. I think it’s better.” And I’d go back, and sure enough, an angle would be a little better, and you’d go, “That’s exactly the shot we should use.” I don’t know anybody that could do that.

I miss seeing him in films. It’s such a tragedy.

Terrible. Yeah.

When you talked earlier about letting things occur, and being freed up, that reminded me of you and Joh Hamm reuniting for Confess, Fletch last year, where you were busting each other’s balls like the good old days of Mad Men.

It it helps to work with people you know. Our rapport aided those characters. The requirements are different every time. But it’s easier to pretend you don’t know someone than to create a history that doesn’t exist with a person you’ve just met. But it happens all the time— you walk onto a set and you’re shaking hands with someone who you’re either going to get into bed with, or you’re going to pretend you’re married to for 20 years. It’s easier the other way around.

Lastly: does it feel good these days to be able to dress more casually for work, or do you miss the three-piece suits Mad Men was so famous for?

They really helped, because it all contributes to who your character is. So getting into that outfit every day really helps your sense of who that person is, because we all dressed very specifically. I’m grateful for all that, though we bitched about it because it’s hard to stand around in that stuff all day long. Especially for the women, they were sort of really strapped into all that stuff. But it changes your carriage, and it changes everything.

The clothes could reveal a lot about the characters for the viewer, too. I remember one scene between yourself and Hamm, where he comes to your apartment at night, and the pajamas you’re wearing looked more like a sailor suit. That still sticks out in my mind.

There certainly were some strong choices, weren’t there? [Laughs]. (www.screenmedia.com)



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