By Gus Van Sant
Photography Marcus Piggott, Mert Alas
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.