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BERLIN ’08 DISPATCH | Life in London: Madonna and Mike Leigh In Berlinale Spotlight

BERLIN '08 DISPATCH | Life in London: Madonna and Mike Leigh In Berlinale Spotlight

Her first feature may have been made relatively under the radar — at least for a woman of her stature — but iconic actress/author and all around uber pop star, now turned filmmaker, Madonna nevertheless made quite a splash in Berlin today. She landed on the cover of local tabloids ahead of the world premiere of her directorial debut “Filth & Wisdom” at the Berlinale tonight and huge crowds gathered wherever she went in public, from throngs of journalists at a press conference, a mob around the big screen TV broadcasting the live Q &A, a sea of fans outside the Berlin fest headquarters and later at the Zoo Palast theater. indieWIRE spent some quieter moments with Madonna during one of the few one-on-one interviews she gave earlier today.

Set in London, the film, which Madonna said was originally envisioned as a short, ultimately evolved into an 85-minute movie. It revolves around three friends desperate to better their lot in life, who must duel with the reality of their circumstances. While causing a stir at the Berlinale, the film is screening in the fest’s more artsy and understated Panorama section, alongside many other films from first-timers. Early word after today’s press screening seemed positive among those who caught the showing, with some saying that it exceeded their expectations. No doubt, reviews of the movie will hit print and web outlets overnight.

An indieWIRE First Look at Madonna’s “Filth and Wisdom,” in a three-minute scene, is available now, via Dailymotion.

In “Filth & Wisdom,” Ukrainian immigrant, A.K. (Eugene Hutz) finances his dreams for music stardom by turning tricks as a role-playing cross-dresser, while the object of his affections, Holly (Holly Weston) takes a job as a stripper all the while training as a ballerina hoping for her big break. Meahwhile, Juliette (Vicky Mclure) works by day in a pharmacy hoping to earn enough money to go off to Africa and satiate her dreams of helping children.

For anyone with an iota of Madonna historical knowledge, it quickly becomes evident that the characters also represent various parts of her life — from her own early quest to be a dancer, to becoming a singer, to her more recent charitable efforts in Malawi.

“This is the terrain I’ve been exploring throughout the years,” Madonna told indieWIRE during the conversation at a Mitte hotel today (Wednesday). “Non-judgment and duality… People have misunderstood my [attention to] this theme yet it has made me what I am today.” She referred to A.K.’s dilemma of needing to cross-dress in order to earn a living while working to achieve superstardom with his gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello.

Madonna and “Filth and Wisdom” co-star Holly Weston at Tuesday’s press conference. Photo capture from press conference webcast

“I wrote the part for Eugene and it worked out [getting him],” Madonna said (she co-wrote the script with Dan Cadan who had assisted husband Guy Ritchie). The project had its genesis after Madonna was designing clothes for H&M and convinced the retailer to let her direct her commercials to promote the line. “I worked with Nicola Doring who produced the commercials and we started to talk about doing a film.” Madonna first collaborated with Doring, who now heads production company HSI‘s London office, when Doring produced Jonas Akerlund‘s video for her hit “Ray of Light,” ten years ago.

After whetting her directing appetite with the H&M commercials and now her first feature, Madonna seems intent on going behind the camera again. “I love directing, I loved being behind the camera and having a say in aspects of [the production].” Continuing she added, “I made the movie under the radar and I think its sensibility is European… so I wanted to take it to Berlin… It’s not a gigantic glitzy affair.”

Explaining that she’s always admired “the art of filmmaking and the ability to tell a good story,” she added in a director’s statement that she finally decided to “put my money where my mouth is.” “‘Filth and Wisdom’ was essentially my way of putting myself through film school.”

There are no plans to take the film to additional festivals, instead Madonna’s team are exploring both traditional and non-traditional distribution options — don’t be surprised if the film gets an online release as part of the strategy. They hope to have the film out soon.

“I have other ideas swirling in my head,” Madonna said coyly when asked what else is on tap. For now she also has a new doc, “I Am Because We Are,” that will make its way around the festival circuit this Spring (apparently with stops in Tribeca and Cannes). She is also prepping another feature that she hopes to direct. It will “take place in New York, London and Paris,” she said of the new project, before quickly turning to her publicist, and smiling, “Oops, I don’t know if I should have said that.” [Brian Brooks]

Leigh is “Happy-Go-Lucky”

Another contemporary London story that has had Berlinale festival-goers buzzing in the past 24 hours is Mike Leigh‘s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” a competition entry that was swiftly acquired for U.S. distribution by Miramax Films. Select buyers got an early look at the film here in Berlin late last week and by the time the film had its world premiere here on Monday night, the deal was sealed.

Sally Hawkins as Poppy in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky.” Photo provided by the Berlinale

The story of a persistently chipper and friendly school teacher, the film stars Sally Hawkins as “Poppy,” who happily rides her bike through London as the film opens. Other than a few moments of confrontation that shake the young women, the film mostly focuses on her unexpected search for love, offering an often humorous storyline that some festival-goers challenged the filmmaker about.

“I haven’t changed at all,” Leigh said during the press conference, when asked about the comedic tone of the film, “I’ve never made a film that didn’t contain comic elements. “Though it is absolutely a comedy, it has serious intent and has its dark side as well.” He added, “Every time I make a film to do something different.”

“When we are in a world heading towards disaster its important to reject the kind of growing fashion to be miserablist, the fashion to be pessimistic, to be glooomy,” Leigh explained yesterday, “Poppy is a positive person who confronts things and deals with them and is not prepared to be negative,” continuing, he noted, “It is also a film about love, nothing new about it except the way that the story works on you, my experiment was to make something happen, to creep up on you…”

Later, Leigh was again asked about the film’s tone and the way he views his characters. “There’s no nihiistic pleasure on my part in showing anybody in a negative way. My job is to show people how we are, that’s good and bad. There are no black and white, good or bad people in this film. [Eugene Hernandez]

indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Berlinale is available in iW’s special Berlin section.

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