Madonna gets ready to cause a commotion in Venice

The star's latest film will premiere at this year's festival. Kaleem Aftab reports on the rumours of a troubled production

It seems strange to say, but Madonna may be struggling to find her voice. The singer's latest attempt to reinvent herself as a movie director has met with raised eyebrows and a certain amount of scepticism ahead of the world premier of her new film, W.E., at the Venice Film Festival.

We have been on this territory before. Her first foray into film-making was Filth and Wisdom, starring Gogol Bordello's lead singer, Eugene Hütz. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2008 and received mixed reviews, commonly along the lines of "not as bad as we were expecting from the star of Swept Away".

Madonna always proffered that her film about three flatmates leading diverse lives in London was her film school, a low-budget testing pad to learn all the whatnots of shooting a movie. Things presumably that her ex-husband the Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels director Guy Ritchie could not pass on to her.

So now we come to W.E., the feature film that Madonna has stated was written before her debut and is the movie she has always wanted to make. Bizarrely, the US distributor of the film, The Weinstein Company, is trying to push the movie as the pop star's directorial debut rather than as her second movie. The basis of this is absurd: they claim that at 81 minutes, Filth and Wisdom is a short film. There is not one body in the world that classes any film more than 80 minutes long as short. I'd like to hear the conversation where Harvey Weinstein tells Roman Polanski that his competition film Carnage is, at 79 minutes, a short film.

Nonetheless, the message is clear: the singer is now ready to put her head on the chopping block and be assessed as a director. W.E. keeps up Madonna's love affair with Britain. It tells the story of a New Yorker, Wally Winthrop, who is infatuated with what she believes is the ultimate love story: King Edward VIII marrying the American divorcee Wallis Simpson and giving up the throne. The film jumps back and forth between 1936 and 1998 New York, where Wally has a job working in Sotheby's Estate House, where there is an auction of royal memorabilia. Unhappy in her marriage to a psychiatrist, Wally falls in love with a mysterious Russian security guard.

The project has been shrouded in much secrecy but what has slipped out about the production doesn't necessarily bode well. The first hitch came even before film had rolled. The 53-year-old director seemed to have pulled off a coup by castingVera Farmiga, who was Oscar-nominated for Up in the Air, in the role of the American divorcee and Ewan McGregor as Edward.

But Farmiga fell pregnant and had to withdraw, and McGregor was never confirmed. The part instead went to James D'Arcy. These could just be seen as the usual production troubles, but Madonna admitted in Interview magazine to some frustration about the working methods of actors, constantly hearing words to the effect of, "That actor is not available except for these three weeks."

Once the film was announced, dissenting voices about the comportment of the director began to emerge. The Nine Songs star Margo Stilley was cast as Lady Thelma Furness in the period drama, but left the project. She stated, "I had the role, but we had artistic differences. She [Madonna] is really something."

It was not just actors that seemed to create casting issues. Nina Gold, one of Britain's top casting agents – she cast Vera Drake and the TV series Rome – left the project along with the Shakespeare in Love producer David Parfitt. Sources claimed that the duo had "creative differences" with Madonna and that she struggled to "collaborate and delegate".

The singer admits to liking arguments as part of the creative process. Madonna co-wrote the W.E. script with Alek Keshishian, who directed the 1991 documentary In Bed with Madonna, and she told Gus van Sant this about their collaboration: "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 were slamming the door in each other's face and not speaking to each other for a month."

Madonna admits that it's hard for her to hear "no": "It's torture for me, because I want to personally go to all the people who are saying no to me and say, 'Can't we just work something out?'... Film-making is such a collaboration. At a certain point, I suppose you do have to let go and trust people that you are working with."

Shooting took place last summer in London, the home counties, Paris and New York. It was her first major return to the capital after her divorce from Guy Ritchie. Whenever she would shoot at an East End location, it was almost unavoidable that the singer would be compared to her ex, given the speculation that his ridiculing of her move into film-making contributed to the end of the marriage.

The rising British star Andrea Riseborough was cast to play Wallis Simpson. The Newcastle-born 29-year-old, who came to prominence playing Margaret Thatcher in Margaret Thatcher: the Long Walk to Finchley, was last year feted for her turns in Never Let Me Go and Brighton Rock.

She says of the role, "I had to do a training regime to get into the Wallis state. She didn't eat. She had a stomach ulcer and so she couldn't eat, that has been really interesting because her physicality is extraordinary. She is riddled with tension. It was tough physically, a lot of massage to undo the knots that she created, the way she stands. But you have to be tense to pull off the gowns. They are works of architecture in themselves."

Riseborough only had good words to say about her director: "She is wonderful. She is very focused, driven, hard-working and supportive."

Playing Wally in 1998 is the 29-year-old Australian actress Abbie Cornish. The star of Limitless and Sucker Punch spoke of having to be constantly on her toes on set, not because Madonna was a tyrant but because of the need to be up on political events. "You need to be totally switched on to the news and current affairs to talk to her – she asks you questions all the time and expects you to be up on everything that's going on, from Libya to the latest advances in technology."

The road to the first public screening of W.E. has also been rocky. Expectations were that it would premier in Berlin, like Filth and Wisdom, but only a trailer was shown and Madonna turned up to push the film to ensure sales. The singer promised that she would do interviews supporting the film, before several buyers signed up. Cannes was next on the agenda, but when the film did not appear the singer claimed she was working on the sound mix for the film and it was not ready. There were unsubstantiated rumours of poor test screenings. As with many films rumoured to be in Cannes but not making the cut, the film has turned up at Venice Film Festival.

W.E. is playing out of competition, usually a bad sign for a film with such a high profile. However, the line-up for this year's festival is the strongest it has been for years, with new films from George Clooney, David Cronenberg and Roman Polanski all making their debuts. So it's perhaps no surprise that Madonna has been given a special screening. Whether this is a gimmick to ensure more star appeal on the Lido in a year that Venice wants to prove it is not a festival in decline, will only be revealed when W.E. is finally unveiled. Madonna failed to make the jump from singer to movie star, and it's going to be one of the stories of the festival to see if she can successfully make the jump behind the camera.

Venice Film Festival runs from 31 August to 10 September (www.labiennale.org)

Sex, Spies and Psychoanalysis: Five To Watch at Venice

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tomas Alfredson, the director of 'Let the Right One In', adapts John le Carré's spy novel with an all-star British cast. Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, with Colin Firth (above), Benedict Cumberbatch and John Hurt supporting.

Shame

Steve McQueen's follow up to 'Hunger' is set in New York and stars Michael Fassbender as a man unable to manage his wild sex life. His self-destructive sister (Carey Mulligan) moves into his apartment.

Wuthering Heights

Andrea Arnold takes on Emily Brontë in what the 'Red Road' director has described as a pared-down and modern approach to the novel. The emphasis is likely to be on the gothic.

Carnage

Roman Polanski adapts Yasmina Reza's four-hander play 'God of Carnage'. It stars Jodie Foster, John C Reilly, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet (right), and tells the story of parents who decide to meet together after their sons have a brawl in school.

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg explores the birth of psychoanalysis in his adaptation (above) of Christopher Hampton's 2002 stage play 'The Talking Cure', itself based on John Kerr's book 'A Most Dangerous Method'. Viggo Mortensen stars as Freud and Michael Fassbender as Jung, while Keira Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor