John Slattery has spent much of his career playing authority figures, so it makes sense that he would one day become one. Since 2010, the actor has directed five episodes of “Mad Men,” all while continuing the role of quip-heavy silver fox ad god Roger Sterling. Now he’s made his feature debut, the very different “God’s Pocket,” an adaptation of Pete Dexter’s gritty South Philadelphia comic drama about a truck thief (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last roles) trying to get the money to bury his murdered stepson.
When did you know you wanted to direct?
I don’t know when it fully formed as an idea, but I would stand on film sets and have my own opinions — and generally keep them to myself. And then I read this book and it seemed like a movie to me. It took another 10 years to get it fully realized. The idea had time to gestate.
Directing your own movie is very different from a TV show.
We’d done three seasons before I started directing, so the visual style of the show was firmly present. So you’re not inventing the wheel. You’re just executing a vision — partly yours, mostly Matt Weiner’s.
And the visual style is very different from “Mad Men,” too.
If you look at Peter Yates, here’s a guy who directed “The Dresser” and “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” If you looked at those two movies, I wonder if you’d be able to determine who directed them. The style is determined by the narrative, by the world the story lives in. At least to me. So “Mad Men” exists in a different world than does “God’s Pocket,” so it by necessity looks different.
“Eddie Coyle” is a good comparison piece. Both it and “God’s Pocket” portray crime not as glamorous but as a real blue-collar job.
The thing I liked about [“Eddie Coyle”] was the unsensational quality of the lifestyle. They live in a dangerous world, but no one makes a big deal out of it. The same could be said for the people of “God’s Pocket.” They’re all prepared to do things that you and I aren’t prepared to do. But they don’t make a big show of it, mostly because of the nature of the business. There’s a scene where they steal a truck, and the guy they take along with them punches the driver in the stomach. Phil’s character says, “What the f—? That’s not how we do things. We’re doing something illegal, you may want to be a bit more subtle about it.” I like that aspect of it, the unsensational quality of their enterprise.
It also neither romanticizes nor judges the denizens of the neighborhood.
No one in the place feels sorry for themselves. It isn’t the prettiest place on earth, but it isn’t the worst. And it isn’t without hope. No one walks around hanging their head, thinking how difficult life is. They just get on with it, with a sense of humor. They’re not without irony, these people.
This wasn’t shot in Philadelphia. Did you spend some time there?
I visited those neighborhoods, including the one that was called Devil’s Pocket. But it wasn’t necessarily the same visually as it once was. We tried to shoot in Philadelphia, but we couldn’t afford it, tax credit-wise, accommodations-wise. So we shot it in Yonkers, New York. It’s a great-looking city, though.
What are the things you were shocked to discover when directing a first film?
There’s a certain satisfaction to having that kind of creative control. Alternately, the part I didn’t anticipate was the realization that if you don’t get it right now, chances are you won’t. Because you can’t come back. With this kind of money, 40 people and 28 locations in 24 days, you don’t get a chance to necessarily go back. “Mad Men,” the sets are there, the actors are there for six months. You can make a mistake and fill it in. You can’t do that so much with this kind of schedule. The best things happen when there’s no force on them, when you can allow an accident to happen. That’s hard when the schedule is so defined.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was offered the journalist, ultimately played by Richard Jenkins, first. Why the switch?
He asked to play Mickey. I offered him the part of Richard Shellburn, and he said, “I like the script, but I want to play Mickey.”
Was there a reason?
He didn’t really say why. He said later that he was drawn to the simple humanity of the character. I think they all have humanity, at different levels or different kinds. Maybe it was something he hadn’t played before. I don’t know. He obviously had an emotional connection to the character, which is everything.
He was a producer on this film. What was he like?
He came with ideas, he was inclusive and he put people at ease. He could be intimidating — he’s Philip Seymour Hoffman. People would walk in a little nervous at working with him, and he would put them at ease. He was a very smart guy. He knew everything that was happening, knew which takes were better. He was very involved.
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