As it would happen, less than 24 hours before I sit down to write this, John Slattery appears on millions of American televisions, gliding into our homes (or wherever kids these days stream Mad Men on their laptops and tablets) in character as Roger Sterling. It’s a particularly Roger-heavy episode this week, and the slick ad man is at a hippie commune, trying to take in his daughter’s world and withhold judgment, but still unafraid to poke a few holes in her friends’ blind idealism. “Oh, believe me,” he says. “There’s always a hierarchy.”
He smirks as he says it, but not in a cruel way. He just knows he’s right. And he is: there’s always a hierarchy, and we’re always struggling to figure out our place within it. Sometimes we’re content with our position, and sometimes we try to rise to the top, but either way, we determine who we are by where we are. Place defines us.
So call it whatever you want—serendipity, life imitating art, a writer grasping for an angle (I won’t be offended)—but as luck would have it, place dominates my first conversation with Slattery. He’s got a new one, a fresh position in the hierarchy as a feature-film director with the upcoming God’s Pocket, which opens May 9 and stars Richard Jenkins, Slattery’s Mad Men costar Christina Hendricks, John Turturro and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles.
It’s not his first time behind the camera, however (he cut his teeth on the Mad Men set, directing five episodes), and Slattery sees the move as part of the natural progression of his career.
“It was sort of slow to form, the idea,” he says. “You hang around movie sets and TV and even theater, and I have my opinions and the way I would do things, and then you just think it would be nice. The older you get, you’d like to be in a position of control artistically, creatively. Not because you think you could do it better, but you’d like to see how well you could do it. So when I got to Mad Men, it was just apparent that this would be a great place to learn, and I threw my hat in and they eventually said yes, and it’s been a great opportunity. I wouldn’t have made the movie—or certainly wouldn’t have made it yet—if it weren’t for Matt Weiner giving me a chance to direct on Mad Men.”
God’s Pocket was also slow to form. Slattery first read the Pete Dexter novel on which the movie is based 10 years ago and tried (and failed) to secure the rights to it. Before he’d found his place as a director, he had already found the place to which he wanted to take audiences—the tiny working-class neighborhood of God’s Pocket, where locals spend their whole lives and non-natives spend the rest of their days being reminded they’re not from around these parts.
“When I read it, it just seemed like a contained enough story that you could use most, if not all, of the story in a film,” Slattery says. “Sometimes with a novel you have to really slice it apart, and with a short story you have to build it up, but this seemed doable almost in its entirety, and it seemed very vivid, specifically drawn. If it’s a specific enough picture, it becomes that much more of a possibility.”
“When I read his book, it was very visual to me, the description of the place and the people again were so very strong,” he continues. “And it just rises up off the page; you could see the picture. I wanted to be able to find a place, it was very important to me to find a place where the bar and the house were across the street from each other and in the same shot. You had to be able to actually see it. To find a backlot where you could put a camera in the room and look out the window and see someone approaching, driving up, getting out of the car and walking up the stairs. So you can get that sense that everyone can see everyone else.”
The picture that’s drawn in God’s Pocket is of Mickey Scarpato (Hoffman), his wife Jeannie (Hendricks) and the complications in their marriage after the death of Jeannie’s son, but ultimately it’s broader than that; ultimately, it is a story about a place, a small, insular town that keeps gazing inward at itself and holding back its residents.
“The place that we found to shoot it, it was important for me to create that sense of claustrophobia,” Slattery explains. “A community that small, and the place actually physically is high ground and low ground, you can see for a distance in shots, they live right across the street from the bar, the funeral parlor is right down the street, everything is kind of in walking distance, right on top of each other. Everybody knows everybody else’s business. You look out the bar window and almost look into Mickey’s bedroom window, or vice versa. It’s all on top of each other. The question was, in a community that small, the longing is everything. Where’s your position in the hierarchy? And Mickey is being constantly reminded that he’s not from this place. He’s struggling to kind of get into a place that keeps reminding him he’s not from there.”
There’s always a hierarchy.
actors get notoriously tight-lipped when you try to ask anything about the upcoming season—not necessarily because they don’t want to discuss it, but because they’ve been sworn to secrecy by Matt Weiner, because they’ve signed legally binding documents of some sort or another ensuring that if they want to keep their jobs, they’ll keep their mouths shut.
But not John Slattery. When I start to say “I know you can’t say anything about the upcoming season” as a segue into a question about a past one, he interrupts, and I get a taste of that charm we’ve come to expect from TV’s Roger Sterling.
“Sure, ask me whatever you want to know!” he jokes. “Come on now. What are they gonna do, fire me?”
That playful sense of humor works its way into Slattery’s projects frequently—certainly in his portrayal of veritable one-liner machine Roger (“I think there is a darkness to Don that Roger doesn’t have. He doesn’t have the history that Don has, the childhood. Roger was raised privileged, money and opportunity. It wasn’t that he didn’t have his challenges, but he didn’t have the upbringing that Draper had.”), but also in God’s Pocket. It’s a tragic story, but like on Mad Men, there are some fantastic moments of levity that make the whole thing darkly funny.
“Well, I’m really glad to hear you say that,” Slattery says. “That’s intentional. That’s all in Peter Dexter’s book. I think a lot of it is hilarious. Richard Jenkins’ character Shelburn I think is a riot. Yeah, it’s dark. But they do a lot of funny stuff. I tell you what I wanted to have happen, which is a sort of casual—the violence is understood and commonplace that it becomes unsensational, you know? From there, it can get absurd and funny. So, that’s what I kind of hoped would happen.”
There is, of course, a bit of a dark cloud hanging over God’s Pocket, after Hoffman died of a drug overdose on Feb. 2, just a little over two weeks after the movie premiered at Sundance.
“Phil, while having these amazing depths of emotion, also has great—”
Slattery pauses. “Er, had. I keep catching myself.” There’s another pause as he decides—consciously or unconsciously—that the present tense is the best way to discuss his recently departed friend. “He has great technical skill. He knows exactly where the camera is, exactly the size of the shot, exactly where it would pick up editorially and where the shot was no good anymore if he got up and left the room. All that while all that emotion is going on.
“You know, you open the discussion and then you let these people do what you hired them to do,” he continues. “The reason they signed on is because they understand the material…It was really interesting to watch someone like Phil, and John Turturro and Richard and Christina, all these actors that make choices and then they’re not afraid to adjust their interpretation and evolve. However long a period of time they’re shooting, it’s changing. They’re trying things and discovering things and realizing that, ‘If I do it this way, let’s see if that works.’ I mean, Turturro has written and directed five movies. He knows the editorial process, so he’ll give you one and say ‘You know, you might want this faster’ and start over again while the camera is rolling.”
He’s directed himself in the past on Mad Men, but Slattery says he had no desire to pull double-duty in God’s Pocket.
“It wasn’t because it was something I had trouble with on Mad Men,” he says. “I just didn’t think I could play the part as well as Richard Jenkins could. You know, there were other people I thought could play these parts better than me. It wasn’t the reason I wanted to do it, to put myself in the movie. I have nothing against that idea—I admire people like Ben Affleck and certainly Woody Allen who can do that and give the kind of performances they give. It’s amazing, and it really is difficult. There is so much more to think about if you’re in it and directing at the same time, so I figured the first time I would just not do that.”
His experience as an actor in front of the camera has obviously had an effect on what he does behind it, but Slattery says that his work as a director has also changed his approach to acting.
“You realize that you’re a much smaller piece of the equation than, well at least than I thought, before,” he says. “I don’t know whether it’s just ego or whatever, but you realize that if you get close to what you want to do, an editor and a soundtrack and all kinds of other elements can go in to adjusting what the actor does. It sort of takes the pressure off. And watching other actors from the other side of the camera, you go, ‘You know, you don’t want to necessarily have it all figured out beforehand.’ It’s good to try to figure it out in the moment, while it’s all going on. That can be much more interesting than a series of choices that go bang, bang, bang down the line. It’s certainly loosened me up as an actor.”
He plans on continuing to pursue both acting and directing, but once the press tour for God’s Pocket comes to a close and Mad Men inevitably wraps its final season (about which he says “It has not set in yet, certainly not fully. I mean, I get the idea that it’s going to end. I’m not ready to deal with that yet. It’ll be sad. It’ll be emotional. We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve all become very close.”), Slattery plans on taking a bit of a breather.
“I don’t have a specific idea of what to do, which is fine for me for a while,” he says. “I’m going to not do anything for a while.” He laughs.
But until he finds his next project and goes wherever it takes him, Slattery will be keeping his eyes open, looking for that next compelling place. If there’s anything God’s Pocket and Mad Men have taught him, it’s that setting is everything.
“I try to mind that it could be overly simplified, but if it’s specific enough it becomes universal,” he explains. “You don’t have to be a secretary in the same office to someone else or doing the same job, but that situation is so specific that it flips a switch in the viewer that they say ‘Oh, that happened to me.’ It wasn’t the exact circumstance, but it was the exact same sort of condition or emotion. ‘I was angry in just the same way’ or ‘I was frustrated, dissatisfied, unhappy’ or whatever. I think that’s what makes Mad Men—and this novel by Pete Dexter—so evocative because it is that specific.
“You know, I’ve always loved films that transport you somewhere else. I want the lights to go down, the story starts and people get taken on a ride, with this small story of a group of people that live in a place in time and they struggle, and Mickey struggles to do the right thing, and that both the performances and all the visual aspects of it created a world that takes you out of yours and into that until it’s finished. I’ve seen Grand Budapest Hotel a couple times. I find that movie so transporting. The lights come down, and you’re immediately taken away, you’re grabbed and transported somewhere else until it’s finished. And you come out of there, it’s such a breath of fresh air. It’s a story—God’s Pocket, that is—that is so unpredictable and specific, so I hope people don’t know what to expect and they get taken on a ride.”
After all, that’s what the best movies do—temporarily free us from our own hierarchy by transporting us into someone else’s. And that’s the type of filmmaker Slattery will continue to be, one who takes us out of our place by dropping us into a different one. Because he’s found his.