John Slattery’s directorial debut, God’s Pocket, premiered last weekend at the Sundance Film Festival and has already been sold to IFC films. The dark comedy, set in a gritty south Philadelphia neighborhood, is based on the novel by Pete Dexter and was co-written by Slattery. In the film, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays part-time crook and local fixer Mickey Scarpato. He’s married to Christina Hendricks, whose only son, Leon, has been injured in an on-the-job accident. Rolling Stone cornered Slattery on the streets of Park City to learn more about life behind the camera, his long-term hopes for Roger Sterling and why he’s ready for Mad Men to end.
God’s Pocket is liquor-soaked just like Mad Men. Is that a coincidence?
I don’t see it as the same world. The common reason for drinking is the difficulty of the way the world treats people. Drinking helps with that – it eases the pain. It eases the pain of people on Madison Avenue trying to be creative and it eases the pain of the people in God’s Pocket who are just trying to get what they need. But obstacles keep presenting themselves.
What was the craziest thing about stepping behind the camera?
It wasn’t one thing. It was the realization that the schedule that’s floating around on paper actually comes down to hours on the clock of the day.
As opposed to when you’re acting. . .
It’s not your job. You just go back to your chair and read your book until someone says, “We’re ready.”
Did directing episodes of Mad Men prepare you for this?
Yes. But the luxury with a situation like Mad Men is that it’s so well established, it’s so well-considered – and executed, and designed, and cast, and written – that by the time you get the script, all you have to do is show up. With other things, you have to cook it up all by yourself.
What have you learned from Mad Men?
I had Pete Dexter’s beautifully-written book to work with, but the simplicity of Matt Weiner’s show and script was a lesson. I’m not really a writer, but how to get a moment across as simply and as economically and as evocatively as possible is something Matt does extremely well.
How was it working with Christina Hendricks?
Besides from being so emotionally available and so intellectually intelligent – and having that face, that presence – you ask her to do something simple and she kills it.
So you knew that you wanted to cast her immediately?
I really didn’t have an actor in mind. I was directing Mad Men, setting up a shot and there she was in the middle of it. And it occurred to me, “Of course, that’s who should play this part.”
And how do you direct a titan like Philip Seymour Hoffman?
If you give him something he wants to do, just let him do it. You talk it out and you get it going in the right direction, then you sort of get out of the way and let him do what he does.
I know it’s very tight-lipped, but where would you like to see Roger go on Mad Men?
I joked, but it’s true – I’d like to see Roger end the series standing up. You know, not dead.
What about Joanie?
Matt Weiner’s not interested in giving people what they think they want. He’s pretty good at subverting expectations and surprising people. We could ask him, “How should it end?” But I’ve given up second-guessing him, because every time I say, “I have an idea,” his is a hundred times better.
You almost feel like those characters would like it – that they would enjoy being together.
They get each other on a deeper level than with other people. I can see it as a possibility, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
What about where he goes professionally. What would you like for him?
These characters – Pete, Peggy, Joan, Draper and Roger – they’ve been doing this for a long time now. And if you do the same job for a long, long time, what is it that keeps it from being just an assembly line? It’s like, “Do I really have to sing the praises of some other product that I really couldn’t give a shit about?” How do you get up and stay interested every day?
What keeps you interested?
The writing and working with those actors every day. But at the same time I know it’s going to end and I think it’s time for that to end.
And you’re ready to let go?
I will be. I haven’t really dealt with that yet. It’ll be sad, but I don’t think any of us got into this business to do the same thing forever. As hard as it’ll be to say goodbye, it’s a story well told.