The cult of celebrity and history's reduction of famous figures to simple sound bites and rumours were elements Madonna sought to move beyond in W.E., her second stint as a director.
The pop-icon-turned filmmaker shared some insight into her cinematic processes Monday at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the dual-era movie — one thread historical, the other contemporary — is among the gala presentations.
W.E. delves into the tale of Wallis Simpson, the much-maligned American woman for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne. It also blends in the story of Wally Winthrop, a modern-day woman obsessed with Simpson.
Madonna had long been fascinated by Simpson, who was "a mysterious, enigmatic creature: not conventionally beautiful, not young, twice divorced, [without] anything fabulous about her background and somehow she managed to capture the heart of the man who, at the time, held the most important position in the world," she told a packed room of reporters from around the globe.
Though she has wanted to make W.E. since before her 2008 debut Filth & Wisdom, Madonna said felt she needed to build up her filmmaking skills before tackling the new film's complicated tale weaving together two time periods and two storylines.
Simpson's fame — or infamy (she was a rumoured Nazi sympathizer) — was also an intriguing element.
"I was interested in ... the concept of the cult of celebrity, which we are all consumed with now — and then. The idea is that there are so many rumours that are now believed to be true about Wallis Simpson, [but] when I investigated her story, there were so many of them [where] I could find no empirical evidence that they were true," Madonna said.
"We often reduce our historical figures or our iconic figures to a sound bite and it's tremendously unfair. We forget that they're human beings. What was important to me was to portray Wallis Simpson as a human being, with flaws, imperfections and a human side."
The film, which stars Andrea Riseborough as Simpson and Abbie Cornish as her present-day admirer Winthrop, has received mixed reviews since its debut at the Venice Film Festival.
Though she cheekily noted that her "legs and fingers were crossed" for the film's December theatrical release (in the midst of film awards season), Madonna acknowledged that she continues to feel pressure as a fledgling filmmaker — just as she did when she was new to the music scene.
"I had to earn my way in the world of being taken seriously in the music department. I'm well aware that I have to do the same in the world of film," she said.
She also said welcomes criticism — when it targets her filmmaking and isn't simply a public skewering because of her celebrity.
"I can tell when a person is reviewing my film and when they're reviewing me personally. I welcome criticism of my film when it's viewed as an artistic form and not when people are mentioning things about my personal life or my achievements in any other [areas] — because they're irrelevent to the film. When they stick to the film, I do care. I pay attention to it."