The 1980s novel God's Pocket, by Pete Dexter, is a story of hapless drunks, construction workers and one washed-up newspaper columnist. The book takes its name from a fictional blue-collar neighborhood in Philadelphia.
Now, it's also a film starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final movies, and directed by John Slattery, a man best known for his role as the cocksure adman Roger Sterling on the cable series Mad Men. While he has directed several episodes of that show, God's Pocket marks his first time behind the camera on a feature-length film.
When he spoke with NPR's Melissa Block, he confessed to being anxious about it, in a way that Roger Sterling would never admit. "I'm very proud of this film, and I stand behind it," he says. "But I do sometimes wake up in the middle of the night thinking, 'I hope other people understand it and get it and like it.' "
On working with Philip Seymour Hoffman
He's just one of those people that everyone wanted to work with and is very inclusive in the process — you know, puts people at easy and possessing of a good sense of humor. He's an intimidating person, a powerful person physically and vocally, and with all that body of work behind him, people were intimidated. But he would put people at ease very quickly and get right down to work. It was — he is very smart.
On the differences between directing for television and film
Mad Men is Matthew Weiner's vision. So, when you're given a script to direct, you're given marching orders in the form of a tone meeting, which goes on for quite some time. That's where Matt explains why he wrote it the way he wrote it, what it means, the sense of it. You're expected to put your fingerprint on it, but the rest of the DNA is Matt Weiner's.
With the film, I'm making the creative decisions — obviously in collaboration with the other artists. But the trick is, Mad Men is so well-run that if you don't get the shot, chances are you can go back and get it. If you don't get the shot on a small film with 40 people in 28 locations and a 24-day shooting schedule, chances are you won't get another chance.
On the prospect of leaving his signature role, Roger Sterling in Mad Men
Part of the enjoyment of doing a character like this is the length of time it's gone on, but I also wonder if actors worry about being accepted as other characters after playing one for so long. But that's not really in my control, so maybe I could direct something if that's the case. ...
There's so much creativity happening in film and television right now, and so many outlets for it, that I haven't really lost any sleep over it.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The 1980s novel "God's Pocket" by Pete Dexter is now a movie. It takes its name from a fictional blue-collar neighborhood in Philadelphia, a story of hapless drunks, construction workers, and a washed-up newspaper columnists.
The movie is directed by John Slattery, best known for his role as the cocksure adman Roger Sterling on the cable series "Mad Men." He's also directed several episodes of that show, but this is his first time directing a movie. And Slattery confesses to being anxious about it, in a way that Roger Sterling would never admit.
JOHN SLATTERY: I'm very proud of this film and I stand behind, but I do wake up sometimes in the middle of the night thinking, I hope other people understand it and get it and like it.
BLOCK: At the heart of the story, a whacked-out punk is killed on a construction site. His mother is convinced it wasn't an accident.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GOD'S POCKET")
CHRISTINA HENDRICKS: (as Jeanie Scarpato) Something happened to Leon over at that job. Something nobody's told us yet. Anybody tell you anything you didn't tell me?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (as Mickey Scarpato) All they told me was that something dropped and hit him on the skull. That's the whole thing.
HENDRICKS: (as Jeanie Scarpato) Something else happened.
HOFFMAN: (as Mickey Scarpato) OK. I'll see what I can find out.
BLOCK: We hear Philip Seymour Hoffman there. "God's Pocket" is one of his last performances before his death from an overdose. And when I asked John Slattery what he discovered about Hoffman in the course of making this movie, I noticed he talked about him in the present tense.
SLATTERY: He's equipped with a deep emotional and intellectual intelligence and a technical wherewithal that, you know, seeing that in conjunction with someone deeply involved in an emotional scene but aware of the camera to such a degree that they'll turn themselves to make sure that what they're doing is recorded on camera is an amazing thing to watch. And I learned that the best kind of acting looks like an accident and it's not easy to achieve that.
BLOCK: Did he become any sort of a galvanizing force among the other actors on the set? And what was his role in connection with Christina Hendricks, who plays his wife and the other characters, John Turturro is another?
SLATTERY: When I signed Phil up to play Mickey and then armed with a Pete Dexter script and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the return phone calls happened very quickly. And he's just one of those people that everyone wanted to work with and is very inclusive in the process and, you know, puts people at ease and possessing of a great sense of humor. And he's an intimidating person - I mean, you know, a powerful person physically and vocally, and with all that body of work behind him, you know, people were intimidated, but he would put people at ease very quickly and get right down to work. It was - he's very smart.
BLOCK: You have directed a number of episodes of "Mad Men," along with acting in it and I wonder how different a proposition it is to direct a feature film that you've written a screenplay for than it was to direct those TV shows.
SLATTERY: Well, "Mad Men" is Matthew Weiner's vision and so when you are given a script to direct, you're given marching orders in the form of a tone meeting, which goes on for quite some time. And that's where Matt explains why he wrote it the way he wrote it, what it means, you know, the sense of it. You're expected to put your fingerprint on it. The rest of the DNA is Matt Weiner's.
SLATTERY: And with the film, I'm making creative decisions for, you know, obviously in collaboration with the other artists. But the trick is, you know, "Mad Men" is so well run that if you don't get the shot, chances are you can go back and get it. If you don't get the shot on a small film with 40 people and 28 locations in a 24-day shooting schedule, chances are you won't get another chance.
BLOCK: I'm talking with John Slattery, who directed the new film "God's Pocket." I wonder if we can talk just a bit about your character on "Mad Men," Roger Sterling.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")
SLATTERY: (as Roger Sterling) A lot of times in life you get to do something and you don't realize until it's over how much you enjoyed it. And you swear that the next time it comes around you're going to remember that.
ROBERT MORSE: (as Betram Cooper) Right. And I think it could work with you, too.
SLATTERY: (as Roger Sterling) Work? No, Burt, I'm letting you go again. Probably doesn't make a difference at this point, but no one fought for you.
BLOCK: He is acerbic and brash and cutting and larger-than-life in a lot of ways. And I wonder when you think about him if you feel he's evolved in your seasons on the show. Do you understand him in a different way as a character may be than you did when you started out?
SLATTERY: I think he has evolved. I think he's a very pragmatic character that, as Matt Weiner said, has grown up in a very permissive culture. He had money. He had position and so it makes sense that Roger would be the one to be free enough - as it were - to experiment, you know, with drugs and the whole free love culture and the youth culture that he's kind of experimenting with now.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")
SLATTERY: (as Roger Sterling) You don't know how to drink, your whole generation. You drink for the wrong reasons. My generation, we drink because it's good, because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar, because we deserve it. We drink because it's what men do.
BLOCK: Is there something really delicious about slipping into that role and just knowing the things that Roger will do that you get to do as an actor?
SLATTERY: It really is. I mean, to be that facile, to be able to turn a phrase like that in the moment and have the courage to say what you and maybe everyone else in the room is thinking, it's been very enjoyable.
BLOCK: Do you think it's going to be a hard character for you to shake when the show is over or is it in some way maybe a relief to think, Roger Sterling is behind me now, I'm moving on?
SLATTERY: I don't know. It's a good question. I mean, part of the enjoyment of doing a character like this is the length of time it's gone on. But I also wonder if actors worry about being accepted as other characters after playing one for so long. But I - that's really not in my control, so maybe I could direct something if that's the case.
BLOCK: So the furor there would be people just assume you are Roger Sterling, they can't get past that?
SLATTERY: Yeah. Yeah, I would think so. I mean, anything that has some longevity. So I mean, I don't know, there's so much creativity happening in television and film right now and there's so many outlets for it that I haven't really lost any sleep over it.
BLOCK: You didn't mention theater in there and I know you have a long background in theater in New York. It seems like something you must have loved at one point. Is that...
SLATTERY: Very much.
BLOCK: ...something that you think about, that that would be one way of reinventing yourself again, to go back to theater work?
SLATTERY: Absolutely. Yeah. I would love to do that. It was always the question of trying to find a play and the role that was going to fit into that six-month hiatus, and that won't be the case anymore. So I would love to do that. Yeah. All you playwrights out there.
BLOCK: All who are listening right now. Is there any particular role that you'd be dying to play?
SLATTERY: I've never done Noel Coward. I thought that would be fun. A lot of the plays that I've done have been very heavy emotionally and that's difficult to do. "Rabbit Hole" was the last play I did.
BLOCK: Parents who are grieving the loss of their young child, right?
SLATTERY: Parents of - yeah, yeah, mourning the loss of a four-year-old, very heavy. I get a lot of plays where it says he sobs and that's - you think, sobs, really? He doesn't just tear up, he has to sob. Sobbying is not easy.
SLATTERY: It's not easy to, you know, dredge it up.
BLOCK: Night after night.
SLATTERY: Yes. So Noel Coward seems like a good alternative.
BLOCK: A little sparkling repartee.
SLATTERY: Yeah, a little cigarette, little martini. I mean I don't want to, you know, I mean I don't know, then maybe it would just be Roger Sterling with an English accent.
BLOCK: Not that there's anything wrong with that.
SLATTERY: So I don't know. Be careful what you wish for.
BLOCK: Well, John Slattery, it's great to talk to you. Thank you so much.
SLATTERY: Thank you.
BLOCK: John Slattery directed the movie "God's Pocket." "Mad Men" is in its seventh and final season.
(SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG TO TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.