How To Get Your First Screenplay Produced: Jonathan Perera’s Miss Sloane Reaped Rewards

Jonathan Perera’s screenplay for Miss Sloane took filmmaker John Madden by surprise with its richly detailed portrait of an industry that remains shrouded in mystery.

Perera is a UK citizen and former attorney, who left his law practice in his 20s to explore more creative aspirations. While working as an elementary school teacher in Asia, Jonathan wrote his first screenplay, the political thriller Miss Sloane, a taut and twisting tale of a Washington powerbroker obsessed with victory. Perera had never penned a screenplay before or even spent much time in the U.S.

“The script was intelligent, unexpected and very satisfying. It is set in a world where everything is strategy. The natural language of the characters is irony and indirection, which makes for an extremely clever — and very funny and surprising — film. The greatest weapon the script has is that it never lands exactly where you think it’s going to.”

A cutthroat lobbyist on the verge of personal and professional burnout pushes legal and ethical boundaries to ensure the passage of a controversial law in Miss Sloane, a riveting political thriller.

In the high-stakes world of political power-brokers, Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is the most sought-after and formidable lobbyist in D.C. Known equally for her cunning and her track record of success, she has always done whatever is required to win. But when she takes on the most powerful opponent of her career, she finds that winning may come at too high a price. Pulling back the curtain on the secretive and powerful lobbying industry, Miss Sloane reveals how Capitol Hill games are played — and won.

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“The film defies a single description,” says Madden. “It is at once a political drama, an unpredictable and constantly surprising thriller, an exposé of a little examined, and even less well-understood mechanism of the political process, and above all, a riveting study of an extraordinary and obsessive character, defined as much by her intelligence and skills as by her gender. And most unexpected of all is its portrait of the emotional life of a heroine who would refuse to countenance that she even has one.”

“The film is about a seemingly unattainable political objective,” Madden continues. “It is an issue which has stubbornly refused to respond to legal challenge. It looks at the many tactics lobbyists use to influence people. Trying to overcome the insurmountable obstacles is the ride of the film, and it’s driven by Elizabeth Sloane. She takes no prisoners and employs tactics that might raise eyebrows. She rarely ever stops to rest. She is an utter obsessive, and obsessives are a very interesting breed to watch on film.”

Madden was perhaps most surprised by screenwriter Jonathan Perera. A U.K.- educated attorney who left his practice to try his hand at writing, Perera had never penned a screenplay before or even spent much time in the U.S.

“I’d expected a cocky, knowing, Santa Monica-dwelling film nerd,” says the director. “He’s nothing like that. He is very literate about film, but incredibly open, smart and direct, without the attitude that might go with such a precocious debut.”

Writing A Winning Screenplay

Perera was living in South Korea, teaching English at an elementary school, when he started preparing to write his first script. Instead of enrolling in film school, he read as many scripts as he could get hold of.

“I’d read the first 60 pages of a script. And then I’d go to work and think about how I would end it. In the evening, I’d read the latter sixty pages of the script and see how I did.”

An interview he heard on BBC News gave him the kernel of an idea that he needed to get started.

“It was a man named Jack Abramoff,” he remembers. “He was a lobbyist who had been sent to prison for some kind of wrongdoing. I didn’t know too much about the lobbying industry, but I knew that it could be a great basis for a film. I felt we hadn’t really seen an exploration of the influence peddling and power brokering that goes on behind the scenes in Washington.”

Miss Sloane takes the audience inside the soundproof conference rooms of a multi-billion-dollar industry that traditionally keeps a low public profile.

“I was interested to explore how they bring their power to bear,” says Perera. “It’s kind of an intersection between politics and espionage. They hew as close to the edge of the law as possible to put pressure on the representatives. And they don’t always manage to stay within the law. I wanted to push a lobbyist to the legal limit and see where it took the story.”

Perera managed to get his script in front of Ben Browning, co-president of Production and Acquisitions at FilmNation Entertainment.

“I got sent a script by a writer I didn’t know,” Browning recalls. “It was the first thing he’d ever written and it was great. The movie got made in the course of just over a year. In my experience, that never happens in Hollywood.”

Browning was impressed by the power of the writing and the originality of the storytelling. “It is a gripping drama from the very beginning, a script that you finish in one sitting,” he explains.

“It has elements of thriller, drama and politics, but more than anything else, it’s a great character piece. It’s an entertaining, fast-paced look at one of the lesser-known aspects of politics with a spectacular female leading role. And it’s not a female role that’s defined by anything conventionally female. She isn’t a wife; she isn’t a mother. Miss Sloane could have been a man, but making her a woman in a man’s world makes this character feel so much richer.”

M164 David Wilson Barnes (left) and Jessica Chastain (right) star in EuropaCorp's "Miss Sloane". Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes © 2016 EuropaCorp Ð France 2 Cinema
David Wilson Barnes (left) and Jessica Chastain (right) star in Miss Sloane. Credit: Kerry Hayes © 2016 EuropaCorp Ð France 2 Cinema

The Art Of Collaboration: Screenwriter and Director join forces

Madden and Perera spent several weeks together in London researching the political and procedural underpinnings of the story before Perera began reworking it.

“It was already a very strong script,” says Madden. “It just needed to be deepened and fleshed out. Jonathan and I are both literate in American political procedure, but not experts. We didn’t want to begin exploring things creatively without knowing that we were on solid ground with the facts.”

From their very first discussion, Perera was impressed by Madden’s keen grasp of the story.

“It’s very complicated to unpack,” he explains. “There are lots of storylines, lots of threads, lots of layers going on, but John understood it completely. More than anything else, he knew what was going on inside the characters’ heads. A large part of rewriting the movie was sitting with him and talking about how the characters should develop over the course of the story. In the first draft of the script, Elizabeth was always two steps ahead of everyone and never particularly vulnerable. Developing some of her relationships further gave us a lot more colors to work with.”

The film’s central character, Elizabeth Sloane, is a high-powered lobbyist working at a well-established white-shoe firm.

“She’s what you might call a darkarts lobbyist, meaning she will use ethically questionable methods to achieve her clients’ goals,” says Perera. “We meet her at a point in her life when she’s on the verge of a meltdown. She turns down a lucrative offer to quash a controversial piece of legislation and instead goes to work for the opposition.”

The piece of legislation in question is the fictional Heaton-Harris Bill, a bipartisan bill proposing stricter gun control legislation. “But the issue of gun legislation isn’t itself the film’s subject,” says producer Kris Thykier. “This is an engrossing film set in the world of government affairs and lobbying. Jonathan placed an emotive issue at the heart of it, but it could perhaps have been one of a number of others. The whip crack of the dialogue and the humor underneath it refresh our notions of the genre, creating something both accessible and entertaining. Elizabeth Sloane’s pursuit of her goal at any cost and her ability to play with people’s lives are riveting to watch.”

When the film opens, a Senate hearing examining Liz Sloane’s ethics is underway. As the committee questions her and the other witnesses, the action flashes back to the circumstances that have brought her there.

“The real challenge was to make a movie that’s so verbal,” says Madden. “The talk is smart and really fast, which made the script an exhilarating read. But a story about a bunch of people talking has to earn its keep as a piece of cinema, and we looked for ways to transcend that.”

Using The Film Medium To Bring The Screenplay To Life

With his cinematographer, Sebastian Blenkov, Madden developed a cinematic approach to this most verbal of pieces. The story’s momentum and immediacy were the touchstones of this approach, which unfolds in a free-flowing rhythm of shooting that allowed several ideas and narrative strands to co-exist. This was further played out in the editorial strategy, where Alexander Berner externalized Elizabeth’s patterns of thought, constantly juxtaposing and reordering cause and effect.

As Madden puts it, “The story develops in bursts of headlong, adrenalized energy, interrupted by stasis and silence, when the void underneath the character’s obsession opens up and threatens to engulf her.”

Browning had faith that Madden would keep the action moving and the atmosphere dynamic. “

John Madden is simply an excellent filmmaker,” he says. “I put him in a category with Ang Lee or Stephen Frears. He’s defined by the fact that he makes good films, period. You can’t necessarily draw lines of continuity between his works, other than that he’s clearly attracted to great drama, he brings forth incredible performances and his films have texture and a sense of place.”

“The film will transport audiences into a world that perhaps they thought they knew, but that is so much more complex than they ever dreamed,” says Thykier.

“You’re going to be drawn in by this charismatic, compelling, often dark character and the sheer satisfaction of a tale well told.”

“The story is meant to be an exciting ride that keeps audiences on the edges of their seats,” says Perera.

“Movies about politics don’t have to be stuffy,” he adds. “The audience won’t feel lectured or talked down to. They will be second-guessing where this is going and be upended just as the characters are. Entertainment can also be intellectually engaging, it can spark a debate, but that’s not the sole objective here. The objective is to send the audience on a rollercoaster ride with an extraordinary heroine.”

M79 Jessica Chastain stars in EuropaCorp's "Miss. Sloane". Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes © 2016 EuropaCorp Ð France 2 Cinema
Jessica Chastain stars as Miss. Sloane. Credit: Kerry Hayes © 2016 EuropaCorp Ð France 2 Cinema

Casting Miss Sloane

Miss Sloane Will See You Now With an outstanding screenplay and an acclaimed director, the filmmakers had little difficulty attracting a stellar ensemble to populate the world of Miss Sloane. “

This was a fantastic film to cast,” says Madden. “It’s the kind of muscular, robust language that actors can’t wait to speak out loud. As soon as they read the script, people wanted to do it.”

In the central role of Elizabeth Sloane, the filmmakers cast two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain. A hard-charging maverick who plays fast and loose with the rules, Miss Sloane’s sole interest is winning for her clients, whoever they may be. A lone wolf to the core, she’s always a step ahead of the opposition, and sometimes even her own team. But Miss Sloane is beginning to recognize the price of her workaholic lifestyle.

“Jessica Chastain is one of the best actresses of her generation,” says Browning. “She has already created a gallery of indelible characters. She’s lightning fast with dialogue, very quick on her feet and always thinking. That was essential to this part, because Miss Sloane is the puppet-master throughout the film.”

Madden and Chastain worked together on the 2010 thriller The Debt, when the actress’s film career was just beginning. He sent this script to her soon after reading it.

“The part just fit her so perfectly,” he says. “I have known her since before she became ‘Jessica Chastain’ and recognized her as a diamond in the rough. I was hugely impressed by her then, and as I read this script I couldn’t get the idea of her in the part out of my mind.”

Chastain had long harbored a wish to team up with Madden again. “He’s so generous on set,” she says. “Even if someone comes in for one day, John does anything he can to make that person feel a part of the team. That’s why people like Christine Baranski and Jake Lacy came in for just a short time. Each day I saw the actors I would be working with and knew I was going to be in the best hands, because John had orchestrated the whole thing.”

Elizabeth Sloane is a one-of-a-kind character, the actress realized. “She’s incredibly intelligent and ambitious and compulsive in her desire to win, but she’s also really vulnerable. It was a beautiful character to embark on. The script has such intelligence. It never talks down to the audience. It explains what’s going on simply and beautifully.”

But it was the thriller aspects of the story that most impressed Chastain.

“You’re watching an incredible story about a woman who risks everything to win,” says the actress. “There are twists all over the movie. Just when you think you know what’s going on, there’s a big surprise. I like movies that keep you guessing.”

“Liz Sloane is addicted to winning. The bigger the risk, the bigger the win. That’s what entices her. The gun lobby donates heavily to political campaigns and politicians care about keeping their seats. So they have a good deal of leverage in Congress, which makes them a formidable opponent for her. The real issue we are addressing here is what is rotten in our system, what doesn’t work in American politics and why change is so difficult.”

Chastain promises viewers they are in for a fast-paced, compelling and unexpected two hours. “There’s a lot more mystery than you are used to seeing in political dramas. You won’t quite know what Liz’s motivations are or what she intends to do, because she has so many tricks up her sleeve, and that makes for a thrilling ride.”

JOHN MADDEN (Director, Executive Producer) is best known for directing several commercially successful independent films that were as beloved by critics as they were by audiences, including Academy Award-winning Shakespeare in Love, Proof, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Madden was born in Portsmouth and educated at Clifton College and Cambridge. He began his career as Artistic Director of the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company, moving later to the BBC to work in television and radio drama. Between the first and second Marigold films, Madden developed the script for The BFG with Melissa Mathison, and directed the pilot for “Masters of Sex,” now in its fourth season, with Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan for the Showtime network.