Some showbiz cliches exist for a reason.
For nearly a quarter of a century, Madonna, who turned 50 this year, has been a music megastar, a pop culture provocateur and a global brand name. But what she really wants to do is direct.
"I've been in relationships with a lot of filmmakers," she said with a laugh in a recent interview. (Long before Guy Ritchie, her soon-to-be ex, there was Warren Beatty, and before him, Sean Penn, not yet a director at the time.) "I've been awfully envious of them. I guess I got tired of just wishing I was doing something and decided to do it."
Madonna was speaking in her Upper West Side apartment, at the start of a week that was shaping up as a media perfect storm. It was the day after she completed the sold-out New York run of her Sticky & Sweet Tour, a few hours before the downtown premiere of her directorial debut, "Filth and Wisdom," and two days before news of her split from Ritchie made tabloid front pages around the world.
In a lavender-walled drawing room overlooking Central Park and filled with photographs of her children, she sat beneath an angular nude by the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka and discussed her new incarnation as scrappy indie auteur. Madonna, it goes without saying, is a take-charge interviewee: by turns gracious and brisk, easily amused by herself and actually quite funny. Irony is not part of her repertoire, though, nor is self-deprecation. Her sense of humor seems to revolve around an almost gleeful sense of her imperiousness. She speaks in clipped, semiformal cadences and she has a habit of finishing her interviewer's questions.
Madonna's turns in front of the camera -- in hall-of-infamy disasters such as "Shanghai Surprise" and "Swept Away" -- have long been the stuff of punch lines. But the leap to directing is perhaps not such a huge one for the high priestess of the music video. This pop star's great talent -- some would say her greatest -- is as a maker and manipulator of images. Who would deny that she is a visual artist in her own right? In the heyday of MTV, no one could match her flair for iconographic reinvention, whether channeling Marilyn Monroe in the "Material Girl" clip (directed by Mary Lambert) or playing the dominatrix queen of a "Metropolis"-like kingdom in "Express Yourself" (David Fincher).
When the conversation turned to her music videos, she declared theatrically, "I discovered David Fincher." Madonna has long sought out arty up-and-comers to direct her promos (Mark Romanek, Chris Cunningham, Jonas Akerlund), but she made clear that her involvement did not stop with hiring them. "I take at least 50 percent of the credit for directing and coming up with concepts," she said.
When she decided to write a screenplay, she said, "I would try and pick Guy's brain. He said, 'Just write what you know,' which was simple and good advice. The fact of the matter is that all the work I do is very autobiographical, directly or indirectly, because who do I know better than me?"
"Filth and Wisdom," which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and opens in Los Angeles on Friday, is indeed proudly Madonna-centric, but it looks back on a distant chapter of her life -- you could call it a drama of the Madonna origin myth. Just as her last two albums, "Hard Candy" (2008) and "Confessions on a Dance Floor" (2005), summoned the electro beats of her early-'80s club-going days, this scruffy roommate comedy -- although set in a drably anonymous present-day London -- is a sweet-tempered ode to her bohemian youth in New York.
The aspirations of the film's three friends -- singing, dancing, charity work in Africa -- broadly represent the Madonna career project. At its center, though, is a seemingly un-Madonna-like figure: the Ukrainian-born indie rocker and poet-philosopher Eugene Hutz, ringleader of the Gypsy-punk troupe Gogol Bordello, basically playing a version of himself.
After hearing Hutz's music and seeing him in Liev Schreiber's 2005 film "Everything Is Illuminated," Madonna detected a kinship. "I connect to people who I recognize as having gone through the struggle," she said.
By "struggle" she means the plight of the artist who has not yet found an audience -- a subject that is still dear to her heart. "She wasn't born selling out Madison Square Garden," Hutz said in a separate interview. Or, as she put it, "You must realize that I once was a struggling artist. I'm now a struggling filmmaker."
"Filth and Wisdom" recasts in playful, romantic terms the creative drive that, in Madonna's case, has often registered as careerist calculation (the Material Girl who once titled a tour "Blond Ambition" is herself partly responsible for the image). "Longing is such a charismatic thing," Hutz said. "It speaks to dedication and passion."
Given that Madonna has always been a genius of cool by association, it's no surprise that "Filth and Wisdom" flaunts its aesthetic influences. "I didn't think that I made a movie for the masses of America," she said. "It has more of a European sensibility."
At Berlin, she was mocked by some critics for name-dropping Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini in her press kit (it didn't help that both names were misspelled), but the Godard comparison isn't wildly off base, since "Filth," with its jumpy energy and voice-over digressions, samples freely from the French New Wave playbook.
When Madonna talks about movies and cinephilia, she sounds like your typical earnest neophyte director. "I don't have a memory of going to movies," she said. "My father frowned upon it and thought it was a decadent indulgence." But as a dance student at the University of Michigan, she discovered a local art house, and along with it, the French New Wave and the golden age of Italian cinema, from the neo-realism of Rossellini and Visconti to the more in-your-face poetics of Fellini and Pasolini. She once wrote to Fellini -- "a begging letter and a fan letter," asking him to direct the video for her 1993 single "Rain." (He politely declined; she framed his response.)
The low-budget grubbiness of "Filth and Wisdom" is partly a matter of style, but it was also about minimizing expectations (overall, reviews for the film have been lukewarm at best). "I very deliberately kept it small and inexpensive," she said. After the shoot she set up an editing suite in the basement of her London home. "My editors never got away from me," she said, laughing. "I liked to do sneak attacks."
In the past year Madonna has also written and produced a documentary (directed by Nathan Rissman, her former gardener) about the effect of AIDS on children in Malawi, called "I Am Because We Are." Spurred by her experiences visiting the country and adopting her now-3-year-old son, David, the film reflects her belief that documentaries should take a stand rather than simply record reality.
"I got into an argument with someone at the Sundance festival who said I have to make a choice between being an activist and a filmmaker," she said. "That's rubbish. I've been an activist and an artist all my life."
In this election season, those activist flourishes have included banning Sarah Palin from her tour (it's shtick she's worked into her act) and projecting a montage at her shows juxtaposing Barack Obama and Gandhi and John McCain and Hitler. "I'm allowed to have an opinion," she said. "If Pasolini did it, I can too."
Not only is Madonna a fan of Pasolini, the Italian provocateur with a gift for mingling the sacred and the profane, "Salo," his anti-fascist screed adapted from the Marquis de Sade novel (complete with grueling scenes of humiliation and torture), was once a personal litmus test. "I used to sit people down and say, 'Watch this movie and if you don't like it we can't be friends,' " she said. She used to do the same with a Frida Kahlo painting, "My Birth," a bloody depiction of the artist's emergence into the world.
But that was a younger, more judgmental Madonna. "I'm a little more compassionate and forgiving now," she said.
She might even be looking to forgive and forget her own missteps. Not least for its creator, "Filth and Wisdom" is a fresh start in a less-than-distinguished movie career. "Trying to get into films through acting was a mistake," she said. "Every time I would act in a movie I would get in these horrible arguments with directors about my vision. I would have to surrender to the idea that the director was the one with the vision. And that doesn't fit with my personality."