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Interview with John Curran, director of The Painted Veil

John Curran directs The Painted Veil, set in the 1920's, about Kitty (Naomi Watts) who moves to Shangaui with Walter (Edward Norton), her husband, when he uncovers her secret romance with Charlie (Liev Shreiber). Based on the novel by W. Sommerset Maugham. John Curran's previous films include We Don't Live Here Anymore and Praise. I had the privilege to interview him.

Warner Independent Pictures will release The Painted Veil on December 20th, 2006.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you get introduced to directing The Painted Veil?

JC: I had known about it. We Donít Live Here Anymore became a Warner Independent film. They acquired it and they have this property. So, both Mark Gill, [the head of Warner Independent], and Naomi Watts passed me the script. They both, kind of, had me in mind and then, in turn, I spoke to Edward [Norton].

NYC MOVIE GURU: Where did you meet Edward Norton?

JC: We met at a coffee shop. Iím the guy that has heard a lot about [him] and heís got a reputation and, sort of, a force of nature. I know that, whatever stories were true or not, that he was nobodyís foolóI gathered that much. Iíve been doing this long enough to know that you canít go in being anybody but yourself because theyíre going to figure it out if not in the first meeting, then in the second meeting. You might as well just get to it. I, kind of, go in there with all of my weaknesses upfront because I donít want them to discover it little by little and then [affect] the relationship. I think he [understood] that my feeling was, ďLook, this is my issue with the script, this is what I like, this is what Iím worried aboutĒ. But, mostly, what I was attracted to was the adventure of it all and I think thatís what he really dug. Like me, he, kind of, looked at this thing and it all added up to one great life experience. He liked that I didnít over-intellectualize the choice of itóit was, like, ďYeah, letís do thisĒ.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Was Edward Norton surprised at being in more of a romantic film?

JC: Yes, but Edward [Norton] is pretty self-aware. Iíve heard him say that he looks in the mirror and he realizes that he [isnít] going to be getting stacks of romantic leads. Part of his ambition for developing this was that it was the kind of film that he doesnít get that he wanted to do, but it had to be the sort of role that he was fascinated by. Thereís a lot of Edward in Walter, I think. Heís an extremely intelligent, well-read guy with diverse interestsóeverything from flying planes to scuba diving. Heís really involved in a ton of charities. Acting just happens to be a job that allows him to channel all of these various interests.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What did it feel like directing The Painted Veil?

JC: It was a pain in the ass. We were in the middle of nowhere [and] the equipment had to get shipped out to a town that wasnít accessible by paved roads. We werenít seeing dailiesóthey were shipped off and developed overseas. Weíd see stuff a week later, so what are you going to do if itís not right? Everyone has already moved on. There was a lot of stuff that was difficult because of where we were shooting and how we were shooting it. I wanted a helicopter shot which I really felt like we needed at the end. I canít tell you how difficult it was to find a helicopter. They donít want helicopters flying around in China. If youíve got the money, itís a very easy request here [in America], but what I went through to get [it] became like an obsession. Then, after a while, it becomes abstract and Iím saying, ďWhy am I laying in bed thinking about this? Itís just a helicopter. Do I need this?Ē The headaches of some of the simplest stuff were crazy.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like casting the extras?

JC: As extras, I was using local people and, as a culture, theyíre tough and [brought up] not to group and, certainly, not to express hostile emotions in a group. As a director, Iíve got a group of, essentially, non-actors acting as an angry mob and, man, trying to get them angry was [difficult]. Iíd start yelling at them and they must have thought that Iím insane. There was a real reluctance as a group to emote. Thereís a terrible moment [when], in one scene in the film, guards come around the corner with guns and weíre rehearsing the crowd being angry and I really couldnít get them to be angry. I said, ďLets rehearse the soldiers coming inĒ. The correct extras werenít told that this was going to happen, so the first assistant yelled ďAction!Ē and these soldiers came around the corner with fake guns and, literally, about a half a dozen old people dropped to their knees and covered their heads because theyíve been through the Mao period. The last few generations [in China] have lived through some really really tough times and we became a lot more sensitive to what they were dealing with.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What did you enjoy most about shooting The Painted Veil?

JC: My greatest feeling about the shoot was just looking back and remembering how it was in the beginning. At the end, weíre all sitting in a small town after work and hanging out together with the Chinese crew and having a few beers and really loving being there and loving the local flavor and the people embracing us. [It] was fun experiencing that tradition. At the beginning, I just felt like I didnít think we were going to make it.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you find the locations to film?

JC: There isnít really a location database that we could access. We could access here if we wanted to find locations here [in America]. So, it necessitated us getting on a plane, flying around and looking at travel books and talking to the people. We did that for about 2 Ĺ weeks and then I really focused our search on this area of Guangxi in the south [of China] because of the Karst mountainsótheyíre really distinct to me and they offered us an opportunity to really film in every frame the background.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Is there a personal reason why your films have been about failed romances?

JC: Iíve done 3 films and theyíve all been, in some ways, about failed romances. I certainly donít think Iíve gotten it right in my own life, so, yeah, maybe. I wasnít attracted to the themes of this project in the same way that I was attracted to the themes in We Donít Live Here Anymore. [In The Painted Veil], I loved the friction. It wasnít about doing something ultra-contemporary and nuanced and real. I loved the motor of the friction and how it drove the whole story and the idea of shooting Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. This kind of relationship really appealed to me as a director. This is, once more, an exercise of being a director and having the opportunity presented to you and not analyzing. I guess the themes are more coincidental.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you decide to shift the scenes back and forth in time?

JC: In the book and in the original script, it begins with the infidelity and then it goes back with the story of how Walter and Kitty meet. That back story, we all felt, was really important to [Kittyís] character and [Walterís]. When we cut it, it was, sort of, plodding and I kept on trying to find a really muscular, dramatic way to tell that story. Shortening [it] didnít help; it just made it abbreviated and lacked emotion. When we arrived at the idea of cutting the journey, it all seemed to fall into place. Certain scenes resonated more, like when Charlie tells the story of the plot onstage at the opera and then youíre cutting to [Kitty]. Those little links started to have more of an effect.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Whatís your process like when dealing with actors?

JC: My process is to find out their process, always. I really donít think I have a, sort of, magical genius that I could give Edward Norton thatís going to make him a better actor. The best thing that I could do is to create an environment that inspires him and then just get the hell out of the way. Naomi [Watts] and Edward [Norton] are very different. Naomi is some one that I know and have worked with her before and I know that the best thing for her is to, sort of, sometimes distract her from it and to take the seriousness out of it because she likes to have fun and it diffuses any anxiety that she maybe has about something. [As for] Edward, I just leave him to himself and let him trust his instinct. He listens to me. If Iím happy, we move on. If not, heís happy to do it another way. He loves to act and whatís great about him is that as long as you trust his instincts, heís happy to trust yours. Both of us are stubborn, so instead of just arguing all the time, [we] just agree to disagree if it happens. Weíll do it [his] way and my way and then weíll move on.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you value Chinese history more now that youíve made this film?

JC: Yeah, I think you feel more of a responsibility to it. Weíre, kind of, making a judgment about these characters and their arrogance abroad and we donít want to step into this country and do the same thing weíre accusing them of. Also, it was a Chinese co-production and we had a responsibility to infuse the story with more of a Chinese character, which, I think, helped. From my earliest instinct, it was about this couple in this environment and this environment was a big character, so I wanted to fully realize the character of Chinaónot just pretty pictures, but what was really going on in China at that time.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you still feel close to Australia?

JC: Iíve lived in Australia for a long timeó15 years. I knew Jane [Campion] and I was aware of her earlier work. I augmented the [film] crew with the few Australians that I knew. Theyíre a tough bunch and theyíre not afraid of braving the elements and I knew that theyíd come along and that theyíd hold up in whatever conditions we were under.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How have audiences in China reacted to The Painted Veil?

JC: It has been shown but just in small screenings. It opens up [there] later in December. Edward [Norton] is going there for the opening, [but] I canít. [Chinese audiences] loved it. They were really happy with it.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Whatís the difference between shooting in Australia versus in America?

JC: When I was living in Australia, itís a government-subsidized industry, which is a very freeing environment to make films in. But that has evolvedóitís more difficult. Now they have the same commercial concerns that you would have here. They want stars, they want a return on their investment. It used to be more of an arts-funding scenario. My view is that if Iím under those constraints, I might as well be [living] here [in America]. [Also], Iím an American and I want to tell American stories and you can have a career here as a filmmaker where as, there, you have to do a lot of stuff between making films to survive. So, itís just time for me to come home. This is the culture that I was brought up in and that I relate to the most even though I still feel like Iím a bit of a mutt. I still feel like thereís a lot of Australian in me. My path [as a filmmaker] has been coming through small, indie films. Iím always going to be attracted to character-driven pieces, I think. But, the scope of what I do is going to keep changing. I think that [The Painted Veil], in particular, has been a big jump from [We Donít Live Here Anymore] in terms of the scope of it. This is what I was really looking forward to do.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Will you ever make big-budget films?

JC: Iím never going to be a high-ends special effects guy. Iím not very good at it. I think that after a certain budget level, it becomes a comic book because you have to get a bigger return, it also has to have a simpler language to appeal to a bigger group of people, so you do cross over into this style of filmmaking where it isnít character-driven. I donít have any ambition to go that far. There isnít something out there that I wouldnít do if I felt that there was some meat in it for me, but there is kind of a crazy level of filmmaking that I donít get.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Which filmmakers have inspired you?

JC: Iím a fan of [Stanley] Kubrick, but thereís a reductive simplicity in Kubrick thatís just awe-inspiring and I really like his processóhe never stopped making [his films]. None of us have that luxury, though. I [like] Hal Ashby [and] Roman Polanski. David Lean was a good touchtone for [The Painted Veil]. People like David Lynch are like Gods in their own way.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you read any of W. Somerset Maughamís previous writing?

JC: I did, but only his short stories just to kind of see which character I related to most in the book, which, in this case, was Waddington. I read his short stories to get an idea of his themes and to understand his voice. He concerned himself a lot with ex-pats abroad in the outer-reaches of colonial outposts in the days of the dying Empire which made it, kind of, very relevant. Being in America now, we canít experience the same sort of things. All of his characters were stuck between going a bit native and holding onto some semblance of [tradition]. I related to him on that levelófeeling like a mutt. To survive there, you have to be more like them but still try to hang onto something thatís really you.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Would you consider The Painted Veil to be a love story?

JC: At heart, yeah, itís a love story. I [also] wanted it to be an adventure story, a thriller [and] a mystery. I didnít want to approach it with just one vision, [which] is limiting and, also, kind of dull.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Have you ever experienced method directing?

JC: I donít recommend method directing, but [The Painted Veil] is, sort of, all of us naively entering into a situation that was, kind of, over our heads. We didnít have a lot of time [and] the money wasnít in place, [so] it was, sort of, madness. There was a point when I didnít even care. To me, the goal was just to finish the shoot. The ambition was just so smallóit was just to keep from getting fired and to get the film in the can. On the first day, I asked my agent [whether] itís better to quit or to get fired. [He said] that I should get fired because if [I] quit, people would think [I] got fired anyway. I think that the life experience of just not giving a damn was one of the greatest life lessons Iíve hadóbeing fearless, moving forward and just trusting the people around me.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you think you would get fired?

JC: I thought that the film would just shut down. Nothing was happening and the weeks were being chewed up and I could see the approach date coming and nothing was prepared. I thought [that it] was just insane and [that] Iím going to look like a complete idiot.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What are you working on now?

JC: Iím doing a Jim Thompson novel, The Killer Inside Me, at the moment. Itís gold for me for somebody to say that I have the rights to a Thompson novel. All I can say is that Iíve finished the script and that Iím happy with it. [Itís going to be set] in West Texas [during] the 50ís. That book has been around a long time and no one has really cracked it, so it was more of a compulsion to take a run at it. It has left a lot of great names in its weight.

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