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INT: John Curran

12.27.2006

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the famous actors that star in his films are so enamored with director John Curran. He comes across as a sweet, effervescent and polite man. A longtime friend of Naomi Watts, the director previously coaxed her into partaking in his acclaimed 2004 drama, WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. Reuniting with Watts and assembling a talented cast of actors including Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber and Toby Jones, Curran showcases his impeccable style of directing, diligence, determination and the importance of detail, in his upcoming romantic period drama, THE PAINTED VEIL.

THE PAINTED VEIL is the film adaptation of the famous Somerset Maugham book based on a couple’s relationship, its breakdown and reconstruction, played by Norton and Watts. The story takes you on a beautiful journey of betrayal, avenge, redemption, forgiveness and rediscovery of love. Curran’s passion for the Chinese culture, history, social and political situation becomes quite apparent as its importance is magnified and illustrated in the backdrop throughout the film. The end result is a concession of subtle messages delivered with a powerful and emotional impact.

I had the pleasure of picking John Curran’s brain last week as he sat down to discuss the challenges and advantages of filming in China , his cast, his future, his inspirations and the anticipation of his newly released film, THE PAINTED VEIL. Check out what he had to say.

John Curran

What did you enjoy most about shooting The Painted Veil?

My greatest feeling about the shoot was just looking back and remembering how it was in the beginning. At the end, we're 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 didn't think we were going to make it.

How did you find the locations to film?

There isn't 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 ½ weeks and then I really focused our search on this area of Guangxi in the south [of China] because of the Karst mountains—they're really distinct to me and they offered us an opportunity to really film in every frame the background.

Is there personal reason why your films have been about failed romances?

I've done 3 films and they've all been, in some ways, about failed romances. I certainly don't think I've gotten it right in my own life, so, yeah, maybe. I wasn't attracted to the themes of this project in the same way that I was attracted to the themes in We Don't Live Here Anymore. [In The Painted Veil], I loved the friction. It wasn't 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.

How did you get introduced to directing The Painted Veil?

I had known about it. We Don't 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].

Why did you decide to shift the scenes back and forth in time?

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 [Kitty's] character and [Walter's]. 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] didn't 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 you're cutting to [Kitty]. Those little links started to have more of an effect.

What did it feel like directing The Painted Veil?

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 wasn't accessible by paved roads. We weren't seeing dailies—they were shipped off and developed overseas. We'd see stuff a week later, so what are you going to do if it's 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 can't tell you how difficult it was to find a helicopter. They don't want helicopters flying around in China. If you've got the money, it's 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 I'm saying, "Why am I laying in bed thinking about this? It's just a helicopter. Do I need this?" The headaches of some of the simplest stuff were crazy.

What was it like casting the extras?

As extras, I was using local people and, as a culture, they're tough and [brought up] not to group and, certainly, not to express hostile emotions in a group. As a director, I've got a group of; essentially, non-actors acting as an angry mob and, man, trying to get them angry was [difficult]. I'd start yelling at them and they must have thought that I'm insane. There was a real reluctance as a group to emote.

There's a terrible moment [when], in one scene in the film, guards come around the corner with guns and we're rehearsing the crowd being angry and I really couldn't get them to be angry. I said, "Let’s rehearse the soldiers coming in". The correct extras weren't told that this was going to happen, so the first assistant yelled "Action!" 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 they've 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.

What's your process like when dealing with actors?

My process is to find out their process, always. I really don't think I have a, sort of, magical genius that I could give Edward Norton that's 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 I'm happy, we move on. If not, he's happy to do it another way. He loves to act and what's great about him is that as long as you trust his instincts, he's 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. We'll do it [his] way and my way and then we'll move on.

Do you value Chinese history now that you've made this film?

Yeah, I think you feel more of a responsibility to it. We're, kind of, making a judgment about these characters and their arrogance abroad and we don't want to step into this country and do the same thing we're 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 China—not just pretty pictures, but what was really going on in China at that time.

Was Edward Norton surprised at being in more of a romantic film?

Yes, but Edward [Norton] is pretty self-aware. I've heard him say that he looks in the mirror and he realizes that he [isn't] 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 doesn't get that he wanted to do, but it had to be the sort of role that he was fascinated by. There's a lot of Edward in Walter, I think. He's an extremely intelligent, well-read guy with diverse interests—everything from flying planes to scuba diving. He's really involved in a ton of charities. Acting just happens to be a job that allows him to channel all of these various interests.

Where did you meet Edward Norton?

We met at a coffee shop. I'm the guy that has heard a lot about [him] and he's got a reputation and, sort of, a force of nature. I know that, whatever stories were true or not, that he was nobody's fool—I gathered that much. I've been doing this long enough to know that you can't go in being anybody but yourself because they're 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 don't want them to discover it little by little and then [affect] the relationship. I think he [understood] that my feeling was, "Look, this is my issue with the script, this is what I like, this is what I'm worried about". But, mostly, what I was attracted to was the adventure of it all and I think that's 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 didn't over-intellectualize the choice of it—it was, like, "Yeah, let's do this".

Do you still feel close to Australia?

I've lived in Australia for a long time—15 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. They're a tough bunch and they're not afraid of braving the elements and I knew that they'd come along and that they'd hold up in whatever conditions we were under.

How have audiences in China reacted to The Painted Veil?

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 can't. [Chinese audiences] loved it. They were really happy with it.

What's the difference between shooting in Australia versus in America?

When I was living in Australia, it's a government-subsidized industry, which is a very freeing environment to make films in. But that has evolved—it's 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 I'm under those constraints, I might as well be [living] here [in America]. [Also], I'm 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, it's 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 I'm a bit of a mutt. I still feel like there's a lot of Australian in me. My path [as a filmmaker] has been coming through small, indie films. I'm 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 Don't Live Here Anymore] in terms of the scope of it. This is what I was really looking forward to do.

Will you ever make big-budget films?

I'm never going to be a high-ends special effects guy. I'm 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 isn't character-driven. I don't have any ambition to go that far. There isn't something out there that I wouldn't 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 don't get.

Which filmmakers have inspired you?

I'm a fan of [Stanley] Kubrick, but there's a reductive simplicity in Kubrick that's just awe-inspiring and I really like his process—he 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.

What are you working on now?

I'm doing a Jim Thompson novel, The Killer Inside Me, at the moment. It's gold for me for somebody to say that I have the rights to a Thompson novel. All I can say is that I've finished the script and that I'm happy with it. [It's going to be set] in West Texas [during] the 50's. 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.

Did you read any of W. Somerset Maugham's previous writing?

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 can't 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 level—feeling like a mutt. To survive there, you have to be more like them but still try to hang onto something that's really you.

Would you consider The Painted Veil to be a love story?

At heart, yeah, it's a love story. I [also] wanted it to be an adventure story, a thriller [and] a mystery. I didn't want to approach it with just one vision, [which] is limiting and, also, kind of dull.

Have you ever experienced method directing?

I don't 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 didn't have a lot of time [and] the money wasn't in place, [so] it was, sort of, madness. There was a point when I didn't even care. To me, the goal was just to finish the shoot. The ambition was just so small—it was just to keep from getting fired and to get the film in the can. On the first day, I asked my agent [whether] it's 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 I've had—being fearless, moving forward and just trusting the people around me.

Why did you think you would get fired?

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] I'm going to look like a complete idiot.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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