Stone screenwriter Angus MacLachlan discusses working with this talented cast, shooting in Michigan, new projects and more.
Screenwriter Angus MacLachlan was put on the map in 2005 with his indie sensation Junebug, which also launched Amy Adams into the acting stratosphere with her Oscar-nominated performance. In 2005, Angus MacLachlan also started turning his one of his plays into a screenplay, and five years later, Stone was released. Stone will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 18 and I recently had the chance to speak with this talented screenwriter over the phone about this drama. Here's what he had to say below:
I read that this started as a play before you turned it into a screenplay. Can you talk about where that original idea came from and how it evolved into the script?
Angus MacLachlan: Sure. I usually can always tell where something comes from, but this one happened very strangely. Usually, they come from something I've read, or something that happened or something that someone told me, but this came very strangely to me, with the two main characters, played by De Niro and Norton, and the main relationship and then four steps that are in the final film. Wanting to get out, some kind of spiritual thing that may or may not happen to Norton's character, then the seduction and also the fire. All those things sort of came and the rest of them came around. The play is just the four people, the two men and their wives. Then, when I was at Sundance in 2005 with Junebug, I was approached by a production company who liked Junebug and asked if I had anything else for a specific actor. I guess I can say it. That was for Robert Redford. I thought, 'Well, you know, he could play that role in the play,' so I adapted it and sent it to him. He eventually passed on it and we tried to get it to a producer and we ended up getting it to Holly Wiersma, and it eventually became a film.
Robert Redford, wow. That would have been interesting.
Angus MacLachlan: I know. I really thought highly of him and, at that time, he had just done this very small, gritty film, and I can't remember what the name of it was. For awhile, Tommy Lee Jones was attached after that and then finally it got to De Niro.
Was it easier having the play to expand off of? Can you talk about the changes you had to make so this would work as a script?
Angus MacLachlan: Yeah. If one were to read the play, almost all of it is in the film. It just was a chance to see other places, to explore a little bit more. Sort of the rule of thumb is that a play is more dialogue-driven and a movie is more visual-driven. There certainly is a lot of dialogue in the scenes between the two main characters in the film, but just to see the seduction, to see the house, to see the fire, to see other people around was a great opportunity. Also you can get in really close, that's also a great thing that film can do, penetrate within a character and get up close to them. That was one of the great things about it being turned into a film.
I spoke with John Curran recently and I was telling him that I was kind of surprised about how much religion turns up in the movie. It's done in a great way, but I wasn't expecting that to come out of this story. Can you talk about the balance you wanted to strike when it came to religion in the movie?
Angus MacLachlan: Well, to me, the whole thing is really a spiritual story. It's a story of these four souls who are all imprisoned in some way and they're all either consciously or unconsciously get out of it. When you deal with that, you're dealing in a spiritual realm and that opens up, what I was hoping to open up, all different kinds of spirituality. All four characters have a different relationship. Milla's character, Lucetta, doesn't believe in any god, doesn't believe in anything. Norton's character has no belief at the beginning, but then something happens to him that he doesn't understand. Still, I don't think that's going to make him into a good person. He's probably still going to be a dangerous person. Frances Conroy's character has a true religion, which is Christianity, which she really believes in and De Niro's character hasn't really felt the spiritual life that he's always gone through. I also wanted to think of a God that could encompass destruction, which is sort of what Stone espouses, that this fire that's within him is attracted to God. I was just interested in all of those aspects, when dealing with humanity.
Obviously when you were writing this as a play, you weren't thinking about people like Robert De Niro, Edward Norton or Milla Jovovich inhabiting these characters. Can you talk about the kinds things they brought to the characters that surprised you compared to how you originally wrote them?
Angus MacLachlan: The most surprising was Milla because I knew her work and always thought she was good, but I thought she was surprising in that maybe she hadn't gotten the chance to show these things before.
Oh, absolutely. We've seen her for the past decade or so as this ass-kicking woman and this is a wonderful, different side to see.
Angus MacLachlan: And, of course, Norton always brings a smart, slippery, untrustworthy kind of person to the kinds of roles he does. He seems to really embody that very strongly. What was great about watching De Niro in this is that there are times, one shot in particular, where he's sitting in the car and it's through the windshield, where you forget that it's De Niro. He really creates a character and I hadn't seen him go in that direction recently. Frances Conroy, with what she was given, was able to hint at all these different layers with that woman. You don't get to see that much of her.
You initially wanted to shoot this in North Carolina, but Michigan worked out better with the incentives and the huge prison you shot in. Can you talk about some of the other things about filming in Michigan that you might not have gotten in North Carolina?
Angus MacLachlan: Well, it's interesting because Junebug, which was set in North Carolina, the director of that really wanted to shoot it here because it was so much about this area. Stone, even in its play form, isn't really about being in the South or being in North Carolina. It was about these people. When they said, 'I think we're going to film in Michigan,' I said, 'Great.' I don't think it needed to be specifically anywhere, to come alive, but Michigan was great. I had never spent much time there but I was amazed at how beautiful it was. We were there in June and that prison is phenomenal. It's so gigantic and scary and great. Then when we had the locations of the houses and other places, the people were so accommodating and welcome. It was great to be in Michigan.
You talked earlier about De Niro. One of my favorite scenes is the first one with him and Stone, where he just starts yelling at him. I haven't seen that side of De Niro in, I can't remember how long. Can you talk about John Curran's work with these actors, bringing out these sides of the actors that we haven't seen in some time?
Angus MacLachlan: I was on the set for a few weeks and these are very fine actors. They obviously were attracted to something in the script that gave them opportunities to show different things. I'm an actor as well. I was educated as an actor and worked as an actor for a long time. I that actors do see, in what I write, these opportunities, like Amy Adams in Junebug, and all the actors in that film. When you have really fine actors, you kind of get out of the way and let them do it. They were all so attuned and respected each other. De Niro and Norton had worked together before and they had such respect for each other. Milla, I think, was just thrilled to be with these two people and was just way up on her game. Nobody seemed intimidated, in particular, by the other actors, Frances Conroy too. I know Norton has said this is the kind of piece he had wanted to do, as an actor, where you go face-to-face and you're doing these intense one-on-one scenes.
On the writing side, you're going from a much smaller indie in Junebug to this bigger movie with all these amazing stars. Can you talk about the things you learned by just being on that set?
Angus MacLachlan: The one thing is that it's all kind of the same, it's just larger circles. I've noticed that as well when I'll do smaller plays and larger plays. After you get over the fact that, oh my God, that IS Robert De Niro standing there, you just see that he is a real, fine, true actor who's there really wanting to do good work. Your brain and emotions can't really take in that it is really Robert De Niro. You have to pretend that doesn't exist in order to work with somebody and talk to them. You just see that he's a real actor and he wants to work like any great actor wants to work. He's serious about the material and wants to do a fine job, and that goes for all these people. You know, it was fun, this time, to see big trucks that said Stone on the side. That was fun, in terms of the difference from a very small film to this mid-sized film. There was the excitement of more people seeing it as well.
You said you were trained as an actor. Is there ever the temptation to write in a part for yourself?
Angus MacLachlan: No, I haven't actually written anything for myself. I had a little walk-on in Junebug. There was one scene in a bar where I said to John Curran, 'Can I be in this?' He said, 'Sure.' Then I thought, 'I don't want to sit here for six hours' (Laughs). I know enough about acting. I have written things where I thought, 'Oh, I maybe could play this small part,' but I've never written something specifically for myself.
Is there anything that you're currently writing right now that you can talk about?
Angus MacLachlan: There are a number of projects right now that I'm trying to get done. I've just finished a new spec screenplay that I want to try to get going. They're all different kinds, too. One is a period romantic comedy, one is based on a Russian classic, one is a modern comedy-drama kind of thing, one is an intense modern drama. There are a lot of different things, but the difficulty, of course, is it's a tough time to try to get things done that aren't tentpoles.
Tentpoles or things that aren't based off another book or another movie.
Angus MacLachlan: Yeah, exactly. It's amazing that this film did actually get made. It's an adult drama and it deals with human beings and there are not a lot of those being made unless there's a brand name. Darren Aronofsky has Black Swan, but that's even sort of a thriller, when you get down to it. It's tough and even all these great films like The Fighter or all those people, they all said how hard it was to get their stuff done.
Finally, what would you like to say to those who didn't see Stone in theaters about why they should check out the DVD or Blu-ray?
Angus MacLachlan: You know, if you have one concept of it, you might be surprised that it's actually about something. It's told in a dynamic way. I think it's the kind of film that people will really appreciate on DVD or Blu-ray, because it's about human beings and adults and has an idea behind it that you have to wrestle with. It's not easy and there are some pyrotechnics in its acting.
Excellent. Well that's all I have for you, Angus. Thanks so much for your time and best of luck with your new projects.
Angus MacLachlan: Great. Thanks a lot.