Director John Curran discusses his latest film starring Edward Norton and Robert De Niro
Director John Curran first gained attention for his work on the 2004 drama We Don't Live Here Anymore starring Mark Ruffalo and Naomi Watts. He followed that up with the critically acclaimed 2006 drama The Painted Veil, also starring Naomi Watts along with PEnXNtqpsrKurq||Edward Norton} and Liev Schreiber. Earlier this year he wrote The Killer Inside Me, which is based on Jim Thompson's popular novel and stars Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba.
Now Curran returns to the director's chair and once again teams up with Edward Norton for the new film Stone, which opens in theaters on October 8th and also stars Oscar winner Robert De Niro and Milla Jovovich. The movie reunites De Niro and Norton for the first time since they starred opposite each other in the 2001 film The Score. In the picture, Norton plays a prisoner up for parole and De Niro is his correctional officer that gets involved in a relationship with the prisoner's wife, played by Jovovich.
We recently had a chance to speak with director John Curran about his new movie, its difficult material, working with De Niro and Norton and the challenges of directing such accomplished actors. Here is what he had to say:
To begin with, the film is a bit different than what fans might anticipate from watching the trailer or expect from De Niro and Norton after watching them work together in "The Score", so was that misdirection something that helped you in setting the tone for this movie?
John Curran: Part of the idea of the film is misdirection in a sense. But you do expect with De Niro and Norton for their characters to take a certain turn. I think that it was always inherent in the script when I read it the first time. I thought I was going to be seeing something that would build more into a thriller and it really ends up becoming a conversation about God. I think what helps that shift in expectation is in the casting. Definitely the trailer, you know, I accept the marketing responsibilities of a trailer. I think if maybe I cut a trailer five people would see the film because it would be very bleak.
How did the project all come together? You knew Norton from "The Painted Veil" so was this script something that he had been working on or did you bring it to him?
John Curran: The script came to me and initially I wasn't even talking to Edward about playing a role in this. He had read it as a friend because we had done The Painted Veil, kept in touch and hung out sometimes when we were in the same city. So one of those times I had it with me and let him read it. He really didn't get it or connect with it, lets say. A year later when De Niro was attached, I knew now the type of person I needed against this character and I came back to Edward and said, look with the way this is going I want you to take a look at it seriously to play Stone. He read it and he still had questions but we talked for a long time about it. I think he saw the film I was trying to make and it wasn't necessarily on the page but together we work-shopped a lot of it. He contributed a lot to that script from that point onwards in the way that we work together, you know, the standard way of sort of evolving a script. Through his relationship, I mean he knew Bob, they kind of came to the project with a mutual respect and the three of us then went further to try and decide who was going to play Lucetta and who was going to play Madylyn.
Norton is so well known, still to this day, for his work in "American History X," do you know if he had any concerns about playing a convict again?
John Curran: Yeah sure but it wasn't so much that as, I mean De Niro plays a lot of gangsters too; he was only worried about it in the sense that the story would be going in similar directions. Certainly this story goes where that ends and then beyond. It goes into a much more spiritual direction. Something that you think is going to be a con ends up being something else. I think that plays into some of the expectations of the film in a positive way for anyone coming at it new and also for him.
Norton completely embodies a different person in this film, can you talk about the transformation that he underwent as an actor for this role?
John Curran: You know his process led him to interviewing prisoners at Jackson Prison where we were filming it just to get a beat on the locality of the place and to get some sense of dialog, behavior and attitudes. They were kind of grounded in a local reality. He came across this guy that he really modeled his performance on verbatim practically. This guy had also gone through a similar transformation while he was in jail. Not necessarily a spiritual one but you know he radically tried to change from what he was. I think a lot of his manner and the way he talked Edward picked up on and that was sort of invaluable as a reference point for all of us.
Can you talk about De Niro's choice to take on this role and his performance in the film?
John Curran: I think for Bob it is a role that came at a time in his life where he was really interested in doing something very reductive, meaning there wasn't a lot of physical bells and whistles to this character. Essentially it is a guy sitting behind a desk who was going to go head to head with somebody in a very still like performance. I think the idea of that restraint, that discipline was scary for all of us. For him to take something that is that stripped back and give it all the nuance and physicality that you would in a showier more action driven role. I think there was something in the biblical parable of the piece that he really grabbed on to in our earliest discussions. There was just something ... there was an allegoric tale behind all this that he really dug and again like Edward was invaluable in the way that he went about researching a template for the guy that he was going to play.
Can you talk about the first time you were shooting the office scenes with the two actors and what it was like on set when they finally came together?
John Curran: You know, sometimes you do get lost in the fact that it is De Niro and Norton going at it. But I think because they did know each other and there was a mutual respect that they did know that they were going to bring their A-game. They came to set prepared and ready to go. They challenge each other and they focus. It wasn't like they were on two different films and on two different wavelengths. I think the familiarity and the respect helped a lot. It cut through a lot of the preliminary stuff that you have to cut through to get to that place. The best scenes were really the ones that I was worried about. I was worried that it was going to be a lot of scenes of guys in an office and if it would sustain. Those were some of my favorite things to shoot and my favorite part of the film to watch.
You move the camera a lot in those office scenes and also, you use a lot of close ups in the more sexual scenes, can you talk about your choice to shoot those segments like that?
John Curran: It's hard because it was always going to be a static, claustrophobic film. The design of the film is one that enhances the idea of being claustrophobic. This story is about people who are trapped, four characters who are trapped. I wanted the sense that Jack just sort of goes from cube to cube in his life. But at the same time your kind of racking your brain to come up with relevant movement so it isn't just moving the camera for the sake of moving it. I was extremely conscious of trying to evolve the movement throughout the film. It was one of the bigger challenges.
Finally, Milla Jovovich plays a different type of role in the movie than people usually associate with her, can you talk about your choice to cast her in the film?
John Curran: I wouldn't have expected it. I love Milla's past work but I wouldn't have put her past performances with this character. She read for it and just hands down nailed it like no one else did because it's really a wide spectrum of stuff that you need from one actress for that role. She just got the whole nuance of humor, sexiness, danger, naïveté and insecurity. All those things she just sort of embodied. Both Edward and Bob like me knew that she was the one. She was fantastic and its really kind of a watershed performance for Milla. It shows a side of her that a lot of people haven't seen before.