Director John Curran discusses his new drama Stone

Stone director John Curran talks about his talented trio of stars, shooting in Michigan, the religious aspects of the movie and more.

Director John Curran's career is the epitome of going against the grain in Hollywood. He takes in distinctly different material from one project to the next, with indie gems such as Praise, We Don't Live Here Anymore and The Painted Veil to his credit. And what's more different than a romantic period piece like The Painted Veil? A gritty prison drama such as John Curran's latest movie Stone, which will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 18. I had the chance to speak with John Curran about his new movie, which stars Robert De Niro as a retiring parole officer, Edward Norton as a supposedly-reformed felon and Milla Jovovich as the convict's tempting wife. Here's what the director had to say:

Can you take me through your first reactions to Angus MacLachlan's script and how it resonated with you?

John Curran: Yeah, it was a few years back. It took awhile to get the whole thing going. It was a very visceral experience, getting lulled into this peaceful setup of this couple, 30 years ago, and then really quickly, this horrific event takes place, which I didn't see coming, at all. Then there's this cut and it's 30 years later and they're together. My reaction was there was a loaded gun hanging over this script at all times. I liked that I thought I knew what it was going to be. I thought it was going down the road of being this cat-and-mouse thriller, and it became something completely different.

It's like the rule you always hear. If you don't have someone's attention after the first 10 pages (of the script), they'll throw it away. These first 10 pages were quite amazing.

John Curran: Yeah. It's a polarizing piece and it's the kind of script where not everybody is quite clamoring to make them, you know. But, it really stuck with me through a couple of different projects that I took a run at and, for different reasons like strikes and financing, they fell apart. I never really let it go.

One of the things that surprised me, and it doesn't hit you over the head as much, but the aspect of religion in the movie. Was it a careful choice with how much that was balanced?

John Curran: Yeah. A film is different than a script. The text of the script is what it is. It's two guys in a room and ultimately they're discussing stuff revolving around redemption and spirituality and God. In a film, you're creating a world, where there's radio and other conversations in the background, you're going to see him in church and all that iconography that comes into it. That layer starts to become heavier and it was always a concern to get it right. You don't want to be beating it over people's heads, but the challenge of the faith was what I was attracted to. It kind of had an agnostic heart. It wasn't picking out a path and saying this is better than that. It was setting up a lot of alternate paths and ideas and, hopefully, everybody has a different interpretation and a different feeling of what went down.

It was also interesting to see Stone and Jack's arcs throughout the movie. It's very interesting to see where they end up.

John Curran: Yeah, when you get big stars in roles like that, I think the fun of these things is like... with De Niro, I knew and I think he knew that there would be certain expectations. You think you already know what his character is going to do, based on what he brings to the role, and the same with Norton. I think that's part of it. You start to guess that this is going to be De Niro's film and Norton is going to do this and then, the script and the film take you in a completely different direction. In some ways, I think what was polarizing about it was these expectations you have going into films about resolutions and happy endings, they kind of reflect life. We're all hoping for certain things and when they're not delivered, in life and films, its a parallel experience.

Yeah, I agree. It was great to see with all three, Robert, Edward and Milla, they are roles that they might have played before but we haven't seen in so long. We're so used to seeing Milla as this ass-kicking woman or maybe De Niro playing Jack Byrnes. It was wonderful to watch them all get into these kinds of characters we haven't seen them in for awhile.

John Curran: Yeah, thanks. I felt if I could cast it right, with actors like that, the process and the experience would be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. I'm a fan of all of them, just for the reasons you just stated. That was one of the big reasons I hung in there, was to work with these actors on a piece like this. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

You shot the movie in Michigan, which has become this hotbed for production these days. The prison you shot in, I read was one of the largest prisons in the country at one point.

John Curran: Yeah, it was. I think in the 80s it was the largest walled prison in the world, or something like that. It was just too big, there were too many prisoners, too many riots, so they shut down like one-third of it. It's been shut down since the 80s, which is fortunate for us. The script wasn't originally set there, though. I read a joke over the weekend, about how scripts will start to say, 'Open on a tax-incentive state.' (Laughs)

(Laughs) That's hilarious.

John Curran: Yeah, from now on, that's how every script is going to be, 'Open on a tax-incentive state.' It's so appropriate that it's sad, but it's still funny.

Yeah, 'Open on Michigan/Louisiana/New Mexico..."

John Curran: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly.

I was actually in Michigan last year for a set visit and there were, I think, six different movies going on at the same time.

John Curran: Oh yeah. We were there when, I would say, the incentives were about a year old and they were still finding their way. The crews were still a bit patchy and you still had to grab guys from Chicago. There had only been one or two other film there that we could draw experience from. Now, you've got to get in line and there are huge films being shot there. It's not the best-kept secret anymore. It doesn't take long.

Since it was still fairly new when you were there, can you talk about how the communities reacted to the production being there?

John Curran: Ironically, the prison we shot in, the movie Conviction had been there and done some scenes there. We were based in Ann Arbor, and Drew Barrymore had done a film there. I think it wasn't totally novel. They had a bit of experience. In my experience, not just in shooting films but in the commercials I've done, initially, it's very exciting for the community and its a real novelty. Very quickly, though, they realize there's a buck to be had and it becomes annoying and they lose their patience pretty quick. The arc is pretty quick, from being a novelty to a pain in the ass.

Is there anything you can say about The Beautiful and the Damned? Is anything happening with that?

John Curran: Like a lot of films at the end of 2008, they hit a wall with financing, which is why I moved back onto Stone. In doing so, I had to let go of The Beautiful and the Damned, to at least give them an opportunity to move forward with somebody else. I don't know where that project is at. It's a great, great project. Like a lot of films, it probably had to look at itself pretty hard, when budgets are shrinking. It's a big period piece, you know.

Is there anything that you are currently developing that you can talk about?

John Curran: I'm currently developing a mini-series with Edward Norton, that we've been working on for awhile. It's still in early stages, but it's about Lewis and Clark.

Nice. Do you have that set up anywhere?

John Curran: We're hoping to be at HBO. It's sort of a dream project for both of us. It is big and sort of unwieldy in its nature. We've been working on it for awhile now.

Is that still just in the writing stages now then?

John Curran: We're a little more advanced than that. We're getting into the budgeting stages, but it's still early days.

Just to wrap up, what would you like to say to anyone who didn't get a chance to see Stone in theaters about why they should pick up the DVD or Blu-ray?

John Curran: I think it's a film that you have to come to with an open mind. I think it was made with the spirit of being challenging. The worst thing for a filmmaker is for a film to be labeled as pretentious or heavy-handed. I think whenever you're doing a film that evolves around notions of spirituality, you have to be very careful that it's not presented in a way where it feels like homework. I think it's a really surprising film. I mean, making it, I was completely surprised by it so hopefully someone comes to it to see great actors chewing it up in an unexpected way.

I definitely agree. That's about all I have for you, John. Thanks so much for your time.

John Curran: Great. Thanks so much for your time. All the best.

You can check out John Curran's Stone, when it hits the Blu-ray and DVD shelves on January 18.