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Interview: ‘Stone’ Star Edward Norton, Director John Curran on Going Against Hollywood’s Grain
CHICAGO – Many filmmakers speak of going against the grain. By virtue of desiring to take a road less traveled, though, often you’re actually going with the same grain as everyone else who wants to be different. While the somber pacing for “Stone” was selected for the reasons director John Curran tells us below, the style might have also been chosen because that’s what he knows best and can do.
With a similar feel to his acclaimed film “The Painted Veil,” Curran doesn’t have a history of filming action films in the vein of “The Bourne Identity”. In “Stone,” Curran does what he does best: takes a dramatic script and translates it into compelling tension. He doesn’t rely on special effects or explosions (well, just once) to keep our eyes glued.
Edward Norton greets the HollywoodChicago.com camera on the red carpet for the film
“Stone” on Oct. 7, 2010 on the opening night of the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival.
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com
While some might glaze over and feel the film is “slow” (especially if you’re wanting an “Iron Man 2”-type of film), others will engage the story and its characters. HollywoodChicago.com interviewed “Stone” star Edward Norton and director John Curran on Oct. 8, 2010 as part of the opening of the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival.
“Stone” from director John Curran and writer Angus MacLachlan stars Edward Norton, Robert De Niro, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy, Enver Gjokaj, Pepper Binkley, Sandra Love Aldridge, Greg Trzaskoma and Rachel Loiselle. Norton has also starred in “Fight Club,” “American History X,” “Primal Fear,” “The Illusionist,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Rounders,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “Death to Smoochy,” “Frida,” “The Score,” “25th Hour,” “The Italian Job,” “Kingdom of Heaven” and “The Painted Veil”.
HollywoodChicago.com: You shot a feature-length film largely in a single, very small room. How’d you keep things interesting?
Edward Norton: Yeah. I shot for 3 weeks total. Of that, I shot in that office for 9 days. I started seeing circular tracks being built…
John Curran: We built an office within a space where all the walls could fly so you don’t get jammed. Even with all the walls moving, though, I still ran out of ideas. How do you shoot people in a room? Answer: We just had them sit in chairs. I tried to impose my ideas and told Bob (Robert De Niro) to pace around or punch walls. He just wanted to sit in the chair.
I was just talking to someone who saw a lot of Stanley Kubrick in this. He was comparing me to Dr. Strangelove. I was very flattered of the parallels. I wanted the aesthetic to evolve, but it was more out of fear of it getting redundant.
Image credit: Overture Films
HC: You (Edward Norton) took convincing to accept the title role of Stone. You initially didn’t want to. So, it was your relationship with John (Curran) that sealed the deal for you?
EN: Yes. With many things I’ve worked on, you’d encounter them in a phase and they’re still in process. Even with “Fight Club,” (David) Fincher sent me the novel and Jim Uhls’s first script and it was still really different than what it ended up being. Sometimes you find your way into something and it still has a ways to go. “Stone” was like that.
I was in the middle of something else. It was a conversation that evolved over a year after we did “The Painted Veil” together. We (with John Curran) were psyched to do something. Bob and I were psyched to do something. Things had to fall into place. John needed to work on it and I had to get clear. It’s the wild thing about film. There’s an alchemy of multiple people. It’s not Ansel Adams. You can’t just walk out with your rig and do something now because you’re ready. It’s something I’ve learned to trust.
Milla Jovovich stars in “Stone”.
Photo credit: Overture Films
On “The Painted Veil,” I worked on it for 6 years before John even got involved. You’ve got to gear your head to a certain steadiness and trust that they find their moment and time.
HC: Why’d you choose consistently somber pacing without special effects and Hollywood explosions?
JC: I’m really honest about it. Like punk rock, part of the motive behind the film was to challenge the form. I didn’t want to be an irritant, but I wanted to work against the grain of what’s expected. That’s the special effect of the piece.
You don’t want to gaze at your own navel and come up with something pretentious. You don’t want to be creative for the sake of being creative. The form followed the character of Jack (played by Robert De Niro). There’s an expectation of the character of Jack that you set up in the beginning.
The misdirection is that he isn’t who his wife thinks he is or who he thinks he is. Ultimately, Stone calls him on this. No matter what I wanted to do with the cutting and the pasting, it felt like the right thing to maintain that personality.
There’s always a commercial instinct to put in a car chase or have a dangerous twist, but it wasn’t what the film was all about. To remain authentic to the idea meant sticking to some of the ideas. That probably challenges some people’s expectations.
HC: Stone’s actually in prison while Jack’s in a metaphorical prison. Which character is a good guy and which is a bad guy?
EN: I relate on that level very intensely. There’s a perception of one guy and a perception of the other guy in the beginning, and by the end of the film, it [flip flops]. A woman at the (opening-night) party (of the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival on Oct. 7, 2010) offered her take on it. Her interpretation was so interesting to me. She said she thought it was about how much you could work on someone when you know what they need. But about halfway through the movie, she realized there’s no twist.
These people are all on a path and it’s not headed toward something. Lucetta (played by Milla Jovovich) is staying in the same place. Stone and Madylyn (played by Frances Conroy) are on a path to freedom and (Jack and Lucetta) are entrapped and entombed. The two people who were imprisoned in different ways (Stone and Madylyn) have liberated themselves. And the two people who were liberated (Jack and Lucetta) are caught in this stasis.
Image credit: Overture Films
The thing (the lady at the film festival) said that I really liked was that in the middle of the movie she had a realization that it wasn’t one thing. It was actually about other things. The rug pull of that to me is much more interesting than a plot revelation. It’s the idea that you suddenly realize you’ve been underestimating a character like Stone in whom you’ve been simply waiting for a manipulative disingenuousness. But the truth is what’s destabilizing about the movie.
It’s not finding out about Stone’s wickedness. What’s destabilizing about the movie is finding out that he’s going through something authentic. You’ve got to grapple with the fact that the guy who seemed loopy (Stone) is turning more authentic while the guy who seemed to be an upright citizen (Jack) is looking more and more like a wreck and a real danger to himself and everyone else.
JC: If you’re doing a spiritual drama, the normal instinct is to begin with a character drama. And to prove its point, it would build into some kind of biblical thriller with a crescendo that is satisfying in a thriller-esque way. To be authentic to the spiritual story we’re telling, ours was the reverse.
Ours begins with the bones of a thriller, but our misdirection or twist is that it makes its point. Is it an absurd or profound ending? That’s the point. The fact that it’s open-ended is what the film is saying about the notions of god and spirituality. Is it emptiness or does it come through sound? How do you answer that with closure?
EN: Something’s changed with Stone and Lucetta by the end. Lucetta tells you who she is. Stone says she’s an alien. What he means is she has no anxiety. She’s not an existential person. She’s like an animal in a karmic sense. She says she’s all about the body. She’s happy as long as someone needs her to be that thing. As soon as Stone stops needing her, it’s seriously destabilizing to her. And both Jack and Stone not needing her is what really upsets her. Then she’s going back to doing the same thing: just finding the next guy who needs her.
Image credit: Overture Films
JC: Of all of the characters in “Stone,” Edward has always said that Lucetta doesn’t evolve at all. She’s in a transition to another repeating cycle. And that’s the way we leave her: with the suggestion that there’s a brief lapse of depression and then the cycle begins again.
Edward Norton Red-Carpet Interview on Oct. 7, 2010 at the Chicago International Film Festival
HC: Who’s really in prison in this film?
EN: John has made a film that has interesting questions about different forms of imprisonment. There’s physical imprisonment (Stone), but then very early on we can tell that De Niro’s character (Jack) is imprisoned in a life that’s full of inauthentic feelings. I like the juxtaposition of a guy who seems very stable (Jack) but may be in a psychic prison along with this guy who seems very unstable (Stone) but finds his way to a more authentic, spiritual life.
HC: Why do you feel at home with troubled (and even dual-personality) characters (such as in “The Score”)?
EN: They’re complicated. And I like it when I feel like the director is trying to make a movie about what we’re living through. There’s a lot in “Stone” about judging other people but not doing the hard work on your own life. Those things are very resident right now. And this film is also about expectations and things collapsing. The economic downturn has a lot of people scared of having their lives upended late in life. “Stone” is allegorical and more in the realm of the spiritual.