Edward Norton Interview, The Painted Veil

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

Movies Online recently sat down with producer/actor Ed Norton at the Los Angeles Press Day for his new film, "The Painted Veil.” Based on the classic novel by W. Somerset Maugham, "The Painted Veil” is a love story set in the 1920s that tells the tale of a young English couple, Walter Fane (Norton), a middle class doctor, and Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts), an upper-class woman, who get married for the wrong reasons and relocate to Shanghai, where she falls in love with someone else. When he uncovers her infidelity, in an act of vengeance, he accepts a job in a remote village in China ravaged by a deadly epidemic, and takes her along. Their journeybrings meaning to their relationship and gives them purpose in one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth. "The Painted Veil” also stars Liev Schreiber and Toby Jonesand is directed by John Curran based on the screenplay adaptation by Ron Nyswaner.

The film began its road to the big screen in 1995 when screenwriter Ron Nyswaner began looking for his next project. Nyswaner had written the screenplay for the seminal 1993 film "Philadelphia,” which had gone on to receive widespread acclaim and earned the writer an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. In a conversation with producer Sara Colleton, Nyswaner referenced The Painted Veil as one of his favorite books. Nyswaner admired the way this particular story by the author transformed from one about revenge into one about redemption. Sara revealed that she had in fact spent the last year trying to secure rights to the book with the Maugham estate. It was destiny.

With Nyswaner on board, Colleton began work on an early draft of the script with him. Portions of the book that explain Kitty’s backstory and shed light on her decision to marry Walter were condensed into a brief prologue of flashbacks. After three years of intense rewriting and development—during which producer Jean-François Fonlupt was also brought on board— Colleton and Nyswaner sent the script to Edward Norton, "who would remain a stalwart element on the project,” Colleton says.

In 1999, Norton’s first impressions of the script were overwhelmingly positive. "Ron adapted it wonderfully,” he remembers. "I thought it was a great piece of writing.”

Norton, a talented filmmaker in his own right and a self-described Sinophile, immediately responded to the complex character of bacteriologist Walter Fane and his mercurial relationship with wife Kitty. "Walter and Kitty’s emotional journey as a couple is compelling in the script, especially how they transcend their own negativity about each other and resuscitate their relationship,” he explains. "Walter has to find his way to forgiveness. This story really hit all the numbers for me,” he adds, "because these are some the most challenging issues in life.”

Despite Norton’s fondness for the script, for various reasons, "We couldn’t get the film made at that time,” says the actor. Norton would go on to make his feature film directorial debut, "Keeping the Faith,” which he also produced and starred in alongside Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman. But even from the back burner, "The Painted Veil” seemed to preoccupy Norton as intensely as it had haunted Ron Nyswaner.

Norton came on board as a producer late in 1999, which injected the project with new vigor. "Edward worked ceaselessly, year after year, to guide this project towards production,” praises Nyswaner. The two collaborated for the next six months on the script in an effort to, in Norton’s words, "liberate it from the novel a little bit. We wanted to open it up to China somewhat and to create a romantic transcendence in the film, which doesn’t exist in the novel, and take the Walter-Kitty relationship farther.” Norton, who had studied Chinese history as a Yale undergraduate, was a valuable resource for Nyswaner during the rewriting process. "It was with his inspiration and guidance that I began to explore the work Walter does in China, which is completely absent from the book,” explains the screenwriter.

The revision lent depth and breadth to Walter, which only heightened Norton’s interest in the character. "The way in which Walter gets broken by China is very tragic, but very interesting to me,” he comments. "Walter represents the forces of British Colonialism during that era. People were going into other countries and trying to make them over as their own. Walter also represents Western rationalism—the Western scientific mind that believes that if people would just embrace the way the West does things, they’d have it so much easier.”

In the fall of 2004, Edward Norton telephoned Naomi Watts—once again—about playing Kitty Fane in "The Painted Veil.” This time, he was determined to enlist the actress— a 2004 Best Actress Oscar nominee who had just finished a grueling eight-month shoot in Australia for "King Kong.” For five years, Norton, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner and producer Sara Colleton had been developing an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel, and they were hoping to finally get it produced. It had been a long journey to get to this point.

Here’s what Ed Norton had to tell us about "The Painted Veil,” a project that has been close to his heart for many years:

Question: What was it about this material that instilled such passion in you that you stuck with it for so long?

Edward Norton: [I've been with it for] seven years. I guess, simply put, I think that, like anybody who loves movies, when you watch David Lean films, or a movie like 'Out of Africa,' or something like that, you cannot help, as an actor, but think how fun it must be to have one of those kinds of experiences, and what a challenge it must be to make films with that kind of scope. I don't think many of those films get made, and I think, a lot of times, when they get made, they don't get sent to me. So, when I saw one that I thought had that potential in it, it was very hard to stop ruminating on it. And, on a specific level, I thought, as an actor, it was such complicated [story].
I don't tend to see my life reflected in movies about people who meet when their dogs tangle up. I'm not being specific. I'm just saying I thought that it was the kind of romance that touched me. I felt like it was a story about the long struggle of men and women to actually understand each other in a forgiving way, and I found that very touching because it's challenging. It's a challenge to say, ‘Am I capable of that?,’ or ‘Have I done that? Have I been forgiving, myself? Have I had the courage to forgive somebody ever?’ And so, when you have that kind of response to a piece of material, to me, it's a good place to start because you already see what you can offer through it and what it might give back to people watching it. All of that, to me, is rare. Those things don't bang across my desk every week, or every year, so all of that made me very persistent about it.

Q: Your character can be so vicious in some of the scenes. Does that help you get out any kind of aggression, or passive aggression, in some of those moments?

EN: I don't think there's any of us who can't relate to the desire to poison our loved ones. [Laughs] No. I don't know. I don't think I use acting as an outlet for things I don't get to express in life. I don't know. And yet, there's some sort of funny satisfaction in that.
Maybe it's a way of venting off things inside you. I don't know. I sound high falutin, but I always gravitated myself to Stella Adler, who's one of the really great thinkers about acting. She was always saying that, fundamentally, she considered it an imaginative process, and I kind of agree with that. Other people, I'm sure, have completely different attitudes toward it. I'm just saying that, for me, personally, I enjoy the imaginative part of it.

Q: What did you like about the character, and was it tough for you to get the English accent down?

EN: No. I think those things are almost like musical ear. There was a dialect coach on the film. I have never liked dialect coaches, but for this, we had someone I thought was actually incredibly helpful. Any time a character emerges in slices and keeps deepening in revealing levels that were not obvious on initial encounter, that's very compelling.

Q: How do you think people meet each other, nowadays, since you say you can't identify with people in films who meet when their dogs tangle with each other?

EN: I said that jokingly, but actually a really good friend of mine met the love of his life when their dogs got tangled. So, I'm just saying it didn't happen in my life. I'm not saying it doesn't happen.

Q: Do you believe in coincidence?

EN: Sure.

Q: Can you talk about your experience with China prior to this film?

EN: I only missed the air conditioning one time, the entire time. Mostly, we had air conditioning. I'd spent some time in China because my father lived in China for a long time, but I had not been to the big cities, Beijing and Shanghai, and I had not been where we filmed, in South Central China, in the mountains there. The experience of all the places we worked was new and fresh to me, and really wonderful.
It's wonderful to work with Chinese colleagues and initially feel like you're struggling to communicate across the language barrier, and then, in a fairly short time, find that you have much more in common with these people who also do what you do. They're your brothers in filmmaking, and they know the same things you know. You find the little quirks of the way they work that is different from the way you work, but on the whole, I liked it much more than just being a tourist. I liked it much more than just traveling through a place. To work in a place and know the people is much more rewarding.

Q: Did you pick up the language at all?

EN: No. I can't claim any facility with Chinese.

Q: What did you discover about Naomi Watts from working with her? Anything surprising?

EN: Just one observation among many, but when Naomi showed up in Beijing, she was very tired. She was coming off 'King Kong' and, the first week of the filming, we had to do a lot of those scenes in the house in China, which are some of the heaviest scenes in the movie. That was, literally, the first week of filming and it was very, very, very challenging to do that without reference points of what the scenes are before.
She was very tired, and I almost saw her take a deep breath and do that thing that I think really, really good actors do, which is, instead of combating the state that she was in, she just took it and put it right into the work. She just embraced the way she was feeling in that moment and said, "Well, that's what this is. I'm not going to try to layer something over it." The thing that was beautiful about it was that it was perfect for the state Kitty is in. I think any actor who's worth anything fights the eternal struggle between what goes on [in their head], and the releasing of that and just getting into it.
It's great when you're working with someone and you watch them make themselves available to the moment, as it is. It's beautiful. It's great. I really can't say enough good [things] about her. It was almost certainly the most intimate interaction I've had with another actor. I haven't done a film where the two roles were that inextricably intertwined with each other. I just could not have asked for a better tango partner.

Q: Is it difficult to do love scenes?

EN: Not when you've worked with the people for a long time. Not if it's embedded appropriately deep in the process, so that there's trust and comfortability. I think by the time we worked on that in this film -- and it's a modest scene with nothing too difficult about it -- we wanted them to be together. It's nice. And, it's also very technical. A lot of it is akin to dancing and choreography. It needs to be choreographed.

Q: What's next for you?

EN: I made a film called 'Pride and Glory,' but it won't be out until next year.

"The Painted Veil” opened in theaters on December 20th Be sure to read my Painted Veil Review


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