Naomi Watts, John Curran Interview, The Painted Veil

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline recently sat down with producer/actress Naomi Watts and director John Curran at the Los Angeles Press Day for their 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 about young English couple, Walter Fane (Ed 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 film directed by John Curran also stars Liev Schreiber and Toby Jones.

In the fall of 2004, Edward Norton once again telephoned Naomi Watts about playing Kitty Fane in "The Painted Veil.” He was determined to enlist the actress. 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. Unfortunately, Watts, a 2004 Best Actress Oscar nominee who had recently completed roles in "The Ring Two” and "Stay,” had just finished a grueling eight-month shoot in Australia for "King Kong” and wasn’t eager to begin another film.

"I was tired, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to work again for at least that part of the year,” she admits. But after speaking at length with the persuasive Norton, "Suddenly my promise to myself about not working went out the window,” she laughs. "I always knew this book would make a great film.” "I spoke to Naomi toward the end of 2004,” remembers Norton, who has earned two Oscar nominations—one for his very first role in a motion picture. "I said, ‘Look, we could both do this next summer. Let’s really put our heads together and think of a director we’d be excited to work with. Let’s do it.’”

Watts says, "I fell in love with the script from my first read. I thought it was an incredible love story and a wonderful character. Kitty was clearly the first thing that drew me to the story.” But despite Watts’ unequivocal enthusiasm about the character and the project, even then, "It wasn’t set up properly to go into production,” she says. "Between Naomi being busy and me being busy and various directors dancing around the project but then not being available, it just wasn’t going to happen in 2001,” agrees Norton. "We had so many false starts with this project. We could never get all of the elements together at the same time.”

In 2001, Bob Yari and Mark Gordon became involved with "The Painted Veil” together with Mark Gill, who at the time was president of Gordon and Yari’s Stratus Film Company. When Gill left to create Warner Independent Pictures in the fall of 2003, he took the film with him and continued to shepherd it with the assistance of Stratus’ Robert Katz. The addition of Yari, Gordon, Gill and Katz to the roster breathed new life into the project—to the extent that Edward Norton felt confident enough in the fall of 2004 to put in that fateful call to Naomi Watts. "It’s been a long journey,” Watts admits. "Edward has been involved for six years, and I’ve been attached for four. It’s great that at the last minute it came together, and all the right elements fell into place.”

One of these elements was John Curran. The director’s name came up during conversations between Norton and Watts regarding possible helmers for "The Painted Veil.” "Naomi had just done ‘We Don’t Live Here Anymore’ with John,” says Norton, referring to Curran’s acclaimed 2004 drama that also starred Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern and Peter Krause. "I had seen it, and I asked Naomi how her experience was during filming. She went on and on about how much she enjoyed it and what great performances John got out of people.”

"John is fantastic to work with,” raves Watts of her longtime friend, a native New Yorker and Syracuse University alum who moved to Australia in 1986. "He came to me a few years back to do ‘We Don’t Live Here Anymore,’ and it was a difficult piece of material. But the way he talked about it made me jump on board. There are difficult aspects to "The Painted Veil” as well,” she continues. "But I know that John is able to explore flawed characters without judgment.”

Watts contacted Curran, and he and Norton met for lunch right after New Year’s in 2005. "It was exciting, because I got along with John right off the bat,” recalls Norton. "And John and Naomi already had a great history, so it was one of those really lucky breaks.

There were many times in the course of the six years that I’ve been working on this project that I felt it was never going to happen,” he confesses. "It was worth the wait because when it finally clicked, it clicked with the right people. We made a strong collaborative team.”

Here’s what Naomi Watts and John Curran had to tell us about the challenges of making "The Painted Veil”:

QUESTION: Can you talk about the cultural and political concerns with the movie’s subject matter?

JOHN CURRAN: Well the moral and religious things, I don’t think that we were that – that’s where movies like that start to become preachy or ponderous, you know? And even with the nun, what we loved about Diana Rigg is that she sort of subverted the idea of – we tried to bring a bit of her character into that role. And she’s a pretty feisty, irreverent older woman. And the political context was being there and absorbing through our contemporaries that we met there a stronger feeling of what was going on in China in the ‘20’s -- which ironically was a really pivotal, important time in the Chinese Republic’s history. And surprisingly or maybe not, Somerset Maugham never even touched on it at all which kind of shows either his lack of concern or his own arrogance. But we are making a film that has to work on a lot more layers than the book.

NAOMI WATTS: The book was so interior, I don’t think with film you have to lay it out to that extent or those extra things, that’s the backdrop. And also, the political stuff makes it a lot more cinematic.

Q: You changed your hair color for the movie. Was it your decision?

NW: Yes, it was. We fought over it too. (Laughs.)

JC: We fought a lot over it.

NW: But actually, in the end, basically we arrived and I always saw Kitty as a brunette. I felt that she was somehow more exotic with it and stronger and it felt very authentic to the period. And John always saw Kitty as a blonde so we had two wigs made and we did camera tests…

JC: No, we had the one you wanted made and then we had a really…

NW: Bad wig! (Laughs.)

JC: A really bad wig made that was never going to be the wig. I was totally conned and manipulated into…

NW: But in the end, c’mon, in the end you did…

JC: Once you put it on, no.

NW: Because I’m always scared… I have strong ideas.

JC: And then I liked it and you lost faith in it.

NW: I always have strong ideas. You fight for it and then you’re suddenly like, ‘Oh god, everyone is going to go along with what you’ve chosen.’ I hope this is the right one.

JC: In my head, I imagined this blonde standing out in this sea of dark haired Chinese. And maybe I had that idea in my head, but when we talked about it. My feeling about hairstyles and clothes and wig is, you have to let, if the actor has an instinct to fight it, it’s sort of foolish. You kind of have to go along with it. And even though aesthetically I had an opinion, I do trust Naomi a lot. The thing is she was in New Zealand and she had it on and was saying, ‘It looks fantastic and I feel really good in it.’ But I was in China, so I hadn’t seen it. Suddenly, I got this thing in the mail. This mousey ball of hair and I’m holding it up to pictures of Naomi and I’m like, ‘I can’t judge if it’s any good or not.’ So, it was a bit of blind faith.

Q: It’s so different in the period then, the class distinction and all compared to nowadays. When you see how people were at that time, does it feel a bit awkward?

NW: Yes, exactly. The audacity to be carried two weeks across country by a team of people. And all she could think about was the fact that it wasn’t comfortable. (Laughs.) It’s ridiculous and that really comes across in the film. And, but, yeah, there were some great moments of utter frustration and also even it being quite comical at one point when they’re sort of having that argument between the um, when she’s inside, fanning herself and he’s having this conversation through the curtains. So, yeah.

Q: Did you feel emotionally beat up after making this film?

NW: No, I actually felt the opposite.

JC: She arrived emotionally beat up.

NW: And then I left emotionally inspired.

JC: It started out, each in our own way, we were all pretty rung out. And she’d just come off ‘King Kong.’

NW: Which was so physically draining. I mean eight months of 14-hours a day jumping, running, being punched, pushed and pulled. It really did take its toll and I’m not a big person. So, this was a luxury. I mean, the emotional aspect of it was exhausting, but we had time. We actually had quite a luxury of time as we moved from place to place.

JC: And fortunately we did a lot of the heavier stuff, because of the weather we had to shoot inside first and it meant that we did the meatier scenes in the very first week. Literally the very first shot of the film that I did was her arriving at the bungalow which is really when you are at your worst as your character.

NW: Yes.

JC: And it was hot and miserable in the studio and all of us had been freaked out being there. So, fortunately the process fed into the film I think, but by the end of it, it was a really different experience for everyone I think.

Q: Naomi, what do you prefer, the ‘King Kong’ type movies or …?

JC: Oh, this one definitely. That director was a hack. (Laughs.) Peter who?

NW: (Laughs) They are so different. I probably never would have done ‘King Kong’ without someone like Peter Jackson. It’s just not the stuff that I would normally gravitate towards. It was a great experience and sort of very different from what I have done. And I must say, I do like the intimacy of an independent film and the collaborative workspace. Every day we started with a two-hour discussion about how we felt this scene would go.
 
And sometimes there would be disagreements and we are all quite strong willed. And there were often three varying ideas to honor, so, there was something great about that, that we did all see it different ways and sometimes the ideas were shared and sometimes they weren’t. We just played them all out. On a bigger movie it’s a much more controlled environment and there are so many other things going on, particularly on a film like ‘King Kong’ where there are effects to consider and stunts and all kinds of things. But, I’m fortunate to have been able to have done something like that and then flip back to an independent film. Perhaps some things that may not have been so easy to get off the ground because the tone is too obscure and so, things like ‘King Kong’ can help that.

Q: You have that wonderful conversation about loving a man for their virtues versus what they look like. Do you think nice guys get a bad rap?

NW: They sort of do.

JC: Yes, they do.

NW: You’re a nice guy! (Laughs.) Yes, I think that is true, particularly from women who are self-destructive, you know, but hopefully a woman gets to a place where she wakes up and can see that a nice man is kind of what you need.

Q: Did you find the love scenes hard?

NW: Not really. You find yourself anticipating them a lot. You get in your head and you think, ‘How do we see this? How are we going to play it? How much am I going to show?’ But, once you’re there, you’re there. And with the love scene between Walter and Kitty, it was great because it’s such a pivotal point and it’s almost animalistic.
 
The hunger and the desperation to connect with a human being and all that tension. But, then I really fought for, not just that, but to actually have a tender moment so that finally they were able to be gentle and give in and accept and receive, so it was important to have both of those and I think it expresses a lot.

Q: Can you tell us something about researching the locations and your experience traveling in the China of today?

JC: You know I went there on the assumption that there was a database of location stills where you can sit in a room and it doesn’t exist. It was a matter of flying, via word-of-mouth and whatever books we could get, to different places looking. And I was looking for something that was distinctly Chinese in that mountain region, even though it’s only one small part of China. You’re not going to find that anywhere else. So that’s where we sort of focused our search.

Q: What did you think of your character? How was your involvement as a producer on the film?

NW: I loved Kitty from the first moment I read the script. She just kind of leapt off the page. She was ahead of her time or at least she thought she was in refusing to conform to conventions and she just got swept up in this frivolous world of who’s who and how one should look and she can’t stand her family breathing down her neck constantly saying, ‘You’ve got to do something. You’ve got to married.’ She’s sort of enjoying this floating by and the attention of many rather than just focusing on one person. So, when she gets this proposal, it’s a form of escape.
 
It’s just, please let me get out of here and the fact that he is going to an exotic place sounds even more exciting. And then when she has the affair, she’s just continuing to be a self-destructive person. And when he stops punishing her and they get to this new place, I just loved her transformation. I felt that it was important to commit to these flaws in her so that the transformation is that much greater and her journey is more powerful. And in terms of being a producer, I think, this was a long journey and it took us a long time to find its feet and there were many obstacles along the way. And getting on board as a producer really just shows my passion for it.
 
Quite often, you’re attached to something and if it doesn’t get up and go soon, it can lose its shine if you will and becomes a little bit lackluster if nobody else is jumping on board. But this never lost its shine and Edward and I championed it and then we found John and I’d worked with John before. I knew he could handle this material brilliantly because of his ability to understand the relationship and the conflict within that without judgment and even putting humor in the most awkward of places. And really again, creating that collaborative workspace.
 
And sometimes when you fight for what you believe is right for your character, you don’t want to come across as seeming like you’re an actor trying to buy more screen time or something. You want to have the voice from a point of view that is thinking of the whole film. And I think for me, it was important that the backstory was there. That she was running away from something. That we didn’t just get straight into the love story and there were temptations to get the story moving at times and really slim down that beginning part of the story. And I really felt that it was important.

Q: You have a very strong fashion and style background? Do period clothes help you find a character? Do you have much input into what you end up wearing in a film like this?

NW: Well, really with a period film you kind of leave it up to the experts. Yes, you want to know that someone isn’t going to put orange on me, because I can’t wear orange. You know, my skin is just going to look disgusting. But I really think that is a period that celebrates women and I think Ruth (Myers) did an incredible job. She knows the period like no one. And the flapper – it’s the ‘20’s when they just started showing the knees and it’s very rebellious and the short haircuts showing the neck and it is, it’s all things that help you get close to the character. And I do love clothes for that reason in film.

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

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