Naomi Watts and John Curran Interviewed – ‘The Painted Veil’

     December 21, 2006

The Painted Veil is a love story in reverse. Thefilm is based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham andit’s about a young English couple, played by Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, whomove to Chinain the 1920’s. The reason I said it’s a love story in reverse is the couple arenot in love when they get married. Well one of them was, but the other gotmarried for the wrong reason. It’s only when they move to a remote region anddiscover who they really are that the love begins to grow in both of them.

If you are a fan ofEdward Norton, he’s once again great in this role. But for me to single out Mr.Norton on his own would be a disservice to the rest of the cast. Performanceswere great across the board, especially Naomi Watts. Also the film looks greatup on the big screen and it really reminded me of a classic Hollywoodlove story.

Before getting to the interview Iwould recommend watching the traileras it does a great job at showing you the lush locals in China that theygot to film in. Also the trailer doesn’t give the story away, it just providesenough to know if you’ll be interested in this kind of movie.

So about a week ago Naomi Wattsand John Curran, her Director for ThePainted Veil, did a press conference to talk about their new movie. When itstarted John was the only one there and as the interview went on Naomi showedup and started to answer some questions. To make it as easy as possible I puthis responses in blue. Also if you missed the EdwardNorton interview you can read it here.

The Painted Veil will beexpanding in the coming weeks so look for it soon where you live.

Questions:Did you have to get permission from the Chinese Film Bureau before you startedshooting there?

Curran: Yeah. Inpreproduction the deal came about that it was going to be a co-productionbetween Yari Film, Warner Independent and Warner China which is made up ofWarner China in a joint venture with China Film. That’s a long way ofsaying that China Film was involved in the production of the film and thereforewe had to adhere to certain kinds of restrictions I guess and satisfy theirconcerns with the script, and so, look, also it’s a PG-13 film and so therewere boundaries for the film that we had to adhere to for here. It all justpresented another set of concerns that we had to deal with. It’s hard enough todevelop the script so that it’s good and this was just more stuff that cameabout that we had to deal with.

Questions:What kinds of boundaries?

Curran: You mean interms of them? I would say that they ranged from being like sort of travel logconcerns from presenting the country in a positive way to historical concerns,political concerns, not wanting to talk about certain things, not wanting toshow crowds doing certain things because it might promote unhealthy crowdbehavior – stuff that we felt at times was commenting more on concerns thatwere a contemporary context, their concerns anyway, and it had nothing to do historicallywith what was going on in the story and whether that was correct or not. It wassimply concerns they had about how people would react to it today.

Questions:How do you get Naomi Watts and Ed Norton to come into the picture?

Curran: Well, thescript came to me already cast. I was really lucky and fortunate on this one.I’ve known Naomi for a while, for a long time really and I used to live in Australia whereI met her. We did the film ‘We Don’t Live Here Anymore’ a couple of years agoand even at that point I knew she was considering this project. So I knew thatshe had this kind of connection with this character of Kitty. It was only after’We Don’t Live Here Anymore’ ended up at Warner Independent wherecoincidentally this project had found a home that the studio contacted me toread it with Naomi’s blessing and then I met with Edward and we really hit itoff. So for me the hard part was already done.

Questions:This movie had a lot of strong relationships. Was that a change for you from yourlast film?

Curran: Oh, yeah. Ithink that cinematically there were probably similar things with like themarital discord and a tragic romance. I mean, I guess my last couple of films,clearly I haven’t figured out love or relationships, but this one I wasattracted to as much as anything because of the dynamic of the two people. Ithought that there were a lot of sparks and fire and fun between Kitty andWalter. Because it came to me already cast it was a movie that I wanted to see.I wanted to Edward Norton and Naomi Watts in these roles. So that was oneparticular reason that I did the film, those two people playing these twocharacters. More so than anything else really.

Questions:What exactly does The Painted Veil refer to?

Curran: There is a quote,I think, from a line of a poem in one of the editions. I did of research andit’s a Shelley poem and it’s a poem called ‘The Painted Veil.’ What it refersto is a guy who is brave enough to lift the veil that we call life and lookbeyond that. He is inevitably broken hearted by what he finds, but he’s a braveperson nonetheless for looking beyond the illusions. I think that there aresimilar themes in the book. So that’s the title.

Questions:Well, in Francethe titles translates into ‘The Veil of Illusions.’

Curran: How do you sayit though in French?

Questions:[pronounces it in French]

Curran: See, thatsounds good.

Watts: That sounds great [Laughs].

Curran: Might try thatin America.

Questions:There was talk about the production concerns of the movie, and then there arealso some moral and religious aspects to the movie. Can you talk about those?

Curran: Well, the moraland religious things, that’s where movies like that start to become preachy orponderous. What we loved about Diana Rigg was that she sort of subverted thatidea. We tried to bring a bit of her character into that role and she’s apretty feisty and irreverent older woman. The political context, I think, wassimply just being there and absorbing through our contemporaries that we metthere a stronger feeling of what was going on in China in the ’20’s which wasironically a really pivotal and important time in the Chinese Republicanhistory. Surprisingly, or maybe not, Somerset Maugham never touched on that atall which shows his either lack of concern or his own arrogance, but we’remaking a film that has to work on a lot more layers than the book.

Watts: The book was so interior and I think that with film you have tolayer in that external and extra thing. That’s the backdrop in it and so thepolitical stuff in it makes it a lot more cinematic.

Questions:You changed your hair color for this movie. Was that your decision?

Watts: Yeah, it was. We foughtover it too.

Curran: We fought a lotover it.

Watts: But actually in the end, well basically we arrived there and Ialways saw Kitty as a brunette. I thought that she was somehow more exotic withit and stronger and it felt very authentic to the period. John always saw Kittyas a blonde and so we had two wigs made and we did camera tests.

Curran: No, we had theone you wanted made and then we had a really bad wig made that was never goingto be the wig. I was totally conned and manipulated into it [Laughs].

Watts: [Laughs] But in the end, come on, you did go for it. I always said,’It’s up to you.’ I’m always scared. I always start with a strong idea.

Curran: Then you lostfaith in it.

Watts: I always have strong ideasand you fight for it and then suddenly everyone is going to go along with whatyou’ve chosen and then you think, ‘I hope that this is the right one.’

Curran: In my head Ihad imagined this blonde standing out in the sea of dark haired Chinese. Maybethat I had that idea in my head, but we talked about it and my feeling abouthairstyles and clothes and wigs is that if the actor has an instinct, to fightthat is sort of foolish. You kind of have to go along with it, and even thoughaesthetically I had an opinion I do trust Naomi a lot. The thing is that shewas in New Zealand and she had it on and was saying that it looked fantasticand that she felt really good in it, but I was in China and so I hadn’t seenit. So, suddenly, I got this thing in the mail, this mousy ball of hair and I’mholding it up to like pictures of Naomi and I was like, ‘I can’t judge if thisany good or not.’ So it was a bit of blind faith for me.

Questions:What was it like being over with the class distinction, or maybe it’s not likethat over there, but you were portraying that? Was that awkward at all, havingyour shoes polished for example or the rickshaw ride?

Watts: Yes, exactly. The audacity to be carried for two weeks across thecountry by a team of people, and all she could think about was the fact that itwasn’t comfortable [Laughs]. It’s ridiculous and that really comes across inthe film. But there were some great moments for utter frustration and then alsoit’s even quite comical at one point when they’re sort of having that argumentwhen she’s inside fanning herself and he’s having this conversation through thecurtains. So it was a good element.

Questions:Did you feel emotionally beat up after this?

Watts: No, actually, I felt the opposite.

Curran: She arrivedemotionally beat up [Laughs].

Watts: And then I left emotionally inspired.

Curran: I think that allof us, each in our own way, were all pretty rung out and she had just come offof ‘King Kong.’

Watts: Which was so physically draining which was eight months of fourteenhours a day jumping and running and being punched and pushed and pulled. Itreally did take its toll and I’m not a big person. So this was a luxury. So,yeah, the emotional aspect of it was exhausting, but we had time. We actuallyhad quite a luxury of time and we moved from place to place.

Curran: Fortunately, wedid a lot of the heavier stuff because of the weather which required that weshoot inside first and that meant that we did the meatier scenes in the veryfirst week. So, like literally the very first shot of the film that I did washer arriving at the bungalow which is really when her character was at herworst. It was hot and miserable at the studio. All of us were a bit freaked outat being there, and fortunately I think that the process fed into, I think, thefilm, but by the end of it was a really different experience for everyone Ithink.

Questions:What do you prefer to do, Naomi, the ‘King Kong’ type movies or films likethis?

Curran: Oh, this onedefinitely [Laughs]. That director was a hack.

Watts: They’re so different and I probably never would’ve done ‘King Kong’without someone like Peter Jackson. It’s just not like the stuff that Inormally gravitate towards, but it was a great experience and really justdifferent from what I’ve done. I do like the intimacy of an independent filmand the collaborative workspace. I mean, everyday we started with probably atwo hour discussion about how we felt that this scene should go. Sometimesthere would be disagreements and there were often three varying ideas to honor.So there was something great about that that we did see when we looked at it indifferent ways and sometimes the ideas we shared, and then other times not somuch. We just kind of played them all out. On a bigger movie it’s a much morecontrolled environment and there are so many other things going on particularlyon a film like ‘King Kong’ where there are FX to consider and stunts and allkinds of other things. I’m fortunate to have been able to have done somethinglike that and then flip back to an independent film. Perhaps some thing thatmight not have been so easy to get off the ground because the tone is tooobscure, things like ‘King Kong’ can help that.

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Questions:There was the conversation in this about loving a man for his virtue. Do youthink that nice guys get a bad rap?

Watts: They sort of do.

Curran: Yes, they do.

Watts: You’re not a nice guy.

Curran: I wasn’tputting myself in there.

Watts: Yeah. I think that’s true from women who are self-destructive. Buthopefully a woman gets to place where she can wake up and can see that a niceman is kind of what you need in this world.

Questions:Was the love scene hard to do?

Watts: Not really. I mean, you find yourself anticipating them a lot andyou get in your head and you think, ‘Oh, how do we see this? How are we goingto play it and how much am I going to show?’ but once you’re there you’rethere. With the love scene between Walter and Kitty it was great because it’ssuch a pivotal point and it’s almost animalistic, the hunger and thedesperation to just connect with a human being and all of that tension, butthen I really fought for not just that, but to then have a tender moment andthat finally that they were able to be gentle and accept and receive. So thatwas important, to have both of those because I think it expresses a lot.

Questions:Can you talk the sets and the locations and the experience of traveling in the China of today while shooting the Chinaof the past?

Curran: I went there onthe assumption of it being like here where there is a database of locationstills that you can sit in a room and look at, but that doesn’t exist. So itwas a matter of flying via word of mouth and whatever books we could get todifferent places that could get to and look at them. I was looking forsomething that was distinctly Chinese and that mountain region even though it’sone small part of Chinayou’re not going to find that anywhere else. So that’s where we sort of focusedour search.

Questions:I’m interested in how you see Kitty as a character, and how also your work as aproducer on the film was?

Watts: I loved Kitty from the moment that I first read the script. She justkind of leapt off of the page. She was sort of ahead of her time, or at leastshe thought that she was and refused to conform to conventions and just sort ofswept up in this frivolous world of who’s who and how one should look. Shecan’t stand her family sort of breathing down her neck and constantly saying,’You’ve got to do something and you have to be married.’ She was sort ofenjoying just floating by and the attention of many rather than focusing onjust one person. So when she gets this proposal it’s a form of escape. It’slike, ‘Please, let me just get out of here.’ The fact that he’s going to anexotic place sounds even more exciting. Then when she has the affair and justcontinues to be a self-destructive person and when he starts punishing her whenthey get to the new place, I just loved her transformation there. I thoughtthat it was important to commit to these flaws in her so that thetransformation is that much greater and her journey is more powerful. In termsof being a producer on this, I think, that this was a long journey and it tooka long time to find it’s feet and there were many obstacles along the way. Bygetting onboard as a producer it was really just to show my passions for it andquite often you’re attached to something and if it doesn’t get up and go soonit can loose it’s shine, if you will, and get a little bit lackluster if no oneelse is jumping onboard. But this never lost it’s shine and Edward and Ichampioned it and then we found John and I had worked with John before, and Iknew that he’d be able to handle this material brilliantly because of hisability to understand the relationships and the conflict within that andwithout judgment, even putting humor in the most awkward of places. Really,again, creating that collaborative workspace was good, and sometimes when youfight for what you believe is right for your character you don’t want to comeacross as seemingly being an actor who’s trying to buy more screen time orsomething. You want to have the voice from a point of view that is thinking ofthe whole film. I think that for me it was important that the back story wasthere, that she was running away from something and that we didn’t get straightinto the love story and that there were temptations there to get the storymoving at times and really slimming down that beginning part of the story. Ireally felt that it was important for that to happen.

Questions:You have a strong passion for style. Do the period clothes define a characterlike this and do you have much input in finding what you’re going to wear in afilm like this?

Watts: Well, really, with a period film you kind of leave it up to theexperts, but I mean you want to know that someone isn’t going to put orange onme because I can’t wear orange. My skin just is going to look disgusting, but Ireally think that’s a period that celebrates women and I think that Ruth did anincredible job. She knows period like no one. The Flapper in the ’20’s juststarted showing the knees and it’s very rebellious and the short haircutshowing the neck – those are all things that help you get closer to thecharacter and I do love clothes for that reason in film.

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