Curran's nuanced film, written by Angus MacLachlan, makes great use of performances by De Niro, Norton, and Jovovich; poses poignant questions about free will, morality, and judgment; and ultimately purports that the moral high ground is never set in stone. Back Stage caught up with Curran to talk about the project, its themes, and the experience of working with the film's all-star cast.
Back Stage: Edward Norton has described you as a director that revisits themes from film to film. What does this film explore that is present in your previous work?
John Curran: I'm interested in—and it's probably the perverse humor in me—seeing good people kind of unravel. I find it interesting and funny, and I feel for them. It's so human to me, to see someone really trying but failing miserably. Seeing somebody common that does something heroic is great too, but I'm a little bit suspicious of films that just pile on the goodness of a person or the heroics of a person for the sake of entertainment or a happy ending. I think that a lot of life doesn't have easy answers, and it doesn't have happy endings necessarily; life has open ends. I think that a lot of my characters think that they're one thing, and they don't even recognize their own fraudulent nature until some kind of incident or action or an interaction with another person kind of dismantles them a little bit.
Back Stage: The film was shot in little over a month. Was it tough working so quickly?
Curran: I knew that it was going to be hard, but having come up through all the filmmaking that I've done for music videos and commercials, I've always been on the lower-budget end and have had to be a lot cleverer because of it sometimes. It'd be different if I was doing a high-end special-effects movie. If I was doing an action film, I'd be screwed. But when you're doing a character film, you can always err on the side of the actor. The most interesting place in the room is on the actor's face, so when in doubt I would just put the camera on Bob's face. I mean, why wouldn't you? You can get away with things like that when you're doing a more intimate drama, but it's obviously harder to think like that when you're doing car chases.
Back Stage: How did De Niro and Norton become involved with the project?
Curran: It's pretty hard to get any film made without the right cast, and I think that this was no different. A film like this isn't easy: It's not a slam dunk for financing, and it was going to depend on casting. However it got to Bob, he read it, and I got a phone call that he liked it and wanted to meet. I went down to New York and met with him, and we did a reading and talked about it for months and months after that. He wasn't really that available for a while, but he liked it and we did rewrites. It was a long wooing process. Once De Niro was on board, it was absolutely imperative that I get another actor that would hold up and that was going to work opposite him, that had the chops to kind of go toe to toe with him. With Edward, he had read it as a friend, like, a year back and hadn't really connected with it. However, he gave me the benefit of the doubt and after a long talk, he finally kind of said, "Look, now I really get what you want to do with it, and I really like it, but it's not in the paper." So we quickly beefed up the script and did some workshopping. I think the film for me, on a really personal level, was a chance to get De Niro and Edward Norton, two of my favorite actors, in the room and watch them beat the shit out of each other actingwise; I think that's the thrill of the film.
Back Stage: "Stone" is the second feature collaboration between you and Norton, who starred in "The Painted Veil."
Curran: I think any good collaboration comes from two people who first of all like each other's ideas; that makes it a lot easier. You also complement each other. Whatever weaknesses I have, I feel like Edward is really good at compensating for them and vice versa. We like the productivity of working together, it's really efficient, and we both think alike on getting to an idea. We both recognize when we've hit the right idea and both have the same sort of visceral reaction to it; it's not guesswork. When we get there, we're both like, "Yeah, that's it."
Back Stage: Norton has said he made several additions to his character that weren't in the original script. Do you generally allow your actors to stretch what's on the page, or was this specific to your relationship with Norton?
Curran: I always kind of do whatever it takes. I think with a film like this, where it's so character-driven, it's not like you can hide behind the cleverness of the script. Once I cast it, I tailor-made each part to fit each actor. Instead of trying to stick them into the box of the character, we allowed the character to fit the actor; to me it's a more interesting place to go to. It's like, why have Robert De Niro try to do a Southern accent? What's the point?
Back Stage: You've mentioned that this film was, in part, an attempt to characterize the social and political climate of the last few years. How does the film do this?
Curran: I did see an opportunity for this film to sort of speak to the times. At the end of 2008, there was this great feeling of potential and hope. Then, all of a sudden, it very quickly turned into something ugly. A particular segment of society in America, like the character of Jack—who is working- to middle-class, white, religious, and conservative—were really angry. Some of these feelings were unwarranted; some of them were absolutely warranted. There was this sense that their foundation was being pulled out from underneath them, and I just sort of felt that this story could in some way touch on the mood that was prevalent at that time without having to go into talking about the issues directly. What I was really trying to do was, in an indirect way, capture that mood.