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TSR Exclusive: 'Stone' interview with Edward Norton and director John Curran

Opening this Friday is the drama Stone, starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, and Milla Jovovich. The film opened this year's Chicago International Film Festival, and you can read my review of the movie here.

The morning after the festival opening, I sat down with director John Curran and Edward Norton in a roundtable interview to discuss what the film means to them, what working with the legendary Robert De Niro is like, what Norton looks for in his characters, and more.

John, you were quoted as saying that you let Edward do his thing. But Mr. Norton, you were quoted as saying that you played the character that John wanted you to play. How much of the character Stone was on the page, and how much did you two create together?

John Curran: This one was a leap of faith. We had worked before, and in this one I had to convince him to do what wasn’t on the page. But we talked a lot about it, and I think he gave me the benefit of the doubt. He sort of started to get connected to the idea, and said, “Well John, I like the idea of the character, but I don’t see that on the page. If I’m going to do this I need to do work on the character and work on the script with you.” Which is pretty standard. No one of his level ever comes onto a project easy. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Oh, I love the script, I’m in.” It’s more like, “I think this could use work, or that.” We did quite a significant amount of work on the script and also his character to get it into shape.

Edward Norton: There were different levels of it. The script was originally a play, and it was sort of a noir. It took place in the south, and felt provincial to me in a way that I wasn’t sure what it was aiming at, and that was just at face value. But I think John was saying things that were broader and more penetrating. I think he was interested in a film that had to do more with deeper themes that were going on, especially in wake of the economic crisis. He was tuning into the energy of the comment in terms of people going through the experience where their good lives, the things that they had built and expected to carry them through, were suddenly evaporating. Specifically, I think we were talking a lot about “What does it feel like when suddenly all of the things you’ve built collapse?”

Curran: The film was always going to be about this guy who was at retirement age. I think we were experiencing in early 2009 an incredible anger from this portion of society. Everything that they had held true was suddenly crumbling. A lot of what became an “Us Against Them” debate was angry. Part of the defense was a belief system, Us vs. Them, politically using these notions of God and faith, to support certain views. I found that when you boil it all down, it was almost as simple as that. If you got rid of the political rhetoric, it was like, “My faith allows me to believe THIS.” And I want to be in that argument, I want to be in that discussion. The film is almost about that, and we could capture that.

Norton: One of the things that hooked me, like John was saying, was that in this country, we go through these experiences of collapse, of facades that we build, and when they collapse, what we have to deal with is that we’ve been in denial of that really going on. There have been forces at work that have not been a reflection of our value system as we sell greed and selfishness and all kinds of things that don’t relate to that moral construct that we present about ourselves. That we live in denial of. If you live in denial long enough, you get credit to false derivatives tanking everyone’s pension funds. Don’t you think that’s who Jack [in the film] is? He has all the makings of a good life, but he’s hollowed out. It’s not authentic. He was like a personification of those consequences of denial. John was aiming at some big targets, and when you aim at things like that, from my criteria, you’re at least getting into the territory of the kinds of films that I like to work on the most, which are trying to tap the moment that you’re living in. You’re trying to make it, for better or worse. That’s what pulled me into American History X, Down in the Valley, 25th Hour, or any number of films that I’ve made that some really connect, or some don’t. I’m really happy if what you’re doing is taking aim at the moment, and the dynamics of the moment. I think if you hit something, then what you’re hitting is a special film. It’s not a matter of whether they are entertained, they end up going, “That’s a real documentation of a certain dynamic, a certain moment.” That’s what Taxi Driver is, that’s what Do the Right Thing is, and what maybe Fight Club is. It’s a type of a film where it’s not that it’s easy, but you walk out of it, and it names something that [the audience] is not quite aware of. I think for me the entry point were the big ideas, but to your original question, I think my issue is that I didn’t think Stone was a character who was drawn with great specificity. For me, once John decided that he wanted to move the story to Detroit, that started to be the funnel, like, “Okay, it’s Detroit, let’s make him from urban Detroit, let’s seize on that.”

What comes first when you are choosing a script? Enjoying a script or working on the character or?

Norton: It can vary widely. You do sometimes read those scripts, and you say, “Don’t change a comma, let’s go do it. This character is really interesting.” Sometimes its more of a … the people who are involved. For me, it wasn’t the perfection of the script, it was the people who I was really eager to work with again. The big themes started to become more clear. And then in this case, the character didn’t draw me in. The things that I think we ended up constructing around the character, which I had a great time with, were not on the page. It was not character that pulled me into the page, I think it was John, and the themes, then the challenge became, “Alright, he can’t just be a theoretical wrecking ball on this guy. We have to figure out who he is.” That became a process. He was written as a sort of southern white cracker, and so was the corrections officer. You could see Tommy Lee Jones play him. Once it was De Niro … you take something and you want to aim it towards someone’s strengths. So by talking to these inmates, we talked to inmates who were from Detroit, and by focusing on them, we starting mining a lot of great language and details, and even stories. The guys were telling us stories about what do they do with their women when they visit, and how do they get in, and ways they’ve self destructed in parole interviews. We cribbed and cribbed from the stories these guys told, and back-doted them all and there were even one or two guys who were specifically interesting.

How is working with the legendary Robert De Niro different than working with most, if not all other actors?

Curran: For me, every actor is different. As a director, you try to figure out what people like to do. You give them space. I’ve always found that I’ve gotten better work from people that are enjoying the experience. It’s like, “This person needs that, that person wants that,” and trying to get it to work together. Edward can explain it better, because he has worked with him a couple of times. He’s got to sit across from him. He has a very unorthodox way, as Edward has explained, [De Niro] doesn’t just go through the scene, as the actor sitting across from him. You have to earn his response. The script says he has to be intimidated by you. It’s not a given he’s going to do those things, unless you’ve earned it. There’s a lot of times where you would think as a director that he’s bored, or he hates this scene. But it’s because you haven’t earned that laugh, you haven’t earned that fear. It is a harder game to play, and it’s very interesting to watch and be a part of it.

Norton: Working with him will catch you out on anything you’re doing that’s lazy in a sense. If you think that there’s going to be this unconscious, complicit, “Yeah, let’s cruise through the lines,” you will get this stony stare, and you’ll get the sensation of [scared sound]. What I like about it is that I’ve learned people project onto him as a human being what they take from his character. It’s not that. I actually think he’s a wonderfully, a kind of quiet, very sober person. He’s just extremely dedicated, almost on a cellular level. With him, he really does go like, “The film is your problem, the character is your problem, but the scene, the being truthful in this material, I am going to arbitrate truthfulness.” It is very hard to get him to tard it up.

Talk about the score, and the ominous tones used in the movie. Was it always what you envisioned for the movie?

Curran: It was in the script for the sound to conceal itself as a mystery that revealed itself for this crackpot philosophy that this guy brings into the room. We’ve definitely expanded on that, as an idea that dictates to the soundtrack. I started to see the soundtrack as less than a music score over sound effects. They would all be one in the same. The music and the sound effects were all one, they were part of an interior experience of the characters. The audience did experience the sound as characters would experience. Once you get into a subjective soundscape, the music became less emotional score, and more interior score.

Norton: One that was interesting to watch for me was that [this movie showed that] plus everything, you can turn limitations into strengths. People will talk about how we shot this film in thirty-five days. It was fast, it was cheap. There were real limitations. I’m friends with the guys from Radiohead, and I was talking to Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke about this idea of a tuning fork sensation. Jonny was really into church organs and breaking them down into wave form, to make a tuning fork thing. They had been playing around with a lot of scraps. They ultimately were really into it, but didn’t have the time. We thought they would be so perfect, but then Jon Brion was also limited on time. These were limitations, but the Radiohead guys gave us these files of tons of experiments they had been doing, and Jon Brion did some things. What was the limitation in terms of being unsatisfied with getting one person, Jon became conductor. It has this fragmentary quality, instead of feeling cohesive. But I think that’s a lot of what this movie is about.

What draws you to playing bad guys?

Curran: It might have worked against his decision to be in [Stone].

Norton: That might have been some of my first resistance. My first view was that this [about] manipulation, and this was a guy who was in prison. I wasn’t drawn to anything that felt like it was going to be a twist. I think as it became clearer to me, like John was talking about, that the turn in the film, the realization, is somewhere in the middle. Even tohugh a manipulation has been initated, that this guy may have left the manipulation behind, and that something authentic may be happening to him that we think even the wife behind might be in the manipulation, then it moves to the realm of it’s not a trick. It’s very complex. I like things that are very complex. Where the presumptions you project onto a character because of how you are introduced to them are challenged and challenged and challenged, and by the end you’re like, “Who was that masked man?” I think the idea that you’re thrown by the end at how many layers were revealed is appealing. When I watch a film like There Will Be Blood, that ending might be ambiguous to the point of being a turnover. Someone said to me, “The ending to that film is so ambiguous,” and I said, “Did you see that guy beating the guy with the bowling pin?” Now that isn’t ambiguity. I get drawn towards those performances myself. Look at De Niro’s King of Comedy, Taxi Driver, or Raging Bull. When I was in college watching these films, I always ended with, “WHAT?!” When people say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, I’ve got to chew on this,” that’s neat. I think “Oh, I get it, now let’s go eat,” makes the movie a five minute diversion. The ones that stick are the ones you argue over.

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