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Director John Curran on the set of Stone.

John Curran

Interview with the director of Stone

Oct 08, 2010 Web Exclusive
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In Stone, Edward Norton plays Gerald “Stone” Creeson, a prison inmate who’s served the majority of his sentence for covering up the death of his grandparents. Jack Mabry, played by Robert De Niro, is the parole official who holds the keys to Stone’s future. As a series of erratic and increasingly contentious confrontations ensue between the two characters, questions about spirituality and the right to judge come to the fore. Under the Radar spoke with Stone director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil) last week about working with two of today’s most respected actors.

Last night, Edward Norton spoke after a screening of the film, and he said that you felt a kind of urgency to get this film out now. What was it about the script that appealed to you and made it so urgent?

Urgent? I don’t know. When I first was attracted to it, it was like three or four years back, and there were elements in the script that I found really attractive, and I knew it would really come down to casting to get this film made. When it did come together with De Niro, and I did really want Edward to do it, part of what, I don’t know if urgency was the word, but eagerness probably, was that I felt in some way the film could speak to a really interesting time. It was the end of 2008, beginning of 2009, and it was a pivotal time in America, financially, spiritually, or whatever. And, by this point, we were going to be shooting in Detroit. We knew that, which was sort of ground zero for a lot of upheaval. And, even though this film isn’t on the nose about that stuff, somehow I felt that it was always going to be the story about a guy whose faith was crumbling. And it just felt like the perfect time and the perfect setting for that story. I want to look back, and I said that to Edward. I want to look back and feel I did something in that moment in history, because there’s going to be a before and after to that time. I want to look back and feel like, as a filmmaker, that I addressed it in some way, as opposed to ignoring it and trying to get my college comedy out or something like that.

Norton also talked about how he couldn’t find a beat on his character until shortly before filming. Did you have a good understanding of his concerns, and how did you work through that?

Edward’s not one to panic or be unsure of himself. I’ve worked with Edward [Norton starred in The Painted Veil], and I trust his commitment and process, and even though there was a part of me that was a little freaked out, I trusted that we’d figure it out. [Laughs] For me, it’s always going to the source, it’s going to authenticity, and I was up in Michigan first, and I started looking at prisoners to try and get a handle on what I thought would be the model for the character and really encouraged him to do the same, which he would have done anyway, without me goading him into it. But we started talking to different prisoners, and that sort of grounds you in the reality of what this character would really be like, instead of what you think he’s gonna be like. And by that process [we] arrived at a particular guy who became really the model for his character. I mean, he’s basically doing an impression of that guy, the look, the talk, the attitude. The guy went through the script and gave us a lot of great lines of dialogue and stuff. So, the fear of being unsure led us to be less uncertain via whatever direction. And in our case, it was research, and we arrived at something. The uncertainty’s all part of it, I guess. A film is always a big question mark moving toward some sort of reality, on every level. And sometimes you get there, and sometimes you don’t. You can’t really freak out about the unknown, because that’s the point of it. That’s why you do it.

Did the cornrows come out of that research?

[Laughs] No, the cornrows were sort of- Edward was conscious of the fact that he’d done a few prison things, and he’s like, “I want to come at this. I want to do a Southern character.” And when we knew we were in Detroit, it made this more of an urban character, and he got on the cornrows. I kinda quietly groaned, “Oh God, this could be really, really bad.” But the idea was always a character that was sort of laughable, that evolved to something else. So I decided to go for it, that it couldn’t be too hokey or corny, as long as I didn’t try and present the character as someone-We never wanted the guy to be muscle-y and overly tattooed, to present him as a really tough guy. That’s not Edward anyway. That it was eccentric and strange was more the point. So it kind of worked for that, but I was a little worried about it. [Laughs]

When you’re directing De Niro for the first time, do you do any kind of homework on him beforehand, maybe consult friends and colleagues about his tendencies, or do you get that directly from him?

We had talked about this film over the course of a year, sometimes once a week. And then we’d have a break and it’d be once a month. We had a number of conversations about Stone, and he was always interested. I was always doing rewrites to try to lure him in, and it was never the right time. So we had a bit of history just talking on the phone and meeting up a couple times and doing some readings. So we came to the shoot with a bit of history, enough where I knew the guy. It’s pointless to be intimidated or to over prep. It quickly gets to being really familiar on set. A couple days shooting, and you know everybody really intimately. I just jump to that as fast as I can, because that’s the work.

De Niro and Norton both have such high standards for their own work. Does that translate to them having similar needs from you, the director, or were they distinct nonetheless?

That’s why you want to work with them. I wanted to create an environment where they came every day and wanted to do their best work, that they felt like this would be worthy of bringing their A game. And you don’t want to be the kind of director that is so adamant about you own ideas. Actors like that kind of turn off if they feel like they’re just being used as puppets. So I encouraged them and tried to create an environment where they’re coming at it and delivering everything that they possibly can. But you’ve got to be prepared, and they see that you know what you’re doing or you’re floundering. It’s like every human interaction. You have to kind of earn someone’s respect. If you get there, it’s a lot easier.

What were the visual challenges of shooting the one-on-one scenes between De Niro and Norton?

Just the repetition of those seven long scenes in an office. As much as tried to encourage, maybe they’d pace back and forth, both of them are very authentic and they’d say, “Well, I think we’d just sit in the chairs.” [Laughs] So I knew I was potentially gonna have seven scenes of two guys sitting there. So I had to, with Maryse [Alberti] the DP, had to come up with sort of a different principle to define the underlying function and mood of each of those scenes and come up with an equivalent lighting personality and camera move and lenses, something that would help evolve the nature of those scenes throughout the course of the film.

What inspired the more atmospheric shots of the landscape that are interspersed throughout the film?

I wanted to get a sense of the place and to have the location be a character. I was worried about the film being very claustrophobic. Instead of being sort of gratuitous segueway shots, getting from A to B, obviously anything that goes in the film, you want to justify with having a purpose. And some of those scenes, where he’s almost in his own meditation space, listening to the radio, [he’s] moving from one box to another but really he’s in another box. He’s always sort of trapped in an officer car, and I was very conscious of letting him out of those boxes. There’s the one shot where he’s playing golf in the field, but it’s the only time you ever see him really not in one of these cubes.

It’s a different approach to portraying Detroit.

Yeah, it’s the suburbs of Detroit. It’s not really Detroit. It’s Jackson, which is smack-dab in the middle of Michigan. So it’s more rural/suburban than it is urban.

Throughout the film there’s radio commentary. Was that part of the original screenplay?

No, that wasn’t even indicated in the screenplay. That was an idea that was borne out of desire to kind of place it in a time, give it some sense of a news aspect but not go heavy on it. But more to the point was to keep a faith-based discussion going throughout that I didn’t have to put into Bob’s mouth, into the character’s mouth. I didn’t want the characters overly discussing these notions of God and redemption and faith, and I felt it as as an almost soundtrack to his character. I started putting music in there for when he’s listening to the radio or whatever, and it just didn’t work, [he] didn’t seem to me like the kind of guy who would listen to music unless it was going to be ‘40s swing or something, which is kind of lame and dumb, typical for some reason. Once I hit on that, I started listening to local guys, and that’s a local Detroit radio host.

So were those archival tapes?

Oh yeah, a lot of it is. It’s Paul Edwards. He’s got a radio show called God and Culture. Some of it’s archival, some of it he recorded with actors in a studio. He kind of did like a show that we recorded. They were free to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about, and I just grabbed stuff.

There are moments in the film when the natural sound drops out and we get either just isolated sounds or ambience. At certain points, it sounded to me like either waves or cars on the road. Did you use anything that specific for effect?

I used a lot of different washy type sounds. I really wanted silence—silence is a character in this film-and wanted to strip away all sound and then bring in something very specific. Sound is a big character in this story. That was definitely in the script, the motion of sound as a harbinger of some kind of spiritual frequency out there that you can tap into. And that was something Edward really loved. He did a lot of work on the script and his character, but he was really drawn to that idea of sound. And he talked to the guys in Radiohead if they could contribute, if they were interested. They were busy, but they were really great, ‘cause they’re friends with Edward, and they loved the ideas he was talking about and I was talking about in the film. They gave us a lot of experimental stuff that they’ve collected but never been able to use anywhere. So it was great. And a lot that’s more sound effects than it is music, I used that as well.

I read that you started out working in illustration and graphic design. Did you grow up a film lover, or is it something that you eventually gravitated toward?

I wouldn’t say that I grew up as a cinephile. I grew up loving entertainment. I absorbed a lot of stuff, from comic books to films to illustrators that I liked to music. I was a dabbler in a lot of things. But I always knew from a young age that I was going to do something that had to do with drawing or something creative. I felt like I was good at it. It got me to college. And so I was on that path by the time I was a teenager. And I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books, was my first ambition. So there was always a narrative bent to what I wanted to do. And when I got to New York after school, I just got really bored and frustrated with the constraints of that world and just felt like I wanted interaction with people. And I was close enough to advertising to be able to get graphic design jobs. And I remember going on a film set. I had to deliver something to a guy who was doing a commercial. And once I walked on a film set, that was it. I just knew that was the world I wanted to be in. And it took me to Australia. I went to Australia to kind of start over and got very lucky there. It was a real great time to be in Sydney, a great time of do-it-yourself filmmaking. I quickly got into directing and doing music videos, and that was really my film school. And I got exposed to a lot of independent filmmakers there, the kind of filmmakers that I probably wouldn’t have naturally come across in the States as easily. And it just built from there. So it wasn’t that I was young and said I’m going to be a filmmaker. I evolved to it, but there was always a narrative visual bent to the stuff that I was into.

How far along are you with your next film?

I’m working on another project with Edward, and it’s a pretty big miniseries. We’re into it, but I guess we’ll know. It’s either gonna happen this year or it’s not. And then, there’s a few things that I’m developing that are in different stages of progress, but I guess my short answer is, I don’t know. [Laughs]

So you’re not shooting anything right now.

Nah, I’m not.

Do you still work in illustration at all?

You know, I don’t. I probably really haven’t committed my brain to that kind of work in so long that it sort of saddens me a little bit, that I haven’t found the time to keep that side of me alive as much. But I feel like I get the same sort of satisfaction out of writing now. It’s weird. Sometimes I build stuff and I get the same kind of satisfaction out of building some goofy piece of furniture. You know, I think that it’s all the same.


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