Edward Norton, Naomi Watts & John Curran Journey to China for Maugham Tale of Marital Conflict

In two previous screen renderings of W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel, The Painted Veil never ventured beyond the painted backdrops of MGM's Culver City dream factory but its current reincarnation revels almost drunkenly in lush, unduplicatable exotica which has rarely been exposed to Western eyes before, let alone motion picture cameras.

These vibrantly fresh locales helpfully camouflage what still smacks of a pretty hoary tale. Maugham's way with a maid--particularly an adulterous one--tended to spiral dizzily downward till a satisfactory payment was extracted for the transgression. Witness the syphilis that wasted Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage and the blackmail and murder heaped on Leslie Crosbie in The Letter. In The Painted Veil, for the faithless wife of a bacteriologist too wrapped up in his own research to notice her, Maugham prescribes a very bitter pill: After her married lover flees for home and hearth, she must stand by her man in the middle of a cholera epidemic that has broken out in a remote area of China. Greta Garbo was the first to hit this perilously high road to redemption back in 1934 in a Richard Boleslawski-directed picture that was little more than punctuation that separated her Queen Christina from her Anna Karenina. Eleanor Parker's 1957 retread (retitled, for the literal, The Seventh Sin) had British director Ronald Neame at the controls--until Dore Schary's reign abruptly ended in mid-production, and Neame left the film for Vincente Minnelli to finish. Now it's Naomi Watts' turn to pay pay pay for her sins in a Warner Independent Pictures film helmed by fellow Aussie and her We Don't Live Here Anymore director, John Curran.

Counting Praise, his 1998 feature debut Down Under, Curran has made three films--and all three are, in ways large and small, about failed romances. Is his disposition showing?

"I certainly don't think I've gotten it right in my own life--so, yeah, maybe," he concedes, "but I wasn't attracted to the themes of this project in the same way I was attracted to the themes in We Don't Live Here Anymore. In this, I loved the friction. It wasn't about doing something ultra-contemporary and nuanced and real. I loved the motor of the friction and how it drove the whole story. This kind of relationship really appeals to me as a director."

Curran brushed up his Maugham before filming began, and, being an Australian working in America, he found he could relate to the author's depictions of expatriates abroad. "I read his short stories to get an idea of his themes and to understand his voice," he offers by way of an explanation. "Maugham concerned himself a lot with ex-pats abroad in the outer reaches of colonial outposts in the days of the dying Empire, which made it very relevant. Being in America now, we can't experience the same sorts of things. All of his characters were stuck between going a bit native and holding onto some semblance of tradition. I related to him on that level--feeling like a mutt. To survive there, you have to be more like them but still try to hang onto something that's really you."

Hanging onto his Australian roots connected him to this project. We Don't Live Here Anymore was acquired by Warner Independent, and that company's honcho, Mark Gill, sent him the script for The Painted Veil (which won Ron Nyswaner, the Oscar nominee for Philadelphia, the National Board of Review award for Best Adapted Screenplay of 2006).

Not only was Gill keen on Curran directing the film, so too was Watts, who had already signed to star as the errant Kitty Fane. The only other person left to convince was Edward Norton, who would be playing her cuckold hubby, Walter, and who had already put in six or seven years with Nyswaner working on various aspects of the screenplay.

There were two primary reasons the property proved so compelling to Norton, the actor recounts. "If you watch David Lean films, or Out of Africa, you can't help but think how great it would be to have that kind of experience. When you see the potential in something for that kind of scope, it's very tempting. Plus, the best of those movies, I think, are the ones that have themes at the heart of them that transcend the period. When I read Maugham's novel, I found myself more moved by this story of these people going through the process of losing their illusions about each other and managing to recover a deeper sense of each other. For me, it was the combination of the epic scope of the film with a set of themes at the heart of it that I thought was moving."

Also, the character Norton played was quixotic and challenging. "He has so many levels," the actor contends. "On first impression, the audience--like Kitty--perceives Walter as a bit antisocial and very cerebral. Then, as the story progresses, his unsuspected depths keep getting revealed--the depth of his passion, of his capacity to be hurt and to be vengeful. He becomes almost psychologically violent. That gives way to a kind of humility and compassion you didn't see in him at first. As an actor, you sit there going, 'Wow, this guy is quite an onion. He keeps peeling away and peeling away.' I think he hurts Kitty, equally. That's what make it a complicated little dance between the two of them."

Norton can't praise his "dance partner" enough. "More than any film I've ever worked on, these performances were in lock-step," he says of his chemistry with Watts. "There was no way to do one without the partner doing the other. They're so intimately intertwined. It's definitely the closest I've ever worked on a day-to-day level with another actor. It's just fantastic because she's so unafraid to work at levels of nuance. That kind of work is so gorgeous. I think it's the best of what you can do in film acting because it's almost gestural. She's got a great feeling of how much the camera can draw out of her."

All that, and China, too. "I didn't go looking for a film about China," the actor insists. "The fact that I had some background in its culture just made it more appealing once I had encountered it. At the moment, it happens to be the largest country on Earth, and it's one of the oldest cultures. In a lot of ways, China to me is like America in the sense that it's too vast to encompass it easily or to make general statements about it. It's geographically diverse and, just like America, it's ethnically diverse. It's a place that's going through enormous changes that are happening and that are palpable. In that moment that this story takes place, it was another moment in which change was ripping across that country and people were asserting their right to throw off the shackles of other countries."

Norton gives Curran full credit for pinpointing this period. "It could take place in another similarly historic moment in another place, but, in this case, it's not really part of the book," Norton says, adding that it was the director who brought a specificity to the historical moment in the film. "He pushed me and Ron to get more specific about when this was taking place and what was going on. We all recognized that that was smart because it resonated with things that we're seeing today. John Curran is a good dramatist. He looked at this and said, 'How can I create an environment around these characters that drives them closer together? Beyond cholera, what can be going on?' He found this moment in Chinese history when foreigners were being attacked all over the countryside, and it's just good drama. The more we gave voice to the Chinese perspective, the more the Chinese people we worked with felt even more deeply connected to the picture."

Curran readily confesses he has no tricks at directing his multi-million-dollar talent to persuasive portrayals: "I really don't think I have a magical genius that I could give Edward Norton that's going to make him a better actor. The best thing that I could do is to create an environment that inspires him and then just get the hell out of the way. Naomi and Edward are very different. The best thing for her is to sometimes distract her from it and to take the seriousness out of it because she likes to have fun and it diffuses any anxiety that she maybe has. As for Edward, I just leave him to himself and let him trust his instincts. He listens to me. If I'm happy, we move on. If not, he's happy to do it another way. He loves to act, and what's great about him is that, as long as you trust his instincts, he's happy to trust yours. We're stubborn, so instead of arguing all the time, we agreed to disagree if it happened. We'd do it his and my way, then we'd move on."

This groundwork for mutual trust between the two men was laid at their first meeting--in a coffee shop. "I think Edward understood that my feeling was, 'Look, this is my issue with the script. This is what I like. This is what I'm worried about.' But, mostly, what I was attracted to was the adventure of it all--and I think that's what he really dug, too. Like me, he looked at this thing and it all added up to one great life experience. He liked that I didn't over-intellectualize the choice of doing the movie. It was, like, 'Yeah, let's do it.'"

So the adventure began--and it was no snap coming up with those out-of-the-way, untapped locales. "There really wasn't a location database we could access," Curran points out. "It necessitated us getting on a plane, flying around, looking at travel books and talking to the people. We did that for about two and a half weeks, and then I really focused our search on this area of Guangxi in the south of China because of the Karst Mountains. They're really distinct to me, and they offered us an opportunity to really film in every frame the background."

But the locales that cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh drinks in so lovingly came with a heavy toll. "It was a pain in the ass," Curran sums it up bluntly. "We were in the middle of nowhere, and the equipment had to get shipped out to a town that wasn't accessible by paved roads. We weren't seeing dailies. They were shipped off and developed overseas. We'd see stuff a week later, so what are you going to do if it's not right? Everyone has already moved on. There was a lot of stuff that was difficult because of where we were shooting and how we were shooting it.

"I wanted a helicopter shot which I really felt we needed at the end. I can't tell you how difficult it was to find a helicopter. They don't want helicopters flying around in China. If you've got the money, it's a very easy request here in America, but what I went through to get it there became like an obsession. Then, after a while, it becomes abstract, and I'm saying, 'Why am I lying in bed thinking about this? It's just a helicopter. Do I need this?' The headaches of some of the simplest stuff were crazy."

Casting the locals to play locals created a special kind of migraine for Curran. "As a culture, the local people are brought up not to group and, certainly, not to express hostile emotions in a group. As a director, I've got a group of, essentially, non-actors acting as an angry mob and, man, trying to get them angry was impossible. I'd start yelling at them. They must have thought I was insane. There was a real reluctance as a group to emote. There was a terrible moment when, in one scene in the film, guards came around the corner with guns and we were rehearsing the crowd being angry and I really couldn't get them to be angry. I said, 'Let's rehearse the soldiers coming in.' The correct extras weren't told that this was going to happen, so the first assistant yelled 'Action!' and these soldiers came around the corner with fake guns--and, literally, about a half-dozen old people dropped to their knees and covered their heads because they'd been through the Mao period. The last few generations in China have lived through some really tough times, and we became a lot more sensitive to what they were dealing with."

But there was a beautiful rainbow at the end of the picture for Curran. "My greatest feeling about the shoot was just looking back and remembering how it was in the beginning," he says. "At the end, we were all sitting in a small town after work, hanging out together with the Chinese crew, having a few beers, really loving being there and loving the local flavor and the people embracing us. It was fun experiencing that tradition. At the beginning, I just felt like I didn't think we were going to make it.

"All of us were naively entering into a situation that was kind of over our heads. We didn't have a lot of time, and the money wasn't in place. It was sort of madness. There was a point when I didn't even care. To me, the goal was just to finish the shoot. The ambition was just so small--it was just to keep from getting fired and to get the film in the can. On the first day, I asked my agent whether it's better to quit or to get fired. He said that I should get fired because if I quit people would think I got fired anyway. I think that the life experience of just not giving a damn was one of the greatest life lessons I've had--being fearless, moving forward and just trusting the people around me."