It’s been a long known fact that it’s hard to get dramas made in Hollywood, but when director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore) decided to make Stone, he had the benefits of a cast headlined by Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, who appeared in Curran’s previous film The Painted Veil.
De Niro plays Jack Mabry, a soon-to-retire parole officer at a maximum security prison in the suburbs of Detroit who takes on his last case, that of Gerald “Stone” Creeson, Norton’s character, who has been imprisoned for the murder of his grandparents in a fire he started. While Creeson pleads his case and tries to convince Jack he’s reformed, his sexy (and slightly crazy) wife Lucetta, played by Milla Jovovich, uses her own methods of convincing Mabry to release her husband, just as he starts undoing a spiritual reawakening while he awaits release. Frances Conroy plays Jack’s beleaguered wife who has stuck with him through difficult times, though Jack’s dalliances with Lucetta could very well destroy all of that.
Based on a script by Angus MacLachlan (Junebug), Curran has created a captivating drama that keeps you intensely interested in the characters despite the majority of their interactions being dialogue-driven, that is until the third act when it builds into a bonafide thriller, as you start seeing that Lucetta will do just about anything to convince Jack to let her husband out of jail. (At times, Stone may veer into Fatal Attraction or Cape Fear territory but never quite to that extreme.) Interspersed with all the great scenes between De Niro and the other actors, Curran creates an atmospheric feel to the film along with cinematographer Maryse Alberti and musical interludes from Jon Brion.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Curran at the Toronto Film Festival last month for the following interview, and we also have an exclusive TV spot for the film below.
ComingSoon.net: Having not read the notes, I knew very little about how you got involved with this or whether it was an original screenplay or adapted from something else, so was this a script that you found or one that you developed from the ground up?
Curran: It was a script that came to me a few years back. It was a script that was based on a play and it kind of read like a play, you know? But I liked it. I took a couple of runs at it, but at the best of times, it’s a difficult kind of film to get going. You need the right elements of cast for someone to jump on it. Then it wasn’t until I had gone onto something else, and that fell apart, and I came back onto it that De Niro expressed interest. Once he was into it, then we started talking about (it) and I got a lot more kind of obsessed about it and started becoming something that felt like it was real.
CS: What was it about the script that particularly attracted you to it after directing “The Painted Veil”?
Curran: I mean, after “The Painted Veil,” it was probably the last kind of thing that I consciously wanted to do. It’s small. It’s ambiguous. It can be dark, it is dark, but I was really drawn to the surprise of it for me of really interesting and believable characters, particularly in the Jack character. That beginning, which to me, sets up the guy that could’ve easily been a guy in the other side of the table in the prison, then there’s this cut on page six and 40 years later you’re seeing this guy and they’re still together and it’s kind of astounding to me. That opening was sort of like a loaded gun that hung over the film, the reading of the film, for me. That was kind of my initial interest in it and at the time, there was a lot of talk about conservative, religious anger in America. It was the end of 2008 after the Obama election. I just thought it was interesting to kind of tell a story about one of these guys that ultimately comes from a religious conservative part of America, whose sort of foundation was crumbling at the time and there was a lot of uncertainty for them.
CS: One of the things I’d imagine must have been tough about the movie was that a lot of it is just two guys in a room talking, even though those are really the most powerful scenes. It’s also visually very appealing, but as you were reading the script were you wondering how you could keep the movie interesting, especially when the money shots really are the scenes between Norton and De Niro?
Curran: Well, I was really worried about it. Edward contributed a lot to his character in this script in ways that were typical, but we kind of restructured the scenes. Originally they were kind of in big lumps, and they were long scenes. We restructured it so that there was about seven scenes in their office. Realizing that in talking to both Bob and Edward, it’s not like I’m gonna come up with crane shots and clever movements around them, you know? It’s not relevant to the film. But, there’s ways that we could evolve… each scene is shot very differently in subtle ways. What the surprise for me was when cutting the film how powerful those scenes were. I was really worried that the film would stop and it would slow down to the point where you were sort of disengaged, but it was incredible and I started putting together just how riveting it was with these two guys. I think that’s the power of the casting really, having Edward and Bob.
CS: Edward goes through a lot of different changes in the movie in terms of his looks, but was it basically two weeks of having the two of them in that same office set and just doing the scenes in order?
Curran: Yeah, we were shooting in a real prison so we built that set within one section of the prison. So it’s their windows and their color scheme, and some of their walls, but ours are built into it so we could function as a set, floating walls and the moveable stuff. So we were trapped in there really for like, a good couple weeks at least, three weeks probably. (laughs)
CS: What was that like? Did you feel like you wanted to try to get as many whole takes between the two actors as if it were play?
Curran: I don’t really rehearse because I like the happy accidents that happen in rehearsal and I always get pissed off that I missed it, so I plan to figure out how I wanted to shoot the scene and then I’d shoot a lotta wide shots with a second camera covering stuff, just to get anything accidental, but the odds of trying to get it on film? That’s kind of the rehearsal and ultimately, the scene kinda takes some shape, but I had a different approach to every single scene, what lenses, how I was gonna film it, what the movement was gonna be, when the movement was gonna start, you know? So, it was very planned only because I was really concerned about having the same approach to every scene would ultimately get a bit repetitive.
CS: You worked with Edward on “The Painted Veil” if I remember, so was he also interested in the script for the same reasons? How did it come about that you ended up working together again?
Curran: He wasn’t interested in it. When I first was into it, he read it as a friend, I gave it to him, said, “I’m thinking about doing this. Just give me your opinion.” He’s like, “I don’t get it. It’s interesting, but I mean, I don’t get it.” We didn’t really talk about it that much, actually because I moved onto something else, but when I came back onto it and Bob was interested, I realized I really needed someone with some good chops across the table from Bob. The film wasn’t gonna work, it would just be unbalanced. I never wanted a muscled and tattooed, typical guy like that. I was trying to cast against type. Edward just kept coming back into my mind as the best of all possible candidates, He gave me the benefit of the doubt and we had a long talk about it. He finally was like, “Okay, I see it. I don’t see it on the paper, but I like the film that you’re imagining out of this.” We used the script as sort of the springboard to do further research. We knew where we were shooting now. We had to transpose it from the south to the north. Through the process of meeting lots of prisoners, he met one guy that he really sort of modeled his character on. That guy helped evolve the dialogue and some of the situations to make it more authentic, so the layered work just kept going into it.
CS: How did you end up with Milla? I think Ed and Bob and Frances are all solid dramatic actors that have done so much great drama over the years. For Milla, this is something very different for her. I was curious, how did you end up coming up with her name? She did an amazing job in the movie, and I think she was the movie’s biggest surprise.
Curran: She’s really great. It’s the sort of script where you recognize that you have to find your humor and excitement where you can get it without selling out the film and turning it into a thriller or something and finding car chases. We always thought of that character as always the fireworks. She was always the funniest and strangest and most complex in a lotta ways. I needed someone that had all these colors, that could be sexy, but then really childlike and kind of sloppy and dangerous and naïve and funny and moody. I read and saw a lotta girls, particularly we wanted someone that had a believable, Detroit urban feel to her. You know, it’s really that she came in on her own. She came in and read and put herself on tape for the casting person and she was the one. She’s the one that made me laugh and it was authentic what she was doing.
CS: I’ve met Milla a bunch of times and this character seems more like how she is in person than when she’s in movies playing these tough women.
Curran: Exactly. No, I completely agree. When I met her I was like, “Wow, she’s kind of like…” she’s all those things, you know? In one sentence, she can go from being kinda goofy to being super razor-smart and almost in an intimidating way. You don’t know what’s real and what’s part of some kind of play for her, so yeah, I think it is a lot like her.
CS: How much of her character and Edward’s character were on the page and how much of it was stuff they developed from playing around with their characters in their scenes?
Curran: I think that they found – I mean, Edward found a very distinct character that she then played off of. Edward had done his work first, and I think by the time she came, Edward was well in character.
CS: Was all of that on the page or was that something about the character you had to develop based on what was in the script?
Curran: I think everybody contributed to their own character, playing around. The script was never – not like, by the word. I wanted someone to capture the essence of the speech, and sometimes, specifically the words of the speech, but it evolved quite a bit. Once everybody came on, kinda go through a process of tailoring each character to suit that actor a little bit.
CS: It’s a rather unconventional film even for drama. I don’t know if you consider this a studio movie, but most studios would want to have a car chase or some kind of big fight scene. It’s hard to describe because we don’t really see movies like this which are really just people talking and a very focused story where the point of the story is to get him out of jail and that’s what it’s about. How hard is it to make a movie like this and get people on board?
Curran: I think it’s really hard. I mean, I think it’s almost impossible now. I think that when we were making it, it was hard. I think there’s been a big shift in the world. We’re in the great recession. We’re in a time where the way we’re viewing films and the devices on which we’re viewing them. Distribution is changing so radically, so quickly that that fear has put sort of a halt on a lot of harder-edged, dramatic type films, so it’s difficult. As long as there’s really good actors that use their clout to support fringe films, whatever genre it is, they’ll still get made. That’s the upshot. I mean, that’s how it works. There’s certain actors that could come and do a meeting with a blank stack of paper and they can say, “I want to make this,” and someone will give them $30 million because this; that name alone is gonna guarantee a certain pre-sale to it.
CS: I don’t want to spoil the movie because obviously it takes a big turn toward the end, but I wanted to ask you what you thought was the moral of the story? It’s definitely a moral movie. It seems more geared towards the moral of Jack’s story than Stone’s, but I was curious about your own take on it, if you could talk about it without actually spoiling it or giving away the big turn.
Curran: I mean, I was very conscious about trying to be authentic. What’s it talking about? It’s talking about notions of god and really, at the heart of it, that’s what it’s talking about. There’s sin, redemption, all of these things, but they all fold into a guy that, his faith is sorta draining out of him. He’s bleeding his faith. The other guy then kind of finds some kind of spiritual rebirth. It’s kinda like I don’t care what team they’re on and what their belief system is, to me, it’s sort of nonsensical to embrace anyone’s belief system as one over the other. It’s all unknown. So, the answer at the end has to be that nobody knows anything, in a way. (laughs) I think the idea of opening yourself to some kind of spiritual progression, whatever that is, I mean, I think that is the hopeful thing of the end, that one character finds it, and even though it might be nonsensical what he thinks, it’s authentic to him. Another character hopefully is at the point where he’s sort of hit this bottom part where it’s the only real place he could turn, is to kind of open himself in some kind of evolution to something.
CS: One of the problems with a movie like this is that it will be released in New York and LA which is basically where most of the people are cynical about that kinda stuff too. Do you think this movie will play in some of these places where people who have these belief systems will be able to watch it and appreciate it more?
Curran: Oh, look, I’ve been adamant about it that I think if the film develops a healthy sort of reputation, that it’s discussing these sorts of notions without it being, condemning anything, or being judgmental, then it should play really well. I mean, I live at the moment in a very conservative city. I think it’ll play well there simply because there’s great actors. Ultimately, I think that it’s like, if your film’s about baseball, your market’s gonna be doing better in baseball, you know what I mean? (Laughs) If you have a film that’s talking about God, you would think that it would appeal to people that consider themselves religious, whatever denomination they’re attached to.
CS: I know you were going to do “The Beautiful and the Damned” at one point. Is that something you’re gonna go back to?
Curran: I’m working on something now and I can’t really talk about it too much, but I worked on “The Beautiful and the Damned” and I would still love to do it. I think at the moment, moving off to do “Stone,” the last I heard it’s in someone else’s hand, but whoever knows.
CS: Will you just write something new for yourself to direct now?
Curran: Yes, I’m not writing it, but I’m working with a writer and another producer, so there’s a couple of writers on it.
CS: Do you generally try to stay in the independent realm as far as doing new stuff?
Curran: No, I mean, I’m surprised that this was the film that I did after “The Painted Veil.” The projects like “The Beautiful and the Damned” and there was another film that didn’t work – one, because of the writers strike, one because of the financial collapse. There was a couple of big road blocks for a lot of projects in the last couple of years. Making an independent film, at the time that I made this, which was the beginning of 2009, the only option you had at that point was making an independent film because studios weren’t gonna get a free pass from SAG, so that put a block on it. If you look at the beginning of 2009, the first six months, you will see that there weren’t any studio films in production, they were all independent films, so I was fortunate that I had this and that it was sort of in my wheelhouse a little bit and I jumped on it because it was the right time for it. I think at another time it may not have been as easy to get it going. There was people that were scrambling to make films.
Stone opens in select cities on Friday, October 8.