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Lifting The Veil - John Curran Interview

Author: Philippa Wherrett
Tuesday, 22 April 2008
3D's Philippa Wherrett speaks with John Curran, director of The Painted Veil, which stars Edward Norton and Naomi Watts.

When John Curran read the screenplay for The Painted Veil, it was love at first sight. 'I read it and could see it fully realised,' he says. 'I loved the idea of the script and the dynamic between Edward and Naomi.'

It was Naomi Watts who recommended Curran to the project. She'd worked with Curran on his second feature film, We Don't Live Here Any More, also a gritty drama about relationships.

'Inevitably the scripts I pounce on are really interesting, well written character studies,' Curran says. 'When there are people in situations that I relate to or find really compelling that's the stuff that really draws me in.'

The film is an adaptation of the W Somerset Maugham novel of the same name. It is very different from the novel in that it invents a love story between the husband and wife, which doesn't exist in the book. Little wonder Norton asked Curran not to read the book before they met.

Norton had been trying to get The Painted Veil made for five years. He'd helped secure the rights to Maugham's book and assisted writer Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) with adapting the screenplay. Norton also secured financing and brought Naomi Watts on board. So it was crucial Norton and Curran be on the same page.

'We saw we could both work together,' Curran says. 'There was sort of a strength to both of us, where neither one of us [are] pushovers, but we're not pushy out of ego. I think we felt we were kindred spirits in that way.'

One thing Curran and Norton agreed on was that the story would benefit from including details of China's socio-political situation in the 1920s. Norton, who studied Chinese history as a Yale undergraduate, and Curran both strongly felt this would improve and strengthen the story. 'It just laces the whole endeavour with another layer of background drama,' Curran says. 'It's a process of trying to create an authentic feel and mood and setting and compounding what the characters are up against.'

In a bid for authenticity, Curran decided to shoot on location in China. 'There's a lot of different reasons to make a film and a big one is this could this be a great life adventure,' he says. 'We have an opportunity here. We can go to China and do a Somerset Maugham film, where it's never been filmed before.'

Curran spent the better part of a year obtaining permits, scouting locations and refining the script. The 65-day shoot in China was tough. The crew was largely Chinese and didn't speak English. 'It really was a sort of hell in the beginning. It almost seemed impossible between the language and the lack of facilities,' Curran says.

But by the end it was a 'tight knit family and a well oiled machine. It was a process of learning a lot on your feet and also trying to make your day's shoot. It was really stressful the first couple of weeks. But every shoot finds its own rhythm.'

Somerset Maugham may not approve of the conversion of his rights of passage tale into a romance. But Curran has created a beautifully cinematic love story set against the exotic backdrop of rural China, which stands on its own as an epic love story.

WHEN: In cinemas 24 April