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On Friday 23rd February 2007 I hopped on the train at Stockport and took the 06:15 to London Euston. With production notes on the films and a pen and pad in my bag, I was ready to be a proper journalist for the day. Once I arrived in the Big Smoke my first stop was the Soho Screening Rooms to watch The Illusionist and The Painted Veil. The place was filled with film critics from national newspapers and magazines who had seen a press screening of 300 the night before and from the comments they made, they didn’t seem to like it much. We took our seats and the lights dimmed…

Edward Norton Press Conference

The Illusionist

You can read my review of the UK region 2 DVD release of The Illusionist here.

The Painted Veil

You can read my review of the US region 1 DVD release of The Painted Veil here.

Press Conference

Following the screenings, I jumped in a taxi and headed for the Dorchester hotel, the venue for the press conference. When the taxi stopped at traffic lights, I saw something that would have made a pretty cool shot for the article. Unfortunately, before I could get my camera out and take a picture of a poster advertising The Illusionist next to a London bus, the lights changed and the chance was lost.

Lesson learned #1: keep your camera ready at all times.

I made my way past the Lamborghinis and Bentleys at the front of the Dorchester and found someone inside from Momentum pictures. She pointed me in the direction of the Crystal room, which was found down the end of the hotel lounge where many young well-to-dos were sipping high tea with Mater and Pater. You may notice that there aren’t any photos of Edward Norton or John Curran in this article. I heard murmurings that only bona fide photographers could take pictures so I thought it best not to trifle with the famous Norton temper.

Film critic Quentin Falk chaired the press conference and asked most of the questions. I had questions prepared but he managed to ask all of them and I was left to frantically scribble down notes. As a result, the answers to the questions below aren’t written out word for word but they do contain the essence of everything that was said.

Lesson learned #2: get yourself a Dictaphone.

Edward Norton Press Conference

Edward Norton

The Painted Veil

You’ve been involved with The Painted Veil for a long time. How did you develop this project?

Things do take a long time. We had to develop the script, sort out the financing and find slots for Naomi and me. The previous writer and producer were finding it difficult to find backing. When I came in we expanded the scope, focusing on the emotional aspect and the view of China. John (Curran, director) brought more to the film and anchored it in 1920s China, adding more about Chinese nationalism and the West messing around in other countries. The film really evolved as it was being shot.

Your character has more of an emotional reserve than other characters you have played. How did that sit with US audiences?

Well, US audiences love Merchant Ivory and Maugham is a great window into the people of the time. It has produced an emotional reaction in the US. Some of the feedback we’ve had from senior screenings was that they related to the theme of forgiveness. I received a letter from Maugham’s grandchildren, which said that this film was their favourite production of the book.

Can you tell us about your experience of co-producing The Painted Veil with China?

I believed we had to go to China. For a production with a budget of just over $20million, you can stretch the money further in China. The difficulties were outweighed by the opportunity to film where no films have been made before. However, there were no difficulties with logistics because the Chinese have a phenomenal work ethic. The Chinese Film Bureau was given approval rights by Warner Brothers, which came to a head in unpleasant ways. John refused to let it compromise the film.

As well as starring in this film, you were also the producer. What can you tell us about your role as producer?

Sometimes it’s terrific but sometimes it’s a headache. Financing in particular is a pain in the ass, and fighting with Warner Brothers was a headache, especially when they sent the lawyers in to enforce Chinese censorship.

Diana Rigg is fantastic in the film. What can you tell us about her involvement?

John had the idea to cast her in the role, and it couldn’t have been easier. Her character is so observant and we learn about Kitty (Naomi Watts’ character) through Diana’s performance.

Would this film have been made without yourself and Naomi Watts?

I suppose not. It was going nowhere until we picked it up.

Edward Norton Press Conference

The Illusionist

What attracted you to this project?

The screenwriters are friends of mine who wrote Rounders and produced Neil’s (Neil Burger, director) first film. As it stood, I thought it didn’t quite work and it could be more complex. I was struck by the characters in the screenplay but thought it would take some work.

The Illusionist was released around the same time as The Prestige. Do you think this had any effect on your film?

The Illusionist was made before The Prestige. I haven’t seen it yet, though. I’m still catching up on Academy screeners. It didn’t seem to interfere so it wasn’t a big deal. The Illusionist did well in the US so I guess there was room for both films.

Can you tell us about the illusions your character performs?
We only wanted to perform illusions that were being done at the time. We tried to avoid using CG where we could but it wasn’t possible with some tricks. We would have had to make the theatre too dark to film.

Your involvement in the production process is well-documented, in particular with American History X. Do you prefer to work with directors who back your judgement?

There wasn’t a conflict during the making of American History X. It happened after production when the director and the studio intervened. I don’t have that level of involvement on every film. Sometimes I’ll say “Don’t change a comma, when do we start?” I’m not unique in this regard though, I’d say there were more actors that do get involved than those that don’t.

You’ve rarely played period roles, now you’ve done two in a row. Was this intentional?

Doing two period roles back to back was purely coincidental. I rarely take a step back and look at my decisions and how they fit into a bigger picture. It’s dependent on the project. I hadn’t been pulled in by a period role before in the same way. I tend to prioritise feelings of the times we’re living in. Films mean a lot to me when they’re engaged in the times they’re filmed in and that’s what I tend to gravitate towards.

Edward Norton Press Conference

John Curran

When Edward Norton was finished, it was time for John Curran, the director of The Painted Veil, to share his thoughts on the film. As soon as Edward left the room, so did most of the press (shame on you) and they missed out on some interesting comments from the director.

You’ve worked with Naomi Watts before. How long was she part of the production?

She got in at the end of 2004 and we were prepping for the shoot in the following April.

Were you responsible for bringing her on board?
No. The president of Warner Brothers handed the script to her.

Was this a daunting project to take on?

I was looking for experience. Filmmaking is an adventure and it’s tough to practice because you need a lot of money. You earn your way up to big scale pictures. I’m a performance-based director; I have a lot of interest in the actors. If there’s ever any doubt about a scene, I focus on the actors.

Were there pressures on you to toe the line?

I made the film I wanted to make. The Chinese Film Bureau was restrictive and vetted the script but the deal was done pre-production. We decided to take the production money, make the film and save the battle for another day. Edward and I are very tenacious and never give up. We accepted the PG-13 boundaries but the Chinese tried to restrict too much. There were political motivations behind their arguments, nothing to do with the characters or the period. We gave them the little ones they asked for but kept the big ones. You know your battles and cover yourself.

Did the studio make suggestions to change the film?

No. It was an independent film with a small budget and the money goes further in China. The actors loved the material and it was the combined vision that drove the project. Everyone has ideas and I always listen to them and take advice.

What has the been the response from audiences and critics?

Word of mouth is the hardest way to get a film going but we’ve got really strong word of mouth. We’ve had positive feedback and our audiences have said they love this type of film. There are not a lot of films of this type nowadays. They’re either really small or really big and open on a thousand screens.

About The Painted Veil, US critic Roger Ebert said “great film, bad hair”. What can you tell us about Naomi Watts’ hairdo?

I had a blonde wig ready for her but she was tired after finishing King Kong and wanted a different look. I learned that sometimes it’s not good to resist actors.

Edward Norton Press Conference
How did you find the experience of working with actors who were also your producers?

All actors have different processes but they allowed me to be the boss. The buck stopped with them but they were open to everything. I’ve had actors as producers on two films now and it’s been perfect. Edward is very versatile and gets involved in everything, like helping us to get equipment.

Did you consider other actors for the character of Waddington?

In the book Waddington’s character is a template so we weren’t restricted by it but I wanted to respect the description of him in the book. We had the same casting people that worked on Infamous. I watched that film and thought Toby Jones was instantly likeable. I never looked beyond Toby.

But you had to curtail the story about Waddington.

Yes, I want to make The Painted Veil 2: Waddington. One of Maugham’s themes is ex-pats gone native and there’s a lot of potential in the character.

Were there any problems with accents? Was there a competition between the actors?

Naomi was born in England so she didn’t have a problem with the accent. Edward is a mimic and can pick up any accent. Liev Schreiber has done Shakespeare so we had to find the right balance. It was difficult to find someone to fill the role of the third part of the triangle.

What’s next for you?

I’m finishing the adaptation of the novel Killer Inside Me. After that I’m going to take a break.

So there you have it—the sum total of my first day as a proper film critic. Next time I’ll get a Dictaphone so you can have the Q&A word for word and I won’t wuss out when it comes to getting photos. However, the films themselves are worthy of your time and I recommend them to anyone, especially The Painted Veil, which I consider a modern classic.

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