The star of two new movies, Edward Norton will be seen first in the romantic drama The Illusionist. He plays Eisenheim, a renowned stage magician in turn of the 20th century Vienna, whose skills must be deployed to their fullest advantage if he is to win the hand of the girl he loves. Jessica Biel co-stars along with Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell who plays the jealous Crown Prince who will stop at nothing to retain the affection of Eisenheim’s sweetheart for himself.
And then there is The Painted Veil, an adaptation of the novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Norton plays Walter, a shy English doctor in the 1920s, who falls in love with the aloof Kitty (Naomi Watts). They marry, for differing reasons, and she travels with him to his posting in Shanghai. But when boredom gets the better of her and she cuckolds her husband, he plans his revenge carefully. He insists they travel further into the country, to a cholera swept region he has volunteered to serve. She reluctantly agrees, bound to him by an unforgiving social code, driven by pride and gradually possessed by something else entirely.
Aside from these films Norton has been in regular demand since his breakthrough role in Primal Fear in 1994. Since then his credits have included The People Vs Larry Flynt, Rounders, Everyone Says I Love You, American History X, Fight Club, The Score, Red Dragon and 25th Hour. He recently played King Baldwin in Kingdom of Heaven and starred in Down In The Valley. As a director he made Keeping The Faith.
The Painted Veil has been around a long time, seven years, and you’ve been with it all along. This presumably reflects the great faith you have in the material, does it?
“The longer I’ve worked in films the more I realise as an actor you tend to get handed things when things are pretty much ready to go. Sometimes you don’t even know how long things have been incubating. It’s more normal than people often say for things to go through a period of germination. This one was particularly long, but it was for all the reasons you might imagine, we spent a good bit of time in the beginning just developing the script and finding the financing. Even when Naomi was interested in doing it, we had a hard time finding a slot in which she and I and any director we were interested in weren’t working on something else. It takes time for the pieces to click into place.”
How much did the script change over time?
“I think the script went through three major evolutions. Ron Nyswaner wrote it and wrote an excellent adaptation that very directly reflected the book. But he and the original producer that he worked with, Sara Colleton, had a very difficult time finding support for that. I think in part because while the book is brilliant as a story it’s extremely claustrophobic. Really if you were just to film a rendition of the book you could film it at Shepperton, there was really no need to go to China. And the second big phase, I would say, my contribution to it on script level was that I came in and said to Ron that it has to be inspired by the themes and also the scope of it has to be expanded. Both emotionally, and even in terms of its view of China. There was really no point in going there otherwise.”
And then there’s always going to be a change when a new director, in this case John Curran, comes on board isn’t there?
“John brought an enormous amount of new specificity and new inspiration to it and – more than Ron and I ever had really – anchored it in the specific history of mid 1920s China, with the enormous wave of anti-foreign resentment that swept the country. It was a really brilliant new take that led to a deepening of the script. I think in addition to creating an even more dramatic context for the characters it opened up this whole second level to the metaphor of the film in a way, because it became much more about western people mucking around in other peoples’ countries, telling them how to fix them and wondering why they’re not being thanked for it. That had been unconsciously present, but I think John brought that view more clearly into it. But it never stops, the script evolved even as we were shooting the film, but those were the three big chunks.”
You play an Englishman in the film, but besides getting the accent right you also achieve a particular kind of emotional reserve. Was that easy to tune into?
“Like anything else it’s about immersing yourself in some sense of a time, a place, a culture in a society I think. A great window in on all of this is Maugham himself. If you read Somerset Maugham you get a great window into the psychology of that class in that time. Not just in The Painted Veil but in Of Human Bondage, and a lot of those books.”
Have modern American audiences been swept along by it?
“It’s produced a very emotional reaction in people. We had one screening out at UCLA, part of a senior film screening series, and that was a really interesting experience for me. People were coming up to us afterwards, people who had been married 40 years saying how deeply they related to the dynamics of this couple. And the forgiveness element of it, that seemed to touch a chord with a lot of people.”
Are you a fan of the romantic genre in general?
“I certainly am a fan of films like Out of Africa or Brief Encounter or Doctor Zhivago, sure. I tend to find something more meaningful in films that I think are real, that have some sort of universal quotient to them or that are really a study of the eternal dynamics between men and women. I think the reason Out of Africa holds up as a ‘romantic film’ is that it’s really about loss. It’s not about romantic consummation, it’s about a woman confronted by the fact that she can’t hold on to things, not possessions nor property or even this man. The dynamics between those characters are ones that I think people can still relate to. So you get the romance of period and place, and the exoticism of it but I think there’s something in it that people can recognise themselves in. And I like that, I tend to respond to that. I don’t tend to respond to the people who meet through a wedding planner, or whose dogs get their leashes entangled.”
How was it shooting in China?
“John and I were adamant that we had to go to China, there was no other alternative really. And as it turns out, that’s good on a financial level because you can stretch the money in China. We made the film for just over $20 million, which is quite modest these days. I think that in the main the trade offs and difficulties from working in China were far outweighed by the opportunity of getting down into that landscape and filming where no Chinese films had even filmed. It was a unique opportunity, and it was absolutely worth it. The Chinese crews are incredible, the film industry there is very well developed and these people will work so passionately. We had nothing but great things to say about our Chinese colleagues in making the film.”
But there were some issues you faced, weren’t there?
“The vicissitudes of working with the Chinese government, the film bureau having approval rights that amazingly had been granted by Warner Bros. in what I believe was a pretty singular kind of an agreement to give a foreign government substantial approvals over a film. Those came to a head in some very unpleasant ways, but I think it’s a total testament to John Curran and his courage, especially at this early stage in his career, that he dug his heels in resolutely and refused to let those things compromise the film. He won those debates, so that we didn’t suffer this terrible incursion into the integrity of the film.”
You are a producer on the film as well, was there ever a point when you thought it was all too much that you’d taken on?
“No, producing a film like this goes through many, many phases. Some of it’s terrific and some of it is a true headache. Working with Ron Nyswaner on the script for a couple of years was great. Finding financing, that’s a pain in the ass. And then working with John and Naomi, and supporting someone like John who has a very specific vision, and whose standards are very high. That’s fun. Being a producer in a creative sense, really working with someone like John to sort out how we’re going to get what we need to realise what he’s got in his head, that’s fun.”
What then was the appeal of The Illusionist for you?
“Two friends of mine who wrote the film Rounders had produced [director] Neil Burger’s first, very small indie film. He had come to them with this idea and they were producing it for him also. They brought it to me a couple of years before we made it. Neil’s script at that time was extremely faithful to the short story it was based on. Maybe I have a predilection for thinking I can improve on the classics or something, but Brian and David and I all thought that it didn’t quite work. I think over some conversations we convinced Neil that the basic conceit of the film ought to be that it’s a trick within a trick within a trick. That in the end the Illusionist is affecting his ultimate illusion in the service of his love.”
Did you immediately get into the head of this singular character?
“I don’t really see myself as this guy. I had an idea of him in my head, but I don’t look in the mirror and see that guy. So I thought it would take some work to pull it off, and that was the initial appeal for me.”
You have to be especially convincing in the stage magic here, because cinema audiences are used to computer trickery, so they have to believe you’re really doing something fantastical, don’t they?
“Part of our thinking on that was to be very, very rigorous in only performing illusions that were being performed at the time. And to be fairly strict, as strict as we could be about performing them live as opposed to using camera trickery or CGI. The only thing that I didn’t do, or that we didn’t use the actual mechanisms that were available at the time, were the spirit manifestations. There’s a great book about the rage for spirit manifestations at the turn of the 20th century, they were apparently really effective and sophisticated, but the techniques they used required a very darkened theatre. So we couldn’t do it and at the same time get it on film. So we cheated those a little bit.”
You’re rarely see in period films, and here you are in two back to back: was that a conscious thing on your part?
“No, it’s pure coincidence because with The Painted Veil we’ve been ready to go at any moment in the last seven years. It just happened that it fell together on the heels of another period piece. I rarely step back and look at the relationship of any of these things to each other. I don’t tend to make decisions about things with regard to how it fits into a larger body. It’s almost exclusively execution dependent with me. I love period films, but I just don’t happen to have had ones laid in front of me that I thought were good, or that resonated with me. I’ve looked at many of them over the years, I just don’t happen to have been pulled in by them the way I was pulled in by these two.”
Is there a single motivating factor that gets you interested in a project?
“I tend to prioritise work that I feel like on some level has something to say about the experience of people of my generation, or people that I know. Things that reflect what’s difficult, about the times we’re living in. Those films that have meant a lot to me over time – not my own but films generally – have been films that I would say were engaged in their times. That doesn’t mean that they were particularly commercial, those are just what I tend to gravitate towards. But it’s fun to mix in other experiences too.”