John Curran’s latest film, “Stone,” is the type of movie that should be extremely easy to explain, but is deceptively more complicated than you imagine. “Stone” focuses on Jack Mabry, (Robert De Niro), a soon-to-be-retired parole officer finishing up his final prisoner reviews. At first, Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Edward Norton) is just another desperate-to-be-released-early prisoner to Mabry; just another number to be evaluated. As their talks continue, however, Stone slowly starts to work his way into Mabry’s head, particularly when Stone’s wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), gets involved to help convince Mabry to help Stone go free.
On the surface, it seems obvious enough where this film is going but the film has a knack for taking every cynical and not so cynical expectation you may have for this type of film and spinning it in your face. For most of the film, you really can’t figure out where it’s going, if anywhere, and by the end you’re left wondering if the “where” was important at all compared to the ideas and mood presented on the way. When I left the theater, I’ll admit I was uneasy with the ambiguities of the film, but the longer I thought about them, the more I appreciated the film for staying muddy and dirty. That felt more real to me; life doesn’t always have perfect resolutions, and conflicts simmer under the surface for years without being addressed.
Director John Curran took some time to answer a few of my questions as “Stone” continues to expand to more theaters during it’s current theatrical run…
Why make this film? What is it about “Stone” that made you want to tell this story?
“God, I’ve answered that so many times but I feel like, when I first read it, it was, and I have to really think back when I first read it, it was probably the opening, the sort of banal set-up and then on page six it’s this horrible thing this guy does, and then there’s this cut and it’s 40 years later, and I just thought it was really brilliant. I was totally sucked into this script and was hoping it would keep moving in this surprising direction. I just found that it was like a loaded gun that sat next to script the whole time, waiting to go off.”
“And I tried to get it going for a while and, you know, when you read a script like that, you know it’s going to be a hard one to get made and I couldn’t pull the cast together. By the time I did, and De Niro wanted to do it, and then Edward [Norton] came on board, it was a different time. It was a couple years later, it was the end of 2008 and we were going to shoot in Detroit because it was where it was working out financially and it was a really strange time in America. I don’t know if you remember, but the beginning of 2009 was really weird and crazy and there was this really vocal anger from the right, the religious right, and I suddenly saw Jack [De Niro’s character] as one of these disenfranchised older white guys that’s a Christian and a conservative guy and it just suddenly crystallized for me, and I said to Edward, ‘This is a real chance for us to do a film… that’s not about all the stuff going on, but somehow is a mood piece, that captures the mood of what’s going on.'”
How much of the Christian element was in the original script, or was it something that came with the evolution of finding the character?
“It was always in there. It was always in there that Jack and his wife were fairly devout Episcopalians, or she was, and that Jack was having a crisis of faith which evolved through the discussions with Stone, and Stone was always going to have this sort of crackpot philosophy epiphany. It was always in there… the piece read more like theater in that it was all in the dialogue. I think that the layers of the Christian talkback radio, that came in later as an idea to place it. I started listening to more of that kind of stuff when I was doing the sound and that guy is a local Detroit guy that I really kind of dug. Layers were built upon it, but it was all pretty inherent in the script.”
How do you convince Edward Norton to play another convict?
“It was initially an issue for both of us. I think… there’s probably a lot of reasons why Edward would think, ‘I shouldn’t do this’ and we talked about it but I think it was sort of the baggage of the other stuff that he did that made it interesting to do this one, because this is something that you think… initially it builds like a conventional sort of thriller or con and then it goes someplace else entirely and I think that, in some way, we felt that the baggage of doing other convict stuff could help in a way. It was a big part of him wanting to do something different with it, thus truly trying to locate a very specific local feel to it. We modeled the character on a local prisoner we had interviewed.”
As you said, the film often goes in a different direction from what one would expect, and while I wouldn’t necessarily call it genre-bending, it does set things up one way and play out in another… which I think was refreshing to see, honestly…
“That’s also been a criticism of it. I don’t know, it’s weird… I look at something like a punk rock song that defies category and its purpose is to challenge form, you know what I mean, and feel some raw, unanswered things and I think this film was the same for us. For me, definitely. And I guess it maybe comes down to my somewhat agnostic beliefs. When you have two guys arguing about God, unless you’re going to have some sort of affirming ending, what answer can you give? The whole point of the film is that it sort of builds to nothing (laughs), if that makes sense. It was really interesting to me, because that’s why I read the script, it has all this kinetic energy building and building and it’s ‘What is it? What’s going to happen? What’s going to be the release’ and there’s this sort of frustration at the end and… I guess it was the challenge of ‘can you make that work?'”
The score lends itself to that energy building, as there are segments that feel, musically, like something really bad is about to happen right around the corner…
“Yeah. It was some… I always knew the music was going to be sort of meditative and it was going to be a mood piece. It became this idea, when we started getting specific with track laying and the different musicians that came, because we had a couple different guys that contributed stuff, was trying to create, I guess, a noir-ish track, mood track that suggested that something right around the corner was going to happen, but hopefully never deliver on what people were expecting.”
I definitely appreciate the subversive nature of making a film that purposefully spins convention the way this film does, and plays with the audience’s expectations in such an overt way. It feels more authentic…
“Yeah, it’s weird that we’re talking about films being authentic, and then that’s subversive. It is. There’s a lot of pressure, for a lot of different reasons, to give a neat closure or be very specific and be clear about what you’re saying because you’re dealing with expectations in a lot of ways. You’re dealing with marketing; how do you market something in one way so that people go ‘oh, okay, that’s that’ and particularly if you’re trying to make something subversive, you’re riding that fine line of… there’s subversive that’s satisfying and exciting and then there’s subversive that’s pretentious, and that’s the last thing that I want the film to be. If anything there’s an absurdity to it, I think, but it depends on how you read it.”
Now, most of the independent filmmakers I interview are in a much lower budget range, and many, I think, would scoff at a movie starring Robert De Niro and Edward Norton being considered independent…
“Would they really scoff at it? Seriously, would they really scoff at that idea?”
It’s just the perception of what independent is, but what I’m hoping you’ll address is how it can be independent, even at a higher level with big name stars attached. Like, just because De Niro is interested, doesn’t mean the film will ever get made, right?
“Look, every independent film is financed in the same way. It’s pre-sold based on the talent or someone scrapes up money on the credit card and makes it and its a ‘Hail Mary’ punt that they’re going to get their money back and they make it for low budget, which is another way to do it. Or there’s something in between. This one followed Model ‘A,’ which was: you pull together a cast, you have material that isn’t necessarily, on the page, commercial at all, and it’s because of the cast, and me, I guess, and the promise of it being a film worth making for the people that came on to it that they figured, ‘hey, we can cobble together enough money to make this.’ But they’re making it for the right reasons.”
“The guys who came on board… half the financial team knew that with pre-sales they could be covered, the other half wanted to be in the De Niro/Norton business and do something really f*****g cool. I don’t even care about it being truly independent or not. My thing is, I want to do really interesting films, and the way that I’m going to get them made is if I have stars in them, and I want to work with really good actors so… I’m not even sure what that is, but It’s something in between, I guess, a truly independent, subversive non-Hollywood direction and then, on the other extreme, a Hollywood direction… studio films. The only way to get really interesting films made these days that have some exposure and with distribution is with the right actors attached. It doesn’t mean they’re bad actors, it just means you have to get them.”
What is the expectation, though, when you have a story that is subversive or non-commercial, and you’re trying to work with people who just want to be, as you put it, in the De Niro/Norton business?
“That’s the same in every film. Nobody makes a film just for the art of it and no one makes a film immune from the expectations of the return. I’m no exception. Our intention, in the beginning, was to make everyone’s money back and then they’ll be really happy. But it is what is. No one that got involved in this project didn’t read the script, you know what I mean? They all knew what the script was, and it’s not so radically different from the script like it was a surprise to anyone. De Niro read it and… again, I think you have to consider the time.”
“To be really specific, the beginning of 2009 there was a financial crisis; a lot of big projects got wiped off the board. I’d say, the end of 2008, me included, so many people lost projects because the financing went away. Now it’s the beginning of 2009, and there’s a looming actors’ strike coming and there’s a moratorium on films being made with studios. Studios are not making any films at the beginning of 2009, so on top of the financial crisis you have this period of time when everybody’s freaking out because there’s no films being made. The studios don’t want to be caught out by a strike. The only films that are getting waivers from SAG are independent films, right, so suddenly there’s this great period where these really challenging art films, indie films, whatever you want to call them, are suddenly being taken very seriously by actors because they’re the only gigs going. And our film ‘Stone’ was made in that environment, and there’s probably a few others that got a leg up because of that period. It was a window… it was strange and panicky for a lot of people, but it was also… it felt like this perfect storm of suddenly there wasn’t any studio films going and actors want to work.”
Again, I appreciate that film defies convention so overtly, and I really think that that’s the real strength of the piece, the way it flips our expectations, so I’m glad you got to do it how you did it…
“I also think it’s a character… it’s Robert De Niro and Robert De Niro at a different age playing, almost playing, a character as commentary on a lot of his other screen characters. I think the material desperately wanted to follow a more authentic path then to be pounded up and beaten up into something that, maybe, you think is gonna move faster, or there’s going to be some great thriller twist or there’s going to be… you write a couple of action set pieces or something like that. It always wanted to go along the lines of just being more authentic and that’s what it is. I really appreciate talking to people, like you, that get it and like it on its contrary level, because that’s the spirit that it was made in.”
Photo Credit: Ron Batzdorff © 2010 Stone Productions, LLC All Rights Reserved.