Studio: Warner Independent Pictures
Director: John Curran
Screenwriter: Ron Nyswaner
Starring: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones
MPAA Rating: PG-13
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
In the fall of 2004, Edward Norton telephoned Naomi Watts—once again—about playing Kitty Fane in The Painted Veil. This time, he was determined to enlist the actress— for five years, Norton, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner and producer Sara Colleton had been developing an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel, and they were hoping to finally get it produced.
Unfortunately, Watts, a 2004 Best Actress Oscar nominee who had also recently completed roles in The Ring Two and Marc Forster’s Stay, had just finished a grueling eightmonth shoot in Australia for King Kong and wasn’t eager to begin another film.
“I was tired, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to work again for at least that part of the year,” she admits. But after speaking at length with the persuasive Norton, “Suddenly my promise to myself about not working went out the window,” she laughs. “I always knew this book would make a great film.”
“I spoke to Naomi toward the end of 2004,” remembers Norton, who has earned two Oscar nominations—one for his very first role in a motion picture. “I said, ‘Look, we could both do this next summer. Let’s really put our heads together and think of a director we’d be excited to work with. Let’s do it.’”
It had been a long journey, however, to get to this point. The film began its road to the big screen in 1995 when screenwriter Ron Nyswaner began looking for his next project. Nyswaner had written the screenplay for the seminal 1993 film Philadelphia, which had gone on to receive widespread acclaim and earned the writer an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
“I’ve been intrigued by Maugham’s work ever since I saw Of Human Bondage as a kid,” he explains, referring to the film adaptation of Maugham’s most famous book, which starred Bette Davis and Leslie Howard in its 1934 incarnation. “I was fascinated by the melodramatic story of obsessive love. I went through his books one by one, and I finally read The Painted Veil. It was this book of Maugham’s that haunted me more than any other.”
In a conversation with producer Sara Colleton, Nyswaner referenced The Painted Veil as one of his favorite books. Sara revealed that she had in fact spent the last year trying to secure rights to the book with the Maugham estate. It was destiny.
“We talked about Maugham’s book and how it deals with the topic of sexual love versus spiritual love more honestly than any piece of literature today,” she recalls. “We both knew then that we really wanted to make the film version.”
Maugham, who was born in Paris in 1874 but grew up in England, spent years as a medical student before becoming one of the 20th century’s most popular novelists. Nyswaner admired the way this particular story by the author transformed from one about revenge into one about redemption.
“On the surface, the story is direct and dramatic: a man with a broken heart seeks to punish his adulterous wife. The journey of this ill-matched couple is fraught with sexual and psychological tension,” he points out. “The story takes a surprising twist, however, as the characters come to see themselves—and each other—in a new light; the psychological thriller becomes a spiritual journey.”
With Nyswaner on board, Colleton began work on an early draft of the script with him. Portions of the book that explain Kitty’s backstory and shed light on her decision to marry Walter were condensed into a brief prologue of flashbacks. After three years of intense rewriting and development—during which producer Jean-François Fonlupt was also brought on board— Colleton and Nyswaner sent the script to Edward Norton, “who would remain a stalwart element on the project,” Colleton says.
In 1999, Norton’s first impressions of the script were overwhelmingly positive. “Ron adapted it wonderfully,” he remembers. “I thought it was a great piece of writing.”
Norton, a talented filmmaker in his own right and a self-described Sinophile, immediately responded to the complex character of bacteriologist Walter Fane and his mercurial relationship with wife Kitty. “Walter and Kitty’s emotional journey as a couple is compelling in the script, especially how they transcend their own negativity about each other and resuscitate their relationship,” he explains. “Walter has to find his way to forgiveness. “This story really hit all the numbers for me,” he adds, “because these are some the most challenging issues in life.”
Despite Norton’s fondness for the script, for various reasons, “We couldn’t get the film made at that time,” says the actor. Norton would go on to make his feature film directorial debut, Keeping the Faith, which he also produced and starred in alongside Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman. But even from the back burner, The Painted Veil seemed to preoccupy Norton as intensely as it had haunted Ron Nyswaner.
“Ron’s dialogue and his sense of Maugham’s themes were so sophisticated and well done—it was one of those scripts that stayed in my brain,” says the actor. “Eventually, I called Ron and Sara and said, ‘Listen, why don’t we take another crack at this?’”
Norton came on board as a producer late in 1999, which injected the project with new vigor. “Edward worked ceaselessly, year after year, to guide this project towards production,” praises Nyswaner. The two collaborated for the next six months on the script in an effort to, in Norton’s words, “liberate it from the novel a little bit. We wanted to open it up to China somewhat and to create a romantic transcendence in the film, which doesn’t exist in the novel, and take the Walter-Kitty relationship farther.”
Norton, who had studied Chinese history as a Yale undergraduate, was a valuable resource for Nyswaner during the rewriting process. “It was with his inspiration and guidance that I began to explore the work Walter does in China, which is completely absent from the book,” explains the screenwriter.
The revision lent depth and breadth to Walter, which only heightened Norton’s interest in the character. “The way in which Walter gets broken by China is very tragic, but very interesting to me,” he comments. “Walter represents the forces of British Colonialism during that era. People were going into other countries and trying to make them over as their own. Walter also represents Western rationalism—the Western scientific mind that believes that if people would just embrace the way the West does things, they’d have it so much easier.” By the same token, according to Norton, Walter is a symbol of “the frustration that the Western mindset feels when it encounters a cultural gulf, or resistance from people who don’t want to be told how to pursue their own history.”
The passionate bacteriologist is ultimately forced to confront the fact that he won’t help the Chinese if he simply imposes his vision of the world on them. “You’ve got to work with people and through people,” says Norton. “You have to honor their own cultural, social, political, and historical reality. Otherwise, it’s all empty.”
One of the first people to be interested was Naomi Watts, who was shooting The Ring in 2001. “Edward was attached to The Painted Veil, but there was no director at that time,” she says. “I fell in love with the script from my first read. I thought it was an incredible love story and a wonderful character.” “Kitty was clearly the first thing that drew me to the story,” she continues. “At first, she just floated by and took whatever came to her. She had no deep inner life and nothing tangible to put herself into. She never really made choices.”
After she marries Walter Fane and finds herself in Mei-tan-fu, “She goes on a great journey of self-discovery and learns how to access this other side of herself,” says Watts. “She starts realizing that there’s more to life than the way she’s been leading it thus far.”
“Kitty is a person who has never really looked at the world outside of the narrow confines of herself and her social circle,” adds Edward Norton. “China blows her vision of the world wide open and forces her to get engaged in things that are bigger than she is. When she does that, she finds grace. She grows up as a person.”
But despite Watts’ unequivocal enthusiasm about the character and the project, even then, “It wasn’t set up properly to go into production,” she says.
“Between Naomi being busy and me being busy and various directors dancing around the project but then not being available, it just wasn’t going to happen in 2001,” agrees Norton. “We had so many false starts with this project. We could never get all of the elements together at the same time.”
In 2001, Bob Yari and Mark Gordon became involved with The Painted Veil together with Mark Gill, who at the time was president of Gordon and Yari’s Stratus Film Company. When Gill left to create Warner Independent Pictures in the fall of 2003, he took the film with him and continued to shepherd it with the assistance of Stratus’ Robert Katz.
The addition of Yari, Gordon, Gill and Katz to the roster breathed new life into the project—to the extent that Edward Norton felt confident enough in the fall of 2004 to put in that fateful call to Naomi Watts.
“It’s been a long journey,” Watts admits. “Edward has been involved for six years, and I’ve been attached for four. It’s great that at the last minute it came together, and all the right elements fell into place.”
One of these elements was John Curran. The director’s name came up during conversations between Norton and Watts regarding possible helmers for The Painted Veil. “Naomi had just done We Don’t Live Here Anymore with John,” says Norton, referring to Curran’s acclaimed 2004 drama that also starred Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern and Peter Krause. “I had seen it, and I asked Naomi how her experience was during filming. She went on and on about how much she enjoyed it and what great performances John got out of people.”
“John is fantastic to work with,” raves Watts of her longtime friend, a native New Yorker and Syracuse University alum who moved to Australia in 1986. “He came to me a few years back to do We Don’t Live Here Anymore, and it was a difficult piece of material. But the way he talked about it made me jump on board.
“There are difficult aspects to The Painted Veil as well,” she continues. “But I know that John is able to explore flawed characters without judgment.”
Watts contacted Curran, and he and Norton met for lunch right after New Year’s in 2005. “It was exciting, because I got along with John right off the bat,” recalls Norton. “And John and Naomi already had a great history, so it was one of those really lucky breaks.
“There were many times in the course of the six years that I’ve been working on this project that I felt it was never going to happen,” he confesses. “It was worth the wait because when it finally clicked, it clicked with the right people. We made a strong collaborative team.”
Curran felt the same way. “I think in the initial meetings about a project, you’re really testing how you communicate and bounce ideas off each other,” says Curran. “Edward and I immediately hit it off. We talked for a long time about the film and other things. He had an abundance of ideas, and he was very open to exchanging ideas with me and working through them. He was very passionate about it.”
“John was so responsive to the material,” says Norton. “It was apparent to me right away that he was the right person to do this. Not only was he interested in the themes, but he seemed ready to take on a film of larger scope. We needed that, because China was going to be a challenge. He seemed hungry for it.
“It finally came together,” says Norton. “At that point, it really took off.”
POLITICS AND PROSE: FINE-TUNING The Painted Veil SCREENPLAY
Both Norton and Curran shared an interest in the political, social and cultural aspects of China during the period in which the book takes place, as well as a desire to flesh out these storylines onscreen. “Both Edward and I knew that this wasn’t a political story or historical epic—it was a personal drama set against the backdrop of China at the time,” allows John Curran. “We understood that the balance was always going to tip in the direction of Walter and Kitty’s story.”
Norton agrees. “Maugham’s book is very narrow—even claustrophobic at times,” he says. “It’s really not about China. It’s about Kitty and Walter and the colonial mindset.” The filmmakers sought expand the scope of the characters in the film version. “We wanted to infuse it with an authenticity. We wanted the background to comment on the foreground,” explains Curran. “Edward was great at getting me really excited about going deeper, researching more, and finding little details that we could pepper throughout the film to illuminate what was going on in the country at that time. We felt that it was much needed in this film.”
Norton felt almost obligated to use the film to lift the veil on the issues facing China the 1920s. “If you’re going to make a film set in China during the period, I think there’s got to be a reason for doing it other than the inherent romanticism of the location,” he says. “There are too many levels to this story. On a political level, it’s about a clash of cultures. It’s about the things that happen when one culture is trying to shape another in its image.”
While Norton and Ron Nyswaner did an early pass of the script that incorporated more of China’s political situation at the time, they credit Curran with imparting specificity to the narrative. He managed to reveal important aspects of Republican China in the mid-1920s without losing sight of the personal relationships at the heart of Maugham’s story. “John brought forward the social and political situation, making the unrest in China an important element of the film,” says Nyswaner.
"We knew that with the breathtaking scenery of China in the hands of Stuart Dryburgh, our director of photography, and John's passion for the political aspect (of that time) we had ourselves a whole other character. And this would elevate the story in a beautiful cinematic way," says Watts.
Echoes Norton, “John knew that China had to be more than a backdrop for a little love story between two Westerners. He knew that China was a place where things were happening, and whose dynamics were affecting these characters. He’s the one who made China a fully realized character in the film,” he continues. “He brought in all the juicy specifics about the country’s cultural history at that time, which made China more than just a pretty landscape in the background.”
In fact, it was Curran’s idea to anchor the story to the massacre in Shanghai that occurred on May 30, 1925, in which British troops killed a large number of Chinese demonstrators at a major rally. In the aftermath, anti-foreign outrage reached a new peak and China-wide demonstrations were generated. “There was this incredibly chaotic moment during which half the country was screaming for the foreigners to get out,” says Norton. A favorite book of Norton’s called To Change China: Western Advisers in China by Yale history professor Jonathan Spence helped Norton and Curran organize their ideas about China and the film. The book illuminated the challenges of the countless foreign missionaries, soldiers, doctors, teachers, engineers, and revolutionaries who have been trying to ‘change China’ for more than 300 years. Norton and Curran were so intrigued that they used some of the themes in the book to reshape the character of Walter—a western scientist who comes to rural China during the cholera epidemic and is utterly mystified when the Chinese don’t welcome him with open arms.
“This book really helped bring Walter into focus for me,” explains Norton. “Walter became one of those people who was in China and rather myopically saying to himself, ‘I’m not involved in politics or social reform. I’m just here to do science that will improve people’s lives.’ These people told themselves that they were not a part of the British military presence.”
Curran also brought his natural directorial finesse with interpersonal relationships to the script. Both of his previous films—Praise and We Don’t Live Here Anymore—were built around troubled male-female relationships. “John proved with We Don’t Live Here Anymore that he understands the complexities of married couples, who drift into and out of love with each other,” points out Ron Nyswaner.
“John always refers to the relationship between Kitty and Walter as a relationship in reverse,” adds Edward Norton. “Walter and Kitty go from the breakdown of a marriage to something resembling the early phases of love at the end of their story.”
PRE-PRODUCTION: TO SHOOT IN MAINLAND CHINA
Ten years after Sara Colleton and Ron Nyswaner’s idea to adapt Maugham’s book first sprouted, and at least five years since Edward Norton and Naomi Watts became involved in the effort, The Painted Veil was ready to begin pre-production. The question was, where? It was only the first of the many challenges that the ambitious project would encounter.
“We wanted this movie to be distinctly Chinese. We didn’t want it to look like a film that you could shoot in Canada or Mexico or Italy,” says John Curran. “We were determined to find a place in China that was right for the tone of the film—both beautiful and gothic, that accommodated both personalities of the story.”
"It was great to be in the deep south of China - discovering true culture was as vital to me as it was for Kitty. I loved the challenges of trying to access things we wanted that were clearly impossible and having to come to terms with that. And of course the feeling of isolation," says Watts.
Location scouts covered nearly 5,000 miles all over China in about ten days looking for an area that had an ancient town in close proximity to a river and mountains. The location also had to be near modern facilities that could house cast and crew and support a production office. The scouts looked around Hunan, but settled on Guangxi Province in Southern China. “The production was centered in Gui Lin, a city in Guangxi, because we felt the area and its mountains created the right mood,” says Curran. Gui Lin, one of China’s most picturesque cities, sits along the Li River and is surrounded by majestic, verdant hills.
At first, the production considered building the village of Mei-tan-fu in a valley in Guangxi. Everyone soon realized the amount of work required to accomplish this task was overwhelming. “We sent out a scout, and he found this innocent little village called Huang Yao that was completely untouched,” says line producer Antonia Barnard. “It had no telegraph poles or anything. It was perfect for the period.”
After finding the river, mountains and the village of Mei-tan-fu in Guangxi, as well as facilities in Beijing for stage work, “We started to look for the other elements that the script required, like Hong Kong and London,” says Barnard. “We realized that Hong Kong was very hard to replicate for the period. John felt we could alter the story and take it from Hong Kong to Shanghai. We shot Shanghai for Shanghai in the period, and shot our London scenes in Shanghai as well.”
“We secured four locations in China, which I’m not sure any other Western film has attempted to do before,” she says.
Once it was confirmed that the film would shoot in China, the filmmakers began cultivating a relationship with the China Film Bureau. The Painted Veil was particularly unique in that it would be a co-production with the Chinese. This meant, as John Curran points out, “that we didn’t just come down here and shoot the film and get out. We actually worked with the Chinese and the China Film Bureau. It will be released as a Chinese film in China.”
“Other Western films have shot here, but not in conjunction with the China Film Bureau as far as I know,” echoes Edward Norton. “It’s the first Western film about China to be shot in China in a long time.”
As a result, the process of securing permits, acquiring approvals, and getting various green lights often moved at a glacial pace. “In the beginning, it felt almost impossible,” confesses John Curran. “It was a collision of two processes—Eastern and Western.”
“You wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” says Norton. “We could have never made this film anywhere else. What we’ve gotten out of the landscape, the people and our crew has been priceless. We’ve been able to shoot in places and with people that America hasn’t seen before.”
Norton credits John Curran with making the China shoot a reality. “John came to China long before any of the rest of us and started tackling the challenges—the permissions, the clearances, the politics—of making a film in China,” praises Norton. “If we’d had anybody that was less grounded and less determined than John, I think China might have broken them.”
Curran is proud that he proved the naysayers wrong. “We came to China under the popular opinion that it wouldn’t work, that it would be too difficult to make the film we wanted to make,” says Curran. “Now, you can feel this energy catching on in China. More Western films will start happening here.”
AN INTERNATIONAL CAST IS ASSEMBLED
Before filming of The Painted Veil could begin, the filmmakers had to flesh out the supporting cast.
Actor Liev Schreiber, who has also tried his hand at directing with the film Everything is Illuminated, was a fan of John Curran’s narrative sensibility in such films as Praise and We Don’t Live Here Anymore. So he couldn’t refuse the pivotal part of Charlie Townsend, the British Vice Consul in Shanghai who has an affair with Kitty Fane.
“I think that the crisis that is created by Kitty’s adultery with Charlie is what opens the door to a new relationship between her and her husband,” explains Schreiber of the role. The actor also liked addressing “a very unbuttoned subject like infidelity within a very buttonedup, formal period in history. It’s a period that I’ve always found interesting from an acting perspective.”
Schreiber was not only eager to work with Curran, whom he enjoyed “watching make that transition from smaller, more interior stories to the more historical and epic world of The Painted Veil,” but also to film a story in China.
“The prospect of telling a story in China was very exciting. There is nothing better than having that credibility of place and culture and character,” he explains. “We were able to use Chinese crews, shoot on Chinese landmarks, and feel the sense of history that the story requires. It hasn’t really been done before as far as I know.”
Another key player in the relationship between Walter and Kitty Fane is Deputy Commissioner Waddington, an eccentric, free-spirited Brit whom the couple befriends in Mei-tan-fu and who becomes a kind of shepherd for Kitty’s emotional journey. The role is played by Toby Jones, who is well known on the London stage and was recently introduced to American audiences in the role of Truman Capote in Warner Independent Pictures’ Infamous. Director John Curran saw rushes of Jones from that film and immediately knew he had found his Waddington. Jones was fascinated by the multifaceted, slightly mysterious character who manages to enjoy a fairly hedonistic lifestyle in a bleak outpost of rural China. Jones and Curran joined forces to expose some of Waddington’s idiosyncrasies in the film. “We tried to bring out some of Waddington's philosophies, like his embracing of Taoism,” says Jones. “John was very open-minded about that.”
Jones also admired the versatility of the story. “It’s not a straightforward love story or an adventure story, but it has elements of both of those,” he points out. “It’s obviously a period drama, but it’s also a story of forgiveness and redemption.”
Anthony Wong was cast as Colonel Yu, a role which demanded a great deal from the talented Chinese actor who is a huge star in his native country.
“Yu is a colonel in the KMT educated in Russia, so we needed an actor who could deliver a performance in English. We also wanted someone who would excite the Chinese,” says John Curran. “I’d seen Anthony Wong in a couple of films, and I really liked his energy.”
Since English is not his mother tongue, Wong often sought pronunciation help from Curran. The actor would get plenty of practice speaking his second language—during production the role of Colonel Yu was expanded and made more prominent in order to shed light on the political situation at the time.
“They changed the character a lot. I think he’s more complete than before,” says Wong. “The relationship between Yu and Walter changed too. At the very beginning, when Dr. Fane comes to China and tries to control the cholera, the colonel thinks, why did he come here? What can he do for the people? But day by day, he becomes a really good friend. The relationship is more comfortable.”
Ed Norton found working with his Chinese colleague a distinct pleasure. “Anthony has such gravitas and an ability to communicate without a lot of words,” raves the actor. “He brought so much to this character, who at first is extremely inscrutable and by the end reveals himself in some ways as a real idealist and patriot. Yu almost becomes this personification of the modern China that at that moment was waiting to emerge.”
The part of Waddington’s gamine Manchu lover, though small, required an actress with a host of unique characteristics. “Though the Manchu doesn’t have a lot of screen time, I needed a memorable face,” say John Curran, “a northern Chinese, exotic look.”
Curran was walking down a street in Beijing in the spring of 2005, trying to describe the sort of face he wanted for the character to a production assistant. “I glanced up at a billboard and I said, ‘that kind of face.’ By sheer coincidence the production assistant knew this model and eventually introduced me to her.”
The face belonged to fashion model Yu Lin, who was contacted by her agent. “He said film people were looking for me, and they wanted me to do a movie,” remembers Yu. “I saw John Curran’s name, and I had seen We Don’t Live Here Anymore. I said, ‘Yes I want to do this.’”
Although she had never acted before, Yu quickly eased into the part of the Manchu under Curran’s guidance. Understanding her character’s relationship to Waddington helped. “At one time, during the Manchurian Revolution, Waddington saved my character’s whole family. After that, she follows him forever,” says Yu. “In Mei-tan-fu, we drink a lot, smoke opium, and engage in free love. I don’t act or dress like a traditional Chinese Manchu because of Waddington.”
Like her countryman Wong, Yu was thrilled to be working in her native China. “I was so happy. I grew up in a village similar to one we filmed in,” she explains. “It’s my country and my language. It’s my people.”
The cast is rounded out by veteran British actress Diana Rigg as the Mother Superior of the Mei-tan-fu convent.
HOLLYWOOD MOUNTS AN ASIAN INVASION: PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY BEGINS
Principal photography on The Painted Veil began on soundstages in Beijing. The scope of the production was immense, comprising 40 Western and 260 Chinese crew, a dozen translators and 70 work trucks.
Although Curran wanted to use as many Chinese heads of department as possible, the filmmakers quickly realized that the language barrier was too formidable. The creative team was led by British director of photography Stuart Dryburgh, British costume designer Ruth Myers, and editor Alexandre de Franceschi.
“At every stage, this project required a melding of both the East and West to work,” observes Curran. “And that was really untried.” On the first day of shooting, it became clear to Curran why it hadn’t been tried in the past. “It just seemed like bedlam,” he says candidly. “The first week on set feels like chaos. You give a direction, and it is communicated not just in English, but in Chinese, simultaneously. People are yelling in English and yelling in Chinese. There are dozens of people moving in every direction. We all looked at each other and said, ‘This is insane. How is this going to work?’”
The unit was shooting some of the most tense and emotionally demanding scenes in the movie—including the explosive sequence in which Walter confronts his wife about her infidelity—in the very first week. “You always shoot a film out of sequence, but often you get to at least dive in with preliminary material or material in which you have some time to discover the characters in small moments,” says Edward Norton. “But because of the logistics of our shoot, we had to begin right in the heart of the film. We shot some of the meatiest, most central scenes in the first week, scenes that are deep in the emotional arc of the film.”
Norton credits his director for keeping the atmosphere calm while still nurturing his players’ creativity. “We might have been dead if John had said, ‘Look we’ve got to nail this. We’ve got to know exactly what this scene is going to be,’ because there was just no way to know. We were plunging into the middle.”
Instead, Curran explored various versions of the confrontation scene. “We walked away feeling like we had given John a lot of angles of approach,” says Norton. “When you shoot a film, you’re gathering the raw materials for the director to sculpt with later. He wants as much to work with as possible— not just in terms of the amount, but also in terms of the spectrum of choices that the actors make.”
As principal photography continued, the confusion that reigned over the first few days of shooting rapidly dissipated.
“Chinese film practices are different than ours. We had to be patient,” says Edward Norton. “Eventually, we just accepted it as a part of what comes with the incredible privilege of being able to shoot in China and work with these people.”
“As the weeks went on, you started to realize that you had a fantastic crew that had an unbelievable work ethic,” marvels Curran. “We got over the communication hurdle and started working really efficiently together. These guys were unlike any other crew I’ve ever worked with. I’d love to shoot every film with them.”
Naomi Watts experienced a similar transformation. “When I first got here, I felt like Kitty. It’s like you’re at sea—everything is incredibly difficult; there’s a language barrier and a lack of familiarity with things that are normally right at your fingertips,” she says. “But then you relax and see it as an adventure. It’s definitely been a wonderful experience and one that I’ll always remember.”
Watts was still feeling burnt out from a series of taxing film roles when she arrived in China, but Edward Norton and John Curran feel this exhausted state only enhanced her performance. “Naomi took what she was feeling in her life at the moment and fed it right into the film,” posits Norton. “She plays a character who is going through such a tremendous upheaval—I think Naomi took her own exhaustion and plugged it right into the role. The energy she had to summon up to get into this film parallels beautifully with what was going on with her character.”
The entire cast and crew had to dig deep at times to endure some of the more rustic locations. Not surprisingly, they encountered their most unsettling dearth of creature comforts in tiny, almost primitive Huang Yao, which stood in for Mei-tan-fu. “It’s an 800-year-old city,” explains John Curran, “which essentially exists the way it did 800 years ago.”
“Huang Yao was a challenge. It has very few facilities,” says line producer Antonia Barnard. “The hotels are really backpacker hostels. We made some arrangements and upgrades, but everyone just had to live with the facilities that were there.”
Most of the actors took the inconveniences in stride. “Not many people have worked in China. There isn’t a book you can go to which will explain what it’s going to be like,” says Toby Jones. “I think that all of the mutual incomprehension, the mutual frustration, the fascination and the curiosity that one feels being in China will come through in the film. And that’s what makes it so thrilling to work there.”
Curran, in true fearless-leader fashion, helped his team get through the rough patches. “John radiated confidence. He made us feel like we were all on this adventure together, and that we were going to get this done even if it was a struggle sometimes,” says Jones. “He was also solicitous about how everyone was feeling being in China and away from home.”
Edward Norton and Lu Yin often passed the lonelier moments by playing the Chinese game Mahjong. “It’s very popular in China. Everyone knows how to play,” says Yu Lin. “Edward is so smart and speaks a little Chinese, so I taught him. Then we both taught the others how to play. “Of course, I always win,” she adds with a grin.
Except for a few more days of clouds than the unit would have liked, the Southern China weather cooperated. And the local Chinese always received their American visitors graciously.
In one instance, however, the unit shot at a particular location far longer than planned. “We had to dress the town in a way that showed that people in the street had been dying of cholera,” says Antonia Barnard. “The Chinese believe it invites bad spirits to have symbols of death outside their homes when there isn’t any death occurring.”
“The people were getting very edgy about it, and our Chinese production manager was doing his best to maintain the peace,” she says. “When we did finally finish, we went in with firecrackers and chase away the evil spirits to settle everyone down again. “That was the only instance when they got upset, for good reason,” Barnard points out. “Otherwise, they were very welcoming.”
For Edward Norton, who worked tirelessly to bring The Painted Veil to fruition—and whom Toby Jones praises as “an amazing fountain of knowledge on the story, the background and the political context—a walking encyclopedia of the period and the location”—the experience of shooting in China was particularly sweet.
“We’ve moved through a whole spectrum in China, and still we haven’t even scratched the surface of it. It’s a very deep, ancient and rich place,” says Norton. “For me, it’s been amazing to experience China by actually working there and trying to tell a story that is, to some degree, about a moment in its history. We had a fantastic Chinese crew. It was a remarkable experience.”
LIFTING THE PAINTED VEIL: THE LOOK OF THE MOVIE
Creating the look of 1920s London, Shanghai, and rural China in The Painted Veil required the combined talents of a stellar creative team.
The art department faced its biggest obstacles while attempting to recreate 1920s London in modern day Shanghai and Beijing. The production didn’t want to have to import a great deal of material because of the expense and the import-export restrictions. But because of the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong in 1966, during which countless ancient buildings, artifacts, antiques, books, and paintings were destroyed by Red Guards, English antiques were difficult to find in China.
“So much has disappeared,” says line producer Antonia Barnard. “There aren’t a lot of props. Even books are very hard to find. London streets were the hardest to recreate, because there are no vintage cars in China that are European or English, with the driver on the right.” “We shipped some items in, and we got a few things out of Shanghai, but it was hard,” says John Curran. “With the communication difficulties, it made it doubly hard.”
The art department eventually prevailed over the challenge. They were aided by the hiring of an art director whose sole responsibility it was to turn every stone in Shanghai and Beijing to acquire the props that the production needed.
Cinematographer Stewart Dryburgh, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1994 for The Piano, stresses that the ability to be flexible was a valuable skill to have on the production. “What is the theory of the cinematography of this film? Well, what happens is you throw the theory out the window once you start making it,” Dryburgh jokes. “But we did decide to opt for a naturalistic look. We didn’t want it to be too dramatic. We wanted it to be believable—in the world of reality, but enhanced. And that’s the way I like to work.”
Like other members of the cast and crew, Dryburgh felt the biggest challenge for his department was the production schedule—specifically starting shooting with some of the most serious dramatic scenes in the film on the stage in Beijing.
“We were thrown right into the deep end,” he says. “Everything was lit from the word go. But it was good, in a way, because it made us focus on the lighting style of the film right from the first day rather than discovering it through shooting exteriors.”
Equally key to the film’s aesthetic sensibility—and authenticity—was wardrobe. Ruth Myers, an Academy Award nominee for The Addams Family and Emma, was charged with creating costumes that took audiences from a posh London party to a cholera-infested village in the far reaches of China.
After speaking with John Curran and reading the script, Myers couldn’t wait to sink her teeth into the period. “I’m a gypsy. I’m an adventurer, and I like challenges,” she explains. “I like doing period films, and the 20th century is a period that I’m quite at home in. I know it well.”
Although she had a solid library of reference books and collection of clothes from the 1920s—many of which are featured in the film—Myers had to educate herself about the Chinese garments. “There was a lot of research that had to be done because I knew nothing about Chinese costume,” she admits. “But there were very good resources in China about Shanghai in the 1920s, and that was interesting.”
Since so many clothes are already manufactured in China nowadays, line producer Antonia Barnard was sure that the production wouldn’t have to import many costumes and textiles. “But the period was so difficult and the fabrics so specific that it was almost impossible to get anything in China,” she explains. “We had to rent a lot of western costumes to make the period work as well.”
Once Myers had the raw materials she required, she set to work on creating the clothes for her main character. All of Kitty Fane’s clothes were made—some from scratch, and others from other dresses that Myers trimmed, snipped, shaped and otherwise altered. “Kitty is a lovely character,” she explains. “It’s always great fun to dress a character through whom the clothes can reveal her emotional and physical journey.”
The audience is first introduced to Kitty at a London party, in a flapper-style dress “carefully conceived so that it’s slightly more risqué than anything anyone else is wearing. It’s shorter and more sheer,” says Myers. In fact, the frock was made out of fabric from a vintage dress from the 1970s.
“Kitty starts off as an upper middle class English girl of a certain type who is essentially concerned with herself, her image, how she’s going to marry, what sort of wealth is involved,” explains Myers. “In the early days, her clothes are very much about looking a certain way. She starts off being very hip and of the moment.”
As a character very much connected to her place and her period, Kitty naturally tries to recreate the same chic, well-heeled life for herself in Shanghai. “The dress that she wears when she first meets Charlie is very sexy, with a low back,” says Myers. “She’s pretty glamorous until the terrible confrontation with Walter. At that point, she starts to become a different person.”
The color is drained from Kitty’s clothes as she travels Mei-tan-fu, reflecting her wan demeanor. “Her clothes are very much very monochrome and washed out,” says Myers. “The fabrics are all in creams, beiges, and other light colors. You get the sense that she’s not happy.”
“In Mei-tan-fu, her clothes become much less of a façade and much more organic. Kitty wears her clothes simply and sensibly,” says Myers. “But the simpler the clothes get, the softer and more sympathetic she becomes.” The character’s growing sense of her inner self makes the clothes of her past seem like a lot of unnecessary ornamentation. “You get a sense of her inner beauty shining out. She’s traveled this huge journey,” Myers adds, “and the clothes have traveled with her.”
* * *
“You’ve always got to ask yourself, ‘How does this resonate for an audience today? What does a story about two British people in China in the 1920s have to say to people in 2006?’” Edward Norton says.
“Walter and Kitty’s story is timeless. The idea of people holding very rigid views of the world and having to surrender them—there’s something touching in that,” he continues. “There’s something touching in watching two people who become humbled, and then learn to forgive each other.”
William Somerset Maugham,
Maugham's masterpiece is generally agreed to be Of Human Bondage, an autobiographical novel which deals with the life of the main character Philip Carey, who like Maugham, was orphaned and brought up by his pious uncle. As previously stated, Maugham's severe stutter has been replaced by Philip's clubfoot.
Among his short stories, some of the most memorable are those dealing with the lives of Western, mostly British, colonists in the Far East, and are typically concerned with the emotional toll exacted on the colonists by their isolation. Some of his more outstanding works in this genre include Rain, Footprints in the Jungle, and The Outstation. Rain, in particular, which charts the moral disintegration of a missionary attempting to convert the Pacific island prostitute Sadie Thompson, has kept its fame and been made into a movie several times. Maugham said that many of his short stories presented themselves to him in the stories he heard during his travels in the outposts of the Empire. He left behind a long string of angry former hosts, and a contemporary anti-Maugham writer retraced his footsteps and wrote a record of his journeys called "Gin and Bitters". Maugham's restrained prose allows him to explore the resulting tensions and passions without descending into melodrama. His The Magician (1908) is based on British occultist Aleister Crowley.
Maugham was one of the most significant travel writers of the inter-war years, and can be compared with contemporaries such as Evelyn Waugh and Freya Stark. His best efforts in this line include The Gentleman in the Parlour, dealing with a journey through Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Vietnam, and On a Chinese Screen, a series of very brief vignettes which might almost be notes for short stories that were never written.
Influenced by the published journals of the French writer Jules Renard, which Maugham had often enjoyed for their conscientiousness, wisdom and wit, Maugham published in 1949 selections from his own journals under the title "A Writer's Notebook". Although these journal selections are, by nature, episodic and of varying quality, they range over more than 50 years of the writer's life and there is much that Maugham scholars and admirers find of interest in this book.
Watts' career began in Australian television, where she appeared in commercials and television melodramas such as Home and Away and Brides of Christ. She was featured in a supporting role in the acclaimed 1991 Australian indie film Flirting, which starred future Hollywood up-and-comers Nicole Kidman and Thandie Newton. As Watts made the transition from Australia to the United States, she landed a supporting role in the little-seen 1995 film Tank Girl, playing the part of "Jet Girl."
Finding quality roles at first proved difficult for Watts in the Hollywood system, as she appeared in the short-lived series Sleepwalkers and numerous B-list productions as in films like Children of the Corn. Gradually, Watts garnered supporting roles as in Dangerous Beauty.
However it wasn't until 2001, when Watts caught the attention of critics and audiences as she appeared in David Lynch's highly acclaimed Mulholland Drive. The film, which premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, won Watts high praise. She won the National Society of Film Critics Award as Best Actress and the National Board of Review award as Breakthrough Performance of the year. Soon after, the quality and importance of Watts' roles improved and quickly shot the actress to the top of the Hollywood A-list. In 2002, she starred in one of the biggest box office hits of that year, the English language remake of the Japanese horror film, The Ring. The following year, she starred in the film Ned Kelly opposite Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, and Geoffrey Rush; as well as the Merchant-Ivory film Le Divorce with Kate Hudson. It was her performance opposite Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro in director Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 Grams that earned Watts her first Academy Award nomination as Best Actress.
Since then Watts has been one of the most in-demand actresses. She produced and starred in the well-received independent picture We Don't Live Here Anymore. She reunited with Sean Penn and Don Cheadle in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, teamed up with Jude Law and Dustin Hoffman in David O. Russell's ensemble I ♥ Huckabees, and starred in the sequel to the Ring, The Ring Two. Aside from balancing both independent projects as Ellie Parker, she managed to star in the biggest remake of them all, 2005's King Kong. The role, which was immortalized by Faye Wray in the original, proved to be Watts' most commercial film yet. Directed by The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, the film won high praise and has since grossed more than $400 million dollars worldwide.
Watts recently shot the film The Painted Veil with Edward Norton and Liev Schreiber. The film is due out in the fall of 2006.
In May 2006, Watts was named a special representative to the U.N. program for HIV/AIDS.
Edward H. Norton
Norton moved to New York City and began his acting career in Off-Broadway theater.
Moving into film, he was launched into the spotlight by 1996's Primal Fear, in which he played Aaron Stampler, a young man accused of a brutal murder, and for which he won a Golden Globe and a nomination for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
He earned Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, for his role as a reformed neo-Nazi in 1998's American History X, then in the 1998 card playing hit Rounders with Matt Damon, and he also starred in the 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's cult novel Fight Club. He played himself in a cameo role in the experimental comedy show Stella, and won critical acclaim for his uncredited role as the leper king of Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven. In 2006, he starred in the independent movie The Illusionist, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and later became a sleeper hit when it was released theatrically in August.
He has also done uncredited script work on some of the films he has appeared in, specifically Frida and The Score.
In 2000, he made his debut as a film director with Keeping the Faith. He will also direct his film adaptation of the novel Motherless Brooklyn.
Production notes, photos and promotional video © 2006 Warner Independent Pictures