Spirit nom for 'Veil' raises Oscar hopes

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"Veil" view: Romantic dramas about strangers in strange lands have resonated with Academy voters in the past and could do so once again this year with "The Painted Veil."

Both "Out of Africa" and "The English Patient," for example, were best picture Oscar and Golden Globes winners that also enjoyed a wide range of other awards nominations and wins. Driven by great tragic love stories, powerful performances, exotic locations and stunning visuals, such films have proven to be an award-winning genre.

"Veil" is already off and running in the awards race having been honored Tuesday with Independent Spirit Awards nominations for best screenplay (Ron Nyswaner) and best actor (Edward Norton). The well-regarded Spirits typically elevate the awards profile for the films, filmmakers and stars they honor with noms.

"Veil," which was shot in Mainland China and is set in the 1920s, is based on the classic W. Somerset Maugham novella. Directed by John Curran, whose "We Don't Live Here Anymore" was a Grand Jury Prize nominee at Sundance in '04, it was adapted to the screen by Ron Nyswaner, an Oscar, Globes, BAFTA and Writers Guild of America nominee for "Philadelphia" in 1994. The Warner Independent Pictures, Bob Yari Productions and Mark Gordon Company presentation stars Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Live Schreiber, Toby Jones and Diana Rigg.

Produced by Sara Colleton, Jean-Francois Fonlupt and Yari and by Norton and Watts, it was executive produced by Gordon, Curran, Antonia Barnard and Nyswaner. For Yari, without whose support last year's best picture Academy Award winner "Crash" might never have gotten made, "Veil" could mark the producer's return to the Oscar trenches.

An early look at "Veil" left me thinking it's got what it takes to get into this year's still very wide open Oscar and Globes races. What helps is that it's a beautifully written, directed and performed tragic love story that can only benefit from being seen. The marketing challenge WIP faces with "Veil," of course, is to get Academy members to commit the time to attend screenings or to view screeners at home. And that's a challenge, by the way, for virtually all independent pictures and a great many major studio releases.

"Veil" also should benefit from not arriving until quite late in the year. It opens in New York and Los Angeles Dec. 20, expands Dec. 29 to the top 10 markets, expands Jan. 5 to the top 24 markets and then widens into the top 40 markets Jan. 12. Its wide release is set for Jan. 19. With several highly hyped films having already opened and seen their awards hopes hurt by unfavorable or mixed reviews and disappointing ticket sales, there's definitely room in key categories for late arrivals like "Veil" if they're able to connect with critics and moviegoers.

"Veil" has a built-in advantage in that as a sweeping romantic epic it's quite different in style and scope from the handful of other films that already are building a best picture buzz like Miramax's "The Queen," Paramount and DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls" and Warner Bros.' "The Departed."

With that in mind, I was happy to be able to focus recently with Ron Nyswaner on "Veil's" long journey to the screen. Besides his Oscar and
Globes nominations for writing the critically acclaimed "Philadelphia," Nyswaner was honored in 1988 with the Critics Award at the Deauville Film Festival and with the Independent Spirit Awards' Best First Feature award for his directorial debut "The Prince of Pennsylvania," starring Keanu Reeves and Bonnie Bedelia. His screenplay for Showtime's "Soldier's Girl," which he also co-produced, received a Peabody Award, three Globe noms, two Emmy noms, two Independent Spirit Awards noms, a Gotham Award and was named one of the 10 outstanding television events of the year by the American Film Institute.

"Perhaps 12 years ago, I read 'The Painted Veil,'" Nyswaner told me. "I fell in love with it. I was reading many Somerset Maugham books at that time, having started with 'Of Human Bondage' and going from there to 'Razor's Edge' and then to something shorter, 'The Painted Veil.' About 10 years ago I was speaking to Sara Colleton, who is one of the producers of the film, and told her how much I loved the book. She sort of screamed (and) said, 'Oh, it's my favorite book.' I thought that was one of those kinds of things that Hollywood producers say to writers all the time and I said, 'Yeah, sure.' And she actually made her assistant get on the line and say, 'No, no. Sara's telling the truth. The book is sitting right here on her desk.' Sara had been trying to get somebody to develop it. We teamed up -- this is now about 10 years ago -- and we pitched the idea of making it into a film to a few people and ended up at Fine Line.

"The first person to sort of take a stab at it was Ruth Vitale, a really talented executive (who was then heading production at Fine Line). Then Mark Ordesky replaced Ruth because she moved on to something else (to co-head what was then called Paramount Classics). Sara and I sort of went through a series of development partners and a series of drafts, which was interesting in its own right in that some people asked us to be very faithful to the book and some people asked us to be a little bit less faithful. But I would say that in these early years we were writing drafts that were pretty faithful to the book and to its story structure."

About five or six years ago, he continued, "Edward Norton became involved. Edward liberated me from feeling obliged to do a faithful literary adaptation. As a matter of fact, Edward wasn't really interested in being part of the movie if we were going to stick to that path. I remember Edward saying to me something which really moved me. He said, 'It's not my way of operating that I just come on to a project, take it over and then make it what I think it should be. So if you want to stay on the path that you're on, I'll step aside. But if what I'm suggesting to you interests you, then we can work together.' I was really excited by that. So Edward has really been part of the writing and shaping of the movie since then.

"There have been periods of, say, two years where nothing was happening. I would say there were several times where Sara would call me with a piece of bad news where a certain actor or actress or financing partner had changed their minds and dropped out. Sara and I had conversations about doing something else for a living -- like raising dogs! -- and said we can't find anyone who will pay us to do things like that. So we had to keep plugging away (on the screenplay). Those conversations always ended like, 'Well, I guess we have to keep trying.' But Edward, who has a different personality than I do, never lost faith. He just said, 'Be patient. It'll happen.'"

And about three years ago it did start to happen: "Edward presented the script to Naomi and she got very excited. And then about a year and a half ago we found our director, John Curran, and things really moved quickly since then. Then under the guidance of Bob Yari Films and Warner Independent suddenly that all came together and we moved forward to make the film. So it seems like a long time to me, but actually I think for John Curran it seems like a very sort of whirlwind affair. I find it funny that we have these opposite experiences."

Typically, when writers adapt a book to the screen they find themselves trying to turn hundreds of pages of manuscript into a 120 page screenplay. "Well, 'The Painted Veil' is a novella so it's very spare," he explained, "so I didn't have that problem so much. But, still, of course, even with a novella you can't put every scene in it or the movie would be several hours long. I find that what you have to do is boil a book down to its essence and really through development, and through working, if you're lucky, with intelligent colleagues like I have really figure out what are the one or two things that this book is about and make a movie about those one or two things. You simply have to give up detours and side trips that a novelist can take. You just can't take them in a movie. There's no such thing as something that doesn't really matter in a movie. You know, every moment matters in a movie. It has to be part of the same narrative.

"So that said, actually a lot of the problem with 'The Painted Veil' in some ways is the opposite because Somerset Maugham wrote a very interior book. So there are chapter after chapter in which the main character, Kitty (played by Watts), sits around and thinks. She remembers her past and her lover and her family back home in London and we go for chapter after chapter in the book without seeing what her husband (Walter, played by Norton, an English doctor who's gone to China to be helpful and is now risking his and his unfaithful wife's lives by trying to save a village from a cholera plague) is doing."

The book, Nyswaner pointed out, "is very much about Kitty's relationship to her own soul and it's (got) a lot of reflection. We believe like Sydney Pollack says that all great movies are love stories. And I don't really want to watch a character in love with himself. I want to watch a character have a relationship with another person. So we had to expand Walter's role and it just made sense. People in the book keep saying to Kitty, 'God, your husband is doing such wonderful things here at the hospital. Oh, he's saved the town from cholera.' And you never see for an instant one moment of Walter at work in the book. You don't know how he saved the town from cholera. You don't learn anything about that. So you have no sense of what they're talking about or what it is that Kitty sees in him in the end that actually draws her back to him. You don't see it at all. You just hear people talk about it.

"A lot of people have the problem that you brought up about having to cut (material from a long book), but we had to actually fill in. It's a different challenge. And then, of course, having filled in we had to cut away, as well. The book goes on far past the moment when the movie ends. The book continues for several chapters after that moment that ended the movie. So the movie if it had been faithful to the book would have gone on for 45 minutes past the moment that (something happens that you don't want to read about here if you haven't already seen the film). And, again, that just doesn't make sense in a movie."

Over the period of 10 years that Nyswaner worked on the project, he said, "I've written 25 drafts, I guess. So it's taken a significant part of my life. It would be hard to put it into months and years. There's several years worth of work in this script. And as people came and went through it -- whether they would be producing partners or actors or directors -- I did drafts for them. And much of that stuff then had to be abandoned when somebody new came along. It wasn't really a process of honing, it was trying something and then trying something else. But I really have to give a lot of credit to John Curran because John really latched onto the project very enthusiastically and doing exactly what a director has to do, which is taking charge and being very clear about, 'This is what interests me and this is what I want to make a movie about.'"

Asked how he and Curran worked together, he explained, "John is from Rochester, New York. He has a house there and his son lives there. And I live in upstate New York, as well. I live in Woodstock, New York. So we spent a lot of time in Rochester before he went to China last year and we just deconstructed the script and then reconstructed it. When John left for China we were doing, as people can do now, a lot of script (revisions) back and forth with e-mailing. We got in that place where John would rewrite me and then I would rewrite him."

Can they tell now who wrote what? "Well, I certainly know there are certain things in it that were contributed by John and Edward on the set because they had to solve problems and I wasn't there and able to help them," he replied. "I'm very lucky in that the people who were contributing to my script are really smart people. So nothing that anyone added or adlibbed while shooting at all makes me cringe in any way. I'm really proud to take credit for all of it."

Curran, he pointed out, "really influenced the political subplot that's in the final film. You know, none of those politics (about the Chinese nationalist movement and how it impacted on the British at the time) that you saw are part of the book and for many years they weren't part of any script that I was writing. I'm much more interested in people's religious and spiritual journeys. That's a theme that really interests me. That theme doesn't interest John very much. John is much more interested in how people are in a social and political environment. In the end, the director I think is the person that has to become the center of filmmaking. So John really influenced that aspect and I give him great credit for it.

"I think it adds an appropriate kind of contemporary edge to the movie. It also resonates with the theme of everybody trying to turn something into something it's not. It's like everyone's trying to make China into something it's not and people try to make their husbands and wives into something they're not. I mean, Walter has a fantasy of what Kitty should be and he basically is furious with her when she doesn't live up to it. I think westerners always had a fantasy of what China is. Part of the movie is that China isn't what Walter thought it would be."

In writing the final draft Nyswaner knew that Norton would be playing Walter and that Watts would be playing his wife: "We had Naomi several months before shooting began and I did meet with Naomi, as well. We sat there with the script and with the book. Naomi was very concerned about going back to some things in the book that she felt had been dropped along the way and she brought them to my attention. In many cases, we put them back. I really believe that smart actors and talented actors like Naomi Watts and Edward Norton know the characters that they're about to play so when they say to me, 'I really feel that I need this moment' I feel that they're probably right. They have to act it. They have to say it.

"You know, I teach screenwriting. I teach at the Sundance Institute every year. I go up the screenwriters lab (there). And then I do seminars every now and then at different places. I try to teach people that the role of the screenwriter is not to write a draft and then to send it (out for) the rest of your life. That's a very naive position to take on screenwriting. A movie is something that always changes. You know, if John and Edward and Naomi and I created a script that was then shot by them in China, well then John and the editor (Alexandre de Francheschi, whose credits include Curran's 'We Don't Live Here Anymore' and Jane Campion's 'In the Cut') rewrote the script in the editing room. That's their job -- to do that and to improve it. And throughout the various cuts of the film, I think, the script moved forward and the movie got better, got worse, got better, got worse and then ended up I think where it is, which is a really fine place to be."

Did he write with those actors in mind in terms of their strengths and their needs? "You know, I never do that," he answered. "I just never do that. Even though I knew that I was writing for Edward and then Naomi, when I work the characters are in my head. So I don't, for example, watch lots of Edward Norton movies and then go to work and try to bend my dialogue to what I've heard from Edward's other performances. That's not something I did in this case or would ever do. I have to say, the first time that I ever hear Edward or Naomi Watts speaking my dialogue is when I see a cut of the film. Until that moment it's always what's in my head. Often and in this case, especially, I'm so thrilled with what Edward and Naomi did with what was in my head. I think the person who clings to what's in their head is naive. They're in the wrong business. This is a collaborative business. I can say that because I've been really blessed by having great collaborators, actors and directors in my life."

Indeed, there are so many times when we hear other screenwriters complain about having worked with butchers. "Yeah, I suppose that maybe that's valid in some cases," he allowed, "but I've been really lucky. And I think because I have an open minded attitude about writing -- I love to rewrite -- directors and actors really like talking to me. They don't just sort of take my script and go away and do things to it. I'm part of the team because I want to be part of the team."

Nyswaner wasn't able to be in China while the film was shooting. "You know, it's the first time I haven't been on the set," he noted. "I had the weirdest experience last year. Writers wait years and years to get anything produced. We write and write and write. And last year I had two things go into production at exactly the same time. One was 'The Painted Veil' and another was a television pilot that I wrote for Showtime called 'Filthy Gorgeous.' Showtime ultimately decided not to put it on the air. But I needed to be on the set of my television show. And I think after 10 years of laboring on the script for 'The Painted Veil' I had contributed all I could contribute at that point. When they said, 'We're going to go to China with your script and we're going to try to do it the best that we can, Ron,' I said, 'Go with God, folks and I'll see the cut when you bring it back.'"

We also spoke about the mechanics of how Nyswaner works while writing. "I get up at about 4:30 or 4:45 a.m. and I try to be at work by 5:30 or so," he said. "I walk over to my barn. I have an old farmhouse with a barn in upstate New York. I stroll over to my barn in the darkness. I like starting when it's dark. I open the computer and I get to work. And usually I try to attach some piece of music which motivates me and I write for several hours.

"I have a rule that if there's anyone around my house, anyone who's visiting, no one's allowed to speak to me before 12 Noon. Even if I show up in the house and I'm getting myself a cup of coffee, if there's someone in the house they're not allowed to speak to me. I've lost a couple friends over that one. As soon as someone starts talking to me, that scene that I'm creating in my head between this husband and wife who hate each other but really secretly love each other, that scene just went. It's gone. It's just disappeared and now the (writing) day's over. So I have to be very disciplined about it."

Houseguests, he added, "tend to be people that I know well enough to broach the subject with and I just very politely tell them the night before, 'Now tomorrow if you see me in the kitchen or around the house before Noon you may notice that I won't be making eye contact with you or won't be speaking to you. Please don't be offended.' They get it."

Obviously, it's a system that works well for him. "It's too easy to be distracted," he explained. "You know, I feel that there's nothing harder than writing. Writing is so hard -- to just day after day, hour after hour pull these things out of your soul."

Does he break scenes down on index cards and put them up on walls? "Yeah, I do it all," he said. "I do a lot of research before I begin writing. So I fill up these big ring binders with tons of material. If it's based on a true story I do all kinds of journalism. I do all kinds of research. If it's fictional, I write all these long essays about the characters. I treat fiction like it is non-fiction. So I end up spending a lot of time researching a project. That kind of really loosens me up. I just think it would be impossible to on a whim sit down and write, 'INT. LIVING ROOM - DAY' and start with what? Like how can you write about people that you haven't taken time to get to know and just throw them into a scene? Some people get to know their characters by throwing them into a scene. I don't. I back up and I do a lot of work. And then I work on the computer and begin to take all that information (and write from it).

"For example, I'm doing a script now with Edward Norton. He's producing it and is going to direct for Universal Pictures. It's based on a memoir called 'Buffalo for the Broken Heart' ('Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch' by Dan O'Brien). I took that book and I took my several days worth of interviews with the rancher that it's based on and I created a time-line of the man's life. I wrote down everything he told me and everything from his book in chronological order. I call it a time-line and I do it on every project that I do. So I basically see a main character from birth to death and every event that has occurred to them. And then if there are other significant characters, I do the same with them. So when I start to write, I really know the people that I'm writing about. Then when you start writing scenes, well in creating all this you've already imagined so many scenes that you're not really starting from scratch."
 
Filmmaker flashbacks: From July 11, 1988's column: "20th Century Fox kept the media crowd on the edge of its seats at last Thursday's screening of producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver's 'Die Hard.'

"'Hard,' which was directed by John McTiernan and stars Bruce Willis and Bonnie Bedelia, was an unquestionable hit with this normally tough to please audience of critics, journalists, industry executives and assorted hangers-on. That's the same reaction, by the way, that I'm told 'Hard' has already had with real audiences at recruited previews in such markets as Dallas, Houston, Seattle, Boston and New York.

"Although it's been a rough summer for action-adventures -- 'Rambo III,' 'Red Heat' and 'The Presidio' all attest to that -- 'Hard' appears likely to fare better at the boxoffice. Much of the reason for that is that in Bruce Willis the filmmakers have a hero who's not just another comic book-style hero. Because of Willis, the film has a much greater degree of believability than was true of the action-adventures that opened earlier this summer. That believability stems from the fact that Willis is a reluctant and vulnerable hero...

"Plans call for 'Hard' to open July 15 at 21 screens in 20 cities (New York has two prints) in 70mm six-track Dolby stereo that Fox promised in its Sunday ads 'will blow you through the back wall of the theater.' The film will be sneak previewed at approximately 400 screens Sun., July 17 and will open Wed., July 20 at 1,100 to 1,200 screens."

Update: "Die Hard" was a huge hit for Fox, opening July 20, 1988 to $7.1 million at 1,276 theaters ($5,568 per theater). It wound up grossing $83 million domestically, making it the year's seventh biggest film. It spawned two sequels -- "Die Hard 2: Die Harder," which grossed $117.5 million in 1990; and "Die Hard: With A Vengeance," which grossed $100 million in 1995. A new sequel, "Live Free or Die Hard," also starring Willis, is scheduled to open via Fox next June 29.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com
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