During the shoot of The Painted Veil in southern China, actor Edward Norton, the film’s male lead, decided to climb one of the nearby mountains. He invited director John Curran to go along. Norton is an experienced rock climber; Curran, a novice. The first two-thirds of the journey was easy. But it was only after some trepidation that the director managed to climb several hundred feet of vertical rock in the final stage of the ascent to join Norton on the peak.Curran’s nervy climb to the top of the mountain is an apt metaphor for his guiding of The Painted Veil to completion. The director describes making the movie as “a great adventure.” But it was not without perils and problems.Shot entirely in China, the film was a unique co-production between Warner Independent Films and the state-owned China Film Group, which will release the film in China.Veil, meanwhile, is the first theatrical feature in many years to be shot by outsiders entirely in China. The filmmakers received unprecedented access to a number of unique sites, including an 800-year-old village in the remote countryside, and stunning mountains and valleys.The movie, based on a W. Somerset Maugham short story, tells of an English doctor who goes to China in the mid 1920s with his new bride, played by Naomi Watts. When cholera breaks out in a distant village he forces her to accompany him, against her will, on his mission to help the afflicted.According to Curran, the pluses for making the film in China ranged from the unmatchable settings to the availability of a highly adept and energized crew.One of the more potent considerations may also have been financial. As with other kinds of manufacturing, production of films in China—which has an evolved film and television infrastructure—is remarkably cheap. The lavish and sweeping film had a budget of less than $10 million, according to the director, despite some estimates that have put it as high as $35 million. Veil recently received two Independent Spirit Award nominations, where only films costing less than $20 million qualify. One was for Norton in the best actor category, the other for writer Ron Nyswaner for best screenplay.On the negative side of the ledger, according to the director, were the dealings with the slow-moving China Film Bureau, which also insisted on making some script changes that verged on censorship “It was an untested relationship,” says Curran, an American director who worked in Australia for the last 18 years but recently moved back to Rochester, New York, where he was brought up.Curran went on an initial exploration expedition, during which he got his first taste of Chinese film bureaucracy. “We had a window of a few months when the actors would be available,” he notes. “So I raced down there to see if it was going to be practical to make this film there. The [Chinese] had their own strange parameters, and in terms of response time, they worked at their own glacial pace. Chinese filmmakers put up with it because they have to. We were in different circumstances—we really pushed them a lot.”There was frustration. “At times we didn’t think it would happen,” he recalls. “Let’s face it—it’s the Chinese government we’re talking about… they’re restrictive about what goes on in their country.” The hardest part, in his view, was getting the script to the point that it would make it through the hoops at the Chinese Film Bureau: “They had their view about what could and couldn’t be in the script. That was when I wanted to tear my hair out—you just didn’t know when an answer was going to come down. They can use the pressure of time in their favor. The danger is you cave in a lot of things, because you so want that permit.”Curran denied capitulating on anything of importance, noting that it wasn’t just the Chinese but Warner Bros. that asked for script changes, and the latter is considered par for the course. But the requests of the Chinese were more social and political, Curran concedes, whereas Warner’s requests “had more to do with theme and character, and skirting certain boundaries in order to make sure it qualified as a PG-13 film.”Although Veil isn’t highly political, its script touches on some themes and situations that are not normally seen in a Chinese film, including scenes depicting the beginnings of the Communist revolution. “There’s a certain amount of revisionism about recent Chinese history,” observes Curran. “We had scenes with rebel soldiers but couldn’t identify them as Communists. We couldn’t even use the word Communist in the movie.”Curran brought his own below-the-line keys, including director of photography Stuart Dryburgh, art director Peta Lawson and costume designer Ruth Myers. Editor Alexandre de Franceschi, a frequent collaborator with Curran, remained in Sydney where postproduction took place.In addition to Antonia Barnard, who was Curran’s line producer, locals who knew the ropes of the Chinese film industry were signed on including Chinese line producer Zhang “Jaguar” Jiakun and production consultant Ada Shen. “We’re in a foreign country, and they know all the personnel, making them invaluable,” Curran notes. “They’re also familiar with the difficulties of shooting in China. Doing it without them you’d be constantly trying to reinvent the wheel.”The same was true of the extensive Chinese crew. “If you brought your own crew into China you’d be dead—you’d never make it,” he declares. “It’s a cash economy there, and navigating it is really, really difficult. And if you didn’t have people on the ground who knew what they were doing, you just wouldn’t get anything done.”Once assembled, “the work ethic of the crew we had was tremendous,” says the director. “It’s part of their cultural training—working toward the common cause is ingrained in them from youth,” he says. “Once you embrace it as a Westerner, and don’t flaunt it or abuse anyone, it’s great. They have a larger number of people doing a job where we would have far fewer. But they can make things happen very, very quickly. You ask to have a wall ripped down, and it comes down almost instantly.”The Chinese crew is also sensitive to hierarchy. “The whole lighting crew works for the gaffer, that’s their boss, their god,” explains Curran. “In turn, the gaffer will do anything for me because I’m the director.”Shooting conditions were not the most comfortable in the countryside. Accommodations were one step above youth hostels. The crew had to use squat toilets. There were no local clubs or entertainment. “But we had the right kind of crew that loved the local flavor,” says Curran. “We would all hang out at the local cafe, and eat out every night at the local restaurants.”Another difficulty was the delay in viewing dailies. First, the film had to be shipped to Australia to be developed. “We’d see high-def dailies about a week after we shot them, and by then we’d usually moved on,” says Curran.Prior to doing the rural scenes, filming initially got underway in Beijing in the city’s studios dating back to the 1950s, where sets were constructed for interiors, including those for houses in England where the film starts. The Beijing studios were “archaic and primitive in a lot of ways,” says Curran. “They had dirt floors, they didn’t have proper ventilation, and there was no air conditioning so we had to bring in our own units.” An overhaul has since begun. “In a couple of years they will be stunning,” he predicts.After Beijing, the shoot moved to Shanghai for two weeks. Because of a mega-boom in new construction, little of historic Shanghai remains “and it was hard to find anything old—they really aren’t interes
ted in preservation,” notes the director. But an old German mansion that had been converted into a hotel was found and the Shanghai studios supplied the setting for a British residents club.There was a desire to source props and costumes within China, but that wasn’t always possible. “The cultural revolution was an absolute tragedy,” says Curran. “They destroyed all the antiques, so it was very difficult to find anything authentic.” Only a couple of cars of the period were discovered, and they were used repeatedly in different scenes.Despite the barriers and difficulties, Curran predicts that “more and more films are going to be shot in China.” He expects the government to get looser in handing out permissions. “Once they approve a script, you’re pretty much on your own with no interference.” And the advantages in terms of skilled film crew and low costs are pretty hard to duplicate.
Written by Jack Egan