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Interview: Ed Norton On ‘Stone’

October 22, 2010
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Edward Norton’s latest film Stone opens in most theaters today.  The film was one of the featured Gala screenings at Fantastic Fest last month.  I got a chance to sit down with Norton and some other film journalists for  a round-table discussion of the film in Austin. The following is a transcript of some highlights from the interview.

In the movie, Edward Norton plays Stone, a man serving a prison term for arson.  He is going through a series of interviews with a parole officer (Robert De Niro) who is responsible for determining whether or not Stone should be eligible for parole.  Milla Jovovich and Frances Conroy co-star.  You can read our review of the movie here.

Round table: I feel that if a different actor had played the character [of Stone] with the cornrows, and the profane language, that it might have come across as a stunt. Could you articulate how you bring a character to life without falling into any traps like that?

Edward Norton:  (laughing) I don’t think I can.  John Curran and I were on the fence about many aspects of the character, but then I met a couple of guys in this prison north of Detroit.  I was really having a hard time figuring out what I felt the specifics of Stone should be.  I got John’s themes and his sense of these characters crossing each other on their path,  in a way, but I didn’t know what we were channeling it through in terms of the character.

Less than a week before we started, I happened to meet a guy I was  hypnotized by and  I had John come over and meet him.  Then we walked out and John was like,”If you can get anything like that, that would be amazing.”  I ended up miming a couple of people in particular, but that look and voice were one guy in particular.

The character, the thing about him,  is that superficially he doesn’t  look or seem like he would  be a strong candidate for a spiritual transformation.  But the thing I think anchored it for me is that the things he is saying are really at odds with that  sort of presentation that you sort of could laugh at or dismiss.

Mainly because his anxiety is so real, and I think the way you can take something so audacious and ground it is if you are not being condescending to the character. His anxiety and desperation are very real, and his conviction that he deserves to be listened to and he deserves to be reconsidered is real.  You’re going to have to look at him from different angles and he is going to be hard to reduce.

RT: In terms of your research going into the prison and also what you did for Primal Fear, what is it that struck you the most about the prison experience?  What did you take away, or what really made an impact on you that you perhaps used in Stone, and maybe in Primal Fear?

EN: I can’t even relate those two.  Primal Fear is about a con, even though there is a manipulative element in this story, I think that this is such a more complex investigation of people and what they are actually going through.

Primal Fear- what I looked at much more, frankly, was people who are faking things.  There were some really notable cases of people who faked multiple personality disorder as a way of getting off on insanity pleas.

Stone is much more about the idea of imprisonment.  The best thing that came out of getting in to talk to these guys was a sense of how they viewed the process of getting judged by other people.

Apart from that, their language is fantastic, I would say 60% of the lines of Stone we changed based on the ways these guys articulated.  They would go through the script with us and literally kind of go, “Well you’d never say that.”  We would ask, “How would you say that?”

At one point one of these guys was talking about  a fight, and how he just had to let it happen.  He said, “I’m three months out from review, I can’t get a ticket, I can’t get anything.  When you are short time, you have to be a vegetarian.”

I said, “What?” and he said,” A vegetarian, you can’t have a beef with nobody.”  There were so many things like that.

Frothygirlz:  Was the dime comment one of  them?

EN: Oh, yeah.  I’d heard that expression, but he called his girlfriend a dime, the whole way he refers to failing and being a “flop”… Literally I’m not exagerating, virtually every line had a spin from these guys.

FG:  You say this is not a con movie, but in the third act, it very much felt like all the sudden he had been conning De Niro’s character all along.  I was kind of surprised, because I felt like your character was sincere the whole time, and  you kind of feel sympathy for him,  but then when he articulates what really happened with the fire, you kind of feel like he may have been screwing with De Niro’s character the whole time.

EN: Well, I think that John puts it in the gray area very purposely. It’s funny, we’ve had people say very different things to us about what they feel about that, which is pretty much where I think John was hoping to put it.

I have my own thoughts on it, but I think John is a director, he is so intentional about putting things in the gray area.  He’s so commited to the idea of a film that leaves you with all kinds of hovering questions about the nature of spiritual life, how revelation comes to you, how an epiphany comes to you.

Has Stone gotten to a place where he will be peaceful whether he is in or out?  I’ve been trying to not put a defined answer on it because I’ve come to recognize that a quality in many directors that I have worked with or whose films I have liked as a fan are the ones who leave some real ambiguity in the end of a film.

FG: Well, mission accomplished,then.  I’ve seen the movie twice, with two different audiences, and both times afterward there has been an hour of debate over what happened.  Nobody knows what to really make of it.

EN: Well I think that’s good.  When we put Fight Club out, we sure had a lot of people telling us what they thought.  We’ve gotten papers from Divinity students  telling us what they thought the end of Fight Club meant, and they were ideas we never thought of.

To me, if you’ve done it well, what people end up doing is projecting a lot of themselves into the film.  At that point you are starting to achieve something really interesting, where in many ways people are working our their own shit through it, and I think that’s a hallmark of some of my favorite films.

An easy example for me is Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. In many ways it was much, much more incendiary than this film even, but I remember the violence at the end of that film; he ended up putting up the Martin Luther King quote, and the Malcolm X quote, and it fades out.

People were having furious debates over it, and when I look back on it, I think that’s one of the most thought provoking films about race (at that time) that had ever been made.

RT: How did you use the theme of sound and hearing as an actor, as a catalyst for spiritual growth or spiritual regression?

EN:   There were lines where Stone is trying to explain this thing he has read, and when John and I were working on it, at one point we started talking about making the sound environment of the film actually reflect some of what Stone talks about so that it was like a trope in it.

These guys in prison all talk about how loud it is in prison, and how hard it is to concentrate or do anything, so John talked about the whole environment as a purgatory of some sort, and I think he was trying to create these juxtapositions  between  a little bit of melody, a little bit of harmony, and real atonal, arhythmic kind of stuff.

It was very challenging when we were looking at cuts of the film and  giving notes and things because you knew that a lot of it was going to be informed by this sort of overlay  of sonic  environment.

We cobbled it together. Some friends of mine are musicians in a band that does a lot of  interesting ambient stuff.  They had a lot of scraps, and they let us use that, and John engineered sounds on his own too.

FG: Did you ever consider having your character off De Niro’s?  I felt like it was heading that way.

EN: I think John sort of felt that as bleak as what has happened is, it’s not bleak to the point of being hopeless. It’s very nuanced the way that De Niro plays it, but  in the beginning of the movie he  perpetrates this horrible bullying bluff on his own wife; he’s going to crush her reality with his bullying, and he doesn’t get called on it, and I think in the reality, that he is bullying Stone.

It’s a bullying bluff, and he gets called on it. It’s taken him forty years to get called on his bluff, and now he is left with nothing. He can’t put off the consequences of his behavior anymore on somebody else the way he did with her. I’m not sure he would be redeemable if he blew Stone away.

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