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A 1920s love story about an English couple—Walter (Edward Norton), a middle-class doctor and Kitty (Naomi Watts), an upper-class woman—who get married for the wrong reasons and relocate to Shanghai, where she falls in love with a local playboy (Liev Schreiber). After uncovering Kitty's infidelity, Walter accepts a job in a Chinese village ravaged by a deadly epidemic and takes her along. The journey brings meaning to their relationship and gives them new purpose in a remote and dangerous place. Written by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Directed by John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore).

 The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil is based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham about a young English couple in 1925, Walter and Kitty, who get married for all the wrong reasons and relocate to Shanghai where he works as a government bacteriologist. Bored and restless, Kitty soon embarks on an affair with Charlie, a British vice consul. Discovering her infidelity, Walter accepts a job in a remote village in China ravaged by cholera and drags Kitty along in an act of revenge.

Getting The Painted Veil made was not unlike Walter and Kitty’s relationship: seemingly impossible at first. The film began its journey in 1995, when screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), a fan of Maugham’s, began adapting the novel as his next project and attracted the attention of producer Sara Colleton. After three years of development she passed it to Edward Norton, who as a student of Chinese history at Yale took a keen interest in the project and re-worked the script with Ron, evolving the story beyond the scope of the book.

With Naomi Watts attached to play Kitty, the film was slated for production in 2003 but was delayed by China’s SARS epidemic. This freed Naomi to take a role in my film We Don’t Live Here Anymore, and as it happened both my film and the script for The Painted Veil wound up at Warner Independent Pictures. Both Naomi and WIP passed me the script to read and I was immediately taken with it, particularly the implicit murder-suicide pact at the heart of a love story: two petulant adults who willingly journey into a deadly epidemic out of spite toward each other. To me their childish, petty antics against the backdrop of so much turmoil and suffering provided both the comedy and tragedy of the piece and gave it a modern context. It suggested to me a folly of colonialism wrapped around a sweeping romance; an adventurous love story in the spirit of David Lean.

I hadn’t read the book or seen the 1934 Garbo film before I met with Edward and he urged me not to. (I thought maybe out of fear I’d want more of the book or film back into the script—but later came to appreciate it was just the opposite.) The book and original film were horribly thin.

We met in a coffee shop and it was one of those meetings where you finish each other’s thoughts and immediately feel you could happily work together. It was a no-brainer for me: the project was perfectly cast, and as Edward said, it would be the adventure of a lifetime. A few months later I was in China.

Naomi, Edward and I all agreed that first and foremost we were making a love story. We weren’t making a political or historical epic—it was a personal drama set against the backdrop of China at that time in history. Of course nothing you can possibly research here at home is a patch on the experience of actually being there; what you glean from people watching, conversations, and location is what always inspires the authentic textures of setting and character. And when you’re researching period, along with culture, fashion, technology, etc. of the time, there’s no avoiding the political context of your story. The 1920s were such pivotal years in Chinese history, and more and more the emotional perspective of a country struggling for independence crept into the background of our story.

We were determined to find a location in China that was not only right for the tone of the film—that accommodated both the beauty and gothic qualities of the story—but one that also suggested China in every frame. I didn’t want to go all that way to shoot a film that in the end looked like something I could’ve faked in Canada. I was fascinated with the jade-colored rivers and karst mountains in the southern province of Guangxi, and focused our scouting to this area. Eventually we came across a small, Ming Dynasty-era river village called Guangyao, accessible only by dirt road. I sacrificed about ten days of shooting merely traveling in and out of these remote locations, but it was worth it to capture a setting so unspoiled. I doubt they will remain untouched for long—China is changing at such an alarmingly rapid pace.

About halfway into pre-production the film became a co-production between Warner and China Film, essentially making it the first ever co-production between a Western studio and the Chinese Government. We were officially a Chinese film. Our crew was predominately mainland Chinese with a few key roles filled with Australia and New Zealand based professionals we brought in.

Shooting was a collision of two processes, Eastern and Western, and though the first week on any film is chaotic, this felt like absolute madness. First of all it felt like there were six Chinese doing the job we’d do with two, and there were people everywhere. You’d give a direction and it would get broken down not just in English, but screamed in Mandarin simultaneously. There’d be dozens of people flying in every direction—and there was no room to move it was so crowded. After the first few days we all looked at each other and thought, “This is insane!” At the pace we were going I had serious doubts I’d ever get the film finished before getting shut down.

We shot interiors in Beijing and Shanghai during the heat of the summer and by the time we arrived on location in Guangyao the crew was as tight as any I’ve worked with, if not the best. My lasting impression of the film will be the transition from madness to a sort of zen efficiency that brought a unique sense of fun and adventure to the day’s work.

I think all of us—both Western and Chinese—felt this was a once-in-a-lifetime deal and we wanted to enjoy it. You only had to look around to see how rapidly things were changing in rural China and we felt blessed to have the opportunity to capture on film what might soon be gone. We stayed in small converted hotels up the road from the village. At night, Naomi, Edward, the crew and I would walk home from shooting as the sun was setting and fall into step with locals making their way back from working in the fields. You’d look out into a rice paddy and see a farmer guiding a plow pulled by a water buffalo and you’d go into a sort of reverie, marveling at the timelessness of the image—until his cell phone rang and broke the spell.