No one was interested in John Curran's ideas to make Stone.
Then Robert De Niro attached himself to the project. And suddenly everybody was interested.
"De Niro called me at the end of 2008 -- for him, it was the right project at the right time," Curran says over a sushi dinner. "Until then, I couldn't cast it. And it's hard enough to get this kind of material made -- but if you don't have a cast, forget it."
"This kind of material" is what sets Stone apart from most films. Based on a play by screenwriter Angus MacLachlan (though the finished script featured significant contributions from Curran and co-star Edward Norton), Stone is a movie that rarely goes where you think it will. The story of the twisted relationship between a parole official (De Niro), a hustling convict (Norton) and the convict's seductive wife (Milla Jovovich), "Stone" skips the cat-and-mouse double-crosses to get at serious issues of faith, redemption and everything in between.
Which may be why Curran, whose previous two films were The Painted Veil (2006) and We Don't Live Here Anymore (2004), spent four years trying to get Stone into production before De Niro and then Norton came aboard. The film opened in limited release last week and will slowly go wider.
"I was most taken by the opening -- this benign set-up that turns horrifying on page 6," says Curran, a youthful-looking 50. "It hung over the rest of the script like a loaded gun. As I was reading it, I kept hoping it would take a surprising turn -- and it did. And I became obsessed with it."
Curran thought of De Niro for the parole official, a man whose church-going masks a hollow soul. De Niro was intrigued -- but not enough to commit before Curran reworked it. So, for several years, Curran had regular conversations with De Niro about the material and even a reading of the script, though De Niro remained noncommittal. Without De Niro, Curran finally decided he needed to move on.
"I took a run at another film that fell apart because of the writers' strike. I went back to Stone but still wasn't getting anywhere. So I worked on another film for a year, but that one fell apart because the money disappeared after the financial collapse. And then De Niro called me.
"My wife said, 'Make that film -- I'm tired of hearing about it'," Curran says with a laugh. "It was like an old girlfriend that you can't stop talking about."