To film The Painted Veil, Edward Norton went to the end of the earth and back again in China. Here, he retraces his steps.
"I think you'll like Shanghai. It's quite exciting. Lots of dancing," says bacteriologist Dr. Walter Fane (played by Edward Norton) to his new but soon-to-become-adulterous wife, Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts), in this month's hauntingly beautiful film The Painted Veil. Based on the 1925 novel by Somerset Maugham, the film involves a journey from London to Shanghai, where, in an act of vengeance over his wife's infidelity, Dr. Fane accepts a job in a remote Chinese village ravaged by a deadly cholera epidemic - and forces his wife to accompany him. Surrounded by both natural splendor and death, the couple travel from emotional isolation to forgiveness and, finally, to love.
The journey that two-time Oscar nominee Norton took to get the film made was equally long and arduous. After falling for screenwriter Ron Nyswaner's adaptation of the novel in 1999, he came aboard as producer and also took on the lead role. But it wasn't until 2004 that Norton was joined by Watts as costar and coproducer, and the two - along with a crew of 40 westerners and 260 Chinese, a dozen translators, and 70 work trucks - were off to China. Not merely to Shanghai and Beijing, but to the awe-inspiring terrain and timeless villages deep inside the mainland. Searching for the perfect settings for the film, location scouts traveled more than 5,000 miles before finally settling on Guilin, a city in the province of Guangxi, and the more primitive village of Huang Yao. One of the world's most picturesque places, Guilin sits along the Li River, surrounded by majestic, verdant hills; it's the perfect spot, since The Painted Veil is the first Western film about China that has been allowed to shoot on location in a very long time.
This was not Norton's first trip to China. He studied Chinese history as an undergraduate at Yale University and had visited his father, Edward M. Norton, who lived for a time in Kunming as the founding director of the country's nature conservancy program, which worked toward developing the first large regional conservation-management plan. His brother, Jim Norton, runs river trips down Chinese waterways each winter, which you'll read more about later. But what could compare to barnstorming through the country as a character out of a Maugham novel? Here's the journey Norton took from Shanghai farther into the mainland.
How much time did you spend in China? I was there about five months, from July through November of last year. We spent about six or seven weeks in Beijing and about three or four weeks in Shanghai, then the rest of the time out in northern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, in that beautiful landscape you see in the film - the river valleys and limestone hills. I had been [to China] many times, but had never been to any of the big eastern cities and had not been to Guangxi. So, for the film, everywhere I went was new to me.
What was your route? Well, we went from Beijing to Shanghai to Guangxi - understand this is like flying from New York to Atlanta and then out to the Grand Canyon. I mean, these things are a long way from each other, but much as America is, they are very easily accessible.
Let's talk about Shanghai first. Tell me where you went, where you stayed, and what you saw. Try to imagine standing in the Hollywood Hills, looking out over the entire L.A. Basin and Orange County and having that whole spread have the vertical density of Midtown Manhattan. That's what Shanghai looks like. It is really staggering in size. It's somewhere north of 18 million people, and it is overwhelming in its scope. At the same time, it is very vibrant. It is strikingly modern in some ways, especially architecturally, and it's very cosmopolitan, in the sense that it has developed as the city of trade and commerce, and it has that energy. Some people say it's a Westernized energy, but I don't actually agree with that. I think it is a very Chinese energy, but it is very modern. In a lot of ways, I think calling things Western just because they are tall and glass is not right. Shanghai has very dynamic architecture, much more dynamic in some ways than what you are seeing in American cities. It is more cosmopolitan than Beijing, in the sense that you feel more of an international presence in the people. It has kind of quiet, tree-lined streets in the French Concession area, and the incredible markets that you associate with China, and big, modern downtown congestion. It kind of has it all. It has terrific food and probably the best museum in China, I think - the Shanghai Museum.
Tell me about that. The Shanghai Museum was definitely a highlight. I have probably gone there three or four times during the different visits I have made to the city. I think the ceramics collection alone at the Shanghai Museum is worth the visit to Shanghai. I never would have thought I could have that kind of a reaction to a ceramics collection, but it is staggering to see an almost 10,000-year history of ceramics spelled out in front of you in the place where it happened more dynamically than anywhere else on earth. Then there are the scroll paintings, the sort of vertically hung paintings with incredible landscapes, and the bronze. Everything in that museum is just amazing. It's amazing to look at the sophistication of what they were doing at a time when people in Europe were living in sod huts.