Curran’s Creed

Director John Curran won’t settle for stories that don’t fire his heart, as Drew Turney discovers.

"Maybe I haven’t figured out my own life," director John Curran laughs when The West asks what draws him to characters with fractured love lives. "Whenever I read a script with people who are working at relationships and failing miserably I’m quite heartbroken but I also laugh at the same time because it’s so familiar, so universal and tireless. You’d think we’d have it all worked out but our relationships are always a dilemma. That’s what’s interesting to me."

A native of the US, Curran moved to Australia in 1986 to work in advertising, music videos, commercials and shorts, many of which had comic elements. His breakout 1998 feature Praise, the story of twentysomethings in a haze of dugs and emotional issues, swept the Australian Film Institute Awards. It also seemed to cement the direction his career would take.

Curran next appeared at the helm of 2004’s little-seen but effective ensemble drama We Don’t live Here Anymore. It depicted two couples struggling with infidelity and forbidden lust and starred Naomi Watts in perhaps her first role as a fully realised grown-up.

His next film The Painted Veil is also about the heartbreak of falling in and out of love and again stars Watts, who produced the film along with co-star Edward Norton.

Based on W Somerset Maugham’s book of love gone sour, it depicts an embittered husband (Norton) who drags his unfaithful wife (Watts) to China into the midst of a cholera outbreak in the 1920s to work at a remote hospital.

Like all classic literature, Maugham’s work seemed to tell the future. The tale of foreigners imposing their values and bringing their baggage to an unspoiled culture seems pertinent today. Did such subtexts attract Curran as much as his signature theme of broken love?

"It’s nearly impossible to find a script with other layers that are going to interest you," Curran says. "As a director its your job to bring it to the film. If it was all there in the script it’d be 500 pages long.

"Sometimes there’s a parable at the heart of the script or something you can hang everything on. Everything else — the design and photography — goes deeper and layers build on layers. So a lot of subtext is born of patterns that develop as you’re making a film."

So is Curran going to craft himself as the go-to guy for miserable lovers, like Michael Bay is for military-styled action and Robert Altman was for misty-eyed nostalgia ensembles?

"I’m always looking for a comedy, I’d love to spend a year and a half laughing at something ridiculous," Curran says, "but I’d want it to be a smart comedy and they’re really hard to find."

It’s going to be strange to see a genre like comedy from Curran, if his odes to slow-burn heartache are anything to go by.

At one point Watts, playing disgraced wife Kitty, slumps her shoulders in exhaustion and implores Norton, as her husband, ‘How long are you going to punish me?’ Sometimes, as we all know, that’s love.

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