Junebug screenwriter Angus MacLachlan strikes again with stone

by Mark Burger

Packed with heavyweight talent, Stone stars Robert De Niro and Edward Norton as, respectively, a veteran parole officer and a longtime con. The latter wants parole and only the former contributing columnist can recommend it, so if that entails some intricate manipulation by the latter’s sluttish wife (Milla Jovovich) to seduce the former, then so be it.

The film, which opens Friday (see review, Page 44) is directed by John Curran and written by acclaimed playwright, screenwriter, UNC School of the Arts alumnus and Winston-Salem son Angus MacLachlan. Stone, released by Overture Films, marks MacLachlan’s second produced screenplay since Junebug (2005), the award-winning critical darling that also marked the directorial debut of fellow Winston-Salem son Phil Morrison.

There’s an old Hollywood adage that writers are the least-liked and least-welcomed visitors to a film set, but MacLachlan spent two weeks on the Michigan location of Stone at different points in the production.

Like Junebug, Stone is a character-driven piece that affords its actors (including Frances Conroy, who plays De Niro’s wife in the film) complex roles that may not be what they initially seem, and which alter throughout the course of the story. This is a hallmark of MacLachlan’s work, be it short story, play or screenplay.

Like Junebug, MacLachlan originally penned Stone as a play. The critical success of the earlier film unquestionably paved the way for Stone to find its way to the big screen, but it wasn’t an easy path. Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones was initially attached to the project, but when that didn’t pan out and De Niro (himself an Oscar winner, twice over) expressed interest, MacLachlan and Curran retailored the script.

As with most of MacLachlan’s work, the original setting for the story was in his hometown of Winston-Salem where, in fact, Junebug was filmed. Two major factors determined the change of locale to Michigan, according to MacLachlan: “They had great tax incentives and a great prison.”

One of the principal locations for Stone was, appropriately enough, the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson. Originally called Michigan State Prison, it was the first prison in the state. Later known as the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility, it remained operational until late 2007.

“It’s just like the Pentagon,” MacLachlan joked. “Shooting there was great. It was a real prison, so it really lent flavor.”

The time MacLachlan spent on the set, he got to know the principal actors a bit better. De Niro, he said, “is very private, very inthe-moment… very involved in the conceptualization of his role. The few conversations I had with him, I really enjoyed. I liked him very much.”

Norton was an early champion of the project, even before De Niro was involved. (Norton and director Curran previously worked together on 2007’s The Painted Veil.)

“This piece takes ideas, and he really understood what the script was trying to get at, and he’s a big advocate for that,” said MacLachlan. “He brings a lot of his own creativity, his own input and his own ideas.”

Norton has a reputation for taking an active role in shaping his characters beyond his own performance. He received a screenwriting credit for The Incredible Hulk (2008) and had well publicized if uncredited input on American History X (1999) and Frida

(2002). One of his next reported projects will be the screen adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, which he will adapt, direct and star in.

Nevertheless, the screen credit for Stone cites only one writer: Angus MacLachlan. And that’s that.

The transition to page to screen, much less stage to screen, can sometimes be a difficult one, but MacLachlan said that Stone retains his original intent. Having looked back over his original notes, “the entire concept from the very beginning is what this film is.”

Earlier this month, MacLachlan traveled to New York City for the film’s premiere at the Museum of Modern Art. The beginning of the week “was cold, which for the most part fit my emotional makeup,” said a wry MacLachlan.

Yet as the week wore on, “we had a really fun time,” he admitted. Indeed, moviemaking, or at least celebrating the end result, can be fun. “From time to time it is… and it’s nice to be able enjoy those moments, because a lot of it is not fun at all. A lot of it is hard work.”

Jovovich, working overseas, flew to New York just for the premiere, which amazed MacLachlan.

“Milla came over, just to walk the red carpet, before getting on a plane and going back,” he said. “That’s great, because it shows she feels strongly about the movie and her work in it — and she should. It’s a real dramatic breakthrough for her.”

Although Junebug earned Amy Adams an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress, thereby kicking her career into high gear (and another Oscar nomination two years later, for Doubt), it was not a big money earner. That, combined with the severe downturn in the economy, have made independent filmmaking more precarious than ever. More than once, Stone was stone cold.

Said MacLachlan: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told friends, ‘It’s dead and buried.’ ‘It’s over.’ ‘It’s never going to happen.’ It’s kind of a small miracle it got made.”

The film’s gestation period might seem lengthy, “but in the independentfilm world, that’s actually not a long period of time at all.”

“It’s a challenging film,” MacLachlan admitted, “and it’s gotten wildly divergent responses, which is completely not surprising to me.”

MacLachlan has no problem with the film receiving criticism, “although one reviewer said that it was about nothing, which I totally disagree with. Whether you like it or not, it’s about something. The subject matter, for some people, is not clear and easy. It’s very ambiguous. It’s very much a ‘greyarea’ story. But, yes, absolutely, I think it’s a movie worth seeing.”