Angus MacLachlan is a playwright and screenwriter most famous for writing the screenplays for the 2005 film Junebug (which earned Amy Adams an Oscar nomination) as well as the cult short film “Tater Tomater”. He graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1980 and continues to reside in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He recently adapted one of his plays into the film Stone directed by John Curran and starring Robert De Niro, Milla Jovovich, and Edward Norton that was released in 2010.
I had the privilege to speak with Angus in January 2011 about “Stone”, the characters, the writing process… and I came out with a much deeper understanding of the film. I urge you to see it, and read this interview… it may make you want to see it again, or even buy the film!
GS: What sort of research did you put into writing prison slang or terms?
AM: I did go to a correctional institute near where I live (the Carolinas) that is comparable to the one in the film. What I did was talk to a woman who has the comparable job or Robert DeNiro’s character, and I gave her my script and asked if it was accurate. That was a lot of it. I also spoke to a lot of the prisoners there and observed there. What you might be referring to is that when Norton came to Michigan (where the film was shot), he spent a day or two at a prison and picked out one particular prisoner he modeled himself on and picked up his slang. He then modified some of the dialogue.
GS: There is a rumor that Edward Norton made revisions on the script that strayed away from your intentions. Is there any truth to this?
AM: I’m not actually not supposed to talk about that because of my union (the Writers Guild). On the record, I cannot speak about it. (Angus and I did talk about it after the interview, and it’s a very interesting story, but out of respect for him, I cannot share it here.)
GS: As far as screenwriters go, you’re relatively unknown. What is it like to see your film being acted by some very big names?
AM: It’s thrilling. When you first meet DeNiro, he’s very quiet and he wants you to call him Bob. He’s funny and smart. It’s a lot to take in that standing before me is Robert DeNiro and he is reading lines that I wrote. It was similar when Amy Adams was nominated for an Oscar for “Junebug”. At the Oscar ceremony they showed a clip, and I thought, “Oh my God, something I wrote is on the Oscars!” But yeah, the four main actors were people whose work I was familiar with and it was a thrill that they were all involved.
GS: When adapting a play to the screen, what changes are made — for example, you probably can’t have as much fire or sex on the stage.
AM: Well, there is a fire but you don’t see it. The play is the four main characters and they’re looking at the fire. There is still that scene in front of the house, you just don’t see a house on fire. If one were to read the play I wrote in 2000, you would say that was the movie we made. It’s very similar. There are some changes — you can see more things, more people in prison. There is less dialogue, though there is still plenty of dialogue between the two men in the film. It’s a more visual thing. If there’s any big difference, perhaps the play articulates more what the ideas are and is more poetic. Film is more literal.
GS: Did the film come closer to your original vision than the play?
AM: The play probably is, but there are no huge differences.
GS: Stone at one point starts researching alternate religions. What is a zukmaster?
AM: Zukandor is the religion in the film. And actually, in the play, it’s Eckankar. But, you know, when you make a film they go through everything for legal reasons. When we made “Junebug”, the character’s name was Johnny Johnson. But I guess there were too many Johnny Johnsons that could conceivably sue, so we changed it to Johnny Johnston. And there were some of them, so it became Johnny Johnsten. And so when we began shooting “Stone”, they told me they couldn’t use Eckankar because it’s a religion and we had to come up with a new one. I thought of about twelve and John Curran picked Zukandor.
GS: The film is loaded with religious themes and undertones — is there an underlying message?
AM: For me, the story is about these four souls who are all imprisoned in some way, and they want to get out. Norton is obviously in a literal prison, but my intention was that DeNiro wanted to break out of something he doesn’t even realize. All the characters are gnawing at the walls of their cage, trying to somehow get free. All four have a different idea of spiritual. Lucetta believes in no god and is an amoral person — not immoral, but amoral — she has no morals. Stone has something happen to him spiritually that is very good, and yet I don’t think that makes him a good person. He’d still be a dangerous guy on the outside. Frances Conroy’s character has a true belief in a Christian god, so I wanted that to come through. DeNiro’s character goes through the motions, but it doesn’t resonate with him, he can’t feel anything. And so, there’s that aspect, but also I wanted to look at the idea of a god that encompasses destruction, like Shiva, that encompasses fire and all the bad things of the world. We see this in Stone. Those were some of the ideas I was exploring.
GS: What caused the Mabry fire?
AM: Well, I believe that the wife did it. You know, I’ve heard other people say Stone did. Others think it could conceivably have been Lucetta, who was upset with Jack. Others say Jack. I tend to lean towards the wife.
GS: The film has been called a “thriller”, and I’m not so sure that’s accurate. Maybe it’s more of a character study. Your thoughts?
AM: It’s not a thriller. You’re exactly right — it’s an adult drama, a character study. It’s four people and what happens between them. What’s amazing is that it got made, because no one wants to make these sort of films anymore. But it’s also the sort of script that attracts actors, which is how it got the talent it did. I think Milla is great in the “Resident Evil” movies, but she said to me that this was a role where she gets to play a person who is regular human being with contradictions. You’re dealing with things thrillers deal with: whodunit, murder, guns… but it’s really more about the people.
GS: I’m glad you say that. I think they did the film a great disservice by calling it a thriller. It puts the audience in the wrong mindset.
AM: I think a lot of people felt that way. I talked to people who went and saw it again and had a completely different reaction the second time, so I think the film is a perfect fit for DVD. You think something big will happen, but it’s a different kind of film and does not fit a thriller tag. See it again, you may like it better.
GS: I’ll do that. Thanks, Angus.
AM: Sure thing, thank you.