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The Hours - Stephen Daldry Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Excerpts from a syndicated interview with Michael Cunningham (MC, novelist), David Hare (DH, screenwriter) and Stephen Daldry (SD, director), as conducted by Sheila Johnston

Q (to MC): What prompted you to write a novel based on Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway?

MC: I read Mrs Dalloway when I was 15. I couldn't make sense of it, but I did get something about the complexity and density and beauty of its language. I remember thinking, 'Oh, Virginia Woolf is doing with language something like Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar.' It got me and it made me want to do something like that myself. It made me understand what a book can do. I had thought they were dusty, sad little things that lived over there in the dim silent library. That book came to life for me in a way that changed me forever.

Q (to DH & SD): How did you go about adapting Cunningham's novel?
DH: It was slightly unnerving, the number of people who came to me and said, 'Oh, you're doing The Hours - poor you.' I couldn't see what the problem was in that the book seemed to me so cinematic. You've got three stories and slowly, as the thing proceeds, you begin to understand, not just how they're connected thematically, but how they're connected literally.
If anything was an inspiration, it was Amores Perrros, which similarly had a triangular structure and made me feel that three is a much more exciting number than two. The films that are really boring to me are those which go back and forth.
However brilliantly you do it, eventually it becomes like the Williams sisters playing baseline tennis. Possession was, I thought, slightly trapped in that motion. What's wonderful about a triangular structure is that you never know where you're going next. The difficulty is at what rate you tell people things. The one thing you must not do is obfuscate. On the other hand, you must never let the audience get ahead of you. What was interesting was that at the very first preview we asked people what genre they thought it was like and the majority said it was most like a thriller because you're trying to understand what happens and pit your wits against the film as this is slowly revealed.
SD: Because of the very complex nature of the three stories, we spent many, many months getting to a point when we could shoot it. This was certainly not a film that was created in the edit room. We pretty much knew how the stories were going to connect, thematically, intellectually and emotionally before we shot them. We would literally know how we would cut from one to another while we were shooting. We prepped very well.

Q: What was Cunningham's involvement in the film?
MC:
I really don't have very high moral standards and I will do anything for money, so I was surprised when Scott [Rudin, the producer] called to find that I was a little bit reluctant. I did not want my book to be made into a bad movie. But when Scott brought it David Hare, I thought, 'Great'. I don't have that thing that a lot of writers do about the sacred text.
As far as I can tell, the only way to respond to an invitation like this is to decide whether you're interested in the people who want to do it and, if the answer is 'Yes,' then just turn it over to them and say, 'Go, surprise me. See where you can take this.' Otherwise, what fun is it? I think of my book in musical terms, the way a jazz musician might play improvisations on an older, existing great piece of music in order to pay tribute to it, play around with it, understand it better, make something new out of a work of art that already exists. The movie is an improvisation on an improvisation.

DH: Michael and I had a sort of psychic tryst. We met for four or five hours and he said to me, 'Look, I took Virginia Woolf's novel, Mrs Dalloway, and did what I wanted with it in order to rewrite it in a contemporary way. Now you must go off and write what you wish to and we'll hand the baton on.' I never met Michael again until the film was completed. And I feel that, by as it were being unfaithful, I remain true to the spirit of what he wrote.

Q: What does Virginia Woolf mean for you?
SD:
Having done an English Literature degree at university, I was deeply aware of Virginia Woolf and somehow she'd always stayed with me. The great thing about her, one of the reasons she is so current in our consciousness is that she can be reinvented by each generation. She feels like a contemporary rather than a literary figure from the past. She was a central figure in the 1970s women's movement with A Room Of One's Own, so she has huge social as well as a literary and cultural importance.

DH: We were worried the Virginia Woolf story would come across as a conventional period piece, but I think the casting of Nicole Kidman was very much an attempt to avoid that. In Britain there was a certain amount of snobbish laughter at the idea of Nicole Kidman playing Virginia Woolf, but that was an absolutely deliberate attempt on Stephen's part to confound expectations and I hope it does make that Virginia Woolf material seem much more contemporary.

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