Director Series: Daldry More Than Passes The Hours With His Crew
By Bill Desowitz
After the success of Billy Elliot, British director Stephen Daldry chose the enormous challenge of adapting Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours, about Virginia Woolf (portrayed by Nicole Kidman) and her liberating impact on two women in different time periods played by Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore. Intercutting the ‘20s and ‘50s with our own troubled times, Daldry essentially made three films in one with the help of his very creative crew. The Hours boasts Oscar nominations for Ann Roth’s detailed costume design and Peter Boyle’s intricate editing.
Below the Line: Let’s start with [Production Designer] Maria Djurkovic, whom you teamed with on Billy Elliot.
Daldry: One forms a strong bond with people you have worked with, and I wanted to maintain that bond with a few of them, including Maria. I’ve only made two films, so I wanted to keep a level of continuity and explore new areas, mostly so I that I get more experience. But I wanted to keep Maria. She has an imaginative sense of period, which is fastidious in its detail. But also imaginative in its response to period in terms of the emotional landscape that I needed in each particular section of this film. She seemed perfect in encapsulating what those worlds might be emotionally as well as visually.
BTL: What’s interesting is that even though you deal with three different periods, the ‘20s, the ‘50s, and our own, they’re not jarring. There’s a very smooth overlap corresponding to the emotional one.
Daldry: One needs to keep the emotional, thematic, and narrative arc going, so you create energy in the cuts from one fraction of one period to another period, which is why there are very few dissolves in the film. It was wanting to make sure there was a color palette and an overall color scheme and sensibility that ran through each of the three stories. As well as the more enjoyable leitmotifs running throughout the story, so you’ll find patterns and paintings in Meryl Streep’s apartment as you would in Virginia Woolf’s. And the love affair with wallpaper that we started in Billy Elliot has been maintained in this particular movie.
BTL: Talk about the overall scheme you worked out with [Cinematographer] Seamus McGarvey, Maria, [Set Decorator] Philippa Hart, and Ann Roth.
Daldry: I’m very bad at storyboarding generally, but we did do was have a visual storyboard for each period and each section of the film, which we all participated in. We created one continuing series of rooms in which one could see the whole film visually mostly in terms of texture and color. So you could literally walk around the film and start to see the relationship between light, color, fabrics, textures, as well as the obvious elements of character.
BTL: Obviously this was not a structure that was created in the editing room.
Daldry: We knew we had to have it down before we started shooting. And that included down to the detail of how we were going to cut from period to period, which Peter Boyle was a genius at and why I wanted him as editor.
BTL: It seemed as if these women were psychically connected.
Daldry: Almost like it was the story of one women instead of three. Exactly. And we spent many months on that and it was fantastic fun. Certain periods obviously you’re imagining a world in —I mean, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore’s characters are not real people—so that had its own particular challenges. We had to make sure the historical detail was accurate, right down to the paper and pen [Virginia Woolf] wrote with to the actual clothing she wore. And the relationship between Ann and Maria was very close to make sure the costume and production design were in sympathy.
BTL: How did you come to select them?
Daldry: Ann Roth was someone I had admired for many years, read a lot about. She is one of towering goddesses of the costume design world. Ann becomes a close confidant, she becomes close to every aspect of the filmmaking process. I try to keep her on set with me as much as I possibly can. She’s fantastic in rushes and she’s fantastic when we begin to cut. In developing a character, she’s essential in terms of your relationship with the actor and the actor’s relationship with the world of how they look and feel.
BTL: What was one of her great contributions?
Daldry: It was Ann and I who came up with the idea with Nicole of how to transform Nicole. And we started with shoes and dress and then me and Ann had a conversation about doing something to Nicole’s face if that might be a releasing force for her. Of course it was.
BTL: So we could forget it’s Nicole.
Daldry: And she could forget it’s Nicole. And she could go somewhere else and find other depths and another journey that she had never been on before.
BTL: And Seamus?
Daldry: Seamus was not someone personally that I knew but I knew about as being director friendly, somebody who forms incredibly strong bonds with that director. He is the most personable, charming man you’d ever want on a set—incredibly sensitive to the needs and requirements of actors, which obviously in this particular film I was very concerned about. The thing about Seamus is that he’s a young man. He looks he’s just come out of school. People are always so surprised [because] one seems to be entrusting this particular job to someone who looks like he’s just out of childhood. Of course he’s a genius collaborator.
BTL: And what was Seamus’ plan for this?
Daldry: Again, the key question was trying to find whether we were looking at one look or three looks. We originally thought we’d look at one look. And actually in the end we used different stock and different filters for each individual section to create more tension, and there was a relationship and energy that can be created as you cut from one to another. There is a distinct though very subtle change in density, focus, and indeed the nature of the stop. We wanted to be sympathetic to period without it being self-conscious.
BTL: And Philippa is another holdover from Billy Elliot?
Daldry: What can I say about Philippa? I think she’s sort of a genius set decorator. She knew the world of Virginia Woolf backwards on her own. And already had established relationships with the different estates. And we needed these contacts in order to do the copying or get the different materials required. Again, someone with infectious laughter and humor and someone who is a joy. She works brilliantly with actors again. So a lot of good choices were made working directly with the actors as they discovered their particular needs and requirements of their roles. They could talk directly to their department heads rather than mediating through me.
BTL: And what was Philippa’s relationship like with Meryl Streep?
Daldry: Philippa and Maria could spend joyful hours with Meryl developing the backstory that’s expressed in this contemporary apartment.
BTL: And obviously makeup played a crucial role here as well through the contributions of [Makeup and Hair Supervisor] Ivana Primorac and Conor O’Sullivan, and Jo Allen, who worked on the prosthetics.
Daldry: Ivana, again, a carry over from Billy Elliot, is a friend. And Ivana is a taskmaster at creating a context to which the actors feel comfortable and focused. She was also a genius and created with Ed [Harris] his makeup. It was Ivana and Ed that went to the doctors and the different consultants in order to create that very particular and specific look of a man living with AIDS. And, of course, the huge challenge of maintaining a consistency with the prosthetic each day with Nicole and that whole look. And the hair elements that Ivana is a genius at overseeing throughout the whole shoot.