Guardian/ NFT interview: Stephen Daldry

Stephen Daldry has followed up an acclaimed first film, Billy Elliot, with the even more fancied The Hours. The day after The Hours was nominated for nine Oscars, Daldry spoke to the Guardian's theatre critic Michael Billington about the film, awards and his love for theatre

Michael Billington: How did the project of The Hours all start for you?

Stephen Daldry: The producer is Scott Rudin, with Robert Fox, and both of them have been involved in London theatre. Scott I've known for many years. Obviously David Hare is an old friend and colleague and I knew he was writing this adaptation. The first draft was sent to me on holiday, along with the book, and I read them both in the same day.

MB: You get the script out of the blue - what was your instant reaction?

SD: There are a few writers that one has a relationship with that means, basically, you do whatever they say. One is Caryl Churchill, and the other is David Hare. The script arrived from David and he said, "Do you want to do this film?" and I said, "Of course I will... what is it?"

I was reading so many scripts at that time - Billy Elliot hadn't come out yet so I was trying to finish that - and it was unlike any other script I'd read. It felt unique and "out-of-genre". Every other script reminded me of another film - this one didn't and I thought it was incredibly powerful.

MB: Were you heavily involved in the re-drafting of the script?

SD: Yes, we knew we had a long time before we got to a pre-production draft. The difficulty was that we knew that the actresses would never meet because of their availability and because we were shooting wildly out of sequence. It was very much like mathematics - we had to be very careful about the architecture of the film before we started shooting it in terms of its cutting pattern. This was not a film created in the editing room, though a lot of decisions were made there, it was very much to do with the screen-play stage. We spent a lot of time testing and prepping everything so that when we came to shoot it we knew what we were doing.

MB: So that initial stage was about finding the right structure and trying to interweave the strands of the story?

SD: I don't think the architecture really changed wildly in our subsequent investigations. It was very much about rhythm, context, cutting patterns and where you need to release certain information to make the tension work. What I like about the film is that people have a very personal response to it, but for us making it, it felt like a thriller as you release those connections between the three stories.

MB: It's a densely layered film. At heart it's about the way that Virginia Woolf's life and art permeate the lives of those that came after her. What, for you, is the film about?

SD: That's very hard because if I say what it's about for me, I don't want to deny anybody else's response to it. What I've enjoyed about following the film about a little bit is that people have responses we never thought about and are often quite imaginative and emotional. I don't want to deny that validity.

I suppose that at its core it's about the very difficult choices people have to make in order to make their lives possible. So often those choices are put into cliche or a sentimental mode that tries to make it easier for us to have happiness. The cost of that happiness or the cost of the choices are never explored. The cost of the choices that, it seems to me, these incredibly courageous women make, felt very truthful.

MB: Can I explore some of the ideas of the film that struck me? Part of the film is about the right to choose how and when you die. The last phrase: "To look life in the face and know it for what it is. To love it for what it is and then put it away". Is that saying that we do have the right to choose?

SD: I was always terribly struck by the suicide of Sarah Kane who was a playwright at the Royal Court Theatre. Sarah was a friend and when she died it was an "odd thing". Most suicides are predicated on the idea of revenge or anger in some way, but Sarah's suicide was not to do with that at all. The letter Virginia Woolf writes at the beginning of the film is releasing everybody else from the responsibility for her own action. It's always very hard to talk about this.

It doesn't seem to me to be about death, although there is that sense of suicide. I don't know about you Michael, but I, and friends of mine, go through moments when perhaps you contemplate moments in your life when there needs to be a change and you work out what the scenario might be should you decide to kill yourself. Am I mad, or does anybody else go through this?

Whether anybody else goes through this too or not, I suppose we'll find out this week when the film goes wide. I hope the emotional connections in the film will reach a wider audience - we're going to a 1,000 screens in the States so we'll find out at midnight on Saturday.

MB: It also seemed to me to be a film about the nature of fiction and story-telling. It also seems to me to be about how writers cannibalise the lives of their friends. It seemed to me to be about the afterlife of the book. Is that right?

SD: Difficult question. I don't know. People used to say, "Books change your life". Well, books change my life, but it's not a phrase you hear very often any more. So this book changed Michael Cunningham's life and changes Laura Brown's life in the story.

In a sense it's about the cost of creation and whether it's valid or not - the character of Richard feels his work is a failure.

MB: All the characters have some connection with literature and publishing. This idea runs through the film. Laura is the reader of the fiction.

SD: Certainly she feels some permission, allowance or danger within this book. The books that I read felt very powerful - not only in my adolescence but now. I still read books that inform me or change me or upset me...

MB: Could you give an example?

SD: No.

MB: Why not?

SD: Because I'll say it's this book or that book. I categorically resist this idea that films are supposed to be autobiographical and the only stories you tell are about your own life. This is not my own life. Yes, there might be moments when I get fed up and think of suicide, but it's not my own life.

When I made Billy Elliot, people asked me, "Oh, did you want to be a dancer when you were young, then?" I didn't even like dance before I made the film. "Do you come from the north-east?" No, Somerset. "Is it based on someone?" No. We made it up. We just made it up. The act of making something up seems to be very difficult these days. This is something that Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham, David Hare and I just made up.

I get frustrated about it because they say, "How can a man talk about women?" I say, "Steven Spielberg didn't need to be an alien to talk about ET. You don't need to be a dog to direct Lassie." It seems to be a denial of the process of imagination, which is a posh word for "guesswork".

MB: I just thought that the books that changed your life would be interesting to know.

SD: I don't know. The book that changed my life at 14 was The Lord of the Rings. So I hope the film wins every Oscar it should get.

MB: There are three different strands in this film, but it mustn't look like three different movies. You have to maintain, I presume, diversity and at the same time visual unity. Are there technical ways to achieve that?

SD: Every now and then I have to teach directing. The thing about the theatre is that the most important thing you can do as a director is to make sure that everybody is in the same world - you have to create the world and make sure everyone buys into it. I have seen pieces of theatre where individual actors are astonishing, but they're astonishing in totally different productions and they just happen to be sharing the same stage. I've seen it in the cinema as well. So that was my main task in this film, which was a challenge given the fact that we were out of sequence, that there were three stories and that there had to be one emotional arc and the themes and narrative and emotional strands had to tie in together.

MB: You shot the strands separately ...

SD: They never met. We shot Meryl first, then Julianne, then Nicole. The first time they got together was on the Oprah Winfrey show and talked about cornflakes.

MB: How do you make sure that everyone is in the same film if there is no contact in the story?

SD: I don't know, Michael. Are you asking me how to direct?

MB: How do you maintain continuity with not only actors but with the time periods and geography? Is that to do with the design?

SD: God. That's such a hard question. Yes. Yes, it's to do with a series of leitmotifs. Hopefully it's more fun on the second or third viewings because you get to see more of the connections - my favourite is wallpaper - between the different strands. Apart from the emotional language you're working on, you're working with a behavioural language and trying to find behavioural rhythms and language. The book deals with internal monologues, what could be termed "voiceover", which David very rightly rejected early on. It's about actions, really. When we come down to it, Michael, it's about actions. Which is basically late Stanislavsky rather than early Stanislavsky.

MB: You shot these three sequences with three different actors, and all actors have a different rhythm and way of working. Did you have to adjust your style of working?

SD: Yes.

MB: I am genuinely interested to know how you work with different performers. Meryl Streep has obviously made many more movies than the other two, so it can't be the same working with her.

SD: The simple difference is that Meryl's clever and works intelligently, you could argue, and Nicole is intuitive. Nicole is a character actress and Meryl is a leading actress. Meryl works off the breath. It's a complicated thing, but she's a total Patsy Rodenburg freak, it seemed to me. She works emotionally off where her breath is at any particular moment, and once you tap into that it's incredibly useful. Nicole would not work like that. Julianne has a totally different process. It's very hard because when you make a piece of work you fall in love with those you're working with, so it's like trying to analyse or anecdote a love affair.

MB: Surely Nicole Kidman had the hardest task, because she was dealing with a historical person. Did she immerse herself in Virginia Woolf material?

SD: Yes. The great thing, I think, about Virginia Woolf is that she is reinvented for each new generation. She still seems to me to be radical, and the producer and I were keen to get a contemporary voice, somebody who could be our Virginia Woolf, someone who spoke directly and vibrantly to us now.

I thought Nicole Kidman was a phenomenal character actress in The Blue Room at the Donmar. She was sexy, difficult, dark, animal and witty and so it felt like this aspect of Nicole would be a fantastic element to have as Virginia Woolf. The danger is you get some fusty old version of Virginia Woolf that was lost in the midst of time, so it felt more appropriate to have her as dynamic as the writing still is today.

MB: Was it equally as important to give the men as much background life as possible?

SD: There are different concerns along the way. Stephen Dillane and I had to decide how to deal with Leonard Woolf - so much has been written about that relationship that in the end you have to take a point of view. Our view was that this man loved this woman very profoundly and was very committed to her and the life that she wanted to live. Whatever you describe Virginia Woolf's condition as - madness, or manic depression - Leonard was a man that loved her very much. The love that John C Reilly has, and the love that Meryl Streep has ... the role of carers and the willingness of people to sacrifice so much.

MB: How did you direct the children so well?

SD: Obviously the child is not reacting to what you're looking at in the film. There's no point talking to a child, saying "I think the motivation of your character... stop playing with the toy, listen to me." So the child is mostly responding to me, and you have to tell them things that you think they might respond to.

The scene at the birthday party where there's this wish that this family could work ... and most of the time he's listening to me reading Jack and the Beanstalk. There's a scene in the car where Julianne says to the kid, "I love you, honey". The kid smiles, and actually he's reacting to me saying, "Nearly finished!" You have to work with the kid a long time to get the reactions and then slot them in.

MB: When you look at the film now, having worked in the theatre when you can change things nightly, is there anything you would change?

SD: The only good thing about the award dog-and-pony show is that you get to meet a lot of other directors and get to talk to them. I love previews and those "focus groups" where you can talk to people. In the theatre, I'm used to it. Once the film is frozen, you don't get the opportunity to work on it, and if it was up to me I'd carry on working on it, so it's quite startling. It's very hard to keep watching the film because it's set and then all you really stare at is your own mistakes, so it's very hard to watch.

MB: Did you read the piece by Hermione Lee in the Guardian? She made some interesting points about the social scale in the film.

SD: I did a talk with Hermione in Oxford, and I thought I'd won all my points back, but she'd already filed the piece. She asked why we'd not filmed at the Ouse in Sussex. Well, firstly, the National Trust were reluctant to let us film there, and secondly the river is completely different to how it was in 1941. The drainage has entirely changed. The river Ouse is now a little stream, so you ask yourself, "How could anyone kill themselves here?" Then we found it was completely changed in the 1950s. In the end, it's not a documentary - you have to make your own version of events.

MB: The Woolfs also appeared to live in a much larger house than they could afford.

SD: I talked to Hermione about that, and I've visited all of their houses, and the house in Richmond was surprisingly large. Our house literally was too big, and I chose it because you need space to get the camera in. But, it was slightly too big, and I take that criticism.

MB: How hard is the process of selling a film? The BBC made an interesting documentary on Billy Elliot which showed you being interviewed every 10 minutes.

SD: The process of selling is a complicated and strange thing. It's exhausting and one can be cynical about it. I didn't do it on Billy Elliot because I was making The Hours, but I'm much less cynical about it now. I find different audiences talking about the film sometimes upsetting and sometimes thrilling.

The nightmare of doing four-minute interviews in a hotel for three days seems to me to be insane. But you do it because you have a commitment to the people you worked with and want people to see the film.

MB: Are you looking forward to the Oscars, or are you approaching it with a kind of dread and alarm?

SD: It's hard to be surprised and delighted for two days. I think, being English, you have a natural irony about this and you know it's horse-trading and a marketing tool, but on the other hand your mum rings up and says, "Isn't that nice, dear?" So there's an odd contradiction between the two emotions.

MB: How did you learn the sheer nuts-and-bolts craft of film-making?

SD: I made a short before Billy Elliot to make sure I wasn't going to be a complete idiot. In the end, I think it's what you want to look at. I find it incredibly hard to be on a film set and be relaxed enough to know what I want to look at. I don't think you can learn it. I think there's very little relationship between theatre and film, and I'm just lucky to be starting a new career in my late 30s.

MB: Well, there's your ability to work with actors ...

SD: Well, yes. And the storytelling thing and narrative rhythm, but I think that's about it. I think film and theatre are technically in all other aspects entirely different.

MB: Has your film experience changed you as a theatre director?

SD: I think in the theatre, now, I am very much more concerned with the story.

MB: At the Gate, you made fantastic effects with very limited budgets. Now your production of A Number could not have been more direct - an almost empty stage. Is that conscious?

SD: You go through a process of refinement and getting rid of the excesses of your early youth in terms of your excitement about what theatre can do. The other answer, Michael, is that you reviewers think design has something to do with things flying in and moving about.

MB: Design is also about elimination?

SD: 'Nothing' is the hardest thing to do.

MB: Will you balance film and theatre in the future?

SD: I don't know. The one thing I can't live without is the theatre. My only ambition in life is to run another theatre before the decade is out.

MB: In London? In Britain?

SD: Who knows?

MB: Well, you might.

SD: But I'm not telling you ...

MB: You will presumably get inundated with scripts. Will it not be difficult to tear yourself away from the film business?

SD: No, I was brought up in the theatre. I can't imagine my life without it. I'm trying to cast A Number in New York now.

MB: I heard you were going to make a film of The Corrections.

SD: Who knows what will happen?

MB: What is your relationship with Sam Mendes? Is it one of rivalry or are you good friends?

SD: Of course there's no rivalry. My actors don't have rivalry between them. One of the great things about directors is how collegial we feel with each other. We share huge amounts - I get other directors in to see my work all the time and they do the same with me. It's a very warm and generous group of people.

Q: How did you get the casting you wanted? Did you get people one by one in a domino effect?

SD: The actors responded to the script and said yes. It was all our first choices. Actors can be attracted by other stars and so on, but if the part is good enough, they'll turn up. So I think David Hare is responsible.

Q: Will the DVD allow you to resuscitate scenes or explain the project more?

SD: There are no deleted scenes in this film, for good or bad. David Hare, Scott Rudin and I can stand up and say, "This is what we meant." So there is no other version. So it's very hard to do the DVD. I'm supposed to do a talk-through soon for the DVD, and I'm terribly anxious because they always seem terrible to me. I find them deeply unilluminating.

Q: Philip Glass seems to be the other star of the film.

SD: We tried so hard to put other music on this film, but I kept on going back to Philip. The film seemed to reject certain sorts of music that just supported scenes in a way that you weren't supposed to hear. We kept putting Philip Glass back on. We didn't ask him initially because we couldn't afford him, but he eventually agreed to do it for not very much money.

What's great about his score is that it works as another character in the film. I know some people don't like it, but I love it and there's a great counterpoint between image and picture. I think Philip Glass did a brilliant job.

Q: What is your favourite moment in the film?

SD: I don't know. What would anyone say to that question? Every moment is the best and the worst - we spent two-and-a-half years fretting over every moment.

Q: Do you think the film could have worked emotionally without the story of Virginia Woolf's suicide?

SD: I don't know. No, would be the instant response, it was always conceived of as a whole. Maybe it would have worked in that context for you. It could work lots of different ways.

Q: If you worked so heavily with the actors, did you have to rely heavily on your cinematographer?

SD: We spent a lot of time testing the different worlds of the film. Originally we thought we might have one stock and one filter that went all the way through the film and then we decided that we'd have a different look for each theme. We decided that there would be more narrative tension in cuts than dissolves. Seamus McGarvey, the director of photography, and Philip Sindall, who was the camera operator, were great teachers, and they'd worked with many different directors.

I was always against cameras doing the work - those gratuitous movements that accentuate a dramatic moment - and Phil was with me on that.

Q: Why did you choose to have one unreal moment in an otherwise very 'real' film - the water flooding the hotel room?

SD: I was trying to find a poetic moment that would link Woolf and Brown beyond reality. I didn't know whether I was going to use the shot or not. David Hare wasn't sure, but I just couldn't resist it. I took it out and put it back in all the time.

Q: You seemed to avoid portraying Virginia Woolf as a mad genius, is that you trying to avoid getting art and life too tangled up?

SD: It's hard to define what Woolf's mental illness was and what the role of the self is in creativity - Virginia Woollf said, "Unless I go into those dark moments, I can't actually do anything."

Q: Why did you choose Nicole Kidman? Was it to avoid the Englishness of Virginia Woolf? Do you think a contemporary Virginia Woolf could not reflect that "old Europe"?

SD: Virginia Woolf was dangerous, but there were a number of safe casting options we could have made to satisfy those people who wanted an English sensibility, but we just wanted someone dangerous.

MB: You cast Eileen Atkins as the flower shop owner, who is famous for playing Virginia Woolf.

SD: I asked Eileen to do it because she is such an authority on Virginia Woolf, and it seemed wrong to have the film without her in it. I think it's a great honour that she agreed to be in it.

Q: The editing was very dramatic on The Hours. You used John Wilson on Billy Elliot. Was there a big difference in the editing between the films?

SD: Yes. John Wilson wasn't available for The Hours. Peter Boyle, who worked incredibly hard on this, was very brilliant. In the end, it's about rhythm. One of the great things about Peter is his ability to understand the great qualities of actors and not to hustle them on.

You spend so much time in the editing room with editors that you're so delighted when they get nominated for an award, and I'm thrilled that Peter has for this film.

Q: Why did you decide to leave out the tension between the mother in the daughter in the book?

SD: We spent a lot of time with Michael Cunningham, who wrote the book, at the beginning of the process, and he was very generous in giving us free reign to change it for ourselves. We wanted one character to come in really late, Claire Danes. To have her turn up with a girlfriend felt like too many characters and we felt we needed to focus it down. Claire brings a whole new energy and life into it. The very last moment has the heart of forgiveness.

Q: At what part of the process do you decide things like wallpaper motifs?

SD: Really early. We had a series of rooms at Pinewood in which we mapped out the landscape of each particular set and what the costumes were. We kept walking from room to room to find what the references would be. You'd walk from room to room and make sure you were in the same world and keep changing the materials and hangings and so on. In Clarissa's apartment, you'll find all sorts of Bloomsbury stuff, which was good fun.

MB: Sound was important too, Strauss's Four Last Songs appears in the film. Was that in the book?

SD: That was Meryl. She decided that. So we thought it was a great idea.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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