Michael Cunningham Interview

Novelist Michael Cunningham, screenwriter David Hare share a passion for Virginia Woolf & the film that came of their work

Novelist Michael Cunningham, screenwriter David Hare share a passion for Virginia Woolf & the film that came of their work

(Some questions in this interview have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

Novelist Michael Cunningham, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Hours," and screenwriter David Hare, who adapted the book into a film, are an interestingly mismatched pair. Although clearly on the same wavelength creatively -- as evidenced by their joint enthusiasm for the story that connects them -- Hare is a rather proper British intellectual in his 50s, whereas 40-something American Cunningham has the well-dressed but roughshod-featured look of a action movie bad guy with piercing eyes and a wicked grin.

At first glance he's hardly a fellow you'd imagine writing a century-spanning novel about how the lives of three women are deeply affected by Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway." But when Cunningham speaks -- especially about Woolf herself -- it's with such a poetic passion that his emotional kinship with his characters radiates through his jagged facade.

The brilliant, mentally tormented Woolf herself is one of those characters -- embodied in all her tension and intellect by a remarkably transformed Nicole Kidman in the film. Equally magnificent are Julianne Moore, as a fragile 1950s housewife whose deep depression and suicidal musings go all but unnoticed by everyone except her young son, and Meryl Streep, as a self-sacrificing modern Manhattanite version of Mrs. Dalloway -- a woman hiding deep reservoirs of regret while being a mother hen to friends and family.

Cunningham seems also to share a kinship with Hare, who took on the daunting task of adapting his emotionally and narratively complex triptych into a well-balanced film that is generating intense Oscar buzz. In San Francisco together to talk about "The Hours," the men's matching devotion to the film and to Virginia Woolf herself has an electricity-conducting effect as they feed off each other's thoughts and comments with friendly fermentation.

Q: Did you two collaborate at all during the writing process? Michael, did you visit the set? How involved were you in the movie?

MC: I was exactly as involved as I wanted to be. David and I met for much of a day in London...

DH: New York!

MC: Was it New York? Yeah, yeah. We really just talked about who these (characters) were outside of the book -- where they come from, what their childhoods were like, who their other lovers have been -- and it was one of my first indications that this would go very well. What David wanted to know was exactly what a writer should want to know. Purely and simply, who are these people and how did they get like this?

Q: So how did you feel about seeing the cast come together? Each name you heard must have been exciting.

MC: Enormously exciting! I was fortunately never in the position of hearing that they wanted to cast anyone I wasn't ecstatic about. I never had to try to find out how much or how little say I had on the subject. You know, the one thing that was interesting -- this was nothing formal, but I sat around with (director) Stephen Daldry late one night in London, and he said he very much wanted Richard (the AIDS-afflicted, gay ex-lover of Streep's now-lesbian character) to be played by someone other than the sort of stereotypical, wispy, delicate little poet type. He wanted Richard to be the wreckage of a big, handsome man.

We started trying to think of names of big, handsome actors who would not seem entirely ludicrous as poets, but we couldn't think of anybody! All the names that came up, we went, "Ha, ha! Right." Nevermind that they wouldn't do it! Then Stephen called me up a couple days later and said, "Ed Harris." How could we not have thought of Ed Harris? As far as I can tell, the one guy like that -- Guy with a capital G -- whom you would believe as a poet.

Q: He's quite powerful in the film. Ed Harris throws himself into roles heart and soul.

MC: Yeah, yeah.

DH: [To Cunnignham] I don't think you know this, but I had a reading when I was working on the screenplay...I got a group of actors together who happened to be in New York on that Sunday. Steven Dillane (who plays Virginia Woolf's husband Leonard) was in New York that day, so he read both parts -- he read Richard and he read Leonard Woolf.

MC: Oh, wow...

DH: He was the only person from that day who eventually got cast. He played Leonard absolutely perfectly. But he was frightfully good as Richard! I remember saying to Scott (Rudin, the producer) afterwards, "Can't he play both parts?"

MC: [Laughs out loud.]

Q: I don't mean to keep hounding on the casting, but it's just extraordinary from top to bottom. You've got the leads, but you've got John C. Reilly, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Miranda Richardson -- I could go on and on.

DH: There was something very funny that an American friend of mine said. He said, "I keep reading these interviews in which actors say they want to do more serious work. This is your chance to call Hollywood's bluff!"

[Everyone laughs.]

DH: And they rose to the challenge magnificently. Nobody turned us down. A couple people were busy, but nobody turned us down.

Q: And every single actor is at the top of his or her game. One of the first notes I took while watching the film was that Nicole Kidman is literally acting all the way down to her fingertips.

DH: Yes, she is. Her whole body is acting.

Q: I just read somewhere that they were going to use somebody else for the hands in a close-up for a scene she'd already shot, but she jumped on a plane and went back to London on her own dime just to shoot the hands.

DH: That's right. I think with Nicole what was so wonderful was that in the period of research with the art department and with Stephen Daldry, she discovered...something about the way (Woolf) wrote. I had (the character) sitting, writing at a desk, and that's wrong. She didn't write at a desk. She wrote at a board. She had a writing board, and she had a scratchy pen, and the physicalization of how Virginia Woolf actually wrote is now totally authentic. That's also, (a) way Nicole was able to suggest what was going on internally.

The thing is that when we were all theater students, we used to do mask work, and the claim of mask work in Greek theater is that once you put the mask on, you're liberated. And in fact, Nicole, by putting that nose on (a prosthetic she wore to look more like Woolf), becomes a completely different person. You see her differently. You see her body completely differently. In a way, by being liberated from her own prettiness, she becomes the person behind the mask -- the nose is the mask that brings the person out.

Q: Michael, you said before there wasn't anyone you weren't thrilled to hear about being cast. But when you heard the name Nicole Kidman mentioned as Woolf, didn't that come as a bit of a surprise?

MC: Yes, yes, it did. But my first thought was, wouldn't Virginia Woolf love being played by someone so beautiful? She was, in fact, enormously beautiful, until about middle age, when she changed kind of abruptly, as people with mental illness often do. You can age really quickly with such an ailment. She is mostly remembered as being a glowering, scary-looking thing. That's what stares out at you from those Barnes and Noble shopping bags. But I think she would love to be portrayed by someone with the beauty and stature that Nicole has.

I had never seen Nicole do work anything like this. I'd seen Julianne and Meryl act at such extraordinary levels, so I knew they'd be great. Nicole was much more, "Well, let's see!" So the fact that she does an admirable job is all the more satisfying. She could do this all along, but she hadn't been given the opportunity.

Q: The lead of my review says that this movie is an Oscar voter's nightmare because how do you choose if two or three of these actresses are nominated?

MC: It really points out what's ludicrous about prizes -- the idea that any one of these women needs to be singled out and called the best.

Q: So was there anything you were sorry to see go in the adaptation? Something lost in the transition to the screen? A favorite scene you had to give up?

DH: Lots. Lots.

MC: Yeah. I knew, of course, that the novel was going to have to lose weight in its transition to screen. There's nothing that's been cut that I think was a mistake to cut. But I am particularly sorry that poor old Mary Crowell -- who is a sort of queer theorist with whom the Claire Danes character is enthralled -- didn't make the cut. There's this whole other little drama going on, and one of the reasons Mary Crowell is there is her fury at Meryl Streep and Allison Janney's dyke bourgeois, middle-brow life. She is a wraith of lesbianism, and she just despises them and is in love with the Claire Danes character (who is Streep's daughter). But she was just one person too many. There just wasn't room for her.

DH: Can I tell you why that was cut?

MC: [Excited] Please!

DH: What makes that passage wonderful to me is the last line, in which you say she'll never get her. She will pursue her, but she will never succeed. To me, that's the only way of making that a story, and I thought, there is no way that I can have anybody say that line, so how will we know she'll never succeed? I was worried that people would think they were having a relationship -- that Claire Danes was indeed having a relationship with Mary Crowell -- and that was my problem. You have such a beautiful bow on that story -- that this woman is never going to manage to seduce her. But how do you say that in a film?

Q: Did you start off with a 350-page screenplay that you had to pare down?

DH: No, but I tried various scenes that didn't work and I did write all sorts of scenes from the book. But once I couldn't make them work... [Trails off]

Q: [To Michael] It sounds to me like you were involved on some level as the film went on. It must have felt good to have a say.

MC: It was great. I'm sure this will never happen again because it was, for me, the perfect balance of removal and involvement. I was very much watching this body of gifted people do something else with my book. But at the same time I felt like a part of it...

DH: Michael is in it!

Q: Really?

MC: I am. My lines were cut. When Meryl is walking to the flower shop, I'm walking toward her, about to deliver my lines...[Laughs]

DH: (Your line) was in for quite a long while. It (was cut) late, if that's any consolation.

MC: That is a consolation! I'm glad to hear that.

Q: I hope you found out before the premiere that you were cut.

MC: No, that was my first realization.

Q: Oh, no!

DH: What I was most nervous about was whether you'd agree to speak my lines!

[Laughs all around.]

MC: Oh, sure! I'd just done all this writing in hopes of getting to be in the movies!

Q: Did you hope to be a part of making the film when you sold the rights? Or did you sell and just say, "It's in someone else's hands now"?

MC: Well, that's part of what I mean when I say this could never happen again. I was exactly as involved as I wanted to be. I wanted to get to work on my next book and let these other writers and...

Q: ...to let it have its second life?

MC: Yeah, yeah. I didn't want to control it. I'd had enough of it. I wanted people to do something else with it, but at the same time I felt in contact with it in a million little ways. They needed titles for Richard's books that are out at the party. You can't even read the titles, but I thought up titles of his books of poetry. I gave them the music Meryl is listening to when (another of Richard╣s ex-lovers played by) Jeff Daniels comes to visit. Just little stuff. But if feels like it's also my movie.

DH: I think that's partly Stephen's character. I think that Stephen Daldry is the most collegiate director I've ever been involved with. Most directors are territorial. They say, "It's my vision. It's my movie." They want to plant their vision. Stephen wants to listen to everybody, and he thinks it's unintelligent not to listen to what everybody has to say. He wants to see whether what they're seeing can help him get what he wants. I think the character of the film comes from him.

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