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Marshall and Daldry: Stage is set for an Oscar face-off

The directors of 'Chicago' and 'The Hours' discover they have more than a few things in common -- including a theater background.

January 03, 2003|John Clark | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Hollywood's annual orgy of awards-giving is already upon us, and the two men whose films are early favorites -- "Chicago" director Rob Marshall (eight Golden Globe nominations) and "The Hours" director Stephen Daldry (seven) -- have convened in Manhattan to compare notes and, who knows, to look each other over.

Though their films aren't competing just yet -- "Chicago" and "The Hours" are in different categories for the Globes -- they are going head-to-head as directors, a competition that could be repeated on Oscar night.

"Oh, please," Marshall says of this supposed conflict. "I'm so thrilled even to be a part of this." "Rob Marshall, I'm going to mess him up," Daldry says menacingly (he's kidding). Then he adds, "You just feel like, 'Oh, my God, how weird. I'm just a farmer's boy from Somerset. Surely this can't be right.' "

Marshall and Daldry, who haven't seen each other's movies, have met before; they were introduced by "American Beauty" director Sam Mendes. In fact, they have quite a lot in common. Like Mendes, they both come from the theater (New York and London, respectively). To make their films, they both adapted, and had to radically rework, material that was successful in a different medium (a Tony Award-winning musical, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book).

Both made surprising casting choices (Renee Zellweger as a dancing, singing strumpet; Nicole Kidman as a dowdy, tormented Virginia Woolf). Both worked for flamboyant, demanding producers (Harvey Weinstein, Scott Rudin). And both made movies that, according to accepted wisdom, nobody wants to see (a musical, an adult drama) and apparently got away with it.

For Marshall it was less wrenching than for Daldry because of the theatrical nature of his project. "Chicago," adapted by Bill Condon from the 1975 John Kander-Fred Ebb-Bob Fosse musical, features Zellweger as Roxie Hart, who is sent to prison after shooting her lover. There she meets fellow murderer and aspiring musical comedy star Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and prison matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah), who hooks her up with a lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who is notorious for getting women acquitted by turning them into celebrities. Commenting on all of this are musical numbers that take place in Roxie's fevered imagination.


'Theater meets film'

"It was like theater meets film because I have all of these musical numbers that take place onstage," says Marshall, who co-directed and choreographed the Broadway revival of "Cabaret" and directed and choreographed "Annie" for television. "I found that the energy for the stage performances [was] for the most part the same as onstage. I felt right at home."

Daldry had a different experience with "The Hours," written by David Hare and based on Michael Cunningham's 1998 novel, a triptych held together by Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway." The film cuts back and forth between Woolf herself, who is busy writing and being bipolar; a suburban '50s housewife named Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), who is reading "Mrs.Dalloway" and feeling oppressed by married life and motherhood; and a contemporary well-heeled editor who is planning a party for an ex-lover and sharing Mrs. Dalloway's vague feelings of dissatisfaction.

"The Hours" demanded film acting and film pacing, much more than "Chicago" did, prompting Daldry, who became head of the Royal Court Theatre at the precocious age of 32 and who earned an Oscar nomination for directing "Billy Elliot," to say, "I don't think there's much relationship between the two mediums at all."

In fact, he adds, "The Hours" is much more film- than theater-friendly because theater audiences would find its complexity frustrating. Film audiences should be more patient with it, he says, maybe because their incessant movie and TV watching makes them narrative sophisticates, maybe because film can sustain and resolve complexity more easily.

Producer "Scott Rudin, once he bought the book, said that if he couldn't make it into a movie, he was going to make it into an opera," Daldry says. "Which makes sense to me, because musically you could hold three stories together."


No 'Scissorhands' on set

"Chicago" was Marshall's first feature film, and he had a mere (relatively speaking) 60 days and $45 million to work with, so he had the production meticulously planned, particularly since he was rehearsing musical numbers during the shoot. He found that process very much like preparing a stage production.

For Daldry, whose film is much more of a chamber piece, the biggest preproduction task was honing the script, because the three stories had to fit together. He wasn't about to find cohesion in the editing room, as some film directors would. For him that would be like pulling a stage project out of the fire on opening night. Marshall had similar issues with cutting back and forth between Roxie's dreams and reality. He wasn't going to figure it out after principal photography was over.

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