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

Special to The Times

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.

Neither director has a bad word to say about their highflying producers -- though it would be fair to say that they found them more intrusive than their theatrical counterparts. They have more opportunity to be.

"I was actually most concerned about post-production with Harvey," Marshall says. "And because I'd been reading about [Martin] Scorsese [and his conflicts with Weinstein over 'Gangs of New York'], I thought, 'Here we go.' I was waiting for Harvey Scissorhands to make his appearance, and it never happened. I was treated with such respect."

"Scott and I worked on the movie so closely together, he never really felt like a producer to me," Daldry says. "He wasn't trying to muscle in or disrupt me. It was his idea to get David, and it was his idea to get me. So the three of us were a little group."

Actually it was a group effort for both directors. Both say that the theater demands collegiality, and that's how they approached their respective shoots.

Marshall recalls a veteran director visiting him on the set and saying, "Just remember, they all do it for you, they're all here to serve you." But then, Marshall adds, "He walked away and I thought, 'That's the worst piece of advice I've ever gotten. I'm doing the exact opposite of that. I am there to serve them, and I want everybody to be with me."

Daldry found the piecemeal nature of production -- the necessarily brief but intense relationships -- confounding and lonely.

He compares the process to a relay race in which the people you start with aren't the same ones you end up with.


Undaunted by film

Neither director was much daunted by the technical aspects of film directing, though both say lighting a scene is always a trial because it's hard to tell what it's actually going to look like and because the process is so tedious. Marshall says that some theater directors won't make the transition to film because they don't have the patience for it.

For Marshall, who couldn't afford to linger on the set, most of the acting preparation was done in rehearsal. In fact, he was so relentless that one of the actresses came up to him and said, "Let's not squeeze the lemons." To which Marshall counters, "In the theater, you squeeze lemons and you just keep squeezing." Daldry says that at one point during the shoot Streep said rather gaily, "OK, Take 16 then." He wasn't sure whether or not she was kidding.

Strangely, both directors had a hard time saying, "Action!" "I couldn't believe anyone actually said that," Daldry says. "You don't really still say that, do you? OK, 'Action.'

"I was embarrassed to say the word. It feels like such a cliche."

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