Scott Rudin: unafraid of Virginia Woolf

Times Staff Writer

Scott Rudin has made 35 movies, but not until “The Hours” did he receive his first best picture Oscar nomination. One of Hollywood’s busiest -- and most demanding -- producers, Rudin holds movie rights to many of the best books published in the last decade, from Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” to Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections.”

In making “The Hours,” Rudin, whose temper is legendary, wrestled not only with Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story about Virginia Woolf but also with the equally fiery Harvey Weinstein, whose Miramax Films co-financed (along with Paramount) the $22-million adaptation. A veteran of Broadway theater (he has won three Tonys), the 44-year-old Rudin spent an afternoon in his Times Square offices talking about art, commerce and prosthetic noses.

Question: You have said good books often make bad movies. Why did you think there was a good movie in “The Hours”?

Answer: There were two things that made me want to do it. I was tremendously moved by it, and I love what I refer to as the math of it. How do you tell the stories of three women and make it hang together? The two women in period stories live in these physical prisons, and one woman for whom there is no prison except her own grieving for what she has missed. I loved that as a battleground for a movie. It never occurred to me that all of the problems I have tried to avoid in adaptations were monumentally present in it.

Q: Because the book is novelistic and not inherently cinematic?


A: I just didn’t think of it that way. When I was 18, Philip Kaufman approached me about casting “The Wanderers.” I read the book and said, “This will be such incredible fun to cast.” I got the job, and then I reread the book and said, “What did I get myself into? Where do I find the Ducky Boys? Where do I find the Wongs? It is just not possible.”

Q: Why did you and screenwriter David Hare go through 30 screenplay drafts?

A: Always the balance of the three stories. It’s very hard to think of a movie with multiple story lines in which there is not one story that is not a drag. It’s not the story you want to be watching. In “The Hours,” Clarissa (Meryl Streep) has the least tangible problem and is the hardest to dramatize. Her problem is basically ennui and loss. Somehow you have to make her past alive. Can you add a flashback? Probably not -- then it’s not Meryl Streep. Do you do it in a voice-over? Probably not. And you have to keep the presence of Richard (Ed Harris) alive, when he only has two scenes. We worked on it the hardest, and I think it turned out to be the most moving. And it’s very scary to put in big, long set pieces. The first scene between Meryl and Ed Harris is so long it’s essentially a one-act play. And movies tend not to allow for that anymore.

Q: Why is that?

A: There’s a general contempt for the audience. People are trained on a much faster style of storytelling now.

Q: Do you prefer working alone?

A: As opposed to working for two studios? In my experience, the studios will get together and decide which company is running the production. But it never really works that way. Everyone at both companies always wants to have some relationship, and it can be very time-consuming, and frequently they don’t agree. When that happens, I will just say, “Guys. Work this out between yourselves. Come to me with one opinion, and I will deal with your opinion.”

Q: Did that happen on this movie?

A: Yes. A couple of times, including the much-reported disagreements about the nose [Rudin wanted Nicole Kidman to wear a prosthetic and Weinstein did not] and the music [Rudin liked Philip Glass; Weinstein initially didn’t]. I wouldn’t have objected to either of those discussions, frankly, had they not gotten into the press. In the end, as the producer of the movie, I have to trust my own instincts. I can’t follow someone else. I feel somebody has to be in charge.

Q: Was there a day when you thought “The Hours” wouldn’t get made?

A: Many days. And I said, “If I don’t get this made, I don’t want to do this anymore.” It felt to me like it was such a seminal test of my abilities. And I felt like I was so emotionally invested in the material and in the people who were doing it. We had to work out the relationship between Paramount and Miramax, which was complicated. The budget. And then, the material, actually doing the movie. What is it? How do you make it work? How do you tell it? It’s not inexpensive. Next to “Spider-Man,” it’s inexpensive. But “Spider-Man” is not fundamentally about suicide. It’s challenging. There was one day when I called (senior Paramount executives) Sherry Lansing and Jonathan Dolgen and John Goldwyn and said, “You just have to do this for me. You have to make this.” There was a whole issue about what was going to happen if Nicole didn’t get free of ‘Panic Room’ in time to do this before the [threatened writers’ and actors’] strike. And I had proposed that we would shoot two-thirds of the movie before the strike, and if we had to come back, we would come back and finish the movie. Jonathan Dolgen said to me, “You’re crazy. You’re going to have a two-thirds finished movie and sit on it for a year?” And I said, “Yeah. And then we’ll finish it. I want you to go along with this, because I have made a lot of movies for you.” When I look at it now, that took a tremendously insane leap of faith. And then it turned out Nicole didn’t do “Panic Room” because she injured her knee, she did do ours.

Q: Is it strange that the strongest Oscar competition for “The Hours” comes from “Chicago” and “Gangs of New York,” movies produced by Weinstein?

A: It’s not strange. It’s inevitable. He makes good movies. There is one shop in town that is making challenging movies. I think it’s incredible that he has found a way to run a business making these kind of movies. So I don’t begrudge him now nor do I feel lousy about being in competition with those movies.

Q: Did you regret sending Harvey a carton of cigarettes [Weinstein is forever trying to kick a chain-smoking habit] or was it a good joke at the time?

A: I think it’s still a good joke. It’s a very interesting thing with Harvey. Because I have an unbelievable amount of respect for him and I always have a good time when I am with him. And yet, at the same time, we are both control freaks. We both want to run our own shows. When I’m doing a Miramax movie, I work for him. And I don’t like that feeling. I chafe under that. I especially chafe under it when I feel that I’m on a leash.

At the same time, the guy has always had good ideas about the movies we’ve done. He was very, very tough on “Iris.” But it was at a point when he was right. We went back and basically redid almost the entire movie.

Q: Were you opposed to his suggestions on “Iris”?

A: I was offended. Mostly I was offended because it was hard to hear when you think you have finished something. And you haven’t. And I also think Harvey with me is not always sensitive to the way those ideas get expressed. We butt up against each other. But I would do it again. I am producing David O. Russell’s [“Three Kings”] next movie at Miramax. [Harvey] is a guy who wants to make this movie and will sell it well. I think I just have to learn to relax around this process more.

Q: No! A kinder and gentler Scott?

A: I had a whole conversation with Harvey about this. He told me he was going to be a kinder and gentler Harvey. And I said, “Well, then, no one will want to work with you!” Which I kind of meant. I think one of the reasons filmmakers seek to work with Harvey and me is they want that combative ability. They want that turned to their advantage. They want to work with somebody who is willing to do whatever it takes to get their movie made, and get their movie sold.

They don’t want you to be nice and sweet. They want you to go and kill for them. And that is the job. You are supposed to go out there and mow down the opposition and do everything you can for the movie. Filmmakers like to always steer clear of this. But they are very happy you are willing to do it. He’s tough. I’m tough. We fight with people. And yet, we get the stuff done.

Q: But isn’t there a difference between being tough and injecting personal animus into the process?

A: Yes. You’re not supposed to inject personal animus, and it’s stupid if you do. The times that I have, I regret having done it. At the same time, sometimes what people think is personal animus is frustration with the inability to get the thing done. Movies have opportunities that come around once. If you know what that opportunity is, and you’re sitting there watching it float right past you, you want to go out and make it happen.

Q: And, as you see it, the current against which you are swimming is stronger than ever.

A: Maybe it’s just me, but I sure feel that way. The business has gotten incredibly tough. People talk about what a great year this was for movies. And yet a lot of those movies that people think are these big, courageous movies have not been all that financially successful. So, yes, this year looks really good. But you’re not going to see a lot of these movies again for a couple of years. Some of the people who made these movies are losing money on them. They are not going to be so excited about going out there and taking the same risk six months later. So it’s nice that we all get to pat ourselves on the back for being so brave this year, but it’s not coming around again soon. Having the ability to persevere with a piece of material is much more necessary to get the job done now than it was five or 10 years ago. I’ve made a lot of movies that I wonder if I could get made now.

Q: So why not just produce plays?

A: Because I love movies. And I love doing something that reaches a lot of people. I prefer going to the theater than working in it. I’m not that good working with 20 partners on a play. I go to these advertising meetings, and there are 20 people sitting around a table trying to decide if they should take out an ad that costs $2,000 or $2,500. And I want to say, “I’ll pay the $500. Just let me out of this room!”

Q: You’ve said in the past the business can be demeaning and debilitating.

A: It’s just all hard. In the end, no one is going to make a movie that they don’t want to make. They’re just not going to do it. And they don’t have to. I would happily be demeaned to make “Kavalier & Clay.” Because I think it is worth it. I want to go be in a room, working on this material, I want to work with this author, I want to work with these actors. [The cast will probably include Jude Law.]

Q: Would winning an Oscar mean more than winning a Tony?

A: What would mean more to me is feeling like I did the work the best I could do. When I look at “The Hours,” I feel that is the best movie I can make from that book. And I have never really felt that about anything that I have done. Maybe somebody else can do better, but I can’t.