Adapting Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Hours,” about a day in the life of three seemingly disparate women from three different eras, was arguably the trickiest book-to-film feat of the year.
The big question for director Stephen Daldry and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey was “whether the different stories should have a unified look, or whether they should be totally separate,” says the helmer.
What was decided upon was a little of both, since, as McGarvey puts it, “although the film takes place in the 1920s, the 1950s and present day, the stories run parallel, and there was more that linked the stories rather than differentiated them stylistically.”
Daldry remembers the agreed-upon thinking in those early discussions: “There should be leitmotifs design-wise that link the three, but in terms of stock and filters, they should be separate.”
That meant a lot of pre-production to streamline the visual elements, says McGarvey. So while there was no storyboarding — the heavily marked-up David Hare script already included a lot of the camera tracking that would join shots from different segments — photographic ideas were heavily tested prior to shooting.
Patina of nicotine
For Nicole Kidman’s segment as Virginia Woolf in early 20th-century England, McGarvey used an antique suede filter that “created a kind of lacquered patina over the image that looks slightly like nicotine,” he says. The resulting diffusion helped especially in lighting Kidman’s prosthetic nose. And while a bit of deft CGI work in post-production was needed to ensure that blood coursing through the actress’s face extended to her latex addition, McGarvey says he was able to light Kidman “quite dramatically and not worry about disguising the nose.”
As for the other two storylines, McGarvey used a low-contrast film stock for Julianne Moore’s midcentury Los Angeles section, and chose to emphasize the cool, modern hues of New York for Meryl Streep’s arc.
But the vivid paleness of all three women made for a natural link between segments, and McGarvey credits a process at Deluxe Laboratories called ACE for producing the “slightly opalescent quality” in each actress’ skin tone. In that respect, he says, photographing three top-tier Hollywood stars was not as difficult as it sounds. “Their main goal is character,” he says. “Obviously they want to look fantastic, but they’re not actresses who demand to be lit in the most glamorous way. Classic Hollywood glamour lighting was not the order of the day.”
In fact, Daldry cites his cinematographer’s attentiveness as a strong point. “He’s incredibly astute, political and generous,” says the director, who early on knew he could trust McGarvey as a collaborator technically and diplomatically. “When you’re dealing with three extraordinary actresses and emotional material, you need incredible sensitivity. And Seamus is brilliant at that.”
Daldry also says McGarvey was a blessing when it came to curbing what the director calls “hysterical camera movement.” “We discussed it all the time: ‘Should we move it? Why? What’s it going to do?’ We tried to control movement so it was only serving narrative, not trying to enforce emotional response.”