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Counting Down ''The Hours''

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With seven Golden Globe nominations and some serious Oscar momentum behind it, it’s easy to forget that The Hours once appeared utterly unfilmable. Sure, the novel won a Pulitzer Prize and caused critics to swoon and booksellers to push it like some exotic drug. But Michael Cunningham’s delicate tale of three women in different eras connected to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway didn’t exactly seem the stuff of cinema. It was too subtle. Too interior. Too cerebral. As the most casual moviegoer knows, making even an uncomplicated film is risky business: The slightest misstep — the wrong cast, bad lighting, poor makeup — can send a project spiraling from the heights of greatness toward the gutter of hackdom. And what greatness is to be found in the Paramount-Miramax coproduction was almost certainly the result of a handful of difficult decisions. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the choices that turned a difficult novel into an awards-season juggernaut.

— SCOTT RUDIN DECIDES THE BOOK CAN ACTUALLY BE MADE INTO A MOVIE The winding road that took The Hours from bookstores to cinemas started, of all places, on the beach. ”I was on vacation and Paul Rudnick [told] me, ‘You gotta read this, it’s extraordinary!”’ recalls producer Scott Rudin, who has worked with screenwriter Rudnick on four films, including Addams Family Values and In & Out. ”I read it on a beach and went upstairs, called Cunningham’s agent and said, ‘I want to do this.”’

Rudin had reason to be confident. The Paramount producer had ample experience bringing prestige lit to the screen (Angela’s Ashes, Wonder Boys, Iris) and immediately called the man he thought could do the job: sharp-witted playwright David Hare (The Blue Room). ”Everyone said to me, ‘Omigod, you’re adapting The Hours? Poor you!”’ laughs Hare. ”But I had no idea what was worrying them. It seemed to me that the three stories link in a way that’s fantastically satisfying and very cinematic indeed.” That was news to the author. ”My first thought was ‘Oh! there’s been a terrible mix-up! Somebody must have published a thriller called The Hours and they’ve gotten their lines crossed,”’ says Cunningham. ”[But] when Rudin told me David Hare agreed to do it? That’s when I thought, Great, put it in the hands of a writer like Hare and see what happens.”

What happened was a green light from Paramount — though, in a decision that would ultimately prove explosive, the studio got Miramax involved, selling foreign rights to the company to reduce its risk. The script Hare finished a year later would prove the bait needed to land Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry. (”Now I’m working on [an adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s] The Corrections for Scott, which is unadaptable,” Hare says. ”I think I’m going to have to commit hara-kiri in Central Park.”)

— AFTER A BRIEF FLIRTATION WITH GWYNETH PALTROW, RUDIN SIGNS JULIANNE MOORE Rudin had an ace up his sleeve when it came to casting — the dearth of strong parts for women meant that the three lead roles would be talent magnets. So the producer called Kevin Huvane and announced that he wanted three of the CAA bigwig’s clients — Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep — to star as writer Virginia Woolf, 1950s homemaker Laura Brown, and present-day book editor Clarissa Vaughan. Moore was the surprise: Paltrow, one of the stars of the Rudin-produced The Royal Tenenbaums, had been thought the front-runner to play Brown. But after Moore lobbied for the part, Rudin bit. And given the awards heat on the Far From Heaven star this season, it proved — to say the least — a prescient decision.