Director Rob Marshall has been credited for reviving the musical genre and bringing films like Chicago to the big screen. For his latest film, he adapts Stephen Sondheim’s beloved Into The Woods. Jazz Tangcay sat down with Marshall in a Beverly Hills hotel to talk about the film, social media, his thoughts on Sony, and his one dream…
Awards Daily: What is it about musicals that draws you to them?
Rob Marshall: It’s in my blood. I grew up in musical theater. I never expected to be doing film, it just happened in a very organic way. It’s something I love. I love the musical genre on stage and on film. I remember when I did Chicago, I was told everyday that no one would come and see it because the genre was dead, because it was animated musicals at that time. So, when it was embraced it was so heartening and I was thrilled for the genre itself when it showed that musicals can work on film.
AD: What was the first musical you saw on stage?
RM: The first Broadway musical I saw was Gypsy, and Angela Lansbury was in it. She’s playing right now in Blithe Spirit at the Ahmanson Theatre. She was unbelievable. Gypsy was one of the great masterpieces. I was with my entire family sat 8th row center, and it was life changing for me. It was incredible.
When you expose your children to things you never know what they’re going to embrace. My parents were amazing, they took us to so many things like, film, theater and sport, and symphony, opera and ballet, but it was that for me. As soon as I saw that and Angela Lansbury in Gypsy, it was life changing.
AD: You have an incredible cast. How did you go about casting Emily Blunt and Chris Pine? We knew Meryl, Christine, Johnny and Anna had the ability to sing, but what about the rest of the cast? Who knew Chris Pine could sing.
RM: (Laughs) I didn’t know Chris Pine could sing either. You know, you cross your fingers and hope that somebody you really like in a role can sing. I mean Emily was so perfect for the part, she’s warm, funny and accessible. She has depth and warmth and was perfect. I was so hoping she could sing. She came in to audition for the part in LA and had prepared, Moments in the Woods. It was a full performance and I was blown away. At the end, she said to me, “Are you crying Rob?” and I realized I was so emotional and she was so great in the piece, that I was crying for so many reasons, and I didn’t know someone like her could do that.
I have this philosophy about casting, you don’t have to do any work at all if the actor does it right. The actor comes in and claims the role and says, “This is mine ” It was so obvious, that when she came in, there was no question, and I told her it was hers.
As for Chris Pine, I had no idea he could sing. I knew he was very handsome man and a good actor, but I didn’t know he could sing. I didn’t know he had comedic chops and could be that funny, that was a surprise too. He didn’t know the song, Agony which is his big song, but he knew Frank Sinatra songs and he sung Fly Me To The Moon. I could tell in 2 seconds that he could sing.
It’s really important with Sondheim material that it’s actors who sing because that’s the kind of singing it is because it’s so lyric driven and so much of the story happens in the song. A lot of the time they sing the song, and it’s a moment. Sondheim songs have a beginning, a middle and an end and the character changes and the story happens in the song so you really need great actors to communicate that, and I felt that’s what I had with the whole cast.
AD: How hard was it for you to take Into The Woods from stage to screen?
RM: It’s a challenge, it’s one of the hardest parts of it. You have to do two things. You have to really honor the original piece and the core of it and what it is, what made it work on stage and why it’s so beloved. At the same time you have to reimagine it and make it work as a film. There are many stage pieces that if you put on film won’t work. You have to make it work as a film and make it cinematic. The key ingredient to that was getting James Lapine who wrote original piece to write the screenplay and then I had Stephen Sondheim work with us throughout. I wanted the original voices there to help us manoeuvre and create this piece. John DeLuca and I worked incredibly hard with them to find this translation of transition to film.
James and Stephen were incredibly flexible with it, and I found myself being the protector of it. We went through it meticulously. We did a reading of it two years ago so we could hear it to see if we missed anything. Anna, Christine and James all did the reading.
AD: Meryl is phenomenal in the film and I’ve heard you didn’t use any CGI for her transformation.
RM: Exactly. I had an incredible visual effects team, I wanted it to feel real. I didn’t want it to feel too fairy tale like or too stylized. I wanted the world we were creating to feel real. We had a tight budget on this, which for this is tight. So, we had to figure out how to do some pieces without the visual effects and I really liked the challenge of that. I had to figure out how to do it in a simple way and Meryl is such an amazing physical creature. She’s really a dancer and she created this whole thing with her cape. We were able to do it without any kind of CGI. As the old witch she’s doing this movement, and then she goes off and changes and does the same movement but is the new witch. We didn’t have to blend it with any CGI work and it was fantastic.
AD: What was it like being on set with Christine, Meryl and Tracey? They’re all friends ?
RM: They’re very good friends and I’ve worked with Christine a lot and know her well. Tracey, I’ve just met. It was heaven . Number one, they’re great actors and Number two, they’re great people. The journey of this whole thing was creating a company because it’s an ensemble movie. They feed each other, they criss-cross each other, it’s not just serving one actor, it’s many. With musicals on film, you have this luxury of the rehearsal period, because you just have to. I rehearsed every single scene. We did over a month of rehearsals and the by-product of that is a company is created. All of a sudden everybody has to expose themselves because it’s exposing to sing. You’re in the same boat, and they become this wonderful family. It was helpful to have that time prior, and it was really special.
AD: You seemed to have good weather for this filming this.
RM: You know better than anybody what the weather is like. We were shooting in Dover and on the coast it’s constantly raining. It’s where we shot the big celebration just as we get to Happily Ever After and we were very lucky because it turned out to be a beautiful sunny day in October. It was insane.
We never lost a day to rain which was amazing. We were smart enough to have the stage set of the woods in case it did rain.
AD: Times have changed since you directed Chicago, we didn’t really have Twitter or Facebook back then. When it was announced She’ll Be Back was dropped, everyone seemed to have something to say. How do you feel about that as a film-maker?
RM: I didn’t have a computer when I shot Chicago. How crazy is that? It’s such a good question. It’s a combination of feelings. I’m doing everything I can to do the best version of this film because I love it. The creative process should be something that’s private. I had the best people there, the original crew were there working on it, and it’s not something for everybody to weigh in on and we have to protect that. So, I try to push all that aside. Yet, at the same time, I also felt like that’s a good sign in a weird way, because it’s a beloved piece and people care about it and people care and want it to be great.
But, it’s the conjecture that I always find so hilarious, because it’s talking about things, they’ve never seen the film, and they have no idea what we’re doing. They don’t know the number we’re using or not using, they don’t know any of it. It’s all just imagining what it would be. It’s ill-informed. You just want to say, just wait, wait, wait. I think the fact people are excited and protective of it, is something I love, but I am too, I come from theater too. I love the piece on stage too. It will live forever on stage, like I said I have the original creators working on this with me. I remember James LaPine saying, “Chill out, everybody chill out.” (Laughs).
AD: How much is on the cutting room floor?
RM: Very little. I simply didn’t have the luxury time wise or budget wise to play with it. We only had 55 days to shoot, so we had to make the decisions early on. That’s why the reading helped a lot so we could say we’d do this, or wouldn’t do that. Usually on films, there are many scenes that are on the cutting room floor. For this, only the scene that is on the cutting room floor is the song that Stephen wrote is on the cutting room floor. Meryl sings it fabulously but people will see it on the DVD, but it’s off story. We didn’t realize that until we put it in front of an audience. It didn’t serve the film, but it’s still so good.
AD: You’re credited for bringing back the musical, what would you like to bring to the screen next?
RM: (Laughs) Thanks. If I was any part of that, I feel very proud. You know what I’d like to do? I’ve always wanted to do an original musical for film. Some of my favorite musicals for film come from the golden era of film. The Arthur Freed unit at MGM wrote musicals for film. Singing in The Rain was written for film. Bandwagon, Easter Parade, Gigi were all written for film, they’re weren’t stage adaptations. That’s what I want to do. I want to write a musical specifically for film, then you’re not making this transition. I don’t know what the story would be but that would be my dream.
AD: Please make that happen. You’re doing a pretty good job bringing musicals to stage, I mean Chicago was a wonderful transition.
RM: Thank you. If social media was prevalent then, everyone was saying, Why are you casting Renée Zellweger? The haters were everywhere, but again, you’re not part of it. I saw everybody for the casting process for her role. I saw everybody from LA to New York. They said the same for casting Billy Flynn. I know that would have happened with that too.
AD: Let’s talk about Sony. What’s your opinion on it?
RM: It is incredibly painful. Amy Pascal I know. She is an amazing woman and incredibly open-hearted and giving and incredible with artists. What came out about her is completely not reflective of who she is at all. So, that was painful to watch and hear.
In terms of the film, for me, censorship of art is something, as artists, we feel strongly about, that it shouldn’t be in place. Ever. I feel with this film, and no one’s seen it, ever. I wish there had been another way to approach the material to get the same satire across without using the actual man they’re talking about. Especially in the world today. That’s the one flaw that we would have been able to understand through satire, but it cuts a little too close to the bone, but you have to be careful. At the same time, I feel strongly about censorship and art, that it doesn’t have a place. I do feel there was some responsibility about this actual piece that could have been more carefully considered.
AD: What would you say to the people who’ve never seen the stage production but will be seeing the film for the first time?
RM: That you can absolutely see this without having seen the stage version because it works on its own. In some ways, it’s wonderful because they have no pre-conceived notion. What’s beautiful about the piece whether on stage or film, is it is incredibly entertaining, fun, clever, joyous, and funny, but also moving and profound. It has a lot to say about the parent/child relationship about repeating the sins of the father. It says a lot about the consequences of wishes. There are consequences for action. There’s a very profound message with No One Is Alone which basically says you are not alone in this world. When you’re dealing with something hard, loss or devastation or hardship, you are not alone. People are there for you. It’s a really important message for the children of today. They deal with a lot. I feel they need that sense of comfort and hope.
Into The Woods opens on Christmas Day