Jazz Tangcay caught up with Emmy-nominated Thomas Kail to break down “Mein Herr” and “If You Could See Me Now” in Fosse/Verdon.
From the opening shot of FX’s Fosse/Verdon, Thomas Kail’s directing lets us know we’re going to be counting down to Bob Fosse’s death. Sam Rockwell lit with that signature Fosse cigarette is simply superb and perfectly cast as the choreographer and director. Gwen Verdon is flawlessly executed by Michelle Williams, and we know this is going to be not just about Fosse. We’re going to learn a lot more and see more of his wife and creative partner, the creative genius, Verdon.
In the first episode, Fosse is filming Cabaret, and he’s struggling with it. Kail brings viewers into the world of Fosse/Verdon in “Life Is A Cabaret” recreating “Mein Herr.” I spoke to Kail for this installment of Through The Lens to talk about recreating Bob Fosse’s world.
Kail also talks about creating “If They Could See Me Now” and how he hints at the song throughout the series.
Shooting “Mein Herr” and creating Bob Fosse’s world
I have to say for anybody who has made anything, it was a lot of departments bringing their A-Game, and that was intensely apparent in the “Mein Herr” sequence. The great challenge of that was that it was our fourth day of shooting. It was really towards the top of our schedule.
Choreographically, the work that Andy Blankenbuehler did with the Verdon/Fosse Legacy and constructors, reconstructors and Nicole Fosse and drilling that dance in a way that made those actors feel like they had been rehearsing it for weeks and not just days. It’s all just part of the magic.
Alex DiGerlando, our production designer and his team, building the Kit Kat Klub that could not only work for us to shoot but also building it in the way that it would look like the one that Bob Fosse built for him to shoot. There was the extra layer there.
There’s the detail of Melissa Toth’s and Joseph La Corte’s costume design which needed to be the exact thing. The cast needed to be able to dance, move and breathe. Those costumes weren’t going into a museum; they had to live.
The specificity of making something like that was really fun because thirty-minute into the series, we showed that we were going to be representing things that you did know that Bob made.
We were going to be showing them to you in a way that gave you that, and a version you hadn’t seen which is, what did it look like to see Bob watching that? Did you know that Gwen was standing next to him by the camera? Whether that’s literal or not, fact or not, it gives you a whole new perspective because what we also showed was shooting back from the stage and seeing the people making it, as well as those performers.
The Kit Kat Klub that Bob Fosse and his designers made was recreated in such detail and accuracy by Alex DiGerlando. You could shoot it in any direction. Tim Ives (Cinematographer) and I were like kids in a candy store, we’d say, “We can put a camera here. We can put one there. Everything looks so good.”
The way it was lit, and the atmospheric nature of that number felt like a playpen for us. We didn’t ever want to leave.
We had eight hours to shoot that scene. I’m sure they had three or four days to shoot it when they were doing the movie, but we had a long afternoon. I think part of it; we were still finding the language and rhythm of the show. We were finding the characters. The first day of shooting was the big fight in Mallorca. The next day of shooting was the big party scene before Sweet Charity opens. I think day three and four; we were in the Kit Kat Klub. We really hit the ground running, and that’s the best thing to do. You jump in, you kick your legs, move your arms and see if you can stay afloat. This group was so equipped and prepared.
One of the things that happened in that number which I think was excellent storytelling and something that Steven Levenson, Joel Fields and I talked about a lot, and they made evident in that script was, in the Sweet Charity moment – where the show begins in the teaser, you see Bob and Gwen separated. Bob moves with the camera, and Gwen is over to the side as she’s not really acknowledging her contribution. A few years later, if you watch the end of how we represented it, you see them take each other’s hand and it shows progress in their own evolution of his ability to acknowledge. So much of our show is about this idea of the lone auteur and demystifying it and breaking down this notion that there is any one genius who does anything on their own. It allowed us to tell such a compelling story in that way.
Kelli Barrett and those performers were knocking it out of the park. All of the things you have done led to this.
I think that scene is a testament to the unity that we were seeking from all departments. I was so inspired by the people that I was working with. I was standing by the monitors with Andy Blankenbuehler, and we were shaking our heads because everywhere we shot we were set up to win and that was so apparent. It just set a tone for the production and our team and for the 150 people coming to work, we were going to honor what had been made before us, what Bob Fosse had made, and we were also going to make it our own.
One thing that was really important to us is that the last eight minutes of the first episode is basically a big musical number. It goes from “Mein Herr” right into “Cabaret.” One of the things that is really compelling is for people who are hardcore fans of that movie, this is just one take. We wanted to make sure that the position of our camera (Bob Fosse’s camera that is), was shooting Cabaret was in, was an actual shot that Fosse would have gotten. So, if you really knew the movie, you’d think this is the shot from dead center where Liza is coming down the stage. You would see that, but then we also had the luxury of saying, “If there’s something in the movie from this angle that isn’t quite what we did, that’s because this is only the second take.” We could cheekily realize they did many takes on it, and knowing Bob they did a dozen takes. So, we could do that and give us a little bit of freedom artistically.
We went straight from that to “Cabaret” where you see Bob and Liza around the piano late at night, is almost as if she’s going to sing it in two days, and they thought they’d open up a bottle and talk about it a little bit, and she spontaneously rips into the number.
Alex Lacamoire and his music team did incredible work here. That moment gave us the freedom to be untethered. It didn’t have to sound like Liza when we did “Cabaret” because we didn’t create a setting where we were filming that number.
I love that juxtaposition of those two; the thing that was the actual and factual scene from the movie, but maybe a different take, and then, the loose late-night quality so we could give Kelli the chance to cut loose a little bit. I loved those two together.
Shooting “If They Could See Me Now”
We tease it in a deep way. In the transition in episode one where it goes from the height of the party. You see Bob’s face and the party; the song playing is “If You Could See Me Now.” That’s the first time we play it. Then, in episode five, Bob comes down, and Paddy Chayefsky says to her, “Why don’t you sing ‘If You Could See Me Now’.” She poo-poos it, and she sings something else. By the time we get to it, it’s the third time and you know she’s going to deliver it.
Susie Misner choreographed that number. Susie, Michelle and her team worked in a really detailed way to let this be the version it felt like Gwen twenty years later would be doing. Not Gwen when she was doing it on Broadway. Not Gwen when she was teaching Shirley in the mid to late 60s. Who would she be if she were doing this in 1985?
When we got on stage, it was the first time in our show that we shot from behind one of the performers out into the audience.
In episode three, there’s the can-can moment and you don’t see the audience. There are other times throughout where you do see the audience, that insatiable monster that can never be appeased.
So there’s the sequence, we shot from behind Michelle so you could see the emptiness of the seats. One of the things about rehearsing about in theater when you get into tech is that you’re in the shell of the theater. You’re not just there when it’s alive. That’s something that’s very prevalent for a lot of my team, myself included, who have all spent so much time in these empty theaters. To have her stepping into this twenty years later for this young Debbie Allen who knows the length of Gwen Verdon, and Bob saying, “If she can’t, let me go back to my source and have my hero Gwen do it” Susie said to me, “In this moment, when she says, “Now,” is when the lights would change in the original production.” I said to Jason, my light designer, “Can you also get me a theatrical spot?” That way we had a version where the lights don’t change, and then we have a version that Susie mentioned. I didn’t tell all of the crew. I told my cinematographer where we did it realistic and the lights didn’t come it. And then, I wanted to try something stylized, I think we’ve earned it. As soon as that light came on, you could feel the hair on the back of our hands stand up. We were eight episodes in. We have spent a lifetime with these characters, let’s allow it to be stylized and allow it to lift out of the world. That’s also reflected in Alex’s orchestration. He started with the rehearsal piano and then he wanted to build. So, we spent a lot of time making sure we didn’t build too much.
On the day, we came up with this idea for Michelle, where she takes off the hat, and that’s a homage to Chaplin. At that moment, she said thirty years of a relationship in that one gesture. Sam was so knocked out by it.
It was so intensely poignant what he and Michelle had done, and we wanted to honor that. I loved that we had gotten to this place where we could elevate that and go to this theatrical gesture which could have been really off-base and corny if it didn’t have all the foundations that we had built until then.