Anatomy of a Contender: 'Nine'

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Nine -- Film Review
Gallery: 'Nine' premiere

It was October 2008, early in the production of "Nine," and Rob Marshall was absorbing another meta-moment.

Rushing through a soundstage at England's Shepperton Studios with several crew members in tow, the director was preparing to shoot a scene in which Judi Dench's character says, "Directing a movie is a very overrated job. You just have to say 'yes' or 'no.' What else do you do? Nothing."

As Marshall debated his own yesses and nos for the scene, he whispered to his lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, to take note of the refracted, hall-of-mirrors experience of making -- take a deep breath here -- a movie musical based on a Broadway musical, which itself was based on a movie about a director trying to make a movie.

"If you boil it down," Marshall says of Dench's line, "that's true."

Of course, Marshall is playfully employing the art of deflection, a tool that served him well in pulling together one of the year's most elaborate productions -- one with an eye-popping A-list cast, complex themes and all that music.

"It was like making five movies at once," says Marshall, who had to corral the primary cast -- Day-Lewis, Dench, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard and Sophia Loren -- that came draped in gold, having collectively amassed seven Oscars and an additional 11 nominations.

For the director, the road to awards season began with the outrageous success of his previous musical, "Chicago." The 2002 film received 13 Oscar nominations (and won six, including best picture), grossing $300 million worldwide.

Marshall jokes that the film's producer and distributor, Harvey Weinstein, began talking to him about his next musical "about five minutes" after "Chicago" opened. But it was something that Marshall, who started out as a Broadway choreographer, "didn't want to do right away." Instead, he signed to direct "Memoirs of a Geisha."

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After "Geisha" (and a television special about Tony Bennett) in 2006, Marshall considered "everything" for his next musical, including a remake of "A Chorus Line." But his mind kept returning to the original 1982 Broadway production of "Nine," starring Raul Julia as Guido Contini, a 1960s Italian director coping with a midlife crisis as he engages with the many women in his life. The play was based on songs written by Maury Yeston, who was inspired by Federico Fellini's classic "81⁄2."

It was while watching the 2003 revival, with Antonio Banderas in the lead, that the idea "Nine" could be adapted back to the screen "started to ring," Marshall says.

But instead of starting work on a screenplay, Marshall first turned to casting.

"I felt it was important to cast the film so that we could write to the actors' strengths," he says.

The process quickly turned into a stampede of women from Hollywood's A-list. "I was overwhelmed by the turnout," Marshall says. "A lot of the women said it was Renee Zellweger's performance in 'Chicago' that got them to think, 'She had limited experience as a musical singer-dancer. Maybe I should try this.' "

Despite the interest from top talent, major studios weren't willing to partner with the Weinstein Co. to co-finance the film.

" 'It's going to be an art house movie,' " Weinstein says, imitating the studio executives he approached. " 'It's a serious musical. Why don't you make 'Chicago' again?' "

One actress in the crowd was Cotillard, whose performance in 2007's "La Vie en Rose" was just beginning to create buzz. She tried out twice for what she thought were minor parts in "Nine," then sang for Marshall and Weinstein during a third audition.

It wasn't until Cotillard later spoke with her agent that she found out she was cast in the lead female role, as Louisa, Guido's long-suffering wife.

"I was amazed," Cotillard says.

As the women were lining up, Marshall had to handle the defection of his lead actor, Javier Bardem, who pulled out of the film in May 2007 because of exhaustion. But the director's next choice wasn't far away: Marshall has a house in Sagaponack, Long Island, so he took the ferry to Connecticut to visit Day-Lewis at his home.

Day-Lewis "was so afraid of the singing," according to John DeLuca, a producer and choreographer on the film. For a month, Marshall made daily visits to Connecticut. "It was important for him to get to know me," Marshall says. "We were testing the waters," which included Marshall bringing one of his musical coaches and singing with Day-Lewis, who had been in choirs growing up. "I could tell immediately he had a voice," Marshall says. "It just wasn't something he had explored."

During the summer and fall of 2007, while Day-Lewis began singing training and the rest of the cast fell into place, Michael Tolkin was hired to write the screenplay. He contributed what producer Marc Platt calls "the basic structure" before writer-director Anthony Minghella took over. At the same time, in Los Angeles, DeLuca and Marshall went through an extensive workshop process choreographing and designing the musical sequences.

Minghella delivered the script for "Nine" in early 2008, just days before he went to the hospital, where he later passed away.

"He brought the characters to life," says DeLuca, who, like Marshall, was devastated by Minghella's death.

In summer 2008, Weinstein finally found a financial partner in Relativity Media, which put up 25% of the film's $80 million budget. Marshall then took his cast to Shepperton Studios for six weeks of rehearsals before production began.

"I thought I could dance," Cotillard says. "But I found out that it was more difficult than I thought."

The actress credits her director's gentle touch for pushing her through.

"Rob has a way of asking people with such a peaceful voice to do things that they want to do but don't know how to," she says.

In one such moment, during production in October, Yeston was at his New York home when he received a call from Marshall. "Rob said, 'There's something I want to talk with you about,' " recalls Yeston, who was distraught to hear that Day-Lewis would be singing a key song in a way that would require Yeston to write additional music.

"I think, 'Oh my God,' " Yeston says. "The whole movie hinges on this song! But Rob was just telling me this as if he was saying the weather's nice in England today."

Marshall made his point by holding up the phone and saying, "Daniel, sing the song." When Yeston heard the actor sing, he realized Marshall was right. Yeston jumped on a plane and composed another third of the song in five days.

At Shepperton, the production schedule alternated between a week of shooting a musical sequence and, while the set was being broken down, shooting interior scenes. When the new set was constructed in that same space, the next musical fantasy would be shot. "There were no second chances," Weinstein says. "Daniel got it right."

Day-Lewis remained in character the whole time.

"We were all nervous at first," DeLuca says. "Everyone was asking, 'What do you call him?' Some people called him Guido. I called him Daniel."

Creating an even greater degree of verisimilitude was the presence of Loren, who would enthrall the cast and crew with stories of Italian cinema.

"Fellini was everything: He was a genius, a liar," she'd say dramatically. "Marcello Mastroianni? He would always arrive on set and ask, 'What's for dinner?' "

In January, the production flew to Italy, where three weeks of exteriors were shot in several locations, including a five-day shoot at Cinecitta. "That's when the movie came to life for me in a completely different way," Marshall says. "And then shooting Sophia Loren and Daniel at the Piazza del Popolo with a sports car? It was surreal."

Ten months later, having slogged through every cut in the editing room, Marshall is "exhausted," DeLuca says. "I don't think he knows how tired he is."

Marshall sounds unfazed.

"What I do is make sure that the process is joyous; I can't work without a sense of play," he says. "Even in the editing, I am there every single day. I probably should let it go. But I don't know another way to do it."
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