Rob Marshall on Movie Musicals and His Journey 'Into the Woods' (Q&A)

The dancer-turned-choreographer-turned-filmmaker talks about his love for the genre, actresses and the "company" of craft people who work on each of his films
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The name Rob Marshall has become synonymous with the movie musical. That's because Marshall has done more than anyone to revive the genre, which thrived in Hollywood until the fall of the studio system in the late 1960s.

At that point, it more or less went away for decades — until, that is, Marshall's feature directorial debut, Chicago, took the town by storm and won the best picture Oscar. (He also was nominated for best director.)

In the 12 years since then, Marshall, a former dancer and choreographer, has brought two other popular Broadway musicals to the big screen with massive ensembles of big-name stars: Nine, in 2009, and, in 2014, Into the Woods.

The latter, a particular passion project for the 54-year-old Marshall, who collected the Palm Springs International Film Festival's Creative Impact in Directing Award for it Sunday, was recently named one of the AFI's top 10 films of the year and nominated for the best picture (musical or comedy) Golden Globe.

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THR recently connected with Marshall to discuss the roots and evolution of his love for musicals, his experiences with each of the three movie musicals that he has directed and the uncommon approach that he brings to his films from the theater — forming a "company" of craft people, not unlike "the Freed Unit" that churned out many of the musicals he loved as a kid, and creating great opportunities for actresses, including Into the Woods' Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Meryl Streep.

Did you go to the movies as a kid? And, if so, were any films or filmmakers particular favorites or influences?

I kind of grew up on musicals, specifically, for whatever reason. They're something that really attracted me as a child. Of course, they were few and far between. In Pittsburgh, where I’m from, we had something called The TV Graphic that would come out every week and I would scour and look for every musical that was playing. Then this very fortuitous thing happened to me: I think it was 1974 and That’s Entertainment! came out.

I was 13, and that really was life-changing for me because then I was able to see all of those films that I’d never seen before. I was not aware of the great directors and choreographers of that time, and Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Robert Wise and George Cukor, you know, and then later Bob Fosse, just became huge heroes of mine. But I never imagined I would be in film. I didn’t think it was a possibility. I loved film so much, but what felt possible was to be on stage and in the theater. And there was something called the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, and as a kid I was able to be in productions of The Sound of Music and The King and I there. I then got my Equity card there as a dancer in the ensemble and went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and so that’s where I thought my career would be headed, into this sort of performance world.

What initially brought you to Broadway? Did you go to New York sort of waiting for things to happen, or did you go there with that show?

Well, you know, it’s interesting. I was in school at Carnegie Mellon, got my Equity card the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera as a dancer, and A Chorus Line was coming through, the national tour. In every big city they would hold a big audition; we had a professional company, an equity company of dancers, so they held an audition, and I auditioned and I was cast to go on this national tour with A Chorus Line and left — so my junior year became my year "abroad," sort of. [Laughs.] I was 19, I toured the country and then left the show, came back and did my senior year, then moved to New York and then got my first Broadway show, which was Zorba, with Anthony Quinn.

How did choreography, as opposed to acting or dancing yourself, become your focus?

Well, what’s interesting was with all the shows I did on Broadway, I was either the dance captain or the assistant choreographer — I sort of worked my way up to that kind of thing — and I always was interested in more than just the dancers and the numbers. I would always sneak into the room and watch the scene work. That was always fascinating to me. My last show that I did on Broadway was — I hate to say this, but — Cats. [Laughs.] There you go. So I was doing Cats on Broadway and I injured my back. It was a really tough show. And so when I came out of choreography, when I finished the show, I didn’t want to jump right back into dancing. It was a herniated disc.

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I healed my back, and someone asked me to choreograph a show because I’d been an assistant choreographer on Broadway, and so I went and choreographed a show out of a town in Florida. That’s when I started choreographing, and what was interesting is I never went back to performing after that. I continued to choreograph because one job begets the next, you know? I got that job, then I got another job choreographing and then I started directing out of town in regional theaters and summer stock — I mean, really, that’s where I sort of learned the ropes about how to do it. My first Broadway show as a choreographer was Kiss of the Spider Woman. I was a replacement.

I came in to replace the choreographer that was there and was working with Chita Rivera, Harold Prince, John Kander and Fred Ebb; I had this unique relationship with Kander and Ebb musicals because my first Broadway show was Zorba. And then my second Broadway show was The Rank, with Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera, and I was the dance captain on that show. And then I directed a production of Chicago in Los Angeles years later.

Was that Los Angeles production of Chicago the first time that you had actually directed something?

No, the first time I ever directed something, I directed a production of Camelot, with Stacy Keach. That was really thrilling. What happened was I was the choreographer of the production, the director pulled out and they said, “Would you like to direct it?” That was the first chance I had. And it was so great to be working on really strong book scenes — there’s great scenes with King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, you know? It’s meaty, and that was fantastic. It’s funny because it was a very natural progression. It wasn’t something where I set my sights out, "I’m going to go do this." It sort of just happened in a very kind of organic way.

Because of your theater and film work, you’re very associated with musicals. From your point of view, what is it that makes that genre so special? What is it that you love so much about the genre?

I guess it’s an American-born genre, you know? It’s something we created. I feel like when it’s done well, you know, when there’s a West Side Story or there’s a Chicago on stage or Cabaret, a brilliantly told piece through music, there’s nothing like it. It’s that rule, which I always love about good musicals, that when speaking isn’t enough, you must sing. Singin' in the Rain is such a perfect movie musical. Think of the song “Singin' in the Rain,” for instance: you know, he had an evening where he’s fallen in love; he’s leaving; and he’s walking down the street. Just to have him walk down the street and smile, how can we learn what he’s feeling?

On stage, you can do an internal monologue, but what’s beautiful is when walking down the street wasn’t enough, you needed an extension of that. When movement isn’t enough, you dance, or when speaking isn’t enough, you sing. When it’s organic and it’s earned like that in a musical, that’s when it works, and then there’s nothing like it because it’s this thing that takes you to a whole 'nother level, you know? There’s a joy, of course, but there’s also a depth to it, too. We’re lifted by it in a way that nothing else can do. I’ll never forget that when I did the film Chicago, I was told countless times that the movie musical was dead, and so we were trying to "sneak it in." [Laughs.] I mean, I honestly thought, when I was doing Chicago, that maybe a few people would see it in New York and L.A. and then it would just go right to video because no one was interested. They only could accept animated characters singing, supposedly. But I never believed the genre was dead.

It may not have been dead, but it was on life support. Before the one-two punch of Moulin Rouge! and Chicago, what happened to the movie musical?

Well, I think there were a few that didn’t work, and when a musical doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work — it feels uncomfortable that they start to sing, it doesn’t feel earned, somehow. After the success of The Sound of Music and Oliver!, there were a multitude of musicals that came out. They started to be over-bloated and not well executed and thought through, and they just became these big, huge, massive productions that actually, you know, sunk some studios along the way, so people saw them as a liability, I think, and it scared them.

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It took the animated musical, in a way, to bring it back. You know, The Little Mermaid was the thing that started it again — but it was animated. But, in-between, there was Cabaret, you know? Something like that that just does it brilliantly. But they still were few and far between and that golden age of the musical was no longer. The innocence had gone, too. The reality of the late '60s, early '70s films, that super-real filmmaking, hurt it because there will always be something stylized or heightened about a musical.

With your first film, Chicago, what was the trick to avoiding those pitfalls? What do you think made it the great success that it became?

I remember when I was asked to come to Miramax. I had come in to interview about filming the movie Rent. They were looking for a young guy and I had done a television musical — my first time directing on film — which was of Annie, with Kathy Bates, Victor Garber and Audra McDonald, that had done well and, at the same time, I had Cabaret on Broadway, and that was doing well. So I went in for Rent, [but the conversation then shifted to Chicago].

I love Chicago and I had seen some previous drafts of the film and I couldn’t believe how way off-base they were because what they hadn’t done is embrace the fact that it is a theatrical piece. I mean, the original piece was called Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville — that’s what it was called on stage — and all the musical numbers are vaudeville numbers, so that means they are presentational numbers to an audience. In other words, they’re not like normal musicals — like, when you think of something like Into the Woods, those numbers aren’t theatrical numbers, those numbers are like what we call book numbers, you know, where a scene takes place and then it just continues through the song, and that’s what most musicals are. But this is very specifically a concept musical, Chicago, on stage, where all the numbers were vaudeville numbers that commented on the action. That’s just how it was built. That’s what Bob Fosse, Fred Ebb and John Kander built.

So a matron would come out and sing a number like “Sophie Tucker” to the audience and then go into the scene. It was just very highly stylized. What the screenwriters had done was they had taken out all that stylization and tried to turn all the numbers into book musical numbers — they cut them all because none of them worked. And I said, “No, you must come up with a concept where you embrace the fact that it’s theatrical.” So I then pitched this idea of there being two realities: one would be the stage reality and one would be the real reality. You’d have a real story and then, in-between, you’d have musical numbers, and we would see it all through a character’s eyes. And then we chose to make it through Roxie’s eyes. It needed a high concept to make it work and you had to embrace the theatricality of it, so all the numbers we kept and I made them actual theatrical pieces, you know? People were nervous about it because they thought, “Oh, my gosh, this is so out there.” And I kept saying, “Well, but on MTV, if you watch a video you can watch a video on two different planes. There’ll be a piece of it that’s in black and white, but a piece of it in color. You can watch it in many different versions."

And I tried to explain this in Harvey’s [Weinstein] office and like, a light bulb went off. I remember seeing it in his eyes. I described “Mr. Cellophane” — I said, “He’d be in an office, and he’d pick up his hat to leave and when he puts his hat on he’d be on stage,” like that kind of thing — and I said, “And you can only do that on film.” And so he gave me the movie.

It is very rare for a filmmaker's first film to be so critically and commercially well received and win the best picture Oscar. What did you make of that whole experience? And did it create a sense of pressure about what you do next?

Well, I have to say, I’ll never forget Harvey saying to me as the movie was finishing up, “We should really talk about the Oscar campaign.” And I said, “Really? For what film?” He said, “Your film!” I said, “What are you talking about?” [Laughs.] I thought he meant Gangs of New York. I had no idea what he was talking about because I had no sense of that at all, you know? All of that was such a surprise. The thing I wanted to do following that, because I was in this very rare position that you get very few times in your life where you can pick and choose what you like to do, was something completely different and challenging. I didn’t want to do Chicago 2.

I’ve sort of felt that way all of my career: I’ve always looked for something that’s very hard and challenging to do, not something that’s easy to do — and something that also gives you some kind of life experience. You want to do something that really is life-enriching and unique. Memoirs of a Geisha came and I was thrilled to work with a cast that — the majority of them were speaking English for the first time in a film and exploring a world that I was anxious to learn about, and intrigued by and went to Japan and studied. It was thrilling to throw myself into a whole other world and a genre, a dramatic piece, an epic-scale piece, you know?

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It was very rare to have that chance, because at that time, also, the landscape was changing. Those kind of movies were very few and far between. I remember talking to Anthony Minghella about that. You know, The English Patients of the world and The Talented Mr. Ripley and Memoirs, those movies are so rare now because it’s only in small independent films with a small budget where you can tackle serious subjects. That in-between film — the kind that gives you a movie experience and at the same time challenging material, which is pretty much what I’ve done with my whole career — is very rare now, you know?

After that you returned to the musical genre with Nine. What was it like making that film with a cast like that — everyone from Daniel Day-Lewis to Sophia Loren?

Well, that was very challenging on so many levels — like I said, I love to present myself with a challenge, and that was a hard one — but I love working with actors. That’s the joy for me; maybe it’s because I come from the theater, but that’s my great joy. So to be able to assemble a cast like that, basically a European cast, with Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz and Nicole Kidman and Judi Dench and Daniel and Sophia, that was a dream.

To work with the best actors in the world on difficult, challenging, complicated material, an adult musical, is like, unheard of and the process of it, for me, was thrilling. It’s important for me to give actors a place to be able to really do their best work — that’s one of the things I really try and do, to create a safe environment for them to really be great — because many times I’m working with actors who are new, for instance, to singing, which is very exposing. It’s happened on many movies that I’ve done, where I’m asking people to do something they’ve never done before and making them feel that they can do it, from Richard Gere to Renee Zellweger to Daniel to Marion to Penelope to Chris Pine and Emily Blunt on Into the Woods.

You know, this is so new for them, but I know they have the goods to make it happen and they just have to feel incredibly safe, not judged, to really grow and get better and learn. And it’s exciting to do that.

Are you able to anticipate how a movie will go over with audiences and/or understand after it has been released why it went over the way it did? Like, is there any rhyme or reason to why, say, Chicago is more embraced than Nine?

You know what? I wish I could. If we could, we’d all make one hit movie after the next. What I try and do is follow my heart and follow my gut, that’s all. All you can really do is tell a story you want to tell that’s personal, that you’re connected to in some way, that means something to you. Also, great material is not the easiest thing to find in the world, you know?

I also know that there’s something that I call "the blender movie," which is when you put in a little for the 12-year-old boys, and then you put in a little for the 12-year-old girls, and you mix a little in for the adult women and for all the quadrants, and then a little action and a little battle — it turns out a big mush, you know what I mean? It’s a thing that’s been created for everyone and for nobody, and it’s such a dangerous way to go because what you’re doing, then, is you’re not creating your vision, your art, your work.

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And so, as a director or a writer or whatever, I think the only thing you can do is tell the story that means something to you, that’s special to you, that you have a connection to, you know? You’re going to spend two or three years working on it. You have to love it, and feel it and want to tell it.

What made you so impassioned to make Into the Woods, not only 27 years after it was first done on Broadway, but also more than a decade after the idea of you directing it was first brought to your attention by Stephen Sondheim, from what I understand? What made now the time to tell it?

Well, it was interesting because I’d always loved the piece. I loved so many things about it when I first saw it on the stage — I loved how funny it was, I loved how entertaining it was, I loved how clever and smart it was and how original it was and how profound it was. I loved what it said. I always thought it would make a great film somewhere down the line, but it was this fortuitous event that really set it in motion for me: It was the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and President Obama was speaking to the families of the victims. He was very compassionate and he said to them, “You are not alone. No one is alone.”

I remember hearing that and it hit me in such a powerful way because, to me, it’s such an important message for today, and it’s the central message, for me, of Into the Woods, that song “No One Is Alone.” And I thought, “Wow, what an important message for children of today, especially, but families as well,” because I feel like children are dealing with a much more unstable and fragile world than existed when I was growing up — dealing with school shootings or the devastation of something like Hurricane Sandy or any kind of terrorism.

They’re so much wiser, in a way, much more attuned to the world, I think, and have to grow up a lot quicker. And I just felt like, "What comfort can you give them?" And it’s that comfort that you are not alone and that you are with someone and no one is alone. And that’s the message to the children who have experienced loss in our film. "You are not alone. No one is alone." This new family is created at the end of our film. It explores what happens after "happily ever after," and then it becomes more real. I feel like it’s something that children can connect with today — a family that’s not "a normal family," that’s been "created" in some way, and also being able to hold onto each other to move forward.

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Although, at a quick glance, it feels like, a fun, lighthearted musical, the truth is it has incredible depth and many layers to it because Stephen Sondheim is a genius. The great thing about it is that it’s not a preachy piece; the fun about it, for me, is that the package that’s inside is funny and colorful and joyous and clever — all the wonderful things about it — but that it also has a profound nature.

If you look back, not too far in the past, was there one particularly crucial creative decision that you made on Into the Woods? Perhaps something to do with the opening sequence, which is so unconventional, or maybe keeping or losing something from the show?

You know, it’s funny you say the opening, because the opening was the key that unlocked it all for me. Even in its structure on stage, it felt cinematic because it’s cross-cutting and introducing so many stories, but not in a linear way. It’s a 16-minute number, and in that number you do a few things: You establish the language of the film because there’s going to be singing that goes into dialog and back into singing, and that’s very important in a musical.

You have to sort of say, “This is how it’s going to be told and we’re not going to break the rules and that’s how it’s going to be.” I always feel like you need to do that in the first, like, 10 minutes of the film, this is how it’s going to be told. And I remember sitting down with James Lapine and John DeLuca — we all worked on it together — and we started sort of looking at the shape of the opening sequence. The film is very similar to what’s on stage, in terms of the material — obviously, we were able to open it up to different locations and things — but that was the key that unlocked it for me.

I have always been struck by the look of your films, and I was really struck, in preparing for this, to discover how many of the same craft people you work with on film after film. Is that also something that stems from your work in the theater, placing such great value on craft work and the people who do it?

You know, in my mind I always am hoping that I’m like a little mini Arthur Freed unit. That’s always my dream, to be part of that, because he created this well-oiled machine that would churn out these amazing musicals, one after the next after the next after the next, because he had the same people involved — same director, same designer, same choreographer, same composers, same writers, all of that — so they knew how it worked.

And I have this little mini group of people and we’ve kind of learned the language of how that works in a world where musicals are so rare — [costume designer] Colleen Atwood; [cinematographer] Dion Beebe; [film editor] Wyatt Smith, who’s worked with me before, and [film editor] Dennis Gassner was new this time, but I knew he had a real sense of musicals and how they work and he’s such a collaborator that this wonderful group of people; Marc Platt now, too, having worked with him as a producer; of course, John DeLuca, my partner. We have this kind of little company, I guess, and that is a theatrical kind of thing, really, when you think about it. When we were moving quickly on Into the Woods, it was incredibly helpful.

Colleen and Dion are in rehearsals with me as we’re working so we can plan the camera shots and be so prepared on the day. And Colleen understands that movement is a key issue for all of her costumes. Anyway, it’s a different thing with a musical. It’s almost like doing two movies at once, because you’re doing the movie and then you’re doing sort of the musical part of it, which usually involves movement or dance, and of course, all that whole other thing — you have a composer, dance arranger, orchestrator, all those people. So, it’s a big group, and I feel lucky to have been able to get those people a few times now to kind of create this little working company.

I know you talked about how much you enjoy working with actors. You’ve gotten so many great performances out of women — who don’t get nearly as many great opportunities overall in movies as men, but always do in your movies. Why you think you work so well with them?

Wow. It’s something I would never step back and think that I’ve done, but I guess I have, when you think about it. I love all of the colors of women in film; I always have. Some of the strongest musical performers, for instance, have been women on film — Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl comes to mind immediately, you know — and some of the greatest roles in musicals are written for women, as well.

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I think about someone like, I don’t know, Emily Blunt or Meryl Streep or Anna Kendrick, these wonderful actors I’m working with, and I just think about making them great. I want to give them the room to be wonderful, give them the support and feeling they can do anything and, you know, I kind of, in a way, fall in love with them. I want them to know that they are loved by me, and to make them feel incredibly empowered by that and feel free to try anything. I really try not to judge, especially in rehearsals when they’re trying everything.

Meryl tried everything as the Witch, everything, I mean, threw herself all around the room. Emily, I get her humor and she knows that — she’s so winning and so funny and so accessible and I wanted to show that on film, I wanted people to see that humor — and she’s so warm, and that’s very important for that character because it’s the heart of the piece and you really have to love her so when she’s gone it should feel like a kick in the gut.

You know, Anna had never played a kind of character like Cinderella and I think she was shocked she was asked to play it, but I knew underneath the kind of hard core that Anna usually plays on film she has such a vulnerability, as well. To make you a full flesh and blood person, you have to be vulnerable, too. That’s not interesting, just seeing just a strong woman out there just kicking ass, you know? That’s like, "OK, but where is the person?"

And, of course, Meryl — Meryl took the character of the Witch, which can be played very two-dimensionally, and found such depth, humor, vulnerability and all the different colors. It made her so real that you cared about the Witch. So I guess it’s because I love all the colors of women and I want to bring them out.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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