Federico Fellini was the undisputed king of Italian cinema during the post-war era of the 1950s and ’60s when foreign filmmakers began to reach worldwide audiences. Directors such as Ingmar Bergman from Sweden, Akira Kurosawa from Japan, and Jean-Luc Godard of France became icons, almost ambassadors of their respective cultures, and Fellini was the emissary of all things Italian: skinny ties, sunglasses, and a robust attitude toward sex. In films like La Dolce Vita, Juliet of the Spirits, and Amarcord he blended surreal, fantastical imagery with deeply personal explorations of his own history and psyche. Probably his most famous movie, the 1963 Oscar Winner for Best Foreign Film 8 1/2 became his lasting masterpiece, a crowning achievement with a style that has been imitated by the likes of Woody Allen, Bob Fosse, François Truffaut, the rock group R.E.M., Peter Greenaway, and Todd Haynes.
While not the first film to tackle the idea of making a movie about making a movie, 8 1/2 challenged viewers by making them FEEL in a uniquely experiential way what it is like to BE a film director, and what goes on in said person’s head. With the new motion picture Nine, director Rob Marshall, who won an Oscar for Chicago, creates a new interpretation of Fellini’s most famous work. Adapted from a 1982 musical of the same name, Nine weaves the tale of a burnt-out, middle-aged director named Guido (Daniel Day Lewis as the Fellini stand-in) who is stuck in the chaotic position of beginning production on a lavish new film without a clue of what it’s about. With hundreds of people, from press to costume designers, from actors to anxious producers, all hounding him with questions he does not have the answers to, he begins to slip into a series of musical fantasies revolving around the many women in his life, both past and present.
Although best known for his serious, award-winning turns in films like My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day Lewis is not known for his skills as a singer, and was himself skeptical when he took on the project.
“I was nervous as hell, like everyone else,” he said. “I didn’t really ask myself initially why I was drawn so much to it. Anthony Minghella’s script was so beautiful, but I could have appreciated that from the outside without necessarily being drawn into the world he was describing. I suppose that anyone who does any kind of creative work at some time in their life, and it tends to happen as you grow into middle age, you come to a time when you really question more and more frequently whether you have anything else to offer. At its very worst you feel utterly bereft of whatever creative force it takes to do that work. I suppose I was interested in that dilemma for a man who’s about to shoot a film in five days and he’s living in a wasteland of his own making.”
Part of that out-of-control life stems from his mercurial mistress Carla, played with sensuous vitality by Penélope Cruz. The Spanish actress was equally awed and humbled by Day Lewis’ dedication to the role.
Said Cruz, “I was a little bit nervous about meeting him because he’s really one of my favorite actors and I think he’s one of the masters of acting of all time. I’ve heard all these stories about the way he works, and I tried not to listen, to see for myself. I arrived and I went into the stage and they were rehearsing a number and he was not part of that number. I saw this man dressed in a suit in a corner just watching. For two hours I was there and did not recognize him, and they said, ‘No that’s Daniel. He’s always here watching the others. He’s always on the set.’ I went and said hello, and he was really one of the greatest partners to work with. Really kind, really generous. I tried to make him part of my game of self-criticism after a take. ‘Daniel! I think I was terrible, what do you think?’ He said, ‘I will never engage in that game with you, let’s go and do the next take.’ That was a huge lesson for me, someone who never looks at the monitor, is always in the present. ‘What’s next?’ In that way Daniel has no ego, he’s always moving forward.”
Playing another one of Guido’s potential romantic conquests is Kate Hudson, for whom the filmmakers tailored a new character and musical number called “Cinema Italiano” unique to the film version specifically with her in mind.
According to Hudson, “The thing about Daniel is that his dedication and passion for what he does reminds you how blessed and lucky we are to be able to do this. It puts you back in that place, his ability it’s inspiring, makes you really love it. As a man in-character off-set he’s present. He sees you. He’s not lost. He brings you into it. He writes you notes as his character. It’s not coming from a place of ego, it’s just his process.”
“For me, I look at everything on a project-by-project basis,” Hudson continued, “and for this film it was about, ‘I would like to go sing for Rob Marshall.’ The first thing for me in this was, ‘Please get me in the room so I can hit one note, and see if he bites!’ I’m a spontaneous person. When I approach anything I try not to think too much. There’s days when I feel I have to be a little more in it, but I approach things with my instinct.”
Another famous female castmember stretching herself for this film was Stacy Ann Ferguson, also known as Fergie. Unlike Hudson, Fergie is famous as a vocalist for pop group the Black Eyed Peas, but had very little experience as an actress, and found being surrounded by such a cast daunting.
“Going into this musical,” Fergie recalled, “I’m definitely the singer going into this A-List acting world. It was intimidating for me, flying over and knowing I was going to be amongst these people who were at the top of their game in their field. I really just thought, ‘You know, maybe I’ll just sit in a corner and kinda be a sponge and not speak unless spoken to.’ Kinda just watch what these people do and how they hone their craft. The first person I met there was Daniel, and I think it was 15-minutes later I was standing by a piano and I had to belt out the song right in front of him. I’d admired his work for years and I had to push through it and just say, ‘What the hell?’ This is what I do. That’s kinda how I handled the audition. I was hungry for this role, I really wanted it, and I was a really good student. I came to London with all my tools, all the Fellini films, studying old Italian actresses and how they walked and spoke with their hands. Really studying this character from that period.”
Someone who actually represents that period in cinema is legendary actress Sophia Loren, who became the first person to win a Best Actress Academy Award for a non-English-speaking role in Vittorio De Sica’s 1960 film Two Women. In Nine she plays the role of Guido’s mother.
“The story of Fellini is a magical story in the movies that Italy has done,” Loren commented. “I was very happy when Rob Marshall called me up and said, ‘We are going to do this play about the story of Fellini and I would like you to be in it.’ I was very proud of it because I was the only Italian in the film! The film says that Italian movies are still wonderful all over the world. I accepted in a very nice way. Rob told me that he was not going to do the film if I was not going to be in it, so for the sake of his career, I said, ‘It’s okay, I’m going to be in it.’ (laughs)”
Another veteran actress on the roster is Dame Judi Dench, who plays Guido’s longtime costume designer and closest confidant. As it turned out, Dench’s own history tied nicely into the role, which required her to sing perhaps the show’s most famous number, “Folies Bergere” in full nightclub attire.
“I trained as a costume designer before I trained as an actress,” said Dench, “so I know how important it is to have a costume that empowers you. Colleen Atwood designs something quite organically on you. She will perhaps do a drawing, but when it comes to actually seeing you in it certain things will change and she will ask you how you feel. Getting into that costume I felt that I might, in fact, be part of a nightclub in Paris at some time. That is unbelievably empowering and does half the work for you. Then you’ve got to do the rest of it, and that isn’t easy!”
Megastar Nicole Kidman stretches herself as well, playing a megastar, and the lead in Guido’s proposed new film. Kidman was very aware of being just one part of a massive ensemble, and insisted that such a meeting of superstars did not cause friction on set.
“It was interesting being around this cast,” said Kidman. “People asked us about the egos and everything, and I think when you’re working egos are not a part of it because when you love what you do you’re just so glad to be around other people who love what they do. I came into the rehearsal room and saw Kate dancing up a storm, and said, ‘Wow! That’s amazing. I can’t wait for people to see that part of her, and maybe she’ll get a Broadway show out of this because she so deserves the lead in a show, whether she wants it or not.’ I think that’s what it is, and you see that with our director, he’s just in the trenches, working everyday, and he still does not want to give the film up. That’s what you need to be around to do good work, because it’s contagious.”
The only actress among the cast to have more than one solo number is French darling Marion Cotillard, who previously sang her heart out to Oscar glory as Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. Here she plays Guido’s long-suffering and cheated-on wife Luisa, who still loves him but feels her own spirit being suffocated by her marriage to this adulterous, self-absorbed man.
“What was interesting with Luisa is you have many layers, many faces of her in the movie,” said Cotillard. “She’s someone who keeps things inside because she doesn’t really know at that moment in her life how she feels. It takes courage to end a love story, to tell the man you love that you can’t take anymore, that you can’t be so empty anymore. What is very interesting with Luisa is you have the face of this woman who is handling things, and when the disrespect is too much to take she’s an actress too, she has things inside of her that need to come out. The anger is everything that’s sexy. Anger is fierce, it’s sad. My reference was her pain.”
Even with all these stellar women in the cast, everything revolved around Day Lewis and whether he had the chops to pull off both the role and the singing involved. As a man having a creative crisis playing a man in the midst of the same, you could say the actor’s method was aided immensely.
“With the singing we all had to work,” he said. “Rob convinced me, really against my better judgment, that I would be able to do this thing. I tried to think of every excuse not to, I thought he needed somebody else I think I gave him a few names actually! (laughs) He said, ‘No, I think you can sing.’ So I wanted to put it to the test. The musical director came over to the place I was staying and I tried to stagger through the songs with him, and quite clearly I was incapable of singing them, but Rob STILL managed to convince me that it would be okay. Rather like Judy, even though I knew a little more than Judy did about the demands, I took it on blind trust but had severe doubts. I knew I would enjoy the work, but had no idea what the results would be. I was in the choir at the local church as a little schoolboy, but other than that I hadn’t done any singing to speak of.
“It was really that time during rehearsals when we formed those bonds of trust you need to have so you can live near the edge of anarchy, which is where most creative work happens.”
Nine will open in New York and L.A. in exclusive engagements on Friday, December 18 and then opens wide on Christmas Day.