Exclusive: Rob Marshall Counts to Nine

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It’s been roughly seven years since Rob Marshall’s Chicago kicked-off the return to favor of the movie musical, a genre he’s now returning to with his third feature film Nine.

Based on the 1982 musical by Arthur Kopit and Mario Fratti with songs by Maury Yeston and influenced by Federico Fellini’s autobiographical magnum opus 8 1⁄2, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido Contini, one of Italy’s top filmmakers who has hit a wall while trying to write his next film. With the eyes of his country on him and an entire crew and his Scandinavian starlet (Nicole Kidman) waiting for him to produce a script, Guido must work through his issues with women while trying to keep his neglected wife Claudia (Marion Cotillard) away from his needy mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz). At the same time, Guido muses on his childhood with his overbearing mother (Sofia Loren) and pleasant memories of his sexual awakening by a local prostitute (Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas). It also stars Dame Judi Dench as Guido’s costume designer and confidante and Kate Hudson as a reporter stalking the famous filmmaker.

It’s quite a breathtaking film in terms of the way Marshall recreated the look of Fellini’s greatest films while staging fantastic musical dance numbers, the transition between those aspects of the movie flow together even smoother than Chicago, not to mention featuring a number of great performances, not only from Day-Lewis, but also Cotillard, Cruz, Dench and the other actresses who each are given their own moment to shine.

ComingSoon.net sat down with Marshall last week to talk about the movie, which opens wide on Christmas Day.

ComingSoon.net: I know with “Chicago” you actually had directed it on stage or had been involved with the stage version of the musical somehow.
Rob Marshall: I had done a production in Los Angeles of “Chicago” that I had directed, yes.

CS: Okay you had, but this one you hadn’t.
Marshall: I’ve never done it on stage, no. But, I was familiar with it. I’d seen the 1982 version with Raul Julia, Tommy Tunes productions. Then, I saw David Leveaux’s production in – I think it was 2003 and then Antonio Banderas. So, I knew it and was a fan of it, but I also thought, I mean, the biggest question for me always in choosing a musical is, “Why do the people sing?” This is like, finding your way into that major dilemma. I mean, for me that’s the most important thing is conceptually, “How is this gonna work on film?” So, as I was looking at things ’cause I wanted to do another musical after “Chicago.” I didn’t want to do one right away, but I wanted to do one. So, I’d been looking for quite a long time and “Nine” presented itself for a couple reasons to me. One was the fact that because it moves between, because “Otto e mezzo,” “8 1⁄2.,” Fellini’s “8 1⁄2” and the musical “Nine” has a surreal quality to it. I mean, there’s a fantasy as in all Fellini films, it moves between fantasy and reality and memory and I thought that that might be my way in, the fact that Guido’s fantasies could become musical and then I would understand why (Laughs) ultimately we were singing. Then, the idea also to set the numbers on this unfinished set in the soundstage that he’s trying to fill with something to make work became a concept that I came up with and I thought, “Well, maybe that’s a way into it in terms of staging, in terms of concept.” So, I loved that about “Nine.” I also loved what it says about the creative process.

CS: Right. That’s one of the things I’m really interested in, the character at the center, because I imagine every director has gone through that. You had a huge hit with “Chicago” and got all these Oscars. After you were done were you immediately like, “Okay”…
Marshall: What’s next?

CS: Did you go through some of the same process?
Marshall: It’s a hard thing. I mean, I think it’s such a cautionary tale for me, this movie, what it says because it really, as an artist if you judge yourself and try and second guess yourself and figure out why it is you had what you had, it’s so dangerous. I mean, the most important thing I think we all try and do is come from a place of what we feel and that’s all we have. Anthony Minghella, my great, dear friend Anthony Minghella said to me, “As directors, all we really can bring to the table is our taste.” So, you bring yourself and if you don’t, if you don’t do that, you know, if you try and come from other places and other voices in your head you cripple yourself. So, the fact that Guido obviously, for many reasons can’t create, but also I think it’s not only because, you know, it’s combined for him, it’s the fact that his life is in such turmoil. He’s created such a web of deceit and lies, but also I think he’s lost why he does what he does. I think that’s what, for instance, Lily, the character played by Judi Dench tries to inspire him to remember, to begin again with joy and look for something besides just trying to second guess what you’re supposed to do. It’s very fragile, the creative process and to people outside in the world it might seem simple, but it really is. It can be really crippling.

CS: Well, it’s funny because I write, but I don’t write fiction, but even just writing anything…
Marshall: Anything.

CS: Just sitting there and going, “Okay, I gotta write something…”
Marshall: A blank page, there it is, a blank page. How do you begin? Where do you begin? The thing is, if you over-analyze your own work, you can’t work.

CS: I want to talk about the stageshow, which I’ve never seen. Were they able to play with the Fellini images as much in the stage show, because you were able to recreate some amazing scenes from Italian cinema by shooting there.
Marshall: That was joyous. You know, what the stage production does, basically, it’s the whole thing works as a fantasy ’cause it’s just him with women, so there are no men. In an odd way, it becomes all of a fantasy. I specifically wanted to create three different worlds in this film and that is reality in the ’60s and then the fantasy life of Guido Contini and also his memory. So to delineate those in that kind of way on film is something. When you walk into a theater, you’re in an artificial place immediately. There’s a proscenium, there’s a stage, there’s an audience. So, it all becomes rather, in a way, artificial. But on film, it’s such a realistic medium it was helpful to sort of separate those realities.

CS: Now, did you spend a lot of time studying Fellini movies for their look and style before making this?
Marshall: A lot of time, a lot of time. Daniel (Day-Lewis) and I especially spent an enormous amount of time looking at everything, not just Fellini films, and John DeLuca who’s my creative partner. We spent time looking at Fellini films, we spent time looking at Pietro Germi films and Vittorio De Sica films. I mean, we wanted to look at Italian cinema from that time which was incredibly exciting. I mean, it was their time.

CS: I’ve never been to Italy, so I only really know it from watching those movies.
Marshall: Those movies, especially that era, the ’60s, so what you have to do with a project like this, because there’s a masterpiece there; Fellini’s “8 1⁄2” is a masterpiece. So what you have to do is you have to look at it and examine it and really get to know it and then you must put it away. You must put it away and start on your own path because you can’t do that. I mean, thank God we’re a different genre and thank God we’re a musical. I could never have even approached thinking about doing that again. So, you go in a different direction. It’s like, I don’t know, I was thinking of Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria.”

CS: Oh, that’s my favorite movie of his.
Marshall: It became “Sweet Charity,” the musical on stage and then it became “Sweet Charity” on film. So, we follow a similar trajectory. But it’s like “Pygmalion.” I mean, you know, “Pygmalion” is this brilliant movie, this brilliant stage play, and then you do “My Fair Lady.” But you must, you must, must, must tread different territory.

CS: I’m sure you’ve been asked a lot about your cast because it is an amazing cast. Besides Daniel, they’re all coming in and out of the movie, so when you’re putting on a production like this, do you get to do rehearsals with everyone at once or do you just have two or three of them there at a time?
Marshall: No, we were all together. We needed to be together, because we had so much work to do. We had many rooms working at the same time, so we had a choreography room and we also had a place where I was working on scene work as well as choreography and the vocal room the dialect room. There was an enormous amount of work happening and we had six weeks of rehearsal and two weeks of pre-record. During that time, it was like a boot camp. We were working incredibly hard all together. But I’ll tell ya, there’s something that comes from that which is really nice is you create a company. For me, coming from theater, it makes me feel very at home to create that kinda company instead of just what naturally happens in film which is, somebody just comes in for the day and it’s a different kind of energy. For me, it’s very helpful to have everybody together on the same page working on the same film knowing what their function is, supporting each other, creating that world.

CS: But how much harder is that when you have all these big names and big stars who have gotten used to doing exactly what you say… showing up only when they’re needed?
Marshall: They loved it. They loved it. The great thing about the big stars is that they all wanted to work. I think they were interested to go to work and that was impressive about this cast. They weren’t like, “Oh, we’re just gonna come in and do our star thing.” It’s like none of them were like that. They saw Daniel Day-Lewis, who’s the hardest worker in the world, working like nobody’s business and everybody thought, “Well, we’ve gotta get to work.” So everybody checks their egos at the door, everybody, and you go to and you get in there and get dirty and start working.

CS: I’m curious about working with actors who aren’t normally singing or dancing. Do you have a secret thing you say to them to get that out of them?
Marshall: Well, it’s very helpful to approach it as the character. I mean, I think that’s a big… instead of Penelope singing, it’s Carla singing. Or instead of Daniel singing, it’s Guido singing. What happens is, you know, when you work with the actors you think in terms of about approaching just from that side of things, from the character, and it opens them up, because it’s not so exposing.

CS: I see. They see the character singing.
Marshall: They understand that also… I say to them that I actually like all the rough edges. I like that the character isn’t like a perfect technical singer or dancer, it’s good that you bring the character to the singing and dancing and I like all the imperfections and that makes it real, human.

CS: I want to go back a little bit in the making of the movie, and that’s the unfortunate passing of Anthony Minghella. Did you get to work with him at all on the script before he passed?
Marshall: A lot.

CS: Oh, you did, I wasn’t sure.
Marshall: Well, on a musical you must work on the script. I mean, I worked on this movie for three years, because I produced it as well, but I had to be with the writer every moment. In a musical, on this kind of thing where it’s all integrated song, dance, music, you can’t go away and write a script and bring it back. What happened was Anthony Minghella and I worked together and John DeLuca. John, Anthony and I worked very hard. First we worked here, and he’s incredible because he would just test the movie which means that he would say, “Okay, what’s the scene about? What are they thinking?” He would just sit there, “What do they want? What are we trying to achieve here?” He would just sit and listen, just listen, listen, listen, listen, listen. Then, he would go write a little piece of something and then show it to us. So, we did it in pieces. But, he handed us the script, ’cause he listened and worked so hard with us and then he went away and did write and then handed us the script the night before he went into the hospital.

CS: Wow, okay.
Marshall: He said to me as he handed it to me, he said, “This is as close as I could possibly get in the amount of time because I don’t know how long my recuperation process is gonna be, so I wanted to get it as close for you as you could so you wouldn’t be held up.” So, I got this incredibly fully-realized script. I mean, it was really, I would say 90 percent of what it was is there and then we lost him, which was so devastating.

CS: I can imagine. Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about making the move from choreographer to director, because we’ve seen the likes of Anne Fletcher and Adam Shankman turn into amazing directors coming from that background as well. Why do you think it’s easy to make that transition?
Marshall: Well, I guess it has to do with movement. I mean, a lot of it has to do with movement and movement of the camera and a sense of how things are put together. I think choreographers – don’t forget choreographers are authors because it’s blank, it’s a piece of music, nothing with no idea. So you actually have to create everything. As a director, you interpret the script, but as a choreographer you actually have to write a script so that your dance has something to say, or forms the plot, or reveals something about a character. In an odd way, I feel like choreographers are naturally prepared to work on film, which is putting things together, moving the story forward and creating a sense of movement and pace.

CS: So you just think it’s very natural to go from one to the other?
Marshall: It felt natural for me. I mean, I don’t know if it’s natural for everybody. I mean, I know, for instance, when I used to choreograph Broadway shows, for me to work on a number, I would imagine what it would be like on film first. I always did that for myself instead of sort of limiting myself to the confines of a proscenium. I used to imagine, “Okay, well, the number on the film would be this, so on stage I’ll make it this.” So, I didn’t have to take that extra step backwards. (Laughs) I could just open it up and do the work.

CS: Also, theater must be a lot harder because you have the limitations of the stage.
Marshall: Yeah, you can’t hide behind anything, but also you have the confines, the limitations of the stage. I find myself placing limitations on filmwork because I find if you don’t it’s limitless and you can’t even choose, you can just do anything, so I choose to limit the choices.

You can read what Marshall had to say about him taking over the reigns of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise here. Nine is now playing in New York and L.A. and opens nationwide on Christmas Day, December 25.