Interview: Chicago Director Rob Marshall Goes Into the Woods

If you’re a fan of the wave of movie musicals that have popped up over the past ten years, you can probably thank director Rob Marshall, and if you hate musicals, then you can probably blame Marshall as well. Although he had directed many musicals on stage and television, it was his feature film directorial debut, the Oscar-winning Chicago, which got Hollywood interested.

Now, Marshall is back with his third musical feature film (fourth if you include the 1999 TV-movie based on the musical “Annie”), his first foray into Stephen Sondheim with Into the Woods, a dark take on classic fairy tales like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and more with an star-studded cast that includes Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman and some guy named Johnny Depp. sat down with Marshall for the following interview at the film’s New York City junket a few weeks back. Obviously, as a director who came from directing theater musicals, doing a movie based on a Sondheim musical must be the epitome of what you might want to do.

Rob Marshall: It’s a dream. In fact, when I finished the film, “Chicago,” one of the first things I did was sit with Steve Sondheim, because I had always wanted to do one. I said to him, “I would love to bring one of your musicals to film.” We had a long discussion about what that would be. This was in 2003, so almost 12 years ago. We talked about different projects. He said to me then, he said, “I think ‘Into the Woods’ would be great for you.” I remember him saying that to me. It really stuck with me. Things happened, but it was always something I always had in the back of my mind, but I wanted to make sure it was the right time. It was in 2011, it was the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and I was watching President Obama speak to the families of the victims on television. He said to them, “You are not alone. No one is alone.” I thought, “Oh my gosh. What an important message for children of today.” Obviously, it’s the sort of penultimate song in “Into the Woods.” It was that moment that I thought, “This might be the right time to do this.” I called James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim and said, “Can I have this to do?” They were thrilled. So it was a nice beginning.

CS: It must be great to have Stephen and James Lapine involved as well.

Marshall: The perfect way to do it.

CS: These guys know where it should be and they’ve put it on already.

Marshall: Yeah, the only downside to that would be if they were too inflexible about the material and not looking, reimagining it for film or understanding it’s a different medium. But, it was exactly the opposite. I mean, they were unbelievably flexible. Stephen Sondheim loves films. I mean, he’s a real film aficionado, I mean, shockingly. They were so open to trying new things, throwing things out. I mean, I was the one, actually, who was most of the time saying, “Well, don’t touch that.” I was sort of the keeper of the material, (Laughs) and they were incredibly flexible. I was so impressed. That was the key to making this a film, was their flexibility.

CS: I know some songs like “No More” and the reprise of “Agony” were left out, but did you actually shoot those numbers?

Marshall: No, no, I mean, I wish we had that luxury to have tried it and seen. We had such a tight budget and a tight schedule. There’s actually nothing on the cutting floor except for the new song that we actually shot, which was a song for the witch called “She’ll Be Back.” It was a song that Stephen Sondheim wrote for the witch, for Meryl Streep. It’s a beautiful song. Actually, you’ll see it on the DVD when it comes out. It’s really good, and she’s wonderful in it. What was interesting was, it didn’t serve the piece, ultimately, because by the time you got to “Last Midnight,” there was sort of a fatigue factor that had set in with too much material, and in terms of the pace, etc., it was a very difficult decision, to take it out. But you know what? Stephen Sondheim said, “It should go.” James Lapine said, “It should go.” I did, Meryl, we all felt, it was clear.

 robmarshallintothewoods2CS: How do you tell Stephen Sondheim or Meryl Streep, “Oh, by the way, you know that song you wrote specifically for Meryl is not going to be in the movie?”

Marshall: You know what? I made the phone call. I made both phone calls. But the truth is that within seconds, they were like, “I understand.” I mean, they understand that we’re all serving something bigger than ourselves. We’re serving a film. That is what makes great professionals and that’s what they are.

CS: You talked about the right time to do the movie. There’ve been a couple “Red Riding Hood” movies and there’s a “Cinderella” movie coming out in a couple of months. There was a “Jack and the Beanstalk” movie. These are stories very much in the public consciousness, so does that make it easier to approach a musical version of these stories?

Marshall: I think it actually opens the door, at least, for the discussion of this because they are sort of in fashion for whatever reason. But what excited me about this project is that it’s kind of the modern fairytale, because it explores what happens after happily ever after. It’s not the classic version of them. There’s a twist to it, and it actually says something very profound as well. So I thought, it’s nice to be embraced because people are interested in fairytales, but I like that this has a new approach.

CS: This was actually my first experience of “Into the Woods.” It might be a generational thing, because I moved to New York right when it was opening on Broadway but it somehow passed under my radar.

Marshall: That’s good, actually, that you saw it fresh. I like that.

CS: I saw it fresh, but I was really taken aback by those twists. It was kind of grim and dark and I was kind of shocked.

Marshall: Yeah, it goes there. Well, you know what’s nice? I mean, that’s sort of the thing that makes it kind of special, I think. It makes it modern. It makes it good for kids today in a way. I think that kids are very savvy these days and I think it’s also good for them to see that, and see something more real, see that Cinderella, maybe the prince isn’t exactly for her. See how kids get through something that’s difficult and hard in life. It brings it to a more real place, and I think it’s cautionary, which is what the Grimm Fairy Tales were originally. They really were cautionary tales. It wasn’t like everything’s perfect, it’s like, “If you do this, the consequences of your actions produce this.”

CS: As far as the cast, we know that Meryl can sing from “Mamma Mia” and I saw Anna Kendrick in “The Last Five Years” and she has an amazing voice, but what about some of the others like Emily Blunt and Chris Pine? How do you know what they can do?

Marshall: Surprises. I don’t know until they walk into the room, you know? I love their work as actors, but I don’t know them in that way, so they have to actually come in and audition. Emily Blunt came in and sang “Moments in the Woods,” her big song, and it was a full performance. I mean, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m just going to try and kind of get through this.” It was a full performance of the song. I remember she finished, and I was so blown away – she said, “Are you crying, Rob?” I remember her saying that, “Are you crying?” I said, “Oh God, I am.” I didn’t realize because I was so moved that someone could find the humor, the warmth and the humanity and the truth of this number, be able to sing like that. I was thrilled. Chris Pine, too. No idea he could sing like that. He sang “Fly Me to the Moon” for me because he loves Sinatra. He sounded fantastic. I said, “You have a great singing voice.” He said, “Really?” He started working on it. It was great, also, his humor. I mean, it was so great to see how funny he is. I mean, he’s really, incredibly talented. So these are all surprises.

robmarshallintothewoods3CS: I feel like Emily must be the exact right age to have been a fan of the original musical and wanted to be Little Red Riding Hood.

Marshall: You know what’s interesting? She is honestly younger than you think. She’s 30. So she knew it, but she was three years old when it came out, right?

 CS: A lot of my friends who love the musical are in that 28 to 32 year old range.

Marshall: Oh okay. Well, you know what? I think it’s because it’s done so much in schools. That’s what it is, more than productions. The top three musicals that are done in schools are “Grease,” “High School Musical,” and “Into the Woods.” I think it’s because there are so many roles, and the fairytales and all of that, and the humor of it and the fun of it. So, I think that’s how people know it. I think people know it from people being in it, kids being in it in their schools.

CS: Tracy Ullman told me that her son played Jack in “Into the Woods.”

Marshall: See? Exactly. It happens all the time. Somebody just said to me the other day, just yesterday, one of the guys that was working on the sound said, “My daughters played the Baker’s Wife and the Witch.”

CS: I grew up in Westport and there was a very musical high school there and I played in orchestra, but that was years before “Into the Woods” even existed.

Marshall: So that’s why. Now it’s done everywhere.

CS: Good to know. I was curious about that phenomenon, because I brought my friend Erin to the movie since she was a huge fan and she’s in that age range.

Marshall: So she knew it? I bet that’s why.

CS: One thing she wanted to ask, and I’m curious, too, but there were some changes in Rapunzel, because she said that Rapunzel was crazier.

Marshall: Rapunzel’s a little more cartoon-like on stage. The one thing I really wanted to do was make sure these were people that were flesh and blood and make them more real. She’s kind of a hysteric. She goes kind of crazy. It’s a little different. You know, she’s kind of played as a crazy lunatic. I didn’t want to do that because I thought it lessened the relationship between the Witch and Rapunzel, and especially because Meryl was going to play it with such depth and such vulnerability, and that I really wanted to make sure that Rapunzel was not a cartoon.

CS: Was there supposed to be some sort of resolution between Rapunzel and the Baker since that’s meant to be his sister?

Marshall: No, you know what? James Lapine and I spoke about that. They don’t do it on stage, and James said, “We tried so many different versions of how to connect the dots,” he said, “it was one too many dots to connect.” He said, “It’s too complicated.” So, we didn’t do it on stage, and he said, “I don’t think we should do it in the film.”

CS: Because that would’ve been happily ever after and that would ruin the theme of the musical.

Marshall: Exactly, exactly. I think the thing is in our version, happily ever after is interrupted by the next big issue and problem in the piece and that launches into our third act.

robmarshallintothewoods4CS: I wanted to ask about working with Johnny Depp. He has a smaller part in this, but this is your second movie in a row with him. Having worked with him twice, do you feel like you understand him?

Marshall: Very much so.

CS: He’s becoming such an enigma, that not many people understand him.

Marshall: I wish you could see him… working with him is just a joy. He is so creative. He’s so original, but he’s so kind and such a gentleman, almost from another era, like, literally from like, the ’40s. He’ll come on set and shake everybody’s hand and say, “Good morning, good morning, good morning, and goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.” He’s just an elegant, quiet, gentle person and kind of a genius. So, he’s very funny, too. We share a real similar sense of humor. So, I just adore working with him. I mean, I would do anything with him.

CS: These days, musicals are coming back to television and while you did “Annie,” they’re now doing live musicals, so is that something you’re interested in doing at all?

Marshall: You know what? I kind of love working on film because television in live, that’s tricky. But there’s something about the craft of working on a film. You know, this took three years. I like that way of working. I like really honing in on something and being meticulous about it and giving it that kind of care and attention. I like that way of working, and maybe it’s because I grew up with film musicals, too. They mean so much to me, so if there’s any small way I can keep the genre alive, I’m happy. 

Into the Woods opens nationwide on Christmas Day, December 25. Look for more interviews with the producers and Tracey Ullman before then.

[Gallery not found]