As the man at the helm of the Oscar-winning musical Chicago, it’s fair to say that Disney’s latest endeavour has been left in good hands with Rob Marshall, and we had the pleasure of sitting down with the man himself to discuss the enchanting project.
Marshall spoke about the joy in working with Chris Pine, why he fought to get James Corden the leading part, the challenges in taking a stage play to the big screen, and on the different, braver side we’ve seen to Disney of late.
Well that’s the wonderful thing about film which is different from stage, which is the close-up work you can do. You can get the lyric very clear and that’s a real gift with film, you can make those points more carefully as you have that control and power. I’m always very aware that I feel very responsible, because in many ways it is a director’s medium, because you decide what to show. But Sondheim is such a genius and his lyrics are so full and so rich, that if you watch this movie you’ll find another layer under something. Those multi-faceted songs keep them so interesting, they’re not just a song. In other words, there are many musicals where if you took the song out of the scene it would be fine. But if you take the songs out of this piece, there is no scene. Because the story is happening in the songs, there are so many songs in this piece where at the end of it they say, ‘now I understand’ or ‘I know things now that I didn’t know before’. So they figure these things out during the songs.
There are a few surprises in the cast – were you actively on the look-out for somebody a bit unexpected?
Yes. It’s so interesting casting this. When I started the first person I asked was Meryl Streep, knowing she could sing – but not like this, that was a surprise. I didn’t know she had the power, but she’s never been asked to do that with this sort of material so that was thrilling. Discoveries everywhere you look. But there were few other people I knew could sing. Still to this day there are hidden talents a lot of these actors have. Emily Blunt came in and auditioned for me and sang her solo song and it was a full performance. I thought she’d go over to the piano with some sheet music and stumble her way through it, but she came in and did it. I remember watching, and I was thrilled, it was one of those moments, and I always hope for these as a director, that someone will come in claim the role so I have to make no decisions at all. That’s what she did. She brought the warmth and the humour and the vulnerability and the strength of the character, it was a wonderful moment. As for Chris Pine – I only knew as a very handsome, wonderful actor. I had no sense of his comic ability and no sense he could sing at all. He sung Frank Sinatra at the audition, he did Fly Me to the Moon. I immediately knew he could sing.
Bringing a stage show to the screen is deceptively complicated – but you’ve done it successfully. What do you find is the biggest challenge in adapting?
Greta question. It’s very delicate when a piece is beloved on stage. But what you can’t do is take what’s on stage and just put it on film, because there are stage conventions that just don’t work on film. Length is one of the first things – a two hour and 45 minute musical is hard to sustain on film and the nature of the pace of film you need to move quicker. Plus the two act structure doesn’t work in films, it’s one piece. But I asked writer James Lapine and Sondheim to work with me on the film and that really is the best way to do it. Sometimes it’s hard because they can hold on to the original material, but this was the opposite. They were so flexible about it. It was great to have them there, they understood film was a different medium. The hardest part is when you have to lose a good song that really works on stage – which happened with Chicago too, I had to take away four or five songs that are great. They’re good individually but if you put them in it’s too much material or too many characters. So we carefully and meticulously worked through the piece – but it was comforting to have the original creators in the room with me, that helped a lot.
James Corden’s casting is interesting because it’s a tough role. Now you didn’t know much about him before – so how did that come about?
I saw him in One Man Two Guvnors on Broadway. I did a reading of this film two years ago, because for studio executives it’s hard to read a musical on a script, because most people see a song and just flip the page because they don’t understand how to read a song, but it’s part of the fabric. So I staged a reading so they could hear the whole piece and I asked James to do the baker and he was amazing. It was mostly a group of theatre actors, and I thought to myself, he should do the part. Because one, it’s rare to find someone with that kind of range, who can play comedy and have depth and play drama, and also be able to sing. In addition I wanted to find an everyman, because in a way the baker and his wife are us, we see the journey through their eyes. I wanted someone who wasn’t as familiar. If you have a star in that role it’s hard to step back and see it as just the baker, you’re aware of the star playing the role. I loved the idea of a discovery, for American audiences. The Disney executives loved him too and he has such a huge career ahead of him.
This is Disney’s first live action movie in a while…
Yeah it’s been a long time, and I love that we’re able to do that. This is the first Broadway musical they’ve ever done. They always create their own. But when we brought this to them they were interested in expanding the definition of what a modern fairy tale could be. It’s a much more realistic, post-happily ever after piece. I was really thrilled to see that Disney were interested in that. I was impressed.
Do you think we’re seeing a braver, more daring side to Disney of late? Are they taking a few more risks?
I do. It’s very conscious on their part, they’re interested in pushing the envelope, and also making sure their company doesn’t feel antiquated, and really reflect people’s thoughts, and women’s thoughts is a big part of it, and the reality of life. It’s nice to see that, there can be more than just the animated films from the 50s, there can be something more modern.