Chicago Director Rob Marshall Looks Back 20 Years Later

Somehow, “Chicago,” Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning musical, just turned 20.

Based on the 1975 musical of the same name (itself from a 1926 play), “Chicago” was a critical and commercial success, grossing over $300 million worldwide and winning six Oscars. , including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Catherine. Zeta Jones. (Even more impressive: the last time a musical won the Best Picture Oscar was in 1968 for “Oliver!”)

Looking back on the film, it’s perhaps more surprising to remember that it was director Rob Marshall’s directorial debut. Marshall was already a staple of the theater, but with “Chicago” he also established himself as an excellent filmmaker. He would go on to direct films like “Into the Woods,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” and the upcoming live-action version of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

TheWrap spoke to Marshall about “Chicago” on his birthday (and the new Blu-ray deluxe steelbook that just came out). Marshall explained what it was like to make his first film, where the idea of ​​having the musical numbers in the heads of the characters came from and if Harvey Weinstein, among others a notorious intruder in the films of his directors , spoiled the final edit. or not.

It’s amazing that “Chicago” is your first film. How intimidated were you?

Well, you know what, I probably should have been more intimidated, but I was utterly naive. I had done another television musical, “Annie” – the one with Kathy Bates and Victor Garber, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming. It was the first time I called action and cut. I had never done anything in film other than that, but it was a mini-version of making a film. In every way it looked like a movie, the program was shorter, of course, but we were shooting on film. And I really had that experience. I felt like I had a chance to do that and put something together like that and put it together and film and create that.

So when I started this film, which was my first feature film, I felt very comfortable. Which is funny, because I come from the theater, I realized later that every time I would do something in the theater, if I choreographed a number, I would always imagine what it would be like in the cinema. And then I translated it on stage. But I always imagined cinema. When I started working on a movie, it was actually easier in some ways because that’s how I didn’t have to translate it on stage afterwards. I could just film it from what I was thinking.

But I was excited about it. We were all nervous in some way. Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta Jones, Renée Zellweger, Queen Latifah, we were all new to musicals. At that time, live action movie musicals were not being made. The anime, people accepted that. But they were dead in the water. No one really wanted to see them. They thought it was weird that people were singing. But I think because this conceptual idea that was created by myself and Bill Condon for all of this to live in two different worlds, the world of his imagination on the vaudeville stage, helped me bridge that. And I was, like I said, wonderfully naive and just focused on telling the story.

I was going to ask about this conceit, the musical numbers that go through their minds. And did you film a cover in case it didn’t work out? Or was everyone on board?

Such a good question. I mean, that’s how I pitched the idea to Miramax when I got the job. I said, “I see this happening in two realities.” The original stage piece is constructed like a musical vaudeville. All figures are presentation, all of them. And they must remain so. They are all built on the basis of classic vaudeville turns. So, “Mister Cellophane” is Bert Williams, or “When You’re Good to Mama” is Sophie Tucker. They were all built like these presentation musical numbers. It was really important to keep this idea. And then I said, “But I’d like to tell the real story at the same time.” And I remember having to say things like “You know, like on MTV” – that was so long ago – “where you can have two different realities”, trying to imagine it, because it’s was something that hadn’t really happened before.

And then Bill Condon came along and we had this idea of ​​seeing through Roxie’s eyes, those two worlds. How would we enter this world of vaudeville? And we created this together. I felt like that was the only way to make this room work. But I will say, not until I was in that editing room… I mean, I was sweating bullets because I was thinking, Will it work? Are people going to do with that? Will they understand that we can tell two stories simultaneously? Because I mean, I didn’t have much cover. It wouldn’t have worked. It was really conceived as a musical concept for a film and this concept really had to work.

The film has a very marked rhythm, both in the musical sequences and in the scenes that precede them. Was it something you had in mind or discovered during editing?

Thank you for asking this question. I was so nervous about getting it to work that it was put into the script. Because I knew I had to choreograph it that way. As an example in something like “All That Jazz,” Roxie is in bed with Fred Casey, right, and she’s having sex with him. She grabs the bars behind her while she has sex. And then the dancers grab Velma’s wrists and bring her up. All these cuts were choreographed because otherwise I couldn’t leave it to chance. And I did it on purpose. There were maybe a few places where we discovered certain things, but most of them were very, very designed. Mainly out of fear.

Tom Hooper said the close-ups are really the great thing about doing a filmed musical. And there are great close-ups in “Chicago.” Was this also your experience?

Well, on stage it’s always difficult to get the audience to look where you want them to look. They can watch anywhere. They can look over there. They can look at that person from the choir. They can watch wherever they want. That’s why film is really a director’s medium because you tell him where to watch and what to do. And I say one of the joys for me working on this piece was finding different and unique ways to enter each musical number. How to surprise the public? And for example, with “Cell Block Tango”, starting with the rhythm of the nocturnal noises in the prison cell, this rhythm accumulates in a rhythm of tango or in “Cellophane”, it resumes its own when leaving the office of Billy Flynn and he puts on his hat and he’s on stage. I kept looking for different or unique transitions.

I remember getting this idea from the flashlight of the officers interrogating Roxy after she killed Fred Casey. They interrogate her with a flashlight and that flashlight turns into a spotlight and now she’s on stage. I’ve always been looking for a cool and different way to get into those musical numbers? I remember in “I Can’t Do It Alone”, the song that Velma sings, I said, “Let’s put a search light outside the prison that keeps sweeping the prison, sweeping the prison , to sweep the prison, and then it stops and becomes a spotlight. And now we go to the stage. I’m still figuring out how can I trap the audience and make it a surprise that we’re now on stage.

Did the crew understand what you were doing or did they say, “What the hell is this guy talking about?”

I’m sure many of them have said that. They didn’t tell me to my face. I explained to everyone how we were going to proceed. Me too, in addition to having [cinematographer] Dion Beebe had theatrical lighting designers with me, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, who spoke my language and understood theatrically what I wanted to do. But I think in a way it was a big learning curve for a lot of people. I continue to work with Dion Beebe, John Meyer and Colleen Atwood, my team because they worked on this film, because they got into it, even though they’re new to theater, because it’s really a hybrid of theater and film in a film way. It’s a perfect springboard for me to cinema because I came from the theater. But it’s a very good question. I’m sure they thought, Who is this crazy? But I will say that I knew that was the vision. I knew that was the only way to make this music work. And I knew that was a great swing.

When I saw the movie at the very defunct Ziegfeld in New York, people stood and clapped after each number; it really felt like a night at the theater even though it was mid afternoon at the movies.

It’s so nice to say that because I honestly thought it would be this little niche movie that a few people would see, Broadway people maybe. I never imagined it would take off. I did not do it. I never saw that coming. And I think that’s because musicals weren’t accepted at that time. I just thought, Well I guess a few people will go. And had no idea we’d win the Best Picture Oscar or anything. None of this was in my head. Zero.

It was a Miramax movie, and among the many horrible things he did in his personal life, Harvey Weinstein has a reputation for toying with movies. Did you have to go through all that to get “Chicago” to cross the finish line?

Well, you know what, I have to say I got lucky on that front. Two things: Sam Mendes was a very good friend of mine at that time. We had co-directed “Cabaret” on stage together. And he said to me, “When you show it to Harvey, show it finished.” So I did a sound mix myself without anyone knowing, so it would sound good. And I tried to finish it as well as I could, so it didn’t look vulnerable to any type of work. And I have to be honest, we made some adjustments at the end, but that’s it. Like the movie I showed, Harvey is the movie you see now.

The other blessing is that Harvey was on “Gangs of New York” in Rome and he wasn’t there. He was a producer on this film with [Martin] Scorsese in Rome. And we were flying under the radar. He came on set at the beginning when we started shooting, and then he was there the last day we shot.

All the while, we were doing our thing. I don’t think you can work in committee. I think you have to choose your filmmaker, trust his vision and let it happen. Otherwise, I always call it a blender movie, like you put some of that person in, his wife said, his husband said this, his kid said that. You put it all in a blender and it turns into mush. I’ve been very lucky with the films I’ve done. The people I worked with trusted my vision and let me go. And I never felt challenged, but it’s a horrible experience to have that on your shoulder while you’re working.

This new “Chicago” Anniversary Steel Book Blu-ray is out now.

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