How far along the process did you decide which things would be practical effects and which would see the cast singing and dancing in the middle of a river?
Rob Marshall: I wish I was better at CGI work but for me it doesn’t help create the world, especially when you’re trying to inhabit it with real people. I think it’s really important in this piece that you really care about these people. What I loved about these extraordinary actors is that they brought them to life with such vulnerability and strength and joy and fear and all of it – very human. When I think of Meryl’s Witch, for instance, it’s so dimensional in a way I’ve never seen before. She’s vulnerable and you care so much for the witch. So that’s important and that reality and being able to touch that was important for me too. So to do that in a blue or green room, I don’t think we would have found our world.
It’s interesting – movies are so fragile because you’re just a little thing trying to get up and walk. You have an idea of what it will be. And we had rehearsal, which is heaven to have that time together to create a company, because this is an ensemble piece. But I wanted to make sure that the design team, which is a team I’ve worked with a lot, did everything it could to really let everybody feel the world they’re in and be part of it, so it feels like they’re there and it’s happening. I know that’s bizarre to say about a fairy tale but in a way this is a fairy tale with real people in it. That’s how I always saw it.
Can you tell us about your conversations with other collaborators in designing this world?
Rob Marshall: For me one of the beautiful things about this piece – and James [Lapine], this is your extraordinary work with Steve [Sondheim] – is that it is seamless. It moves in and out of dialogue, into song and back into dialogue, but all through it is this beautiful fluid piece. And that fluidity must happen everywhere – in the clothes, in the design, all of it in the camera movement. The opening number was 16 minutes long and that was a mammoth undertaking to do that. And I really wanted to make sure it felt like it was moving fluidly and that’s camera work, costume, lighting – all of it has to have that kind of sensibility because it’s interesting with a musical. There’s a song and the song reaches a plateau and then you can’t let it drop into the next scene, it actually has to push forward into the next scene and so forth. All of that pushing forward was part of everybody. Maybe it’s because I’m from the theatre but it’s very important for me to involve everybody in everything. So I sit down with the costume designer Colleen Atwood and Dion Beebe our cinematographer and Dennis Gassner our production designer, and really we talk about everything. I want to hear what they think about the script, the clothes, it all connects and that’s what makes it a whole and it was all because of the piece itself.
You say you like to include everyone so I wanted to know how you came up with the visual style? The colour – there’s a lot of gold and blue – and how that particular look came to be what you decided upon?
Rob Marshall:I feel like the best idea in the room wins. So when Meryl says, ‘I would really love to see the Witch when she transforms as a sort of blue enchantress, a fairy of some kind.’ That was her image of the character that was perfection. But that doesn’t solve her issue with her daughter, even though she’s changed and she’s beautiful. And I loved hearing that. It was so original but most important it comes from her. That’s her painting too. And Johnny Depp wanted to play the Wolf like a Tex Avery cartoon from the ’40s, with the zoot suit and the fedora – that inspires him, that’s how he sees the Wolf. So I try and work from what people feel and what they like. Of course I’ll adjust and change but I like that collaboration. I think it’s important.
Some of the people in this town seemed American and some of them seemed English, was there a thought process behind that?
Rob Marshall: For me it was the juxtaposition of all these fairy tales, so I wanted that. I loved that everybody was from different worlds because that collision is what the piece is all about. That was all very intentional.
How did you decide which songs to cut and how painful was it?
James Lapine: It was painful but on the other hand it was necessary. I think Rob and I worked really hard to capture the essence of the show without ever being literal to it and I think we both had to come down to the hard choices of what should stay and what shouldn’t. Stephen Sondheim couldn’t have been more supportive of those decisions.
Rob Marshall: It is very painful because there’s all these beautiful babies that you don’t want to touch and you want to hold onto. I would say ‘No More’ might have been the most difficult song to eliminate but when we decided to lose the character of the Mysterious Man it made no sense to have ‘No More’ in the piece because it’s all about riddles and so forth and it doesn’t work. And you think you want to see the stage play on screen but I’m telling you, you don’t want to. You think that’s what it exactly should be and in the perfect world that could happen but it doesn’t work like that – in fact, it does a disservice to the piece, because that piece lives forever on stage. So the key is to really make sure that you retain the original intention of all of it. And having James [Lapine] and Stephen [Sondheim] there gave me such confidence in that. In addition, you must reimagine it as a film and what works as a film. As an example, a film is told in a three-act structure. Into The Woods is such a two-act structure: happily ever after, then after happily ever after. So we had to find a way to integrate it to make it work as a film. You were incredible James, I’ve never seen anybody so open to throwing things out. I many times would be saying, ‘We’re not throwing that out.’ I was the keeper of the material in many ways.
James Lapine: That’s true.
Rob Marshall: But I love the fact that you were that open to recreating and reimagining this as a film because that’s the most important thing.
This is directed to both of the talented blonde actresses on the end. You were both pretty terrible mothers, particularly Ms Streep. I just want to know did they ever think about going home at night with the make-up on, maybe to the supermarket or something like that, to see if you could get a reaction?
Meryl Streep: I had no make-up, darling. [Laughs] I was away from my family and we were living in the most improbable place, weren’t we? It was just incredible. It was outside London in Richmond Park because we were there the whole time, for four months. From a month of rehearsal and recording and then three months of shooting but I wasn’t called much at all. So I walked in Richmond Park every day. And I remember the first time I saw the set, I thought, ‘The trees are too big. What is this? Yosemite?’ And then I walked in Richmond Park and some of the oldest trees live in Richmond Park, which was kept by Henry VIII as a hunting ground. The progeny of the deer that he ate are still there roaming around wild, it’s just the most extraordinary place. And the oak trees have trunks this big. [Stretches her arms wide] They are magnificent. Some of them are in Windsor Great Forest, where Jack climbs the tree. Fantastic. So that helped get you in the mood and stay in the world.
What was the funniest or most memorable moment on set?
James Corden: The thing I really remember is we did a month’s rehearsals in an empty space with wooden trees and cardboard boxes as rocks and stuff. And for a while you really didn’t feel like you were making a film, you felt like a regional touring company which just so happened to have this incredible cast and we were going to take this on the road. But day two we were rehearsing the Witch’s entrance into this mock-up bakery and Meryl has got this rehearsal dress on with this cane, like a big walking stick. And we’re playing around with it and she’s leaping on stuff and jumping on things and coming up and getting in your face. And she leaps up onto the table, day two, 11am, vaults if you will, catches her shoe in the dress and starts to fall back headfirst towards this stone floor. And time slowed down and I thought, ‘I’m about to watch Meryl Streep die. It’s happening.’ I wish I could say I didn’t consider my own career in this and think, ‘This film’s going to go down. Shit.’ Rob Marshall freezes and is going, ‘Oh my God, now Meryl Streep’s going to die.’ The person who’s stepped in and saved her life that day, was not the two men in the room, it was the pregnant woman, who leaps forward and catches Meryl Streep. Rob and I are like, ‘Arrrgghh.’ And I never forgot it really. Every day I would look and think, ‘Is she really going to keep going for it at this level?’ And she really did.
While Stephen Sondheim is missing from this stage, he won’t be missing for long because he’s sent a note…
Meryl Streep: Yes, Steve Sondheim has sent a note: ‘I’m sorry not to be there with all of you to celebrate Into The Woods but I’ve been laid low by a virus. However, James Lapine – my good friend and collaborator for 30 years and with whom I wrote the show – is present to help convey the pride we feel in the movie that the Disney Studio has made of it. As has been demonstrated time and time again, stage shows are notoriously difficult to bring – well, he wrote being, but to bring – to the screen satisfactorily…’
Tracey Ullman: You correct him, you should. She does with everybody.
Christine Baranski: He doesn’t use words well.
Meryl Streep: He’s not so good with the words, but he’s got a good imagination. ‘…are notoriously difficult to bring to the screen satisfactorily, because stage and screen are such totally different mediums – well, media, OK, again, again.
Tracey Ullman: He’s got a virus.
Meryl Streep: The problem is he had a staff member write this. ‘The Disney film of Into The Woods is a happy exception, partly because so many of the cast come from the stage and understand the differences between the two mediums – again – and partly because Rob Marshall, the director, is an accomplished and imaginative practitioner of both. Another reason, I have to add blushingly, is that James and I were closely involved in the making of the movie all along the way. From conception to refinement, it was an exhilarating and exciting experience, which I think is reflected in the final result, I hope you’ll agree.’ That’s from Steve.
Into The Woods opens in US cinemas on 25 December 2014 and in the UK on 9 January 2015.