Spring 2020


From Stage to Screen

Rob Marshall, the director behind Chicago, Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns, knows a thing or two about musicals, thanks to his theatrical training and an ability to inspire by example

By Steve Chagollan

Rob Marshall (Photographed by Jay Brooks)

Rob Marshall represents an anomaly in Hollywood; he's a director who specializes in musicals, a volatile form that's been buried and revived so many times that most filmmakers are afraid to touch it. Not Marshall. He's to the manor born. Instead of attending film school, he took a more traditional route to the dramatic arts—studying music theater at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama before becoming a professional dancer on Broadway.

Musicals are his life's blood; he attended them growing up and participated in them as a cast member. He witnessed how they were made from the inside out, and his mentors—including the director/choreographer Graciela Daniele, the legendary Broadway hoofer Chita Rivera, and the producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron—all saw the potential beyond his grace on the boards when an injury threatened to sideline his performance career.

As Marshall has recounted, the first time he said "action" and "cut" was on a soundstage in Burbank directing Annie, a made-for-TV musical that would foretell a long association with Disney live action that continues to this day.

His penchant is to turn fear of the unknown into a motivating force. After his feature debut, Chicago, won six Oscars, including best picture, and a DGA Award for his direction, he was showered with other musical offers. But instead, he went in the opposite direction: from a burlesque backstage musical rooted in the American experience and filled with characters driven by fame and fortune to an intense period drama (Memoirs of a Geisha) that parts the curtains on a secret society of Japanese courtesans known for their modesty and discretion.

As in all of his work, the production values were exquisite, and his collaborators represented the cream of the crop, pointing to a quality in Marshall's work that favors the classic studio approach to moviemaking with glamorous stars, clear ethical underpinnings and hopeful resolutions.

Marshall spoke to the DGA Quarterly while prepping his latest feature, a live-action version of the Disney animated musical The Little Mermaid, and another deep dive into the unknown, given the technical feats required by both filming underwater and creating the illusion of it.

But there was nothing in Marshall's manner that suggested the daunting task ahead. He appeared relaxed and confident—characteristic of a man whose mantra of positive reinforcement has carried him far, and surrounded him with top-flight creative partners, many of whom will follow him to the ends of the Earth.

Rob Marshall plays puppet master to Renée Zellweger for the "We Both Reached for the Gun" number in Chicago. (Photo: Courtesy Rob Marshall)

DGAQ: So I understand you've already begun rehearsals on The Little Mermaid.

MARSHALL: Yes. We have eight weeks of rehearsal and then we go into two weeks of pre-records. And then we have another week of prep as we gear up and start shooting. I'm just looking at my calendar right now, March 23.

Q: That's a significant amount of rehearsal time for movies, is it not?

A: Yeah, well, this one's so complicated—it's the combination of it being a musical and also the underwater of it all has us having to do so much stunt work on rigs and wires and all of that kind of thing, so that [the] whole part of it is incredibly complicated.
Of all the movies I've done, I actually can say this is the most complicated by far.

Q: Are you actually going to be filming underwater or is it going to be the illusion of being underwater?

A: We are doing some underwater work, especially (to) get the reality of that. But the majority of it, we are doing what's called "dry for wet." On a blue-screen stage. We're singing and moving and acting, and underwater for half the film. I will say it's sort of this new frontier. We're working with a lot of fabulous visual effects artists (with) all kinds of new techniques to be able to do that kind of thing and make it really look photo-real. For instance, on Ariel, you're creating a tail and her hair because her hair has to move in the water and so that will be digitally added. And then you're creating everything: the water, the backgrounds, the vegetation, the coral reefs, the fish… It's a challenge.

Q: I've had such a great time rewatching your movies, especially with all the negativity in the news. Into the Woods, in particular, was so healing. I was just enveloped by the sheer joy of this movie.

A: That's so incredibly generous of you. That means a lot to me. I will say that, for me, there are many reasons to make certain films. But I have felt in the past few years, as you can imagine, that to be able to disappear into a world like Sondheim's Into the Woods, Lapine's Into the Woods or into the world of Mary Poppins, it's been very therapeutic.
It's sort of like in the golden days of Hollywood musicals during the Depression era, when people really needed to escape into a world where you can actually be lifted into a place. I feel that great need these days.

Q: Now, The Little Mermaid will be your fifth musical. And you have been credited for at least partially reviving the musical on the big screen. And yet, when it's not performed on stage, it's always considered a risk. Why do you think that is?

A: It's a very dicey proposition on film. It always has been because, in the theater, you're basically sitting in an artificial place where you can accept singing. And so I feel like that proscenium, a place that has a built-in surreality, it's much more acceptable to have people sing. And film, as we know, is such a visceral medium. It's such a very real medium in so many ways.
When I'm working on a musical, the biggest challenge for me is why they sing, how they sing. And I think you have to set the rules up right from the very beginning of a musical. You have to really say, "OK, this is what it's going to be, these are the rules we're going to follow," and you have to really stick to them.
And I always feel, in a way, that you have to earn a song, even more importantly than you do in a stage musical. It's that classic adage about musicals, which is, [in] a good musical, when speaking isn't enough, you sing. When moving isn't enough, you dance. But it has to feel seamless. If it doesn't feel seamless, if it feels like, "Oh, here they come, they're going to start to sing." It's awkward, it feels slightly embarrassing, and that's what you try to avoid. It has to feel absolutely earned. It has to feel organic.
I remember one of the struggles with Chicago was, well, how does that work? I mean, it was called Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville, all presentational vaudeville songs. Now, in a theater, you can present them directly to an audience. But in film there's a fourth wall and you can't. So we had to create a world where there was something theatrical.
There had been talk about my choreographing eight years before, and so I saw some early scripts. And none of them dealt with the fact these were vaudeville songs that needed to be done on a stage. I think people are nervous about doing numbers on a stage, but when you look at the history of musicals, for me, some of the greatest numbers are done on a stage, the backstage musicals: every single song in the film Cabaret is done on a stage. With Chicago, it was discovering this conceptual idea and embracing it and that's how our musical was told.

Q: And yet Into the Woods is a different animal.

A: With something like Into the Woods, that whole opening prologue is so helpful because we're basically telling this tale through song. And so immediately you're saying, "This is how the story is being told," and that was so helpful.
I remember when I sat down with James Lapine to work on it, he was so great because he said, "Well, you know, we can throw anything away. We can just like throw the whole prologue out and start again." I said, [laughs] "That's the best part." I said, "Do it almost verbatim to what it is on stage because, what you've done, it's very cinematic." You're moving back and forth quickly—quick, quick cuts between all these different stories and you're telling the audience immediately, "This is how we're telling the story through song."

Marshall on the set of Into the Woods with Meryl Streep as the Witch. (Photo: Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

Q: One of the things you do to add a measure of cinematic dimension to your musical numbers is parallel action. In Nine, there's more than one thing happening other than this song being sung. These things are triggered by memory. And there are flashes of fantasy.

A: I think that way of layering a musical number is something you can do on film that's harder to do on stage. That's one of the beauties of film.
I will say that it's very important to keep the story moving through a musical number. If you just sit in a place where it's just an entertainment, I think people check out. I think the story has to continue, which is why it's actually very helpful when you're doing a number to have different layers to place into the number to keep the story moving forward.
Because the story needs to be told in the song. In fact, that should be the meat of the scene. So when I can cut away to something that continues the story in some way, I feel like that kind of thing is so incredibly helpful when you're trying to tell a story through music.

Q: Nine is this lavish art film in a way, and it seems like it's as much an homage to Fellini as it is to a couple of other films about blocked directors at the end of their rope: I'm thinking of Woody Allen's Stardust Memories and Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. Did those movies sort of creep into your consciousness as you were making this movie?

A: Very much so. I come from the theater, and so Bob Fosse is a god to me. So All That Jazz meant a lot to me and understanding that was a very dark film in many ways. And the fantasies that he's experiencing and how they're interwoven into the piece, it was very helpful for me, as was Stardust Memories. I got a beautiful email from Woody Allen who loved Nine. And he was very generous about it, very, very, very kind about it. He didn't reference Stardust Memories, but I certainly was aware of that.
I certainly understand the beautiful chaos that filmmaking is and feeling inauthentic as you're working, you know, feeling dry, and (in Nine, the character of Guido Contini) this is a broken man. Everything falls apart because he's ultimately spiritually and internally broken. Thank you for saying that because it is very much sort of a small art film in a way, but on a lavish scale.

Q: The high level of craftsmanship is a throughline in your work, dating back to Chicago. You won the DGA Award for directing that film, which is like winning the most valuable player award in your rookie season.

A: I remember that night so well. You have to understand, when I made Chicago, I honestly thought that a few people would see it, kind of just have its little moment. I had no sense what was ahead of me. And I remember sitting at the DGA Awards with my partner John (DeLuca) and Renée Zellweger and Salma Hayek were at the table. Salma said, "I dreamt last night you were going to win." I said, "Salma, it's not happening." She goes, "No, I know these things." And I just assumed it was going to be Scorsese (for Gangs of New York), who had never won a DGA Award at that point. And I thought he should have had 800 DGA Awards by then.
And, when they called my name, I didn't move. And I remember Renée Zellweger turned to me and said, "You know, you have to get up."
But it was sort of overwhelming because I just didn't expect any of it. I just remember when I went up there, all I could do was talk about directors who had influenced me in my life, like the ones we mentioned, Bob Fosse, Woody Allen, but also the ones from the golden age of musicals—the Stanley Donens and George Cukors and, you know, Vincente Minnelli and Robert Wise and those people. I learned this artform from them. I just never imagined I would be doing it.

Q: You had come from the theater and you were established there but you were a newbie in the Hollywood ranks. Did the Guild help you feel a little more at home?

A: Yes, because I was immediately accepted into this very exclusive club of great filmmakers who I admired. In a way, it's a small club. There's just not a lot of filmmakers out there. It's grown over the years. But it felt incredibly inclusive. And what I love is that camaraderie, and I felt that from everyone, and not looked down upon because I was coming from the theater or, you know, hadn't done movies. It was more like, "We value good work." And that's what I felt from everybody. It was a wonderful place to be welcomed into.

Q: And I would imagine at some point, directors might have been coming to you for advice on directing a musical because they had never done that before. Maybe even somebody like Bill Condon, who wrote the adaptation of Chicago (and subsequently directed Dreamgirls and Beauty and the Beast).

A: With Bill, it was really special because he was a huge fan of musicals but had never written one. I, obviously, coming from musicals, had never directed a feature film, and I learned from him and he learned from me. It was a wonderful back and forth. And it's been lovely over the years to get calls from people who are doing a musical and, you know, "How does this work?" And I just share my experiences.
But for me, I actually used my theater training. As we were just talking about moments ago, I'm in rehearsal (on Mermaid). The only difference about the rehearsal is instead putting it together in one big piece, I'm doing it like a mosaic in little small pieces. The truth is, there's so much about a musical on film that is created very similarly to a Broadway musical. It's sort of in the DNA of it. Because you have to learn choreography, you have to learn blocking, you have to work inside—specifically in this film. For instance, all the stunt work and that kind of thing.
It's like working on two or three films at once. You have an entire music department, you have an entire choreography department. And it all needs to pull together as if it's one seamless piece. I guess one of the great things is that, when a musical works, people think it looks effortless. Which it should.

Q: On Chicago, how did you manage to honor the spirit of Bob Fosse while also giving it your own directorial and choreographic stamp?

A: I felt like you needed a central story to take us through and I felt that was through Roxie (played by Zellweger).
So Bill Condon and I worked to find that central story of Roxie's and how it would come from her mind. And immediately when you've done that, you have something more cinematic and it pulls it off of the sort of stage work of it all.
And so this idea of it taking place in two different worlds, as soon as you reconceive something, then you have the freedom. I mean, the genius of Bob Fosse on stage, you can kind of peel away because now you're serving something else. You're serving a very large, conceptual idea. So that immediately frees you, and that helped me a lot.

Marshall, in tennis shoes, scopes out a scene from Memoirs of a Geisha, with Ziyi Zhang, who plays the title character. (Photo: Everett)

Q: Tell me about how you approach the production values in your movies.

A: One of my goals is to think in terms of classic filmmaking. That's what inspires me. So I try not to do something that's sort of like on trend. I try to approach them in a way that feels somehow deeply connected to myself, but also in a classic movie style that's truthful and authentic to what you're saying and doing, and not try to gimmick something up. I try not to serve myself. I try to serve the piece. That's the big part of it. I don't think in terms of "This is my film and I must put my stamp on it."

Q: Well, you've surrounded yourself with some master craftsmen. Chicago also marked the beginning of some longstanding partnerships, with Dion Beebe the cinematographer, John Myhre the production designer and Colleen Atwood the costume designer.
Tell me about how you discovered those people and how that team came together.

A: It happened on Chicago with Dion Beebe; I was being asked to really look at very established directors of photography because the studio very much wanted to make sure that I was working with people who had done many films. But I felt differently. I didn't want to feel like I was the young kid in the room working with this professional. I needed a partner. So when I found Dion and his work, honestly, the meeting came because I got his reel and I thought it was beautiful and artistic and crafted so exquisitely. I just thought, who is this person? And it was this young cinematographer from, you know, South Africa/Australia, and we bonded immediately. And it's very hard for me to make a film without him. I've only made one without him. Dion is a natural fit for me because he understands movement of the camera, and we share a very similar aesthetic. He's connected to me so deeply.
John Myhre was very interested in Chicago, and I remember we had a meeting in New York and he had all these wonderful ideas. He saw Chicago kind of like a black-and-white Fred Astaire film. And I said, "Well, I see something very different." And he said, "OK, great. What's that?" He was ready to throw it all out. Immediately, I thought, "Oh, this is the guy for me." He wants to serve the piece and help me discover it. And he has exquisite taste and he's the hardest worker in the world and I can't imagine doing a film without him.
And then Colleen was probably the most established at that point (she was already a three-time Oscar nominee and won for Chicago). I met her in Los Angeles and we had a drink at the Four Seasons. She had never done a musical. She was excited about that idea. And she's just so inventive and so creative and I just liked her and I liked that she was passionate. She still carries that passion. She's such a brilliant artist and she sees things from a different angle, always.
The one thing that is true of all three of them is they're collaborators, and that's what I needed on my first film. I needed to have people around me who were willing to collaborate, not "Hey, this is how I'm doing it" or "This is my style." They were there for me. And they still are, almost 20 years later.

Q: What Beebe does in Into the Woods and Nine—the backlighting, the shafts of light, the key lighting on faces—all those things just really pop.

A: I feel exactly the same way. I think he paints with light. And that's true of all the films: Memoirs of a Geisha; Chicago, of course; Nine; and then Mary Poppins Returns is a whole other palette. But he always finds that beauty. And I try not to repeat a film (stylistically). Because these films take three, sometimes four years of my life. And so what you want is a very different experience, a very different adventure.
And also, when I hire somebody to work on something, the most important thing is that I would like to have dinner with them. I have to want to have dinner with them because you're living with them.

Q: Does this creative kinship extend to your directing teams? Your ADs, your UPMs? Are there people in that sphere whom you've worked with repeatedly?

A: I've actually hopped around a little bit because I'm shooting in Canada, Los Angeles, London. But I have found in my last three films this wonderful AD whom I adore whose name is Ben Howarth, and he's just the greatest. And I've had wonderful ADs in my career. But with him, I found a kindred spirit. It's so great when you find someone like that; it makes making a film so much more delightful.
The experience of making a film is hard enough. But I also want them to value their experience and, for me, that means making sure I value them.
I've had the luxury of having started as a choreographer. And I watched film directors who worked in a very inclusive, positive way. And then others who did not. I was working (as a director on my first film) and a director said to me, "Just remember, everyone's here to serve you." And as that director walked away, I literally thought to myself, "It's the exact opposite. I'm there to serve everyone." It's a very different way for me. I don't want to be, you know, dictator. We're all working together. And I want to be there to bring out their greatest work. It all feeds everything.

Q: I know there's probably some heroes of yours who were not so kind. I'm thinking of somebody like Jerome Robbins, who was a really tough taskmaster.

A: I had an experience with Jerry, which was interesting. He was working on bringing Jerome Robbins' Broadway to Broadway. And there were a series of workshops that I was a part of. And they were teaching us West Side Story, High Button Shoes, Fiddler on the Roof, all of his material. Then he would come in and ask us to dance it. And we were dancing, and I remember him stopping the room dead and said to me, "What are you doing?" And I said, "What you mean what am I doing?" He said, "Don't act. Just do the steps." And I was like, "Oh, OK." So I started to do it and he stopped again. "What are you doing?" And I said, "I don't even know how to dance without acting because what's so beautiful about your work is that everything means something. Every move means something. And that's actually how we were taught it, too." I said, "That's why you're so brilliant, because you know how to bring acting to dance." He was coming from the New York City Ballet. And Broadway is different. In Broadway, you're playing a role and you're acting. And so, needless to say, I didn't get the job. But he called me the next day and asked me if I would direct his tour of Fiddler on the Roof.

Q: An even higher compliment.

A: Yeah. I didn't do it because I didn't really want to work with him… for him. But I recognized that he saw maybe something in me that was more of a director. (But) as brilliant as he was, I do not condone any of that kind of work. I saw how he was with me and with other dancers, belittling them. That all comes from insecurity. Most directors, the reason they are angry or mean is because they're insecure about what they're doing. You can't let that rule you. You can't let the fear creep in.

Marshall on location for Nine with lead player Daniel Day-Lewis. (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

Q: I'd like to talk a little bit about your development as an artist. You had an interview at your alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, in 2012. And you rejected the notion of Pittsburgh as this steel town, emphasizing that it had as much culture as any major metropolitan city in the country. And you referred to it as a mini New York.

A: For me, it very much was. I mean, I was lucky that I had great parents who actually exposed us to so much of the arts there. It's amazing when you think that Pittsburgh had its own ballet company, its own opera company, its own symphony, its own summer stock, which was the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. It had the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and then some great theater colleges, like Carnegie Mellon University, like Point Park University. And so we were surrounded by arts and the theater. When I went to New York, it felt like, "Oh, this is familiar."
And I think it was helpful that I actually stayed, and went to Carnegie Mellon University out of high school because I was able then to take advantage of all that was there. It was the perfect place. I had great mentors there. And you're so close to New York, too. My whole family is from New England, so we used to drive from Pittsburgh up to Boston and, you know, we'd always stop in New York, and that's when I would see shows. The first Broadway show I ever saw, I was 13 years old, I saw Angela Lansbury in Gypsy at the Winter Garden. It was life-changing.

Q: Because you come from this theatrical academic background, you don't have any experimental shorts or those grainy, one-act dramas one might expect from film school. Is there some kind of avant garde work you did as a student that would point to the other side of Rob Marshall?

A: You know, it's funny. Everyone asks, "So how did you become a film director?" I said it was the most unplanned trajectory because I really only saw my life in theater. And it was others who saw that I had potential in film. And when I was given the opportunity to, for instance, direct and choreograph Annie for television for The Wonderful World of Disney, it was Craig Zadan and Neil Meron who saw that I had that potential. And I had never been behind a camera. And I purposely surrounded myself in that television film with theater people.

Q: Yeah, great cast.

A: I had Victor Garber and Kristin Chenoweth, and Alan Cumming, and Kathy Bates, who came from the theater as well, and Audra McDonald. So I had people around me with whom I could speak their same language and they spoke mine as I was trying to figure out how to do this. And I will say that was the perfect way for me to enter into film, through theater, through a musical which I felt very confident with. But how you film it and put it together—that was all new. But I will say, and I know this is crazy, but I realized when I was shooting Annie, that I felt the most at home on a film set that I had ever felt. I can just imagine what it is on film and then can do it. So for whatever reason, it was in my blood.

Q: I've heard that Chita Rivera taught you a lot about discipline in the theater. I'm wondering how you applied that discipline to filmmaking.

A: Well, I will say that Chita is my hero, and I was able to work with her at a very young age. I was in a show called The Rink, (also) with Liza Minnelli. She was so incredible to work with. The discipline and the joy of what she did was just infectious. And I think you have to approach something with a great deal of respect, which is what she does with theater and as a dancer.
The other thing that she told me was (keep) a sense of humor. I mean, I had it naturally anyway. She is so funny and so fun and that's a big part of creating a company.You spread that humor and sense of lightness and buoyancy to something so that when you're working, you're working with friends, and then you're all doing something together. And so I think of her a lot. She's very special to me.

Q: You said once that as a dancer, you had a bit of an advantage because you could also sing and act. It seems to me there are a lot of actors today who forwent stage disciplines, who never had to memorize a play whole, or take dance classes so that their movement transcended their own body language. How essential is stage training for actors and other craftspeople who work in film?

A: Oh, goodness. I mean, I think it's everything. It's interesting, the discipline of doing eight shows a week in the theater, in addition to how you work, and then bringing it to life every time like you've never done it before. That is baked into me. You have to do your homework and know what you're talking about. You can't fake it. I know there are directors out there who work in a sort of chaotic way and I could never do that. You have to approach it with clarity because you're feeding this massive thing. Otherwise, it's like building a house of cards and one little card can knock out the whole thing.

Q: One of the amusing things I heard you say in an interview was, you discovered early on, maybe in your television phase, that the difference between theater and film was you can go from having to create a transition to just cutting. It seems like the simplest thing in the world but it's one of those essential truths about the two mediums.

A: It's so true. One of the most complicated parts of working in theater is the transitions on stage, moving from that scene to the next scene, as the scenery comes lumbering on and you're moving into the next thing. So you spend a majority of your time in the theater trying to figure out the set changes and how that works and keep it moving so that it's not falling apart. When you're working on film, you have all these wonderful tools so in a way sometimes it's limitless. So I actually find myself putting limits on myself to try and say, "Well, this is how I'm going to tell the story, here are the rules," because there's so many ways to go. But I will tell you, coming from the theater, it was 100% freeing.

On the Mary Poppins Returns set, Marshall reviews multiple takes from video village (his frequent DP, Dion Beebe, is in baseball cap). (Photo: Everett)

Q: I remember attending a VFX panel here once and Michael Goi, a cinematographer-turned-director, said, "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should."

A: True. You rarely need more just for the sake of more. I always think about what is the core? What is the center? What is the story? Anthony Minghella once said to me, "You know, Rob, we're hired for our taste." And it's so simple but it's such a beautiful thing. There are times and moments when it needs to be fireworks. But then there are moments when it needs to be simple, quiet, and so you have to listen to your gut.
Nora Ephron said something that stuck with me for a long time. She said: "Wouldn't it be great if you could see your own movie?" And I thought, "Oh, my God, only another director would understand." Because when you're editing a film, you try to step back and see it fresh like you've never seen this film before. But because you're so inside it, you never really get that wonderful sort of vista. I will say when you put a film you've made in front of an audience, it's sort of the first time you actually start seeing the film, because you start seeing it through their eyes.

Q: You've worked with stage-trained actors in movies and nonstage-trained actors—actors who were singing for the first time. I'm thinking about Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine, Renée Zellweger in Chicago, Chris Pine in Into the Woods. I'm sure there are plenty of other examples. Tell me about how you are able to meld the two camps together and make them harmonious.

A: The disciplines are different. I remember working with Renée Zellweger on Chicago and doing a scene where she fires Billy Flynn (played by Richard Gere). We had done a lot of rehearsal. I had a sense of what to do with the blocking. And so Renée started doing it and was speaking very quietly. And I said, "Well, let's try and sort of get there." And I remember Renée said to me, "Let's not squeeze the lemons," which I had no clue what she was talking about. I was like, [pauses], and then I realized, "Oh, I see. She's from film only. She wants to have it in the moment and she doesn't want to pre-plan."
And so that taught me a lot about working with actors who are from film and working with actors who are from theater. I've never pushed my style on anybody because what I've realized is that everybody has their own process. My goal is to make sure that each actor feels protected, not judged, and taken care of to be their best. So I try and adapt for whatever people need.
So I've learned how to work with both. And I love working with actors who are new to musicals. I have two in (Mermaid): I have Javier Bardem, and I have Melissa McCarthy. And I love the discovery of that, how they approach it, the character; you see them learning. It was the same thrilling experience I had with Emily Blunt on Into the Woods. She's such a natural musical performer but she wasn't fully aware of it. They love discovering how their work as actors informs their work in the musical genre. For me, that's my favorite kind of musical performance—one that comes first and foremost from character and story.
Because they realize that it's the same thing; when they start to sing, it's just an extension of what they're doing as actors. It's not like they have to stop being an actor and then be a singer. They are basically speaking on pitch. They are communicating the same thing. It all comes from the same place and so and there is nothing like it. Meryl Streep said to me after we finished Into the Woods, "I only want to do musicals for the rest of my life."

Q: One of the things that struck me about that movie was there were different types of acting styles. Anna Kendrick's Cinderella was a very nuanced performance, whereas Chris Pine's prince is very arch and almost campy. And yet you somehow made it all work together.

A: All these fairytales were sort of intersecting. And what's great about that is that then you have so many different kinds of styles. So you have these pompous princes played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, who are artificial, and were raised to be charming, not sincere. I don't really like stylization where you don't feel for people. I want to feel them emotionally, I want to be connected to them and follow their story.
I always look for the truth, even some-thing that's sort of bigger—it's filled with truth. If it's not filled with truth, it's like a two-dimensional cutout and you never feel connected. When I see a film, I want to be moved. I want to feel.

Q: Memoirs of a Geisha exhibits a different style than your musicals, both in tone and acting.

A: It was a very conscious choice to do Geisha after Chicago. I had this wonderful opportunity at that moment. Your film has won an Oscar for best film, so you're in a place where you kind of can have some choice, and I really wanted a completely different experience. And I am a huge fan of David Lean's work, and to be able to create an epic grand landscape with this intimate tale was something that really intrigued me. And because I was working with all of these Asian actors who were new to English cinema, I was working with interpreters the entire time, to speak with either the Japanese actors or to the Chinese actors, who were speaking English for the first time.

Rob Marshall displays his DGA Award for Chicago (2002), his theatrical feature debut. He also won the DGA's Musical Variety Award in 2006 for Tony Bennett: An American Classic, and was nominated in the same category for Annie (1999), his first TV directing credit. (Photo: DGA Archives)

Q: Gong Li's performance, in particular, was transfixing.

A: She is breathtaking. She is so tall, so otherworldly. And then she is such a divine actor and can pull from the deepest places. I remember there's scene where she is burning down their house, their okiya. And I remember we were working on that in the morning and then we took lunch and she never left the stage. Sat on that set through lunch until everybody was back so that she would be in the same emotion place. She didn't move at all. It's astounding to see the dedication that she has as an actor and how much it meant to her. She was very much like Daniel Day-Lewis in that way.

Q: Now, there was a bit of a press about the casting of Chinese actors for the female leads in that movie.

A: I think one of the most beautiful things about being an actor is being able to play different things, different kinds of people. And, if it was that strict, to have to be the person you are playing, then the acting profession becomes so limiting. And, you know, I appreciate authenticity, and I think maybe there are times when I feel that needs to be the case. But we are creating a fiction on that screen, not a documentary.
I remember when we were casting Ziyi Zhang to play the geisha role, we saw a lot of Japanese actors. We saw Chinese actors. We saw Korean actors. My choice was to do a pan-Asian cast. And who is the actor that makes me believe that? Nobody I was auditioning was a geisha. And the great thing about Ziyi is not only her work as an actor but also she's a dancer and an athlete. She was able to do what a geisha can do, head and shoulders above anybody else who came.
Who is going to make me believe and see that character come to life? That's all I care about and that's what I look for. Neil Simon once said to me that the hope is an actor comes in and claims the role. There's no choice.

Q: Another collaborator that you worked with repeatedly is the casting director Francine Maisler.

A: I met her on Memoirs of a Geisha, which was one of the most complicated casting sessions that you can imagine. And she thinks out of the box. She has that eye. She's looking for that something special.
And what people don't realize about casting directors, is they basically present people to you. You're still choosing them, casting it yourself. But there's a filter and they are looking for that person like you are, hunting for who that can be, especially when you're doing a musical. I mean, I felt like, when I was doing Chicago and no one was doing musicals, certainly, especially live-action musicals, it was very difficult to find actors who sang and danced. So we were doing basically detective work; finding who sang in high school, who was a cheerleader. Renée Zellweger was a cheerleader. And Catherine Zeta Jones played on the West End.

Q: Talking about thinking out of the box, your Ariel in Little Mermaid is not an actor that a lot of people would have imagined, especially based on the original Disney animated version of this story.

A: It was one of the easiest decisions I've ever made because she did exactly what I just described, which is she came in and claimed the role. You know, when you're looking for a character, you're looking for those character traits that are sometimes indescribable. And Ariel needs to have a sort of wide-eyed wonder about the world, plus a fiery spirit, plus an angelic voice, plus something otherworldly because she's not from this world. And she's experiencing something for the first time.
You know, there are so many jaded actors out there trying to play that. But to play something with that kind of authenticity and that kind of special magic, that's what Halle (Bailey) had immediately and no one else had that. I'm always interested in color-blind casting and just looking at all the great people. But I'm looking for the person; I'm not looking for the person who fits into the mold of how we're going to present this. For me, it's looking for that internal thing that brings the character to life and then you see the film comes to life in front of you. And that happened with Halle.

Q: I'd like to end this by touching upon something you referenced earlier: the healing power of art. Meryl Streep said that she took the role in your Mary Poppins movie because she felt that story was what the world needed at that time.

A: When you see the dangerous and fragile world we're living in, it's so important to look for beauty, look for something that lifts you out of your daily life, because it's so hard. So where can you turn for that inspiration, for something to uplift you, to inspire you, to give you something to live for? I find that in art. I find it in film. I find it in theater. I find it in music. I find it in painting. And I have been increasingly aware of how important movies are that can take you somewhere else and give you an experience that's emotional and hopeful. There's a lot of dark movies out there these days and I find myself wanting to do the opposite, (with) storytelling that's about building bridges between our worlds. It's the one place we can all turn to, to remember that there's beauty and magic in the world.

DGA Interviews

Prominent directors reflecting on their body of
work through an extended and in-depth Q&A.

More from this issue