Go Into the Woods: our interview with the films creative team
As Into the Woods takes US Box Office by storm everyone in the UK is eagerly anticipating the film, I was delighted to be invited along to interview some of the film’s creative team. Unfortunately I was already committed to having afternoon tea with my dear friend Meryl so I sent my trusty steed Michaela Clement-Hayes along in my place to find out more about the film and what went in to putting it together.
Michaela was lucky enough to attend an advance screening of the film and then discuss it with Director Robert Marshall (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Memoirs of a Geisha) and Producer John DeLuca. Here’s a transcript of their little chat:
Michaela: Lovely to meet you and I have to say I really enjoyed the film.
Both: Thanks, it’s nice to hear that from a theatre critic!
Michaela (laughing): Yes I was intrigued (and, dare I say it, worried) by a stage to screen adaptation because this is a beloved classic, but it’s incredible and it works so well.
When did you first see Into the Woods on stage and what was your reaction?
Rob: I saw the original cast back in 1987 and I loved it. I actually saw three different witches including the fabulous Bernadette Peters. It was the joy of it, the humour, the originality. It was so smart and so profound – the relationship between parents and their children, plus the unique and original message of the consequence of wishes. But what really stayed with me was the song No One Is Alone which I think is the central theme of the piece – you are not alone in this world – and everyone, even adults can associate with this.
John: After the first act I was flying and then the second act completely switches everything! There were tears at the end!
What inspired you to get involved with the film adaptation of Into the Woods?
Rob: John said what’s next? What do you love? We’d spent three years on Pirates of the Caribbean: Stranger Tides so it needed to be something we loved. I said, I love into the woods and he said, let’s do that!
One thing I remember just when we were starting was when President Obama was giving a speech to the families on the anniversary of 9/11 was that he said “You are not alone” which of course is a central theme in ITTW and is still applicable to children and families today. These families have suffered so much – how do you move through destruction and despair? It was important for us to have the word terror in the film – that was our central message – we need to connect and come together.
The film is quite a bit shorter than Stephen Sondheim’s original stage version and has some changes. Were you happy with all of the changes and are there any that you fought to keep?
Rob: Well we worked closely with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine who were incredibly helpful and flexible. In any stage adaptation you have to be smart and hold onto the integrity of the piece and reimagine it – will this work in film? You have to do it justice on film. If anything they were more flexible than us because they said “we can rewrite this or change that”. They acted as the voice of the people who love this show.
One key change we did make was casting real kids to play Jack and Red. On stage these are usually adults in their 20s but the film is very much about families so we wanted real kids and this changed the tone automatically. It was just a better way to tell the story – the parody works on stage, but not on film and this changed things organically, but we didn’t change things just to make it ‘family-friendly’.
Do you associate with a specific character in the film?
Rob: I love them all, but I think the Baker and his Wife represent us. They’re normal people dealing with the pressures of married life, longing for a child. This gives it dimensionality… *laughing* is that a word? But there’s humour and truth in all of the characters – you start feeling sorry for all of the characters, even the witch. Meryl is so fantastic – she brings a depth to all of her characters – and this one is no different. It’s like the different cultures of the countries in the world – until you’ve put yourself in their shoes, how can you understand them?
Michaela: Oh definitely – when she’s with Rapunzel and she sings Stay With Me, it’s such a heartfelt moment that you can’t help feeling sorry for the witch.
Matt: Absolutely and I think everyone associates with at least one character and this was clear in rehearsals. We were a company in the same film. The tone was very important – Rob wanted the fairytale aspect to remain, but it also needed to be rooted in reality. We need to care about these characters and believe they’re real.
Disney is renowned for giving popular fairytales happy endings but Sondheim favoured the original Grimm endings. Which do you prefer?
Rob: I do like the original form or shape of a Grimm fairytale with the moral of be careful what you wish for. The consequences of our actions are the core of fairytales and ITTW is a modern fairytale for this century. Kids should know that everything in life is not perfect. Children have to deal with a lot, so it speaks to them.
Matt: There’s a huge element of greed in the film – the film dips into that more and more, it’s out of kilter. Wishes can become very greedy, but ultimately the message here is that there’s a nuclear family that need each other to move forward and survive. It’s about community, but there’s also so much humour and musicality.
Michaela: Thank you so much for your time, I’ll definitely be seeing the film again soon now I have all of this insight!
As well as speaking to Rob Marshall and John DeLuca, Michaela also discussed Into the Woods with Producer Marc Platt (Wicked).
Michaela: Visually, the film is stunning – it really captures the essence of ITTW and gives it a whole new dimension. I’m really impressed with how you made the transition.
Marc: Well with any stage to screen adaptation you have to be faithful to the original, the essence of the original must remain but in a new medium. What is the unique aspect? Sondheim’s musical pieces are not big showy numbers like say Chicago, but actual scenes with an inner dynamic and dialogue. ITTW is a very complicated piece with many different storylines.
What’s good about film is that you can capture this in a different way. Close ups are magnified so you can really understand the lyrics and you get every nuance and detail and the intimacy of each character. You really get to know each character and you get the cinematic notion of people actually going into the woods. Film is far more literal – less is left to our imagination. The upside is the destruction which is much easier on film than on stage. We’ve all seen the images on TV of falling buildings and in ITTW it’s falling ashes, leaves and trees. And this is very powerful on film.
Michaela: It was visually stunning – how much was filmed on location and how much at the studios? I honestly struggled to tell the difference!
Marc: Ah well that’s down to our amazing design team, Dennis Gassner and Colleen Atwood’s beautiful costumes. We split filming between Shepperton Studios and various locations including Windsor Park, but the woods were built on the sound stage and most of the destroyed scenery is staged.
When did you first see ITTW and what did you think?
Marc: I’m old so I saw it first in 1987 – the original version – and then I saw the revival and then at the Donmar. I’ve always loved it, especially how the second act is so profound. Act One and Act Two are so different. All my kids are performers and it’s very popular with community theatres in the US so I’ve seen it plenty of times!
Do you associate with any of the characters in particular?
Marc: I think I associate with elements of all of the characters. As a parent I relate to the witch’s desire to protect her daughter, although I wouldn’t lock mine up, but protect them for sure. The instinct is there. I also feel the yearning of the baker’s wife – she wants a child, she’s working hard at her marriage and takes moments to think about the prince, the other side. I mean that’s human nature.
Yet I think a lot of people relate to Cinderella – she’s very contemporary and indecisive about everything. Most of my kids are in their 20s and at that age you don’t know what you want, but you think maybe do you want something in-between? And of course there’s Red who says “Isn’t it nice to know a lot and a little bit not?” I think ITTW will continue to appeal to people because the characters are very relatable.
The film is much shorter than the stage production? Was there anything you wanted to keep that got edited?
Marc: Not really. We came to an agreement on the adaptation and what was kept. You need to structure for the film because it has a different rhythm to it. There are two acts on stage and three in film. In a film you can’t dwell too much on the third act – the audience are ready for the finale. Each character has a good story, so we kept their emotional journey.
What surprised you most about the process of making this film?
Marc: The success has taken us all by surprise – more people saw the first release of the film than saw both Broadway revivals. The story appeals and we have the power to expand the audience. It’s happened so fast, but it’s a very pleasant surprise!
Do you think that film adaptations of musicals like ITTW, Mama Mia and Les Misérables encourage people to go to the theatre?
Marc: Success begets success. I mean look at Wicked. People say to me I went to see Wicked and it surprised me so much that I went to see other musicals. I’m a huge fan of Sondheim but some people are unfamiliar with him. He’s so much of an icon, especially in the States that the film allows us to introduce him on a larger scale. I want to see more.
So do you think Wicked will be your next project?
Marc: Wicked will be a film. The process has started, but the bar is very high and like I said to you when you came in, any adaptation needs a new medium.
Michaela: Yes, I can imagine it would be an incredibly visual film, but I wouldn’t know where to start!
Marc: I’ll let you know how we get on!
Disney tends to have happy fairytale endings. Do you think people will be surprised that ITTW doesn’t have this sugarcoated happiness?
Marc: What makes ITTW unique and profound is that it takes familiar characters and we journey with them in unexpected ways. We learn that our wishes have consequences and what we might have to do to get through all of the giants in the world. The film is very reflective of the world we live in. We see ourselves and that’s what gives It gravitas – we don’t all live happily ever after.
Michaela: Thank you so much Marc.
Into The Woods is released in cinemas across the UK this weekend! Go check it out!