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Q&A: Rob Marshall on Directing, Creative Influences and Finding His Own Editorial Perspective

05/01/2015 11:38 am ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

On Monday, the New York Pops will host its annual gala at Carnegie Hall, and in what's now a standing tradition they'll celebrate the contributions of major creative forces working in theatre, film and music today. This year it's a powerhouse duo: brother and sister, Rob and Kathleen Marshall. Both have made tremendous impressions on the arts as directors and choreographers, each with their unique and distinct styles. Rob's has come through in his own identifiable brand from stage to screen by choreographing and/or directing Broadway shows like "Damn Yankees" and "Cabaret" (in both cases he earned TONY Award nominations) to films like "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."

I caught up with Rob recently to discuss his work, influences and career achievements, just weeks after the DVD and Blu-Ray release of "Into the Woods," the latest installment of movie musicals he's directed--joining "Chicago" and "Nine"--through which he's proven to be the modern day interpreter of this critical art form. The proof isn't just in the artistic output either but in the numbers, too. "Into the Woods" is now the sixth highest grossing movie musical of all time, and continues to achieve financial success internationally at here stateside through the in-home release.

Steve: Rob, when you think about your life now as a director and choreographer, you came up as a dancer yourself in the heyday of mega musicals--the height of Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats, the Phantom of the Opera) and Boublil and Schonberg (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon)--do you feel like that has influenced you in your perspective today?

Rob:​ It's interesting. I feel what influenced me the most is what I was at the tail-end of. My first show was national touring company of "A Chorus Line," Michael Bennett's show. I was 19 years old. I was a junior in college at Carnegie Mellon University and took the year off to go tour with [the show]. That was the most exciting time, I have to say, because it was a celebration of the dancer. "A Chorus Line" really made dancers principals [lead performers]. Then I continued with shows like Bob Fosse's "Dance" and "Cats", later. It was that exciting time, with those incredible director/choreographers who really influenced me, like Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett and Gower Champion.

​I'm thinking about all the great, extraordinary choreographers who really changed the face of the theatre. It's really those people in that time that was something that stayed with me and has been an inspiration for me.

Steve: You have such a unique perspective that comes through in your work. I think it's so interesting that you have worked with pieces, and you've adapted pieces that are already beloved, and with which people already have preconceived notions. I'm curious, as an artist, how do you step away from that and how do you get your head out of the noise and what people expect to see in something like "Chicago" and "Into the Woods"?

Rob: ​I'm one of the people [too] who really feel passionately about the pieces, and respect them and want them to be great on film. There's two thing you have to do. You have to honor what they are on stage, and make sure you bring what makes them special to film. Then the second thing you must do is you have to re-imagine it as a film. Otherwise, you've done the stage show as disservice. If you just take the stage show and put it on film, it doesn't work, it never works, because it's such a different medium. You have to be smart enough to step back, and say okay this is a film, we have to make sure it works for the person who doesn't know this piece and never knew this piece at all.

​It's a tricky balancing act, but something that you have to do to bring your musical to life. I'm very careful and meticulous about [my] work. When I think about really great [musical movies], I think of something like Bob Fosse's Cabaret, as an example. It's such a great example of completely re-imagining something [compared to the original Broadway musical], but bringing it to life in a different way. I think that's the thing you have to do. You have to be objective enough to be able to say the number one thing is the work in this film, but also bring to life what's so special about it on stage. It's this crazy balancing act, but I'm very careful about it. One of the things on "Into the Woods" that I really wanted to make sure of was to honor the original piece. That's why I asked James Lapine to write the screenplay, and asked Stephen Sondheim to work with us throughout the process, so that we would be able to, together, figure out the best way to make it a film.

Steve: There was so much chatter around actually doing a disservice to "Into the Woods," and you clearly came out the champion with an amazing film. I was curious, how did you go in? What was your vision you said you wanted to honor? What was what you brought to the table, and what was your vision as a director for it?

Rob:​ Basically, what works I don't want to change. Anything that works, [if] it will work cinematically on film then you don't want to touch it. I will say, for instance, like the opening sequence--the opening number was 16 minutes long, is very close to what it was on stage because it was built in a cinematic way, even then because you're crosscutting between many different stories, which is very much a cinematic language. That helped me do this actually. I remember trying to think of it as a film, and I thought well that, as it exists on the page works like a film. That was actually one of the reasons I thought [the film] might work.

​What you do is you really hold on to what does work, and you only re-imagine when you have to. You say well, that's not going to work, or there's too many characters or there's too many songs, or you can't follow it or it will start to lose momentum. You can't be nonchalant. You have to be very methodical and meticulous and careful about that.

Steve:​ I was curious about what your thought process was around translating the show to film which lacks an intermission where in the show it climaxes to the resolution of the original fairy tales, the second act is where we learn "the truth," the "after". When you were imagining that without a 15 minute break, how do you bring the audience from one point to the next?

Rob:​ One of the first things that we did was we figured out how to marry the acts. We realized that the way to do it was at the height of the celebration of "Ever After" that the giant has to come, and then push us into the next part of the story. You don't have the luxury of 'six months later' kind of thing, because it will lose the momentum of the piece. That big change of marrying the acts and how it was going to work was what we started with, because we knew that that was going to have to be the shape. Films in their very nature are in a three-act structure. This is how they fall, as opposed to a two-act [stage] structure.

​There are things that went away because of that... because you don't have those six months in between, and it's all happening in the moment. That made it exciting. You start looking at it as a movie then. The great thing is you have the original creators working with you.

Steve:​ I asked earlier about the mega musical piece, because to me, just seeing your work as an observer it seems like you went from a dancer to choreographer with the tipping point being when you were injured [performing, during "Cats"]. From there, becoming a director there still seems to be a consistency in your work, where there's a lot of fluid movement in your direction. That comes through in your direction, in "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Chicago," even beyond actual choreography but in all the pieces and how the characters come together. Is that something that's a conscious choice in what you do?

Rob:​ That's a lovely thing to say. Thank you, I appreciate that so much. ​I think that's because movement is part of what I do, because I started as a dancer, I come from choreography. In a way, I feel like it lent itself in a very organic way to film. Film really is about movement in so many ways, movement of the camera, movement of the actors, the fluidity of a piece, the fluidity of a film. I know a lot of film directors work with music because they're trying to get a sense of the fluidity and the seamlessness of how film works. I'll never forget my first film that I ever did. I did a television version of "Annie". It was so much fun. I wasn't sure what it was going to be like to direct a film. I felt immediately at home. I thought 'why do I feel at home doing film, doing these little bits and pieces, and then putting it together into a full tapestry'? I realized that it's because it's like choreography. The fact that you finish one piece, and then you have to find a transition into the next, and there's a sense of flow to it. I realize that some of my favorite filmmakers come from that, like Stanley Donen, and Bob Fosse, Herb Ross. I think, in an odd way for choreographers there's a natural progression into film because it is about movement.

Steve: It was interesting to me to see you paired with Disney because when I of your great works there's sexy undertones, I think of "Le Jazz Hot" in "Victor Victoria" and I think of "Damn Yankees". I think of "Chicago". How are you working with Disney and marrying your identifiable creative traits with their guiding policy of being focused exclusively on family-friendly entertainment? How did you see that as an artist and modifying your creative vision is in what their expectation as a company?

Rob:​ We sat down and talked about it before we decided to do it at Disney. We said, here's the thing, this is going to reinvent the definition of what a modern fairy tale could be for Disney. There's no question it was pushing the envelope, and redefining things for them. We asked if this is a direction they were interested in going in, because the last thing I wanted to do was Disney-fy this [in the traditional sense, as perceived by audiences] in any way. The material is too strong. It's too beautiful a piece. Although, I did want to reach [the] family. I didn't want to just reach 30-year-olds and up. I thought it was important for children to see. I wasn't interested in doing something that was going to mute the powerful message of the piece, and all of the strong and more adult themes.

​They were excited about it. It was really thrilling. Especially this wonderful president of production there, his name is Sean Bailey--he runs the film division--he was excited about it. He said it's time to define what a modern fairy tale could be for the 21st century. In a way, Maleficent was starting to do that a little bit, just pushing the envelope for them of what it could be. I feel that they were very brave to take this on and let it happen the way it did once we established what it was going to be, they were behind us. This is what it is, this is what the piece is. Cinderella does not end up with the prince. The baker's wife has an affair. All these things happen, and people die.

​They said 'we're on board'. They were excited and scared, but they were behind us. The thrilling news of course at the end of the day, is that it worked for them. It still reached a huge --and is reaching--a huge audience... It's just nice to see that Disney was so brave to do something like that. It was a great experience working with them.

Steve Schonberg is the editor-in-chief of www.centerontheaisle.com.