Rob Marshall

Rob Marshall: “There’s nothing like it”

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Short Profile

Name: Robert Doyle Marshall Jr.
DOB: 17 October 1960
Place of birth: Madison, Wisconsin, United States
Occupation: Film director, choreographer, film producer

Rob Marshall's new film The Little Mermaid is in theaters in Germany on 25 May 2023.

Mr. Marshall, how did people react when you first told them your plan to make a film version of the hit musical Chicago?

I was told a million times, no one's is going to see this movie because musicals are dead. At that point in the early 2000s, animated musicals were very successful, but live action musicals on film were nowhere to be seen. But I believed in the genre! I never think a genre is dead, you know, they say things like, “Oh, the Western is dead,” I never believe that. I think it all comes down to how it's done. Musicals are very delicate, they can go off the rails like that. It can turn into a Saturday Night Live sketch... We've all seen musicals where they start to sing, and it feels embarrassing, like, why are they singing? I'm always very aware that the song has to be earned, it has to come out of the story seamlessly, like there's no other choice but for them to sing. That's how I approached Chicago.

Did it feel like a validation when Chicago went on to win six Oscars, including Best Picture?

It was such a surprise, all of it. I have to say the whole ride was insane, because I honestly didn't think it would be seen by that many people, I thought it'd be more of a niche piece. So when it was embraced the way it was, and it was my first movie, it was an overwhelming experience. I feel like we did open the door for other musicals to be made. It was a combination of Moulin Rouge and Chicago, they happened almost simultaneously and started to breathe life into the form again.

“Everybody has the genres that actually come from them in a very deep way, and for whatever reason, I do feel that it’s in my blood.”

Coming from a theater background, not only as a performer but also as a choreographer, it seems like perhaps you were destined to make these kinds of films.

You know, it's funny you say that because I remember the wonderful writer director, Arthur Lawrents, who wrote West Side Story and Gypsy, he said to me, “It’s in your blood.” I think there are people that have musicals in their blood, and there's people that don't. Everybody has the genres that actually come from them in a very deep way, and for whatever reason, I do feel that it's in my blood. It's something that I feel incredibly comfortable in, because I know the rules of how it works. I feel at home here, because as you said, I started as a performer, I moved into choreography, and then entered direction on stage and then moved into film, so the progression has been very slow and natural.

Were you nervous your first day on a film set, or did your time on stage prepare you for that moment?

I was so nervous to say even the word “action!” When I was on set for the movie musical Annie that I did for television, that was the first time I was actually directing a film and I even didn't say action, I said, “Okay, let's go.” I didn't say cut either! (Laughs) I felt funny, it didn't feel like my language. But the one thing I did realize is that when I was working in the theater, I always imagined the musical numbers as scenes in a film first, and then I would translate it to stage. I would always imagine it on film. So when I started to do film, I realized, “Oh, I don't have to translate it to stage now!” So, somehow it did feel natural for me to be there. Something that people from the theater don't love about film is that you do it in pieces, scene by scene. But I love that you do a minute or two of a movie a day, that you're perfecting that piece, like a mosaic, you put it together later. I love the detail work, focusing on something like that. I like the process.

You’ve since worked on four other live action musical adaptations. What else goes into the translation of a musical from stage to screen?

It's always story, story story. The most important thing for me is that you are invested in the story, and it's true of everything I do. Why do we care? Why are we invested in the characters? Who are you rooting for? What do you want? Sometimes when you're watching a film, you feel kind of like, “Well, I'm just going to check my phone quickly,” right? Somehow you're just not invested in the characters. And it's hard to pinpoint why that's the case. But for me, I'm always judging that, I'm always weighing that. I want to make sure that you really feel that you are fully invested, you want to know what happens. That's always the litmus test to me.

“There is a great deal I have to be very careful with in an adaptation. You have to hold on to what’s really special about it; the relationships, the songs, elements like that that mean so much.”

The director Sam Raimi says that he loves to make sequels because the audience knows what to expect and therefore he can really go for it more than you could with an original. Does that resonate with you in terms of adaptation?

Well, for example with my new film The Little Mermaid, what's interesting is that of course it's beloved, people know it so well. But that means there is a great deal I have to be very careful with. You have to hold on to what's really special about it; the relationships, the songs, elements like that that mean so much. It is, as you said, really helpful because the audience knows them, but at the same time, I really want them to experience it new. Now you have an opportunity to see it in a fuller way, in a deeper way, in a different way.

It’s more of a reworking than a remake.

Right, the only way I could really approach this was as a reimagining, to take the bones of what was there but expand upon it, and really make it something special and new. The first thing that comes to mind is the character of Eric, who was rather two dimensional in the original film, but here we get an opportunity to give him a fuller story, give him a trajectory. Another character we changed slightly is Ursula the Sea Witch, who was played my Melissa McCarthy. And you know, she’s never sung in a film before, but she was so excited to learn to do that and to express herself in the character that way was thrilling.

What is it like working with non-musical actors in a musical setting? You even convinced Daniel Day-Lewis to take on his first ever singing role in the 2009 live action musical, Nine.

Oh, my favorite thing to do always is to work with actors who are new to musicals, it is so exciting for them to realize that they actually have the skills to sing. The reason I love it is because they approach it from the right place. I mean, so much of a performance now is so technical: you hear the big high notes, you hear the gymnastics of what they're doing. But it's soulless, because you don't feel anything — that's impressive, but I don't feel anything. When actors approach musicals, they're only coming from the character. It's a little bit of a lost art. After all, the great performers of musicals were not great singers; Carol Channing, Zero Mostel, Rex Harrison, Yul Brinner. These are actors who sing, and I love that approach because it’s just the talent they have, it comes naturally, and to see that happen, to see it come from the right place and tell the story… There's nothing like it.