Director’s Series: Marshall Razzle Dazzles His Chicago Crew
By Bill Desowitz
Baz Luhrmann may have opened the door for the musical with Moulin Rouge, but Broadway and TV sensation Rob Marshall has taken it to the next level with his first feature, the crowd-pleasing adaptation of Bob Fosse’s Chicago. In fact, Chicago, with its 13 nominations (including art direction, cinematography, sound, costume, and editing) is the front-runner for this year’s best picture Oscar derby, to be decided on March 23, which would make it the first musical to win the top prize since 1968’s Oliver!
Below the Line: What are the criteria you used in selecting your department heads and what were their creative contributions?
Marshall: Well, it’s interesting. I’m kinda new to this [feature film] world, so I had to do a lot of interviews—probably more than normal. It was actually a wonderful, wonderful time. I got to talk to a lot of fabulous cinematographers and production designers, editors. It was so educational and so thrilling for me to see some of these people that I consider masters in their fields. It’s funny–making decisions about certain people comes from an instinctive place, ultimately, and certainly you get to see their artistry. A big part of it for me is the person. And so sitting down with them or talking over the phone with them, it was always a combination of things. You know, musicals rarely happen, so I couldn’t ask them about the last musical that they did because there wasn’t a person on this team who had done a musical.
BTL: What I hear over and over again from directors is that they are more interested in what department heads can offer that’s fresh than what they’ve accomplished in the past.
Marshall: Absolutely. You get a sense of their enthusiasm for a project. I mean, I actually watch how people listen. That’s a big part of it for me. I get a sense of who’s listening as I’m trying to describe this movie, who, in turn, is able to be articulate about that vision, who thinks it’s an interesting way to go, who is excited by that. I also get a sense of personality in a funny way. Somebody I know I’m going to have to be partners with for quite a long time. You gotta be around people that match your personality. I come from a place of positive reinforcement and I like harmony on a set.
BTL: So let’s start with [Costume Designer] Colleen Atwood, who poured over fashion, art deco, Bauhaus and Cubism from the ‘20s to create the sexiness.
Marshall: She’s an extraordinary, original designer, who has a great deal of skill doing period work and texture. In addition to being a brilliant designer, a big part of this is clothing women and I saw how she had a sensuality in her work, but also this was, for every designer on this, a huge challenge in that Chicago lives in two different worlds. It lives in the real world of the ‘20s with real clothes and it lives in the fantasy vaudeville of Roxie’s mind. So it was fun for these designers to deal with such a big palette.
BTL: It was like doing two movies in one.
Marshall: It was. And that excited Colleen. She brought her book with her to show me what she had been working on. And I thought, here’s this genius designer bringing her book–I should be bringing my book. So I got a real sense of her work ethic and talent. Of course, we just hit it off as friends. As I said, it’s an instinctive thing—a gut thing.
BTL: Tell me about [Production Designer] John Myhre?
Marshall: John is probably the nicest man in the world, with the most patience and enthusiasm, I’ve ever met. And you almost can’t believe it’s real when you sit down with him. He had so many enthusiastic ideas for this project. The great thing is that he’s so flexible because I look for flexibility. I told him that I loved how many ideas he had worked on prior to our meeting, but then I said, ‘What if we went in this direction? Does that seem right to you?’ And he said, ‘My gosh, that’s great!’
BTL: Tell me about the Onyx Club idea [the imaginary stage where most of Roxie’s vaudeville fantasies transpire]?
Marshall: That was my idea and something I fleshed out with Bill Condon, my writer, which I tried to sell these people. But I needed to figure out how to move around transitionally from each world and that’s where I relied on John’s help. We talked about the idea of moving into Billy Flynn’s first number—Richard Gere’s first number—using a scrim that you assumed was a wall and behind that are these prisoners who are on stage doing a sort of striptease. This whole movie is a hybrid of film and theater and John was very open, and I’ve never worked with anyone so accommodating as him before.
BTL: For instance, you introduced him to the works of artist Reginald Marsh, who painted beautiful New York theaters in the 1930s that were inspirational to the look of the movie.
Marshall: I showed him this and he just inhaled it and embraced it as this burlesque, tawdry glamour that I was looking for as a departure point and he was so thrilled to be part of the adventure.
BTL: And what about [Cinemamographer] Dion Beebe?
Marshall: I had been meeting with a lot of older, more experienced cinematographers because Miramax was concerned that I was a first time feature film director and they thought it was smart to pair me with someone who had been around a while…
BTL: Like Conrad Hall and Sam Mendes…
Marshall: Exactly. But the thing is, because there were two different worlds, I looked for someone with a glamour for the stage, and Dion is an artist, and I saw that in the first frame of the reel of his work, and I instinctively felt that he gets these two different worlds. I wanted someone who would challenge me and take what’s in my mind and make it 20 times better. That’s what he did.
BTL: And he too caught the Marsh vibe.
Marshall: What’s great is that when you meet with a cinematographer to talk about the lighting, everyone is there because it’s such a collaboration. And so I sat down with the entire team to discuss Marsh. Dion would say something about the costumes and Colleen would say something about the sets, and John would say something about the cinematography. We constantly overlapped. And when we sat down I said, ‘Let’s see how Reginald Marsh can affect our world because I love his take on this world, the claustrophobia of his paintings—the entire frame is filled. And we talked about that as cinematography—how can we keep that very filled and rich? And so maybe tighten things and make the audience smaller in terms of the production design so that we can really feel like people are hanging off the balconies like in a Marsh painting. It all intersected. And my favorite times on making this movie were my production meetings with these people because we were all on the same page instead of everyone working separately. And I come from the philosophy that whoever has the best idea in the room wins.
BTL: And what about [Set Decorator] Gord Sim, [Editor] Martin Walsh, [Sound Editor] Maurice Schell, and the other sound people, David Lee, Michael Minkler, and Dominick Tavella?
Marshall: Well, they were the hands on folks. I’ll tell you what sort of caught fire. Musicals are so few and far between and there’s this spirit in a musical that if you can capture that for everybody, it’s not just a normal day at work. I remember every time I would come to a set for the first time, for instance, Roxie’s apartment. It was like Gord razzle dazzled me. It lit; it was infectious. Because there were 15 different numbers, every time we started working on a different number, it was like, ‘Let’s see if we can surprise Rob more.’