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HomeColumnsDirector SeriesDirector series-Susan Stroman

Director series-Susan Stroman


The ironic success of Mel Brooks’ The Producers is surreal. First came the cult 1968 comedy about bad taste becoming chic, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, which launched Brooks’ directorial career and earned him a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Then The Producers was resurrected in 2001 as a stage musical starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick—and took Broadway by storm, earning a record-breaking 12 Tonys.So when it came time to make the next film version of the for Universal and Columbia, the stage play’s director/choreographer Susan Stroman was the obvious choice to reprise her roles for the large screen. As a first-time film director, however, she not only wanted an easy transition but also a crew comprising both film and theater pros. She turned to production designer Mark Friedberg, cinematographer John Bailey, ASC, who was replaced by Charles Minsky of Pretty Woman fame, costume designer William Ivey Long, a carryover from the play, and editor Steven Weisberg, fresh off Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.With Singin’ in the Rain as her frame of reference, Stroman plays to her strengths and the strengths of her cast, headed by Lane and Broderick with Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell, Gary Beach and Roger Bart. The Producers is ultimately a valentine to Broadway and was crucially shot in New York, utilizing the new Steiner Studios located at the Brooklyn Navy Yard—where On the Town was shot in 1949. Here Stroman talks about what she learned about film and what she taught her crew about musicals—and about turning the camera into another dancer.Below the Line: This was your first film. Can you describe the selection process of your crew department heads?Susan Stroman: Jonathan Sanger, my producer—along with Mel, of course—gave me several leads in each department. I met a lot of them and I came to the decision that way, not only because of their credits but also because of their personality. With [production designer] Mark Friedberg, the key was that he really understood it. He’s a real New Yorker and seemed to know all of Mel’s movies, so he knew the kind of comedy that was needed. And he had some incredible energy. But the thing that attracted me most to Mark was that he’s very passionate about what he does. For me, coming from the theater and being a choreographer, the picture is all-important and the construction of the picture is very important. It turned out to be absolutely the right decision; through two sound stages at Steiner Studios we built 44th Street from Broadway to the River. It had Sardi’s and Shubert Alley and the Shubert Theatre and the St. James. We talked about creating sort of Theater Heaven and what that would be like and making it very glamorous. The show takes place in 1959 rather than 1968, when the original movie took place. It was a glamorous time for Broadway. You had The Sound of Music, West Side Story, The Music Man—it was an incredible time for musical theater. And people [dressed up] and it tried to capture some of the romance, and I do believe Mark has done that. Leo Bloom has a lyric about seeing his name up in lights and he has a fantasy with 13,000 light bulbs [thanks, in large part, to Mark].BTL: It’s one of the rare times that a film captures the essence of the theatrical experience.Stroman: The idea was to take the Broadway show and give it four walls and a sky. And right at the beginning the two little usherettes look straight into the camera, straight into the movie audience, and say, “Come here, let’s listen to what this theater audience is saying about Max Bialystock.” Right away, once they break that fourth wall, you know you’re in for a ride and they move upstage or they move far away and actually take the audience right into the theater with them. And like Alice in the looking glass, you fall through that looking glass and land in the biggest theater environment you can possibly land in.BTL: You began the project with cinematographer John Bailey and then brought in Charles Minsky. Why the switch?Stroman: I don’t really want to get into why that happened. You know, I come from a very collaborative world and it just wasn’t quite working with John, and Chuck came in and knows how to shoot comedy. He brought great energy to it and knows how to shoot women and actually knew how to collaborate with Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, who were brought in to design theatrical lighting, as they did on Chicago and many movies. That’s done because in a theater you know the light cues happen within production numbers, but in film you don’t usually call cues—you stop and move the lights and move the camera to get another lighting look. But what I needed to do was keep the camera rolling and have the light cues happen within the shot. So Jules and Peggy were brought in for theatrical moments like “Marquee Heaven” and the very last shot on 44th Street.BTL: Your costume designer William Ivey Long was the lone carryover from the show. What were some of his challenges in designing costumes for the movie?Stroman: He is one of the most wonderful costume designers you will find. He’s theater royalty here in New York but he took to this like nobody’s business. He was very conscientious of making sure his costumes looked great on film. We did tests on all the costumes. Uma’s beautiful blue dress has two layers on it. It has a blue layer and a black layer—it’s called “changeable material”—and on film when we tested it, William knew that that might give more depth to the costume. In fact, it does when she dances. So William was a real triumph. Even financially his department came in right on budget. He was the real hero of the film in everyone’s mind. He’s very collaborative and he’s very witty. For example, the showgirls in Springtime for Hitler, with the beer stein and the pretzel and the big sausage and, of course, Uma wears the wonderful German Eagle costume. And the other thing is that William really understands dance. I needed someone who knew that these girls would have to get through a production number with these costumes, and that they were going to sweat. Usually folks don’t stay in a costume that long in film without changing or moving the camera, but I wanted the cameras to roll and I wanted these costumes to last.BTL: The director’s relationship with an editor is usually the most intimate. Tell us about yours.Stroman: Well, part one of the question that I asked of editors in these interviews was if they played an instrument and if they’d ever cut to music before. Because usually the score is added last in a film, but we were going to be shooting to music, and Steven Weisberg not only understands comedy but is also a musician. He was a dream to have and to collaborate with. I didn’t realize how many hours I would be putting in when I started. We’d work from nine in the morning till nine at night for five months. You really have to get along with your editor and he just loved the idea of head-to-toe shots and not cutting… letting the actors have their comic timing. And sometimes we’d even find that later on. We’d cut on the eyebrows of these comics. Nathan’s eyebrow would go straight in the air and then we’d cut. So he absolutely understood what we were going for and I think editing was my favorite part overall.BTL: What did you learn from him?Stroman: I got a lot of choices from these comics and actually editing different versions of comic scenes and seeing which would be the funniest. I tried different ways of doing it. Steven would be saying “What about this? And what about that?”BTL: How did you go about teaching the crew about a musical and the theatrical concept of doors and floors: percussion and reflection?Stroman: You know, in a musical, people make entrances and exists with great gusto. And so in every scene, Roger De Bris co
mes around the door jamb. Uma comes through the door. Max Bialystock peers behind newspapers. And jokes are told and a door slams. But in film it’s not used much. You cut to a scene and everyone is already involved in their moment. But here it’s part of the theatricality and we use the door almost as a drummer. And the reflection of the floor adds to the fantasy of it. Even Matthew and Uma dancing on the white floor in the office added to the fantasy. We were able to have the room turn blue. It’s like they’re dancing on beautiful white ice. And the thing is in most films you don’t ever see head to toe unless they’re walking far away from you. But here there’s something wonderful about being able to see the full body in motion and the full body in comedy as somebody gets hit.

Written by Bill Desowitz

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