Disney’s INTO THE WOODS opens December 25th and not a moment too soon. The buzz around the film is increasing in volume and with good reason (but you can read about that in my review). The Broadway production won several Tony Awards and the touring companies have received rave reviews, thanks to Steven Sondheim’s music and lyrics and James Lapine’s story. To get you started on your journey INTO THE WOODS, we sat down with the “company” to get their insights into just how and why this show’s transition from stage to screen was so successful.
There were so many stars at the table, that the press conference was split into two sessions. The first session included James Corden (the Baker), Emily Blunt (the Baker’s Wife), Rob Marshall (the director), James Lapine (the screenplay writer), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), and Chris Pine (Cinderella’s Prince). [Let me set the scene for you: they sat as a panel on a stage while the press sat in rows in front of them. The moderator asked the first few questions, then opened it up to the press.]
INTO THE WOODS came out of Steven Sondheim’s desire to do a quest story and James Lapine’s desire to write a plot-driven story. Lapine also wanted to write a fairy tale. Because fairy tales tend to be short, he wove the characters and plotlines of other fairy tales into his original fairy tale, creating depth and length. Between Lapine’s fairy tale and Sondheim’s music, INTO THE WOODS became nearly a perfect musical, so that, in the words of Lapine (as quoted by Marshall), “if you pull the songs out of the piece, the piece falls apart.”
Anna Kendrick was fascinated by the Cinderella role, but the prospect of working with Rob Marshall and this cast on a Sondheim piece really drew her. Kendrick’s Cinderella is modernized, making “brave” decisions for herself that might not have been possible for Grimm’s Cinderella.
Chris Pine’s take on the Prince is that he’s two-dimensional, never quite coming out of the pages of the fairy tale, even when offered the opportunity to do so. Pine’s characterization of Cinderella’s Prince, does not have that yearning. His pursuit of Cinderella seems more connected to overcoming her reluctance, than a desire for her, so is a much flatter character.
Emily Blunt (as The Baker’s Wife) likened her character to a Midwestern housewife who is suddenly confronted with George Clooney who wanted to make out. Her choices are informed not only by her desires, but also by her station in life. Opportunities come along and change her path, but, ultimately, she realizes she never should have strayed.
James Corden (The Baker), far too modest for a man of his talent (I regret not asking him “what’s occurring?,” but I never got the microphone), spoke of feeling intimidated by the star power of the rest of the cast. He credited Rob Marshall and John DeLuca for the feeling of preparedness and confidence, built from the extensive rehearsals, but also from his fellow castmates, who worked together as a company of actors, a true ensemble, supportive of each other, from Meryl Streep (who “leads from the front”) “right to the bottom, and just below that, you’ll find me.” (See what I mean about him being too modest.)
Blunt was concerned about the singing, but Marshall reassured her that he wanted actors who could sing, for the movie, not singers who could act. The experience of singing (after a few lessons to bolster her confidence) was “exhilarating and impassioned” and “joyful.” Singing with the cast and a 65-piece orchestra for Steven Sondheim was a day she “will never, ever forget. Ever.”
Neither Pine nor Blunt had heard of INTO THE WOODS before being asked to audition. The attraction for them (and, it seems, for most of the cast) was working with the other actors and with Rob Marshall. Rob Marshall created an environment where the actors were prepared for the technicality of Sondheim’s music, but in a positive way, so that it was a “joyful” (a word used by both Blunt and Pine) experience.
When Blunt and Kendrick were asked about which Disney princess they would play, if given the choice, Blunt wanted to be Jasmine, because she could have a pet tiger, so Kendrick chose Ariel, so she could have a pet flounder and crab.
Marshall spoke about casting INTO THE WOODS. He wanted actors with depth and humanity and also vulnerability, because of the deep wanting that the characters experience in the story. There was a lot of trepidation among them, because they wanted to live up to Sondheim’s work, but they “just grabbed hands together and jumped in,” achieving in the making of the movie what the characters in the movie ended up doing – working together and becoming a family. Each of the actors had done theater before, but that wasn’t intentional or even something they looked for in the cast and it helped them come together as a company and to build a true ensemble piece. “Every single person on this beautiful table here has unbelievable range… and that’s what I love about this company.”
Marshall talked about working with Dion Beebe (Cinematographer) again (they’d previously worked together on MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and CHICAGO). He referred to Beebe as a “painter of motion and light,” which is very apt. They were able to work quickly and efficiently together, because of their history together. It is, as Marshall says, “a beautiful partnership,” which is evident from the results.
My favorite question for this group came from a press vendor. She asked how the Disney princess fairy tales “apply, or maybe they don’t apply, to the craziness of modern day dating?” Kendrick spoke of how INTO THE WOODS deals with separation in a mature, modern way, showing children that people can have disagreements and still be civil and compassionate with each other. There isn’t always a good guy and a bad buy, just because two people can’t get along. Pine spoke about INTO THE WOODS not following the traditional fairy tale love story formula, not following the unrealistic path of all-consuming devotion and passion between the prince and princess. Cinderella shows growth and introspection and her Prince remains the romantic figure without the personality to sustain a relationship. At this point, Corden chimed in to ask Pine whether he would swipe left or right on Tinder if Kendrick came up and we all pretty much dissolved in laughter as that question played out among the panel.
Rob Marshall repeatedly referred to the group as a “company” rather than “cast and crew.” The word “company” is traditionally used by theater productions and, to me, represents the result of continuous collaboration on a project, not quite the image invoked by the cast and crew of a movie production. Watching the interaction between the cast and crew present during the press conferences made it clear just why he calls them a company. There seemed to be a genuine fondness in the group for each other, with wisecracks and affection evident in the way they addressed and spoke about each other. It was easy to see how they created such a wonderful movie together.
The second panel consisted of Christine Baranski (Cinderella’s Stepmother), Tracey Ullman (Jack’s Mother), Meryl Streep (the Witch), and Producers Marc Platt and John DeLuca. Having these three great actresses on the stage together was really something to watch.
Platt started us off telling us about making a movie out of a musical stage show. The way to resolve the challenge of getting all of the moving parts unified into one central vision is “to stay as true as you can to the material that you love” and be ready to “step outside of it and introduce elements into it” to make the cinematic experience both satisfying and exciting.
When asked about playing the role of Cinderella’s Stepmother, Baranski told us that she had tried to convey a contemporary attitude, which would resonate with today’s viewers. She, Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard presented Cinderella’s stepfamily as social-climbing narcissists, obsessed with fashion and fame (personal fame, not necessarily the fame of others). Without Baranski naming any names, certain reality show denizens came to mind as she spoke. She was able to convey that sort of single-minded drive and ambition that excludes anyone not in her goal, so, of course, Cinderella couldn’t go the ball. Baranski played the part with such humor that, even though she’s technically a villain, she seems less evil than clueless.
Deluca revealed that Ullman had the best relationship with Milky White (uncredited). She implied that the others were afraid of her (the cow), but she, apparently, bonded with her, not to mention that when it was cold, she could warm her hands on the cow. There was a brief interlude about the costumes (fabulous for Baranski and barn chic for Ullman) and then Ullman revealed what, for me, is the essence of the “company” – “You know, you get to laugh with everybody all day and it’s pretty wonderful. It’s a great privilege to be part of every part of this.” The sense of friendship and family from the first panel carried over into this one, peppering the conversation with witty remarks and sly comebacks.
Streep, who has the advantage of being well-known and regarded, can pick just about any role she wants. She shared that she was excited to be part of this “great piece of America’s theater history,” likening being in INTO THE WOODS to finding a grail. Sondheim’s music drew her to the project, as “the engine through which all these stories are told and it’s a sort of a wave that you can surf.” The music motivated and inspired her performance.
Ullman was asked about her pop singer status and responded graciously, calling herself a one-hit wonder, then singing a bit of “They Don’t Know About Us.” Streep and Baranski were quick to mention other Broadway musicals she’s appeared in, clarifying for those who didn’t know, that Ullman is a talented singer and actor with a long history in music and theater.
The three actresses then discussed their roles as parents in the film and in real life and the crossovers between them. Ullman’s son once played Jack in INTO THE WOODS and she plays Jack’s Mother in the movie. Streep discussed the concept of doing bad things for good reasons, in relation to the Witch and her sense of parenthood and the parental need to protect children from the bad things in the world and how that contrasted with her need to be right and how that drove some of her choices in the story. She also touched on the idea that being beautiful makes you lovable – the mistake people make on both sides of that concept: “how you look makes you more worthy of love.” Baranski spoke of her character’s maternal instinct to ensure that her children are taken care of, leading her to push her children to find suitable husbands to marry them. Ullman brings it back to Cinderella and her relationship with the Prince and her decision not to settle for security and to try to find love. DeLuca brought up Marshall’s nurturing ways and how that enhances his directorial abilities. “It was a very happy set even though it was a very difficult set. They all felt they were being taken care of” – yet another reiteration of the “company” theme that was both mentioned and displayed throughout both press sessions.
The final question to each of the actors was to ask their favorite fairy tale and whether or not it impacted their performances in INTO THE WOODS. Streep’s is “The Three Little Pigs;” Baranski’s is “Rumpelstiltskin;” but Ullman didn’t answer, because the three of them drifted into a conversation about Shelley Duvall’s brilliant “Fairy Tale Theater.” Streep then brought the conversation back to parenting, pointing out that fairy tales were stories told by women to their children to keep them safe, putting a neat bow on the press conference.
Sitting in the presence of all of these amazingly talented people was quite an amazing experience for me. Hearing them share their insights into the story and their characters and watching them interact brought home just how good it can be to work in a field you love with talented people who share your passion and drive for excellence.