George Meixner Reports From the press conference.
Disney’s latest feature Into The Woods continues to add to their spectacular musical oeuvre as they take on Steven Sondheim’s Broadway hit. For this dark twist on some of the world’s favourite fairytales, live action is preferred to animation as Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huddlestone, with Tracey Ullman as his mother), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford, with Johnny Depp as The Big Bad Wolf) and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy, with Meryl Streep as The Witch) must all delve into the woods as part of a an original tale involving a Baker and his Wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), who are finding it elusive to get one particular bun in the oven.
Showfilmfirst were at the press conference held two days before the film’s release in UK cinemas. Here is a taste of what to expect from this Disney-Sondheim-Grimm mash-up. It comes served with a healthy side order of quotations.
Rapunzel’s occult guardian happens to live next door to The Bakery, into which she bursts to explain that she has cursed the Baker’s father because he stole the Magic Beans that kept her young and beautiful. In exchange for the beans, The Witch steals the Baker’s sister and for good measure dooms the family to be forever barren. In order to lift the curse and conceive a child, the Baker and his Wife must fetch a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and the slipper as pure as gold. These items will produce a potion to restore The Witch to her former glory. So it’s into the woods, where wishes are pursued, narratives are tangled and fairytales prove there is no such thing as ‘happily ever after’.
At the time of writing, Into The Woods has been nominated for three Golden Globes including one for Meryl Streep as ‘Best Supporting Actress’. It has also passed the $100m mark at the US Box Office since it’s Christmas day release. Reportedly, on it’s opening day the film received more bums on seats than the combined total of the two Broadway runs it had enjoyed as a piece of musical theatre. Remarkably it was shot in only 55 days.
Director Rob Marshall explains how “it explores the consequences of wishes. These people go out to get their happy endings at all costs, at any cost”. There is a song called ‘Your Fault’ which attempts to work out who is to blame for the nightmarish situation at the time. It explores the domino effect of selfish actions and how those dominoes intersect with other people’s wishes and actions in an endless irresolvable circle. “It’s all grey” says Marshall, “there’s no black or white” pointing to Sondheim’s lyric in ‘No One Is Alone’ – “you decide what’s right, you decide what’s good. After ‘happily ever after’ it becomes more like real life, you move forward together.”
“It’s a Disney message”, adds Meryl Streep, “life continues” recalling early memories of watching Bambi. “Children know bad things happen. I think that little ersatz family at the end [of Into The Woods] is good news for humanity”.
James Corden, a sporadic narrator of the film increasingly shows he is not among such a starry cast solely for his comic timing. “All I ever wanted to do growing up was be in a musical in the West End” he says, adding: “I remember seeing Into The Woods [on Broadway] and thinking The Baker might be a part I could throw my hat in the ring for”. It appears somewhat of a dream come true for Corden, in ironic contravention of the moral of the film. On working with Johnny Depp he quips: “He’s really cool. You’re hoping that a bit of it would land on you just for an hour. I was just pleased to be in his orbit for an afternoon… and then I got to kill him.”
As The Baker’s Wife, Emily Blunt’s character provides a complex series of wishes and consequences. She is at once a warm and loving wife yet is enthralled by the grandeur of Cinderella’s Prince. She seems content to pursue the simple pleasures of motherhood while harbouring an uneasy greed and frustration with her husband. Blunt and Corden are a well-matched comedic pair as they rush from bough to briar attempting to fulfil their wish. Marshall praises her determination to get the part – “Emily walked in and said this role is mine.” “Well I didn’t actually say that…“ she says, she did blow him away in the audition, turning her private love of singing into the most public display of her vocal talent. She admits that “I did actually sing a little bit in a film I did called Gideon’s Daughter. That was also a knee-knocking experience, so I had lots of singing lessons!”
“There’s no one like Meryl, there’s no one like Meryl” Marshall wistfully incants, rather lost for words as he praises his Witch with a phrase appositely reminiscent of Dorothy in another silver-screen fantasy musical. Streep’s Witch has both explosive and quiet solos; making the most theatrical entrances and exits with puffs of smoke and swirls of leaves. To prepare for a role that would combine stage flamboyance with cinematic closeness she explains her preparation. “I knew going in that I would really have to work on my lung capacity, and my ability to expand the sound that I normally use, so I swam a mile a day in the summertime just before we went and that just [theatrically inhales] gave me a lot of breath.” She points out the difference between watching even the best produced musical on-stage and Into The Woods as a film musical, “there’s not one word that’s missed, there’s an intimacy.”
Streep recalls a “summons” to Sondheim’s townhouse. He had written a new song for her (not in the film, but in the DVD as she cheekily points out) and she had a few requests:
Streep: So can you give me the sheet music? [she said extremely coyly]
Sondheim: Of course.
Streep: Would you autograph it? Would you mind?
Sondheim: Not at all.
He then wrote: Don’t f**k it up.
When asked if she might have looked like the original witch on the poster if she had ‘let herself go’, she laughs, agreeing that it is probably true. She points out that when Bernadette Peters played the role she was only 28 years of age, remarking that it’s easier to make someone look older, but a lot harder to make them look younger. She also has an inspiring message regarding ageism, partly in reference to remarks made by Russell Crowe about actors playing age-appropriate roles. “I’ve [always] had a political reaction against the concept of witches, of old women being demonised and age being this horrifying scary thing, I just didn’t like that. I didn’t like it when I was a little girl and I don’t like it now”. Indeed, her Witch is not played as an ‘evil’ character, challenging the established stereotype. She is by no means a nice witch… but one step at a time.
The Cinderella branch of the story dips its toe into the more macabre waters of the Grimm Tales. Her wicked step-sisters have parts of their feet sliced off to try and fit her gold slipper, (not the latterly-adopted glass), and then they have their eyes plucked out by birds. Anna Kendrick glides through her performance so effortlessly it’s easy to overlook her for the more fantastical characters. Among these characters are Prince Charming and Rapunzel’s Prince (Chris Pine and Billy Magnusson respectively). Their duet ‘Agony’ is one of the most memorable moments across the 125 minutes as each lament their lots as Princes in the throes of thwarted passion. Expect power-stances, open shirts and ridiculous frolics in babbling brooks.
An indulgent appearance by Johnny Depp is not only a treat for the viewer but also for the man himself. According to Marshall, Depp “was excited to be part of a company” and relieved “not to carry a film”. “He was inspired by forties cartoons”, particularly by the lupine Tex Avery. He and Colleen [Atwood] recreated [Depp’s] outfit as seen through a child’s eyes”.
Even Tracy Ullman got in on the dream-fulfilment factory as Jack’s Mother. “My son was Jack in a middle school production in America and I watched it dutifully every night for 10 nights.” Going behind-the-scenes she talks dreamily about “filming in England in places I played when I was a kid” and how she worried about the “robins nesting in the Shepperton Studio trees” because they would only be there for a few weeks.
With Sondheim pulling at the musical strings and with a cast that can hold a tune, Into The Woods works brilliantly as a musical on the screen and while wishes and dreams are fulfilled with highly variable results for the characters involved, it seems the actors and production team found this somewhat of a fairytale to make. With one hundred million dollars in the bank so far from the box office and doubtless many commercial opportunities to follow, perhaps Into The Woods is an example of a ‘happily ever after’… after all.
Into The Woods Gala Screening Report