Post: Rob Marshall's 'Nine'

Dec 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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With his multi-Oscar-winning 2002 film Chicago, director/choreographer Rob Marshall showed beyond any doubt that he knows how to bring a stage musical to contemporary film audiences in strikingly creative ways. After a detour to Japan for the historical drama Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Marshall has gone back to Broadway for inspiration, this time moving the 1982 hit Nine (a Tony winner for Best Musical) to the screen.

While perhaps not as immediately accessible to U.S. audiences as Chicago, which had the benefit of being a period American saga with music to match, Nine is actually a more interesting and compelling story. It’s based on an Italian play that was itself adapted from Federico Fellini’s classic semi-autobiographical 1963 film, 8 ½, about a filmmaker confronting a creative block and examining the many relationships with women—including his wife, mistress, a whore and others—that shaped his life. Fellini’s movie—and Nine—freely mix fantasy and reality, so Rob Marshall has a deep well from which to draw. He also has an incredible cast, with Daniel Day-Lewis—looking like a cross between Fellini and 8 ½ star Marcello Mastroianni—as director Guido Contini; fellow Academy Award winners Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Judy Dench and Sophia Loren in some of the principal female roles; and Stacy Ferguson (Fergie), Kate Hudson and others. All the actors did their own singing (and dancing), and the film includes three new Maury Yeston songs not included in the composer/lyricist’s Broadway show.

It was music director Paul Bogaev’s job to prep the actors for their songs during the summer of 2008, and as is usually the case with these sorts of films, the songs were recorded before a frame was shot—in this case, tracking was mostly at Angel Studios in Islington, London, during September 2008. Comments executive music producer Matt Sullivan, who supervised the recording and also worked with the actors, musicians and orchestrator Doug Besterman, “It’s an old church where they’ve constructed three studios and we used Studio 1, which is a good-sized room, but it also has a lot of isolation, which for film, when you’re mixing in 5.1, it’s really important to have as much isolation as possible.” Studio 1 has a high-ceilinged main room and four iso rooms, all connected to a control room equipped with a Neve 88R console with surround panel and Meyer X-10 monitoring system. “Then, two of the songs were re-recorded at Abbey Road in the legendary Studio 2. We had two studios—2 and 3—tied in and a 55-piece orchestra,” conducted by Bogaev. Both Sullivan and Besterman worked with Marshall on Chicago, and Sullivan also was a music supervisor on three other recent film musicals: Rent, Hairspray and Dreamgirls.

“We worked with the actors and the dancers and the director,” Sullivan says. “Rob rehearses for a couple of months and we come in and shoot the rehearsals and the orchestrator comes in and sits in a couple of rehearsals. Rob is really great at telling everyone exactly how he sees a musical number. If he wants a song to be dark and dramatic and it’s Guido Contini’s wife feeling she’s alone and abandoned—he tells the orchestrator that, he tells the lighting people, and we’re all on the same page of what the feel is. When we see her on an empty stage with a single spotlight and you hear a single cello line playing along with her, it all works together. He’s very good at explaining his vision. In general, Rob’s approach to doing a musical on film is very much the same as doing a musical for stage. It’s just that our opening night is shooting it—and opening night takes a few months.” [Laughs]

Actually, Sullivan notes, “For the most part, it takes about two days to shoot one song; bigger songs maybe three days. A single person doing a song—like Daniel Day-Lewis performs this song ‘I Can’t Make This Movie’ that’s only about a minute-fifty seconds long—and that we did all in one day. But these songs are emotional arcs—it’s not like you do a verse and then it cuts to another scene and then you do another verse. These are all big performances and the actors usually like to do them all the way through, and there’s only so many times you want to force them to do the same thing. It takes a lot out of the actors.”

And even though the singers are lip-synching to playback when the film is shot, they are still singing every time. The combination of tight close-ups and skimpy costumes on many of the ladies conspired to make earwigs an impractical solution to playing the music on set, plus, Sullivan notes, “The dancers want to hear the big, loud music. We actually had a theater audio consultant come in and rig the entire soundstage, which is really big.” Most of the film was shot at Shepperton Studios near London, with additional work at Rome’s massive Cinecitta complex, and a little bit of exterior location work in Italy. Like the songs in Chicago, the ones in Nine make imaginative use of soundstages to create a sort of alternative stylized reality that is at once intimate and theatrical—in this case, the musical numbers are essentially in the mind of Day-Lewis’ Guido Contini character. No one is belting out tunes on the rooftops of Rome or on the Spanish Steps in this film, though in a couple of cases during a song, the visuals switch to the real world briefly. Where Marshall knew that he was shooting exterior elements that would be used in the body of a song, Sullivan says, “He might have the song in his headphones because the feeling and the tempo of the song will affect camera movements,” so when the film is edited all the material will fit together more smoothly.

This was also a major concern on the audio post side of things, notes supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman, who co-supervised with Renee Tondelli, working both in Hollywood and at Pinewood Studios (Shepperton’s sister studio) in London. “It’s the kind of film where dialog and music both have significant roles and the lines are completely blurred in terms of where dialog and music begin and end. The songs all have very significant dramatic meaning, so the dialog has to lace in and out of the songs, and there has to be great continuity in the performances, as well as the sonic transitions.

“Rob is very conscious about blending the musical numbers in a seamless way,” Stateman continues. “He doesn’t want the film to stop for a musical number; he wants the number to develop naturally from the emotion of the film. So as a scene is moving toward some emotional climax, the characters are driven to songs; they don’t stop to insert a piece of music. And Rob, because he has such great attention to rhythm and to timing, insisted that we carry seamlessly both the cutting patterns and the sound patterns—whether it’s the cadence in somebody’s voice or the cadence in their walk—to in a way ‘hand off’ to the songs in a way that minimizes the audience’s ability to foresee a song coming. Rob’s goal is to make the songs an organically evolved climax to the drama of any given scene.”

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