Rob Marshall is one of Hollywood’s most innovative and impressive musical directors, helming everything from 2014’s Into the Woods to 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns to the highly anticipated The Little Mermaid, which is set to premiere this May. His immense talent has been clear since his feature debut with Chicago, which went on to win six Oscars, including Best Picture.
The 2002 film, which is based on the 1975 stage musical, takes place in the titular city during the Jazz Age and follows aspiring performer Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger). After she’s arrested for killing the man she was having an affair with, Roxie finds herself on Murderess’ Row alongside star performer Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones). A fierce rivalry between the two ensues as they vie for fleeting fame, capitalizing on their crimes with the help of a sleazy lawyer (Richard Gere) and the prison matron (Queen Latifah).
I got a chance to speak with Marshall to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, as well as the release of a new, Limited-Edition Blu-ray SteelBook from Paramount Home Entertainment available now. He discussed what he remembers about seeing the show for the first time, the scene he’s proudest of, who he would cast as Roxie today, and more.
Drumpe: I remember the first time I saw this movie so vividly. I was in seventh grade, and I was at a sleepover, and it immediately became one of my all-time favorites.
ROB MARSHALL: I’m sorry, I’m just gonna say, I just feel so guilty because I’m thinking about these young girls who went to see this movie and probably thought, “Holy Mother, look at those women.” I mean, it’s such an adult-themed piece, and I just I keep thinking, “What have I done? I’ve corrupted the entire world.”
No, I mean, it’s such a spectacle and so dazzling and so exciting, and “Cell Block Tango” is so empowering. It’s one of the best songs in musical theater history.
MARSHALL: It is a great number.
I’m curious, what was your first introduction to the story, and what do you remember about it?
MARSHALL: Well, you know, it’s interesting, I saw the original Broadway production with Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon, and Jerry Orbach in 1975. I was 14, so probably like, you know, in this general vicinity. So imagine me seeing that. You know, there’s something about it that sticks with you because it’s so adult, it’s so cutting edge, and the original production was absolutely glamorous and dark, funny, shocking, in terms of the sexuality of what was happening on the stage. All of it was just thrilling, and I remember I was such a huge fan of that.
In fact, I went to Miramax at the time, and they wanted to see me because they were interested in a young director doing Rent. So I went for the interview, and they said, “So, what do you think of Rent?” And I said, “Can we just talk about Chicago? Because I know you have it and I know it hasn’t been touched, and I know people have tried, but I have an idea of how to do it.” It was that meeting that got me the film. So that’s how much the show Chicago meant to me. I had – this is 1975 – so I had the album, the record album, the LP, and I just played it out constantly. I could not stop. So I knew it was in my blood.
I love that so much. I watched the commentary with you and (writer) Bill Condon last night, and something I was so struck by was how collaborative this whole process was and how you would gather so many teams to conceptualize and problem-solve certain things. Why is that sort of approach to filmmaking so important and effective for you?
MARSHALL: Well, I feel it’s how musicals work, you know? It’s maybe not necessarily always the case with a drama or a comedy, or whatever, a straight film, as you might call it. With a musical, there are so many elements involved. If it doesn’t come together in a collaborative way with music and dance and writing and lyrics and orchestrations, and all those… You know, it only works as a team effort, sort of like a collaborative. Because I was coming from theater, which is how musicals really were born – it’s so interesting to think that musicals are really an American art form. That art form was sort of perfected on stage before film, and it only works as sort of like a machine, a unit, together.
So, when Bill and I worked with John DeLuca, who choreographed with me and John Condon, Fred Ebb, and our conductor and our dancer ranger, all those things, it only worked together as a collaboration. That’s how it works. Otherwise, it’s all these separate pieces, and it never comes together.
Yeah, absolutely, it’s so cohesive. Another thing I was really struck by was just the pure lack of CGI involved. Because there are so many amazing effects like that mirror scene, it’s crazy to watch that, and there’s so little of that. It kind of reminded me of the Mary Poppins Returns featurette with the bathtub and the slide, which I always found so cool. Do you think there’s something to be said about the magic of practical effects as opposed to that CGI approach?
MARSHALL: That is such a great question. I have to say, you’re 100% right about that because, for me, I try to do everything I can to not use CGI. Of course, I’m working on The Little Mermaid, which of course, half of it’s underwater, and the backgrounds, her hair, her costume, Triton’s… Everything is all CGI. So there are certain ways you have to embrace it. I do everything I can on every movie I’ve ever done to make it as practical as possible. I think, when you’re working in a void against a blue screen or green screen, the actors somehow are disconnected, can be disconnected. You have to work really, really hard to make it integrated into the performance.
I mean, when Emily Blunt got on that bathtub, which was just practical, and said, “I’m just supposed to go back and slide down an entire story through bubbles. Are you serious?” I just remember I think the thing she says is – what does she say just before she goes into the tub? It’s so funny. “Here we go,” or something. She, personally, was so scared and excited to do it. We used the first take, of course, because she was just freaking out underneath, but excited at the same time.
In Chicago, thank God we had so little CGI. I was coming from theater, I really wasn’t aware of how to work… We only have some extensions and some backgrounds, but it was all so tangible, so real. I feel as an audience member you feel that. You can feel it’s just all fake and this is not working something feels disconnected, so I always try to do everything practical if I can.
Yeah, absolutely. I think it does. I think you can just tell, even if you’re not consciously aware of it as an audience member, there is a little piece of magic in there when it is all really done. Looking back now, do you have a shot or a scene that you are most proud of pulling off? Because there were, I’m sure, many that had their own challenges.
MARSHALL: I remember when we were looking at the credits at the end of the movie, I remember my editor turned to me – because we did a series of images under the credits – and said, “Well, what image would you like under your card?” And I said, “Well, I love the Roxie number,” because it’s all just in a black void with a black mirrored floor. She’s this tiny little figure in the corner, and it’s all a void with shiny black, and there’s something about that that I just thought, “This feels so cinematic to me,” when I was filming it. I just thought it almost harkened back to like the Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers films with that black shiny floor and her in white.
That whole number for me was thrilling to create because it was complicated. It was all done with mirrors. I always try to find a hook into a musical number for myself, and it always comes from the actual material itself. So she sings a song called “Roxie” about herself. It’s the height of narcissism, and she’s talking about how much she loves herself, and she loves herself and wants to be a celebrity. It’s like Kim Kardashian on speed, you know? It’s sort of like that. It’s a satire about celebrity, the whole thing, and so I thought it could be all about mirrors and looking at herself, and loving herself, and sliding down a mirror. So as soon as I had the mirror idea that came from the actual subject of the actual material, then the whole number just came into place. So that number I’m particularly proud of.
Yeah, I can see why. It’s a really great number, a really great decision on that front. I know that you once said if this were cast in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, perhaps a Shirley MacLaine or a Goldie Hawn might play Roxie. If you had to cast Roxie and Velma today, who would you be looking at to potentially put in those roles?
MARSHALL: Well, you know, I love Emma Stone. I’ve worked with her on stage in Cabaret on Broadway. Immediately, I think Roxie would somehow be hers, I think. I just feel like she could play into the vulnerability. It’s not easy, actually, to find actors who are truly vulnerable, that can project vulnerability the way Renée Zellweger was able to, or the way Shirley MacLaine was able to. She’s a fragile character that actually kind of turns during the piece to become a ferocious person, you know, aggressive person, and then back down again. It’s all about the rise and fall of fame. So, Emma comes to mind.
Gosh, Velma, I haven’t really thought… I mean, Velma is a tricky one because you really have to be a killer dancer for that too. [There are] some fabulous actors out there. Let me think about that one. I’m sure it would be somebody fantastic. You know what? I think we could cast it now because I was saying before, actually, that we were sort of the resurgence of musicals, live-action musicals. [It was] very unusual at that time to do a musical. All the animated musicals were happening, but no one wanted to hear people sing in real life. So I feel like so many musicals have since happened, right? And so now [there are] more musicals, more people are singing in film, more people are dancing in film. You go, “Oh, okay.”
When I was casting Chicago, it was few and far between. It was like, “Let’s see who can do this.” You know, not many people. But I think now, actually, we could, we would be able to cast it.
100%. I would definitely watch the Emma Stone version. I think it would be fantastic. And it’s crazy because this was like your first big feature that you did direct. If you could go back and give yourself advice now, knowing what you know now what would you want to tell yourself going into it?
MARSHALL: Wow, that’s such a good question. It’s almost like I would say, “Don’t do what you’re doing.” Because I tried not to look left and right, and I think that actually helped the film because I never thought about the success of the film. I never thought about that. So it’s funny, I know it’s a weird answer, but it’s almost like, “Do what you did because you’re not aware, you’re not thinking about the success, the this and that. You’re just focusing on telling the story.” It’s almost the opposite. I think I would tell my younger self to always keep telling myself now, “Just continue to do that kind of thing. Do it for the love of it, for the work, for the story, and let everything else go.” So in a way, the naïveté that I had as a director was helpful, and it’s something I, actually, with each movie try to hold on to.
Yeah, that’s so interesting, but that makes so much sense. Then obviously, you’ve gone on to do many other amazing musicals with Into the Woods and now The Little Mermaid. If you could pick any of them to adapt, if you had your pick besides the ones you’ve already done or working on now, what would you want to tackle next?
MARSHALL: Gosh, you know, that’s always the question. It’s something I haven’t really… Here’s what I’m bad at that I wish I were better at, I wish I were better at developing something while I’m working on something else. Because The Little Mermaid, that I’m just finishing up now, has taken four-and-a-half years. COVID just kind of, you know, came right in the middle. We were a week away from filming, and we shut down, and then we had to come back up again. It’s the most challenging film I’ve ever done because of the visuals and how to create that. I mean, every moment of the entire film is choreographed because it had to be because there’s no gravity. How do you do that? That was crazy. I mean, to figure out how we do that.
So I have to say that I’m now actually looking forward to answering that question in the next few months when I finish up. This film will be finished probably at the end of March. It will be fun to say, “Well, where do I want to go next? What world do I want to be part of? Where do I want to go?” And I try not to repeat myself. You know, I probably could have done Chicago 2, 3 and 4, but I was excited coming off of that film to go and do Memoirs Of A Geisha, as an example, and just kind of go to a whole different culture and a different place and different actors. Because it’s your life, you spend so much time working on these things, you want a different experience. So, I don’t know what that’s going to be. It’s a very good question, but I’m excited to find out.
I’m certainly excited, too, for whatever you do next. You’ve said before that part of the reason you think this musical is still so popular is its themes of fame, and also true crime, which I think is more relevant than ever with the Dahmer series on Netflix and all the murder podcasts. In a way, do you think that Chicago was ahead of its time, because the story is a century old now?
MARSHALL: You know, it’s funny because it was written in the ‘20s as a satire of what was happening then, and it was a Broadway show about the satire of the press and celebrity, and criminals becoming celebrities. And what’s weird is that it’s never really changed. I remember when we started filming Chicago, it was the beginning of reality television. People were becoming stars who had no talent whatsoever. None. And you thought, “Wow, there it is, fame at what cost, fame for what?” I think in our fascination with fame and creating these famous people out of nothing… What’s funny is that it’s been pretty much a part of our culture for all this time and it hasn’t really changed. In fact, as you just said, it’s actually become even more prevalent. It’s everywhere you go, you know what I mean? So you can become famous for the stupidest thing, but it’s all about that, it’s that 15 minutes of fame. It’s more like five minutes, and then people are on to the next.
Chicago’s 20th Anniversary Limited-Edition Blu-ray SteelBook from Paramount Home Entertainment is available to purchase now.