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How They Turned Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ into a Post-9/11 Metaphor (VIDEO)

How They Turned Sondheim's 'Into the Woods' into a Post-9/11 Metaphor (VIDEO)

Rob Marshall said he found the perfect post-9/11 metaphor for  “Into the Woods”: loss and comfort.  He also struck the right balance between theatricality and naturalism for Stephen Sondheim’s fairy tale deconstruction, combining pre-recording and live recording for the music. The key was choreographing this rite of passage as a big dance.

The first design inspiration for the ancient, majestic Woods was Angel Oaks in Georgia, which production designer Dennis Gassner found on Google. He showed Marshall Angel Oaks to get an idea of scale, size, and uniqueness. “We could never go there for obvious reasons but had to go on the search for what are basically the Woods and all the connecting tissue and the beginning of the story of the village and all of the characters,” recalls Gassner (“Spectre”).

Yet with a $50 million budget, they built 90% of the Woods on a large soundstage at Shepperton and seamlessly integrated it with the Queen’s Park in Windsor Park .This is where cinematographer Dion Beebe came to provide lighting and atmosphere after blocking it all out with Marshall ahead of time.

“We wanted to bring an earthy foundation and the Woods existed as a crumbling, ancient but timeless place,” adds Beebe. “So we spent a lot of time finding the palette of that. and we plotted the Woods in three acts: The first act is a daytime Woods that looks mysterious but not foreboding in keeping with the aspirations of the characters; in the second act, we enter the Woods at night and there’s more of a sense of foreboding as the characters attain their ‘happily ever after’; then everything comes undone in the third act when the characters lose the path and the Woods become devastating and dark.

“In that third act, we ripped our forest apart and introduced a layer of heavy mist and fog. You’re immediately disoriented, like the characters: ‘Where the hell am I?’ For me, the song that sums up this journey of life is ‘No One is Alone.’ You will lose people in the Woods as you go and your expectations will change as you experience the joys and sadness of life.”

Of course, the costumes too were part of this fabric but with special requirements. Meryl Streep wanted a Blue Fairy vibe for her Witch’s glam transformation (remember she voiced the Blue Fairy in “AI”), and Johnny Depp wanted to re-enact Tex Avery’s iconic Big Bad Wolf with Zoot suit.

“Meryl’s costume is made with big turn of the century sleeves out of material that’s hand-made with leather cording on chiffon,” Colleen Atwood explains. “I took what I had of the Witch’s costume — the silhouette — and made everything bigger. The stripes are wider, the color’s stronger, her hair has a lot more blue in it. That was her starting point for what she thought was the most beautiful way she could be for her daughter. The blue color was just something we came up with and the hair started coming into it and just amplified it.

“I always wanted to do a Zoot suit for Johnny and we went there and added the tail and the collar that’s actually made out of thread but tied like a wig.”

For Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella, Atwood’s take  was the reluctant princess so she went small and earthy (which is just as well with Disney’s glam “Cinderella” due March 13). ” We tied the costume in with her mother, which is a specter in the tree, with the leaves and the willows and the gold idea for it and also for the slippers.”

Meanwhile, sound editor Renee Tondelli came in to stitch it all together: the set recording, the pre recording, the post-recording, the ADR, working in collaboration with sound editor Blake Leyh, as well as sound mixers Mike Preswood Smith, Michael Keller, and John Casali. When they started shooting, the recorded songs were played back on set loudly without the use of ear buds to keep it natural. And they sang live to their recorded songs using lav mics.

“I think the most important part was the way Rob did this process,” Tondelli suggests. “He takes the actors for one month and they all rehearse their songs [in London], and they turn into this real theater company. And so they learn their songs with all the moments so they’re actually able to record the songs with that physicality in it, which makes a huge difference.”

There is no better example of intercutting and overlapping than in the brilliant 15-minute opening sequence, which introduces the characters and their wishes and foreshadows how they will come into contact in the mysterious Woods. The idea was to make it flow as an integrated piece and yet editor Wyatt Smith found it a trap as well. 

“It’s interesting because as a piece it becomes one of the bigger problems for pacing the film…you’ve spent so much energy that it gets hard to figure out how to move the pieces after that,” Smith says. “Because ‘Into the Woods’ gets so dark and reduces down to a small group of characters, you don’t want the film to feel like a downer. But it’s hard to sustain a pace all the way through knowing that it goes to a claustrophobic dark place.

They had to massage the transition because they made “a very hard right turn,” according to Smith. “We spent a lot of our time integrating it and making it a slower turn so you find yourself in the darker part of the Woods instead of having a wall that comes down and says, ‘Bad things are going to happen now.’  So there was the pacing of scenes and reordering and letting the music twist a little darker and letting the narration tell us that things weren’t exactly going to be the same.”

Some of the darker aspects, though, were toned down or removed, such as the death of Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), at Disney’s behest. So Sondheim wrote a new song for Streep’s Witch after Rapunzel runs away: “She’ll Be Back.” However,  the song was eventually cut because it slowed the pace and raised too many questions. “We were either going to have to resolve Rapunzel’s been killed or where the Witch and Rapunzel reunite. It was too much for the film to bear.” 

Not to worry:  “She’ll Be Back” will apparently be back on the Blu-ray/DVD.

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