“Fosse/Verdon” magnificently kicks off in Episode 1 (“Life is a Cabaret”) with Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) struggling to shoot his Oscar-winning “Cabaret” in Germany, with his wife and muse, Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), coming to the rescue to release his creative spirit. It reveals that tricky yet synergistic partnership that defined the uncompromising Fosse vision, with Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles (Kelli Barrett) and the dancers perfecting the iconic “Mein Herr” number in the dark and smoky Kit Kat Klub.
“The way the [‘Cabaret’] musical is constructed it’s unusual because the numbers are performed at the club,” said Alex DiGerlando, the production designer who also worked on the visually inventive “Maniac.” “We looked at behind the scenes featurettes, and from what we could tell, even though it was shot on a soundstage, it didn’t seem that walls were pulled. From what we understood, Bob wanted it to be an enclosed set to keep the actors grounded in the reality where they were filming. It got pretty smoky in there because there was no place for the smoke to waft out.”
The set consists of the stage, which contains red silk fabric above with embedded lights and tiny spherical light bulbs that transcribe the proscenium. Surrounding the stage are tables on the floor and a VIP section raised above and off to the side. The bar’s situated in the back with a staircase leading out to the street.
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Without much documentation, though, DiGerlando and his team made educated guesses about the construction of the Oscar-winning set design and art direction (from Rolf Zehetbauer, Hans Jürgen Kiebach and Herbert Strabel) to accommodate the choreography. “One of the things that I found to be an exciting discovery was that from the beginning everyone referred to it as a black set,” added DiGerlando. “We took screen grabs from the DVD and raised the brightness. And when you see Joel Gray in his black tuxedo against the wall, it becomes purple.”
There were further discoveries that filled out the marvelous details of the set decoration: glitter patterns painted on the walls, mirror balls with tiny ballerina statues attached to the top, a giant light fixture with Tiffany glass that hovered over the set like a UFO; cables that ran through the club with phones attached so customers could call from one table to another; a piano with custom-painted glitter patterns matching the ones on the wall; and a drum with a painting of someone in a canoe silhouetted against the moonlight reflection in the water.
To ensure the safety of Barrett and the dancers, DiGerlando’s team affixed the chairs to the stage for certain moments so they wouldn’t tip over and built reinforcements so they wouldn’t collapse or break. “There’s a moment where [Barrett] swings herself around one of the columns at the end of the stage,” he said, “and as we blocked out that dance during rehearsal, she couldn’t get enough momentum to perform the move, so we built a piece of extension onto the stage off camera to give her a place to land if she didn’t make it all the way around. And there were light bulbs that lined the stage, and in wide shots we took them out so we didn’t have to risk injury to dancers or camera [operators].”
Meanwhile, Tim Ives, the cinematographer who took a break from “Stranger Things,” studied the Oscar-winning work of DP Geoffrey Unsworth as a starting point for his interpretive lighting and composition. “We wanted to see ‘Cabaret’ from Bob’s perspective making the movie and his partnership with Gwen in getting the piece to the right spot, not what he wanted the audience to see,” he said. “I didn’t want to imitate shots that already won awards, but I did want to capture the overall color and the set design while taking some creative license.
“His framing in ‘Cabaret’ is incredible and I think we owe a lot in modern cinema to the way he shot that film. Actors would land on a mark where you’d put a leg out and you’d see somebody through it, and it was always a frame within a frame. I wanted to pay tribute to that throughout the show, beginning with the ‘Mein Herr’ sequence.”
Ives shot with three cameras (the Sony Venice at 4K with Panavision Noir 70 lenses with vintage glass) to keep it theatrical, soft, and filmic. Similar to “Cabaret,” he used a spotlight and par can ceiling lights (LEDs were out of the question because they were in plain sight). “We used a grid around the set and a dimmer board so we could turn one side on and one side off when we weren’t looking in certain directions,” Ives added. “We chose a lot of the colors Bob used and filled in with light off camera to even out some of the skin tones.
“If you look at the stage straight on, with the gold curtains in the background, I had a camera from the front on a small crane and then I had one on either side, almost pointing at each other but hidden by a piano or in a shadow. We put on zooms and I instructed the camera operators to go for composition. We got amazing stuff from all angles. Then we’d go back in and get closeups and go real low on Bob (Sam Rockwell) adjusting a wrist. We made sure we knew we were up there on the stage with Bob as he is rehearsing it. And then we’d turn the whole thing around and did one from behind as well that could see the filming of the event with ADs and cameras, and shot behind the camera from the front as well to get some nice reveals. And shot back into the audience over the dancers.”
The look is extremely dark in keeping with a real club atmosphere, yet Ives emphasized that the look is not at all gritty but lush and gorgeous. “I talked a lot to Nicole Fosse, who was on set almost every day, about procedure and dance and getting inside the head of her dad,” Ives said. “I think I was able to take that information and somehow subjectively throw it up onto the TV screen.
“Her dad was a perfectionist who didn’t want to please anybody but himself. I think that because he worked alone as a choreographer, he just assumed there wasn’t that big a support system that is part of the film industry, where you have editors to help you find things. So he had a lot of pressure on him to do well and he put a lot of pressure on himself. He definitely ran behind in making ‘Cabaret’ because he was learning on the job, and when he called Gwen and asked her to come over, she knew how to speak Bob and translate for him.”