'Chicago' Turns 20: Director Rob Marshall on Casting Challenges … – Hollywood Reporter

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Marshall tells The Hollywood Reporter about meeting with Kevin Spacey and Kevin Kline for roles, why the film slid under even the studio’s radar and how ‘Chicago’ helped him with his upcoming ‘The Little Mermaid.’
By Ryan Gajewski
Staff Editor, Digital
Although it might be hard to believe 20 years later, Chicagos director recalls being stunned that his first feature film would even get an awards season campaign, let alone that it would break box office records, become the first musical in more than 30 years to win best picture, help revitalize a moribund genre — and all that jazz.
Chicago, based on the 1975 musical of the same name that itself adapted a 1926 play, boasted a star-studded ensemble cast that included Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Christine Baranski, Taye Diggs and Lucy Liu. Hitting theaters Dec. 27, 2002, the Miramax film told the story of fame-crazed murderers Roxie Hart (Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) who seek the assistance of flashy lawyer Billy Flynn (Gere) to keep them away from the gallows — and in the papers.

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At the time, Rob Marshall, who would go on to direct such films as Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Into the Woods (2014) and Mary Poppins Returns (2018), had worked on a number of stage productions but had yet to helm a feature. He met with the Miramax team about potentially leading Rent, which would eventually hit theaters in 2005 under the direction of Chris Columbus, but the studio’s property that Marshall really wanted a crack at was Chicago, which happened to be his all-time favorite musical.
“I was blissfully naive in many ways, specifically of how it would do,” Marshall tells The Hollywood Reporter. “At that time, live-action musicals were just dead. Moulin Rouge! had played the year before, and that helped open the door. But I was very much aware that musicals just weren’t being accepted. I thought it would be a small, niche film that a few people would see.”
As it turned out, more than a few people saw it. The film made $306 million worldwide ($507 million today) to become the highest-grossing live-action musical ever to that point. It also won six Oscars, including best picture and best supporting actress for Zeta-Jones, along with notching Golden Globe wins for Zellweger, Gere and the film itself.
During an interview celebrating the film’s 20th anniversary, Marshall discusses how his unique pitch helped him land the gig, the tricky casting process that saw Kevin Spacey and Kevin Kline also in the running, the studio’s surprise upon seeing the finished product, why the film felt particularly timely amid the rise of reality television and how his Chicago lessons helped him in his approach to helming his upcoming live-action version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

What was the status of the film before your involvement?
Miramax — before it was The Weinstein Company — was looking for a young director for the film of Rent. I had just done Annie for television, which did very well. I also had a production of Cabaret running on Broadway that I co-directed with Sam Mendes. So they called me in for a meeting to discuss Rent, but I knew that the Chicago property was out there and that they were having a real difficult time figuring out how to bring it to film. Chicago was my favorite musical — I had directed it in Los Angeles, but I also just loved it growing up. I sat down to tell Meryl Poster, Harvey Weinstein’s right hand: “Before we start talking about Rent, can I tell you what I think a way to approach Chicago would be? Because it hasn’t happened yet.” (Laughs.) I started explaining my thoughts, conceptually, about the film and how I saw it.
She grabbed me and brought me into Harvey’s office. I then spent hours in his office describing how the film could be done. It was this idea that there’d be two different worlds: the world of the vaudeville stage, where the musical numbers took place, and then the realistic world of Chicago in the ’20s. At that point, it was rare to mix two different worlds at the same time within a film. But I pointed to MTV videos at that time (laughs), that you could have many different layers happening simultaneously. I actually performed “Mister Cellophane” for Harvey in his office, explaining that the character of Amos would be in Billy Flynn’s office, in a real scene with him, pick up his hat, and when he puts on his hat, he’d be onstage.

They had talked to me early on about choreographing, so I had seen all the scripts of Chicago. The biggest problem is, they were trying to turn it into a book musical — a musical where people sing. What they didn’t understand is that Chicago’s a concept musical and was built that way. All the musical numbers in the stage play are all vaudeville turns. All the numbers have to be presentational numbers that happen on a stage. That’s what they had never done. A couple days later, they gave me the film to develop. (Laughs.) I brought [screenwriter] Bill Condon on it and John DeLuca, my creative partner, and we started working out how to create Chicago as a film with this concept in mind.
So for the scripts that you read, Bill wasn’t involved yet before you joined?
No. I had met with a bunch of different writers, and met with Bill, and I just felt like he was a kindred spirit and understood musicals so well. He is also a director himself, so it was easy to talk to him about film, and it was a wonderful collaboration. Together, we developed the idea that it would take place all through Roxie’s mind. All of it came from Roxie, who desperately wanted to be a star and make a mark. She saw things through vaudeville, and that’s how we entered into this.
It’s very tricky doing musicals on film because it’s a much more realistic medium. In a theater, when you watch a musical and someone starts to sing, you’re in an unnaturalistic environment. Immediately, you’re already in a theater with wings (laughs), so you can accept a lot of things. On film, it’s very difficult to find your way into musicals and someone singing. It’s something I’ve worked hard, with all the musicals I’ve done, to find a way into the singing that feels organic. It’s the trickiest thing about musicals.

The cast is so incredible. Was anyone attached yet?
No one was attached. There had been talk [over the years] of Goldie Hawn or Madonna or Liza Minnelli or John Travolta. So then I started the process of meeting with people that I thought could do it. It was a little bit of detective work because I had to find out who had musicals in their background. Richard Gere had done Grease and played Danny Zuko, so I knew he had musical talent. Catherine Zeta-Jones was the easiest to cast because she had very clear musical chops, having played in West End musicals — even starting as a child, she was in Annie and then was in Pajama Game.
Renée was exactly the actor I was looking for because I wanted to find a vulnerable Roxie, someone who could play the fragile part of her, but then also be a good enough actress to turn the tables and become the strong killer that she becomes, and it needed that full range. I’d found out that Renée had been a cheerleader in school, so I thought maybe she could dance. She came to New York, and John DeLuca and I worked with her on dancing and could see right away that she could move.
Singing was a different thing. She was very afraid to sing for me. We went to dinner, and I said to her, “Do you know any songs?” (Laughs.) And she started singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” for me in the restaurant because she was so shy about singing formally. I could tell immediately she could sing.
Were there other contenders for key roles?

Yes. I remember speaking to Kevin Kline and Kevin Spacey — all the Kevins (laughs) — about Billy Flynn. But it was very clear to me that Richard was the one. The truth is, a lot of people were reticent about doing a musical. It’s a very cynical musical, too, in many ways. It’s very hard for people to see it as a film. Kevin Spacey was interested in going off to do his Bobby Darin film [2004’s Beyond the Sea], and Kevin Kline wasn’t quite sure about it. But I always believe that in a perfect world, you don’t even have to make a decision about actors. The actor themselves, if they’re right for the role, they claim it as theirs, and that’s what Richard Gere did.
Catherine was the first person I immediately thought of for Velma and met with her, and she wanted to do it and was thrilled about it. Renée reminded me so much of a young Shirley MacLaine — if this had been done in the ’60s or maybe even the early ’70s, I think that Shirley would have played the role, or Goldie Hawn, who’s spectacular as well. But this was 2001, and it was Renée’s moment, and I just knew she was perfect for it.
What went into getting the choreography right?
Because it was my first film coming from theater, it was really helpful for me that the numbers were stage numbers. The rhythm of the film, which was so thrilling to discover, was being able to cut very quickly between reality and surreality onstage. I was so nervous about directing a feature film for the first time (laughs), that I was so crazily prepared. In the opening number, Roxie grabs the bed posts with her hand when she’s having sex with Fred Casely — Dominic West — and then we cut from that to Velma grabbing two man’s arms and being lifted up. Those cuts were all very designed. That was the engine of the film.

Did you get many notes from the studio? Did anyone know they had a hit on their hands?
A good question. (Laughs.) It was the same year as Gangs of New York, and Harvey Weinstein was a producer on that, and while we were filming Chicago, he was in Rome shooting Gangs of New York. So I was very lucky because we kind of flew under the radar. We had a very small budget, so no one was really focused on us. We had a very short schedule. Harvey came to the first day of shooting and then the last day, and that was it. I didn’t have anybody around me, really, and that was freeing and wonderful.
I think they were thinking that Gangs of New York was the big film for them for the year. I remember when we showed it to everybody, I believe Bob Weinstein turned to Harvey and said, “This is your movie this year.” After I screened it for them, they didn’t ask for any changes. We only made some adjustments to the end of the film, but that was it. My good friend Sam Mendes gave me good advice. He said, “When you show it, show it done.” I went ahead and did a sound mix that wasn’t even in the budget. To be seen, I wanted it to feel like it was finished, and then we didn’t touch the film.
I remember Harvey Weinstein saying to me, “We should really talk about the awards campaign.” And I said, “For what film?” He said, “Your film.” (Laughs.) I said, “Are you serious?” It didn’t even cross my mind that we would be an awards movie, in a million years. All of it was such a ride. I remember after we showed it once in London, we were going into a press conference, and Richard Gere said, “What we’re feeling right here from everybody — this is not normal, just so you know.” (Laughs.)

It’s incredible to achieve so much with your first feature.
I’m still very proud of the fact that we were able to, in a way, open the door for many musicals to come following Chicago. The fact that it was embraced the way it was — the fact that it won the Oscar for best picture — was such a surprise as well. There hadn’t been a musical that won the Oscar since Oliver! in 1968, and there hasn’t been a musical that’s won since. I just feel very fortunate that I was able to work on a piece that I loved as much as I did. But the best thing for me that happened with Chicago is that it opened the door to an era of musicals on film.
There’s still such a fondness for the film, and scenes from it continue to go viral on social media. What do you attribute that to?
The material itself is so brilliant, starting with Maurine Dallas Watkins’ original play: a brilliant satire that played in the ’20s and was a very modern-day parody of what was happening in the newspapers and how killers were becoming celebrities. Then John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse created this amazing piece that was ahead of its time when it opened [in 1975], and was very dark and cynical and a parody of that world. But it’s still so prevalent. What constitutes a celeb? Is a killer a celebrity, and where’s that line drawn? When we started filming, reality television was just starting to really blossom. It’s the absurdity of how we, as the public, idolize people.
Next up is The Little Mermaid, which, like Chicago, has such history and a devoted fan base. Already from the trailer, we’ve seen a range of reactions, not to mention trolls. Did Chicago help you with approaching the new film?

Yes. For me, it’s really important to understand why the source material works, why it’s loved, why people embrace it — and make sure that you honor that. At the same time, you have to reimagine it for a live-action film. You have to hold on to those special things, but at the same time, know that it’s a different form. You’re now in a live-action form, so you have to do things differently than you would in an animated film. The animated film will always live there, but that was 1989. This needs to seen through the lens of 2023. It’s a real balancing act, but it’s very important to me to respect the original material.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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