11 things you should know about 'Into the Woods'

Posted by · 10:04 am · December 24th, 2014


The long awaited big screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's “Into the Woods” finally hits theaters on Christmas Day, and judging by the reviews so far, the consensus is it ain't half bad.

Of course, the fact that the film made AFI's top 10 of 2014 list, earned a Golden Globe nod for Best Film – Musical or Comedy (granted, a given) and has also earned a slew of best supporting actress nominations for Meryl Streep (not a given) should have been a big hint. Still, it's slightly surprising considering director Rob Marshall's woeful track record since his feature debut, “Chicago,” won the Best Picture Oscar almost 12 years ago. Whether it can crack this year's Best Picture race remains to be seen (it would need to be a pretty massive hit to get the Academy's attention), but it will receive a significant number of nominations on Jan. 15.

Inspired by the Grimm fairy tales most everyone in the world has been raised on, “Into the Woods” sports an all-star cast including Streep, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Tracey Ullman and new CBS Late Night host James Cordon. HitFix spoke to a number of those famous faces as well as Marshall and Lapine who adapted his own book of the Tony Award-winning musical. They had much to reveal. 

Here are 11 things that you might want to know about “Into the Woods” (before you see it or after).

Tracey Ullman was “lucky” to be able to sing live on set
The Emmy winner plays the mother of mischievous bean-lover Jack and a number of her scenes were shot outside a sound stage on location. That actually assisted in her wish to sing live instead of using pre-recorded vocals. She notes, “When we got to the field at six o”clock in the morning with all the mist and the cows and everything, we [had] pre-recorded my vocals, but it was too slow [for the camerawork]. So it was lucky to have that option to sing it live.” It didn't hurt that, unlike some of her co-stars, she wasn't wearing a corset either. She adds, “I was in the most comfortable costume in the world. I could just roll around in leaves and cow dung and be camera ready in a second.”

The cast rehearsed like they were doing a “road tour” of the musical
The weeks of rehearsal brought a strong sense of camaraderie to the cast according to Ullman. She says it was like “doing a road tour of 'Into the Woods'” … We got to hear each other sing and we all — just like you do when you”re rehearsing a stage musical.  And, you know, there were props and a cardboard cow. But it was great because then you got to time it out and you knew once you got to a location what you were going to do, as opposed to all getting there and wasting time rehearsing and figuring it out.”

Co-creator James Lapine called Disney about making an animated version back in the day
“Into the Woods” first hit Broadway just a few years before Walt Disney Animation began its second golden age with animated musicals such as “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” Writer and director James Lapine says he actually called up his buddy Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was at Disney at the time, and pitched him “Woods” as an animated musical. As history notes, he wasn't interested and it was almost two decades before a live action version came to life.

“Into the Woods” has not had the shelf life of most Broadway hits
The Tony Award-winner did well when it first hit the Great White Way, but even Lapine admits it wasn't “a big massive hit.” Unlike other musicals, however, interest in new productions has grown over the years. He says, “With most shows the licensing starts out very strong and then it gets less and less and less each year as it goes by and shows kind of drift into memory. This one never did. It just always had the same steady number of productions both in stock and amateur and professional. And it”s been a real staple in the schools as well as internationally.”

Cinderella's wicked stepmother is basically Kris Jenner
Christine Baranski plays Cinderella's Wicked Stepmother, but her take on the character was slightly more modern than previous incarnations. She notes, “I conceived of the character with Rob as a mother and two daughters who just were really kind of self-involved and narcissistic and obsessed with their clothes and, 'You see our hair; it”s big hair.' And 'I have blonde hair like my daughters,' you know? 'My age, I”m, like, trying to keep up with the daughters. I”ve got the hair, I”ve got the cleavage.' I always thought if they were in this day and age they would be fashion obsessed and they”d be watching, you know, Red Carpet and they”d be [reality stars].”

Rob Marshall thinks a major thrill of “Into the Woods” is how it redefines actors you thought you knew
“I don't think people knew that Chris Pine was funny like that, or could sing,” Marshall says. “I don't think people even know the full range of what Emily Blunt can do with her incredible humor and humanity and sensibility and warmth and her singing voice as this character. Even Meryl Streep; you think you've seen her do everything and then she sings this piece with such ferocity and depth and such power. That was such a surprise. When we were rehearsing that for the first time and watching what she was doing with this witch and bringing such vulnerability to the character, I thought, 'No one has ever seen this from Meryl Streep.'”

Blunt thought of her Baker's Wife as someone who would read US Weekly
The “Edge of Tomorrow” star plays the Baker's Wife, a woman willing to do anything to break the curse preventing her from getting pregnant. In one particularly intriguing scene, Chris Pine's Prince Charming seduces her (slightly), which causes her to question her marriage. Blunt saw the Baker's Wife as a Midwestern housewife who”s never left her little town and is less altruistic than she first seems. She adds, “She”s a bit bored and miserable and George Clooney knocks on the door and goes, 'Do you want to make out?' Like it”s sort of, 'What would you do?' So that”s how I tried to think of her, a woman who reads US Weekly every week and suddenly he”s here and he fancies her, you know? It was wonderful to think of it in those terms.”

Meryl Streep thinks the most interesting character in “Into the Woods” was not her own According to Marshall, Streep thought Cinderella, played by Anna Kendrick, was the most complex character in the film. Why? “Because she's wrestling with so many thoughts and can't make a decision about her life,” Marshall says. “Everything's presented to her as her wish. Her mother says that wonderful thing in the tree. 'Are you certain what you wish is what you want?' And she thinks she does. But she gets it and it's such a moral dilemma for her throughout the whole piece — until she makes that one major decision, to say no to the prince. Then she's finally free to be herself.”

The stage director was more interested in making changes for the big screen than the film director was
Usually, it's the playwrights and songwriters fighting tooth and nail over changes in a big screen version of a musical. In this case, Lapine was ready to “make a lot of changes,” but director Rob Marshall “was very determined to be very loyal to the original material.” Who knew?

The quieter moments in “Into the Woods” were most difficult to achieve
“You have to actually earn those quiet moments,” Marshall says. “If you have too many of them, it slows to a halt. We were very careful about not having too many of those kinds of — I call them 'ballads.' You have to make sure you've earned them as you go through. The biggest difference between 'Nine,' 'Chicago' and this is that those, in a way, are theatrical musicals. They all have numbers, production numbers. These musical numbers were so integrated into the story that they just come out of scene, then right back into dialogue. That was great about doing this. It was so different than those other two.

Everyone had to audition except for you know who
According to Blunt, every member of the cast had to audition for their role except for Streep (well, maybe Depp, too). She recalls, “I was probably the most reluctant party to go in and sing and my agent told me I had to and that it would be fine. I went in and [Marshall] just said, 'Listen, sometimes music is emotionally so complex and I want actors. I want actors who can make sense of it and delve in and discover it.' And he wanted people with humor and with humanity.  And so he said, 'Stop worrying about making it sound prestigious. Just go for it.' And I did it and he gave it to me.”

What did you think of “Into the Woods?” Share your thoughts below.

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