"Matthew said that shooting this on film can be like doing a very quiet Wednesday matinee."
In contrast to most films that have little or no rehearsal time in advance of shooting, The Producers had the benefit of key principals from the musical who have worked together for years. Lane, Broderick, Beach and Bart opened the Broadway show in April 2001, and several have since participated in alternate roles and alternate companies. Lane, for instance, opened the London production in the role of Bialystock after only a few days' notice. Not long after, he was nominated for and won the prestigious Olivier Award.
"Nathan Lane is a once-in-a-generation Broadway performer," says co-author Meehan. "He's in that rare class, someone who comes out on a stage and just mesmerizes you. He has this incredible energy and excitement and great comedy timing."
"Matthew Broderick, on the other hand," he continues, "is a kind of a sly humorist who really makes you care about Leo Bloom."
"What Matthew is able to do is imbue this mousy guy with not only great comic timing but a sense of pathos as well," says producer Sanger.
"Because the actors are so familiar with the material and the characters, it's given me the freedom to add layers to what they already know," Stroman explains. "Matthew and Nathan are natural stage actors, and they're also natural on film. They know what it's like to perform for 1,500 people, and they know what it's like to perform for one camera. I'm very lucky to have them on board."
Prior to teaming for the Broadway version of The Producers, both Lane and Broderick, having started their careers in the theater, managed to carve highly successful careers alternating between stage and screen. The pair had even worked together once before doing the voices for Disney's animated classic The Lion King. Lane was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as Nathan Detroit in Jerry Zaks' revival of Guys and Dolls and starred in Terrence McNally's plays The Lisbon Traviata and Love! Valour! Compassion! before winning the Tony for the revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He has appeared in such films as Ironweed, Stand by Me, Frankie and Johnny, Addams Family Values, Mousehunt and, perhaps most memorably, opposite Robin Williams in The Birdcage.
Broderick won his first Tony Award for his Broadway debut in Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, and went on to win a Tony for his stage musical debut in Jack O'Brien's revival of Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Broderick starred in the John Hughes smash Ferris Bueller's Day Off and subsequently appeared in such films as Biloxi Blues, Family Business, Glory, Addicted to Love, Inspector Gadget, Election, You Can Count on Me and Frank Oz's recent comedy remake of The Stepford Wives.
From the actors' perspective, the transition from performing their roles in The Producers on stage to screen was initially a bit startling. For years, Lane and Broderick had shared the musical's phenomenal success with wildly enthusiastic, applauding audiences whose laughter often exploded over their lines of dialogue. They had learned to adapt or "put air" between certain sentences as needed for the audience response. Once in front of the cameras, however, that audience of 1,500 people had shrunk to approximately 60 or 70 crew people on set with them.
Lane jokes, "Matthew said that shooting this on film can be like doing a very quiet Wednesday matinee. We were so used to an audience being there, and they can be an active part of the process with a certain rhythm. But you have to let go of all that--to go back to what it is your character wants and needs."
Observing the differences between the theater and film performance, Broderick adds, "Movies are very slow, and you have to have energy when you need it over a three-month period with a lot of waiting around. In a play, you're sort of shot out of a cannon. It's a very different feeling."
On the flip side, two of the principals, Uma Thurman (as Ulla) and Will Ferrell (as Franz), are not only new to the material, but neither of them has ever had the opportunity to sing and dance on film before.
Thurman, whose renowned dance routines in Pulp Fiction and Be Cool with John Travolta--as well as the expertly choreographed martial arts moves in Kill Bill: Vols. I and II--gave her confidence as a dancer, explains that she had never done the romantic partner dancing that is one of Stroman's signatures. "Fortunately for me, there was a wonderful dance department on this show, and basically I went into boot camp with them for a couple of months," admits Thurman. "Matthew and I do a kind of Ginger Rogers / Fred Astaire piece, and I also have three other numbers."
Recalls the director, "When I met with Uma, who's almost six feet tall, she asked me, 'Do you think it's okay that I'm so much taller than Nathan and Matthew?' I said 'Absolutely okay! They'll look up to you like a goddess.' Uma also told me that she is of Swedish descent. I hit the jackpot!"
With the dance rehearsals underway, Thurman turned to a task she considered more daunting: singing. "I wasn't really scared of the dancing--that's not so hard for me," she recalls. "But when it came to the singing, our musical director, PATRICK BRADY, helped me find a voice--which isn't a recording artist voice--but the good news is that they're not having someone else sing for me, so it couldn't be too bad."
In fact, musical director Brady was very impressed with her abilities. "She had never had a voice lesson, and she really worked hard at it," he states. "You should have seen the look on her face when she experienced the live orchestra...it was overwhelming and terrific."
"She's fearless," adds Stroman, "and that's a quality that makes a great musical comedy performer. She loves to learn, and she loves the physical challenge of it all."
When it was time for Will Ferrell to become a song and dance man, he also proved himself a natural talent.
"I had a slight reservation as to how I'd fare with the singing and dancing, but I couldn't resist the part," says Ferrell, who is a longtime fan of the original movie and the stage show. "It was intimidating at first--in the recording studio with a big orchestra for the pre-record session and everyone listening," he admits. "But once I got comfortable with it, it was kind of fun. It's a whole different ball of wax for me."
Broderick laughs, "Yeah, he seemed delighted to wear a German helmet and big black leather coat. He was hilariously funny, he sings great and he totally made the character his own."
Lane had his own take on Ferrell as Franz Liebkind. "He reminded me of a very awkward sixth grader who just happened to be a Nazi. He was a combination of slightly threatening and a big goofy kid, which was always very funny."
Gary Beach and Roger Bart, both so memorable in their respective stage roles as Roger DeBris and Carmen Ghia, were thrilled when they heard the news that the stage musical was being made into a movie and that they would be recreating their roles for the movie.
Beach, a Tony nominee for Disney's Beauty and the Beast and this past season's revival of La Cage aux Folles, won the Tony for his performance as Roger DeBris. Bart, a Tony winner for You're a Good Man Charlie Brown and a Tony nominee for his performance as Carmen Ghia, co-starred with Broderick in the recent comedy remake of The Stepford Wives and can be seen on ABC-TV's hit series Desperate Housewives.
"I'm just so happy that they're doing it in such a grand way and that Gary and I are involved," says Bart.
"The camera has become like another dancer to me. The other day I saw one of the camera crew pass the crane up into space as if he was passing a dancer into the air." Susan Stroman
Stroman, who hails from Delaware, can't remember a time when her life didn't have a soundtrack. Raised in a musical household--her father was a piano player--even as a little girl, she would visualize images when listening to music.
"Whether it's an old standard or rock-and-roll or classical, I've always imagined scenarios with hordes of people dancing through my head. It isn't always relaxing because my mind spins."
"Storytelling is most important, but when you can also sing your emotions, everything is heightened," Stroman explains. "And all of these characters get to sing about their wants and needs, so it heightens the whole emotional pitch of the story."
Mel Brooks' favorite film of all time is the Astaire-Rogers musical Top Hat.
"With Fred Astaire, there was no cutting," explains Brooks. "The number starts, two people are dancing. The camera can move in a little bit and move back, but there's no cutting. We want to think it's a dream, a fantasy. And Stroman knows this."
Stroman honors the legendary dancers by paying homage to their pairing with The Producers number "That Face." She notes, "Leo Bloom dreams about dancing like Fred Astaire with Ulla as his dream Ginger, and 'That Face' represents his dream realized."
She feels, "Partnering in dance needs both parties to have a gracious personality, patience and respect for one another. Matthew has a charm and vulnerability on-screen that cannot be matched, and Uma is the perfect Swedish secretary / slash / receptionist goddess. I would delight at seeing them spin across the room."
For Stroman, the greatest challenge in making her first film was adapting to four walls instead of three and expanding the scenes into the enormous stages of Steiner Studios in Brooklyn. She started early with a talented team that would grow to include first assistant director Sam Hoffman, production designer Mark Friedberg, sound mixer Tod Maitland, cinematographer Charles (Chuck) Minsky and editor Steven Weisberg.
"The camera has become like another dancer to me," she explains. "The other day I saw one of the camera crew pass the crane up into space as if he were passing a dancer into the air. During the scenes and the production numbers, the camera would partner the actors as if they were a dance couple musically embraced. If the actor took eight counts to move from left to right, so did the camera. The cameramen loved to shoot to the tempo of the music."
Stroman, who made use of every inch of space on the stage for the Broadway production, was particularly excited about the opportunities to reconceive the musical numbers for the screen.
In "We Can Do It," where Bialystock first persuades Bloom to join him in his scheme to produce a flop, the sequence originally took place in Bialystock's office. For the film, Stroman had the number start in the office…with Bialystock following Bloom fleeing from the office, onto a Times Square street, into a taxi cab and landing in front of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.
For "I Wanna Be A Producer," a cavernous turn-of-the-century bank building in lower Manhattan was transformed into a magnificent set for the accounting firm of Whitehall & Marks, where Bloom is one of an army of unhappy accountants in a Kafkaesque workplace. In an elaborate fantasy sequence, what were just six chorus girls in the Broadway version now become 20 dancers in the film.
"What we've done is take the original concept of an office into a completely different reality," shares production designer Mark Friedberg.
As Leo's fantasy literally "blooms," the beautiful girls burst from cabinet doors, and a wall of cabinets becomes a staircase. When he dances to the top of the stairs and leaps forward, he and the 20 dancers pass through a portal into "Marquee Heaven."
Stroman staged the number across three different stylized sets: a shiny black floor with a backdrop that expands like an accordion, a riser of sparkling stairs and a multi-tiered platform that illuminates Bloom's name in thousands of lights (the latter was inspired by the unique photography of Busby Berkeley films).
"Matthew has a real song and dance man inside him, so I think he really enjoyed learning the new choreography," adds Stroman.
Cinematographer Minsky, who had never before filmed a musical, was pleased to learn that Stroman had storyboarded every single musical number. It wasn't long before he and his camera crew learned the rhythm of each scene, making it possible for the camera to move in synch with the dancers.
"Now even the dolly grip knows what the downbeat is because so much is filmed to a count," he laughs.
If the camera department was new to the elements of a movie musical, so was the sound department, headed by Tod Maitland.
Eager to combine state-of-the-art digital technology with the tried-and-true methodology of period MGM musicals, Maitland and a team of five people worked closely with Stroman and musical director Patrick Brady to prerecord all their vocals with an impressive 70-piece orchestra prior to the start of filming.
Once shooting was underway, the principals would have the option to perform live or rely on "playback," a method of recording music and voice tracks in advance of the shoot day so that it can be played back during filming.
Sometimes, an actor will opt to sing the song live as he or she is filming a scene. "When you give the actor the opportunity to go live, they're not locked into the one performance they gave during prerecords," explains Maitland. "And sometimes that gives them the freedom to relax and create some great 'takes.' Then again, on this show, there are some big dance numbers that are very rigorous. On these, there's no way you could really sing and dance."
Brady, the musical conductor of The Producers since its opening on Broadway, also served as the film's orchestra conductor, vocal arranger and resident lip-synch police, carefully scrutinizing each actor's performance so that all the performers' vocals were perfectly in synch.
For "Springtime for Hitler" and "Prisoners of Love," the filmmakers enlisted veteran lighting designers JULES FISHER and PEGGY EISENHAUER, who individually and together have been responsible for lighting many of Broadway's biggest hits, along with countless live concert shows.
Eisenhauer explains, "One of the things we're able to provide is a moving lighting landscape that works with the choreography. What we do is change the quality, the composition and the colors, all live for the camera. So it's almost like a performance of light that unfolds alongside the dancers."
"Along Came Bialy" now features more than 50 little old ladies with walkers dancing in Central Park and across Fifth Avenue. "There's nothing like blocking off traffic on Fifth Avenue for six hours in the middle of the day," Minsky quips.
When the company moved onto the streets for a week in April, the stylized world that had been carefully crafted on the stages followed the production into the city, with its colorful trees and floral blossoms.
"It's not just Central Park," notes Minsky. "It's our version of Central Park."
There were other opportunities to cinematically expand moments from the stage version. For example, when the incarcerated Bialystock receives Bloom's postcard from Rio, Brooks and Meehan were inspired by such classic Donen and Kelly movie musicals as On the Town and Singin' in the Rain to fashion silent vignettes which illustrated in somewhat exaggerated style Bloom and Ulla enjoying their new life together in paradise. Later, as part of Bialystock's tour de force soliloquy, "Betrayed," the songwriter even borrowed images from the Gary Cooper film Sergeant York (his first name was Alvin) for a bit where Bialystock reminisces about his childhood, only to discover that it isn't his past that he is remembering.
A longtime fan of stage and movie musicals, producer Sanger had always felt disappointed that he didn't live in the era when the big studio musicals were made. "I hope that The Producers will help others to get made," he says.
"Movie people are used to measuring things in feet and inches, but now we measure them in bars and notes. Stroman will tell me that she needs a 12-bar hallway. And that's the way it's been."
When Sanger and co-producer Amy Herman first began to scout locations for the film and hire a crew for a February 2005 start date, Susan Stroman suggested that this particular production be a hybrid of people from both the theater and film worlds. Rather than a culture clash, the worlds of theater and movies seemed to blend together seamlessly.
"I feel like we've had the best of Broadway and the best of New York movie-making come together," says Stroman. "It has been a perfect cross-fertilization of both mediums. We've learned from one another and even enjoyed the different terminology. Eventually, the cameramen learned to say, 'Please move downstage or move upstage.'"
Echoes production designer Friedberg, "Movie people are used to measuring things in feet and inches, but now we measure them in bars and notes. Stroman will tell me that she needs a 12-bar hallway. And that's the way it's been."
Another example of the theater-movie collaboration of the production was the way they cast the stand-ins for principal actors. Since stand-ins literally take the physical place of performers during elaborate lighting set-ups and rehearsal periods, Stroman suggested that the production hire people who were singer-dancers and familiar with the play. Their ability to move gracefully and learn the dance routines was an invaluable time-saver. The movie stand-ins for Nathan, Matthew and Uma have, in fact, all performed their parts on the New York stage or in a touring company of the production.
Friedberg says, "To have our two worlds merge this way has been special on both sides. Those of us in the film world have really come to appreciate the work ethic and enthusiasm and skills of all the people who have been working on the Broadway side."
"This is Singin' in the Rain. It's The Band Wagon, Royal Wedding and Cover Girl! It's all the great Hollywood musicals come to life." Mel Brooks
As the movie takes place in 1959, a contemporary Forty-fourth Street would no longer resemble the period, and it would have been impossible to close down city blocks or theaters in the middle of the city's busy theater district adjacent to Times Square. With the help of a team that included art director Peter Rogness and set decorator Ellen Christiansen, production designer Mark Friedberg designed a stylized Forty-fourth Street that includes Shubert Alley and a variety of iconic New York theater marquees, including the Shubert Theater and the St. James Theater, as well as the legendary Sardi's restaurant and even the delivery dock of The New York Times.
Brooks took one of the first strolls on the set and admits he was taken by surprise. "When I first walked onto Stage 3, I said 'Oh my God, this is incredible! This is Singin' in the Rain. It's The Band Wagon, Royal Wedding and Cover Girl! It's all the great Hollywood musicals come to life.' I needed a Kleenex…had to blow my nose it was so thrilling," he shares.
"It was very emotional," agrees Stroman. "This is like theater heaven…so all of our day players, dancers who came to New York with a dream to work on Broadway, they became very emotional when they walk on the street and learn that they'll be dancing in front of Sardi's and Shubert Alley."
Among the many unique discoveries that Friedberg made when designing the Forty-fourth Street buildings was the importance of doors to director Stroman. She describes that in order to have certain jokes transfer from the stage to screen, you have to change how the set flows.
"It's true," laughs Stroman. "The doors and the floors are very important in a musical. They're not as important in a film because people enter 'frame.' But for a musical on stage, doors often punctuate the comedy."
"Max will say a joke and slam the door," she explains. "Or Leo and Ulla will be kissing and the door will open and they almost get caught. Franz Liebkind falls down the stairs and yells 'I broke my leg!' and Bialystock shuts the door. Sometimes it's not funny if the door opens from left to right; it may be funnier the other way. So I've worked closely with Mark on all of these doors." Read more; continued
SOUNDTRACK TO THE PRODUCERS
SUSAN STROMAN (Director, Choreography by)
MEL BROOKS (Produced by, Screenplay by, Music and Lyrics by)
THOMAS MEEHAN (Screenplay by)