Into the Woods: Wit and wisdom from the cast and creators

Into the Woods: Wit and wisdom from the cast and creators

There are dream casts, and then there are DREAM casts.  Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, Tracy Ullman, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Emily Blunt and Chris Pine star in the new film adaptation of Into the Woods, and all of them bring exceptionally unique and wonderful performances to the movie.

into the woods press junketinto the woods press junket

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the press junket with all of these actors, plus the director, Rob Marshall, the brilliant writer, James Lapine and the producers. It was apparent from the interviews how much everyone enjoyed working with each other, and how having a real rehearsal period resulted in an extraordinary adaptation from stage to screen. Often times musicals don’t make the transition well, but Into the Woods transforms magically on the screen – with the lush sets and art direction and fantastically clever songs.

Rob Marshall talked about this balance and risk when directing a musical at the press conference in this exchange:

MODERATOR: …Rob, musicals being so different from all other genres, are they more difficult to direct?

ROB MARSHALL: They’re very fragile. I mean, I feel like you’re always this far away from like a Saturday Night Live sketch, because if the song doesn’t come out of the story in an organic way, in a seamless way, and you feel the number beginning, it’s dangerous, because of the fact that somebody’s singing. What’s so beautiful about this amazing piece that James wrote and Steve Sondheim wrote is that the material is so organic. I mean, you said this the other day, James, which I loved, which is if you pull the songs out of the piece, the piece falls apart. You know, there are musicals you can take the songs out and it doesn’t affect it at all.

ROB MARSHALL: …But what’s fantastic about this piece is it’s so interwoven. I mean, you can see that in the first [SOUNDS LIKE] 16 minutes, that opening prologue. It’s so beautifully created and written because it moves in and out of dialogue so seamlessly, but it’s very delicate, creating a musical. I mean, I feel like it’s two movies in one when I’m working on it because you have the whole side of the music, etc., and you have the rehearsals and all of that. That’s almost its own thing. Then you have the filming of it and the piece and so it’s a balancing act, and the only way you can do it well is if you have great material and brilliant actors.

Which, of course leads back to the exquisite cast. One of the aspects of Into the Woods that makes it so powerful and successful is the strength of the acting, and the singing seems to organically spring out of those performances.

Since Into the Woods is based on such well known fairy tales – Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel – it was even more important that the actors find something true and universal at the core of their characters that resonates with a modern audience.

Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine talked about this specifically, especially since Cinderella and Prince Charming are two of the most iconic fairy tale characters.

PRESS: …You know, a bunch of us grew up on Disney fairytales, but how do you guys think that these stories apply, or maybe they don’t apply, to the craziness of modern day dating?

ANNA KENDRICK: I think that this has something very mature and modern to say about separation. When Cinderella and the prince, they have this conversation and a lot of people, you know, they’re like, this isn’t your everyday Cinderella and she kicks him to the curb and while that’s sort of true, the fact that it’s done with so much civility and compassion, I think, you know, my parents set an amazing example for me because they divorced when I was 15 and I mean, we’re having Thanksgiving dinner together in a couple of days. And I know that that’s not always the case, but I think that that scene meant so much to me because I feel love for people that I have loved, and I think that’s so beautiful, and I think that’s such an important lesson for children that, you know, people can have disagreements but it doesn’t mean one is bad and one is good. And I feel so grateful to my family for setting this amazing example within separation, and I hope that that scene is a reflection of that.

CHRIS PINE: You know, I think obviously we tell each other stories in life and as storytellers that’s what we do. We tell each other stories so we can understand the world better and there’s catharsis and we understand the models of what a hero could be and what the hero’s journey as a human being is all about. But unfortunately I think sometimes those stories too can be very prohibitive and confining, and this idea that we, especially in Western culture, Western literature, [PH] Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet, that there’s some kind of all-encompassing burning passionate love that will never die out unless you both die, is so depressing and not real. And that these two people, the prince living out this storybook life all the time, in a completely non-relational manner, with a woman that he’s apparently in love with, I think it’s very telling that this relationship, there’s not one conversation until the last moment where they break up. I mean, if you look at the film [OVERLAPPING] it’s just these little eighth page things of looking up gazingly, fervently at one another, and it doesn’t mean anything. And I think the beautiful thing about it is that here’s a woman that chooses to get out of the story of Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde, it’s like, check it out, I don’t want you, ‘cause you’re lame, and you don’t listen to me. But actually in that final moment he does listen and I think it’s very telling for the prince that he says, “Is this what you want?” He’s actually, [Yeah.] he’s being very respectful and the boundaries are very clear.

And of course, the highlight of the press junket for me was being about ten feet away from Meryl Streep. She, Christine Baranski and Tracey Ullman were incredibly funny, smart and really gave a brief master class in acting and an actress’s thought process and methodology during this brief Q&A.

Christine Baranski also talked about fleshing out what can normally be a very stereotypical character: The Evil Stepmother:

PRESS: …Christine, the role of the wicked stepmother is such an iconic character type in stories. What was your take on the role of Lapine and Sondheim’s stepmother and what did you end up bringing to the role?

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: Well, you know I worked with Rob. We talked about what is this particular nature of, you know, she’s always described as the evil stepmother and the evil stepsister. So what exactly does that mean and how is that kind of activated? And actually I found that Cinderella is somebody who just is at the house and she just does thing for us. And a lot of the evil of the character — no really. And then when she suggests that she come to the ball, it’s like are you kidding? Look at your nails, look at your dress and it’s like laughable. They’re very — I think, you know, we wanted to figure out how to make these characters kind of resonant in the contemporary world and this particular trio of women just seem right for presenting a kind of narcissism and fashion absorption and from the brilliant clothes of Colleen (Atwood) are like a little too many ruffles and the hair is just a little too high. And they look like they’re trying so hard and this is their one shot and it’s like they’re getting ready for the Oscars. They’re obsessed. And, you know, they’re just comparing. There’s even a little ad lib in the carriage after we come back from the first night and obviously Cinderella’s girl — some girl was at the ball and I did an ad lib and said, “Who is that skinny girl at the ball?” You just know that these women are just, you know, they gossip. And I think they’re benow. They’re venal characters. They’re narcissistic and opportunistic and we see this. We see this when we kind of watch television or media. It’s very interesting. It’s like, “Mmm, these are women that, you know, it’s part of our culture.” So I’m really happy that we did it this way. It was interesting. It was good.

And lastly, the brilliant Meryl Streep talking about the multidimensional motivations of The Witch – and how it relates to all parents and raising children. This is the very soul of the film.

Into the Woods opens on Christmas Day – be sure to get your tickets in advance!

Follow Into The Woods on Facebook and Twitter.

Won’t Back Down Movie Review: My (ex) PTA President’s Point of View

Won’t Back Down Movie Review: My (ex) PTA President’s Point of View

This week I went to a screening of Won’t Back Down starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal.  The movie is about a mom and a teacher who band together and use the Parent Trigger law (which is never mentioned by name) to take over and turn around a failing elementary school in Pittsburgh.  The film is loosely based on real events (though in my research I couldn’t find anything other than the Los Angeles based parent trigger law, which was backed by a big charter school organization), and produced by the same man who produced Waiting for Superman. As someone who has been deeply embroiled in the discussion and reality of parents advocating for better schools, for student and parent rights, and as a PA C0-President who has worked closely with many teachers and administrators, this movie got to me on many levels. So, I have decided to break it down in two parts: As a movie and then as a propaganda film.

The Merits of the Movie:

Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal are wonderful.  The acting is spot on and engaging.  The script however, is full of holes and clichés and desperate to create dramatic tension because just trying to get names on petitions isn’t all that interesting.  It could be interesting, of course, but the writer and director chose not to show any other parents other than Maggie Gyllenhaal’s plucky, positive, uneducated, but so endearing single mom on a mission.  They also gave Viola Davis a horrible back story having to do with being a mom who couldn’t deal with a colicky baby, rather than the more difficult story I think of how a once great teacher could lose her passion and desire and become completely mediocre.  Holly Hunter had the worst task of the movie playing the Pennsylvania Teachers Union boss – her role was so thinly written that people at my screening giggled when she gave her over the top pro-union scare speeches.  I wondered how members of the Screen Actors Guild (or the screenwriters for that matter that just went on strike not that long ago) could play a part that so demonized another union.   And that brings me to…

The Movie as Propaganda:

OK.  I get it.  There are terrible teachers out there and no one does a thing about it.  They really don’t. They cross their fingers and hope they’ll retire.  But, there are also a ton of great teachers, and a lot of average teachers.  In this school, they pretty much all sucked except of course the young, hot, Teach for America Teacher!  Though he toted a ukulele, not a Superman cape, he was clearly the hero.  For the sake of romantic conflict they also made him pro-labor so he and Maggie Gyllenhaal could argue.  But, don’t worry, once he saw the inhumanity of Holly Hunter he quickly realized the teachers union was the ogre and the cause of all public education woes and joined the turnaround crusade.

Here’s what never happened in the movie:  A discussion by the teachers about how much their principal obviously sucked and how they could push him out and start to collaborate to have the school they envisioned.  OR a discussion with their union leaders that they were unhappy about certain union policies and make themselves heard.  Also – parents and teachers NEVER came together during this process except at the end in the council meeting.  Seriously?  If all you have is a bunch of parent signatures on petitions but no parents showing up for meetings or in classrooms you do not actually have parent involvement.

There was one moment in the film where I thought for sure Viola Davis’s character was going to have a true conflict.  Her awful principal, who knew she was organizing this attempt to take over the school, suspended Viola Davis because of attendance tampering that she did at his directive.  Here we go, I thought, now she will need the union.  This is why teachers formed unions right?  To protect them against petty personal administrators (particularly when admins were dominantly men and teachers were women.)  But, no.  That would have taken away from the union as devil storyline.  So, instead of a real meaningful discussion between Viola Davis and Holly Hunter about what is right and wrong about the union – the two never meet.  I won’t go into the ridiculous scene where Holly Hunter tries to buy off Maggie Gyllenhaal with free private school tuition for her daughter.  Seriously.

I am all for parent power.  I am all for getting rid of the crappy, demoralizing teachers who should not be allowed to step foot in a classroom.  But, this movie made me sad.  I was really hopeful in the beginning of the film because it was about teachers and parents working together – not something you usually see in movies.  This wasn’t some public school movie where the wide-eyed liberal white teacher swoops in to the minority student school and teaches them violin and magically makes their lives better.  We don’t need any more of those either.  But, this was really a giant anti-union propaganda film that missed the mark.  And that’s too bad because it had the chance to really say something about how parents and teachers can make change – and how hard it really is to find great leadership, and what can happen if we put kids first.  There was NO mention of lack of funding at the school by the way, or lack of professional development for teachers, after school programs, etc.  Seems if you just hang lots of butterflies in the hallway and paint the halls you make a great new school.  That’s an insult to all the parents and teachers who really do work their butts off to make their schools better everyday.

My Top 5 NYC Movies for Blog Her ’10 and Beyond…

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Even if you’ve never been to NYC chances are you feel like you have just from watching Sex and the City, or Law and Order or Seinfeld (with its fake NYC sets it still passes).  But I thought I’d put together a list of my favorite New York movies that will put you in a positive New York mood (no Taxi Driver and no Woody Allen – because you know that already) while you’re on the plane, or bus, or even relaxing in the hotel in between all the BlogHer madness.

My Top Five, Slightly Cheesy, but I Don’t Care, NYC Movies

  1. Breakfast at Tiffany’s – I know, I know, how cliche – but there it is.  A perfect New York movie with style, whimsy, sparkle and Audrey.  Plus no other movie captures what it’s like to be out in the eerie quiet of the early morning in Manhattan like Audrey eating a pastry in front of Tiffany’s.
  2. When Harry Met Sally – OK, so one minute they’re eating at Cafe Luxembourg and the next minute they’re walking the streets of SoHo, but other than that this is a real New York, Upper West Side story.  And no one can get a cab on New Year’s Eve – that’s true.
  3. Moonstruck – It’s Brooklyn – real Italian Brooklyn.  And it’s the Metropolitan Opera.  And it’s a perfect movie.  It captures the angst, the unexpected joy and startling beauty, the humor and the rough edges of New York.
  4. Fame – the ORIGINAL for God’s Sake.  Old Times Square.  What it feels like to be truly young, hungry and talented in New York City before facebook, youtube and Disney.
  5. Working Girl – The iconic ride on the Staten Island Ferry is enough to make this a top 5 NYC movie in my book.  But nothing says NYC like the underdog who makes it big on pluck, determination and street smarts.  And kick ass lingerie.  Really.  Plus – that 80’s hair and eye make up – come on!

If you’ve got kids in tow you could also check out – Stuart Little, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Ghostbusters, Big and Splash for some child friendly NYC films.

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