The Times December 19, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

From steel town to golden boy of musical glitz with Nine, Marshall is the director of the moment

It was a bit anxious-making when the director Rob Marshall introduced the London audience to the world premiere of his star-studded musical, Nine. He did look appealing enough, resembling a thicker-set Tom Cruise, and he spoke mellifluously (as befits a former actor). But there was way too much lurve flowing for comfort … from “my beautiful, beautiful dancers” to the absent Sophia Loren, “here in spirit — we love her so much”, and a good deal more in the same vein.

The following day, however, within a very short time of our meeting, I was feeling pretty lovey-dovey myself — almost fantasising about being an A-list actor just so that I could have the soothing pleasure of being directed by Marshall. This is something of a first, since most film directors, certainly in my experience (from Spike Lee to Mike Leigh), are tricky customers, highly resistant to being questioned or directed themselves in any way.

Marshall knows exactly what I’m talking about. “There are directors who like to have friction or angst in the working environment, but I can’t live like that,” he says. The school of Lars von Trier? He laughs but is too circumspect, or perhaps just too straightforwardly nice, to dish the dirt.

“There are a few out there and I appreciate they do beautiful work, so it’s more power to them. But for me, it’s very important to come from a place of joy. To have an atmosphere — maybe it’s from my upbringing — where there is a great deal of positive reinforcement.”

On his way up as an actor, singer, dancer, then choreographer, before his present role (the last film he directed was the nonmusical Memoirs of a Geisha and before that the hugely successful Chicago), “I was lucky enough to observe directors, the prickly ones and also the ones that weren’t. And I just found that the best work came from the directors who were there to serve the actors and not the other way round.

“And this is true especially in something like Nine, which was so difficult because these people are doing something for the first time [singing and dancing for Daniel Day-Lewis] and it’s important to create an atmosphere where you feel protected and not judged, in a place where you can really make big mistakes and make a fool of yourself.”

The film is an adaptation (although it was substantially rewritten by the late Anthony Minghella in his final script) of the 1982 Broadway musical — starring Raúl Julia in the role of Guido Contini, and later Antonio Banderas — which was, itself, a reworking of Federico Fellini’s Oscar-winning 8½.

The central character is suffering from director’s block and has everything in place to make a new film, apart from inspiration. He is derailed by the growing realisation that his own selfish artistic needs are fuelled by feeding off the love of his women — his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penélope Cruz), his muse (Nicole Kidman) — who come close to being destroyed in the process. Like the original, the plot moves between reality, surreality and memory — shot in black and white juxtaposed with colour.

Marshall’s version is full of sensational set-pieces, all vim, quim and razzle-dazzle, created around each of the stars — Judi Dench, Guido’s wardrobe mistress, in basque and boa, stretched out on a grand piano, singing about her love of the Folies Bergères (in 1968 Dench was the original Sally Bowles in Cabaret in the West End); Cruz, sexier than she’s been seen before (yes, it is possible), spreading her legs and writhing around on a circular mirror; Fergie, the singer from the Black Eyed Peas, as a prostitute crawling on her hands and knees, cleavage forward, on a beach for the young Guido and his pals; an incredibly affecting song by Cotillard as the trampled wife, in her own voice (as opposed to her lip-synching in Piaf), and so on. In between, Day-Lewis as Guido smokes for Italy, zips around town in his jaunty little sports car or broods in the empty set, “as he tries to figure out what his movie will be”, Marshall says, “which represents the interior of his unfinished mind and the chaos of his life”.

The original choice for Guido was Javier Bardem, but after winning his Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) for No Country for Old Men, Bardem decided to take a year out. It was Day-Lewis who contacted Marshall to express interest after Dench’s agent had passed him the script: “When I got the call that Daniel was interested, well … I had never dared dream of Daniel Day-Lewis in this part because I consider him to be the greatest actor there is.”

Marshall recalls the first time that he heard the actor sing: “When he started it was like dipping a toe in the water. You know, singing quietly, but I could immediately hear that he had a musical sensibility and a lovely voice.”

Despite his initial enthusiasm, it seems that Day-Lewis inhabited his new role rather too well, finding it — like Guido — almost impossible to commit himself to the project. “If I hadn’t pushed him he would still be circling around just thinking about it,” Marshall says. “He said to me, ‘I’ll do this for ever, Rob, you’re going to have to tell me when you need to know’” So you gave him a deadline? “Yes, I called Daniel and said, ‘I need to know because we have to book the stages’, and he said, ‘When do you need to know?’ and I said, ‘Tomorrow morning’.”

It’s a measure of the director’s faith in his lead, as well as Day-Lewis’s pulling power, that the filming — which was originally going to be in Montreal — was moved to Shepperton Studios because the star said that he needed the film to be shot in England so that he could be close to his wife, the writer and director Rebecca Miller, and two young sons who live in Ireland.

Marshall is still pretty knocked out that so many stars wanted to take part: “I couldn’t believe the turnout of women, especially — every actress in Hollywood came. I mean, every single one.” Really? Scarlett Johansson would have made a perfect Anita Ekberg lookalike in that famous Trevi fountain scene (there is an homage to it in Nine) from Fellini’s other great film, La Dolce Vita. But Kidman needed a few more curves to carry it off, I say. “The truth is that was big for her,” Marshall says. “She had just had her child so those were the biggest boobs she’s had in a long time! She was thrilled.”

Why do gay men love musicals so much? “I know, it’s funny. It must have something to do with the expression and the joy of it, I think … It’s a fascinating question. Certainly for me, who loved dance, that was a big part of it.”

Marshall has been with his partner, John DeLuca, the choreographer on Nine, and one of its producers, for 27 years. When I ask the director if he found himself falling for Day-Lewis on set, Marshall says sweetly: “Oh no, there is only one man in my life and that’s John.” The first time the couple worked together was on Chicago: “I told him, ‘I need you on this movie because I’m so nervous’, and to have this wonderful partner right next to me is incredible. He’s got impeccable taste so I always love to hear his side of things. I come from a more narrative background and he is more edgy and helps me to think outside the box.”

The director was brought up in Pittsburgh, once famous for its steel industry but which suffered mass redundancies and closures in the 1970s and 1980s. It would be tempting, then, to see the young Marshall as a Billy Elliot type, battling to become a dancer against fierce opposition from a disappointed and embattled father. But his background couldn’t have been more different.

Marshall’s parents are academics; his father teaches medieval English literature, and his mother is also in education. In the early Seventies the family (Marshall’s younger sister, Kathleen, has won two Tonys directing plays and musicals; Maura, his twin, is a landscape and interior designer) lived for a while in Golders Green, North London. Marshall Sr travelled to the British Museum every day, doing research while on his sabbatical, and the children went to school on Hendon Way.

“They were very, very liberal and my father worked for George McGovern’s campaign when he was running for president [and suffered a landslide defeat to Richard Nixon in 1972]. My first memories were of marching for causes with them and singing ‘We shall overcome some day’,” Marshall recalls. “When Obama got in, I sent them flowers with a message ‘You created the seed for this to happen’, and it makes me so happy that they saw that happen in their lifetime.”

When the Marshall siblings were aged 9 or 10, they would put on shows for their parents at home: “There was always an opening number from Kiss Me Kate, and then we would each have a solo — I think mine was [as if he can’t remember!] All I Need is the Girl from Gypsy, and then we would do a big second-act opener,” he guffaws, “which was usually Hello, Dolly! and we’d end with There’s no Business like Showbusiness.”

Years later, when Marshall began choreographing on Broadway, Kathleen was his assistant: “So it was like an extension of what we had done in our living-room. There we were in a studio, but instead of teaching ourselves we were teaching Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Then in 1998, when Sam Mendes took his Donmar Warehouse production of Cabaret to New York, he asked Marshall to codirect it: “Sam and I made it a darker ending where the MC reveals that [under his suit] he’s actually in a concentration camp uniform with the gold star and the pink star, and it was very, very moving, um . . .” he stops. “It is upsetting to me … but it was a beautiful production and I think it was Cabaret, honestly, that gave both Sam and myself our film careers because it was very cinematic.”

Our time is almost up and I think I have come to see why so many actors want to work with Marshall. Apart from his talent, he has an unusual quality of gentle modesty that must be rare in the ego- driven industry he works in.

This is a guy who devoted two years to developing John Waters’ Hairspray for the stage, making the difficult decision of withdrawing when he was offered the film of Chicago. But when I ask him whether his name is on the credits he says, without a trace of bitterness: “No. It’s fine. I understand.”

We end with the beginning of Nine, when Guido is at a press conference and, after many vexing questions about what the new movie is about, is asked to name his favourite pasta dish. “At last, a serious question!” he says with a grin so attractive that you can see why all the women love him.

On the night of the premiere, after bowing awkwardly to the audience, Day-Lewis left his 40-odd friends and relations, as soon as the lights went down, to escape. “I think it was too much for him to see it with his wife and sister for the first time. So I said, ‘Fine, happy to have dinner with you’,” Marshall recalls. Let me guess, the Ivy or Sheekey’s? “Cipriani, because it had to be an Italian dinner.” So, finally, maestro, what is your favourite pasta? And please don’t tell me you’re wheat intolerant. He’s not, of course. “Linguine vongole.”

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Nine is released nationwide on Boxing Day