It has taken ''Into the Woods'' 27 years to travel from stage to screen; here, an exclusive look at this winter's most wickedly beautiful film
How do you turn a dark, innuendo-laden Broadway musical about cynical fairy-tale figures into a family-friendly Disney flick? Enlist director Rob Marshall ( Chicago )…
Credit: Peter Mountain

The wolf was the problem. In a film brimming with witches and princesses (and one cow), Johnny Depp and costume designer Colleen Atwood faced a dilemma while planning his latest outré transformation, into the seductive Wolf who crosses Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) in the sprawling movie musical Into the Woods: How do you not lose the man inside the beast (and vice versa)?

Depp, who concocted Capt. Jack Sparrow as a mash-up of Keith Richards and Pepé Le Pew (and based part of his Willy Wonka on Captain Kangaroo), found inspiration for his lupine lothario in 1940s animation. ”I just had this burning vision in my head, and all I could think of was the wolf in the Tex Avery cartoons: a hip big bad wolf with a fedora and zoot suit and cat chain,” Depp says. ”The second I mentioned my idea to Colleen, she got very excited.” Delighted, in fact. ”I’ve always wanted to do a zoot suit for Johnny,” says the designer, who worked with him on Edward Scissorhands and Alice in Wonderland, ”but we’ve never had the excuse until now.”

Wishes — both the kind that come true and the other kind — swirl through every leaf and branch of Woods, director Rob Marshall’s long-gestating adaptation of the musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Pick any fairy tale and it’s probably somewhere in this fantasy about a childless Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who attempt to lift a witch’s curse by venturing into an enchanted forest filled with classic characters like Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of beanstalk fame — all on wish-fulfilling journeys of their own.

It’s a maze of labyrinthine fables, further complicated by Sondheim’s tongue-twisting lyrics and the musical’s shifting tone. What begins as a child-friendly romp through an enchanted forest evolves into a darker, innuendo-laden exploration of adult longing and loss. Perhaps that’s why Woods languished in development hell almost immediately after its Broadway premiere in 1987. Not for lack of trying. As early as 1991, all-star table readings with everyone from Cher and Steve Martin to Goldie Hawn and Robin Williams would flare interest in the film, each time to no avail.

But dreams, as they say, do come true. Now, 27 years later, Woods has fallen into two sets of wish-granting hands: those of director Rob Marshall, whose 2002 Best Picture winner Chicago almost single-handedly revived the movie musical, and Disney, a studio that might have seemed averse to a not-always-pretty portrait of storybook characters. ”I didn’t want this to look like a cartoon world,” Marshall says. ”It’s not sunny, sunny, sunny — we wanted a sense of danger. It really feels like a post-9/11 fairy tale because what happily-ever-after represents now is different than before.”

So no, this is not your mother’s Cinderella VHS — nor your daughter’s DVD, for that matter. Bolstered by an A-list cast and a screenplay by Lapine, Woods introduces a magical world of charming princes and wicked stepsisters, gold slippers and golden hair, all striving to please both families and stage-musical fans. The Wolf, perhaps, was the easy part.

When trekking through a forest, you need proper footwear. ”There was a lot of attention to shoes,” says Meryl Streep, who plays a haggard, curse-spewing witch looking to recapture her former runway-ready beauty. ”The Witch was deliberately short with little, crabby legs, and it’s one of those choices you make in the first week of rehearsal where everybody goes, ‘Ooh, that looks great,’ until the third month of shooting and you say, ‘Why did I do this?”’ And then it got harder. At one point in the film, Streep’s Witch morphs into her youthful self — a tall, glamorous siren — which doubled the work (and the heel inches) for Atwood, a three-time Oscar winner who crafted her Woods outfits for utility as much as for aesthetics. ”When you know that Meryl’s going to jump out of a tree upside down,” says Atwood, ”the costumes really have to function on a different level.”

Atwood and her team constructed 200 costumes, inspired by 19th-century illustrations of Grimm’s fairy tales as well as a broad jumble of period styles. That’s why Cinderella’s Stepmother (Christine Baranski) has 1960s hair and an 18th-century dress, and Depp’s 1940s zoot suit coexists with Rapunzel’s Victorian-era bodice. ”We have these grand, fantastic costumes that aren’t historically correct because they didn’t need to be,” says makeup and hair designer Peter King, a fantasy veteran who worked on the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films.

Almost every actor got involved in the design process. Chris Pine suggested that his Prince, who falls for Cinderella, sport a perpetual Elvis pompadour, ”always coiffed and absurdly too big,” he says. Corden (Begin Again) wanted a nice leather jacket. And Blunt insisted on loose waistlines for her Baker’s Wife, to hide her real-life baby bump behind ”shawls, babies, baskets, and just about every tree in the wood,” she says. (On Feb. 16, weeks after production wrapped, the actress and her husband, John Krasinski, welcomed a daughter, Hazel.)

”It’s hard when you’re re-creating and reinventing an iconic look,” says Kendrick, whose Cinderella boasts the most dramatic costume changes (for obvious reasons). ”We didn’t want it to be what people expected, but we also didn’t want it to seem tacky in five years.” But there are certain classic looks you don’t mess with: Cinderella needs rags, princes must look dashing, and Red Riding Hood demands, well…you know. ”It’s in her name!” says Crawford. ”It’s like not giving Annie her red hair.”

One major concept guided design decisions: surreality, that dreamlike feeling you get when a color is illogically vibrant or the moon disarmingly perfect. ”If it’s too real, then it’s not a fairy tale,” says production designer Dennis Gassner (Skyfall). But they didn’t want the film to look too unreal, either. ”We set off to create a stylized forest that had a sense of magic but was also grounded, so there’s a lot of real locations fused with the forest we built on our big stage,” says cinematographer Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha). ”You never know if you’re in our make-believe stage or reality outside.”

About one-third of the film was shot on location in wooded areas in Surrey and Kent, and the rest at London’s Shepperton Studios, where an artificial forest was built — and rebuilt. (Spoiler alert: The film includes at least one destructive, pissed-off Giant.) Marshall wanted to avoid greenscreen whenever possible. Blunt welcomed the chance to creep through real foliage. ”Having things to touch and lean upon and fall over and get caught up in is infinitely more helpful than trying to pretend with some greenscreen pole,” she says.

With characters who are already larger than life, Marshall had good reason to decide against shooting in 3-D on his relatively modest budget of roughly $50 million — visual effects cost money, which doesn’t grow on trees (sorry). Though Disney spent an estimated $200 million each on Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, Marshall doesn’t seem bitter about drawing the skinny wallet from the studio. ”It felt like going back to our theater roots,” he says. ”You don’t have a lot of money, so how do you make it work?”

Most members of the cast, including Corden and Pine, were babes in the woods when it came to big-screen musicals. But even a veteran like Streep, whose highest-grossing film is Mamma Mia!, felt a smidge intimidated by Sondheim’s notoriously challenging score. ”My first day in the production was in a recording studio with Stephen Sondheim standing outside the booth, cans on his ears, listening to me sing his music with the London Symphony Orchestra,” she recalls, laughing. ”It was, truly, terrifying.”

Since 1987, Sondheim and Lapine’s musical has become one of the most produced shows — more than 600,000 people have worked on a production, according to amateur licensing company Music Theatre International. Audiences have long gravitated to the show because, much like the original fairy tales themselves, it grapples with grown-up issues cloaked in a kid-accessible world. ”These fairy tales can be taken at face value and dismissed, but [Woods] is a great way to welcome children into the human condition,” Pine says. ”Unfortunately, people die, as people do. That’s what Sondheim is doing, and I think it’s why [this show] is done so often.”

The musical’s popularity, of course, can be a mixed blessing. When Sondheim hinted this summer that Marshall’s film might tone down some of Woods‘ sexual innuendo and violent character deaths, fans tore into the filmmakers online. The director insists that he’s stayed true to the material while not literally reproducing the stage version. ”You have to be smart enough to stand back and say, ‘Let’s serve the film,”’ says Marshall, who collaborated with Sondheim and Lapine on every change. One such alteration: On stage, Cinderella sings ”On the Steps of the Palace” in the woods after she’s fled the ball, leaving her slipper behind. In the film, Marshall says, ”it’s now done in the present with her actually running down the steps — you just can’t do that on stage.”

Thanks to carnal wolves, death, adultery, and thorn-based blinding accidents, Woods is darker than the usual Disney fairy tale. But it’s still a happy ending for a project that was lost in the brambles for almost 30 years. ”I remember James [Lapine] saying, ‘Steve and I would love you to do this, but we just want to make sure it really gets made this time,”’ Marshall says. Wish: granted.

Into the Woods
  • Movie
  • 124 minutes