From the stage to the big screen, Susan Stroman talks about what it's like working with Mel Brooks!
While I was in New York City, I had the opportunity to sit down with Susan Stroman, the director and choreographer of the movie adaptation of The Producers. Susan also played both roles in the Broadway production.
We spoke about working with Mel Brooks, and having his support throught this whole process. And having the backing of the entire cast and crew. I also had to mention her most recent accolade as she was honored this year at the Elan Awards for her outstanding work in the field of dance and choreography.
Our interview was pushed back to around 5pm, so by the end of the day, I was sure she was getting tired of talking. To my surprise, she was as lively as the morning when she held her press conference.
Here's how our conversation went:
What was that feeling like when you found out you were going to direct the movie?
Susan Stroman: Well, what happened was, we opened the show on Broadway, and we were recording the Broadway album. We were in the recording studio, and I was in there with Mel Brooks and Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick; we were in the lounge taking a break and there was a silent moment. Mel broke the silence; he jumped up and said ‘We're making a movie and you're going to direct it, and Nathan and Matthew, you're going to star in it.' And it was one of those moments in my life that I'll never forget, cause I was thinking ‘Could this really happen? Oh, it'd be swell if it happened.' But at that time, the movie musical genre was dead, but there's this really good line that Max Bialystock says ‘Worlds are turned on such thoughts.' So it's one of those moments that you hope it really happens, and just hope for the best. And then about a year later, it all fell into place. Mel was the real producer on this, he had his producer hat on; he was going to make sure it was made in New York and that it was going to have a lot of Broadway performances in it, and really rolled up his sleeves and was the main guy on this.
So for Mel, this must have been great, but was he on set everyday with you?
Susan Stroman: What's great about Mel is he gives me a lot of respect; we have a lot of respect for both of us on the Broadway play, and on the movie as well. He was there if I needed him; he was my producer. He was there to give me advice if I needed it; he told me once ‘Performance is everything, don't leave until you get that performance.' And he was right, you can get caught up in all the lights and the action and the camera smoke and everything from the lens; but I was not going to leave that set until I got that performance and that was really, really good advice. Because in the theater, you can direct a scene and you can go to bed and think ‘Oh, tomorrow, I'll tell that actor to try it this way.' You can't do that in film, you can't leave until you get that shot. So, yeah, he was there if I needed him, but it was also a sad time for Mel. Anne (Bancroft) became sick and sadly passed away during this whole process and Mel needed to go and deal with life issues instead of this. But he was there if I needed him; we're like Army buddies in the trenches, we're always there for each other. Yeah, he's a good friend.
Was it hard to get away from the three walls?
Susan Stroman: No, it's exciting. There was this piece and it was deciding how we were going to give it four walls and a sky. And the idea of being able to go to Central Park with 100 old ladies, or to take a scene that on Broadway only had six girls and now has 20 girls, ‘beautiful girls only wearing pearls,' and seeing Matthew Broderick on a set we built for ‘marquee heaven' with 15,000 light bulbs, it wasn't hard, it was fun, it was a fantasy. And it was a chance for my brain to – it was just a dream. I loved collaborating with the production designer Mark Friedberg; we were out at Steiner Studios, we had five stages, it was like the old MGM days. Mark built 44th Street out there from Broadway to the river that had Shubert Alley and Shubert Theater and St. James; it was like Gene Kelly walking down that street, it was great. The thing is, I always wanted it to remain in the theater so when the movie opens, the two little ushers welcome you in and say ‘Come with us to see Max Bialystock's show.' So right off the bat, I wanted this movie audience to be brought into the theater and really pay homage to those old movie musicals like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Swing Time. I always wanted it to remain a musical comedy.
Were Nathan and Matthew able to help you out with movie direction?
Susan Stroman: Well, Nathan and Matthew know how to play for 1500 people and they know how to play for one camera; what they brought me was great comfort just with their technique. With their knowledge of how to play when that camera is that close is just fantastic; it was natural for them to fall back. But they all brought me comfort, Gary Beach and Roger Bart, too, just because we know each other so well, we bring each other a short hand. And I can always depend on them to give me everything full out. A theater person is able to perform every day, eight times a week, from 8 o'clock to 11 o'clock, so they were ready to go. They could have and would have done the whole show with the cameras rolling without me yelling ‘cut' because they love it so and they're very disciplined. Movie actors are used to delivering four or five lines and then stopping because they know you have to change the lens on the camera or change the lighting. But this was different, I wanted to keep the camera rolling and capture the character of the actor.
What are some of your favorite scenes?
Susan Stroman: I know this'll be a surprise, but it's when Franz Liebkind comes in and starts shooting in the white office and they all start running for their lives. I love that scene because I have five comic actors all dressed in black tuxedos on a whute set and you can really see the Chaplin-esque quality of each actor; you can really capture their body movements. And then, I'm able to jump choreography in film, which I'm not able to do in theater; if they have to get from the terrace to the deck or the terrace to the closet, it's easy to edit and you can make sure they absolutely went into that frame. In the theater, they have to run and use all of that set, so I was able to make the pace of that scene go faster in editing and didn't have to worry about it; that was one of my favorite scenes. One of my favorite scenes was ‘I want to be a Producer' with all of those beautiful girls, because William Ivey Long created all those beautiful costumes and those luminescent pearls. And then Matthew's dancing I love, because Matthew has an accessibility about him; when he dances, he always remains Leo Bloom so I think that when an audience watches that, they think maybe they can do that. And because of that, I think that accessibility really works.
What's harder, directing or dancing?
Susan Stroman: It's all hard, but it's all fun; I love it so. I think directing the entire thing is fantastic.
Then as the opposite, what's easier?
Susan Stroman: No, I love it all, I love the dancing; it's all equally hard work, but equally I love it so.
After so many years, what was it like to receive this year's Elan Award?
Susan Stroman: It's such a big honor because I was being honored by dancers and it was an award about dancing and choreography. The real truth is that any show that I've been a part of, the backbone has been the dancers; the dancers are the backbone of anything I do. They're all near and dear to my heart and that award was definitely one of the most special awards I've ever received.
The Producers is open in limited cities now, more in the coming weeks. The film stars Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell, Gary Beach, and Roger Bart; it's rated PG-13.