Edit This! Disney's 'Into the Woods'
Issue: December 1, 2014

Edit This! Disney's 'Into the Woods'

Long before ABC’s fantasy-drama Once Upon a Time made its primetime debut, and blended the plots and storylines of many of literature’s most beloved fairy tales and characters, lived a musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that enjoyed a successful and Tony award-winning run on Broadway in the 1980s. Into the Woods, an original story that also ties together fairy tale characters from many of the Brothers Grimm's most noted classics, such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk, focuses on a baker and his wife, their quest to begin a family, and their interactions with a witch and other storybook characters. The latest adaptation of the musical has found its way into Hollywood, in a large-scale, holiday musical directed and produced by Rob Marshall (Chicago). It stars Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, James Corden and Chris Pine.

Here, film editor Wyatt Smith speaks with Post about the 13 months he spent working on the film (his fourth with Marshall), which was shot on Arri Alexa cameras on the stages of Shepperton Studios, as well as other locations throughout England, and edited on Avid Media Composer.

Post: Keeping in mind that Into the Woods is a musical, what was needed on this film compared to other 
films you’ve worked on?

“Musical films are always tricky because it’s incredibly unnatural for someone to just start singing. It’s finding a way for that to feel natural and earned, and at the same time allow the songs to really be what the scene is, so you’re not doubling up and that people aren’t saying things that they’ll then be singing — it’s finding that balance between the story, the lyrics and the music. That’s really the biggest challenge to a musical.

"In the case of Into the Woods, it has greater challenges to it, because it is so verbose and it has so many different characters and story lines, there’s a lot to keep track of and keep an audience engaged with because it does start to move very quickly in all different directions, and so it has its tricks and challenges versus your straight up narrative feature.”

Post:  I understand that many of the scenes and backgrounds were quite diverse — that must have presented a challenge for you?

“It is very diverse. It is its own world. Rob did a brilliant job, along with production designer Dennis Gassner and cinematographer Dion Beebe, taking these fairy tale characters that we’re familiar with and, rather than set them in a complete fantasy world, put them very much into an approachable, real world. It’s very real for them. So, some of it takes place on locations in these incredible forests and places all around England, and some of it does take place on-set. Finding that way to move from real woods into our set woods and make them all kind of feel the same, that was certainly a bit of a challenge, but Dion, Dennis and Rob are really good at what they do, so they made that really seamless.”

Post:  Was there anything in particular that Rob Marshall said he was looking for in the film’s look or feel?

“One of the conversations we had very early on was that the spectacle and the beauty of the film be inherent in the footage. This is a film that really needs to live in close ups, to really be with the characters, to allow us to look into their eyes and see what they’re feeling. There are very human, very relatable elements in all of this. It may be Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood, but it’s them going through what we go through with our parents and our relationships with our families and our friends, and how the public perceives us and all the human vices and trappings. It was very important that we didn’t get caught up in the beauty and the fairy tale of it, and really focus on the characters.”

Post:  How closely did you work with Rob Marshall? Were you on-set during shooting or was he involved with post?

“I was there for the first day of shooting all the way through. There were some scenes Rob asked me to be on-set for, just as a reference, and some scenes he wanted me to see how they were working.

"As far as post goes, Rob is as hands on as a director could possibly get. Basically, he’s there all day, every day in the room with me, door closed, and we just focus and work. It’s very much his way and it sometimes gets very intense, but it’s wonderful.” 

Post:  Any particular scenes that stand out for you or that you’re proud of?

“Well, there’s a lot that I’m very pleased with and proud of in the film. What was interesting in this film, and probably the biggest challenge, was actually the pace. The story is incredibly well developed — Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine — they created this very beautiful story that is really about families and relationships. It makes you think about all the things in your life, people who touched you. And the performances — the cast is kind of ridiculous. I mean, you have Meryl [Streep], and everybody performed in such an incredible way, so from an editing standpoint, it’s always about story, then best performances to serve that story, and then the pace.

"The trick with this film, though, is that you can almost think of it as two films. It’s two acts, like it would be on stage. The first act is very fun with lots of characters and it’s explosive and exciting and all these stories are interweaving. Then, it culminates into this great big moment. Then you get into the second act, and it’s very dark. It’s very Stephen Sondheim, where there’s this very bitter edge — everybody has to learn that there are consequences to getting all the things that they have wished for. You have all these characters running around, interweaving and then suddenly you’re with a very small group of people in a very dark place; in a very claustrophobic place. It suddenly takes this sharp, right turn. So much so, that when we were putting the film together, it was almost like we were deceiving the audience. We would lure them in with this spectacle and then all of a sudden we would hit them over the head with a very heavy piece. So, the interesting thing was finding a way to make it a bit more of a gentle turn. We didn’t shy away from the lessons learned at all, but it was a challenge to figure out how to get the audience into that second half of the film; without making them feel like they were suddenly in the wrong theater. And that was possibly the most interesting challenge of the film.

"We accomplished it a bit with music, narration, and with visual effects. It was like, every single area of the film kind of helped shape that turn that sets up how we get to the ending of the film. That was an interesting challenge and I’m very happy with how it worked out. It feels very comfortable now, yet at the same time, we in no way took the edge off the film.”

Post:  Are you happy with the final product?

“I’m thrilled with this film. I have a really close relationship with it and I’m just in love with it.”